Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Finding the truth of a story can be dangerous, indeed.

Growing up as a trouper gives a kid a very useful skillset. By being onstage from a young age, he learns to show his audience only what he wants them to see. Part of his chores necessarily includes the tasks of travel: keeping the animals cared for and healthy; setting up a campsite; preparing for bad weather. Book learning might be limited to that of the group he's in but there's often the wandering scholar who travels with the troupe for safety, and that type is always too eager to share his knowledge with an eager listener.

All in all, young Kvothe was very well prepared for the life ahead of him in Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.

Kote runs an inn along the road. Life as an innkeeper can be interesting, but of course it depends on who happens to wander by. The nights that no one stays, though, can be quiet. A solid sort of quiet that pervades the building and smothers the spirits of Kote and Bast, the two who live there and run the place.

Recently, though, there has been a bit more action in the area than usual. The stuff of fairy tales - spider-like creatures that can't be killed, campfires burning blue - have been spotted in the area. It's gotten so bad that the innkeeper himself goes out in the night, and ends up rescuing a man known as Chronicler.

But of course, Chronicler has a good nose for a story, and the humble innkeeper looks quite a lot like the legendary Kvothe. Forgoing an important meeting, Chronicler settles in to record the life story of one of the realm's most storied adventurers.

The bulk of the novel takes place over one evening of tales. Kvothe begins with his childhood as a trouper, travelling with his parents. Along the way, they end up taking on an arcanist named Abenthy, who is the first to truly realize Kvothe's potential. With Ben, Kvothe's love of learning turns towards entering the Arcanum at the University, where scholars learn to control the magic known as Sympathy, as well as the location of the grandest library in the land, the Archives.

But even the most charmed childhood has to end sometime, and for Kvothe it ends at the hands of the Chandrian. Thought to be a story told to scare youngsters, Kvothe learns all too well just how real he is. And his mission slowly turns to learning all he can of the Chadrian, and, perhaps someday, how to defeat him.

On the first night of storytelling, we follow Kvothe from his origins in the troupe through his first year at University. Along the way, he experiences joys and sorrows, first love and great loss. his trouper skills serve him well time and time again, and his whip-sharp intelligence gets him into just as many scrapes as it gets him out of.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy of the highest caliber. From bards to demons to even a tree-munching dragon, this book has something for just about every fantasy fan.

Highs: The scene where Kvothe is at the tavern 'earning his talent' plays on the heartstrings of anyone who has been on stage.

Lows: The rivalry between Kvothe and Ambrose should have handled much better by the University.

Verdict: The Name of the Wind is an instant classic fantasy novel that's not to be missed.

Further Reading: Wise Man's Fear, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Alif the Unseen

Friday, April 18, 2014

The deep web has never been so deep.

Alif is a cypher. The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, it is a single vertical line. A simple name for a person whose life takes place in the shadows between computers.

In G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, Alif's life is turned upside-down, in more ways than one.

Alif lives in a pre-Arab Spring country somewhere in the Middle East. The censors have become more and more a part of the online life of the country, and Alif and his online comrades do their best to provide free movement of information to their clients. It means that The Hand could come down on him at any time, but with the confidence of youth he doesn't really believe that it would happen to him.

As it often does, Alif's problems start with a girl. Intisar is Alif's first love, a Muslim girl from a good family. He meets her online, on some of the message boards that the educated, free-thinkers tend to inhabit. Hardly a radical, she's as likely to defend the government as she is to question it. The computer world gives her the freedom to speak her mind in a way that her birth and culture do not, and Alif is absolutely smitten. They even go so far as to draw up a their own marriage contract, and while Alif's mother is away visiting her family he is able to have her over unchaperoned.

But a woman of her standing is hardly going to have the future she expects with the poor son of a second wife. When the reality of doing her own laundry settles in, she takes the easy route and accepts the husband that her father has found for her.

"Make it so I never see your name again." -Intisar

Heartbroken, Alif decides to disappear from Intisar's life. So he proceeds to do so. Since the majority of his life is spent online, he creates a program to track her, and make sure that whatever she does, she will never see his online presence again. Whether she changes usernames, or computers, or uses a VPN, this program will track her by her word usage and typing styles, and remove Alif's presence.

Such a program has never been created before. There are so many variables, and the program would have to be so complex, that it would almost have to be...alive...

Such a complex program would, by its very existence, draw the attention of a few very influential people. And when Alif finds himself in the possession of  The Thousand and One Days, he ends up with more problems than just The Hand.

G. Willow Wilson shines in her first long-form novel, masterfully weaving together the modern day with the ancient, religion with mythology, and love with loss.

Highs: The character of Dina is perhaps the most three-dimensional, honest females in recent fantasy fiction.

Lows: As with much fiction set in the middle east, as current events unfold the story may show its age quickly.

Verdict: Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award, Alif the Unseen is a must-read for fans of fantasy and world fiction alike.

Further Reading: Throne of the Crescent Moon, Kabu Kabu, The Midnight Palace

Monday, April 14, 2014

Manga Monday: A sunny girl with an overcast life

Alongside magical girls and androids named Chi, CLAMP told the story of a lonely girl with a cheerful disposition in Suki: A Like Story Volume 1

On the outside, Hinata Asahi's life seems happy enough. She does well at school and has friends that care about her. She sees the sunny side of every situation and is always trying to cheer up the melancholy people that she's around. Nothing seems to faze this girl.

But a closer look reveals that perhaps her life isn't as perfect as it could be. Every night, Hina goes home to an empty house, with only her teddy bears waiting at the door for her. It's alluded to that she's moved out of her father's home because she wants him to be happy, but how could such a wonderful girl be bringing him sadness?

Early on in the volume, Hina gets a next-door neighbor. The house has been standing empty for awhile, so Hina is curious to see who might be living there. Shiro Asou is a young man who has just moved into the area, and as a matter of fact, is taking over for Hina's homeroom teacher. Hina is elated to have found a new friend, and promptly starts inviting him over for meals and the like. But a few side conversations we overhear Shiro having leaves us wondering if there's more to him than meets the eye.

Suki: A Like Story Volume 1 follows a lot of what has become traditional manga tropes. You have the perpetually cheerful girl, her retinue of friends, the older man to have a crush on, and the mystery of their backstory. The art is very 1990s shojo, and has many of the expected traits of a CLAMP title. In many ways, it's exactly what one would expect.

What you have to remember, though, is there's nothing wrong with that. The reason that titles like Dragon Ball and Yotsuba&! come back again and again is that they are the comfort food of manga. You know what to expect when you start it, and it's a welcome break from titles like Attack on Titan and Berserk. CLAMP consistently delivers a certain level of excellence in each title they do, and Suki is no exception.

Highs: Hina getting excited about her favorite author's new book is a feeling we're all very familiar with.

Lows: The mystery around why she lives by herself is going to get old quickly.

Verdict: A traditional shojo romance that is very well done.

Further Reading: Bunny Drop, Yotsuba&!, Chi's Sweet Home