The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an odd book, but one which is definitely worth reading. Were I to compare it to any other work, it would have to be Battle Royale, but that would at best be a cosmetic comparision - obvious at first glance, but rapidly growing thinner as you watch. Another decent comparison could perhaps be to The Running Man which would explain Stephen King's glowing praise on the cover.
The novel, first in a trilogy, is set in the near future (give or take a century or two) in the ruins of America. You may now cheer. The society which has survived lives in 13 cities, one capital and twelve outer districts. The capital is wealthy, decadent and technologically advanced. The outer districts, given only numbers as a thin identity, are kept poor and weak by the capital as punishment for their attempted revolt against a central power. In addition to this, once a year each District is required to send two
So far, so standard. It's a fresh but not particularly complicated set-up. Unsurprisingly, our protagonist, Katniss, ends up selected for the Games and wins through. Again, nothing new. What makes the book worth reading is in the details. The Games are slowly built up, and as we follow Katniss we see many and myriad small ways in which the people of the districts are made less, belittled and forced and tricked into betraying their own and keeping themselves weak. The corrupt and complacent evil of the Capital is also slowly built up, but for all that a bloodsport is a rather important part of the book, the Capital is not shown as a city of Khornate berserkers, baying for blood and murder. Rather, the author skillfully shows that their evil is that they think of people from the districts as things they own.
The book is not without flaws. There are a couple of sub-plots which dangle, the Avox being the obvious example. Our heroine is, on certain topics, just a little bit too slow on the uptake. Necessary to hold the plot together at points, but in the end it seems only to serve the same purpose as the the others, namely to leave things open for the next book in the trilogy. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book. It's been quite difficult to describe without significant spoilers, which I think is a good thing. As I said, the devil is in the details and that's where the book shines - both in the nature of the details of the story, and in the way they're used and revealed. I'm quite sure that there's a lot of milage to be had in dragging out political bias and cultural inoculation from the book, but I leave that to others to find and tear ragged between their bitter, literary teeth. I enjoyed it; I think more people should read it; I look forward to the sequels.
There exists, as I am repeatedly told by scrake, a genre of books in which the bookish, shy and outcast protagonist discovers that he is in some way special and different, nay better than his fellows. The Narniabooks, Duane's So You Want To Be A Wizard, the lamentable Harry Potter and even Card's Ender's Game fit into this category. The soundbite review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians is that it does for these what Moore and Watchmen did for the four-colour superhero genre - it murders them, carefully and brutally, and makes you hate them. It doesn't make you hate them for what they are and what they do, but for what they aren't, and it does this by being realistic. There're magic, mayhem, other-worlds, boarding-school (aka University, because it takes the place of University) and madcap fun, but underneath all of this are a bunch of people. Every character who gets more than brief time on stage is different, and some of them undergo character development. The ones who don't are the important ones - this little trick is what makes the book so powerful.
The reducto ad absurdam summary of the book is this: Quentin, an incredibly intelligent and unhappy boy has always sought solace in books about a fantasy world called Fillory - a very, very thin reskin of Narnia. One day he discovers that he has the potential to be a magician and is spirited away to a college (it's a Yank book, but we can forgive it that) where he learns about magic and people and has many fun times and sees wonderous and terrible things. Ultimately, he learns that magic won't solve any of his problems. Then he graduates, and one of his friends discovers that Fillory might not just be a story. And so the quest begins afresh.
The book is not happy. The book is filled with wonders, and Grossman does them very well, but what he really does well is the people. By their very nature, the people chosen for this are not happy and that means the book is not a cheerful read. It is very enjoyable but when you finish it, you will put it down with a faint sense of anger and a healthy dose of self-loathing. Well, I did. Perhaps you're all nicer people than I am.
For a while now, I've heard very good things about Ariel by Steven R Boyett, a postapocalyptic fantasy, set a few years after all modern technology suddenly stops working and magic returns to the world. Ariel is an unicorn, the companion of Pete, our protagonist and together they wander the remains of the states as greatest of friends. I really didn't like the book. I'm sure that 15 years ago, I'd have lapped it up, but 15 years ago, I was a lonely twelve year old boy with no friends. This is not a great recommendation. I generally try to avoid massive spoilers when reviewing books but I don't think that's possible in this case without also leaving me unable to say much about it. As such, beware, massive spoilers ahead.
The book manages backstory terribly. Absolutely terribly. Most characters we meet have some history, and in the case of Malachi Lee (Japanese-American samurai mage who never casts a spell on screen and speaks Latin) and the rider (a major villain whose name we never, ever learn despite multiple conversations with and about him with people he knows), it is very clear that they've met many times and might have been friends at one point. At no point does this ever come up or matter. Pete's parents are seen briefly before he sets off for a debating competition on the day of the Change, and he never sees them again. He gets home, packs his bags and leaves. Given the stuff happening, that's not too hard to understand. Nevertheless, they're never seen or mentioned again. It's as if they ceased to exist or matter.
The magic is incoherent. Nothing is ever explained about it with any real sense. The big villain casts spells with a few simple words, and it is implied that Pete could do so too, but he never does. The one spell we really see is apparently in Latin (see Lee, M. Mystic translator to the stars), but the significance of that is never mentioned. Dragons are apparently big bags of hydrogen with hydrochloric acid for blood. Hydrochloric acid remains corrosive after the Change, but gunpowder doesn't burn. Synthetic materials have lost none of their physical properties, however.
At one point, Pete dies (for no good reason and from a mistake he shouldn't have made given his character and situation) and Ariel brings him back to life. There is no reason for this. It has no further effect on the story. Erasing the scene would change the book only in page-length.
The book is preachy. I loved My Side of the Mountain and the Swallows and Amazons books because they were about people doing things and showed you snapshots and gave you brief introductions. This one is a love song to the SCA, praising them as better than everyone else. It doesn't give you introductions to ideas, it explains them. A good few pages towards the end are an instruction manual to basic hang-gliding in story form. It actually manages to be worse than Doctorow's Little Brother in this respect because that book was intended to be pedagogic.
Finally, the book has an absolutely awful ending. Pete walks across broken glass, part cripples himself, accepts the deaths of tens or hundreds of people as necessary and puts himself through hell to save Ariel from a Necromancer (also unnamed, also at no point ever a practitioner of necromancy, but ignorance of his own language is far from the worst of the author's sins. Everyone agrees that he's a necromancer though. That's all anyone ever refers to him as.). He then, whilst trying to find her afterwards to help heal her wounds, has sex with a girl he doesn't particularly like. And then Ariel shows up, they look sadly at each other, and never see each other again. The end. It makes no sense at all. It's not even a decent passage-through-childhood story, since the rescue of the unicorn and learning to work with others, accept his own weaknesses etc etc all take that role. It's just a cop-out.
So, in short, a vastly overhyped and not particularly well written or thought out book. The cover art is quite pretty though, but that's about the best I can say about it. Don't bother with it.
Right, on to Pratchett's latest work. I know I've been holding on to the Geist review longer, but stripping out the bile, personal insults and blow-by-blow venting is effort.
I really, really disliked Unseen Academicals. It is, in my opinion, the worst thing of his I've ever read and to a long time fan of the Discworld series, a kick in the face. The book follows, amongst other things, the rise of football in Ankh Morpork from a random game of street thugs and tribes to a beautiful game. If you can read that sentence without senses of irony and disgust welling within you then this problably isn't the LJ for you. Truth be told, the fact that football is the topic isn't what bothers me. What bothers me is that the culture of tribal rivalries and a sense of belonging to a crowd and losing your identity to it are protrayed as good and desirable. Parallel to this runs a story of an outcaste from a devalued and hated race who rises above prejudice and proves that he's a worthwhile person. The story of Nutt, the orc, is irritating because he's not a worthwhile person. He's a bloody paragon. He's kind, intelligent, sensitive, perceptive, supremely strong, insightful, immortal, inventive, generous ... he is, in fact, objectively better in every way than anyone else save perhaps for looking a bit funny. There is no struggle there. He fights against nothing. He just rises up and proclaims that racism is wrong because he's wonderful. This is a terrible argument against racism because it works against the reason racism is wrong. Racism is wrong because judging people to be inferior on the grounds of of irrelevent criteria is morally repugnant and intellectually empty. In this case, the assumptions are in fact proven to be correct - Nutt really is different and really can be judged based on his appearence and race to a significant degree.
So, overall, the two arching stories are awful. Thankfully, the book is saved from being comdemned on those grounds alone. The little asides, the familiar touches and the old faces - these too are handled badly. A minor adjunct to the football story is that of Juliet, a beautiful but dim servant in the Unseen University who becomes a supermodel overnight when she dons a false beard and is declared to be a gorgeous dwarf. Her friend Glenda has to deal with the terrible question of whether or not to let her make her way in the world as a filthy rich model or to keep her toiling in the bowels of the university kitchens. Firstly, it's not a terrible interesting little meandering story. Secondly, it serves only to provide a beautiful princess for the hero of the football storyline to dream of and a deus ex underwear to handle a wrinkle in the final scene.
Another thing which irritated the crap out of me was the necromancer on the University staff. Mostly, it was his name. The "It has an X in it so it must be dark and edgy" joke was funny the first time, when we met it with "Agnes who calls herself Perditax". It was somewhat flat the second time around. Secondly, the mandated minimal evil was purely childish - indeed the whole idea that a necromancer could be snuck in at the edges in a we're-so-dark moment reminded me of smug teenage boys congratulating each other on some pointless achievement.
And, finally, the old faces. If you've read any of the previous books, you'll recognise names. The faces are probably also much the same. The personalities are a little changed, however. Mustrum Ridcully has taken a turn for the verbose and well spoken. Vetinari keeps explaining himself. Drumnott is become a buffoon. Actually, make that: their personalities are nearly totally rewritten. The one line summaries would be the same, but the details which matter are sorely abused. All told, it made it painful to read. A series of books with a continuity is expected to change with time, but there is a marked difference between evolution and inconsistency and it is the latter we see here.
I can not reccommend the book to anyone.