Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Review: War for the Oaks

I've done all these recent reviews for modern fantasy novels, so I'm surprised that I haven't mentioned Emma Bull's War for the Oaks yet. I read it before these others (Bad Magic, The Last Hot Time, and The Arcanum), and I consider it to be the best of the bunch. The novel centers around Eddi McCandry, a rock-and-roller who leaves her no-good boyfriend and his crappy band to start her own. Along the way, she gets mixed up with the Fey, including a phouka who is sometimes a man, sometimes a dog, but always very charming and strange.

The plot is familiar, but not necessarily in a bad way. The Fey need Eddi in their fight between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Though she is recruited by the Seelie court, the Unseelie court has plans for her as well. Along the way, the story of her band's creation and rise in the local music scene is paralleled with the war between the Fey, and elements from each feed into the other in interesting ways.

Emma Bull's strength lies in her ability to incorporate "fairy" and "real" elements together so that there is no clear delineation between them. There are moments in the novel where Eddi's "normal" life suddenly has something decidedly non-normal intrude upon it, but the thing that works for me about War for the Oaks is the feeling that, even in the seemingly "normal" moments, something magical, exciting, and dangerous is out there, and probably closer than you think.

Not everything about the novel works. There is a twist that everyone sees coming, and the fascination with describing every street and Minneapolis can leave those who have never visited that city feeling left out. The main characters rather predictably form a band, and each of their concerts consists of doing covers of famous rock songs they all know. Unfortunately, I knew a grand total of perhaps one of those songs, so again I felt somewhat un-hip and excluded. Finally, there are times when I wished the narrator described things a little bit more thoroughly, especially the faerie scenes, but I do think that under-describing is better than over-describing, as it leaves things to the reader's imagination rather than going through several pages of exactly what every single type of faerie looks like.

I think this book has rightly earned its reputation as a classic of the modern fantasy genre. It can be a little bit uneven, as is often the case with first novels, but that somehow adds to the charm, as the novel isn't over-polished.

I recommend this novel to fans of Neil Gaiman and fantasy.

Book Review: The Arcanum

The Arcanum, by Thomas Wheeler, is about Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft, and Marie Laveau (sort of) as a paranormal task force called the Arcanum, taking on an evil sorcerer to try to protect one of the world's last great hidden secrets. That's about it. If you think that sounds like fun, you may want to give it a shot. Otherwise, please steer clear.

The novel is very cinematic, which makes sense since the author is primarily a screenwriter. I don't feel I have to worry too much about spoilers, since just about everything in this novel is a well-established trope. It even ends with a train chase... well, before the "twist" ending where a character who totally wasn't a villain before turns out to have totally been a villain the whole time!

What irked me was that the characters were so nondescript that they really didn't need to be based on historical figures. Doyle could have been any stout Englishman with an eye for detail, Houdini could have been anyone with good balance, and Marie Laveau could have been any woman with generic nature-based sorcerous powers. H.P. Lovecraft didn't even act like H.P. Lovecraft: he was described as a demonologist several times, and I highly doubt that the cripplingly antisocial Lovecraft would ever have considered himself one. Worse, he seems completely okay with palling around with a black woman wielding voodoo powers, when ancient, "savage" magic is one of the primary vehicles of evil in the Cthulhu Mythos.

Speaking of the Mythos, the book refers to supernatural creatures as "of the Mythos." That really bugged me.

The book suddenly shifts in pace about halfway through. Where it starts off relatively realistically, with attempts to create plausible explanations for every supernatural-type occurrence, suddenly we have demons swishing through the air and Lovecraft starts waving around improbably-described steampunk gadgets. He even wears a steampunk gauntlet at one point, and gauntlets are second only to goggles as overused steampunk accessories.

Like I said in my review of The Last Hot Time: if you want to read an inventive modern fantasy, try Bad Magic instead. Still, if you have the opportunity and the inclination, The Arcanum is worth a skim. Just don't take anything about it too seriously.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Got Married

I feel like I should post something about getting married, but the whole thing is far too amazing and complex to sum up in a blog post. So suffice it to say that I married the most amazing woman I have ever met and I am looking forward to spending the rest of my life with her.