Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In which there is a postponement

In a move many who know me will find startling, I have decided not to take my laptop to Philadelphia in the interest of trying to interact with the people I'm there to see a bit more. This means that there will be a slight postponement with the review, and possibly a single-day delay to the Halloween readings. Or I might put them up early. Either way, the schedule's a little shaky right now, as it always seems to be when real life tends to intervene. I will be thinking of my readers and friends fondly, though.

Also, as a note on the videos: To aid with the process of putting them up and having them here, I have decided to use the Blip hosting service, as the terms of service and length requirements seemed a little lighter. I apologize for any problems with the videos and also if there are any things like ads or popups that result from them.

-- Caius.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox Part One: Bridge of Birds

"My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and I have a slight flaw in my character. This is my esteemed client, Number Ten Ox, who is about to hit you over the head with a blunt object."
- Master Li
    Once every so often in your life, you come across a book that instantly makes it into your all-time favorites. A book where you can get lost in it, that makes you feel for the characters in it, and that you can hold up as unforgettable and instantly recognizable. In short, once every so often in your life, you come across what can only be described as a favorite book. Bridge of Birds is that for me, and I'll gladly put it in the pantheon along with all the rest. It worked overtime to make me feel good, to give me that world that easily sucked me in and didn't let go until the last lines. This is, for me, now one of my favorite books.
    I don't even know how I came across this one. I think I was looking on Wikipedia for Kaja Foglio (Wife of Phil Foglio and co-creator of Girl Genius)  to explain something for my then-girlfriend. In any case, through a random series of link dives, I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Instantly I was intrigued, and after a bit of digging, came up with an Amazon link to a n omnibus edition of the books that cost far more than I would ever be willing to pay ($125)*. Luckily, my local library and the interlibrary loan program (which everyone should know how to use, and not just for academic research) came to the rescue and at long last I sat down to read it. 
     And it blew me away. The book begins in the small village of Ku Fu, where the annual Silkworm Festival, an event that usually brings the local merchants tons of money, is sabotaged. Due to the sabotage, the children of the town are exposed to poisonous fumes and all fall into a coma. Lu Yu, known as Number Ten Ox because he is the tenth person in his family and possesses great strength, is sent with the village's money to find a detective. After much searching and little luck, he finds a hundred year old man sleeping off a bad drunk. Upon coming back to consciousness, the man introduces himself as Li Kao, or as Ox begins to call him, Master Li. A former con man who decided solving crimes was much more challenging and interesting than committing them, Li turns out to be the greatest scholar in the Empire, despite his occasionally unscrupulous means. Li heads back to the village with Ox and immediately figures out who poisoned the slikworms and how. How to bring the children back, though, eludes him. And so, Master Li and Ox embark on a quest to find the medicine they need, or die in the attempt. 
      I could list everything I like about this book, but it would be a long list. Master Li is, despite the "slight flaw in (his) character" he's quick to remind everyone about, a thoroughly engaging character, be it his con jobs to make sure he and Ox aren't hurting for money, or his lightning-fast intellect. Li is what Sherlock Holmes would be if he were more personable and less aloof-- a ribald, snarky, hard-drinking, loveable, ingenious bastard. His "Watson" is our narrator, Number Ten Ox. Ox is an audience surrogate. Seeing Master Li through his eyes, what would probably be obnoxious to behold otherwise, or even flat-out illegal, is seen as ingenious and amusing. Ox gives us an interesting way of looking at the world, one in which we get a sense of wonder and interest in this world and how it works. The narrative voice and the strength of our main characters and even the minor ones like Miser Shen and Henpecked Ho helps to drag you into the story at the start and carry you through.
     The dialogue helps back things up, being deft and very, very funny. The sequence in the "worst wineshop in China" where Master Li has the shortest recorded bar fight in existence and then, using a severed ear, successfully bargains for several extravagant items with which to pull off a con with is particularly funny, but each bit of dialogue does its part, be it the duke's vizier's wife who calls her paramours (including Ox) things like "Boopsie" or "Woofie" or the almost too calm and nice Henpecked Ho, who is personable until Master Li suggests that an axe might fix the problem he's having with his monstrous wife and seven obese sisters-in-law. While these characters may have more informal speech patterns than their station and time period would usually allow, it helps draw us in. They talk like real people, therefore we can treat them like real people.
     The descriptions and the plot finally ram things home, though. Barry Hughart, the author of this book and its sequels, knows the importance of individual pieces building together to a whole. In particular are the sequences in the Duke's Labyrinths, where there is a definite sense of urgency as our heroes try to escape before the death that awaits them catches up. Many of the setpieces and the sense of emotion is shown, not told, something a lot of people who write fantasy and science fiction forget almost entirely. Hughart moves quickly from one setpiece to the next in a style that far outstrips Stephen Hunt's action sequences and doesn't stop to quit while it's got a minor lead. A good example of this is the "sword dance", where Ox must complete  a series of increasingly complex maneuvers with a pair of swords so he can appease a ghost. The scene is lit at dusk and instantly, an image of the scene and what was going on popped up in my head. 
     If there's anything at fault, though, it's that the mood doesn't work for the whole book. While the story has a light tone, there's one sequence in particular where a revenge murder is half-disguised as physical comedy. Granted, the subject of the cruel prank definitely deserved it, but when you start to think on it, it was really a nasty thing to do. Other points where the mood doesn't completely work include a palace stampede culminating in a gruesome axe murder and several other, more minor moments. But these are but specks on the large, intriguing work that is Bridge of Birds.
    In closing, the book is a fantastic read, and will go up on my top five along with Fool on the Hill, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Neverending Story (The original book, which I'll get to at some point). This book is worth a read, and not just that, but maybe a re-read, as there are probably things I've missed. It's funny, sad, exciting, and the ending had me half-crying, half-laughing. It's got all the components of the best of books, and it's infuriating that almost no one knows it exists. (Or at least, all the people I've mentioned it to have gone "What? Who?" So, once more for the cheap seats, READ BRIDGE OF BIRDS!

*Individually, the books are quite reasonably priced. It's just the omnibus editions, and the "limited" one in particular where they get kinda pricey.

Next Week: The Master Li series continues with The Story of the Stone, and I do a live reading of Joe Hill on Halloween. See you then!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Halloween Special

For Halloween, I will be in Philadelphia seeing a friend or two. Depends on who's up there.

Sometime around Halloween week or weekend, though, I will be uploading a "Live" reading of a short story or two, including one of my favorite ghost stories of all time. I apologize for doing it most likely on my crappy webcam, but we work with what we've got. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dinner at Deviant's Palace

"They can't stand the bitter rain, so they run underneath one of the two awnings--religion or dissipation-- and guess who's waiting for them, under both awnings at once..." - Sevatividam

           I freaking love Tim Powers. I'd like to just get that out of the way. The man flings ideas into the air and then makes them collide at high speeds, he helped invent the steampunk genre, and more than that, he tends to write books that unfold at equally high speeds with a lot of substance. Whether it's the Las Vegas sleaze hiding a soul-trading game in Last Call or the drug addiction novel centered around ghost-huffing that is Expiration Date, he manages to deliver. And while his book On Stranger Tides is getting made into a movie in the most terrible and sad way possible, it's still getting made into a movie, and that's kinda cool. Also, due to Tides, every time you see pirates and voodoo together in a movie (or a video game *coughcough* Monkey Island*coughcough*), it's officially Tim Powers' fault.
           I first uncovered Dinner at Deviant's Palace in a Bookman's. It had no cover and no plot synopsis, just a simple yellow book in the sci-fi section. Granted, this didn't exactly endear me to it, as I kinda need some kind of synopsis to get an idea of what I'm getting into. Too many books titled things like The Vampires of Venice or things like that only to be about a bunch of war atrocities when I'm not in the mood for them. However, on a train last week, I found a copy of the paperback and dove right in. By three AM the next morning, I was done with the book. I finished it within a day, almost, and I have to say: It's one of the best freaking books I've read. And entirely unexpected as to the central ideas.
            The book begins in post-nuke California with Gregorio Rivas, a musician, or "gunner", getting an odd request. One of the richest people in LA, Barrows, has lost a loved one to a religious cult called the Jaybirds. He pays Rivas five thousand "fifths" (playing cards used to represent brandy, the currency of this new world) to infiltrate the cult and bring her back home. You see, Rivas used to be a member of the cult who found out how sinister it actually was and ran away. He's also got a shady past as a "redemptionist", a combination of a cult deprogrammer and bounty hunter who tries to rescue wayward cultists and bring them back to their families by pretending to be cultists. And all of this has to do with his target: Barrows' daughter, Urania-- the former love of Rivas' life and what set him off on such a strange path on the first place. After much internal conflict, Rivas takes the job, infiltrates the Jaybirds to kidnap her back, and battles threats both external and internal in his quest, leading him to the titular event.
              And to top it all off, it's a western about a man doing what has to be done, to save himself and to save others.
          What I liked most about the book is the setting. While it becomes obvious that it's a post-apocalyptic setting where they use Brandy as currency and drive horse-drawn carriages made out of classic cars, it's very well-realized. Venice is presented as a sleazy den of sin with Deviant's Palace rising over it like some insane, nightmarish castle. The Holy City of Irvine is bright and clean from the outside, but filled with poverty and trash on the inside, with everyone being welded into leg-irons and forced to work. It's a world with its own slang, mannerisms, and rules of reality. Powers spent a lot of time on this for a book clocking in at under three hundred pages, and every bit of it shows. Despite the book being a slim, quick read, every page has a new facet of the world, be it the playing card-obsessed "Aces" who ruled the wasteland until an explosion went off and killed the Sixth, the alien intelligence known as Sevatividam, the history of Jaybird leader Norton Jaybush, and so on. 
              The problem, though, with Deviant's Palace is that it vanishes too far inside its character's own head. WAY too far sometimes. It's fine that we have a great sense of internal conflict, of Rivas fighting that impulse inside of him to join back up with the Jaybirds and let it consume him, but to have him living in his own head breaks immersion a little, like the scenes where he has flashbacks and can't tell past from present. While this sort of thing was merely disorienting and added to hallucinatory qualities in a book such as Private Midnight, it sometimes stops the book dead here, as the action is suddenly interrupted. 
               In fact, Private Midnight has a lot of similarities with Deviant's Palace. Both are books involving a rather driven man with a curious and dark past encountering a charismatic person who hints at being an otherworldly intelligence. But where one is a hallucinatory and strange tale of identity and how people can change, Deviant's is a book about being unable to run from who you are and knowing that icky, repugnant thing may not be pleasant to look at, but it's a part of you.
                 The other problem, and it's not really a problem, is the fantasy elements. It starts out as a post-apocalyptic western about a man fighting a cult, sort of like The Searchers if it was just John Wayne and he had to pretend to be an Apache for half the movie. But then you get the floating thing known as a Hemogoblin that claims to be a part of Rivas, the weirdness behind the "Sacrament", the restorative powers of "Peter and the Wolf" (which just makes me think of Peter Lorre in M), and a climax involving an alien psychic vampire. Or perhaps just some kind of mutant. And while the book should have ended there, you get a strange two-chapter epilogue just to tie up loose ends that didn't really need to be tied up. While the fantasy elements were still cool, and led to a fantastic setpiece, they didn't tie correctly into the book as well as they should have. Also, there's that stupid epilogue. 
                   But you must read this book. It's a fast, brilliant ride, and while it's ugly and insane in places, it's all part of the charm. Besides, it rips a few satirical targets a good one, and is possibly the best post-apocalyptic and single-character book I've ever read. Rivas, despite starting out as a money-grubbing bastard, turns into a stone-cold badass by the end of the first section, and by the end he's a completely changed man, willing to throw himself in the way if it gets the job done, because his sanity-- and the sanity of his world-- are riding on the consequences. You feel every twist, every turn, and every triumph, and while the epilogue shoehorns a vague romance and tries to end things on a more ambiguous note, it's more than worth a read. 

Next week: My three-parter on The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox begins with my review of Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A change to the program

Three things will be occurring in the next month. These are things that I feel should be done, mainly because it's a way for me to keep all the cool things I want to put up here and still run this blog on a weekly schedule (something highly important to me).

1) First, tomorrow's review will be Dinner at Deviant's Palace, in order to keep things rolling. I know it wasn't scheduled, but it's been begging me for the last few days for a write-up, and it bloody well deserves one. Also:

2)  The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox is seven or eight hundred pages and spans three books. While I am going to review it, I'm gonna break it up into three weeks, one per book, in my first-ever serial review to make it easier on myself and keep the content my constant readers have come to expect. It's looking to be a pretty good, pretty big review, too. This blog is still in its first awkward steps, and I appreciate those willing to stick around through them while we figure this out.

3) Still thinking of what to do for Halloween. Given I seem to have worked into a "weird/quirky fiction" sort of niche, it would be very out of sorts if I completely let it pass and escape my notice. Any ideas or thoughts would be welcome, and in any case, I think it'll be fun.

So...yeah. There we go. See you all tomorrow for the review.

--  Caius

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Leave of Absence

The review is going to be late this week if it comes up at all. Kind of dealing with something that'd seem stupid to most people. I'm going to be taking a brief leave during this week to calm down and take care of some of my stress, and the reviews will return to normal schedule next week

Sorry for the inconvenience, but I'd rather you have awesome reviews than simply good or even crap reviews because I want to meet a deadline and am just not feeling it.

Sorry again

-- Caius

Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Apology

I apologize for one thing with the review of Valente's In The Night Garden. Regrettably, I broke one of my own rules and did not read the full book before publishing a review of it. This was partly due to it just not being a good book, but...yeah. I did read the book, I gave it a spirited try, but ultimately came up short. Sorry I didn't read the full thing...I had some stuff going on in my life, but next week, I'll be back to business as usual with what's shaping up to be a really fantastic read. 

Once again, sorry for breaking my own rule, and hope you're still enjoying things here at Geek Rage. I know I am.

- Caius.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

After much thought and the advice of my audience (all two of you) I have decided to offer this disclaimer. Some of you may find the review among my old stuff. Some of you may be shocked at my thoughts, and at the tag cloud. Some of you may think "(they're) ignorant, backwards, and sexist!" Well, at the time, I was. Sorta. There were a lot of things going on in my life, and while that is no excuse for what I said, I refuse to delete this or pretend it doesn't exist. This disclaimer is to tell you all that it is a reflection of who I was, not who I am. A lot can change in a year or six. In some ways, I have. In some, I haven't. I am not, however, the angry, hurt, and disappointed person who wrote this review six years ago. Even if my repeated attempts to read Catherynne M. Valente have done nothing to endear me to her. 

 "Now, why do you want to kill Beast? He's not borrowed your sword and refused to return it..."
- The Marsh King 

      When I was younger, one of the first books my father ever read to me at night was The Arabian Nights. I loved it. I fell in love with the stories of Solomon's Bottle, and Aladdin, and all of that. There was a certain element of discovery to the whole thing, a vivid world where pretty much anything could and did happen, all in a far off land. I've always liked fairy tales, and even "grown-up" versions of fairy tales, like the excellent Fables, and One for the Morning Glory. So it would stand to reason that a book advertised with the line "A book of wonders for grown-up readers" would capture my attention. And it didn't.
         In the Night Garden is a book of stories within stories, each one feeding into the next. The framing device is that there is a little girl with black marks around her eyes who many think to be a demon in the Sultan's garden. At night, a little boy, a prince of the Sultanate, sneaks out to her and finds that the marks are actually densely-written words piled one upon the other until there is nothing but black. And the little girl can read these strange marks aloud. She begins to tell him the stories and he begins to listen, spinning vivid stories of battles at sea, talking herons, and sentient stars. Each one leading into and out of the next, weaving together into one work.
        Oh, the visuals are vivid, to be sure. And the characters all seem to be taken from the classic fairy-tale types. But this is not a particularly well-done book, in my opinion. Where most books of they type would begin one story, then maybe have a story inside that story, both those stories would be finished fairly early in. Catherynne M. Valente, on the other hand, barely finishes anything. The first story within the overall framing device, "The Tale of the Prince and the Goose", goes on for almost a quarter of the book. Now, granted, all of these stories tie into each other and into the overarching storyline, but none of them seem to have any cohesion. The link between the varying stories is tenuous at best, though they do call back to the previous ones, and overall, it's an interesting way to set up a book. It just takes quite a while to conclude each story, as each nested tale becomes more and more regressive. It seems like every individual character has their own story, and while I agree all of them should be told, the varying quality and the inability of the main story to go anywhere while the other stories are unfolding gives one a sense of frustration. The best sequences are when the stories are quick and self-contained, such as the bits with the Marsh King. Otherwise, none of it really goes anywhere and it just gets frustrating.
          The other main problem I have with the book is sexism. Men are not portrayed sympathetically. Those who are are either inhuman, in the case of the bear, the Beast, and the Marsh King, or in the thrall of a woman, as in the case of the young boy in the framing device, the prince in the prince story, and others. But the majority of the men are portrayed as decadent asshats who wouldn't know the proper way to do things if it bit them in the arse. And it's to this I object. Look, I know there's been a load of bad mojo over the centuries between the sexes, but we should acknowledge that we're all human. No, we don't always have the same thought patterns, but that really shouldn't matter. I know men who think in a so-called feminine manner, and I know women who are repulsive, closed-minded asshats. People, in the immortal words of Depeche Mode, are people. Not necessarily men or women, but people. And should be treated with the respect that human beings deserve, not turned into flighty nothings or violent idiots. 
            I honestly do wish I could have recommended the book to you. It's got lovely illustrations, and a very vivid sense of itself. But the flaws in characterization and the annoying plotting bring me down for the most part, and I can't really recommend it because of those things. Chances are, you may like this more than me. I don't know. But I can't recommend it.

Next week: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart.