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30May/11Off

Book Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay is the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, in which our heroine Katniss Everdene finally comes into her own. Here’s the super condensed version of the setup: dystopia, dictatorship, reality TV, gladiatorial games, love triangle, rebellion. That will get you most of the way there, but you can read my review of The Hunger Games or Catching Fire for more detail.

After the filler that was book 2, I was glad to see Collins finally start running full speed with a theme she’s been hinting at since the first book: Katniss as an unwilling and even unknowing role model and inspiration to the growing rebellion in Panum. She, along with several of the other characters from previous books, find themselves in the middle of a full-out war against Capitol, fighting for their freedom by cutting off the city’s access to the goods and services it had traditionally plundered from its various surrounding districts. Only Katniss finds that life as a the face of a rebellion isn't much better than the alternative, since she’s still being pushed around, still having to throw herself into danger to protect those she loves, and still finding herself literally on camera and fumbling to play a part for the sake of appealing to home viewers. It is, in short, very much like being in the Hunger Games. I thought this was pretty clever of Collins, and I really like how she plays with this intersection of celebrity, politics, and warfare, which you can see pretty clearly in the real world if you squint your eyes and cock your head just a little.

The author also continues to touch on other themes like responsibility, government control, sacrifice, the role of media in war and politics, class warfare, poverty, and the rest. And, of course, while things resemble the Hunger Games thematically, we are finally not watching Katniss and Peeta stomp around an actual arena. Instead we see Katniss and her crew engaging in real warfare, making hard decisions (or failing to), and living with the consequences (or trying to). The book does, in fact, get pretty dark at times. Like really dark. Like, dead babies dark. This is kind of surprising for a book found in the “Young Adult” section of the bookstore, but at the same time it gives it a sense of gravity that entirely fits with the themes being laid out.

I cannot, unfortunately, say the same thing about the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gail, but at least in Mockingjay I can sigh and remind myself of three things: 1) this is indeed a book written for young adults, 2) Katniss is supposed to be like 16 or something and most every one of us was also emotionally retarded at that age, and 3) it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the first two books. And, in the end, Collins decided to give us a payoff (or at least a resolution) that actually felt natural and deserved.

So, while Mockingjay wasn’t the novel page-turner that I found the first book to be, it was definitely better than the second and made for a nice cap to the series.

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14May/11Off

Book Review: The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: There are going to be some spoilers for The Wise Man’s Fear below. I don’t feel like I can really explain my opinions about the book without delving into that kind of territory, so come back later if you haven finished the book yet but plan on it.

It’s disappointing, really. I generally liked Patrick Rothfus’s initial book in his fantasy series, The Name of the Wind, which introduced us to the trouper orphan Kvothe and promised to tell us both how his extravagant legend grew and what the truth behind it really was. We saw Kvothe live on the streets, use his native wit and ability to get into The University, and then saw him start to make a name for himself while trying to learn what he could about the mysterious company that foisted that whole "orphan" status on him. The book was framed in an interesting way by “present day” Kvothe telling his story to two men: one who wants to tease the truth apart from the legend and one who wants truth to become legend again.

The Wise Man’s Fear continues Kvothe’s story, and while it’s still got some of the interesting world building and character moments that the first book does, it’s also got some crippling flaws that made it hard for me to get through the book if for no other reason that the constant face palming kept blocking my view of the page.

First among these is the fact that Rothfus spends the first chunk of the book retreading territory well worn from the first volume. We get to see more of Kvothe puttering around the University, more of Kvothe being poor, more of Kvothe pining after his untouchable lady love, more of Kvothe feuding with the obligatory rich bully kid, more of Kvothe imperiling his health for the services of a money lender, and generally more of everything we got in the last half of the first book. And this isn’t just a quick refresher to help span the long wait between books; the author spends THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE PAGES rehashing.

Then, when Kvothe does move on, Rothfus pointedly refuses to discuss an entire adventure involving "a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck." Granted, you could view this as more deconstruction of the genre on Rothfus's part, but what it really did was make the retreading of University life seem even more glaring. And while things do get a little more interesting after we leave the University, this is quickly followed by the two biggest face palms of the whole book. One of my complaints about The Name of the Wind was that Kvothe was a bit of a “Mary Sue” in that he was super good at everything and way too mature for a kid in his early teens. Kvothe excels at almost every subject, is a master musician, a clever magician, a brilliant engineer, a fleet-footed burglar, and more. Rothfus does not rectify this in the second book, but rather exacerbates it. In fact, at points it rather embodies some of the most embarrassing male wish fulfillment fantasy that the genre has to offer.

To wit: at one point Wise Man’s Fear’s plot lurches to the left and Kvothe suddenly runs off to …well, I’ve really got no other way to say it: he learns to have sex real good. He becomes (or is naturally) supernaturally good at the sex, in fact, because his tutelage comes from the ancient goddess of …sex. Of course. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that this whole section of the book was so embarrassing and out of place that it really seemed more like it came from a mouth breathing fanboy than the author of the imaginative and well plotted The Name of the Wind.

And from there, it doesn’t get much better, because after our hero graduates with his Ph.D. in sexing, the next stretch of story takes us to Japan. Well, not really, but it might as well be, since Kvothe’s learning martial arts and swordplay from a mysterious, honor-bound warrior society again sounds like something that some Japan-obsessed fan fiction writer would come up with. Also, he shows some ninja ladies how awesome he is at sex. No, I’m totally serious.

All that slagging aside, there are actually things about The Wise Man’s Fear that I liked. The interludes with modern day Kvothe continue to be interesting, and even in the awful “goddess of sex” and “Japanland” sections there are scenes that I liked, such as Kvothe’s meeting with a malicious tree spirit that uses its clairvoyance to mess with people and the way he solved his final warrior’s test with a different tree full of leaves sharp enough to cut him to ribbons.

And I continue to like how Rothfus deconstructs the whole fantasy hero trope through the telling of Kvothe’s story. But I just wish he had shown enough restraint to let the real Kvothe be less than the legend and let his exploits be revealed to be less than what they became in the retellings. In the first, book, for example, we learned that while Kvothe didn’t “slay a dragon and save a princess” as legend has it, but he did trick a large, lizard-like beast into poisoning itself, thus saving himself and his female companion. That’s the sort of clever stuff that I think is infinitely more interesting than tossing in a incongruous clichés like a sex goddess or a mysterious society that teaches people how to be kung-fu masters in just a few weeks.

I’ll still read the next book --look forward to it, actually-- but suffice to say I’m pretty disappointed in this one and hope Rothfus returns to proper form.

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2May/11Off

Book Review: Catching Fire


Catching Fire is the second in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I liked the first book pretty well, so I went right into this one. Unfortunately it's really not anywhere as good, despite having a lot of potential. I get the feeling that Collins only had two books' worth of story to tell with these characters in this world, but because she needed a trilogy she set out to fluff up this completely unnecessary middle book.

As you may know, The Hunger Games books are set in the post-apocalyptic world of Panum. The empire's capital, Capitol, is nestled in the bones of North America and maintains a firm boot on the necks of 12 surrounding districts. Part of this bullying involves sending 24 youths to fight to the death until one is crowned victor of the annual Hunger Games, which are televised to both entertain the citizens of Capitol and rub it in the rest of Panum's collective face. In the first book, our heroine Katniss Everdene survived the Games, along with her love interest Peeta. But the manner in which they did it required thumbing their noses at the Capitol, which had two unintended consequences that form the plot of Catching Fire. First, the other districts take inspiration from their defiance and start rebellions. Second, the Capitol exacts revenge against Katniss and Peeta by forcing them to fight in another Hunger Games.

So, yes. We get essentially the same plot as last time: Katniss and Peeta fighting in the Games and fumbling around with their emotions. Collins shows she still knows how to write a page turner, but it's THE SAME PAGES WE'VE ALREADY TURNED IN THE LAST BOOK. I was really expecting Collins to run with the idea of the unintentional heroine who has to figure out how to lead a rebellion, as she had set up in the end of the last book and in the opening of this one. Instead we get that all delayed until the third book while we're left to putter around in the arena again in an adventure made more dull by its lack of novelty.

I really do think that Catching Fire could have been excised entirely, with the few important bits (like Katniss's victory tour and the instigations of rebellion) put into the beginning of the next book. It would have been much better than what we got.

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