The Last Apprentice: Curse of the Bane (book 2) by Joseph Delaney

I’m not sure what it is about this book that makes it so appealing. It’s fairly simple, not particularly surprising, not even especially unique. And yet, there is something oddly compelling about this series.

In book two, the Spook and Tom get called back to Priestown for the Spook’s estranged brother’s funeral. There are two particularly big problems with this: 1) there is a spirit called the Bane that is growing in strength and controls the town and nearly killed the spook in the past, and 2) there is a man called the Quisitor who likes to burn people who worship the devil and he considers the Spook to be one such person. To make matters worse, Alice shows up and you can never know how things will turn up when Alice is around.

At the opening of the book, I remember thinking, “well, this is an okay series but I don’t know that I will buy the next book” but for some reason, as I got further in, I found myself more interested (and ultimately I did go out and buy the third book). Maybe Delaney is simply slow at opening his novels or maybe I was just looking for series to stop reading because I have so many other books to read at this point, but either way, the book wound up being compelling.

There is a lost of strange history; how Tom’s parents met and the Spook’s past both have odd stories. In some ways it forms a strange mythology and it’s clear that there’s more coming. I’ve always been a fan of a bigger mythology, so here’s to hoping it pans out well.

The most compelling aspect of this book remains the dynamic between Alice and Tom. It is hard to tell whether the Spook thinks Alice is dangerous because she’s a girl or because she’s a witch, but you would think that considering how he spends a life being misunderstood, he would learn not to make assumptions and judge people so quickly without getting to know them. Whatever his issues, Alice remains the most complex character, calling into question what it means to be good and evil and if doing the “wrong thing” for the “right reason” makes you good or evil. And is it even wrong if it is a temporary solution?

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson

Finally I’ve read book twelve of the Wheel of Time series. I was waiting for it to come out in paperback since it is HUGE in hardcover.

Before I get into this book, written by Sanderson because Jordan died before he could write the final book (which has now been divided into three books), I want to talk about the series as a whole first. (I’ve read all but the prequel, which for some reason I’ve decided to save until after Sanderson writes the last two books.) My father was the one who recommended this series to me, though he said he stopped reading it after a few books. I can understand why.

This series has an enormous scope. Jordan went to great pains to create an in depth, complex world. He succeeded, but perhaps he went a little too far. There are so many characters (often with extremely similar names) and nations, that it’s hard to remember from book to book (and even chapter to chapter) who everyone is. Within the main land there’s Andor, Amadicia, Cairhein, Tear, Arad Doman, Shienar, Kandor, Illian, Murandy, Tarabon, and Arafel. Then there’s also the Aiel, the Sea Folk, the Seanchan, the Traveling Folk, and the Aes Sedai. All of these people have specific characteristics and details. I can only tell a few of them apart because there are just too many to keep track of. Forgetting this detail, it annoys me how “distinct” in look and behavior, people are from places that are so close to each other. It’s like saying that the people of North and South Carolina all look and act so distinctly that they are immediately distinguishable. This is a flaw in fantasy in general, but it felt particularly pronounced here.

In addition to the obsessive distinction between peoples, there is the even bigger obsession with distinguishing guys and girls. How often does a woman say/think “fool man!” in the books? We get it, guys and girls are different, but the degree to which this distinction was made (especially considering the fact that their heroes of legend were both male and female) became too much. I appreciate there being strong female characters who can take care of themselves and don’t appreciate being talked down to or “babied” by boys. I don’t appreciate them all thinking that every guy has zero common sense even when they’ve demonstrated otherwise. (And same goes for the reverse!) It felt like Jordan just doesn’t understand women, do the point where he over exaggerated their personalities.

It also has the flaw of having a character who just happens to always have the power to defeat whatever enemy he faces. Rand, meant to be the focus, ends up being the least interesting character. If I didn’t know that he was so crucial to the plot, I likely would have skipped the sections focused on him.

I also disliked Jordan’s tendency to write 100 pages about a character and then jump to a second character for a hundred pages and never come back to the first person. For one thing, if there is a character you don’t enjoy spending much time with (Rand…) you are stuck with them for a long time. And for another, if there are characters you really like, you are stuck unable to look at them for possibly hundreds of pages.

With all my complaints, you might wonder why I’ve continued reading the series. (They certainly aren’t short books after all.) But it definitely has its upsides. While Rand is a particularly dull character, some of the others–Mat, Thom, Egwene, Elayne, Birgitte, Aviendha, Siuan, Morainne–were quite interesting. Whereas it felt like Rand just luckily obtained his various abilities, you really felt like you watched characters like Elayne, Egwene, and Aviendha grow and learn how to use their powers. Mat, though he was just given his powers rather than developed them, did grow up over the course of the series. Birgitte was particularly interesting, a woman of legend pulled into the world before her time. Mostly, I kept reading for those characters that I enjoyed and sort of put up with the rest.

Now onto the Gathering Storm. As I picked up this book, I wondered how I would feel about it. A new author could be a good or bad thing. In the opening of the book, Sanderson left a note saying that he used Jordan’s notes to write it but he did not try to imitate Jordan’s writing style. I’m thrilled about this decision because it actually really raised the book, in my opinion. Gone were the long, unending segments about characters we didn’t care about. Instead we changed every chapter (or sooner!), allowing us to enjoy the plot’s movement and the following of our favorites. The writing itself felt smoother and less stiff. Until I read it, I didn’t realize that one of the things bothering me about Jordan’s work was how much it felt like he was trying to get the tone down. It shouldn’t feel like he’s trying, it should just BE right.

I love the number of twists brought into this story and while some surprises weren’t as surprising as perhaps they were meant to be (I have a friend who was particularly upset at Aviendha’s inability to figure out what the Wise Ones wanted), it didn’t bother me that much.

Egwene’s storyline in particular was masterfully handled and I am grateful that the final battle of the book revolved around her rather than Rand (we can only see Rand magically overcome the odds so many times–I mean, he beat the Dark One in book one, do we really think he’s going to lose to the Forsaken?). At the same time, the moments we did get of Rand at the end of the book were probably some of the best we’ve ever gotten with him. It was one of the first times that I felt like I could connect to his character in some way. (I kept wondering why no one ever said to him something like “what’s the point of stopping the dark one if you destroy the world and all that’s worth living for in the process?” or something along the lines of “if you become like him, what makes you different from him?”)

I would have liked to see Mat get closer to Morainne. I would have also liked to actually see Elayne (not just hear about her) and Birgitte (she’s one of my favorite characters and I don’t think her name was said a single time in the entire book). I’d also like Min to actually be interesting.

Ultimately, I think this book was one of the best, perhaps the best in the series so far and I am anxious to read book thirteen.

Harry Potter by JK Rowling

I recently decided to read all seven Harry Potters back to back. Somehow, despite having read each book multiple times, I’ve never done that. It was an interesting and very different experience from reading them years apart or a random book here or there.

I initially picked up book one for a different reason. I wanted to look at the way JK Rowling introduced new characters, dealt with making it feel like a full school with characters we know and care about (even the ones who aren’t main characters like the main trio), how she dealt with the passage of a full year, and how she showed the different classes. These are some of the things that JKR does particularly well in Harry Potter: she builds a world (as do all fantasy books) that feels incredibly real and thought out without resorting to racial stereotypes (by that I mean, the way most fantasy book tend to group all people from a specific background or place into one personality type). Reading the Sorcerer’s Stone after all this time was the strangest experience of them all because every time I “met” a character for the first time, I knew all this other information about them that had to get stuffed into the small scenes we saw of them. For example, we meet Neville on the train when he loses Trevor and he seems so sad and pathetic, but at the same time, you know that he will go on to lead Dumbledore’s Army in book seven.

Anyway, reading them straight through gave me a new appreciation for the book. For the first time, I cried for the death’s of Fred, Dobby, Lupin, and Tonks (I never cried for Dumbledore because I always expected him to die–how would Harry ever face Voldemort if Dumbledore was around?). I might have cried for Sirius as well, though I can’t remember for sure. I think being so immersed in those characters for such a long period of time (all seven books all at once) made me feel connected to them more than just the occasional read through. The most incredible thing about the books is the way JKR really captures Harry’s emotions when he loses the people he loves. And I dare you to read book five twice, when you’re in a good mood and when you’re in a bad. When I read it in a good mood, all I could think was “Harry, you are being such a baby, it isn’t Ron and Hermione’s fault!” and when I was in a bad mood, I thought “Harry, you are so right!”

This go around also made me appreciate the importance of the Deathly Hallows and what Dumbledore meant about being “the master of death.” For some reason, every other time I read it they felt like an unnecessary addition that overly complicated things. This time it seemed to click that though Harry surviving might be what some people considered “mastering death” (and which didn’t really ultimately require the Hallows), it was his willingness to die and the understanding that there are worse things than death, that showed he had mastered it.

There were still things that I didn’t feel were given a satisfactory explanation (like what exactly the veil that Sirius fell through was or how much of a person’s personality does a headmaster’s portrait retain), but it did feel like the vast majority of questions anyone could have were answered. Not to say fans don’t come up with more questions–just look at those interviews JKR has done and you will see some of the crazy things fans ask about.

Ultimately, all I have to say is JKR, please write something else already! Whether Harry Potter or something else, there has never been a book series that I’ve so happily re-read as many times as I have this one.