Monday, October 5, 2015

Read-Along: Last First Snow by Max Gladstone, END

This week wraps up the read-along of Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow, and I have provided the questions for the final section, chapters 54 through the end.  Beware below of spoilers through the end of the novel! 

1. Everything came to a head in this chapter, and Elayne chose her tricky path for protecting the Skittersill. Do you think there is more she could have done, or do you think she chose the right path?

I think it is natural for her to feel she could have done more, but I really think she did all she could. She knew her own limits, and knew that she could not openly defy the Red King in his own city and hope to win. She twisted a lot of promises, including her words to the Red King and the insurance contract, in order to protect as much and as many people as possible. After seeing the dead in the square, I think she felt like she had fallen into the same mistake as the developers in the negotiations— she had protected the real estate of the Skittersill, but allowed its community to burn.  She must have protected quite a few people outside the square, though, who would have otherwise been killed or rendered homeless.

Elayne Kevarian has always been one of my favorite characters in the Craft Sequence, and this story has only made me respect her more.  Rather than allying herself blindly with Craft or Faith, she is determined to help make the world a better place for human beings to live. When the Red King decided to commit mass murder, her decision to follow her convictions and oppose him seemed true to her character and her history.  I wish there were more consequences for the Red King’s actions, but he has at least lost Elayne’s friendship.   

2. Now we see more of the Quechal gods, and the way they think of their believers. What do you think of Temoc's chosen path? Also, what do you think of the Quechal faith after this betrayal?

I should have guessed this would happen, but I didn’t really think about it until Temoc was mysteriously unable to protect his believers.  It makes a brutal sort of sense.  Temoc wanted his gods to protect the believers, but the gods wanted to use the believers' deaths to protect themselves.  I can’t imagine how sick Temoc must have felt after that betrayal, and I wonder if he regretted his choices.  He is a dedicated Eagle Knight, though, and he had already figuratively sacrificed his family for his beliefs.  Maybe he feels that he has gone too far down the path to ever be able to back out.

I feel like the Craft Sequence usually shows the pros and cons of the ways of Faith and Craft, and does not usually come down heavily on one side or the other.  However, I feel like the Quechal faith serves as a pretty clear example of why the Wars happened in this universe.  I can’t imagine why people followed the Quechal gods in Dresediel Lex in the first place, and it boggles my mind that people would continue to do so after Chakal Square.  Still, I think this book is still balanced in its portrayal of the two sides, as the Red King has committed his share of atrocities.   

3. When all seemed lost, Elayne heard a mysterious voice. Do you have any theories on what that voice is, and how it fits into the Craft mythology?

I have theories, though they are probably wrong!  This voice was associated with the starlight, which is the source of Craftspeople’s power.  Could it be that the dichotomy of Craft/Faith is false, and that the two are interconnected?  I mean, perhaps the origin of the power used in Craft is God, a greater being than the various Earth-bound deities we’ve seen in the different cultures.  How would the Craftspeople react to find out that they are actually still a part of the system that they have turned away from?  This could fundamentally change Elayne’s understanding of the world.

4. What did you think of Last First Snow overall, in comparison with Gladstone's other books? What was your favorite part(s), and what would you most like to see more of in future books?

I think this was an excellent book, and it’s now my favorite of Gladstone’s novels (Three Parts Dead is my second favorite).  This last section was both exciting and emotionally draining, and I have such conflicted feelings about Temoc.  I don't know if I could point to one favorite moment, but I loved the part where Elayne was taking the fire of the Skittersill into herself, while also splitting her power to protect as many people as possible. I would like to see more of Elayne in future books, and prequels that involve the world during the Wars.  It looks like the next book is going to involve Tara (another of my favorite characters of the series) and Alt Coulomb.  I hope Tara calls in Ms. Kevarian for help!

Other Stuff:

—Chel didn’t make it.  I was hoping she would, after she wasn’t sacrificed during the last section. I do think Elayne saved the wrong person, but I don’t think she had much of a choice.  She didn’t have enough time to react in order to save Chel.  

—I assumed Mina was going to die, because I didn’t remember her from Two Serpents Rise… she must have been in there, and I’m just forgetting her.  Hurray for Mina’s survival!

—It bothers me that none of the people in power have to deal with any major consequences for their actions.  The Red King actually napalmed his own citizens, and he is still in power.  I guess there is no one powerful enough to hold him accountable, as much as Temoc wishes otherwise.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Published: Roc, 2014
Series: Book 15 of the Dresden Files
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day… Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful. He doesn’t know the half of it… Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains--led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone--to break into the highest-security vault in town, so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

It's a smash and grab job to recover the literal Holy Grail from the vaults of the greatest treasure hoard in the supernatural world--which belongs to the one and only Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld and generally unpleasant character. Worse, Dresden suspects that there is another game afoot that no one is talking about. And he's dead certain that Nicodemus has no intention of allowing any of his crew to survive the experience. Especially Harry. Dresden's always been tricky, but he's going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess-assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance…”

This is the first of the Dresden Files I’ve read, mostly just because I don't have a strong interest towards detective stories (which is how I had always classified this series in my mind). I picked this one up because it was nominated for the Hugo Award. I’m probably not going to go back and read the whole series, but this one was pretty fun.

My Thoughts:

Given that it’s the 15th book in a series, I think it’s pretty impressive that Skin Game was such an easily accessible book for new readers (e.g., me).  It was pretty clear that there was a lot of worldbuilding and character background I was missing out on, but it didn’t get in the way of understanding the story.  The relevant aspects of the supernatural world and the many characters were clearly (re-)introduced as they were needed.  I sometimes felt that it went slightly overboard, reiterating particular pieces of information often enough that it began to feel a little repetitive, even for a newcomer.  I think this was probably a departure from the usual pattern of the series, with Dresden stuck in a team with the villains, so it might have been more shocking for a long-time reader.  Altogether, while my response to the novel was certainly affected by not having read the rest of the series, the novel still worked as a whole and told a complete story.

Skin Game has a very casual, conversational style, full of jokes and pop culture references.  I mostly enjoyed the humor, even though some of the references went past me.  I also thought the heist was pretty entertaining, both in the villain team’s interactions and the strategic use of each members’ magical capabilities.  There were some pretty fun plot twists, which made the reader re-evaluate the assumptions they were not aware that they had made earlier in the narrative.  One thing that did bother me a bit, though, involved the female characters.  I didn’t really mind Dresden’s constantly referencing their physical attractiveness, since I’ve heard that’s just one of his things.  What bothered me was that many of the female characters seemed to fall into a pattern of failing at a particular thing while their male counterpart succeeded--a failure/success that was generally linked to their relative integrity or value.  It could well have been a coincidence, but it was enough to slightly jolt me out of enjoying the adventure each time the pattern repeated.

The story moved along pretty briskly, and there was plenty of action of the magical variety to keep things exciting.  The preparation and the heist itself involved some interesting magical challenges, and, as Harry anticipates, the team contains a number of dangerous shifting loyalties.  In an action-based story like this, I’d expect to see a lot of collateral damage in terms of property and human lives.  I really respected that this was one area where Harry would not compromise his principles. Throughout, he remained determined to protect bystanders at all costs, and it bothered him on the few occasions when he failed in this goal.  He definitely has his flaws, but I liked that Harry continues to try to be a good person, despite Mab’s influence. It seems like Harry Dresden is still poised to have more adventures, whether he wants to or not!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Skin Game was an exciting heist novel with a casual style of narration, many characters, plot twists, and a pleasant amount of humor.  Despite being the fifteenth novel in a series, it was pretty easy to follow with very little prior knowledge of the world and characters.  In fact, I sometimes felt like Harry reiterated information a little too often as the story progressed. I’m sure a lot of the story would have a deeper resonance with someone who has been following the series, and who is emotionally invested in the journeys of recurring characters. Overall, I had fun reading this book, but I doubt I’ll go back to read the rest of the series.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Read-Along: Last First Snow by Max Gladstone, Part 3

Welcome to part 3 of the read-along of Max Gladstone’s Last First Snow!  This week’s questions are provided by Anya of On Starships and Dragonwings, and cover chapters 38-53. Beware of spoilers ahead through chapter 53!  The action seemed to be picking up in last week’s section, and I think we’re well into the peak this week.  I’m not seeing how this can end happily for pretty much anyone, so this was a hard place to stop reading!

1. Turns out the Major is more noble than we initially thought! What do you think of his character arc and the big reveals during his sacrifice? (I assume he preferred male pronouns since he was presenting male and it wasn't otherwise specified.)

This whole situation is so messed up that I’m not sure I can even see it as noble.  I do think that I judged him a little too harshly on my first impression.  He was an agitator to start violence in Chakal Square, and he carried a large part of the blame for why the situation ultimately dissolved into a war they couldn’t hope to win.  However, I think he did care about the people, and he did work for peace when Temoc asked.  He was going to die anyway, when he volunteered as a sacrifice, but at least he knows that his death will mean something to the people he died for.

Also, I guess we’ll never know why the Major chose to present as a man, and why it was so important to him that the others not see during the sacrifice.  Was he trans?  Did he just think people would take him less seriously if he was female?  I was suspecting, since he was always covered up in armor, that the Major was not human. Looks like I was off the mark with that one.

2. There seems to be a lot of sneakiness going on between the fires being set in Skittersill, someone following Temoc and then Mina and the initial assassination attempt that set everything off. Any ideas what is going on? Do you think they are all coincidences or related?

Given the reveal at the end of the section (more on that later), I think it could be all Tan Batac.  There goes his claim that he wants to make the Skittersill a better place for the people who live there.  I can only imagine that the assassination golems were sent to ensure that Temoc came back to elevate the violence to all-out war.  I guess Temoc was right to be worried about his family, then, because the plan appeared to be to murder his family in order to provoke him.  It seems like it would have worked, too, if not for Caleb’s wounds.  I don’t want to support Temoc’s decision to do that to his son, but it may have saved his and his mother’s lives.

3. We get a lot of details from the King in Red about how he turned into a skeleton! After so much build-up to that particular oddity of Craft, what do you think? Would you do it if you were a Craftsman or Craftswoman?

That is not actually what I’d been imagining, throughout the series.  I had imagined it as a gradual thing, that you become less fleshy and more skeleton little by little, as a result of using Craft.  I didn’t realize that it was actually a transition through the moment of death.  Somehow, that makes it less awful to me.  I think that I would follow Elayne’s path.  I would take care of my body, and preserve my natural life as long as possible, but I would plan to make the jump to “full skeleton” when the time came.

4. At the very end of this section, there is a discussion about Tan Batac getting the Skittersill insured long before that was decided on. What do you think that means? Was anyone else a bit confused on the finer points of the insurance contract?

I’m really not a lawyer or economist or even a business person, so Gladstone does kind of lose me sometimes on the contracts.  However, if I understood correctly, the contract stipulated that Skittersill land with occupied residences could not be forcibly bought on the market.  On the other hand, if the residences no longer existed, the land was fair game.  That was why they were requiring such good insurance, so that the residences would not just ‘mysteriously’ burn down, allowing the land to be bought out from under the Skittersill residents.  

It seems, though, that Tan Batac orchestrated his own near-death so that he would be unable to sign the new insurance contract for the Skittersill, and so that the peace would erupt into violence.  Now the Skittersill is uninsured, and all the destruction that Temoc and the Red Kings’ war is causing is freeing up land for development.  This is beginning to look like Tan Batac is really behind everything, and Alaxic was just a distraction.  It makes me think that Tan Batac’s last words, “Not at all what I expected,” were simply his shock at how much being shot really hurt, not shock at being shot in the first place.

Other Things:

--The scarring of Caleb was somehow so much worse than I imagined.  He made his family believe he had chosen them over his sense of obligation to the old gods, and then he drugged his son and he left him bleeding to death.  I can’t imagine what Mina is going through right now, having to deal with the fact that the man she chose as her husband is capable of something like that.  I suspect it is not going to get easier when she hears what he is doing in Chakal Square.  

--This section had some really intense action, as well!  I think the most heart-pounding bit for me was when Mina was fleeing the assassins with Caleb, through the use of giant, soul-sucking, flying insects.

--I am happy Chel is not dead.  The way things were going, I had started suspecting her as the sacrifice.  That whole scene was pretty horrific, and I dread to see where things will go from here.  Still, I’m glad she’s okay for now.