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Monthly Archives: May 2021

“Mistborn: The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson

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One of the things that’s impressed me most about Brandon Sanderson since I started reading his work is his ability to tell so many different kinds of stories. While it takes place in a high-fantasy setting, The Final Empire is fundamentally a heist story. The main character, Vin, has been recruited into a crew of thieves seeking to raid the treasury of their nation’s Lord Ruler. The crew’s leader, Kelsier, has an even bigger plan: to use the heist as a way of destabilizing the brutal Lord Ruler’s government so that it can be overthrown.

Sanderson is well-known for his creation of “hard” magic systems with well-defined rules that are generally understood by both the characters and the reader. One common criticism of such systems is that they don’t leave a lot of room for mystery—in essence, that they take the magic out of magic. Sanderson manages to strike a delicate balance by implying that the characters don’t, in fact, have a full understanding of how the magic of their world works. There may even be entirely separate magic systems existing in parallel. The reader will generally have a good idea of what the magic-using characters can do, but there’s also the possibility for surprises if a character accesses a form of magic that’s mostly unknown (perhaps even to the person using it). As Kelsier says, “There’s always another secret.”

I liked the characters in this book, and particularly the way Sanderson differentiates between them. Ham, Breeze, Clubs, Lestibournes, and so on aren’t different just because they use different aspects of Allomancy. And the interactions between them made them feel like part of a crew that’s worked together for a while and gotten to know each others’ quirks and habits.

As with the Stormlight Archive books, I developed a number of theories as I was reading, and as with the Stormlight books, most of them turned out to be completely wrong. The various twists and revelations were surprising—in some cases, downright shocking—but still felt consistent with the hints we’d been given. The book brings its individual plot to a satisfying resolution, but sets up enough questions and implications to make me want to keep reading the series. Speaking of which, I’m going to put two final theories below.

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

Vin notes that the Lord Ruler speaks of his service to humanity in the present tense, as if it’s an ongoing matter, while most people speak of his defeat of the Deepness as a singular event in the distant past. I think that the Deepness did exist, and the Lord Ruler did defeat it—but he didn’t destroy it. It’s the Sealed Evil In A Can, and he was the lid of the can. My theory is that killing him released the Deepness, and that the rest of the first trilogy will be about Vin, Sazed, et al. trying to destroy it for realsies this time.

I’m also 99% certain there’s a twelfth metal.

“Hearts of Oak” by Eddie Robson

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While Hearts of Oak isn’t Eddie Robson’s first novel, he’s much better known for his work in radio. In addition to creating the BBC Radio show Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, he’s written a number of audio plays for the iconic Doctor Who. And indeed, the setting of Hearts of Oak feels like the sort of place the Doctor and his companion might end up in an episode: a unique, offbeat place with an underlying mystery to solve.

Iona is an architect. This is a very busy job, since her city is continually expanding, as well as replacing old buildings with new ones. Given Iona’s stellar reputation, it’s not surprising when a student shows up in her office seeking mentorship. But this student uses words that Iona’s never heard before and yet aren’t gibberish. Some unconscious part of her mind recognizes them, even if she has no conscious idea of their meanings. This, coupled with a mysterious death, makes Iona start to question some aspects of her surroundings. The questions build on each other until Iona uncovers a startling secret.

I liked the characters in this book. Iona’s earnestness as a teacher was endearing, and I enjoyed the partnership between the perpetually-bemused king and his talking cat Clarence. The initial stages of the story, where Iona is gradually becoming aware that things in the city aren’t as they appear to be, had a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. And there are some great, tense action scenes when the main cast have to escape from an antagonist.

Unfortunately, the excellent setup and middle sections of the book are undermined by an unsatisfying ending. While the physical and logistical aspects of the conflict with the antagonist were engaging, the villain itself was one-dimensional. I also felt that the resolution of the final confrontation was disappointing. I wish the last third of the novel had lived up to the promise of the first two-thirds, because there were some great elements there.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Note: The author’s middle name includes two diacritical marks. I typed up this review in Word, which has special characters for both of them, but I have no idea if they will survive transferring this into WordPress.

A Master of Djinn is the first full-length novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series, which starts with “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and continues through “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” and “The Haunting of Tram Car 015.” These stories are set in a version of early twentieth century Egypt in which the barrier between the world of mortals and that of magical beings has been pierced, allowing magic to return to our world. For Egypt, this meant the return of the djinn. And while the djinn can be troublesome and outright dangerous, they did help the Egyptians expel European colonial powers, allowing their country to become an independent major power. A Master of Djinn begins with the mass murder of a group attempting to uncover the secrets of the man who brought about this great change, a mystic known only as al-Jahiz. Shortly thereafter, an individual wielding great magical power appears and claims to be al-Jahiz returned. It falls to the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to deal with the fallout of these events.

As expected from his previous work, Clark brings the steampunk Cairo setting to vivid, bustling life. He renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the city with great clarity. But the heart of the story is the city’s population: humans from all over Africa and the Middle East (and a few from further afield), plus djinn. Cairo hasn’t always had an easy time adjusting to being a cosmopolitan metropolis, and the book’s antagonist takes advantage of those tensions.

Speaking of which, the presentation of the antagonist is another thing Master of Djinn does well. They’re smart, using the pre-existing divisions among Cairo’s citizens to turn their enemies against each other. We also see them using deception and obfuscation to keep their foes disoriented. So many stories only have the heroes winning because the villains seemed to leave their brains at home. In Master of Djinn, Fatma’s victory truly feels earned.

There are some very nice smaller details, too. Throughout the book, Fatma thinks of her mother’s sayings that might be pertinent to the situation. The first time she directly encounters the man who claims to be al-Jahiz, she quotes one of them. I liked this trait of hers and the payoff of having her state one of the maxims out loud after having repeatedly thought of them. There are a couple of phrases that are used so often they get repetitive, such as saying that a character’s eyes “rounded” in surprise, but this is a tiny quibble. Overall, this was a really fun read, and I hope it won’t be the last novel Clark writes in this setting.

“To Rouse Leviathan” by Matt Cardin

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While Vastarien co-editor Matt Cardin has written two books of nonfiction, To Rouse Leviathan is his first fiction collection, and it includes all the stories he’d published as of its release in 2019. The stories in this volume are complex and dense, inviting comparisons to Thomas Ligotti’s work.

Reviewers have described Cardin’s work as “philosophical horror” or “ontological horror,” and these are both fitting descriptions. The horror in these stories doesn’t come from monsters or serial killers but from the characters’ realizations that reality is fundamentally different from what they thought it was. While tales like “The God of Foulness” do include entities that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft story, it isn’t simply the existence of vast, unknowable beings that causes Cardin’s characters to “go mad from the revelation.” Instead, the source of the horror is the structure of the universe itself—or rather, the intimation that structure and order themselves are only temporary things.

One interesting aspect of Cardin’s fiction is the degree to which it’s rooted in the Abrahamic faith tradition. Cosmic horror tends to treat the benevolent deities of various religions as nothing more than comforting illusions. In the world of Leviathan, some of the major Biblical figures are clearly real—Satan even makes an appearance in “The Devil and One Lump.” (The Father of Lies enjoying terrible instant coffee is a pretty amusing moment.) The version of God presented here isn’t omnipotent, though. He’s ultimately just as vulnerable to the inevitable decay of existence as any of His creations. In a way, that might be even scarier than the nonexistence of the divine. Nietzche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” at least has some weight or grandeur to it that “God is just a regular schmuck like everyone else” lacks.

Many of Cardin’s stories reference esoteric philosophical concepts or quote from philosophical and theological texts. Even when the central metaphor of a story is relatively simple—a play in “The Basement Theater” or a corporate organizational structure in “The Stars Shine Without Me”—the language and sentence structure are elaborate. This, along with the similarity in theme of all the stories, can make the collection feel a bit repetitive if it’s read all at once (as opposed to interspersing the stories with other books). That said, most of the stories were interesting and unsettling. I’m looking forward to seeing what Cardin writes in the future, especially if he chooses to branch out a bit in style and tone.