I judge books by their covers

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” If I had a nickle for every time during my childhood my mother said that, I would have a metric ton of nickles. At the time, I didn’t. To be completely honest, I didn’t judge books at all. If I could get my hands on them, I read them. I distinctly remember the moment that I realized books weren’t always great. I had been binge reading Nancy Drew. This was the point I noticed that in the last 3 books, she had received early birthday presents from her father twice. Both were large, extravagant gifts for her 18th birthday, and the catalyst for her adventure that book. It was at this point I realized all the books were inherently the same. I *saw* the formula.

Needless to say, it *quite* ruined a LARGE number of books for me. I couldn’t read Nancy Drew anymore, because it felt so similar. I couldn’t read Goosebumps, Sweet Valley Twins and Friends, even Boxcar Children, all of my favorite childhood books, fallen to the wayside. I began to gravitate towards books like Goblins in the Castle, The Westing Game, and other such titles that fell outside the realm of serial books.

This was the point where I became a “book snob”. I didn’t just want books that were enjoyable. I wanted books that were worth my time. This didn’t mean the book needed to be academic or even critically acclaimed, but rather that I found the author good and the book had quality writing. It also caused my secondary reading quirk where I want to read something good, but because I don’t trust a book to be good any more, I re-read something I *know* I like already. I get stuck in these cycles of endlessly re-reading books I have already read.

What does one do in this instance? I tried asking friends. Six books worth of Sword of Truth and half of Game of Thrones later, I have discovered this is not necessarily the best course. (To be fair, at least Sword of Truth *started* off well.) I am aware of the cyclical nature of this problem. Every time I try to branch out to a new book, I discover a *terrible* book and am further convinced that the target I am attempting to find is heavily obscured.

So I started judging books by their covers.

Karen Miller, author of the Godspeaker trilogy, has superb covers. The first, called Empress, has dark and sullen looking girl on the front. Reading the blurb on the back identifies this girl as the main character. Born into poverty, sold as a slave, she would eventually become the titular Empress. The other two books in the series were equally lovely. They didn’t fit the high fantasy norm. So I purchased it and read it.

I have never loved and hated a book more. Empress, and the two other books, are among the most wonderfully written books I have ever read. With the absolute worst story. The main character, the sullen girl Hekat, starts off great, but then turns into this arrogant self centered b*tch who makes up her own rules as she goes, and even the jealous “divine” in the book allows to her just do whatever, despite handing down swift and vicious justice to anyone else who even toes the line. By the end of Empress I was completely convinced that this was the worst book I had ever read, if well written. I am known for hating books that kill off characters I like, and yet, I realized that the entire cast could be wiped out and I wouldn’t shed a single tear. Hateful little snots, all of them. But Miller was just good enough to keep me reading. By the end of the series, I had at least found a few characters to like, and read with glee as a few of the more hated characters received their just desserts. The cover had proven true. The story was bleak and arid, with bright spots of color. In addition, the description on the backs were spot on for the books.

To break away from Fantasy a bit, if one looks at Romance books, you will tend to find all the covers are *abysmal*. with few exceptions (just like the books!). Ironically Julia Quinn (previously mentioned) has very nice, very plain covers. (No bare chested men here.) She doesn’t need the titillation to drive readers to her book, she knows she will get them on her own. They pick up one and the next thing you know they have bought them all.

Now, when picking over a book and trying to decide what to read, I try to decide based on friend’s input, in addition to the cover. Does it mention “prophecy” on the back (ie does the writer use a generic convention to make their story “work”)? Does it have one of those poorly drawn fantasy images of a woman in a metal bikini? There is nothing worse than a leftover 80s image of some bad science fiction image to push me away.

This can lead to good finds (Karen Miller) and bad finds (Brent Weeks, I so wanted you to be good) and completely missed finds (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently my next possibility for a good book, but man could you *have* a more boring cover???). I also have learned that brand loyalty, while not always positive, can lead to good finds (Brandon Sanderson by virtue of Robert Jordan.) I tend not to trust Amazon reviews (they hate McKiernan, so I ignore them for the most part) and will at least give friend reviews a bit of a look. I find sites that promise to lead one to good fantasy dubious at best (anyone notice how they rant on derivative work but then all their top favorites are *exactly* that?) I find it utterly hilarious that the go to phrase when I ask people why they like Game of Thrones is “No one is safe! He kills off major characters all the time!” Yes, so does Whedon and it ticks me off when does it too. I do understand the “gritty realism” as a logical reason for liking it, but this is the point where I always look at the person and say “So, you read fantasy for it’s realism?” Although, as an interesting point to the topic, Game of Thrones has a very dull cover on the commonly sold copy that is seen in most bookstores now, but even the old one was fairly plain by say Wheel of Time standards (maybe the gritty realism coming back?). I want Tolkien, only with a better editor, more compelling characters, and better action. Call it derivative if you want, but there is a REASON the man spawned an entire genre.

Despite judging a book by it’s cover, it seems to lead to just as many successes as failures. And less hurt feelings when a person says “Read this you’ll LOVE it.” I read. And then I am like, seriously? And you make fun of *my* Wheel of Time?

I know the truth is I am just as unlikely to find a good book based on it’s cover as any other criteria. At least with the cover I can blame clever marketing instead of feeling the depression that a majority of the world has absolutely terrible tastes in books.

Hero of Ages

I finished the Mistborn series and as such I am compelled to review the final book. Let me start with *SPOILERS* for this and many other series I have read. (Mistborn, WoT, Harry Potter, Mithgar.)

I must say, the first two books were exceptional. I strongly recommend them for anyone interested in fantasy but bored by the overabundance of the same old thing.

It is difficult to end a series and end it well. Do you end on a positive note? Do you conclude the entire story? Do you leave it a bit open ended? Do you have the final chapter saying “Where are they now?” When J.K. Rowling was finishing book 7 she said in an interview she was tempted to kill Harry. Not because she didn’t love him or felt he needed to die, but because she knew that would *end* the series. Without him, there is no continuing.

To go ahead and spoil it, at the end of Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson proceeds to kill off the MAIN character and her husband, who is essentially the second main character. Now I am a Joss Whedon fan. I am used to losing characters. But the ending seemed… wrong. These were not the first two characters to die. In fact, several other major characters pass in the telling of the story. But all of them “felt right” meaning that when the character died you were left with a sense of resolution and completion. You missed the character, but you could see how the death was required to make other characters stronger and progress the story. Much like Dumbledore must die, otherwise Harry will never strike out on his own and become the man and wizard required to defeat Voldemort.

So why did the ending of Hero of Ages leave me bereft? Well to begin with, I read fantasy, as opposed to Non-fiction, for enjoyment and the happy endings. I like when good conquers evil and all the good guys go home, get married and have babies. It just feels nice. It is, after all, the fantasy of any hero. Kill the dragon, save the princess. But even this isn’t 100%. When I read Voyage of the Fox Rider, I was distraught at the end of the book. Aylis was dead. Or presumed dead. But then, I understood. I knew there was a slim chance, but even if she had died it was necessary for Aravan to move forward. (Fortunately, she did not die and they were reunited 8 books or 8000 years later, depending on how you look at it. Which let me tell you, was a very emotional time for me.)

Near the end, Vin, the focus of the story, is imbued with the power of Preservation, one of the two gods in the story. (Up until this point the book is beyond excellent.) She becomes a god. At this point I immediately thought, well crap. Unless she could make Elend (her husband) a god, she was already irreparably separated from him. Then it occurred to me. No! She has to give up the power! I mean, after all, this is the crux of the story. Ruin was trapped and needed to be freed. He changed the legends to say she needed to give away the power. But what if Ruin didn’t change it much? What if instead it meant she had to give the power over to a person who could use it properly? But of course! That is it. Knowing that knowledge of religion and belief was a major theme of the book, this made sense to me. She would give the power to the one character who truly understood religion, natural and otherwise, and had all of the knowledge needed to make everything right within the world, Sazed. Ah ha! and so I kept reading.

But then the unthinkable happens. Elend is beheaded. In a short, one sentence clip, this character, so vital and central, dies. With nary a whisper. Of course, I expect Vin to go revenge mode. She doesn’t. And in fact states something to the effect of “Well you just got rid of the only thing I had to fight for.” and proceeds to suicide against the strength of Ruin, killing him as well as herself. I can honestly say I stared dumbfounded at the book for at least 5 minutes. The essences of Ruin and Preservation float down, Sazed takes over, and makes everything right, using both powers. Of course the book ends with the implication that Vin and Elend have gone on, and are happy in the after life, but all that remains are a ton of minor characters.

First, if you plan on killing the main character, you had better have a backup ready and loved. In Harry Potter, Rowling had Ron and Hermoine. If Harry had died, we would all look to those two and feel better. At least they made it. Sanderson had no such backup. Who cares if the world was saved if all the characters we truly cared about are dead? Even having Vin die, with Elend you would have had someone to hang on to.

In the end, I am left with a sense of loss, failure, and the question of why. Why were these two deaths necessary to the story. I can only answer that they weren’t. Vin could have given up the power of Preservation to Sazed and become normal once again. Ruin was *still* thwarted by Elend and the Allomancers burning all of the Atium. Sazed still had the power and knowledge to restore the world and it’s ecosystem. He didn’t *need* Ruin to do that. What of Ruin? Well, considering the Atium crystals were destroyed and all the Atium burned… He is going to have to wait a few thousand years to regain the power to destroy the world. Plenty of time for Sazed to build power or to figure out a way to balance against Ruin once again. Essentially return to the status quo. But instead Sanderson takes the easy way out. It is a final win, but at that point you don’t care. It would have been better to allow for the short term win, with the survival of the characters you know and love, with the knowledge that in a thousand years, another battle will be fought.

The only thing I can conclude is that he wanted the story to be done with. No hope of returning or falling back on the series. We have all seen the fantasy author who writes one or two good books then proceeds to write way past the point the story can sustain. But is that a good reason to slaughter your main characters? I say no. Even with the short term win, we know all those characters will die of old age. We know that when the battle is fought in the future, that will be with different people. And even so, with one minor change, don’t allow the Atium crystals to regrow, you can prevent that to begin with! To this possible explanation I say, get some self control and be done with it!

Now I am wildly concerned about the end of Wheel of Time. Please, please please let RJ have written a list of who survives, who dies, and why. Otherwise we may see the mass slaughter of dozens of characters we love.

Pewter Drag

After two months of crunching on my current game project we were given two lovely weeks off at Christmas. Interestingly enough after spending so much time so intently focused on one thing it makes it exceptionally hard to focus on nothing. During this odd strange feeling like I should be doing *something* I picked up my copy of Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson’s first novel in the Mistborn series. I purchased it over a year ago when I first heard he was going to be working on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read Elantris, and was pleased, so I put the other books on my shelf and carried on as normal.

Sitting down to read Mistborn, I slogged through the first few chapters, once again annoyed by the belief that some authors have come to that they should simply immerse their reader in the world they have created and let them figure out what is going on by themselves. And while this *can* work, it doesn’t always. Unfortunately I felt this way about many of the new ideas introduced in Mistborn. Fortunately, I tend to be stubborn and persisted. I kept reading.

And kept reading.

Next thing I knew, I had reached the end of the book. At the dim area just before dawn. I had read the entire book in nearly one sitting. Something I rarely do anymore. I got up, put Mistborn back on the shelf and pulled The Well of Ascension off the shelf. I double checked the covers to make sure that it was in fact the second book. The second and third books seemed oddly named to me. Once again, I felt a compulsion to keep reading.

Within a day I had finished the second book. 1400+ pages in less than 2 days. I felt odd. Strangely empty, and without thought. I had returned to the same feeling I had after working for 9 days straight.

In the book, there are characters who can do magic. They are called Allomancers and their magic springs from the ability to “burn” metals within themselves. One such metal is Pewter. An Allomancer swallows pewter and then “burns” it, and it gives them strength, health, and speed. As they use the strength, health, and speed, it burns away the pewter and when they run out, they can no longer magically enhance themselves. At one point in the story two Allomancers must travel a long distance very quickly, so they “pewter drag” which is essentially burning this metal at a high rate for a long period of time. Imagine it is a great deal like sprinting, only for hours using an outside force to keep you awake and moving. When the characters arrive at their destination, they have to keep taking the pewter, otherwise they would fall unconscious from the stress they had just inflicted on their bodies.

As I sat, debating on getting the third book down, I pondered the world, the magical system, and the writing. I pondered, as always, what I would do if able to use this magic. What risks would I likely fall to. Of course, Pewter Drag came to mind. I was sitting on my couch, exhausted, but I wanted to keep going, just like the characters. At work, I had become used to the long hours, but wanted more sleep. Pewter Drag. In fact, if you consider the effects of caffeine and the quantities to which I am addicted to it, I find this metal magic system completely believable. And the repercussions believable.

As I begin the third book, I look forward to seeing how the series ends. But I also feel an odd sense of kinship to the characters as I feel a greater connection to them. We have both after all experienced Pewter Drag.

The Gathering Storm: My thoughts

I finished The Gathering Storm on Thursday and after a few days of reflection I wanted to express my feelings and thoughts on the book. First off, there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t finished, stop reading this and go finish first. Second, I liked it. Truly there is no replacement for RJ, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think someone, specifically Brandon Sanderson, can do it well.

I dove into the book with enthusiasm and excitement. I am willing to admit this may have colored my view, but I can honestly say the opening scene brought tears to my eyes. It didn’t have anything to do with the main characters. It didn’t have anything to do with minor characters, but it was poignant. These common people had every reason to ignore the events, or even run away from them. But instead they turned and faced the fight that was coming. This is the theme of Book 12 that echoes in every chapter and every character. They all stop running. They all stop scheming. They feel the weight of the Last Battle baring down on them. They turn and face their destiny and do what they must.

For the first time in several books the story spends a majority of its time on Rand. Many have complained that Rand was “too dark” in this book. I must disagree. This is the first book I have felt Rand was finally beginning to show the true strain and stress that he feels, both in his heart and on his soul. For the first time in this series I felt like the Dark One might win. Not through outright battle, but because Rand was crossing the point where his “the ends justifies the means” would lead to his fall from grace. Ishmael was not called the Betrayer of Hope for a reason. And in this book Rand has lost hope. Why does his tavern power no longer balance the bad with good? Because Rand himself no longer balances his belief that the battle is good with the evil that chases him. He no longer sees the good in the world. I have a strong suspicion in the next book we will see Rand capitulating more. Bowing to Tuon, Egwene, Cadsuane, Elyane… He has finally come to the same conclusion Egwene did while she was being punished by Silviana. Her own pain and suffering is laughable when compared to the pain and suffering of the world. Who cares is she is beaten three times a day? Everyone should be far more concerned that the Last Battle is coming and taking time out to quibble over punishments or who is higher rank than who is just absurd. If it took the Lews Therin side of him realizing that Ilyena might not be dead yet in this age and he needs to protect her, then I say it is about time. It seems so obvious to us that Min, Elayne, and Aviendha are the “three who are one” of Ilyena.

A goodly portion of the rest of the book revolves around Egwene and the White Tower. Talk about exciting! With each page Egwene strips power away from Elaida and convinces the Ajahs to support her. One of my favorite, mildly over looked points, was the fact that each Ajah attempts to convince Egwene to join them (excepting Red and Blue, for obvious reasons), once she is raised to Aes Sedai. What a stroke of genius! The Amyrlin should be of all Ajahs and yet none. Egwene was never a part of an Ajah, and yet, they all view her as one of them. Add this to the other events, including her Dream being so shocking proven true, and the use of Verin Sedai’s work. I will never forget that chapter beginning with Egwene considering the stilling and execution of the Black Sisters in the Rebel Camp. What a blow to deal the shadow at this late hour! What an event! With so few words, Sanderson slams home the truth that no darkfriends will be allowed to survive. Suddenly the Rebel Aes Sedai are sure of two things. They can at least trust all of them are not dark friends and that there are yet dark friends in the tower. This gives them power and strength. They are all on the same side and have removed the worms eating at their core.

The deaths of two Forsaken are handled almost carelessly. The use of the True Source during one of these all but ensures that the Dark One really doesn’t care if his Chosen are lost. He can get new Chosen, perhaps ones that aren’t as arrogant or foolish. The strength of the writing for the scene where Semirhage is broken… I could *feel* the shame and embarrassment Semirhage felt. Mother’s warned their children using her name for thousands of years and here, an upstart nobody with a tenth of the power, turned her over a knee and spanked her like a child, in front of a child! In an instant Semirhage lost all her power to Cadsuane. Imagine being known as the Aes Sedai who punished one of the Forsaken! As if her legend needed more ammunition.

While reading the book, I had several moments where a character would say or do something (usually say something) and I would laugh aloud. The snarky response or odd comment bringing the humor to the fore. In these moments I truly felt the difference between RJ and BS. RJ always kept a sense of decorum for his characters. They were never snarky or sarcastic, even when they had right to be, or should be. His dialog always came off as strong or angry. I was jarred from the story by this uncharacteristic depth to our beloved characters, but oddly, it wasn’t followed by the feeling that they *shouldn’t* be this way, but rather that they hadn’t before!

My second complaint is the omission of several characters. I realize that this is directly contradictory to my happiness with focus on Rand and Egwene, but to omit Lan, Elayne, and Birgitte entirely, not to mention secondary characters like Taim, Loial, Galad, and the other Forsaken? I can only hope this means they have stronger parts in the next book. I will wait until then to truely decide if this was a negative for this book.

Finally, and this is truly my complaint, some things were too “neat.” I know, I shouldn’t complain too loudly. We were given answers to so many questions. Is Verin Black or Brown? What is with the “too young” Sitters? What will happen with Siuan and Gaerth? What about Gawyn? Literally dozens of conspiracy theories and sub plots were resolved in this book. But many of them were neat, clean, concise and practically tied with a bow. As if the author frequented theory boards and thus knew exactly every point that needed to be addressed to resolve them without quibble or qualm. Which is likely. And while I am pleased to be right on all accounts that I argued… I sometimes wonder… is this the “truth” as RJ saw it?

At the end of the day, I do not care. Having an answer printed in black and white is good enough to let me sleep at night, not always wondering what could have been. Minor issues aside, I am pleased with the book, and with Brandon Sanderson’s writing as a whole. Long Live the Dragon.

Channeling His Spirit

September 16, 2007, Robert Jordan passed away from a terminal illness. I had to pick up the phone and call my mother and tell her Robert Jordan had died. It was one of the saddest phone calls I have ever had to make. I felt sad and bereft. I spent the next week moping about and crying at odd times when I looked at the bookshelves in my apartment. My husband was horribly confused.

You see, I had never even met Robert Jordan.

He is most well known for his exceptionally long running and long winded series The Wheel of Time. At the time of his death, he was working on the twelfth and final book, A Memory of Light. For the next few months I lived with the knowledge that one of my favorite authors had died, without completing his series. A series I had read from beginning to end over 10 times from 2001 to the present. 8429 pages worth of fantasy at its best. I even had multiple World of Warcraft characters named after obscure characters in his books.

Harriet, Jordan’s wife, promised his fans she would find someone to take the reams of notes and all of the information he dictated before he died and have the series completed. But how could she find someone who could possibly hope to fill Jordan’s shoes? In December of 2007 it was announced she had chosen Brandon Sanderson to complete the series. At first I was heartsick. I had never even heard of Brandon Sanderson. I went and purchased his first novel, Elantris. After completing the book, in a single sitting I might add, I no longer felt worried. If he pulled off Book 12 at the same quality of Elantris, it would be good enough to handle, if just to know what happened.

Last Tuesday, The Gathering Storm was published. This is the first part of the final book, which had grown too large to print in a single volume. I acquired it immediately and sat down to read, apprehensive of how it would feel.

Now, 600+ pages into the book, I am certain that not only was Brandon Sanderson the right choice, he is perhaps the perfect choice. In 600+ pages I have only had a few small moments where something was worded a certain way, or character dialogue was written in such a manner that it felt “different” from Jordan. Not bad different, that is to say, most of the time I noticed it was after laughing out loud at the quick witted response of a character and thinking, they have never done that before. But for the majority, it still feels like Jordan is holding the pen. Maybe with a different editor, but still him. Brandon Sanderson said he wouldn’t try to write in Jordan’s style, but rather would write in his own voice and tell Jordan’s story, but to this I say he mostly failed. Either that or he is channeling Jordan’s spirit. In which case I say thank you, both to Sanderson for being so diligent and exceptional, and Jordan for letting him.