Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

Best of 2011

2011 has been my first full year writing this blog, and I’ve been having a lot of fun. I don’t know if anyone appreciates my commentary (or thinks I’m an idiot), but I hope that somebody out there is reading. My hits have been at an all-time high this year and I’m surprised and pleased that my measly little book review blog is being viewed in Russia, Germany, the Ukraine, India, Thailand, Japan, Sweden, the UK and Turkey, among other countries. If you’re out there, thanks for reading! I still haven’t gotten comments and they would certainly be appreciated!

I’m not going to make any big, sweeping generalizations about the state of literature in 2011 for the simple reason that most of the books I read this year weren’t published in 2011. I read forty-five books of fiction this year (and reviewed one book of nonfiction), fewer than I would have liked, but a combination of long books like A Dance with Dragons and a busy schedule resulted in some months where I only read a couple of books. I’m amused to see that in the month of May, when I was recovering from a difficult surgery, I read seven books. Hauling A Breath of Snow and Ashes around the hospital was a bit of a challenge, since in hardcover it’s approximately the size of a watermelon.

The genres that I covered this year were as diverse as usual. I read historical fiction, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, crime fiction, romance, horror, classics, humor and sci-fi. I love the endless variety that reading gives me; no two books are the same, and it’s so much fun to read two diametrically opposed books back-to-back, like Water for Elephants and Mystic River. The only genre that I haven’t really delved into has been nonfiction. The only book of nonfiction that I reviewed this year was Michael Caine’s excellent autobiography, The Elephant to Hollywood. I actually do read nonfiction, but I’ve chosen not to review it since 1) I read a lot more fiction, 2) I tend to read nonfiction books in pieces rather than straight through (something I wouldn’t dream of doing with fiction) and 3) nonfiction is quite a bit harder for me to review. If, in the future, I read a biography or memoir that I have something to say about, I might review it, but otherwise I’m going to stick to what I love best, which is the world of fiction.

This year, I’ve read some of the hottest new titles, as well as a massive Russian novel from the turn of the century. I’ve read long novels of high fantasy and short novels of pulp crime. I’ve read wonderful classics like Watership Down and stunning modern novels like Case Histories. I’ve read books by bestselling authors like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich, and books by lesser-known authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming and Joe Hill. It’s been a wild tangle of amnesiac Victorians, presidential assassins, rampaging dragons, amateur bounty hunters, teenage geniuses, lost gods, Southern maids, sedentary detectives, time-traveling doctors, sarcastic dwarves, hard-drinking Scottish cops, hard-drinking Russian philosophers, rabbits, Aes Sedai, aging rock stars, tattooed Swedish hackers, Italian gangsters, Cold War spies, vampires and James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. You can only have experiences like this while reading, and I really can’t express how much fun I’ve had wolfing down all these wonderful stories. And I Learned Stuff, too, so there.

Last year at O’Hara’s Book reviews, I did a little awards ceremony to commemorate the books of 2010. Since there are almost twice as many books on the roster this year, I’m not going to do awards, since it would take a while and wouldn’t be as interesting. Instead, we’re having a Top Ten books of the year list, since I love lists. Placement on the list is mostly arbitrary, since I enjoyed every single book I read this year, even a couple of the less-stellar ones. A few books were disappointing (Anno Dracula, Water for Elephants, Life Support), but none of them were truly bad.

The list is:

10. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am not putting Brothers at Number Ten because I think that Numbers One through Nine have higher literary quality. I’m not qualified to really judge the book on its literary or technical merits. I'm not going to lie: it was a long, hard read, definitely the biggest reading challenge I've undertaken in a while. Like all challenges, it was genuinely rewarding to complete. A lot of vodka is drunk and a lot of philosophical points are debated at length in this novel, and it was often very tedious. But those deep digressions were also sometimes surprisingly rich and fascinating and memorable. Episodes like the Grand Inquisitor interlude may have been a pain to slog through, but it's stuck with me. Dostoevsky was addressing the most important questions of human existence, so is it really any wonder that the novel sometimes comes off more like a series of interconnected essays? The characters--pious Alyosha, moody Ivan, impulse Dimitri, slimy Smerdyakov--may come off as hysteric and one-dimensional, but that's because Brothers is ultimately a novel of ideas and philosophy, not people. A tough read, but an eminently worthwhile one.

9. Tooth and Nail/Strip Jack/The Black Book, by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series has dipped a bit in quality over the past couple of volumes, but these three novels are still damn fine crime writing. Tooth and Nail, the best of them, is a razor-sharp serial killer puzzle with a finely deployed plot and excellent characterizations. The Black Book in particular has lacked some of the darkness and amorality that was the hallmark of the first few volumes, but it was still a satisfying and well-written mystery (and it introduced Big Ger, so it can't be all bad). John Rebus remains one of my favorite-ever literary detectives: a guy that sometimes seems impossible to like, yet we always do in the end. As tortured and conflicted as the villains he hunts, Rebus is a remarkably complex and arresting protagonist. Rankin's true accomplishment, outside of his clever plots and gritty writing, is his panoramic portrait of Rebus's Edinburgh: seamy, bleak and grimy, a place where it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, who were perhaps not so different in the first place.

8. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Watership Down begins as a sunny fairytale in the vein of The Wind in the Willows, but it soon turns into something stunning. Adams has created a world that's both utterly alien and completely familiar, drawn with an enthralling mixture of plausibility and whimsy. There's nothing whimsical about the war between the warrens, however, and the thrilling final chapters are more reminiscent of Lord of the Rings than Beatrix Potter. This is a true epic, beautifully written and surprisingly resonant. The standalone "rabbit legends" are a smart and funny little bonus to the main story.

7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Probably the most difficult-to-describe novel on this list. Utterly original, darkly funny and breathtakingly strange, Gods is a long, winding journey that reads like a mashup of Charles Dickens, Stephen King and the Brothers Grimm. It's a wild look into the underground world of forgotten gods struggling to make ends meet in a hostile land, as well as an examination of the book's understated main character, Shadow. The plot unfolds like a brilliant magic trick and Gaiman's writing is clear and bewitching. There is a loose end or two--perhaps inevitable in a book with this many interlaced subplots and sub-subplots--but it hardly matters when the end result is so rich, unusual and oddly touching. I love Gaiman's audacity and unwillingness to play by the rules, like embedding a plotline that reads like a standalone supernatural thriller into the middle of the novel. Stuff like that either works perfectly or it messes up the whole book. Here, it works. This one is a real feast for book lovers.

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I knew about halfway through Dragon Tattoo that it was going to end up on this list. It's one of the very finest mysteries I've read this year (or ever), with a dynamic plot and a breathtaking array of twists and turns. It's the characters that make the book so special though, especially Lisbeth Salander, the tormented antisocial hacker with a mysterious past. The slow development of Lisbeth's relationship with Blomkvist is just an incredibly fine piece of characterization in a book absolutely stuffed with excellent characters (the villain, for instance, is utterly chilling and memorable). There's a bump in the otherwise impeccable plotting towards the end of the novel, but otherwise this is the textbook definition of a great read: smart, enthralling, scary, moving. I can't wait to dig into the second and third books in the series, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they show up on the 2012 list.

5. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

The question of whether organized religion is a force of good or of evil is one of the central questions of many great works of literature (including The Brothers Karamazov). Brideshead Revisited is a probing account of the strictly Roman Catholic Marchmain family, through the eyes of the hedonistic Charles Ryder. It's a fascinating novel and one that inspires a lot of thought and reflection. Waugh himself was a devout Roman Catholic, but there is more nuance and complexity to the novel than there would be if it was a simplistic, straight-faced sermon. Although I'm sure Waugh was secure in his own personal faith, I'm not sure that the book represents a simple argument in favor of Catholicism. Like Dostoevsky, Waugh is not afraid to show an opposing view, and it's undeniable that religion creates incredible turmoil and tragedy in the Marchmain family. Lest the novel sound like a gloomy read, I have to mention that Waugh is also an extremely funny and sly writer with a knack for quirky social comedy. A highly thought-provoking and beautifully composed novel.

4. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

It's probably fairly obvious from my reviews that one of the things I love about fiction is when someone mixes a first-rate plot with really well-drawn characters, especially in a genre novel. It's also rare to see a crime novel that's written with the literary flair of Mystic River, a book that's an elegant piece of high-end writing disguised as a hardboiled police procedural. Lehane tells a story of Shakespearean tragedy and betrayal on the mean streets of Boston, weaving the past and the present together in a seamless narrative. His writing is hard-edged and sophisticated, his dialogue something Elmore Leonard would be proud of. The scene where--spoiler alert--Jimmy kills Dave on the riverbank is one of the finest scenes of drama I've read in any book this year.

3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré

A lot of the books on this list are big. I tend to like fat, meaty books with complicated plots and big casts. Spy, on the other hand, is a slim, spare book with one main plot and a handful of characters. Despite its brevity (or perhaps because of it), the book is a small, perfectly cut diamond of a spy novel. The plot is woven with incredible care, each thread carefully developed. Here's a thriller that's thrilling because of how finely plotted and exquisitely formed it is, not because something blows up every ten pages. Le Carré's writing is wonderfully precise; not a word is wasted. His characters are each drawn with striking clarity and insight, from Leamas, the tormented double agent, to Fiedler, the German operative with inscrutable motives, to Liz Gold, a naive woman who finds herself the ultimate innocent bystander. By the end, le Carré has shown us a glimpse of a morally decaying world where right and wrong are hard to separate. The final pages pack a double wallop of a huge emotional payoff and an exceptionally fine plot twist.

2. A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon

Although I was a bit disappointed by The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in the enormous Outlander series, Number Six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was everything I could have hoped for. The Outlander books are 1,000-page time machines, pure sensory transportation. I can honestly say that there are no fictional characters that I love more than the Fraser family (hey, there's few real people I love as much as the Fraser family) and the way that Gabaldon has developed them is nothing short of genius. Her books are stuffed, even overstuffed, with plot, and side stories, and fantasy, and adventure, and history, and drama. At her best, Gabaldon is so good that it's easy to overlook just how excellent she is at making us care. Breath is as wonderful as any of the earlier books in the saga, and far less slow-pokily plotted than Cross. There are scenes here that pay off hints dropped thousands of pages and dozens of years ago, or that cast a new light on characters that we already feel like we know. That kind of richness is incredibly rare, and the fact that Gabaldon has sustained it for so long is proof of her enormous talent as a writer and a storyteller.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin

This was an easy pick for #1. Of all the literary discoveries I made this year, none have provided me with as much enjoyment (and frustration, of course) as George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I read all five books this year, and I am continually bowled over by the enormous scope of the series, and the thousands of details that make it come alive. This is a series that has provoked just about every emotion in me, and it's not even close to done. The characters are just incredible, and I have to stop myself from listing my favorites because it would take way too long. Okay, I'll mention one: Tyrion is all kinds of awesome, and I honestly think he will be remembered as one of the greatest creations in modern literature. But then there isn't a single major character that isn't complex, just as there isn't anything in the series that's simple or straightforward. This can be frustrating as a reader who naturally wants things to work out, but it also creates a world as rich and multi-layered as ours. And let me also mention that Martin is a staggeringly good writer, who manages the very difficult task of making a medieval fantasy world seem real without making it seem anachronistic. The last couple of books in the series have been, perhaps, a bit lower in quality than the first three, but that's less an indictment of Martin's writing than a comment on the series' immense scale and complexity. I have to end this now, because the paragraph is getting really long, and I'm running out of superlatives. Anyway, these books are without a doubt the best that I read this year.

And here are some runners-up who didn't quite make the list:

The Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. MacDonald-----A smooth, stylish entry in MacDonald's Travis McGee series. It loses points for some tedious sexism, but it has a rip-roaring climax that makes up for it.

I Shall Not Want/One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming----Spencer-Fleming's mystery plots are fantastic, but what really sets her series apart is the sizzling romance and exquisitely detailed character development.

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill-----A weird, twisty tale of ghosts, rock n roll, and the afterlife. Terrific prose, and the protagonist is a delightfully complex antihero.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett-----Thoughtful, funny and wonderfully characterized, this breakout hit deserves a place as a modern classic.

The Enemy/Bad Luck and Trouble/Without Fail, by Lee Child-----All of Child's Reacher novels are excellent, and these three were no exception. Absolutely top-notch thriller writing and the best action scenes in the genre.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson-----This one would probably have made it to the list if it weren't for the lack of narrative cohesion at the end. Still, beautiful writing and sad, hilarious, wonderfully developed characters.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo-----While I didn't love Puzo's pulpy writing style or slapdash pacing, the novel's power is undeniable, and Michael Corleone's sweeping arc is absolutely epic.

Anyway, that's my year-end post. Thanks for reading the blog this year, and stick around for 2012, which will hopefully be an even better year for books than '11!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2008

Salander looked through the door to the living room at Blomkvist pulling out CDs and taking books off the bookshelf. He had just found a brown pill bottle that was missing its label, and he was holding it up to the light. He was about to unscrew the top, so she reached out and took the bottle from him. She went back to the kitchen and sat down on a chair, massaging her forehead until he joined her.

"The rules are simple," she said. "Nothing that you discuss with me or with Armansky will be shared with anyone at all. There will be a contract which states that Milton Security pledges confidentiality. I want to know what the job is about before I decide whether I want to work for you or not. That also means that I agree to keep to myself everything you tell me, whether I take the job or not, provided that you're not conducting any sort of serious criminal activity. In which case, I'll report it to Dragan, who in turn will report it to the police."

"Fine." He hesitated. "Armansky may not be completely aware of what I want to hire you for. . ."

"Some historical research, he said."

"Well, yes, that's right. I want you to help me identify a murderer."
---- (page 365)

I tend to get annoyed when everyone jumps on a cultural bandwagon, and then begins acting as if this one song, or TV show, or movie, or book, is the only one of its kind ever created. This kind of mania often leads to a kind of "Emperor has no clothes" situation, where everyone who's a critic or who considers themselves cultured has to pretend to like a certain thing, like Glee or gangsta rap or The Social Network. Too often, the object of everyone's adoration isn't very good, or at least isn't as good as it's cracked up to be (there are of course exceptions to this rule, like the Harry Potter series). For some time now, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has been treated like it's the first series of mystery novels ever written and Lisbeth Salander is the most original character ever put to paper. I honestly expected The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be less than its inflated reputation; maybe I even harbored a snobbish desire to scoff at something everything else was excited about.

I was wrong. They were right. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very, very good, fabulous even. And Lisbeth Salander is indeed one of the most uniquely riveting characters I've met in a while.

Tattoo is at heart a very old-fashioned murder mystery, but done in a truly original way. The plot concerns the Vanger family, a very old and wealthy clan of Swedish industrialists, whose checkered past includes Nazism, corruption and incessant infighting. Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a seemingly innocent teenage girl, vanished during the annual family meeting on the Vanger's northern island. Not a trace of Harriet was ever found, and her uncle, family patriarch Henrik, has devoted most of the ensuing years to uncovering the truth. He is convinced that his niece was murdered by a family member, who continues to taunt him by sending him flowers--Harriet's traditional gift--every year on his birthday.

As a last resort, Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced financial journalist convicted of libel, to solve the mystery over the course of one year. Blomkvist is at first skeptical that any crime has been committed, but he enlists Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, emotionally unhealthy young hacker, to help him track down a cunning and twisted killer. As the pair dig into the Vanger family history, they uncover secrets, corruption and a blood-drenched trail that hints at an evil far greater than the murder of one girl.

This is a novel that delivers hugely on several levels. It's as ingenious and finely-plotted as any mystery I've read this year, as well as bone-chillingly scary and, by at its climax, utterly thrilling. But as good as the plot is, the characters are even better. Throw in the exotic and finely evoked sense of place and Larsson's unique pacing and rhythm, and you have the makings of a real modern classic.

Originally written in Swedish, the novel was translated into English by Reg Keeland, and it seems to have been a smooth translation. You can tell that it's a translation; there's the occasional word or sentence that seems awkward or somehow uncomfortable, but for the most part it doesn't detract from the book at all. The unusual rhythm is part of what makes the novel so interesting. Larsson has an odd style, both leisurely and compulsive. He has no qualms at slowing the story down to deliver a large chunk of exposition on Swedish business or guardianship laws. This is the kind of thing that I usually get annoyed at, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work for Larsson. The information dumps that occur here and there usually work for the story, and the slower pace gives the central mystery more depth and gives the characters more time to develop.

The plot is indeed a gorgeous thing, twisted and complex and perfectly executed. A mystery narrative this good is extremely rare and incredibly difficult. Larsson infuses the story with melancholy and loss; the question of what happened on that day has settled over Hedeby Island like a blanket. The mystery is not just a dry intellectual exercise: it has palpable influence over the present. Larsson lets us feel the frustration of the investigation, as Blomkvist spends long hours trying to make even a small amount of headway. There is a great deal of sifting through old documents, searching for old pictures, hunting through files for the smallest clue. It sounds dull, but it's much more realistic than our heroes immediately finding huge leads in a forty-year old cold case. When the breakthroughs finally begin to come, Larsson completely avoids the classic mystery-novel fumble (the mid-book tangle of clues and suspects) and instead gives us a logical puzzle that twists every time we think we have a handle on it. The double-pronged solution is brilliant, and the confrontation with the book's main villain is incredibly intense and chilling--like, try not to hyperventilate while reading a book, intense and chilling.

But the plot is still window dressing, because it's the characters that make the novel such a success. Although Salander gets all the attention, Blomkvist is a finely drawn protagonist. Erudite, intelligent, reserved in word and action, we spend a lot of time in Blomkvist's head and yet we learn more about him from the narration of other characters. He could have been simply the straight man to Lisbeth's unusual personality, but he's a lot more complex than that. The minor characters are uniformly interesting, from the personable, but hardened, Henrik Vanger to the emotionally unstable Cecilia Vanger to Blomkvist's fellow editor and part-time lover, Erika Berger. Larsson likes a meaty characterization and there's hardly a single figure in the book without a somewhat memorable personality; even Frode, the dutiful family lawyer, has some layers.

It's Lisbeth's book, though, and she owns it. She really is one of the strangest characters I've ever read about, and certainly one of the most fascinating. The quintessential loner, Lisbeth is an incredibly gifted researcher and computer hacker who has seemingly no interest in human contact. Sometimes unresponsive to the point of catatonia, sometimes eloquent and well-spoken, Salander is capable of extreme violence and fits of rage, which she hides behind a frosty exterior. Seemingly bisexual, possibly autistic and lacking any social skills, she is an outcast from society, not dependant on anyone anyone except herself and her legal guardian. Lisbeth is a cipher, a conundrum, a mystery to everyone around her. She comes very close to the edge of being an outright antihero, but she seems to function within her own moral guidelines. Larsson does not bring Salander into the main story until more than halfway through the novel; instead, we are privy to a highly unpleasant episode in her life that functions as a lengthy subplot.

Salander's horrific rape by her legal guardian and subsequent revenge is by now the book's most famous sequence (people are inevitably drawn to anything that's extremely violent or sexual). It's a truly horrifying turn of events, described in matter-of-fact terms by Larsson, who, to his credit, mostly resists reveling in the salaciousness of the storyline. The scene is still rather difficult to read, and it's hard to say whether it was truly necessary or not. I give Larsson credit for not showing too much detail, as that would have come off as nasty and James Patterson-esque. Lisbeth's vengeance is powerful and satisfying, although almost as brutal as the rape. The whole story exists mostly to establish Lisbeth as a character (and to further illuminate the novel's theme of violence against women), and this it certainly does, in a memorably visceral way. Although Lisbeth is angry and violated by the rape, she does not seem to regard it as something very much out of the ordinary, and that may be the most chilling part of the whole affair. Her backstory, when it comes, will be inevitably traumatic.

But it's not Salander's rage that is the heart of the book, it's her slowly developing quasi-romantic relationship with Blomkvist. Theirs is a pairing that is almost immediately a classic dynamic, like Holmes and Watson, but, um, different. Very different. The way that Blomkvist gradually attempts to forge a friendship with Lisbeth, and her push-pull response, is a slightly mesmerizing bit of character work, and indicative of Larsson's excellent character work. It's a smart move to keep the two central characters apart for so much of the book, because by the time they finally meet, both have been clearly established. The novel's two sequels will undoubtedly deepen their relationship, judging by the rather heartbreaking little vignette that ends the novel. The love triangle between Blomkvist, Salander and Berger should be highly interesting, especially considering the extreme contrast between the two women.

If I have a quibble with the book, it's the subplot regarding Blomkvist's war with a corrupt Swedish industrialist, which is really only important at the very beginning and the very end. At the end of the novel, Larsson lovingly devotes a huge segment to the conclusion of the story, ignoring the fact that the mystery plot wrapped up fifty pages ago. It's a jarring leap from a dark, grisly serial-killer thriller to a complex account of financial crime and Swedish journalism. It's not a bad storyline by any means, just misplaced, and it makes the book's ending feel long and anticlimactic. The storyline has a distinct whiff of fantasy wish-fulfillment about it: Larsson was a crusading financial journalist himself, and it's easy to imagine that the whole plot is a thinly disguised version of real events. In any case, it's not the book's high point and it's a shame that it couldn't have been moved to one of the sequels or dealt with before the true climax.

That (fairly small) problem aside, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one wonderful book. Oddly enough, what it reminded me of was the Harry Potter series. Not in style, content or tone, but in the sense of being totally swept up in a near-perfect marriage of plot and character. This is a book that combines the appeal of the fast-paced thriller and the big, climb-in-and-live saga. It's a good thing that are two more books to develop Blomkvist and Salander, because they promise to become an iconic crime-fiction pairing, and the Millennium trilogy, or its first entry, at least, may well become a classic in the genre.

NEXT UP: My "Best of 2011" post should be up soon, and I'm currently reading Lev Grossman's critically acclaimed fantasy novel, The Magicians.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, 2009

I look at Cinna, raising my eyebrows for an explanation. He just gives his head a slight shake, as perplexed as I am. Why are they delaying this?

Suddenly the door behind him bursts open and three Peacekeepers spring into the room. Two pin Cinna's arms behind him and cuff him while the third hits him in the temple with such force he's knocked to his knees. But they keep hitting him with metal-studded gloves, opening gashes on his face and body. I'm screaming my head off, banging on the unyielding glass, trying to reach him. The Peacekeepers ignore me completely as they drag Cinna's limp body from the room. All that's left are the smears of blood on the floor.

Sickened and terrified, I feel the plate begin to rise. I'm still leaning against the glass when the breeze catches my hair and I force myself to straighten up. Just in time, too, because the glass is retreating and I'm standing free in the arena. Something seems to be wrong with my vision. The ground is too bright and shiny and keeps undulating. I squint down at my feet and see that my metal plate is surrounded by blue waves that lap up over my boots. Slowly I raise my eyes and take in the water spreading out in every direction.

I can only form one clear thought:

This is no place for a girl on fire.---- (pages 262-263)

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, tributes from the impoverished District 12, have won the Hunger Games. As the first joint winners of the games, Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a delicate political situation: the trick that won them the Games has made Katniss into a symbol of defiance against the government. As districts begin to rebel against the all-powerful Capitol, Katniss is forced to walk a tightrope between encouraging the rebels and keeping the Capitol appeased and her friends and family safe.

Things only get worse when the twist is revealed for the next year's Hunger Games: the tributes will be chosen from the former victors, all of whom are now countrywide celebrities. Katniss and Peeta will be forced to return to the arena, to compete against a gang of hardened older killers. And this time, only one of them can survive the Games.

Like The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is a zippy and highly entertaining novel, written with a lot of originality and verve. Even though Fire had some structural problems that Games didn't, I actually enjoyed it more. Since the characters and world have already been established, Collins is free to deepen the plot and character development, while still providing hair-raising adventure and some admirably imaginative devices. I'm not doing handstands over the central love triangle, which occurs more in Katniss's mind than in reality, but it's still done pretty well.

The only real problem with the book is that it has a slow beginning, a repetitive middle and a terrific third act. We know from the beginning that Katniss and Peeta will end up in the arena again, since it's the book's main plot and it's the only direction the story can go in. But instead of revealing this early, Collins draws out the revelation, focusing on happenings inside District 12, where the Capitol is tightening its control. The dystopian elements are not the real draw of the series; Collins does a fine job of making the Capitol a believably evil force of facism, but she doesn't do much that's new with the concept. Having Katniss internally recap the events of the first book for about thirty pages starts things off rather sluggishly, and it doesn't help that the love triangle proves to be more conceptual than actual. Katniss goes over the Peeta/Gale debate in her head over and over, despite the fact that there isn't enough interaction between either couple to warrant all the analysis (that said, the idea that Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to be lovers for the camera is delightfully wicked).

Once the twist in the Games is revealed, we have to go through all of the Games-related routines that were established in the previous book--like all reality shows, the Hunger Games has a set formula that is repeated each year. This is fine and is probably necessary for the story, but it sometimes feel like a warmed-over rehash of what happened in Games. It feels as though the story doesn't really begin until the Games do, some 260 pages in.

Like its predecessor, the last act is far and away the best part of Fire. The concept of the deadly competition is Collins's masterstroke and she does a great job of coming up with inventive (and sometimes grisly) traps and obstacles. This time around, the other tributes are also much better developed than Katniss's opponents in Games, something that leads to a much more dynamic conflict, since Katniss actually knows some of the people she's fighting. The whole section reads like one long action movie--which it soon will be, since the adaptation of the first book is coming out next year. Collins has provided quite a gift for the filmmakers with Fire; her talent for cinematic description is one of her most useful writing tools.

I still have problems with young-adult-iness of her writing. Having bare-bones descriptions is not bad in and of itself, but when writing about a sci-fi world, it seems odd not to describe it more effectively. For instance, the whole Captiol is described in only a few lines, as is the arena. Collins's spare style may be perfect for action, but it hurts her a bit when it comes to world-building. On the other hand, we get pages of Katniss's emotional descriptions, which tend to be pretty generic star-crossed lover material. A lot of teen literature has this kind of internal narration, as though younger readers can't interpret a character's motives based on her actions and dialogue. Collins does tend to over-explain and reiterate certain concepts over and over; she feels the need to remind everyone that Haymitch is an alcoholic every few pages by having him throw up or pass out. The present-tense narration also turns into a distraction after a while. A more conventional past-tense might have served the story better.

There's definitely stronger character work in Fire than in Games. Katniss is still a pretty engaging protagonist, even if she goes back and forth between being a total badass and an emotional wreck. Gale gets a little more depth, as we see the depth of his hatred for the Capitol and his desire to escape his miserable life in District 12. Peeta remains the most likable character, and Collins gives him some much-needed dimension here. A couple of the new characters show promise as well. President Snow is an appropriately unnerving baddie and dangerous heartthrob Finnick Odair is an interesting and somewhat multi-layered addition to the cast. Even though Collins is not particularly good at writing compelling supporting characters, her heroes are strong enough to keep the plot moving along and just complex enough to keep the book from feeling cartoonish.

I spent most of Catching Fire enjoying myself without getting too involved or being much shocked by the plot twists, so when Collins suddenly hit the gas and gave us one hell of a cliffhanger ending, I was surprised by how skillfully she had woven it. It's an ending that basically upends everything that has been constant about her universe and sets up an all-bets-are-off final chapter, 2010's Mockingjay. I still wish that Collins had written the trilogy with an adult audience in mind, allowing her to have a more complex plot and richer prose, but Catching Fire is still a pretty satisfying and creative sci-fi thriller, and I'm genuinely excited to see how it all turns out in Mockingjay.

NEXT UP: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, 2011

Thorn roared, and then he sprang up from the street into the air above the black-shrike-thorn-cave and hung there, flapping heavily to maintain his position. He appeared as a featureless black silhouette against the wall of flames rising from the houses behind him, save for his translucent wings, which glowed orange and crimson.

He lunged toward her, reaching out with his serrated claws.

Saphira waited until the last possible moment; then she leaped to the side, off the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and Thorn rammed headfirst into the base of the cathedral's central spire. The tall-hole-ridden-stone-spike shuddered under the impact, and the very top of it--an ornate golden rod--toppled over and plunged more than four hundred feet to the square below.

Roaring with frustration, Thorn struggled to right himself. His hindquarters slid into the opening Saphira had torn in the roof, and he scrabbled against the tiles as he tried to claw his way back out.

While he did, Saphira flew to the front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave and positioned herself on the opposite side of the spire Thorn had collided with.

She gathered her strength, then batted the spire with her right forepaw.

Statues and carved decorations shattered underneath her foot; clouds of dust clogged her nostrils; and bits of stone and mortar rained down upon the square. The spire held, though, so she struck it again.

Thorn's bellowing took on a frantic note as he realized what she was doing, and he strove even harder to pull himself free.

On Saphira's third blow, the tall-stone-spike cracked at the base and, with agonizing slowness, collapsed backward, falling toward the roof. Thorn only had time to utter a furious snarl, and then the tower of rubble landed on top of him, knocking him down into the shell of the ruined building and burying hum under piles of rubble.

The sound of the spire smashing to pieces echoed across the whole of the rat-nest-city, like a clap of rolling thunder.
--- (pages 320-321)

Eragon, the first novel in the Inheritance Cycle, was published in 2002 when its author was only eighteen--he began writing it when he was only fifteen. Eragon is clearly the work of a young author; the writing is uneven and stilted, the dialogue an awkward mix of modern and faux-medieval and the plot is a Star Wars carbon copy, with dollops of Lord of the Rings added for good measure. What made the novel so much fun was Paolini's energy and endless enthusiasm for his subject matter; he wrote like a precocious kid having the time of his life. It didn't hurt that the plot, though derivative, moved like a runaway train, and that his world is filled with dragons, elves, magic, battles, dwarves and monsters.

The next novel, Eldest (2005), had an entirely different set of problems from its predecessor. Paolini mostly abandoned the puppy-dog-eagerness and stylistic simplicity of Eragon in favor of a long-winded, pretentious style, as though he was responding to his critics with a thesaurus by his side. His attempts at incorporating New Age-y wisdom and chunks of metaphysics into the story didn't work out too well, either. The penultimate installment, 2008's Brisingr, brought greater balance and maturity to the series, despite a draggy pace and a tacked-on ending. For all his other faults, Paolini has always been a crackerjack storyteller and I've enjoyed his books for a long time. I've been eagerly looking forward to Inheritance all year. As the final book in the series, Inheritance promised to be a treat, the epic conclusion to a story that I'm pretty invested in after all these years.

Alagaesia, the world of the Inheritance Cycle, is fairly similar to a Middle-earth with more dragons and less hobbits. The Cycle follows Eragon, a young human who discovers that he is one of the final Dragon Riders, a breed of warrior that died out a hundred years ago, when an evil Rider named Galbatorix destroyed them and declared himself king. Together with his dragon Saphira, Eragon joins a rebel organization called the Varden that's dedicated to defeating the insanely powerful Galbatorix. Quests and sword battles and poorly written romance ensues; you get the picture.

Inheritance finds Eragon and the Varden nearing the end of their military campaign against the Empire, but they are no closer to defeating Galbatorix, who has the power of hundreds of dragon souls at his disposal (don't ask), as well as a powerful slave in the form of Murtagh, Eragon's half-brother and fellow Rider. As the Empire and the Varden begin their final clash, Eragon and Saphira must unravel a decades-old secret to find Galbatorix's weakness and destroy him before their rebellion is forever crushed.

Like all endings, Inheritance has a difficult job to do. It has to resolve two thousand pages of conflict and dozens of subplots in a satisfying way, it has to compare favorably with its predecessors and leave the readers feeling like their investment of time and emotion has been worthwhile. For me, the novel was a totally absorbing and worthy end to the story; in fact, it's probably my favorite book of the four. Paolini's skills as a storyteller are undeniable and even though his writing still leaves something to be desired, he does a pretty darn good job of finishing the cycle with a bang. The characters are well-served by the story, the plot moves along nicely (a couple of dull chapters notwithstanding) and there are many, many action scenes, something that Paolini has a real knack for. The climactic Eragon/Galbatorix encounter is exciting and there are giant snails, too. What more do you want?

Paolini's writing is still sometimes pretentious and overly detailed, and his love affair with little-known, barely appropriate words continues unabated. He has progressed by leaps and bounds, though. His dialogue, despite the occasional B-movie exchange, has gotten much better and his characterization, once thin and bloodless, is now a little more nuanced. I do get annoyed that everyone in the series, no matter their status or upbringing, talks like an English professor or that Eragon's dragon mentor gives half-baked Zen advice that Yoda would deem spurious, but these are minor and slightly endearing flaws that I've grown used to after hundreds of pages. His strengths as a storyteller outweigh his technical flaws and he could easily stand with many of the successful writers working in the epic fantasy genre. For instance, his prose and character-building outstrips Robert Jordan's by a sizable margin, even if his mythology lacks the Wheel of Time's complexity and scope. Paolini is not a great world-builder like Tolkien or George R. R. Martin; Alagaesia and the races that dwell there feel like they've been brought in piecemeal from other fantasy works. But his books do have an admirably complex and consistent system of magic that he uses only rarely for deus ex machina.

One thing that Paolini does very well, and always has, is action scenes. Inheritance is full of endless battles, fight, skirmishes and duels, all described in exhaustively gory detail. The action sometimes reads like the novelization of a video game, complete with levels, a hit point meter and a boss at the end of each mission. Though it does get a bit repetitive after a while, the constant over-the-top adventure keeps those pages turning, and Paolini is pretty darned good at keeping readers on their toes with his creativity and propulsive writing. The final siege is a truly exciting and epic sequence, culminating in a terrific struggle between Roran and the commander of the Empire's troops. The dragon/dragon combat is quite thrilling as well. Sure, most of the fighting has the gleefully unbelievable appeal of a Hollywood action movie (the good guys' seemingly limitless power is a bit wearying), but it's done so well that I don't really care that he goes overboard at times.

Ultimately, Inheritance's secret weapon is the characters. Paolini started out with a pretty cardboard cast of heroes, villains, rogues, mentors and cannon fodder, but as the series has progressed, the main characters have developed into likable, somewhat relatable people with distinct personalities. The characters may not be quite three-dimensional (everybody stays in their roles, for the most part), but they are well-drawn. For all that his occasional whining is annoying (not to mention that odd pacifistic streak that only pops up every now and then), Eragon is a distinctive and fully-realized hero who has never been a simple Magical Orphan protagonist. Saphira is very much a character in her own right, and Paolini has done a great job in making her both alien and familiar. Arya, Eragon's elven love interest, has been an annoyance for most of the series--she was initially written with an almost fawning appreciation for her beauty and tenacity, despite that the fact that she had the winning personality of Mr. Spock. Inheritance singlehandedly redeems her in my eyes: for the first time, Paolini hits the right balance between Arya's human traits and her elvish ones. She's still a bit less compelling than she should be, given her crucial role in the story, but her dynamic with Eragon is more smoothly written here than in Eragon or Eldest.

The series' two breakout characters, Eragon's cousin Roran and his half-brother Murtagh, also get a fine showing in Inheritance. Roran, who has graduated from a minor supporting character to a secondary protagonist, is not the deepest or most complicated character, but his resourcefulness, tenacity and unbending determination to create a safe life for his wife and family are strangely compelling. I like the fact that Paolini uses him to occasionally cut through all the magical and metaphysical crap that sometimes burdens the story. He also gets all the best action scenes, despite the fact that he has no superhuman skills of his own except a really good hammer arm. If someone out there has not already dubbed him Captain Hammer, I'll be astonished.

Murtagh is one of the few morally murky characters in the saga, and certainly the most interesting. Paolini had given us only relatively brief appearances from Murtagh up until Inheritance, probably realizing his potential. Murtagh is the heart of the final book's most intriguing storyline, as he struggles to defy Galbatorix in order to save the woman he loves. This is the darkest place that the cycle has gone to so far, and Paolini deserves credit for an excellent piece of character development. Murtagh's eventual triumph over Galbatorix is a bit too reminiscent of Darth Vader and the Emperor, but it's still a good conclusion to the series' best character arc.

Speaking of Galbatorix, the first appearance of the evil Rider was one of the things I was looking forward to in the fourth book. Like the shark in Jaws, Galbatorix has been confined to the shadows for the first three books in the Cycle, a device that was intriguing at first, but eventually started to feel like a cop-out, to the point where he doesn't seem like much of a threat. So much of the mythology rests on Galbatorix's motives and actions, his endless power is discussed over and over, his evil and cruelty is talked about and reiterated. Yet we don't see what is arguably the entire cycle's central character until halfway through the last book. When he finally shows up, it's an anticlimax. After that much buildup, it would have been nearly impossible for Galbatorix to live up to his reputation.

To Paolini's credit, Galbatorix is not just a sneering mustache-twirler like Durza; his dialogue is appropriately silky, his threats veiled, but convincingly dangerous. As a villain, he's fine. As the mega-super-arch-villain of the entire series, he's a disappointment. There's not enough time to develop him as a character or to deal with the massive amount of backstory that has accumulated. He's introduced, he sneers a lot, and then he's dispatched in a fairly satisfying manner. We don't get much anger from him, or any sense of the insanity that he's known for. The instigating event that led him to evil--the death of his dragon--is not so much as touched upon. Keeping the Big Bad under wraps might have seemed like a good idea early on in the series, but the strategy ends up being Inheritance's major weakness.

Still, the climax is far from disappointing. Paolini neatly combines several plot threads to provide an ending that's both cathartic and reasonable from a plot standpoint. I might have liked a more personal confrontation between Eragon and Galbatorix, but it's still a perfectly suitable and fitting conclusion to the series' main storyline. Paolini then makes the dubious choice of following the climax with over a hundred pages of falling action. And this is where I start having problems.

For one, it feels as though he's raising as many questions as he's answering in the final stretch. Several important characters get open-ended fates that will probably end up getting addressed in a companion novel, which feels like a slightly lazy way to deal with them. Despite the length of the final chapters, not much happens in them until Eragon makes a crucial decision. Which is where my second problem lies. This decision makes little sense from a plot or character standpoint; it only occurs so that the book can have a dramatic ending that fits in with a prophetic dream Eragon had in the first volume. It's a gutsy ending, one that Paolini knew would be guaranteed to anger his readers, and I can't help but respect him for taking a risk like that. The ending also breaks up the Eragon/Arya relationship for good, a highly unusual choice considering the fact that their relationship has been one of the central points of the entire series. I was actually surprised how much I cared about the outcome, so I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do. It is not perhaps the perfect ending for the series (or for the characters), but it's one that I can accept.

Inheritance itself is an excellent conclusion to the cycle: gripping, moving and weighty. This is a more mature work than anything that's come before, with fewer plot holes and less contrivance. Characters that have grown up before our eyes get fitting final arcs and mysteries that have been in place since the beginning are paid off. It's not a perfect novel or a perfect ending, by any means, but it's enormously entertaining and mostly satisfying. The journey of Eragon and Saphira has been greatly enjoyable for many years, and I'm sorry to let them go, although I'm pleased that their final adventure is also their finest.

NEXT UP: More YA fantasy, with Catching Fire.