Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Acacia [2007]

I believe I picked up Acacia (first in a trilogy) because it was discussed on the SF Signal podcast, but don't hold me to that. Another thing it had going for it--unlike a lot of fantasy epics that have come out recently--was that it was available on audio CD through my library. Written by David Anthony Durham, Acacia is an incredibly dense foray into epic fantasy worthy of comparison to George R. R. Martin.

Acacia is the name of an island that functions the seat of a longstanding empire. What is largely unknown is that Acacian hegemony relies heavily on slavery and opiates to control and maintain the empire's vast ancestral holdings. Emperor Leodan Akaran, while portrayed as a basically good man, has inherited a deeply flawed system, as well as four children to raise upon the untimely death of his wife. When Leodan is struck down by an assassin from an enemy race of northmen known as the Mein, he sets in motion a plan to send his children into safety. Crown Prince Aliver and his younger siblings Mena and Dariel grow to adulthood in different corners of the Known World, while eldest sister Corinn is kept alive in captivity by the Mein as a future tool for ritual sacrifice to their undead ancestors. When the time comes to wrest control of the empire back from the Mein, things do not quite go as Aliver forsees in his zeal to bring freedom and justice to his inherited kingdom.

Grade: B+

I enjoyed the sometimes unexpected directions that Acacia took. The book had a lot more breadth of action and covered a longer time span than I had expected when I first decided to read it. Like Martin, Durham populates his book with many viewpoints from people other than the royal children, including many of the antagonists, a grizzled war veteran, the emperor's trusted adviser, and so on. There aren't as many women as I would like, unfortunately. However, one of Acacia's best features is a great deal of ethnic diversity among the cast. The action centers around an equatorial island, Acacia, and the royal children--each a major point of view character--are (gasp) not white. I can't even begin to tell you how refreshing this was.

Durham does an excellent job of capturing the coils of a political struggle as well as each individual's struggle for power. When the empire changes hands, its new Meinish ruler finds himself presented with the same obstacles and making similar compromises as his predecessor--much like an optimistic president who finds himself compromising his platform away when faced with the choice of getting nothing done or making difficult decisions. I am looking forward to seeing where Durham goes next after the book's fairly self-contained ending. Judging by book one, I'm guessing it's going to end badly for several characters.

Dead Mother: Yes
Book Review Index

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Review: The Snowman [2010]

At some point this summer, The Snowman, a mystery/thriller originally published by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø in 2007, became a hot item. It was even featured on Good Morning America. The seventh book in an ongoing series featuring detective Harry Hole, The Snowman's popularity is understandable in a post-Girl With the Dragon Tattoo world intrigued by Scandinavian noir. I found it curious that the book being pushed is not the first in the series (and mentions events that presumably happened in earlier books), but it does have a suspenseful, self-contained story that doesn't require much background to appreciate. There is also something refreshing about spending time in the sweltering heat of July reading about snow and ice in Norway.

Norway has always been known as a land of peace and prosperity, and it's never been home to a serial killer . . . until now. Known as the Snowman, this person abducts and kills married women with children and leaves behind only a sinister sculpture in the snow. Until recently, the killings were spaced far enough apart that no one noticed a pattern, but two consecutive disappearances draw the attention of the Oslo police and hard-bitten detective Harry Hole. Harry is a recovering alcoholic who is constantly in trouble with his bosses; the love of his life left him because he couldn't separate his life from the job; and he's the only policeman in the country who's ever been involved in catching a serial killer. As the trail of clues leads Harry closer and closer to the killer, it becomes clear that this is a very personal game that the Snowman intends to play out between them.

Grade: B

If you're up for a thriller with some interesting twists and turns, this would be a good book to choose. If you're a fan of "damaged" protagonists who can't seem to get their lives together but somehow prevail, Harry Hole is definitely your man. Unfortunately, I wasn't really in the mood to read about a detective as deeply dysfunctional as Harry. There are times I favor gritty realism in my mysteries, and there are times I prefer to escape with a Lord Peter, and in this case there were too many scenes in which "seed" was running somewhere for me to really like The Snowman. The mystery wasn't extremely opaque--I had figured out most of the key points by halfway through--but its resolution was suspenseful enough that I was gripping my steering wheel and involuntarily slowed down to 55 miles an hour on the Mass Pike as the last disc played.

Random Thoughts:

I once visited Norway, but of course Nesbø's descriptions of Oslo's seedy underbelly didn't jive well with my memories. Still, it was interesting to read about Oslo, and Bergen, and even Voss (very briefly mentioned, but important to my family history as site of the Rokne family reunion!) and know that I had actually been to those places.

The audiobook was read by Robin Sachs, known to Buffy fans as Ethan Rayne, and he did a good job at pronunciation. If they don't cast Daniel Craig in the theoretical future movie of the book, they're crazy. Yes, I know he's already in the Girl movies, but Harry Hole is a much more likely character for his craggy face.

The book is threaded through with music, much of it American and recognizable to me. I guess this makes sense, since Nesbø is also a rock musician and songwriter. He also wrote about recent tragic events in Norway for the New York Times

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Dead mother: Multiple