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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

What I’m Reading: Nero’s Killing Machine

I’m not sure if I should add a point or take it away for the fact that this had to be a difficult book to write. A history of a single Roman military legion is simply faced with an enormous problem: How do you make the story of what are actually many armies over hundreds of years into a unified story of an army, as if it were one living breathing beast? As one of the last chapters admits, the men of the early 14th legion would have sneered at the bearded, married, business-owning, involved-in-local-politics later legion that dared to share the same name as their beloved legion that ferociously banned all those things. This central difficulty is made worse by a peculiarity of how Rome recruited and fielded its legions: men signed up for 16- or later 20-year stints, after which they retired. Granted, some men would stay in, and be moved to the upper ranks, but the vast majority of each legion simply left. An entire new army was formed of green recruits every 20-ish years. (And you did NOT want to go into battle with that baby army for a while!) So how is this army with massive periodic turnover to be treated as the same army in one story over centuries? How do you successfully tell that story?

You don’t. At least, I don’t think that Stephen Dando-Collins quite makes the case on which this book rests: If you’re telling the tale of The Martial and Victorius Twinned 14th Legion, you’re saying there IS a tale of the fourteenth–and there isn’t. There are only tales, plural, of the 14th during certain years. It’s like talking about the Boston Red Sox. You can tell of the Cy Young years and compare them to the Roger Clemens years. At best, maybe you could structure a tale around the 86 years without a World Series win. (But really, to have the metaphor be more accurate, you’d have to have the Red Sox move from Boston every couple years to a new home city, and change coaches/generals more frequently. On the plus side, the level of looting could stay about the same.

Nonetheless, this is a reasonably entertaining and informative book of pop-history. I learned things. In fact, I learned some things that were directly in conflict with other things I’ve learned, at least one of them recently. I’d recently relayed to a friend the factoid that Roman legionaries were required to be 6′ tall–which I found remarkable! That’d be like recruiting only guys who are 6’5″ or something today, which would be pretty darn difficult, but on the other hand, I could see that recruitment strategy making a lot of sense when you’re looking to go murder people by the strength of your muscles alone. So yeah, sure, you want the tallest, strongest guys from every college sports team to go do your murder and looting work. And then one could see why armies made up of such men, also trained into believing they can kick anyone’s butt, and instilled with immense discipline would, in fact, be able to kick anyone’s butt–except this book says it’s not true at all. Crap. Sorry friend I told this factoid to. Instead, Mr. Dando-Collins says the average legionary was 5’4″, which is believable, and actually sort of remarkable in its own way. Imagine a bunch of guys 5’4″ kicking your butt and taking all your worldly goods. Plus your self-respect. Surely the Germans who averaged 5’8″ thought so.

In reading about the ancient world, I was again impressed by how fully a Judeo-Christian ethic seems to have suffused our present Western understanding of morality during warfare. War in the ancient world was incredibly brutal, and unapologetically so. Not just the fighting, but how people were treated in the aftermath, and what excuses (none) were deemed necessary to go to war in the first place. Certainly, instead of spreading the light of civilization or securing the borders so the Empire could be safe, one gets a palpable sense over and over that the men of the Roman legions just wanted to go kill people and take their stuff. (This, despite the fact that going and doing that would certainly cost a lot of them their lives.) Somehow in my mind, I’d separated the Roman soldiers from, say, Vikings. Vikings and other raiders are just thieves, murderers, and rapists, right? (Who happen to bring some good stuff along with them.) But Rome? Rome is law and order. Pax Romana, baby!

Well, that law is Roman law. Roman law provides no protection for anyone who is NOT a Roman citizen. So in the famous case of Boudica, where her dying husband Prasutagus (some say dad) tries to leave her half of his estate (the other half going to Nero, hoping that buys his good will), the law is very different from what we would think. Roman law doesn’t let women inherit, and anyone who dies without an heir leaves everything to Caesar. So to Nero, the guy tried to buy him off by… giving Nero only half of what belonged to Nero by law. It didn’t buy Nero’s good will at all–and, you know, Nero is Nero. So Nero’s little bailiffs go to evict Boudica who is “squatting” in Nero’s house with her daughters. (i.e. She hasn’t left her own house.)

She defies the bailiffs, and they beat the hell out of her and rape her daughters–and this is legal, or at least not illegal. A non-citizen has no legal protection, period. (It happens to be very unwise, but there’s no record that the bailiffs are disciplined for what will start a war.)

Boudica stokes the fires of Celtic fury at what’s been done to her–and everyone already hates the Romans anyway. (Go figure.) So they rise up, and take some towns. Now these are cities and clans aligned with Rome–which is exactly what Boudica’s clan had been, up until that month! And when Boudica’s army takes these cities, does she have mercy on the people there? Not even close.

The Roman writers, not shy about the realities of warfare, called it ‘an orgy of violence’. We’re talking non-combatants and children tortured to death literally for fun. Maybe you can try to dismiss that as propaganda, but it seems the Romans believed it was literally true. There may have been some religious significance to burning people to death and the like… but what? That makes it okay, then? Even if any of this was exaggerated, the death toll was like 70,000 in a couple weeks. Mostly civilians.

That London has a statue of a woman who murdered everyone in it who didn’t flee–meaning old people, young people, the stubborn, and those in denial that a fellow Breton would murder them–is deeply bizarre, that is, until you learn that Elizabeth I identified her as a brave figure fighting off a foreign invasion (just like herself), and later, Queen Victoria set her up as some kind of national hero (also just like herself).

Hmm, politicians abusing history to advance their own ends, how weird is that?

I guess all of us are suckers for an underdog story: brave woman stands up to defend her country against horrible guys! As far as I can tell (and I’m no expert, certainly), the real story is something like this: One, horrible men treat a woman and her family horribly. Two, horrible woman goes on to command the murder, torture, and rape of other tens of thousands of people much like herself. Three, horrible men’s army comes back, fight bravely and well, and then horribly murders the horrible murderers.

History’s awesome, isn’t it? Except where it really, really sucks.

I’m reminded of how earlier times should really be viewed as more alien than I sometimes do. People are people, sure, but culture is more powerful than we think. The Geneva Conventions seem obvious to us. They’re actually not obvious–they’re a triumph of civilization, of imposing morality on the most barbarous of human activities. (They’re often violated, sure, but they’re often upheld, too! And sometimes is a whole lot better than never.)

Excellently performed, although there was a slight technical irritant of the mic picking up the sound of Mr. Fass’s breaths, which became somewhat hypnotic: “Wow, that was a really long sentence to manage on that quick of a breath.” But this is surely a first-world audio problem–I mean, c’mon “the mic is too sensitive”? I can’t really take points off for that, can I?

3.5 out of 5.

B&N Bookseller’s Picks: The Blood Mirror!



We are so thrilled that the The Blood Mirror was selected as one of the top picks of October 2016 by the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog! (And we were pretty excited to see Blood Mirror as the first listed book, too.) You can go HERE to read the extremely positive review — and to see what other books Jim Killen suggests for your October reading pleasure.

Brent Reviews Kid Lit

children's lit collage

While Brent’s on paternity leave, we’ll be posting some fun reviews over he wrote ahead of time — reviews of children’s books! We’ve posted a few today on Goodreads and will be posting more over the next few weeks.

Go HERE to see his reviews — if you’re a Goodreads member, click “Follow” to get  updates whenever he reviews a new book!

Reviews of El Ojo Fragmentado

WEEKS_OJO-fragmentado El Ojo Fragmentado is already receiving some great reviews! Via News and Fantífica have both published their perspectives on the third Lightbringer book.

I enjoyed this quote from Via News in particular: “He disfrutado enormemente leyendo El Ojo Fragmentado, y es que a pesar de que no veamos ninguna de las muchas batallas que se referencian en el libro no es menos cierto que el lector no encontrará un momento de respiro mientras la acción salta de un personaje a otro creando pequeños cliffhangers que harán que os comáis las uñas… y que os hará llegar al hueso hasta la publicación de The Blood Mirror, un año de espera… qué duro.”

(If, like me, you only speak English, you can look at the Google Translate version HERE.)


The Broken Eye Book Reviews

Broken Eye Animated Cover

The book reviews are already coming in!

Publisher’s Weekly says: The “plot feels like an orchestrated chess match between genius grandmasters, but [Weeks] also leavens the logic with humor. His characters are charming even as they are threatened with being swept off the chessboard.”

Assistant Peter Recommends: “Books like this are why I read epic fantasy.” 

Fantasy Book Critic notes: “Almost impossible to put down… The Broken Eye starts where Blinding Knife ends and continues the story in the same fast, take no prisoners, twists and turns manner – including another jaw dropping “I can’t believe this” one… The Broken Eye is really worth reading once to find out what happens and once to appreciate its finer points…meets my huge expectations…”

Whedonopolis: “Curse you, Weeks, for your addictive, endorphin-inducing prose! …The only down side to this series is having to wait for the next installment.”

Elitist Book Reviews: “This is what you’ve been waiting for… There was tension, excitement, surprises… the conclusion, as in past books, was amazing and game-changing. I’m eagerly anticipating The Blood Mirror.”

Half a King — by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King bookcoverOpportunities to blurb one’s nemesis are rare indeed. Having been published in ye olde aught-7, Joe Abercrombie is the elder in our Sith-padawan duo, whilst I have only been in print since late, late 2008. Our careers have followed similar trajectories: each of us receiving early and effusive critical praise (oh wait, that was him), each of us selling millions of books (him more millions–or a more… ebullient publicist), each of us winning the David Gemmell Legend Award (oh wait, that was me), each of us being dubbed George R. R. Martin’s heir apparent (oh wait, that was neither of us). I taught swing dancing in college; Joe does a wicked hip-hop-folk-dance-locomotion-twist-Macarena fusion that you wouldn’t believe. As you can see, the similarities are eerie.

When I opened the package containing Joe’s book (not addressed to me), I rubbed my hands together. I cackled. I stroked my beard. I got to work.

The trick, of course, is to write something that sounds positive, but may not be. You also have to avoid fragments that can be pulled that undermine your snarkish intent:  “I love John’s frequent use of correct punctuation in his work!” could be undermined. A canny publicist will pull real praise out of a reckless phrase, like so:  “I love John’s…work.” or, stretching morality, even “I love [this] work!”

If you write something the publisher doesn’t use at all, you’ve failed. (That is, unless you can get it to stick on Goodreads or Amazon.) And if you write something amazing but not specific to the target, people will just attribute it to Mark Twain. (“Any brilliant double-edged quote from an American author will be attributed to Mark Twain.” –Mark Twain) As you can see, a daunting task indeed.


So… a quote for Joe Abercrombie, eh? *cracks knuckles*

There are myriad correct ways to address Joe Abercrombie’s work; one of them even involves praise.

Let’s just get this out of the way. The low-hanging fruit*:
Though slender, I wouldn’t call it half a novel. Half a King isn’t half bad!
Is Half a King Abercrombie’s best yet? You’ll half to see for yourself!

*reviewers punning on the Half in the titles of this series, that there is a sin of weakness–unless you can make many puns in your review or find one that others have overlooked. I know, it’s hard to resist. You’ll be forgiven the “half” puns on this first novel. Do it on novel two and three, and you’ll earn sighs and derision, respectively.

Hitting where it hurts (the wallet):

There is only one way to show how much I enjoyed this book: I scanned it and am distributing it to the whole internet for free!

Here’s a good one for readers who like to believe they don’t look down on the YA genre:

Now writing Young Adult fantasy, Joe Abercrombie has finally found his intellectual home.

The baffling, yet catchy:

This book seals it: Joe Abercrombie is the Kanye West of fantasy.

The sneaky slander:

Critics have wondered, is there a Joe Abercrombie without the f-word? Fuck yes!

The secretly snarky:**

Will this novel make shortlists everywhere? Well, I certainly wouldn’t give it the axe!

**Only works if you know a rarely-used idiom, AND that the Gemmell Award is a battle axe.

The grimdark (the challenge here being to attach the mildly pejorative label “grimdark” to Joe’s work without ever using the term directly):

Some worried that Abercrombie’s move to Young Adult novels would mean a loss of his grim, dark tone. Though the events of this novel are often grim, dark themes aren’t overwhelming. Much as in the Brothers Grimm, dark colors are used to highlight moments of humor.

The needlessly cruel (may be attributed to Mark Twain):

Definitely worth picking up from the remainders shelf.
Worth every penny I paid for it. (My thanks to the publisher for the free review copy.)
I look forward to being able to get the whole series for half off.

My real blurb:

Perhaps his most technically proficient novel yet, I dare you to read the first chapter and try not to turn the next page. Some wondered if what makes Joe Abercrombie so different would survive the transition to YA. Abercrombie fans, have no fear: Polished and sharp, the un-adult-rated Abercrombie is still unadulterated Abercrombie.

Ugh, you have no idea how my stomach sinks to write actual praise. Dammit, Joe.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Blurbing City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

city of stairs BennettA few months ago, I teased about a book I’d read that I loved, but I didn’t tell you what it was. Partly because I didn’t want to scoop the author’s own marketing efforts, and partly because, hey, I believe in obnoxiously enjoying small perks to the hilt. But here’s what I was enjoying:

Robert Jackson Bennett is one of those quirky-bright writers whose quirky-brightness will serve him in the long run, but has seemed to handicap him in the short term. There’s a gap to bridge between even a great book, and that book finding the right readers. In my opinion, Robert’s books have been hard to shelve because they straddle genres. He’s drawn comparisons to voices as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Madeleine L’Engle, and has gotten good mentions from people as widely dispersed in the genre as Jim C. Hines, Jeff Vandermeer, Nisi Shawl, and…me! His debut novel, Mr. Shivers, certainly wasn’t my normal favored milieu, but I really enjoyed the book despite a setting I quite frankly usually avoid. (A quirk of mine, nothing more.) And I could tell immediately that Mr. Bennett was going to grow. That’s the thing about smart writers—they learn, they adapt, they get better.

I’m proud to say that I was right. (I love being right.) With City of Stairs, I think that RJB has done something really impressive: fans of his early work will see plenty of what they have come to love about Robert’s work, but new readers looking for an exciting, kick-ass story in a deep setting will enjoy this book too. Readers love great books, but people fall in love with great characters, and in City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett introduces one in a way that is clever, graceful, and over the top all at once. Sigrud is a side character, but he’s a GREAT side character.

Robert, don’t f**k up Sigrud.

Other people have nice things to say about City of Stairs, and I’m sure many more are to come. In the interest of being pithy and hitting different points than others had, I said this:

“Robert Bennett Jackson deserves a huge audience. This is the book that will earn it for him. A story that draws you in, brilliant world building, and oh my God, Sigrud. You guys are going to love Sigrud.” -Brent Weeks

As you may know, Robert has opted for an… eccentric online persona, so in that spirit, I also sent them the following blurb, but… I don’t think it’ll make it onto a cover:

“Please don’t read this book. I am jealous of the success of others, and would not like Robert Jackson Bennett to enjoy the hordes of fans he deserves.” -Brent Weeks

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound*

*I don’t generate money from my linking, I put buying links here as a courtesy for you impulse-purchasers. 🙂

On Blurbs & Blurbing

*UPDATE*: Oh yeah, and the biggest reason I don’t blurb books… I just don’t get around to them. I have ARCs of books that I have heard are awesome still sitting around, looking at me with puppy dog eyes. ‘Why, Brent?’ they ask. ‘Why?’

Blurbs are a mess of the personal, the professional, and the commercial. Readers see that an author whom they trust loves a book, and they think, “Hey, I respect her, I bet I’ll really enjoy that book she thinks is great!” Professionals see a chance to help out a friend or a newbie and want to pay it forward to help someone succeed in a career with a high attrition rate. Publishers and publicists see another selling point.

I don’t blurb often. Much of my reading is a fun/work blend these days. I might read a book about Jean Lafitte for fun, but also to see if he’s got a justified reputation as an honorable pirate or not, and then (if he was honorable), figure just how would one go about being an honorable pirate? Or I read about special operations soldiers to get a handle on psyche of elite warriors. Fun, but work, too. I read books about the original Assassins—not nearly as fun as you’d think. Or I read books about slavery in the ancient world, or about race and slavery in the Mediterranean Sea basin. (Not fun at all.) Or I’ll read a couple Sookie Stackhouse books to understand their huge success—and yep, I see why they’ve done so well. (Not my kind of fun, but fun!)

Some of my former joy at reading fantasy has dimmed. It’s simply too hard to take off the analyst’s glasses: ah nice turn here, odd anachronism not to eliminate here, man this chapter is gritty just because gritty is in, isn’t it? Ah, here’s your politics showing here, great visual, nice building of a badass character, let me think how you did that…

Added to this, of course, is that I mostly get sent debut novels. These frequently put me in a bind. I can see why the novel got published. I can see that the novelist may well become quite skilled, and I know what it is to hope someone will give me a chance. I want these novelists to survive so they can write the great novels they’re clearly capable of writing. But if I didn’t love their book, I don’t want to tell people who trust me that I did.

Of course, fantasy being my work now, I also have strong opinions about what I like and don’t like–stuff that has little to do with its quality, but are simply preferences. I don’t like sermons in my fiction, even if I agree with them. A book that deals with the environment or capitalism or whatever as an integral part of the plot is fine: five page lectures that feel like they were rejected from yesterday’s op-ed page? Yawn. To many other readers, those elements are neutral or (if they agree with the viewpoint), even a bonus. Good for them. Reasonable people can have differences of opinion and taste. Even great books have things about them that I don’t think work, or that I think could be done better.

A novel is a blend of choices and execution, and I often like one but not the other. (A subtle distinction, sometimes.) I’m sure there’s stuff in my own work that gets similar eye rolls. I’m even guilty of some of the things I now dislike—I was once going to call for a moratorium on names with apostrophes. Please, can we not have any more N’ns’nse names? Then I realized when I return to Night Angel, I’ll definitely have returning characters and items with apostrophes. Doh!

The blend of the personal and professional is part of what makes my Goodreads page look barren. If I read a book and think it’s meh, I feel some compassion. Either it’s a new writer who hasn’t honed their craft yet, or a good or great writer turned in something that was sub-par for reasons I don’t know. In the first case, I won’t help that writer by raving dishonestly, but I also don’t want to poke holes in the boat of someone who’s just hope to float, either. Thus, I keep my 3- and 2-star reviews to myself. (The 1-stars I just quit reading. I feel no compulsion to finish something that I’ve decided isn’t worth my time.)

The only time I break this rule is when the author is so successful they couldn’t care what I say. Thus, I wrote a serious critique of an Anne Rice book.

When I DO write a blurb, I also put on my marketer’s hat. Maybe it’s the first novel I’ve seen that uses an outcast blue kobold as its main point of view character. (And man, it just nails that blue kobold experience!) I KNOW that others are going to comment on that. Praising that is just adding my voice to the echo chamber. So, if there was something else as praiseworthy—and usually an excellent novel doesn’t only do one thing well—then I’ll praise that so that the blurbs aren’t all about the same thing. I’ll even add something in the longer form of the blurb about the blue kobold experience (just in case this novel got stiffed on blurbs for whatever reason). That’s why sometimes you’ll an author quoted twice, or a brief pull quote taken for the front cover, and the full paragraph from which it was taken inside or on the back cover. Marketing.

Yes, I do work hard on blurbs. (See: Why I Blurb Infrequently)

Tuesday and Wednesday, I’ll be posting briefly on two books I’ve read recently that I CAN blurb freely.

(Also, new poll at right!)

Literary Criticism and Other Crimes Against Reading

daylight war

I don’t usually write reviews, much less post them, but this is something of a special case. Peter V. Brett is a friend of mine, and as you probably know, he too writes epic fantasy. We entered the club at nearly the same time and met early in our careers.

Because we share many of the same fans and are each writing multi-volume epic fantasy, a review on one of his books really gives me a chance to share my views on the genre and on architecture of storytelling.

In this review, I avoided covering many of the topics that I felt other reviewers had hit at length and instead focused on only a few points where I disagreed with other reviewers, or where I wished to talk about endings and multi-volume epic fantasy specifically. The review is without spoilers, though my points are clearer if you’ve read the book. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’s over HERE.