Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.

[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]

While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.

The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.

We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.

No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.

“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.

While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.

Apparently there’s a comic book adaptation too. Neat.

Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.

Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.

All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.

So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.

On Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian. I don’t know where to begin with this book.

It’s a western, or an anti-western. I’ve heard it called the greatest work of southern gothic lit out there, if that helps at all. It follows the kid (he has no name, always referred to simply as “the kid”) through 1850’s northern Mexico who joins the Glanton gang as they go on a scalping spree.

It’s fantastic. Maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. Definitely provocative, controversial, often difficult to read, eye-opening, mind changing, terrifying. The prose is sparse, gripping, often perfect, I mean really truly perfect as if some greater power wrote through Cormac McCarthy. What a novel. What a novel.

So many people have written about Blood Meridian, throwing my hat in the ring hardly feels justified. Doesn’t matter, I’m giving it a shot. My goal isn’t to be illuminating. I don’t think I can help you fully comprehend this novel. I just want you to read the damn book and wear the same look of shock on your face that I did during the three months it took me to soldier through it.

Sketches by JaradOwen of characters from Blood Meridian.

No it’s not a long novel. But it demands your full attention and concentration. Sometimes reading it was so taxing, I had to put it down for several days before I had the energy to pick it back up again.

And you should read it. No matter what I say throughout this piece, remind yourself that you owe it to you to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

What’s it about? Professional American scalpers in 1850’s Mexico. The Glanton gang who butchered Indians for a buck, then Mexican villagers and American soldiers. They get consumed in the violence before getting consumed by the violence. Saying Blood Meridian is violent is kind of like saying water is wet. It’s a stupid sentiment because it’s so clearly evident from page 1 til the end.

Eye gouging in chapter one is the least of the atrocities. Scalping becomes commonplace. There are several massacres. The violence is never exciting. It’s never thrilling or fun. It is a gut punch until you grow numb to gut punches. By the end of this novel, you’ll form a callous around your heart. You’ll walk through life in a kind of stupor, replaying scenes in your mind over and over again. Will you gain a greater understanding? Probably not. But it will consume you, that much is certain.

Found this on Pinterest. Could not find out who the artist is… If you know, let me know, and I’ll link here.

There is a kind of illumination in the violence. Illumination of what, I don’t know. Was the novel written in defiance of God? I don’t know. Was it written with hands blessed by God? It could go either way. More than once I found myself seriously considering whether Cormac McCarthy is extremely blessed or cursed, sanctified or damned. I still don’t know. But God is in this book, and so is the devil.

The devil, in fact, makes perhaps the most literal appearance in the form of The Judge. But I’ve read convincing arguments that The Judge is in fact God. Who ever he is, he’s chilling.

The prose often require some effort to gain a full understanding of any given paragraph. Here’s a quote showing how difficult some paragraphs are to read, but you can’t deny the imagery these words conjure. This is perhaps Blood Meridian at it’s most difficult, but I personally didn’t mind:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Holy shit! Did you read what I just read? Damn it, I might need to give up the craft. That’s the kind of thing you’ll be reading throughout Blood Meridian. For some, this is enticing, but it may dissuade many. Do not let it. This book is worth it. Trust me.

Another quote:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

I mean, come on! It’s beautiful, dark, enlightening and nearly indecipherable on first reading.

There are scenes that will linger in your mind long after you put the page down. Such as when the Judge lifts a meteor over his head in defiance of the universe. Such as when the Glanton Gang make gun powder of piss and bat guano and lava rock, then gun down their pursuers with their crude recipe.

There were sentences so perfectly wrote I threw the book down and cursed because I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to write half this well. It’s infuriating to see someone using language near perfection, even when it’s contained in a few short lines describing the way spit evaporates in the desert and how the lizards will drink it up before it bubbles and dries.

A Blood Meridian poster I found on Red Bubble

And that last paragraph. If you’ve reached this point, and you’re convinced that you’ll never read Blood Meridian, you owe it to yourself to read that final paragraph and see if it doesn’t give you chills. Even removed from all context, the final words of this novel will make your blood curdle.

I loved Blood Meridian because it more than once made me pause and think “How was that written by a person, a human being like me?” Can a man really be that good a writer? I don’t know. Can I ever be that good a writer? I don’t know. Probably not, and even typing that makes me sad.

It does, however, give me something to strive for. I’ll revisit this novel, of that I’m certain. And when I do, I think I’ll type out the best of pages word for word just so I can see how it feels to mimic what I can only describe as perfection. I have so much to learn from Blood Meridian.

Read it. Just read it.

Book Review – Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

My life has changed since I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon: blog and twitter worth following. I think this is the best praise I can give a book. Not in an insubstantial way, but in the day-to-day. I spend my time differently.

Somehow this book got me excited to share my work. I’ve hated marketing for a long, long time. Funny considering I was an internet marketer for two years. Worst job ever. However, Show You Work altered my perspective. It taught me how to share my work, and for once I’m actually enjoying it.

Check out this book review of Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. If you aspire to greatness in a creative field, this might be the book for you. Click To Tweet

Show Your Work is a quick read brimming with quality ideas that are simple to execute. Austin Kleon argues that one of the best ways of “getting discovered” and building an audience is to share behind the scenes information in a way that is interesting or helpful for others. On page 2, he says:

I think there’s an easy way of putting your work out there and making it discoverable while you’re focused on getting really good at what you do.

Sections like “Be An Amateur”, which focuses on embracing and celebrating your amateur status, are inspiring. Or “Become a Documentarian of What You Do”, which encourages you to open your creative process up to the world.

There are sections touching on the practical side too, like the facts that you should be sharing something daily. And common sense advice like build a mailing lists (if you’re an artist who isn’t do this, now is the time to start). None of the technical aspects presented anything new, but they pieces of time-honored advice and definitely worth mentioning.

He never dives deep into the technical. Rather, he tells you what you need to do, presents his case for each point, and leaves the rest up to you. In this way, Show Your Work is an overview. It focuses on your mindset, your platform, and daily actions you should focus on, but leaves the specifics on execution, platforms, social media, etc. up to you.

I liked this. It’s not a bible, but it doesn’t need to be. Even I, a slow reader, finished Share Your Work and got inspired to boot. Time will tell if the changes I’ve made will have any lasting effects on my platform. But I’ve started to document my creative process much more than ever before. I’ve started scheduling social media posts with trickles of information and tidbits about what I’m doing. I’ve become more deliberate about what I’m writing about on this blog. And lastly, this book inspired me to start drawing again. For good or bad, who knows, but drawing has become a daily part of my life now and I don’t plan on giving it up.

If you’re a creative looking for an audience, or needing a kick in the pants when it comes to sharing your process with the world, then I highly recommend this little book.

Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

Berserk Vol 1 cover

Review of Berserk Vol. 1 by Kentaro Miura

I fell in love with Guts through the 1997 Berserk anime. It’s one of my favorites, and ever since I finally watched it two years ago, I’ve been craving more. The movies were pretty good too, but they followed the same arc. Then came the 2016 show. It was… lacking. But at least it was more Guts (the MC).

You can also read this review on Goodreads.

Scene from Berserk 1997 anime

I wanted more of what I’d seen in the 1997 anime, and I figured the only way to get it was to go to the source material. So I read book one and was surprised to see that it follows the storyline of the 2016 show.

What I liked

It’s fun, albeit a gore-fest. I’m pretty desensitized when it comes to violence in fiction, so the frequent gore didn’t bother me. For the most part, I found myself enjoying the entire read, which took me the better part of an hour.

What I didn’t like

Berserk Vol 1 coverGut’s seems like a very flat character in this book. He kills stuff because he’s badass. He wins fights because he’s strong. He survives inhuman amounts of damage because… I’m not clear on that yet. His motivations aren’t always clear from scene to scene.

**SPOILERS**

Here’s an example, and it’s contains spoilers for the first half of the book. We see him dismantle tens of bandits one scene, and the next he’s confronted by soldiers and just gives up without a fight and let’s himself get tortured. Then he escapes by…. I actually don’t know how he escapes because one scene he’s in prison unable to move on the cell floor and the next he’s suddenly out killin’ dudes. Sooo…

**END SPOILERS**

This was annoying because in the ’97 anime he’s definitely all the attributes I listed above but he’s a much more complex yet internally consistent figure. I assume what happens is Gut’s gains this depth over the course of several books. I’ve heard a few books it the series has a massive jump in quality, so I’m willing to give several more a shot before I make an informed opinion on the manga.

Overall – 3.5/5

I enjoyed aspects of vol. 1, but as a whole it’s flawed and flat. That’s fine when it only takes you an hour to get through the entire book, but I’m hoping for a jump in quality in later volumes.

MY RATING SCALE

5 – Excellent. Either this book was incredibly enjoyable, or I learned something that will improve my own writing.

4 – Fine. The book was pretty good/fun, but was held down by several issues.

3 – Meh. The issues in this book hampered my enjoyment.

2 – Not for me. I didn’t like it, but I can see why other people might.

1 – Not for anyone. I hated it, probably didn’t finish reading, definitely didn’t take the time to write a review.

Note: I don’t write fully negative reviews. Books I don’t like will be given a star rating on Goodreads with no review. As a writer, I don’t want to add my voice to a conversation that might negatively affect another writers income.

 

 

Review of A Darker Shade of Magic

I recently finished reading A Darker Shade of Magic and, as usual, I left my review on Goodreads (follow me). What I’ve been neglecting to do is share my reviews with you guys, readers of this blog. So I’m gonna start doing that now. Over the next few weeks, I’ll copy over some of my reviews so they live here as well and in the future I’ll post all my 3.5 stars and higher reviews here.


Read this review on Goodreads

A Darker Shade of Magic coverWhat was setup to be an interesting exploration of a setting that involves parallel worlds and follows a charming MC turned out to be a run-of-the-mill, fantasy action story where intrigue is paid off with cliché, and the stakes are artificially lowered through a dash of deus ex machina. So, there were good parts and bad parts.

I really loved the first third of A Darker Shade of Magic, written by V.E. Schwab. The slow pace let the author explore MC Kell and the parallel worlds he inhabits. I felt like his character was well fleshed out and the pace of reveals was perfect. Not to mention his awesome coat.

Then we get to Delilah, and the story goes south. Where Kell feels like a three-dimensional character, Delilah feels like a more violent, less intriguing, one-dimensional version of The Artful Dodger. Her motivations rarely go below surface level, her actions are often kind of dumb, and when she’s shown as a badass it feels contrived.

Speaking of unearned, let’s talk about the climax. Ok, so I didn’t hate it, but I expected way more given the setup. The second half devolves into a fairly basic chace sequence, followed by a standard “dramatic showdown” with the villains. Will good triumph? Of course, but will good actually earn their inevitable victory? Solid no.

What’s more, the villains are wholly uninteresting. They are bad, and because they are bad they want to take over the world. They do bad things to show how bad they are like drink blood, touch people in weird ways while they talk, have a floor made out of bones, etc. etc. If you’ve played any video game ever, you’ve seen these guys before.

Spoilery stuff follows

I think this was my greatest disappointment. We get to the end, and all of the baddies are defeated because their bad people. Literally, that’s it. The good guys might strike the final blow, but if the baddies weren’t so mean to their subjects, then they totally would have won.

If an editor had told the author, “we get that their villains, could you tone it down a smidge” the author would have been forced to find a new, more interesting demise. Too bad this didn’t happen, cause the end could’ve been so much better.

End of spoilers

As it was, the final chapters chalk full of deus ex machina (the hand of the author comes in to save the characters, not the actions of the characters themselves), which was very disappointing.

I enjoyed aspects of A Darker Shade of Magic. I like Kell and wish this would have been more of a character focused story around him. I’m told the sequels solve a lot of these issues, so I think I’ll pick them up in the near future, but to be honest, I’m not chomping at the bit to dive into them. However, the first third of the narrative gives me hope that from the ashes of this book a better story can rise.

3.5 out of 5


MY RATING SCALE

5 – Excellent. Either this book was incredibly enjoyable, or I learned something that will improve my own writing.

4 – Fine. The book was pretty good/fun, but was held down by several issues.

3 – Meh. The issues in this book hampered my enjoyment.

2 – Not for me. I didn’t like it, but I can see why other people might.

1 – Not for anyone. I hated it, probably didn’t finish reading, definitely didn’t take the time to write a review.

Note: I don’t write fully negative reviews. Books I don’t like will be given a star rating on Goodreads with no review. As a writer, I don’t want to add my voice to a conversation that might negatively affect another writers income.