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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) (Hardcover)
by J. K. Rowling (Author), Mary GrandPré (Illustrator)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books; 1st edition (July 21, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0545010225

What’s more frightening than “You-know-who”? How about trying to write a review of the last installment of Harry Potter?

I always get a bit nervous at the thought of voicing my opinions on anything Harry Potter. After all, Harry inspires some pretty strong (and crazy) emotions. Say the wrong thing, and legions of rabid fans could descend on you, screaming latin-esque words and poking at you with sticks.

But I dawdle.

Ending a story is no easy task; anyone who has read or watching any of JMS’s works knows exactly how difficult it is to end a story. And the larger and grander the story, the harder it is to end. Capping off a story about a man going to the grocery story is relatively simple. Capping off a story about The Boy Who Lived, which has captured millions of readers around the world…well, that’s a bit more difficult. So I went into this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Would Rowling be able to succeed where so many writers fail? Would she, at the last possible instant, cave into the fever that seems to have gripped Robert Jordan and other fantasy authors, writing book after book without end? Or would she tie everything up in a satisfying, reasonable, and authentic fashion.

Without spoilers: I think Rowling did do a good job of wrapping up her story. The themes of the Harry Potter series finally come to the forefront, and she manages to tie up many of the lose ends, and answer many questions that have plagued reader’s throughout the series. When you finally reach the end of the book, there are no unanswered questions, and if Harry’s ultimate fate is doubtless not to everyone’s tastes, it is, I think, a very reasonable conclusion to the character’s story.

Of course, getting there is half the fun, and in this book’s case, I believe that statement can be taken literally. The first half of the book has some excellent moments, but there are certain story elements that go on a bit too long, and the really excellent parts of the book get somewhat short-changed at the end. It’s only in the second half that the pace really picks up, but once you break past that second half, it’s very difficult to stop (believe me, I tried).

If you are fan of Harry Potter, there is no reason not to read this book. It’s the end, and it’s a worthy one.
If you’re not a fan—well, you probably have your reasons. Personally, I was a skeptic, but, to borrow a line from my favorite fantasy author, I’m glad to have followed Harry, here, to the end of all things.

This book has two halves: the Harry as adventurer half, and the Harry back at Hogwarts half. The second half is much better. Which is not surprising to me—I’ve always felt that Rowling writes Hogwarts better than anything else in her universe, with a few other significant magical locations running a close second. The adventuring half could have been ok, but it just goes on too long, and too not enough purpose. It eventually starts to feel like a very bad Lord of the Rings knock-off, especially when Ron loses it because he’s been carrying a Horcrux for too long. That, honestly, I thought was the worst moment in the book—not only does it feel far too much like the Frodo/Sam/Gollum conflict (and not in a good way), but it ends with these statements of grand finality “Something broke between them” that is repaired a few chapters later. If that really had been the end of Ron and Harry’s friendship, that would have been interesting…but it wasn’t. And would be surprised to learn anyone really thought it would be.

The events back at Hogwarts are a lot more compelling and interesting, and I wish Rowling had spent more time there. The battle of Hogwarts is fantastic, and some of the final confrontations are done very well. I enjoyed the showdown with Voldemort, and was happy to see that Neville gets his due (though in doing so, he makes the entire plot about stealing/losing Gryffindor’s sword completely irrelevant). It was nice to see Mrs. Weasley get her due (and, indeed, ties into my martial theories about the Potter-verse, but I’ll save that for another day). Snape, I thought, got one of the best deaths, going out with a plot and plan that works well.
The one character that I feel really gets the shaft in all of this (and this will sound strange) is Draco Malfoy. After being Harry’s foil and nemesis for the first three or four books, he slowly fades into the background until he’s just irrelevant by the end (except for being the victim of some rules-lawyering on Harry’s part). Sure, he gets a brief appearance in during the final scenes of the book, but he just ceases to be anything interesting or worthwhile at some point, and it’s a wasted opportunity. I would have loved to see him either a)recognize the evil of his actions and turn around, or b)just give in to evil completely. I guess there’s something in his character about the nature of cowardice, and how many people will side with evil simply because they’re afraid to do otherwise, or about the nature of bullies, and how they’re really cowards at heart, but ultimately, I think his final fate is kind of a let-down.

Speaking of final fates: I have really, really mixed feelings about the epilogue. On the one hand, I like the EVENTS themselves—I like the fact that Harry isn’t a professor at Hogwarts, or the head of the ministry of magic, or anything like that. He’s just a guy with some kids, and while he’s famous, he’s just living a seemingly relatively normal life. I like that. I was slightly surprised that Teddy Lupin doesn’t already live with Harry…I could have easily seen Harry adopting the orphaned boy of Lupin and Tonks. Of course, as I write this, I also realize how odd the timeline of everything is…why is Teddy still going to Hogwarts nineteen years later? Now I’m just confused.

Which, in a way, brings me to the problem I have with the epilogue: while the events are ok, and I really enjoy Harry giving Snape a bit of posthumous respect, the writing in that section is clunky at best. It almost feels like Rowling tacked it on to avoid the endless questions about who ends up marrying whom, rather than because her heart was really into it. I don’t know. 

I am, however, grateful for one thing: thanks to E,  I saw several “alternate endings” written by people, based on the (faulty) information that the last word of the book was “scar.” In many of those endings, Harry’s scar disappears with Voldemort’s death. I’m very, very, glad that didn’t happen. Having it vanish would trivialize the whole story. Even in a world of magic, the scars of childhood should not be so easily erased.

The Onion Picker

The Onion Picker: Carmen Basilio and Boxing in the 1950s

by Gary B. Youmans
Publisher: Campbell Road Press North (August 30, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0815681755

I came across this book rather randomly, which is to say that it was a surprise Channukah present from my father. My first boxing coach had been a student of Basilio’s, and while I had heard a few stories about Basilio from him, I didn’t really know that much about him. This book seemed like a cool way to learn something—besides, it was autographed by the man himself, which makes any book cooler (well, potentially cooler, anyway).

The book primarily focuses on Basilio’s life, from his childhood growing up in Canastota, NY, through his boxing career until his two championship bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. At times, the book drifts away from Basilio into a more general discussion of 1950s boxing culture, and the corruption that was rampant during that era (not that modern boxing is filled with paragons of virtue, mind you). “Drifts” is probably an inappropriate term, since the chapters are very clearly and cleanly broken up by subject. Youmans also devotes a few chapters to Sugar Ray Robinson, the man that Basilio would ultimately seek to dethrone.
Youmans’ writing style itself is nice: clear, fluid, and appropriately vivid. Where the book suffers in from Youmans’ use of quotations. Large chunks of some of the chapters (in one case, an entire chapter) are composed of nothing but quotes with names appended, usually the following format.
Jake, amateur book reviewer: Gary, what the hell is this quote doing here? Didn’t you learn how to properly integrate quotes into a text at some point in your life? Wait…I think I’ve answered my own question.
Needless to say, this is an incredibly frustrating, especially when it isn’t clear if the quotes that Youmans’ is using are contemporary to the time period he’s writing about, or the modern day. Some of them are interesting, entertaining, or insightful, but they feel as though they were tacked on in a fashion reminiscent of a student trying to pad out a term paper. As a result, the book ends up feeling like it’s got more fluff than substance, which is unfortunate, because it seems like Youmans’ has a lot more information to present than he ends up putting forward.

Still, I can’t deny that I enjoyed the book, in a fluffy sort of way. Youmans’ does a good job of capturing some of the spirit of Basilio, and giving the reader a good overview of the whole culture and spirit of boxing at the time. If nothing else, it got me interested enough to want to learn some more about a sport that has sadly dwindled in the past several decades, in no small part because of the loss of men like Basilio.


by John Steakley
Publisher: DAW (December 4, 1984)
ISBN-10: 0886773687

Armor is one of those novels that I saw sitting around bookstores for years, and always thought it look vaguely interesting (in the way that I think any book with a picture of a guy in a giant suit of power armor on the cover looks vaguely interesting), but was never necessarily inspired to. Eventually, as time went on, I heard from various sources that it was good, and was finally inspired to pick it up after Poe Ghostal reviewed it on his own site. As with so many books I buy, it took me a while to get around to reading it (my reading pace has slowed a lot lately), but I finally did manage to finish it off over the course of several lunch breaks.

If you’ve ever read Starship Troopers, you’re fairly familiar with basic setup of Armor; sometime in the distant future, mankind has achieved space travel, found alien life, and it’s bugs. Big, nasty bugs that want to kill us. Or maybe we want to kill them. Either way, it’s war, and that war is being fought by men in giant suits of powered armor and armed to the teeth with weapons of various degrees of lethality. I’d tell you more than that, but Steakley doesn’t spend very much time fleshing out the universe beyond what is immediately relevant to the plot, and for the first third of the book, that’s about all that you need to know.

The book begins with a focus on Felix, a soldier in man’s war with the ants who, due to a series of bureaucratic snafus, is sent on mission after mission without appropriate recovery time. He continues to survive and fight, partially thanks to The Engine, a sort of separate personality/psychological state that empowers him to keep fighting, even when on some level, he’s given up all hope of survival. This is the portion of the book that is perhaps most like Starship Troopers, but there is less of a focus on the philosophy, and more of a focus on the psychology and the action. This one of the places where Steakley really shines; he writes actions scenes amazingly well, providing just enough detail to give the reader a clear picture of what’s happening without providing so much that it bogs down into a blow-by-blow account. The action is vivid, engaging, and intense—exactly what it should be in a book so focused on combat.

The second third of the book is a radical scene shift: the story changes to follow Jack Crow, a bad-ass space pirate with a flair for kicking ass and picking up women. Jack has been freed from prison by a pirate lord, and then sent to the planet Sanction, where he is supposed to do…stuff. I won’t get into the whole plot, since that’s part of the point of the book.

The two halves of the story do eventually intersect in the final third of the book, but I have to admit, I found it a little clumsy. While I enjoy the Jack Crow portions of the novel, they feel almost unnecessarily tacked on, as though Steakley felt like he needed to break up Felix’s story with some other event for some reason. Likewise, the conclusion to Felix’s story arc contains some events that I found a little bit random and confusing. It actually took a couple of read throughs, and I’m still not entirely convinced I got it right.
Despite some of the weaknesses in the plot, however, Armor is still a fun read. The action is intense, the pacing is generally strong, and there’s enough interesting psychology among some of the primary characters to give you at least a little something to think about when you’re done. Sci-fi fans, particularly military sci-fi fans, should give it a look.

Fragile Things

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow (September 26, 2006)
Continuing in my quest to work through a book by each of my favorite authors, I moved on to Fragile Things, the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. While there are a few older works of Gaiman’s I haven’t gotten around to reading, I figured this one was new and fresh, and so I should give it a shot. I’ve also been wanting to do some short story writing of my own, and figured this would be a good way to explore that particular medium a bit more.

Technically, Fragile Things is actually a collection of several short stories, some poetry, and one novella. By and large, these stories are unconnected to anything else that Gaiman has written, except for the novella, which takes place after the events depicted in American Gods, and which follows the further (mis?)adventures of Shadow after he leaves the US.

I started out trying to do a story by story review of this book, but I realized halfway through that it wasn’t going to work. There are too many stories (and I was skipping the poems), and much of what I was saying about them ended up being too similar. A lot of these stories are similar in tone and theme—which is to say that they are “weird tales”, some of which have a purpose and point, and many of which just seem like they are good stories. Which are, of course, my favorite kind. A few of the highlights include:

“A Study in Emerald”—Neil Gaiman writes a mash up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft; not being familiar with the source material for either (no, I’ve never read any Lovecraft…he’s on my list), I’m hard pressed to say how “faithful” he is to either source, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and creepy read.

“October in the Chair”—The frame story, about the months of the year getting together to tell each other stories is neat; the actual story that October tells is sometimes warm, sometimes cold, gradually creepy, a little bit happy and a little bit sad. It’s a very October story, in other words.

“Other People”—A very scary version of hell, and a very poignant story about the pain of confronting one’s personal demons.

“The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch”—A lot of very nice imagery in this one.

“The Problem of Susan”—Gaiman’s attempt to address the most problematic character in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: Susan, the girl who chooses to grow up, and is apparently punished for it. I know her very existence and fate in the novels pisses a lot of people off, though I never quite felt the outrage. I suspect that’s partially a result of having only read the first novel when I was a kid, and partially a result of not at all understanding that the novel’s were allegory for anything (the odd advantages of being a Jewish child reading a Christian allegory). In any case, Gaiman’s story works very well, I think.

“Pages From A Journal Found In A Shoebox Left In A Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma And Louisville, Kentucky”—I really enjoyed this story, which sort of reminded me of Griffin and Sabine. Other than that, I couldn’t quite tell you why.

“How To Talk To Girls At Parties”—While this story contains little useful for a shy bachelor, it does contain a very weird and creepy party.

“Sunbird”—The story itself is fun and enjoyable. The background behind it is even better (it was written as a birthday present for Gaiman’s younger daughter).

“The Monarch of the Glen”—The follow-up novella to American Gods (not be confused with Anansi Boys, which is a novel set in the same universe), sends Shadow to Scotland to provide security for a very posh party. Not surprisingly, the party is not all that it seems, and Shadow’s role in the events is as something much greater than that of being a security guard.

Overall, this is a fun collection. In many of the stories, Gaiman is apparently going for a Ray Bradbury/Harlan Ellison type of feeling, but I’m sadly not familiar enough with either author to say if he succeeded. Regardless of whether or not he did, the stories he crafts are all fun, exciting, and extremely engaging. It’s a hard book to put down.

Island of Doctor Moreau

Island of Doctor Moreau
H.G. Wells
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
ISBN: 0-7607-5584-1
For many years now, H.G. Wells’ Time Machine has been one of my all-time favorite books. Despite this, I had never actually gotten around to reading anything else written by him. I tried the Food of the Gods once as a teenager, but for reasons I can’t remember, couldn’t quite get into it. I was lamenting this when I reviewed the Time Machine recently, and Jeff suggested that I check out this book as my next Wells novel. It was a good suggestion.

The Island of Doctor Moreau tells the story of a sailor who, rescued after the destruction of his ship, ultimately ends up on an island inhabited by the titular Doctor, his servant Montgomery, and a large number of animals who have been “uplifted” via the Doctor’s vivisection techniques. Of course, raising animals to human levels of intelligence is fraught with problems, and things go wrong rather quickly. It’s a story that has been replicated all over the place, but I can’t fault Wells for establishing a clich√© any more than I can fault Tolkien for the bad knock-offs of his work. Indeed, part of the reason that I think this book holds up so well is that, while the actual science behind it is a bit dated, the basic concept is something that still seems plausible in modern society. A modern day Wells would replaced vivisection with DNA re-sequencing, but the idea of manipulating animals to make them more intelligent is still one that constantly floats around science fiction (David Brin’s Uplift series, for example). 

I really enjoy Wells’ writing style; like the Time Machine, the Island of Doctor Moreau is presented as the diary of the man in question. Unlike the Time Machine, the main character, Mr. Prendick, actually gets a name, and has the added advantage of being able to talk to the other characters in the book. Indeed, the fact that he CAN talk to some of the other characters is precisely the source of his, and the readers, discomfort. Wells does an amazing job of making the beastmen incredibly creepy and disturbing. Most of the humans aren’t much better. Wells’ writing is very tight and well-paced; there’s no wasted words or space here, something that I can’t help but appreciate in an era of multi-thousand page epics.

Fans of horror, science fiction, or just good writing really ought to check this one out.

Rocannon's World

Rocannon’s World
World’s of Exile and Illusion

Ursula K LeGuin
Publisher: Orb Books; Reprint edition (October 15, 1996)
ISBN: 0312862113

This is actually reprinted in a collection called World’s of Exile and Illusion, which collects three of LeGuin’s earlier works into a single book. I haven’t gotten around to reading the other two yet, and since I’m not sure when I’ll get back to it, I figured I’d just review this one now. The publishing info/ISBN is for the collection.
All three books are part of LeGuin’s ongoing “Hanish” universe. The conceit of the universe is pretty simple; long ago, there was an enormous interstellar human empire (Hain), which collapsed (as empires are wont to do). Thousands of years later, the Hanish people are rediscovering their universe, and the lost colonies that have survived without them…some in very odd and interesting ways.
The Basics: Rocannon’s World is really a story in two parts. The prologue, which was originally published as “Semley's Necklace”, is a fairy tale with sci-fi trappings. It tells the story of the princess Semley, who goes on a quest to find her ancestral necklace. Her journey takes her to strange lands, and eventually into the kingdom of the Claymen, cave dwelling humanoids with fantastic technology. After much negotiation, they agree to take her to where the necklace is, and she is transported to a strange place, where she meets a man named Rocannon, who gives her the necklace, and sends her home. Though the journey lasts only a night, she returns to find that eight years have passed, and that her husband has since passed away.

The rest of the book picks up years later, with the story of Rocannon himself, who is now living on that world, doing research on the people who live there. When a group of men with helicopters and other advanced weaponry begin destroying local villages, Rocannon sets out with some companions to try and stop them. Like the prologue, it’s a fantasy epic shrouded in sci-fi trappings (or perhaps the other way around). Rocannon’s technology makes him more powerful than mortal men, he encounters violent men, strange creatures, and has all sorts of adventures before finally reaching his destination.
The Good: As stated earlier, I love LeGuin’s prose. It’s just gorgeous. Very simple, but it flows beautifully. This is the sort of story you can just glide through, enjoying every minute of it, and not realizing just how many minutes it’s really been.

LeGuin is a great world builder, and while Rocannon’s World isn’t her most unique creation, she still does a marvelous job of filling in the details in a believable way. And there are a few surprising twists about the world, especially regarding the nature of the “fourth sentient race” that is hinted at from the prologue on…
Rocannon himself is an interesting character—he’s an anthropologist and scientist who has had a fight thrust on him, and is not entirely glad about it. He definitely fills the “reluctant hero” role, but he does it well. The supporting characters are all equally interesting.

The Bad: I wasn’t bothered by this, but Rocannon’s World really is a fantasy novel with some sci-fi trappings. This might bother some readers.

The ending is a little vague; not awful, certainly not JMS level of disappointing, but definitely vague. Could have been better.

The Ugly: Meh. I got nothing.
Overall, it was a good read. It’s particularly impressive when you consider that this was one of LeGuin’s early offerings—her later stuff is even better.

Songs of Earth and Power

Title: Songs of Earth and Power
Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
ISBN: 0812536037

I was lent this book by my assistant manager, a generally wonderful human being who responded to my complaints about having packed up all my books before moving by lending me this, and several other things as well. I started with this because it’s out of print, belonged to her son, and frankly,looked the most interesting. 

According to Amazon, this was originally actually two separate books, which Bear re-wrote and connected to make one large story. He did a fine job of joining them, since honestly, if I hadn’t looked at Amazon, I would never have known. Songs of Earth and Power tells the story of Michael Perrin, a sixteen year old boy who, thanks to a gift from a dead friend/mentor, wanders into the Realm of the Sidhe, and finds himself caught up the struggles and politics of a foreign world. He spends a fair amount of time traveling and learning about the Sidhe, their Realm, and their magic, before eventually making his way back to LA…at which point, things from the other side start spilling over too.

It’s a very interesting book, with some neat ideas, and a very, very, interesting setting The whole structure of the Realm, the nature of the Sidhe and how they interact with humanity, and so on, is thought out and explicated in a way that makes them seem very odd, alien, and well, fantastic.Which is cool. This is not a knock off of Tolkien, Narnia, or any other fantasy world, and seems to have a lot of roots in authentic mythologies, in feeling,if not in actual fact. I found the character’s not quite as engaging as the world, however…Michael is interesting, and is not horrifically angsty for a teenage protagonist (though he does have his moments), but a lot of the other characters are less memorable. As I think of it, the only one’s that really stick out are Nikolai, a Russian fisherman who shows up halfway through the story, and the Crane Women, who are a set of three half-Sidhe crones that train and mentor Michael.

The book is out of print now, but it’s definitely worth tracking down a copy if you’re a fantasy fan. Bear has some really neat ideas,and plays them out in some very interesting ways. The book drags a little in the middle while Michael stops for a training sequence, but once he gets moving, the book picks back up again too. 

Worth the read.

Time Machine

I have no recollection of how I stumbled across the Tantor Media website, or how I discovered that they were giving away free audiobooks if you filled out a free survey. But I did, and they are, so I filled out the free survey. I was expctegin a download in return, so imagine my surprise when I actually received a package in the mail, complete with a copy of H.G. Wells Time Machine on four CDs. I was thrilled!

Having now had a chance to actually sit down and listen to it, I'm even more thrilled. Scott Brick's reading of H.G. Wells classic story is a solid one. Either he's British, or he does a passable British accent, but either way, the accent does help the story. I think it also helps that the book is written as a narative, which translates to an audio format very well. If you close your eyes, you might almost imagine that you are sitting in a proper British study, listening to your friend discourse on his travels through time (you might also crash your car, so don't do that unless you're at a stoplight or something).

I've written before about my love of the Time Machine before, and won't repeat myself here. But if you like audiobooks, this one is definitely worth checking out. I'll probably be looking into Tantor's materials more in the future.

On Boxing

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates

If it seems to you that my reading of this book is slightly random, you're only partially right.

I know very little about Joyce Carol Oates as an author. Truth be told, I never really bothered to learn much about her or her writing. Not for any good reason, mind you. She just struck me as a writer of the sort of fiction that is no doubt well written, but does not necessarily capture my interest. I have a peculiar bias against bestsellers which has occasionally steered me past some good writing, and occasionally, saved me from utter drek.

But I love boxing. I really do. I think it's a fascinating, exciting, and amazing sport. MMA is the current combat sport de jour, and I enjoy it, but there is something I find just as enjoyable about a good boxing match. Ms. Oates apparently enjoys boxing too.

On Boxing is a collection of essays in which Oates explores her fascination with the sport of boxing, something apparently inherited from her father. It's a very interesting book, and in some cases, a very insightful one. Although Oates has never set foot in a boxing ring, she's clearly observed enough of the sport to have a very strong sense of it.

As boxing books go, this is definitely a more intellectual look at the sport; there is little technical material in here, and some of Oates deeper philosophical thoughts may come across as overblown to some readers. Personally, I think Oates gets a lot of things right, and offers some really fascinating insights into the sport. Honestly, the population I'd be most likely to recommend it to would be my many intellectual friends who have trouble understanding my own enjoyment of combat sport. The more intellectual combat athlete will probably enjoy this one too. Good stuff.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Aikido, The Dynamic Sphere, and Me

During one of my recent visits back to my parents house, I stumbled across my copy of Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. I had memories of it being a good book, and figured that I could always use more material for my Examiner column, so I grabbed it and started flipping through it. As it turned out, I still think it's a good book.

What was also interesting to me, however, was the various notes and ideas I had jotted in the margins of the book. There's a lot of me trying to draw connections between the philosophy of Aikido (as Westbrook outlines it) and the Personal Defense Readiness program concepts and ideas (as I understood them at the time). In some places, there's actually a fair amount of overlap; in others, there's some pretty big disparities.

I'm reminded of how much my Aikido experiences really shaped, and continue to shape, my own perceptions of martial arts training. Many of the physical skills I value, like footwork, distancing, timing, and proper body placement are all integral to Aikido (at least, in theory). My belief that a small, well understood toolbox is more useful than a large, poorly understood toolbox began in Aikido too. Aikido gets a rap as being a pretty worthless martial art for learning how to actually fight, but it's got some intriguingly useful ideas buried in it. Actually, they're not really buried. They're right on the surface.

In some ways, I really regret the fact that Aikido turned out to be a poor environment for me to explore in. I have no idea where I might have taken those explorations, but there was something exciting about playing with a conceptual framework and trying to make sense of it in a variety of contexts. I tried experimenting occasionally, especially at Brandeis, where I was the guy in charge half of the time, but it never quite worked. No one wanted to explore. They just wanted the standard, cookie cutter Aikido program.

Was the fault with them, for not wanting to change? Or with me, for trying to make it happen?

In the end, I left Aikido, for a whole variety of reasons, but the biggest was just the sense that I was being stifled. I didn't have room to grow.

It's an experience I don't ever want to repeat. Nor is it one I want to foster on my own students. So for those students of mine who are reading this, listen carefully: you are in control of your own martial journey. No one else. Explore, experiment, grow. Learn whatever you can, from wherever you can. At the end of the day, it's your journey, not mine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Conan and the Emerald Lotus

Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking

I have, up until now, avoided the various Conan pastiche novels, whose number and poor quality are both as legendary as the mighty thewed barbarian himself. I have a very long list of good books I'd like to read, and it seemed silly to waste time trying to read bad ones along the way. But when Poe Ghostal lent me what is (at least, according him) one of the better quality pastiches, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I have to say, if this is the best that the pastiches have to offer, I'll pass on the rest of them.

Which is not to say that this book is awful. I was able to FINISH it, which puts it ahead of several other books. It's just not...well, it's not Howard. It tries, and makes a valiant effort, but in the end, it just doesn't quite cut it.

Conan and the Emerald Lotus uses a lot of classic Conan tropes. There's an evil sorcerer (and a not so evil one). Conan is blackmailed into a quest. There are bandits. A monster. And a beautiful woman or two.

Yet somehow, it doesn't quite hang together for me. Part of it was some of the plot elements, like the fact that the big bad is basically a drug dealer peddling magic-enhancing cocaine. Some of it was Hocking's habit of ending every chapter as a cliffhanger, which reminded me less of REH, and more of the Da Vinci Code (a truly awful book). Part of the problem, I think, is that it seemed to me that Hocking was more interested in his own characters than he was in Conan himself. And hey, the rocking adventures of Heng Shih the mute Khitian could be fun. But I didn't want his adventures, I wanted Conan's.

This is not, lest I get carried away here, a terrible book. If you want fun sword-and-sorcery style adventure, you could do a lot worse. But you could do a lot better too.