Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review of The Book Thief


The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak, YA historical fiction/magical realism, 552 pages, published 2005.

How can you not love a book that teaches you to curse in a new language? This one improved my vocabulary immensely. Aussloch: ass licker. Saumensh: pig person; Sheisskopf : shithead.

For a story about nazis, air raids, jewish people hiding out in basements, collective brutality and destruction of life, the impact of the holocaust on the everyday population of Munich, and the destruction of war caused on a cosmic scale, it was good. What made it even better were two factors:
1) It is narrated by death himself.
2) It is not just funny, but truly comic, and by that I mean the real comedy that is somehow inextricably entwined with the tragic. A good writer knows one balances out the other: think Osric in Hamlet. Think of the imagined death of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Think Yossarian in Catch 22. It helps us look away from suffering and misery for a while to see the other side of human existence, the laughter which eases our pain, and allows us to see love.

Death, the narrator, gets all the best lines in the book. He has the absolutely best one at the end: “I am haunted by humans.” And strangely enough though he comes across as tired beauracrat going through the endless gathering of souls, we get a glimpse of him occasionally charmed by human beings.

He meets the main character Liesel when he stops to pick up her brother. The girl goes into a foster home and never sees her real mother again. She gets a new family. A well meaning father Hans Huberman and his wife rosa: a foul mouthed square shapeless woman who likes to curse and oddly enough, is how she shows her affection.

We come to love all the characters because they are smaller players in a larger world. We see them suffering the war and the nazis like anyone else. We see them sent on missions they hate.

But most of all we see them suffer the consequences of death appearing in their lives, and death himself is impressed by the ways they come up to deal with him.

In a truly ironic and brilliant twist, the other survivor of the war besides Liesel is Max, the jew who hides in their basement for months, and who ends up going to dachau, yet manages to survive. Max is a fist fighter who wants to one day “punch death in the face when he sees him.” How can you not like someone like that?

You will love this book. You will love its outrageous typescript and formatting. You will love the artwork. You will love, most of all, the author for his faith in humans, and his ability to show you things about human nature you never believed possible.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of The Dragon's Path


The world of the The Dragon's Path is a world in transition. The old ways of honor won on a battlefield and lifelong service to a liege lord are being swept aside. Kings and nobles play the game of thrones, but ancient pagan religions and the emerging wealthy class are the new players changing the nature of the game. Banks are rising in the background, the hidden movers behind the world's politics. A forgotten ancient religion with dark powers and an even darker will makes a bid to sieze control.

In this setting we encounter 4 characters who are caught up, sometimes unknowingly, in the vangard of change sweeping through their world. Geder: the bookish son of a minor nobleman. Marcus Wester: a duty plagued captain with a tragic past. Dawson: a nobleman dimly aware of the true forces reshaping his world. And finally Cithrin: a young woman raised as the ward of a counting house, with a razor sharp mind for money and financing.

What strikes a reader of The Dragon's Path is the skill at the portrayal of the 4 major characters. The author shows us 4 very different individuals in detal, and with a depth of insight rarely encountered in epic fantasy. Too often in a modern fantasy we read of type cast characters: the barbarian, the ranger, the scholar, etc. Or we read of characters deliberately drawn against type: instead of a heroic barbarian we get a lethal teenage girl, or instead of a bastard for a nobleman we get a bitch with imperial ambitions. All of which can at times feel fresh and a welcome change. In the Dragon's Path though the characters are portrayed from inside their own consciousnesses, and from outside by other characters and form a rounded picture of what individuals in this setting and faced with these changes would be like.

This is a bit of a stretch but as I read The Dragon's Path I couldn't help but feel like Balzac wrote a fantasy novel. A fantasy novel complete with wizards, sword fights, and epic battles, but which also shows how money permeates even that world. He shows characters who scheme to get money, characters who see money as a means of control, and who pursue money and financial gain regardless of the human cost. He also portrays a humane aspect to money, to people who use it to help those a feudal system care little or nothing for. What Balzac did in many novels in The Human Comedy was to show his fellow Frenchmen the way money changed the old order and old value systems, is very much what Abraham is doing here. He cites in interviews one of his favorite books is Medici Money, by Tim Parks and here he uses that and his self professed fascination to show what happens in a world of honor and glory when money enters the picture.

And the result is fascinating. And truly different without deliberately writing against or with cliché's.

The fantasy elements in the book are done with skill and restraint rare in the genre. There are wonderfully descriptive details that hint at an older mythic world. For example: the Dragon's Path itself, a highway/road made from Jade. The characters know little about its construction, just hints and legends. There are also multiple races but the reader quickly gleans that these races have all existed together for some time, because when a character encounters another member of another race there is apprehension, wariness, but not really surprise at their existence.

The Dragon's Path is subtitled Book 1 in The Dagger and The Coin(itself, a wonderful tool for characterization and which provides a main theme for the novel). Whether this indicates the book is going to be part of a trilogy or a multi volume epic the author doesn't say. Either way I look forward to the next installment.