On the Importance of Having Drinking Buddies

I would not say this is a good book. But it is without a doubt an interesting work that brought to life a concept and a yearning for something I had not realized I was missing. The author puts forward the idea of a third place: a place where one can go to socialize lightly without plans or pretensions. It is rightly third in priority after the home and work, but this book claims that Americans in particular are dealt a poor hand both in their lack of physical proximity to such a place as well as the general social attitude that such a place is not necessary for a well-balanced life. Whereas for Europeans such places are a “strong third” in terms of priority, for most Americans it is a “weak third.” It is impossible to read this book without wanting to criticize, but my thinking will always be influenced by this infectious idea of the third place.

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A Familiar Faerie Tale

Coming down off acid can sometimes be a stressful experience. It doesn’t help when you’re stuck in a Birmingham airport for five hours. Looking for something to do and trying to quiet the feeling that my brain was being gnawed on I spotted a stranger with a book. Interesting cover, nice title, I was intrigued and wrote it down. I promptly forgot about it until I went to my local library and found it sitting on the English section. This review is not about that book, but I thought it would be a shame to waste the story. This is about Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. It’s a damn good fairy tale for adults that manages to be familiar and fresh all at once.

Stardust

Neil Gaiman is very good at telling stories. He is also very good at writing novels, but it is his story-telling that makes him stand out from other great authors. Stardust is an excellent example of his work. It has all the right elements of a real fairy tale. The Hero embarks on a Journey into Faerie in order to fulfill his Heart’s Desire. Along the way he finds a Hidden Talent and runs afoul of Various Enemies. He eventually succeeds in his Quest, but not before learning a valuable Moral and growing as a person. The plot is well-known, but it feels like an homage rather than unoriginality. Of course there is never any doubt that the Hero will eventually succeed, but as with so many things it is about the path taken and not the destination.

Gaiman has a real talent for blending the real and the unreal. Like most of his novels, Stardust begins firmly in the world as we know it and fleshes out the mundane life of the protagonist. By beginning in a familiar place, Gaiman creates a connection between the audience and the protagonist which is exploited to fine effect when the fantasy hits. It starts subtle, allowing the reader to hope along with the characters in the book that maybe magic is real. The Hero then enters another world and is completely cut off from the life they knew; magic is real, but it is not supposed to be in our world. The end of the book touches back with reality just as the reader must and leaves the reader with a sense of “What just happened?” It’s a bit like an acid trip. Everything is real in the moment, but there is always that doubt/hope after the fact.

I’m not sure if I wish this book was longer. As it is, it is concise and to the point, with enough story to keep it interesting. This is certainly not a story for a trilogy and ultimately this kind of story is best served short and sweet. However if you are longing for meaningful character development and interpersonal conflict I would recommend another book. It is not that Gaiman is unable to write these things, it is simply that as a faerie tale it is much more focused on providing fodder for the imagination to run wild. Still there are several parts of the book that could have been made more dramatic and touching if more effort had gone into fleshing out the characters involved.

Overall it is a fun book and a refreshing example of a faerie tale. It is a quick and easy read with plenty of creative scenery and characters. The respect it has for the traditional faerie tale is appreciated and put to great effect in modeling and playing off the expectations of the reader while never falling into stagnancy. It excels in describing the split between the real world and Faerie and does so in a way that hints of conspiracy. Sometimes it feels a bit light in the development of characters’ emotions and relationships, but this does not detract overmuch from the otherwise very enjoyable experience. Would recommend reading if you’re coming down off acid. And maybe coming up.

Demons and Detectives

Fantasy novels these days tend to draw most of their lore from Tolkien. The main characters are the tall and pretty elves or the evil and ugly orcs. So it’s refreshing to see a book like Storm Front draw it’s workings from myths and fables found in the world we actually live in. Given that the book is set in modern times, the inclusion of all these quirky superstitions makes the book seem that much more believable. There is a reason we are afraid of the dark.

Storm Front is a detective novel with magic. Set in modern day Chicago, it follows the wizard/detective/scamp Harry Dresden as he tries to solve a maleficent magical murder. As with any good detective novel, Harry follows leads, gets stumped, and finally puts everything together in a nice little package. The book ends with the promise of more to come, and is a fairly enjoyable read.

As I mentioned above, I was particularly pleased with the lore of this book. Much of the magic and beasts are based on old superstitions, folktales, fables, myths, and legends with just enough of its own twist to make it interesting. There are several times in the book where the author takes what is almost cliché and puts it in a whole new light that makes sense both for the book, and for our own world. This is one of the most endearing points for me; being able to pretend that the fantasy world is real. There are ghouls and zombies, but since most of us have never actually seen them, we get an exaggerated and misinformed stereotype.

I have a few nitpicks with the book. First of all, it’s too short. At 322 pages paperback, I burned through it in one (work-free) day. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but along with the lack of thought-provoking content, I found myself a bit unsatisfied. There were plenty of interesting characters and ideas brought up in the book, but they were never really explored. Even Mr. Dresden could have had substantial more character development, and he is by far the most examined character in the book. Butcher gives himself plenty of room for later books in which to explore certain aspects of magic or do a more in-depth analysis of character, but Storm Front felt less like a satisfying meal that I want to eat again and more like an appetizer I had mistaken for the main dish.

On a personal note, I think the fantasy is a touch overdone for this novel. The uninitiated public in this novel maintain a strong disbelief in magic in spite of evidence to the contrary, while at the same time they hold irrelevant superstitions. No one believes in magic but no one looks the wizard in the eye because they are afraid. There are hordes of prophetic druggies, but no one bats an eye. Either magic should be much more secret (thereby keeping the setting closer to our world) or the public attitude should be less suspicious (more of an alternate reality).  Butcher lands somewhere in between and gets less story-telling power from either approach.

Taken all-together, it’s a decent book. I greatly enjoyed the way fantastic elements were imported into the modern world (even though the human’s attitudes were less believable) and there is really quite a lot in the story that is gripping and I hope gets explored in the following books. There are good characters that have the potential to become quite full-fleshed and empathetic in coming books. Storm Front is an acceptable start to the series, but perhaps a bit lacking in its own right. I’ll still think twice about looking a wizard in the eye.

Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

 

Chronicles of Riddick meets Dialogues. Frank Miller mated with Hume. Heroes Die is bursting with blood, sweat, and testosterone. It also has some nicely captured points on the nature of free will. Whether you’re looking for a nice exciting page-turner or you want to wrestle with one of life’s most important questions, this is an excellent book to read.

Heroes Die

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