November in Review

Books Acquired:
None.

Books Read:
Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
Heat by Bill Buford
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
Ballistics: Poems by Billy Collins
French Milk by Lucy Knisley

With the move at the end of last month finished, November in comparison was very low-key. It was actually quite nice. December is beginning to sound pretty full, so this was a good way to lead up to it.

We stumbled across a few used turntables in a strange little out-of-town cafe and ended up buying one on the spot, Lee-Ann’s early Christmas gift to me. It’s a Technics SL-23 from the 70s, and it’s in great shape. These old turntables have more functionality than current turntables selling for over $500, at a fraction of the price, so we’re quite happy with this. It was more of a fun experiment than anything, something to play some random records we’ve picked up in the last year, so it’s nice to find a cheap option.

Limited edition #Psychonauts soundtrack, signed with love by @timoflegend ! #nowspinning

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An ominous soundtrack for cleaning the house this afternoon. #transistorgame #nowspinning

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I picked up quite a few game soundtracks while at PAX at the end of the summer, which are great to throw on while writing, and we’ve picked up a couple of our favourite albums as well. It’s good fun. I attached a Chromecast Audio to the system, so we have access to Spotify and the modern, non-hipster, world as well.

Movies watched:
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015) – I love Indiana Jones – have I mentioned that lately? – and will typically watch anything even remotely related, but I still wasn’t that excited about this going in. I really didn’t think I’d care, but it turned out to be a great little story about creating something for yourself, for the sake of doing it, and I ended up really liking it.

TV watched:
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016) – Both Lee-Ann and I liked the Gilmore Girls television show, and revisiting the town and characters was a lot of fun. The dialogue and set were both great, but all of the plot decisions were just awful.

Games played:
Titanfall 2 (2016) (PC) – Great single player campaign. The multiplayer is fun, but it’s not hooking me in like I expected. When I do play it, the abysmally unbalanced matchmaking can be frustrating.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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The Dispatcher

The DispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Zachary Quinto
Length: 02:19 (75 pages)

This is John Scalzi’s latest novella, and it’s somewhat unique in that he wrote it to be published as an audiobook before print. This means he had the audio in mind while writing, and I think it actually did him some good.

In his previous writing, he’s had the tendency to get repetitive with using the word ‘said’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good word. It works well. Stephen King, if you consider him an authority, says it’s the only dialogue attribution that should be used. The problem is that he often writes snappy back-and-forth dialogue, conversations that can last pages, and he uses it on every line. I don’t really notice it when reading his novels, as I think I just subconsciously skip over it, but in audio it can be a struggle. I almost didn’t make it through the first chapter of Redshirts because of it, but thankfully this novel was free from any such problem.

The main character is a man called Tony Valdez. He is a Dispatcher, which means he’s hired by insurance companies to murder their clients before they die, which at first obviously sounds counterproductive, but a strange phenomenon has occurred recently in the world. People who die at the hands of another wake up in immediately in their homes, naked and uninjured. If they die naturally, they stay dead. If they’re purposefully killed, they find themselves slightly traumatized but alive.

Tony Valdez is approached by a cop for information on a friend of his who has gone missing. He finds himself pulled in, against his will, to the investigation, and along the way we get to learn more about this new temporary murder and how it’s affected certain aspects of society. I found this to be a fascinating thought experiment, which he explores from quite a few different angles, and the story was fun as well. Not one of Scalzi’s best, but I think that’s partly due to this being a novella trying to handle a premise that deserved a longer novel.

My only major gripe was how the cop was used to explain everything. She would ask questions that would make sense for us, the readers, to ask, having no experience with this world, but they sounded ridiculous coming from a police officer. Dispatchers work legally out of hospitals, and laws have already changed to accommodate this new situation, so how does she know so little? I understand Scalzi needed a natural way to continue explaining what was happening to the reader, but a cop felt like a very odd choice to me and anything but natural. At one point Valdez has to explain that it’s legal for him to borrow her gun for his job, and she just takes him on his word. I know it’s a short novella with a lot to explain, but I found it very distracting.

Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, Heroes) did a great job with the narration. His voice was tempered throughout, almost flat, but it worked with the dark and eerie atmosphere of the novel. The print version will be released in May 2007. It sounds like he might write sequels to this in the future, and I hope he does. It’s an interesting premise that deserves more time.

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Amazonia

AmazoniaAmazonia by James Rollins
Published: 2002
Length: 510 pages

In the first five pages of this book, the main character wrestles an anaconda under water and is sentenced by an Amazonian tribe to trail by combat. We’re also introduced to a secondary character that has a rehabilitated jaguar as a hunting partner and an Indiana Jones whip hanging from his hip, which later he actually uses to flick a gun out of someone’s hand. This novel begins on an absolutely ridiculous level and manages to maintain that for its entire length, which is impressive.

Four years prior to the anaconda fight, a scientific expedition travelled into the Amazon rainforest and lost contact with the outside world. A search party was sent in after them, but the search was unsuccessful and the scientists were presumed dead. The book begins with a member of that original expedition stumbling out of the jungle and into a small village, near death and miraculously no longer an amputee – his missing arm appearing to have grown back. Another search group is formed, consisting of American military personnel and some local scientists, to trace the man’s trail back into the jungle.

This was just so dumb, but it was dumb enough to be fun – the Sharknado of thriller novels. I enjoyed the fact that I often had no idea what was coming next. It’s difficult to know what to expect at each turn when the story is just a steady feed of insane situation after insane situation.

There were some moments where I could see what was coming, and that anticipation was still a fun experience. At one point, when a major twist was revealed at the end of the novel, my mind, now trained for this plot, immediately jumped to what would be the stupidest conclusion. I spent the next chapter hoping it wouldn’t be true, but when the time arrived, not only did he go for it, he exceeded even my expectations.

While I am on board with the over-the-top adventure of this novel, the characters left a lot to be desired. It’s hard to care about any of them. They have interesting jobs, and do interesting things, but they have very little personality. Rollins tries to force you to care about them, but it’s so heavy-handed that it just comes across as silly and tedious. At one point, we learn that the only daughter of one of the scientists is in trouble, and in order to really drive home the gravity of the situation, we’re told that due to a medical issue in her past she can no longer have children. That felt like such a bizarre way to ramp up the tension to me. Are we meant to feel worse about the child possibly dying because, unlike in other families, she can’t easily be replaced?

This was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned I had read The Lost City of Z, which is an incredibly different book but still revolves around an expedition into the Amazon jungle. This is essentially the Hollywood blockbuster take on what Percy Fawcett may have gone through. It was interesting reading them in this order, as the jungle described by Rollins felt quite different from the descriptions in Fawcett’s journal. As the expedition sets off in this novel, it was mentioned that they didn’t make much food with them. One of the characters explained that food was plentiful in the jungle, to which I gave a very smug ‘nah uh’. Half of the expeditions lead by Fawcett seemed to end with the entire team nearly starving to death. A lot of the life in the jungle lives up in the canopy, which makes it actually quite difficult to scavenge or hunt down below.

I haven’t read many thrillers in the past few years, really just Jurassic Park and its sequel, but I could see myself picking up more of them. Despite its many flaws, I did really have fun with this, although I do wonder if it would still be as fun if the shock of the absurdity was removed.

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Northanger Abbey

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Published: 1817
Narrated by: Juliet Stevenson
Length: 08:16 (251 pages)

The only other Austen I’ve read is Pride and Prejudice, and while I did enjoy the writing and the spots of humour, I just didn’t connect with the story at all. I did want to try some of her other work, but I just wasn’t left with a burning desire to seek them out.

Catherine is innocent to the point of being a bit dense, and she’s just moved to Bath to stay with relatives and attend the season’s social events. As with Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, everyone around her is frantic to find a spouse. She seems less concerned. I’m guessing this is a common theme in Austen novels, showing the absurdity of that aspect of a 17th century young woman’s life. While in Bath, Catherine becomes friends with a pair of siblings, who as we read on also show themselves to also be quite dense, stepping over the line into twit territory. As you might guess, the story then becomes a ‘will she, won’t she’ with a couple of men, but it plays out in a more interesting way than that sounds.

I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.

I enjoyed Northanger Abbey much more than Pride and Prejudice. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of Catherine, but her naivety and, let’s face it, simplemindedness serves the story perfectly. She is not your average heroine. But to counterbalance this aspect of her personality, she also has moments of incredible thoughtfulness and reasoning, a trait many protagonists sadly lack. I was reading this around the same time as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and what I liked about that also applies to this novel – misunderstandings that could erupt into unwarranted drama are easily dealt with by people just speaking to one another.

It’s a concept that won’t shock anyone to hear, but it’s an incredibly common method of pushing a plot forward. Something that could be fixed over a cup of coffee turns into a war. I supposed the same could be said about most real life drama as well, so it’s not just a case of plot manipulation, but it’s still frustrating when you notice it.

What I loved most about this, however, was how booknerdy it was! Catherine is obsessed with gothic fiction, to the point that she sometimes has trouble separating the stories she loves with reality (which leads to some trouble later in the novel). She’s put off by a wannabe suitor describing the reading of fiction as a feminine pursuit and was overjoyed when Henry Tilney contradicted that and shared with her his own love of reading. I couldn’t care less if Elizabeth Bennet ended up with Mr. Darcy, or any other man in that novel, but after this scene I was like “you make this man your husband right this instant”. From her obsessing over what was going to happen next in her book, to Henry making up a story for her on their drive to the Abbey, I loved every bookish moment.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

I was lukewarm on Austen before this novel, but this has piqued my interest again. Considering my preference for this more lighthearted and humorous novel, I’d be interested to hear anyone’s suggestion for the next Austen I should pick up. I’m leaning towards Emma at the moment. I’m also now interested in reading Mysteries of Udolpho, after Catherine went on about it so enthusiastically.

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Published: 2014
Series: Wayfarers #1
Narrated by: Patricia Rodriguez
Length: 15:41 (518 pages)

A couple weekends ago I travelled to my hometown to help my sister and mother pack up and move house, and it was a bit of an organizational nightmare – scheduling problems, movers not arriving, incorrectly sized storage units. It was a weekend rife with potential pitfalls, but we dealt with each problem as it came up. Much of it sucked, but we stayed calm and kept moving forward. In many ways, this story plays out a lot like my weekend did.

The story begins with a human from Mars boarding a spaceship for a new job. The ship houses a small crew of multiple species, including a sentient computer system, and its purpose is to travel to different areas of the universe to punch wormholes through space, enabling others to travel the same distance instantly. Soon after she arrives, the team lands an unprecedented job that will require them to travel a long distance, over a long period of time, into the territory of a race who, until recently, was an aggressive enemy of the galactic alliance. It’s dangerous, but it pays well, so they accept the contract.

Once they set off, that plot fades away and we’re left with a varied group of people living together in close quarters for an extended period of time. We slowly learn about each individual through intersecting plotlines, and the novel begins to feel less like a science-fiction space drama and more like Cannery Row, in a good way. By the end of the novel, you really know these characters and their struggles with family, prejudice, love, and faster-than-light travel (okay, some of it still feels like science-fiction).

Ninety percent of all problems are caused by people being assholes.

Part of what I loved was how the characters acted like reasonable people. It sounds like a silly comment to make, but when problems would arise they were dealt with in ways that made sense. Nothing was drawn out needlessly and characters didn’t overreact for the sake of drama. There’s certainly tragedy and hardship, but when the members of the crew had issues they just discussed how they felt and found answers. They supported each other and treated each other with respect, and while it doesn’t provide a lot of conflict, it was a nice change of pace. In a world that feels less sane every day, a world where Americans would willingly elect a KKK-endorsed reality star as their president, it’s nice to spend time in a story where people are decent to each other.

I wouldn’t want all novels to be as light on plot and conflict as this, but somehow Becky Chambers made it work. She really has a gift for writing characters. I thought this was fantastic, and I’m looking forward to picking up the sequel.

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October in Review

Books Acquired:
Room by Emma Donoghue
Sex Criminals, Volume 3: Three the Hard Way by Matt Fraction
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi
Rick Stein’s Long Weekends by Rick Stein

Books Read:
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Amazonia by James Rollins
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

I managed to accumulate a load of books this month without really trying, but two are cookbooks and don’t really count. Also, Room was given to Lee-Ann and passed off to me, so that’s a freebie as well.

Had a wonderful time listening to John Cleese and Eric Idle discuss the early years tonight.

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We went to see John Cleese and Eric Idle this month, which I was thrilled about. They were hilarious, and it was a joy to experience Eric Idle singing his classic songs, including Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.

I also went back to my hometown and helped my sister and mother pack up and move here with me. Well, not with me, but somewhere near me. It’ll be nice to have family in town, and it also means that I won’t have to travel during the holidays this year, which is an early Christmas gift in itself. I don’t want to brag too much, but I drove a 27′ truck solo for the 8 hour trip and didn’t run over a single person or animal.

Movies watched:
Me Before You (2016) – Lee-Ann loves the JoJo Moyes novel, so this was a must watch for her. I enjoyed it, but the portrayal of someone paralyzed and suffering from chronic pain was very superficial, which I think hurt the whole movie. I was also slightly distracted by Emilia Clarke eyebrows, which seemed to have a life of their own.

Jurassic World (2015) – I didn’t expect this to be great, and it really wasn’t. They just can’t seem to capture the magic of that first movie. This one looked good, and it was fun to see the park filled with people, but the writing was just awful.

The Nut Job (2014) – This had some funny moments, but was irritating in a lot of ways. It’s a movie that features Gangnam Style, seemingly unironically, so that’s really all you need to know. Lee-Ann made me watch it.

My Old Lady (2014) – I really enjoyed this, even with all of its problems. The relationships between the characters felt completely false, partly because Kevin Kline’s character was such an unredeemable asshole. The emotional bits were a bit too over-the-top, but the lighthearted moments were fun.

Ant-Man (2015) – This felt like it could have been really great, but it still turned out to be a solid Marvel blockbuster. I just wish I could see what Edgar Wright would have come up with.

TV watched:
None

Games played:
Firewatch (2016) (PC) – I loved this. Just a few hours long, but a great story with fantastic voice-acting.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (2016) (PC) – I’ve played through this once last month, but I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this often over the next couple of years. It’s what you’d expect from a Civilization game. but with some fun improvements. Looking forward to spending more time with this.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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Saga, Volume 6

Saga, Volume 6Saga, Volume 6 by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by: Fiona Staples
Published: 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 152 pages
Collects: issues #31–36

Maybe it’s because nearly a year has passed since I read the last volume, but this really felt like a return to form.

saga

The last couple of books had characters everywhere, with different objectives, and it felt scattered. New characters were being introduced at an alarming rate, and minor characters were getting lost in the shuffle. Quite a dramatic event happened at the end of the fifth volume, and it took me a while to remember who the character involved was, which was clearly not intended reaction.

This volume, however, is much more focused, and it’s dropped a lot of the soap opera nonsense that had started to crop up in the plot. It skips forward a few years in the future, which is something I often find annoying in stories, but this time it felt like a welcome palate cleansing break. The child narrator is now an adorable four-year-old, and her parents are desperately trying to find her. She is currently trapped with a family member in a high-security prisoner-of-war camp, so the story has a fun heist vibe while re-establishing the characters and plotline.

There is a side plot of people tracking the parents and their child, which is less interesting but not unbearable. It adds tension and will hopefully come into its own without muddling the main storyline again, but I thought in this volume the balance between the viewpoint characters worked really well.

I was starting to drift from this series a little, but I’m back on the hype train. I’m eager to get to the next volume, but I have a feeling it won’t be coming out until early next year.

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The Vegetarian

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
Published: 2007
Translated By: Deborah Smith (from Korean in 2015)
Length: 192 pages

The Vegetarian is this year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, but I’ve seen very mixed reviews since it was awarded the prize last May. I like to watch BookTube videos, and that community seems to be simultaneously obsessed with the Man Booker prize and disapproving of every novel that is shortlisted for it, so I never know what to think. I saw the name so often in the last few months that I picked it up during my Powell’s shopping spree at the end of the summer just to see what the deal was.

I’m also on the hunt for a good list of books, whether that’s a list of prize winners or a random organization’s ‘top 100 novels’ list, because I finished my Classics Club list half a year ago and I’ve been floating directionless ever since. I need a checklist to ignore.

This is, as you might guess, about a woman who becomes a vegetarian. She makes this change in her life because of a dream, and her husband is appalled. Forgoing meat in South Korea is already a strange and subversive act to some, but she takes it even further by throwing out all of the meat in the house and finding herself disgusted by the lunch meat smell when her husband returns from work. This goes well beyond a change in diet, however, as she becomes more and more listless and withdrawn as time goes on.

It’s hard to understand what’s happening to her. She isn’t the narrator, and she doesn’t even attempt to discuss her thoughts, so most of the novel involves other people becoming frustrated with the main character and treating her horribly, particularly the men in her life. Her husband is one of the most selfish characters I’ve come across in a while, and most of the other characters aren’t much better. The novel starts off quite dark and really doesn’t let up.

Really thought this would be more about cabbage. O.o

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It’s an interesting read. Knowing nothing about the author or story going in, I was questioning whether she was experiencing something supernatural or suffering from a mental illness, and in either case whether she would find the help she needs. Han Kang did a brilliant job, particularly in the last section of the novel, in conveying the feeling of helplessness and frustration that comes with trying to support someone who doesn’t want to, or is incapable of, change. Showing plainly how heartbreaking it can be to watch someone hurt themselves.

I found myself interested in the story from start to finish. The writing was simple while still being very evocative. I want to note that Deborah Smith, the translator, apparently began learning Korean in 2010, and this was the first novel she translated. To start learning a language relatively recently, and now have a shared Man Booker prize, is pretty incredible. She did a great job with this.

As with the last Man Booker novel I read, The Sea, it felt like it wasn’t as full a package as I’d expect from the winner of one of the most prestigious literary awards, but it’s definitely a read that sticks in your mind for a long time after.

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Captain America: Winter Soldier

Captain America: Winter SoldierCaptain America: Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker
Format: Trade Paperback
Illustrated by: Steve Epting / Mike Perkins / Michael Lark
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #1-9 & 11-14
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Published: 2005 (collected in 2010)
Length: 304 pages

Growing up, I was not the least bit interested in Captain America. I think he always seemed a bit tacky to Canadian readers. We have had a couple of maple leaf clad heroes, one with the embarrassing name of Captain Canuck, but they never really took off. I think by the time I was reading comics, the whole squeaky-clean patriotic leader idea wasn’t really in style.

1629

Once I learned a bit about Captain America, he seemed a much more interesting character. His backstory involves the loyal flag-waving, what he was created for, but throughout the years he often became critical of the government, a reflection of American ideals and a reminder for when those ideals were being ignored, rather than just a hacky yes-man. I love that the first Captain America comic had him punching Hitler in the face a year before America entered the war. He was created in a time in history when a character like that made sense.

This book is Captain America in our present time as he tries to track down a Cosmic Cube that was acquired by Red Skull. Before he’s able to retrieve the cube, he’s intercepted by an unknown assassin, a companion he had thought dead for forty years. As the story progresses, we are introduced to the mysterious character and get to learn about his tragic life since his supposed death and why he has seemingly turned evil. It’s a well written story that hooked me even without having any connection to, and very little knowledge of, the characters. It’s a great introduction to that cast, as the assassin’s story is told through flashbacks that span the length of Captain America’s career.

I picked this up ages ago to read before the film was released, which didn’t happen. I heard about this Ed Brubaker run enough times that, despite not really knowing anything about the character, I wanted to give it a try. I’m glad I did. The art was very good, but where this really succeeded was in the interesting story. I imagine it would be mind-blowing if you were an old-school fan to see a character brought back from literally forty years ago. It’s something that can’t happen in a lot of mediums, but the long-running and continuous nature of comic publications make something like that possible.

Worth picking up if you’re enjoying the movies.

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Off to Be the Wizard

Off to Be the Wizard (Magic 2.0, #1)Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
Published: 2014
Series: Magic 2.0 #1
Narrated by: Luke Daniels
Length: 10:15 (372 pages)

This has been on my Audible recommended list for quite a while. I happily judge books by their covers when browsing for something to read, and I have to admit, as a life-long lover of video games, I was suckered in by this cover. It’s almost unfair, really. This was written by Scott Meyer, who has a web comic I was unaware of called Basic Instructions.

This is about an unhappy programmer named Martin Banks who, out of boredom, spends time digging through random files on random file servers. He finds a document that allows him to manipulate the world. It has entries for every object in existence, and if he changes his height attribute on his personal entry, he will immediately become that height. If he changes his latitude and longitude, he will then be in that location. If he adds a couple of feet to his altitude, he’ll probably land on his ass. The world, he discovers, is just a computer program, and he’s able to control everything around him in a way that appears as magic to others.

Where did the file came from, what does it mean for humanity, who controls the system, what other files are available, what type of file system allows files of that size (maybe less important) – none of these questions occur to Martin. He just happily accepts what’s happening and moves on.

The beginning of this novel is just bad. I don’t know if his writing improved as he went along, and he just never went back to revise, but I almost had to stop. I am glad I persevered, though, as it became an enjoyable story once he found his stride. I wish it wasn’t quite as light as it is. The situation he uncovered, all of humanity being nothing but a computer simulation, has some pretty obvious philosophical questions that could be explored, but it’s all glossed over. This is a trilogy, so maybe those ideas will be explored in the later books, but Martin’s lack of curiosity really felt unnatural to me.

The story is full of interesting ideas, but it feels like Meyer rushed through to get to the bit he was most interested in, which left it feeling empty for the first half. It does start to pick up as the story moves along, thankfully. He does some interesting things with how the file is manipulated and how the wizarding community controls it, and I was genuinely interested in seeing what happened next. The overall premise, even though it isn’t explained at all, was a fun one that opened up a lot of possibilities.

One thing that always annoys me is when characters give a sly remarks about problems in the plot as if that excuses them, with comments like “this is like a bad movie” or, in this case, stating that someone is like a two-dimensional character in a bad novel. It’s just faking self-awareness. Joking about it doesn’t make it any less true. If you’re aware of a problem, fix it. I can see this working under very specific circumstances, maybe, but I’ve never read a novel that tried that joke without it being irritating.

There’s obviously a lot about this that bothered me – some of the writing, the plot holes, the lack of character development, the way characters didn’t seem to really stop and react to anything in any meaningful way – but despite all of this I still found it entertaining. Some of the dialogue and situations were actually really funny, and I enjoyed the unique ‘magic’ system and how it allowed for each wizard to manipulate the world in their own way, awarding them for creativity. Once I got over the problems and just accepted the novel for what it was, it was quite a fun listen.

As you can see, I’m a little conflicted with this one. I’m hesitant to carry on with the series, but I am slightly interested to see how the rest of the trilogy holds up. He has enough here to come up with something fun, but I’m worried that it will continue to fall short. He’s a funny author with interesting ideas, and he could potentially come out with some great novels if he can sort out his plotting issues.

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