Friday, November 23, 2012

Red Seas Under Red Skies Review

I don’t normally like pirate books. When a pirate appears on a fantasy novel's horizon, I tend to close the book and abandon ship, swimming merrily into the pages of other novels. I tend to find them somewhat tedious and over blown romantic musings on the nobility of thievery and the free life of the seas. In reality most pirates were psychotic serial killers with bipolar or schizophrenic behaviors and would sooner gut someone than just rob them.

That being said, I was charmed into submission by Red Seas Under Read Skies. Locke has enough wit, charisma, and the skill to spin out endless webs of such fantastic bullshit, with wheels within wheels, and plots within plots, that I found myself not only not irritated by the pirate cast, but downright fascinated by its inner workings. After allowing myself to be first intrigued, then moved, then even more intrigued and held fast I succumbed to the inventiveness, and turns of cliché that Scott Lynch introduces to his pirates.

Why does it work, dear and constant reader? Because in a way that makes me feel stupid for not seeing it from the first, pirates are thieves, and Locke is the thief's thief. He'd steal from God, sell it to the devil, then steal it again and sell it back to god. In other words, he fits right in with the pirates in the book who are really a group of well organized anarchists(my kind of people).

So the pirates are not clichés. And the rest of the book? Vast, complicated, and as I said wheels within wheels.
For lack of a better definition there is a class war depicted in this book. Locke aspires not after wealth but instead does something far nobler( I know, the irony is just ball busting):chaos. He, and Jean, who I'm tempted to say sidekick but really is a partner, wreak havoc on the privileged and upper classes. In a wild twist this is not so much politically motivated as religiously. As a priest and member of the cult of the Crooked Warden, Locke and Jean live by a motto, "Thieves prosper, the rich remember." Part of the mission Locke inherited from his mentor Chains was the second part of the statement: that the rich remember they are not above the commons. That wealth is not a birthright, and that there is nothing so special about them they cannot lose all they have. Being rich does not remove them from their humanity. The book is very much about humbling the rich, about making them remember wealth is a matter of luck and fortune as it is anything else.

Which leads me to the next surprise of the book: the portrayal of religion and religious sensibility. I sensed this in the first novel of the sequence: The Lies of Locke Lamora, but found it to here be developed in unexpected ways. Or to put it a better way, in a fantasy novel for an author to invoke a world of gods, goddesses and mortals takes a lot of skill. He immerses you in the culture and lets you feel its presence in the reality of the lives that inhabit it. When Locke and Jean talk about being priests of the Crooked Warden there is something else that takes over the story. Something else, call it an archeological or dim anthropological part of our brains wakes up and we experience what the world must have been like for our pre enlightenment civilization. The gods are shadowy but real presences. Not in some super power God of War mentality where said deities become mouthpieces of WWF raw characters, but instead in something out of the Golden Bough. To write this into the story without endless info dumps, and to make it so the characters are aware of these presences took a lot of skill and planning. But he pulled it off. When the motivation for the characters are revealed to have been religious, the author has prepared you for this. Like being on the receiving end of a nine punch combo.

Lots of other aspects I could talk about: how he manages to pull off a confidence novel without using a lot of interior monologue(which would, you know, reveal too much), but still has to as a writer involve you in the characters inner worlds and make you empathize with them. A novel that is carried primarily through dialogue, making the story come together at the end and not having it feel like he pulled it all out of his ass(or as I like to call said endings deus ex arsena), all these deserve attention but alas for the limited space.

Looking forward to the next book. Great read and good second novel of the sequence.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

For the Win Review

Cory Doctorow writes YA novels that are unapologetically educational.

For adults.

The idea that a group of video game players could form a union and with it stop the world economy seemed at first ludcrious then embarrassingly naive. But the gaming economy becomes, at first, a metaphor to look at the way all economies work, and then he gleefully destroys the idea of there being a "real" economy: he takes you on an guided tour of the world gold standard as the basis for printed money, and how it applies to the creation of currency, but does so with bright eyed savage satirism that in effect says "dude if you think a game economy based on imaginary gold is dumb and weird look at what you use to buy food, bread,and make mortage payments every day without even thinking about where it all comes from." All economies, he says, are essentially based on abstract notions of value. Do we even, he writes, know how many gold bars there are in the world, or where they are at? The last time Fort Knox's gold was inventoried was IN THE 50's.

That said the book is equal parts heartbreaking and life affirming. The characters and their situations with their lives in the real world afflicted by capitalism run amok, is enough to make a harvard MBA join the picket lines. But as a novel it succeeds for some very unusual reasons.

In most YA novels most authors delay "getting the girl," "getting out of trouble," etc. Not Doctorow. His characters frequently, and this is a motif in many of his books, find helpful people, find people they can rely on and who work with them toward common goals. At first as a reader I felt this was mere wish fulfillment(give the characters conflict all the writing guides preach). Then I got the larger message that the idea of people being essentially antagonistic towards each other is a very media influenced American view of the world. He not only says this, but then proceeds to demonstrate it throughout the course of the book.

Not only have a learned a lot about capitalism, and learned about online gaming communties, but more importantly I've questioned this ironically naive belief we Americans seem to have in the negativity,and usury of others.