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V.E. Schwab — A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light

March 6, March ??, and July 10

I plan to head directly into the weeds on this review, but I'll make a brief pit-stop at concision before I hit the road: I definitely recommend the first book of this series. It's fast, bold, and slick — just weird enough to grab your attention (a stacked-worlds cosmology where the only constant is London? What??), and more than competent enough to hold on to it. I'm more ambivalent about the other two books, but A Darker Shade of Magic actually stands alone pretty well anyhow.

Speaking of which, HEY, let's talk about trilogies! There are several different ways to put three book-sized objects in a row, and this series uses what I think might be the worst. I don't have a proper name for it (duologies behaving badly? party in the front, sweatshop in the back?), but it's that same thing Garth Nix did with Sabriel and Lirael/Abhorsen:

  • Start with one standalone, book-shaped book, with tight plotting and characterization and some deep-but-restrained worldbuilding.
  • Follow it with a much larger and more sprawling sequel, arbitrarily split into two volumes. (Book 2 usually ends on a cliffhanger of some kind.)

Recognize it? Contrast with the "three book-shaped books" trilogy or the "one continuous scroll" trilogy, both of which work better.

Part of the problem is just setting up an expectation of book-shaped books and then flubbing it. But I'm also starting to think that two books out of a trilogy is a uniquely awkward and unbalanced story unit, and should be avoided categorically. In all the examples I can think of, the sprawly second story has major plot and pacing issues that didn't afflict the first book and could only be addressed with major story surgery.

In this case, most of book 2 is dedicated to a shōnen manga tournament plot. This is a time-tested device that works really well in a long-running combat-focused comic, because it provides a lower-stakes pause in the main action (during which you can cut to machinations in the background as needed), it's guaranteed to take up a good long chunk of serialized time, and it's a good way to demonstrate how various characters have progressed or not progressed, especially because it lets you pit allies against each other without having to completely deform the story.

But tournaments usually work so well because they take up like an eighth or a tenth of a tremendously long comic. This one is like a quarter of the damn trilogy, and while yes, it's cool to see how badass Lila is now, it basically shoots the pacing all to hell.

Also affecting the pacing: The villain of the second story seems to spend an inordinate amount of time just twiddling his thumbs out in the distance. And he's just a lot less interesting than the confluence of villainies in the first book! He kind of sucks, tbh. (Note that I had this same beef with Lirael/Abhorsen. Is this a weird secondary effect of the structure?)

I had some other plot beefs. There's a death in book 3 that just kind of comes from someone acting out of character for no good reason, plus a few other things... not gonna go super deep into this, it just felt like things generally got a little sloppy.

Finally, there's a central character unironically named "Alucard," even though the only proper use of that name is to tell the reader with a big fat wink that this is Dracula's depressed son. (This story has nothing to do with Draculas, and IDEK how Schwab managed to not realize what she was doing there. Are there truly people who Don't Castlevania?? [yes])

IDK. I did enjoy the second book quite a bit, but it's not a complete unit, and I got bored partway through book three and just put it down for several months to read other things. There's a lot of good stuff in there, but it's flawed and uneven compared to book 1's mirror-bright polish.

Martha Wells — The Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red

May 7

Yay, new Martha Wells! Spoiler, I liked it.

This had a more-than-passing resemblance to her short-lived Emilie series — it's more stripped-down than a lot of her other books, with more straightforward plotting and a more parsimonious approach to characterization for the supporting cast (not flat, but with most of the depth gestured rather than rendered, if that makes sense). It's an old-fashioned sort of feel, and one that suits both series' niches (Emilie was a deliberately retro pre-"YA" subgenre of youth lit, and Murderbot is a novella, which is sort of a coelacanth format just now coming out of a long hibernation).

Anyway, this is short and enjoyable and cheap (in its native ebook form, at least; the "tor.com" imprint has been publishing pretty nice tpbs of their novellas, but they're so overpriced that I get the impression we're not actually meant to buy them), and you should check it out.

Re: recent comments about how to structure a series: this is definitely the start of a larger story (note the beautiful last-minute left turn to avoid "happy ending"), but it's nicely contained, setting the stage for a next bit without any cliff-dangling. Which, again, I always greatly appreciate.

Jason Turner — Fir Valley (comics)

July 13

I liked this! It used this really aggressive POV shifting to get kind of a cubist every-angle-at-once view of the town of Fir Valley. And the town felt pretty legit; idk, I was reading this at the same time as Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, and they both do interesting things with the, like, sensation of being in the Pacific Northwest.

Tonally, this was all over the place in a way I kind of loved. Gruesome murder, young people making music, ghostly conspirators with animal heads, drunken idiocy, all kinds of stuff in here, and all presented with this kind of goofy big-hearted cheer? Turner has cited Twin Peaks as an influence here, and I can definitely see it. He isn't following Lynch's aesthetic, but the method seems familiar.

Anna-Marie McLemore — When the Moon Was Ours

June 11

I liked this, but I don't really feel like talking about it. It was good.

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