Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Review: King of Thorns (The Broken Empire # 2) by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence took the Fantasy world by storm with his shit-kicker of a debut, Prince of Thorns that completely polarized the community into either ardent die-hard fans of this fourteen-year old sociopath or foaming-at-the-mouth haters of this blasphemous portrayal of a child killer.

I belong right on the front ranks of the former. Charming Jorg of Ancrath is a character I would follow to the depths of Hell and back. ( because I am sure that sly bastard will definitely come back alive!) it’s been such a delight to be inside that pscyhopath’s complex mind and discover niches and depths that was never before, thought to exist. Borrowing from my previous review, an incredibly compelling narrator who swings between genius and insane, forming the backbone of the entire book. It was a bold gamble and now Mark is ready to step it up a notch. 

King of Thorns follows Jorg four years later – a little more mature, questionably so, perhaps a little less “trigger-happy” but he retains his dark-stained soul and at the core,  pretty much remains the same blood thirsty and maddeningly unpredictable anti-hero with last tricks up his sleeve to get out of do-or-die situations that has become common-place in his life. It’s even more twisted and complex with storylines and mysteries that grip you from the very mention of a hint dropped, phrases seemingly commonplace with heavier import to strike us in latter passages, twists and turns that by turn sicken and intrigue you, the sparse world building that Lawrence hinted at in book one, is fleshed out and presented in rivetingly glorious detail and yet this manages to bring up more questions than answers. The characters are top notch and beautifully drawn up yet again in that excellent prose dripping with acerbic cutting wit, liberally sprinkled with the kind of black gallow humor and waxes eloquent with deep philosophical questions on life and death and all things in between.

King starts off with Jorg being eighteen. On his wedding day, he faces his most formidable foe yet. The one prophesied by all stars and diviners to be the deliverer of evil, Prince Orrin of Arrow. The Good Guy who will set things right. Jorg never liked the good guys and now with the Prince knocking on his castle doors, has to decide between giving in and forgetting his grand “emperor” ambitions or prepare for the battle of his lifetime. 

Lawrence sticks true to his earlier narrative style of interspersing time lines and switching back and forth. So don’t despair, thinking you have lost out on the bloody creepy antics of four years of his lifetime. It’s there in glorious detail. But unlike book one, where it was a little more linear, here the time-lines twist, wriggle and overlap with most events in the past having a direct consequence on Jorg’s actions in the present. And trust me, you have to hang onto pretty much every single phrase or narrative thrown in casually because all of it has a purpose. As before, in every other situation, Jorg plays his cards very close to his heart and this makes for very tense, edge-of-the-cliff thriller moments throughout the book.
Jorg has changed in the four years – subtly so. Taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions and pretty much trying to make small amends.
“I’m not him. I’m not him because we die a little every day and by degrees we’re reborn into different, older men in the same clothes, with the same scars.”

The readers connect to that ‘real’ Jorg beneath the exterior of all that blood, up on the mountains, lying down gasping for breath, with nothing but white clouds between him and the blue sky, reminiscing on life and it’s horrors that he has had to wade through. those were there winning moments for me in this book, when the crazy suicidal teenager takes a break from the mindless horrors that he willingly jumps into and thinks about his actions, dreams and it’s consequences. Infused with deep emotional turmoil that you cannot really turn away from. But those hoping for redemption in Jorg will be disappointed. He remains at heart what the thorns created. A monster and an unapologetic one at that. And that is quite the kicker!

King of Thorns is a way better book than the debut. The plot advancement is top notch, so are the characters, some new, most old thrown into the fray – all of whom would tug at your emotional strings in one way or the other. True, while Jorg towers over pretty much any other secondary character, there are absolute gems crafted by Lawrence as the side ones. Some deserve a complete book by themselves. Some like, say Makin. One of my favorite characters in the series.
“Makin works a kind of magic with people. If he spends even half an hour in their company, they will like him.” And so with the readers as well. Possibly one of the few guys in the mix who have a strong sense of the right and wrong and lives by a personal code. But heck, am getting ahead of myself. There are other interesting characters whom you can root for as well.

Lawrence takes us on a tour of the Broken Empires in this book – travel in true epic fantasy style – Jorg and his Band of Brothers going from the Thar deserts to the frigid cold of Scandinavia, Dane-lands with their fjords and mountains that spout fire to the shores of Afrique and more. It’s a fascinating expose of the empire that is on top of everybody’s list to conquer and rule. World building done in a very deft and competent manner silencing critics who bayed that the book one was too narrow in its scope and focus. This time, Jorg sweeps through the entire world of the empire burning with a Thousand Fires. Take that, you detractor you.

Why should you read this book?
A stunning addition to one of the finest stories in fantasy today – one that truly showcases Mark Lawrence’s evolution as a master of this genre and wheels along one of the most riveting and hauntingly elegant tales in spin today. King of Thorns goes straight to the top of my best-reads this year and now I cannot wait for that heart-stopping conclusion to this tale.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mini Review: The Keeper by Sarah Langan (Horror)

This book turned out to be a complete surprise package. I seem to have this weird habit of buying #Horror books from undiscovered alleys of Beach towns. Last time I did this, was in Gokarna – where I wandered into a run-down second hand bookstore and discovered The Passage, Justin Cronin. I did it again on this vacation – in one of Goa’s busiest alley, I found a book store and look what gem I uncovered – The Keeper. A debut novel that came out in 2006 by Sarah Langan!! 

The Keeper is a horror novel – often described as the intelligent, literary horror book that brings forth new hope for the genre. Sarah has been hailed by the brightest new light in this dark genre that desperately needs some re-inventing.

Set in a rain-lashed suburbia town of New England (Funny how most American horror stories are set in New England? Blame Mr.King huh?) where a single girl haunts everybody’s dreams and nightmares with prophetic visions of blood and destruction, the keeper is an atmospheric tale that is chocked up with grey characters, each vividly drawn out with a big bad past and hoarding secrets like crazy and wonderfully written in a strong confident tone reminiscent of the Genre’s greatest, Stephen King or Peter Straub. Indeed with some glowing blurbs and recommendations, I decided to delve straight into this nightmarish town with its violent secrets waiting to be spilled.

This one kept me up long past bedtime and I scrunched it down in about three sittings. First half where Sarah patiently draws up the colorful melancholic canvas and introduces us to the characters is bloody brilliant. Top notch writing – in depth characterization, beautiful haunting passages about the town and the specter – Susan Marley is definitely one of the most unforgettable characters drawn up – slow-burning atmosphere that builds up on the creep-o-meter and the dread continues to build through the first half as we wait for the town to finally implode. Second half unfortunately is a little haphazardly handled – choppy, disturbingly violent in parts, tepid and dis-enchanted in parts. This wayward treatment of all the hard work she put in earlier gets washed away in the persistent thunder-showers that is probably the only good thing written about in the second half.

Sarah Langan is a good find and I might pick up her next few books. The Keeper is a solid four stars in the first half while meandering and repetitive and thus, a little boring in the second half, deserving nothing more than two stars.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M Hough

The Dire-Earth cycle series by Jason M Hough is touted to be the best thing to have happened to the almost dying genre of Science Fiction today. I would agree to a certain extent, but with a degree of caution. 

Best thing? Questionable. A good thing? Most emphatically yes. It’s pumped the interest back in to Science Fiction stories but it is nowhere enough to trump the amount of foaming-at-the-mouth raving attention that Fantasy has generated ( thanks to HBO Original Series of Game of Thrones??)

But we’re digressing here. Let’s get back to the series and the book in general. What is attractive about the book is the SF-nal premise of the whole book with alien contact and it’s very accessible nature. Instead of being hard-ass high-flying sci-fi (which trust me, turns off a lot of people wanting to wade into the SF territory), Jason keeps this book easy enough to be liked. Big guns, alien technology, futuristic earth with a touch of dystopian horror. Check.
Jason skims the surface of the topics that might get a little boring – the source of the plague virus, the alien technology itself. Instead he weaves these elements into a tight little story of a group of survivors who would go to any extent to keep the human race alive. It’s intentionally small-scale. To keep the pace on and to keep the story accessible and interesting enough. Mix that up with a vast cast of characters, a lot of heart-thumping action and an almost stunning climax. It forms the perfect little escapist SF adventure that we have all been yearning for.

And yet, none of this truly elevates this book to the level of what a SF Classic should be. It is what it claims to be. An easy entertainer that promises a good time and Jason sticks to that job, pretty much entirely. The book never really takes off from the runway as Jason spends a lot of time idling the plane and introducing us to the main POVs. Skyler, the inept captain of a crew of scavengers, Tania Sharma the stunningly beautiful intelligent scientist, Neil Platz the visionary who aims to keep the humanity alive, Russell Blackfield, the ambitious commander of the earth-based station who covets the seat on the ultimate governing council up in Space. I never really got hooked onto any of these guys to be interested enough to follow the proceedings. The characterization was paper-thin and you could argue it’s been deliberately kept so to keep the pace up. Sadly found lacking as well.

Anyways, it’s in the old-style tradition of science fictional stories where the time-bomb is ticking and all things rush towards that big-bang ending. A lot of nifty ideas and tons of world-building left to the reader’s imagination (now, is that a good thing or not?) leaves ample scope for the story to continue. And Del Ray is doing jus that, coming up with a back-to-back publishing schedule for all three books of the Dire Earth Cycle. A good read but that don’t make me a fan of SF yet. If you prefer to keep your SF and Zombies separate, then try the swashbuckling space-opera adventure by James A Corey starting with Leviathan Wakes and for Zombies, stick to the excellent Passage/The Twelve by Justin Cronin.