July 24, 2011

Review: Iorich by Steven Brust

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:53 pm

Steven Brust is slowly ploughing his way through a fantasy series that will ultimately have at least 18 titles (not counting backstories and sidestories about other characters). He started in 1983 and has produced 13 so far (again not counting backstories and sidestories) which gives him a productivity of almost one novel every two years. Iorich, published in 2010, is book 12 (counted in order of publication, internal chronology is more complicated).

I’ve been collecting Draegaera books since the 1990s and had almost a complete matching set. Unfortunately the cover design has changed with this latest book and I will have to resign myself to non-matching editions from here on. One reason I didn’t get this book last year was that I was waiting for the paperback. For a time I bought the hardbacks as they came out but I’m trying to fit more books on my shelves and hardbacks take up too much space. Another reason is that I feel this series has severely dropped off in quality. From the puff quote on the back, Cory Doctorow disagrees with me to the extent that I wonder if he was reading a different book.

The problem is that the early books in the series were so very good. In Taltos we met Vlad Taltos, a human assassin working the mean streets of Adrilankha who gets mixed up with the high nobility of Draegaera. In Jhereg we found out more about Vlad’s job and the complicated politics of assassinations. In Yendi we learned about the twisting turning machinations of politicians and sorcerers. In Teckla the scope of the plot expanded to urban unrest and Vlad’s marital troubles. Since then we have followed Vlad through plots involving the highest people in the land, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, the Empress, the Gods and other beings who oppose the Gods. Vlad now has a price on his head and a Great Weapon on his belt.

Vlad is no longer the insouciant assassin and sarcastic courtier with no responsibilities and a knack for trouble I first admired. He’s grimmer, glummer, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and seems to have lost interest in narrating his own adventures. Once he investigated dodgy happenings, created complex spells of courcery and witchcraft, matched wits with his betters and hatched plots of his own. Now the events of his life, world-shaking as they are, have been rendered much more mundane. In Dzur he went out to dinner and annoyed various people. In Jhegaala he tried to find some relations, failed, and annoyed various people along the way.

Now in Iorich, his friend Aliera is in prison for something everyone knows she is guilty of but is almost certainly not the real reason for her arrest. It takes Vlad almost the entire book to establish that this is the case and that although his various noble friends feel sick about it no one is doing anything about it for political reasons. Vlad wanders around Adrilankha easily avoiding the hundreds of people who have cause to wish him ill dead. He drops in on his old friends and makes sarcastic comments. He spends two days following someone and then realises this isn’t a good use of his time and stops. Eventually he comes up with a plan and invites various important people to be involved (their unexciting roles are basically to keep various other people busy at the critical time) but the critical details are not narrated. This is a far cry from the excitement of Jhereg in which Vlad had to ask everyone he knew for help, explained all the details and even then the reader wasn’t sure if it would work.

In Iorich there’s never a sense of danger. Even when Vlad gets beaten up it’s not as exciting as when he was beaten up in Yendi because he doesn’t know why, doesn’t care about it and his life isn’t in danger. If his life had been in danger he could have easily escaped by drawing his sword: one of the 17 Great Weapons which can destroy souls, save you from having your own soul eaten, slay Gods and kill other beings even more powerful than Gods. Despite all these advantages, Vlad isn’t totally happy with his sword because he’d like to have a conversation with it and doesn’t know how. (I can think of at least 5 characters who could teach him how but this option doesn’t appear to have occurred to Vlad.)

The life seems to have gone out of this series. Even the dialogue is flat where once it was sparkling. It may be deeply significant, especially if you’ve read the other books in the series and can guess what some of the people Vlad speaks to are feeling and thinking. But it’s not lively, doesn’t further the plot and doesn’t seem to get Vlad or the reader anywhere. Vlad barely bothers with the Iorich advocate he has hired and when he does he doesn’t say much of significance because he’s wary of the advocate witnessing against him. This does not make for a thrilling plot.

Eventually someone is conveniently stabbed and all the politics get sorted out – at least enough to accomplish the main purpose of Vlad’s mission, although no one is precisely elated about it. Job done. Another Taltos story completed.

These novels are my addiction. I can’t help caring about Vlad, about his ex-wife Cawti, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Kiera the thief, Kragar the Jhereg boss, Daymar the Hawklord, Aliera and her cousin Morrolan, and the host of characters who have passed through the pages of the series so far. I’d have lied to meet The Demon again (who isn’t a Demon) and the Necromancer (who is) and the Demon Goddess Vera (opinions vary) – although I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Telnan after spending far too many hours in his company in Dzur.

But where were these people in Iorich? They all seemed to be drinking wine or eating cheese or off somewhere with Sir Not Appearing in This Book. Where was Mario? Since he’s every inch an assassin and turned up in the last book when we weren’t looking for him and weren’t bothered about him, why wasn’t he in this one when his lover was in danger of execution? What about Khaavren who is expected to show up in the next book, might he be interested in a political conspiracy? Isn’t his job to unravel this kind of stuff? For that matter where are the villains who spent the entire book off stage being sneaky behind the scene?

It’s not too late for this series to pick up again. After all, there are still a number of books to go. But we need to see Vlad fighting for something, or against something, or doing something more than just existing and fretting about his problems. Pull up your socks, Vlad, draw your Great Weapon and do something!

August 30, 2010

Negative reviews

I was prompted to write about negative reviews by this post on Publishers Weekly on The Value of Negative Reviews. The PW post was in turn inspired by a blog post by Sarah Rees Brennan and comments on that blog post about the value of positive vs negative reviews.

Someone said that they didn’t read all positive review sites which is interesting to me because I have done my most reviwing for Armadillo which had a policy of not publishing reviews that panned a book. By and large that rule has held true for me in reviewing. On my blog and in trade magazines you won’t find me reviewing a book negatively. I have in the past reviewed books negatively: in my brief stint as a Guardian teenage reviewer and in online reviews for a BBS I ran for recommended reading. Nowadays I feel uncomfortable about putting bad reviews in the public eye.

I may privately wax lyrical with my friends about hated books. Sometimes I need to vent about a book and my friends get the outpouring of bile about a title I haven’t enjoyed. Like Sarah “I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books.” Our book group has a good balance of liked to hated books and we’ve had several books which we’ve spent a pleasant evening tearing apart. When I review publically, I review books I like.

Even when I complain about an element of a book this is within the context of me contining to read the books. Sometimes I forget to take this into account when criticising long standing series writers. As a collector of writers I can get disappointed with someone’s current strand of writing, like their work generally but not specifically. It can be hard in the fervour of hate for a book to remember that you were gripped while reading it and enjoyed a great deal of it.

I’m suddenly inspired to give negative reviews and to explain the ‘why’ of the negative for books I own and intend to keep. For example:

  • I buy all Steven Brust’s Dragaera books but not in hardback anymore. I love the world and the character and I want Brust to finish the 23? book sequence but I feel they’ve bogged down now and lack the playful stylish inventiveness of the earlier books in the series
  • Did Lois McMaster Bujold hit the ultimate Vorkosigan novel in Memory? Can any book in that series top that masterful work? I end up being disappointed in the novels since that one just because I enjoy them so much and I want so much of them. Is this fair criticism? (The fear of every artist has got to be that you have already completed your best work eg Michael Jackson and Thriller)
  • Diana Wynne Jones will always be on my top ten, Margaret Mahy likewise. But it’s been a while since either of them wrote fiction that influenced me as much as their earlier work. Is that because I’m no longer a teenager?
  • Spider Robinson seems to have turned into Robert Heinlein. The evolution of Callaghans Bar has moved the conceit so far away from the things I liked about it – and yet I continue to buy the series. I like the character development but I hate who the characters have developed into.
  • John Scalzi is experimenting with different POVs in pre-existing story/universe, I want him to get on and write new work. Tie-in novels are not as good as original ones they’re merchandising, not fiction. Yes, I know this is harsh.
  • I adore Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian series and Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish series. I resent it when they write other books. Yes, I know this isn’t fair.
  • David Weber, Peter F Hamilton and George R R Martin and other authors create these huge worlds and universes with so many interlinked plotlines and character proliferation and I wonder if those series will ever be completed, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time. I wish they’d write shorter 3, 5 or even 10 book series which stand a chance of being completed. Oh, and PS: if you’re going to have over-titles and individual titles please keep them consistent: Book 1, Book 2 and Book3a and Book3b is aan unhelpful way to title books of the same length.

Yes, I feel negatively about books. These are my kinder criticisms. But we criticise because we care – I think that’s something to remember.

November 15, 2009

A penny for your thoughts

Filed under: links,living in the future,Q&A — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 3:54 pm

A friend linked me to the discussion that’s been going on in writerly circles about donation buttons, direct selling to your readers and whether it’s possible to make money from online publication. Here are the posts I’ve been reading:

  • Steven Brust on begging for alms
  • Bill Ward on patronage and an online audience
  • Cory Doctorow in Locus about creative commons licenses and other ways of gaining attention for your books
  • Paul Raven in a Futurismic blog post about how to make money from fiction in the internet age
  • Since plenty of bright people will be putting forward their two cents of thoughts into the discussion I’m not claiming mine are the ultimate answer. Here’s where I stand on some of the questions that have been asked.

    Steven Brust asked what people thought about him putting a donation button on his website to help him with his finances because he is “bad at money management”.

    To this I’d say he’s perfectly free to put such a button on his site just as visitors are free to ignore it. I personally wouldn’t use it to donate to him. While it’s true that the author gets a pretty pitiful percentage of the cover price, this is how conventional publishing works. Very few people make large amounts of money from their writing – most writers do not make enough to support themselves, let alone their family. I’m not saying this is how things should be – but I’d rather look at solutions that affect the whole system and donating to Brust wouldn’t be a solution to anything other than gaining him a bit more cash.

    I donate to Brust by buying every last one of his Dragaera books, regardless of quality, typically in hardback. I then later buy again in paperback and donate the hardback to charity. If he’d like to make some extra cash from me then offering me something that would appeal to me as a fan of the novels would be a better way to persuade me. But again, I personally would prefer to donate extra content to my fans – hoping to persuade them into buying more books.

    I also don’t think being bad at money management is a good enough reason for a “moderately successful novelist” to ask for money. I can understand his problem, I can share his pain (I too am Not Good at money management) but I think you shouldn’t ask dedicated fans (who have already bought the product, see below on those who haven’t) to pay something for nothing.

    Paul Raven asked “leaving aside dead-tree or digital books bought in the traditional manner, where do you pay to read fiction, if anywhere? What does it take to get you to pay, and what amount seems reasonable to you for what you’re getting – if anything?”

    The answer to this, for me, is I don’t pay for fiction except from booksellers. I gain my reading matter either from a bookshop or online seller, for free as a review copy or gift, for cheap from a second-hand shop or (occasionally, but not often) borrow them from a library. I do pay for some online services (generally the ad free version or premium version of a site I use) but I have never donated money to an author or paid an author directly for their product. It would take a lot for me to be persuaded to. If Ursula Le Guin was in some sort of extremis (in danger of being without shelter or food) then I would donate to her and if she produced a book that was only available to be be bought direct from her website, I would buy that book. But she is my favourite author.

    I think I might make more of an exception for physical book objects or book-relate objects sold at promotional events. If I went to a book fair and found an author signing copies of their books and a table of books to be bought, assuming that I liked that author’s work in the first place and the prices of the objects seemed reasonable, I might then buy a self-published book by that author. As for what constitutes a reasonable amount, I wouldn’t pay anything higher than publishing company prices (between £4,99 and £14.99) and I’d be less likely to buy something at the high end.

    Cory Doctorow asked
    a) Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?
    b) How much work does it take to replicate a professional publisher’s contribution to publicizing and distributing your book?
    c) How much demand is there for premium editions, and what characteristics make those premium editions more valuable?

    My replies are:

    a) If you’re donating in order to gain a copy of a book, how is that book free? I would describe this as buying a book. I personally prefer physical book objects because they are easier on the eye and I can read them in the bath.

    b) Publicity and distribution are THE main things a professional contract gets you. (Also good editing if you’re lucky enough to have an editor who you work well with, but that’s not a given.) Even when the marketing of a book is effectively zero, you’re still benefiting from the name of the publishing company, a listing in their catalogue, and the kudos of professional publication. A known name like Macmillan is worth a lot to an author, especially when compared to a smaller lesser known publisher or a self-published title. I don’t think it’s possible to replicate this sort of distribution or publicity. Self-published books have to find a different method of distribution and a different kind of marketing. Viral marketing and word-of-mouth marketing are good for this type of title but very difficult to create yourself.

    c) A premium edition would have to press a quality of specialness that I actually wanted.

    JKR’s special charity editions of her tie-in Harry Potter title were handwritten by the author. I personally don’t give a damn about having a personal handwritten edition, I like print. It pains me to think of an author I cared about wasting their time laboriously copying out their words when they could be getting on with a new book. I wouldn’t want to support them in doing this for fear it would become popular.

    When it comes to books I don’t want or need them to have lots of bells and whistles. I barely remember to read the ‘Forward by Famous Person’ sections and when I do I find them so full of lushing up and soft soap I don’t care for them. I don’t need more artwork or a free CD or a special bookmark. I just want the words.

    I wish it was easier for authors to make money from their writing. But right now I don’t see a way to achieve that.

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