Complete Guide to Digital Photography

The Guide is both inspiring and informative, what more could you ask for in non-fiction?

 When I finally took the plunge and bought a DSLR, to indulge my enjoyment of photography, I wanted to get a good basic understanding of a lot of terminology and concepts you just didn’t need when using ‘instant’ or ‘point and click’ cameras.  The terminology of photography is endless, apertures, f-stops, ISO, depth of field, exposure and on and on; that’s before you start to factor in the digital aspect, and the skills and software that go with it.

I didn’t want to look for a book which covered only a single aspect of photography or which ignored the digital element, but I also didn’t have a lot of experience with film based photography other than as a ‘holiday-snapper’.  I wanted something which covered as much as possible, in a logical way, without being patronising, but with more detail if I wanted to dig into it.

I stumbled across Complete Guide to Digital Photography on Amazon, and the reviews were very favourable.  Within an hour, I was pleased with the purchase, and the book has been a constant companion in the year since I took up photography has a hobby, rather than something to do on holiday.

The guide is broken up into six major sections.  The first two take you through the basics of cameras, the terminology of photography, composition, exposures, various techniques like macro and portrait photography, the kinds of software you can use and even some coverage of scanning and printing.  That covers about a quarter of the book, and while it might be basic in some regards, it’s certainly essential and a very good foundation.  There was a load of stuff in the first sections that I found incredibly useful, and still refer to on a semi-regular basis.  As someone who had a ‘feeling’ for taking pictures, the technical elements really allowed me to understand why some shots looked better than others, and how to get the best out of my new camera with a nice short learning curve.

This is followed by another 128 pages (over a quarter of the book) on advanced photography.  This section looks at different kinds of photography, and how the skills and information in the first two sections are combined to deliver them.  For example, it covers street, wedding, still life, astro, sports, wildlife and landscape photography, to name only a few.

Sections four and five are all about digital image processing.  They take up almost a third of the book, and cover a vast range of topics, again starting out with a set of basic skills and building that up into complex techniques.  Finally, the book has a short chapter on using the images you have created, covering printing, photo-books, cards, and selling stock photography, for example.

Each of the major sections is broken up into little chapters on a specific topic.  The writing is easy to read, the language relaxed and engaging, and the layout is very easy on the eye (2-column, images and text mixed together).  Overall, I found the structure excellent, and the breakdown of the topics means you can flip between parts of the book you want to focus on very easily.  Once you’ve read through the first two chapters, you can use the rest of the book much like a reference manual, rather than having to continue reading it one page at a time.  However, given the easy going style, it’s actually no trouble reading it through in sequence the first time.

 Mixed in with the chapters are assignments.  These are exercises or invitations to try out a certain technique or style, and they lifted the book for me from reference manual to indispensable guide.  It’s okay being excited about photography and getting a good grounding in technique and terminology, but you also need some inspiration, and the assignment sections were just that.  Ideas, concepts or exercises designed to spark your imagination and encourage you to go out and try something you might not have done so.  They are, without doubt, the best feature of the book.

If basic photography has a thousand terms, post-processing your images in a tool like Lightroom or Photoshop just doubles that.  For me it was one of the most daunting aspects of picking up a DSLR, wondering if I could still get the best out of the pictures by taking control.  The calm and engaging tone of the book really helped, and I found myself enjoying the post-processing for it’s own sake rather than being worried about it as an additional task.

As you might expect, the focus in the book is heavy on the Adobe software products, but you can take the concepts and terminology explained in it and apply it to other products.  If you really don’t like the Adobe products however, you may find the two sections on the Digital Darkroom frustrating. Personally, I was already committed to the Adobe products, and so the focus on them was welcome.

All-in-all, I am very happy with this purchase.  The Guide is both informative and interesting, and the assignments are particularly inspiring.  I continue to read sections I’ve already covered, and use it as both a reference and a reminder, while still having plenty of assignments ahead of me to help me expand my skills.  There’s still a wealth of information I’ve read through quickly once that I want to go back and really read in-depth again, such as portrait and street photography, in order to give it a proper try.  Inspiring and informative, what more could you ask for in non-fiction?

Note: This review is of the 2011 edition of the book.  There is a new revised edition of the book, published in 2014, which I do not own.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ian Farrell
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Quercus
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Buy from Amazon (UK)

The Gathering Storm

If book eleven was the pay off you deserved for reading the previous ten, then The Gathering Storm is the whole reason you read fantasy in the first place.

 The Rambling Introduction

It wasn’t without trepidation that I picked up book 12 of The Wheel of Time, The Gathering Storm.  Written by Brandon Sanderson, from notes and other work left by Robert Jordan, would I be able to deal with the different style?  Would it still be the Wheel of Time?  Would there be any progress?  Was it finally time for the effort it took to read the middle Jordan books to pay off?  Or would I be left adrift, unable to cope with Sanderson’s interpretation, and so unable to finally discover how the story plays out?

The Review

Jordan promised he would finish the series in the 12th book, even if it had to be 2000 pages long.  Not long after taking up the duty of completing the book, Sanderson said it couldn’t be done.  Given how much happens in The Gathering Storm, its length, and the amount of things still unresolved, I have to agree with him.  Even a massive single tome would have felt rushed if it had concluded the story.

Yet despite the decision to make it three volumes or three books, Sanderson doesn’t shy away from making significant progress in the story.  To be fair, I think Jordan finally realised he’d spent too long laying the ground work and book eleven was pretty good at tying things up, but it pales next to the progress in book twelve.

However, let’s get the other aspects out of the way first.

Brandon Sanderson is not Robert Jordan and had he tried to write like him, it would have been a monumental failure.  Luckily, he’s no idiot and hence he writes in his own style, tempered he admits, to match that of the world, but he makes no apology for that.  Brandon writes that he tried to keep the soul of the characters intact.  At first, that style difference is grating.  Sanderson’s characters have much longer sections of internal dialogue, explaining their own actions and feelings in a detail that Jordan didn’t seem to try and achieve.  That took some getting used to, and I was worried early on that it wouldn’t work for me, but trust me, by the end, it’s a godsend.  I feel closer to all of the characters we’ve seen in The Gathering Storm than I have at any point in the series.

Secondly, and more blessedly, Sanderson isn’t afflicted by any adjective based diseases.  Yes, he still tells us about the odd piece of clothing, he still has people gritting their teeth, and there’s braid pulling.  However, if something is described once, it’s not described again, and the paragraphs and chapters are full, chocked full, of dialogue, internal monologues, action and plot.  There’s little fat here, instead there’s lean active writing, delivering lean active action.

It would have been easy to lose the emotional connection with that approach perhaps, but it doesn’t happen.  I cried several times throughout The Gathering Storm, for good, bad, joyous and sad moments, and like any author good at the craft, Brandon lets the story live in our hearts through his words.

The Gathering Storm progresses two of the major plot lines of the world, focussing heavily on Rand and Egwene.  Most of the other major characters make an appearance, and often they make some progress too (including Mat and Perrin), but this book is about Rand and Egwene.

Rand continues to prosecute his war, and Egwene continues to prosecute her attempts to unify the White Tower.

Those two sentences have been true for so many books that you might be forgiven for just skipping over them, but in book 12, they both take massive leaps forward.  The story of Rand is crushingly bleak, and he suffers again and again at the hands of his enemies and his own mind.  Will he survive to even reach the final battle?

Sanderson handles the story of Egwene with superb deftness, using all of the ground work laid by Jordan and bringing them together in a way that befits the complexity of the world.  Within that, many other threads are dragged out and progressed, some characters get fitting ends (no more said), and there are many truly moving scenes.

The final battle is fast approaching, the world is falling apart, darkness seeps out of every crack, is there no one who can help the Dragon Reborn, is there no one who can stand next to him in the face of the Shadow?

The Gathering Shadow is a monumental return to form for the series as a whole, and possibly one of the best books in it.  It succeeds in part due to the ground work laid in the previous books, but it flourishes because it’s been given new life by Sanderson.  He may claim the story is Jordan’s for the most part, and he may claim he was continuing Jordan’s work, but he will have to accept that his approach saved the series.

If book eleven was the pay off you deserved for reading the previous ten, then book twelve is the whole reason you read fantasy in the first place.  Epic battles, physical, mental and political.  Intrigue, death, glory, love, magic and prophecy.  Stick with the changes in style, push through the first few chapters where it feels like Sanderson is finding his footing, give it the due it deserves and book twelve will not let you down.

The Retrospective

I said it in the review, but this book has saved the series.  If 13 and 14 are anywhere near this good, I’ll be happy.  I think Jordan may have pulled the story out of the bag if 11 is anything to go by, but I think his desire to finish it in 12 was either flawed and would have changed under pressure, or it would have killed the series.  There were too many threads that needed closure, too many people that needed a story, too many characters that need space to finish too quickly in a rushed panic.

I’m glad it’s three books, and I think it was the right decision.

Jordan built this world, he shaped these events, and it’s only right he takes most of the credit for the creation, but in his absence Sanderson brought a freshness to the prose and story telling that was largely missing.  It lifted it back above the miasma of the previous books and has returned the fantasy crown to it’s rightful position.

The Angry Spoilers

Hilariously, I struggled in places because the pace was quick.  From previous books, I was used to having pages and pages of nonsense to get used to things which had happened.  Here however, each chapter was key, something happens in each one, something important, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for reflection.  By the end of course, I was loving it, and it’s only a niggle because I’d done nothing but read Jordan for weeks, and weeks.  There’s nothing really annoying about this book, and there’s nothing I’m going to spoil and give away.  It’s not perfect of course, but what is?  But it’s solid platinum compared to the rusted iron of so many previous books.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Book Information
  • Author: Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (12)
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Skin Game

Skin Game is an excellent urban fantasy novel, it’s emotional and entertaining, and it really does drive the story of Dresden forward, but is it sustainable?

 Harry Dresden started out life as a Chicago Wizard, listed in the phone book.  Over a significant number of books, Harry has grown in power, both in terms of the enemies and allies he gathers around himself and also in terms of his own access to powerful abilities.  While at first, Harry’s actions were centred around his clients and his friends, over time they have become world threatening, and involved the mightiest of beings in the universe, in many cases, literally.  That is starting to present Jim Butcher with a problem, and it’s starting to show.

There’s no great mystery to a basic urban fantasy novel.  Give your protagonist something they have to fix, the risk of success and failure being emotionally significant.  Then, over a number of acts, make their attempts backfire or make things worse.  Finally, have them pull it out of the bag but make sure there’s always a price.  For urban fantasy writers who want a long running series, you need to throw in a few long running arcs, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and then you need to start tying the stories together; linking them back to that arc.

The skill in delivering a good read isn’t just knowing that basic template, the skill is wrapping a story around it filled with people you can empathise with, root for and cry for.  It’s in delivering a compelling narrative, hiding the clues in plain sight, giving us sparkling dialogue, and the hundred other things that good craftsmen and women demonstrate in their writing.

Jim Butcher is undeniably excellent at his craft.  He may have off-days (I found Ghost Story lacking), but Skin Game is an emotional blockbuster.  Harry Dresden is on form, and I’m not ashamed to say there are plenty of scenes in the book that made me weep and cry, sometimes for joy, sometimes in relief, and sometimes in pure sadness.  The pacing is great, the dialogue is just magical, and the other characters are as excellent as always.

However, the bones are still showing inside the emotional flesh of the story.  There’s an element of ‘we can’t kill Harry so we’re always going to have to kill his friends’ that Butcher just can’t get around.  He’s built Harry up to be invincible for physical and political reasons, and the net result is that no matter how much he gets brutally injured (and he does, often), you know the ultimate step is going to be an attack on his friends and family.

It’s inevitable, and it happens a couple of times in the book (not mentioning when).  Jim’s skill of course, ensures that the scenes in which it happens are emotional, gripping and thrilling, and that compensates, and ensures the book is still going to get great ratings, but some part of me is sitting outside of that, rationally reminding myself that Jim has a problem.

Skin Game is a heist story, of supernatural proportions.  The gang is put together, the heist is planned, and then the game is afoot.  It is engaging, funny, thrilling, sad, joyous and emotional in all the right places.  Some of the scenes are truly sublime, and it’s got many of the long standing characters from the series.  In fact, like Cold Days it really starts to tie many of those characters and events together into a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world of Dresden.

But there’s one scene I can’t get of my head.  It’s not a big spoiler.  Dresden goes to see Michael.  Dresden stands on the doorstep and tells Michael that he thinks he might need help, and that he thinks he’s lost.  Given how I felt about Ghost Story, and Cold Days when I first tried to read it, I can’t but wonder if that was Jim asking the same question.

How does he fit a story around Harry now that Harry is the character he is.  What’s next, and how can he possible contain it?

It’s a rather rambling review, for which I apologise.  After being disappointed with Ghost Story, I tried Cold Days but didn’t quite finished it.  Trying again, I re-read Cold Days recently, enjoying it more than the first time and immediately picked up Skin Game.  Skin Game is an excellent urban fantasy novel, it’s emotional and entertaining, and it really does drive the story of Dresden forward, but is it sustainable?  Is Dresden’s power sustainable, and are the stories sustainable in the face of it?

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Jim Butcher
  • Series: Dresden Files (15)
  • Format: Hardback
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Knife of Dreams

 The Rambling Introduction

So here we are – the last of the Jordan only Wheel of Time books.  This book and three after it – I’m finally getting to the stage where we might get some answers.  I was eager to press on, hoping that once through this I could get to Sanderson’s books, and read about the characters and places I love, without sitting through Jordan’s writing habits.  But burning like a half dead candle, buried in the back of my mind was a hope, kindled by reviews on the ‘net suggesting book eleven was Jordan’s best, or at least, a return to form.

The Review

Knife of Dreams is an excellent book that I found hard to put down.  While it has some flaws, they are more than compensated for by the highly emotional content and the feeling of real progress in the world of The Wheel of Time.

Who would have imagined I’d be writing those words after the last few reviews?  Actually I did.  At least I hoped I would.  I had heard from many people that Jordan’s book 11, the last one he finished on his own before his tragic death, was a return to the quality of the earliest books.  People rated it as one of the best he’d written – so I was holding out for something special and Jordan delivered it.

Knife of Dreams covers multiple plot lines, as with the previous books, but this time, no one is left out.  We have coverage of the three boys (Rand, Mat and Perrin), the three girls (Elayne, Nynaeve, Egwene) and all the threads around them as well (Min, Birgitte, Thom, the White Tower, the Black Tower, the Aiel, the Seanchan, etc.)

One of the reasons the book is so much better than the previous ones, is that each of those story lines is focussed, emotional and also progressive.  Some of the long running activities are finally resolved, some outstanding questions are answered and generally, lots of good stuff happens.  Don’t get too excited, it’s not like Jordan has changed his writing habits, there’s plenty of dress and hair descriptions, and the constant male / female divide to keep you agitated, but it’s as if he realised he really did have to finish this thing, and he couldn’t get away with dissembling any further.

Most of the book is good, but there were some truly stand-out moments for me.  All of these are built from hundreds of pages of ground work in previous books and so when they finally bear fruit, it’s truly emotional.  I’ll discuss them all individually, no spoilers, I promise.

Egwene’s storyline is the epitome of everything she has worked towards.  She demonstrates in spades why she is the true Amyrlin Seat.  Her back-story, all of it, comes together into a single, stiff backed, proud but not haughty approach that wins over hearts and minds.  If you liked the bit in Dead Poet’s Society where the pupils all stand on their desks, you’ll love Egwene’s story line.  I cried, several times.

Nynaeve and Lan.  What can I say!  If you like your heroes bleak and tragic, and if you like your heroism understated and yet as solid as granite, you’re going to enjoy the short thread that these two get involved in.  I cheered, I cried, I read it again, and cheered and cried a second time.  The scenes with these two characters in this thread are without a doubt, my favourite in the entire series so far.  Jordan shows his class, and his skill, once again, weaving threads over 10 books into a single perfect moment.

Rand, ah, Rand al’Thor.  Rand’s thread is pretty short overall, spread throughout the book, but the two major events he’s involved in are both superbly written.  There are battles, massive and small, epic and trivial, there’s loss, tragedy, victory and shock, and it’s all cleverly and beautifully delivered.

Elayne’s story takes up quite a bit of space in the book, but it’s truly epic, engaging, funny and emotionally complex.  Finally we have some progress in her claim on the throne of Andor, and the conclusion to her story lines in this book were again emotional and epic.  I cried (seeing a theme?)

Perrin and Faile.  There was so much here to like, such a clever set of circumstances (more in the retrospective), and I had so much hope for an emotional conclusion, but for reasons I can’t explain and don’t fully understand, it fell flat.  Happy, but not the tear stained sobbing joy I was hoping for.

Mat and Tuon were perfect in book eleven, and the two Tuon PoV’s were superb.  Hearing her refer to him as Toy even in her head was just brilliant, and a clear insight into her psyche.  Mat is great, everyone around him is great, and every story line he touches is great.  There’s a moving moment between him and Thom as well, which offers some hope for the next book.  I had hoped that thread would lead somewhere in this one, but it wasn’t to be (I’ll say no more). Mat might start out a clown, but he’s not going to finish with anything less than the mantle of a hero.

The White Cloak story line takes an exciting step, the White Tower is interesting, the Seanchan are great, those rebelling against the Seanchan are great, ahhh there’s just so much great stuff.

There is, in fact, so much good stuff that I couldn’t stamp out a rising anger towards the end.  Where was this Jordan when he wrote the previous books?  Sure, you can’t have some of the reveals in this book without all the ground work, but the skill Jordan shows here was simply lacking in the previous outings.  You don’t need thousands of pages of ground work to deliver this material, you just need concise, well laid ground work over a few hundred pages to achieve it.

The pacing was generally very good, although the prologue was tough going in parts, and it took me a while to warm up in the early chapters, but once I was in, I wasn’t getting out, and every chapter had something to enjoy.

Knife of Dreams is a great read, you won’t want to put it down, and if you’ve made it this far in the series this book is a pay off that you both deserve and need.

Bring tissues.

The Kind of Retrospective

No spoilers this time, I promise.

I had read nothing about this book in advance, and knew only one tiny spoiler which covered a single paragraph near the end of the story.  So what do I have to reflect on?  Let’s get one thing straight – Robert Jordan was an excellent and talented author.  While I might decry some of the books, it’s impossible to deny his skill and his success.  I could never emulate him, and the series, whatever happens, will retain a near legendary status.

However, even the best of people have bad days, or in Jordan’s case, bad years.  Had I still been reading as the books were released, Knife of Dreams would have made me furious.  Because it’s so very good.  Furious that Jordan (in my personal view) wasted so much paper in the previous books when he should have been delivering KoD level quality all along.  For every paragraph in KoD that has an emotional scene, or progresses the story, there are literally chapters in the previous books in which nothing happens and you feel nothing for anyone present.

So my abiding memory of KoD will be that it was both brilliant and infuriating in equal measure, and that I’m just glad I wasn’t still trying to plough through the series as it originally came out.

The Angry Spoilers

There are spoilers here, for the book and possibly for the series.  Stop reading if, somehow, you’ve never read these books before.

Seriously, spoilers.

The whole Perrin rescues Faile while Faile rescues herself took too long.  Far too long.  When it finally resolved itself, it had lost much of it’s emotional urgency.  There were some nice touches, and the final scenes before the battle were emotional, but only one or two sentences (when Perrin drops the knotted string, and when Tam and the Two Rivers boys arrive).

I know what Jordan was doing.  Rescuing Faile is the goal, but the Pattern is ensuring that Perrin destroys the Shaido, forms an alliance with the Seanchan and learns plenty about them in the process, destroys most of the Prophet’s men, along with a number of other elements.  That’s all nice and clever, and the rescue is clever, but it felt laboured.

We hear the wolves, but never see them, Aram’s death is wasted, we don’t get a scene showing us the horror of ~400 collared Wise Ones, etc.  Maybe that will be covered in the next book.

Frankly, I feel churlish moaning about it – because those scenes were surrounded by plenty of awesome moments with Rand, Mat, Nynaeve, Lan, Egwene, and compared to previous books, the rescue scene was fantastic.  It just felt too sterile, and maybe looked weak against the rest of the strong action sequences.

But it makes a change to be angry about that, and not about 90% of the rest of the book for falling flat.  Knife of Dreams is anything but flat.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Book Information
  • Author: Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (11)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Broken Homes

Broken Homes is back on par with the first book in the series. It was enjoyable, easy to read, gripping and exciting. It’s left me looking forward to the fifth book, and there’s not much wrong with that.

 Broken Homes is the fourth book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.  I’m not sure if he’s actually using that series name, but Amazon and various other sites are, so I guess I will.  It could equally be called the fourth DC Grant book, which is probably more accurate.  Although the Rivers certainly make appearances in each of the books, their influence wanes and waxes, where Peter Grant is the central character.

The series is essentially a supernatural police procedural, with DC Grant forming a third of the police unit within the Met that investigates ‘weird stuff’, along with Nightingale (his boss) and Lesley, his ‘it’s complicated’ friend and colleague.  The Folly, which is their base of operations is home to them, a dog, and Molly, a slightly sinister housekeeper. It’s best not to argue with Molly in case she eats you.

The rest of the cast is made up of normal police officers (normal in the sense that they aren’t magical, their personalities are often far from average), a range of magical and non-magical bad guys, various supernatural entities who may or may not be goblins, river spirits, gods and demons and a sinister arch-nemesis, the Faceless Man.

It’s common in Urban Fantasy for there to be something to investigate, a long running arc which may or may not be linked, and one or two other weird things going on which all magically come together at the end, and Ben’s approach is no different.  The story starts with a mixture of crimes, not all of them obviously related, and an ongoing investigation in the identity of the Faceless Man.  As the tale progresses, links appear to start to form and as Peter digs deeper and deeper, both the danger and the connections increase.

Eventually, things explode at the end, with dramatic and tragic consequences.

I was surprised how little magic there was in the third book of the series, given the focus in the first two was more aimed at the supernatural side of the world.  Book four makes a return to that focus, with plenty of police work, but equally significant amounts of mystical and magical actions.  There’s an excellent section with the most obvious and overt use of magical power in the series so far, where Nightingale finally gets to let rip, and this alone would be reason to read the book.

The pace is well judged, and the story builds tension throughout, I was constantly expecting things to go south but when they finally did, I was surprised at the direction it took.  On reflection, I shouldn’t have been – which is always a good sign.  The hints were there, and in the back of my mind I’d formed the connections, but it wasn’t until I read the words that it all clicked in to place.

Ben’s characters are so very real; they leap from the page.  The dialogue is simply sublime, and he doesn’t pull any punches to make his characters softer or more likeable.  His use of a strongly mixed race and mixed gender cast is second to none in the urban fantasy arena; although he uses those racial and gender differences in the story, they are well blended, sensible and useful, rather than merely being there to tick boxes.

It’s not all perfect however.  Sometimes the book feels like a series of events strung together, which of course most books are, and yet with Ben’s I can sometimes see the joins.  It’s not a serious issue, the dialogue and the plot eventually win out, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels like this, but it’s not as smooth as say Dresden or the Felix Castor series, both of which are similar in style to Rivers of London.  There was a lengthy section in the book about the Rivers of London celebrating the arrival of spring, which was sort of interesting but I’m not sure it drove the story forward at all, and I could have lived without it.

Those two minor points aside, Broken Homes is back on par with the first book in the series.  It was enjoyable, easy to read, gripping and exciting.  It’s left me looking forward to the fifth book, and there’s not much wrong with that.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (4)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Crossroads of Twilight

Jordan truly lost himself with this book. He lost sight of the point of reading. For enjoyment. There’s little enjoyment to be found in Crossroads of Twilight, and nothing of note. You could skip this book entirely and miss almost nothing of events in the world. Given this is the first book I hadn’t read anything about, it’s disappointing to confirm it’s also one of the worst.

 The Rambling Introduction

I have very definitely never read this book before.  Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve not read (to any serious extent) the chapter summaries.  As such, it’s the first book in the series that I was actually ‘excited’ to read, in my current re-read.  I was interested in re-reading the previous ones, because I love many aspects of the story, but this is the first one that was going to feel new.  It’s hard giving honest reviews of books you’ve read a few times, simply because so much is wrapped up in previous readings and expectations.  It’ll be nice to be able to review this one without any pre-existing experience.

The Review

Brandon Sanderson defended book 10 in a blog post he wrote.  He noted then, in 2008, that the book had received a score of around 1.5/5 on Amazon.  He went on to describe why many people didn’t enjoy the book, and to try and explain why he did.  So that you can avoid reading this review if you like – I’ll tell you where I stand before we get going.  At best, this is a two star book.

Crossroads of Twilight takes place just before, in parallel with, and just after the events in book 9.  Massive book 9 spoiler coming up.  At the end of book 9, the climax of that story pretty much, Rand cleanses Saidin.  He does it using the two huge sa’angreal.  Using them is like a beacon to everyone in the world who can channel, so even the female channellers know something is going on, even if only the men realise what it achieves.

In this book, we get the stories of Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Elayne (all separate threads), and in each of them, there’s a moment where they all realise some huge amount of channelling is going on.  We also get a short bit of story around Rand as well, clearly post-cleansing.

I don’t really mind how much real time passes in the story, as long as the story makes progress.  The problem with book 10, like several of the previous books, is that the plot seems mired in it’s own complexity and we don’t make any progress.  Oh, there’s manoeuvring of epic proportions within several groups, and a few small steps in various plot elements, but nothing significant really happens overall.

You really, really, have to love the political aspect of the Aes Sedai at this stage, or the history of Andor, to get any joy out of those story lines.

People seem to think the complaints about the book hover around the way Jordan tried to incorporate the cleansing in other character’s story-lines.  To me, it’s neither here nor there.  I don’t dislike it, but I don’t think it was brilliant either.  The point is that it would have been achievable even if the plot actually made serious progress at the same time.

So we have Jordan’s long-winded prose.  His desire to describe every camp-site again and again even if you know exactly how they look.  If you leave one group of people for a few chapters, when you come back they’re all described for you in explicit detail once again.  To that we add complex political and social manoeuvring that never actually affects the overall story.  All surrounded by emotionally stunted characters.

Seriously, what’s not to hate?

There are some amusing moments with Mat and Tuon, but for me, that whole relationship is flawed, I assume Tuon is going to announce she knew this was coming because she’s read a prophecy or seen an omen, but it’s just too insane for it to work.

The most frustrating part of the book for me, are the Aes Sedai.  There are 5 groups of Aes Sedai (rebels, tower, Rand-sworn, Cadsuane-posse, Aiel-apprentice) and each is split into further factions.  That’s politically very interesting, but it must encompass about 50 or 60 characters you have to remember.  When you’re dropped into another conversation in the White Tower between a bunch of Aes Sedai it takes you most of the 10 pages spent discussing their dress code just to remember who they are, even if you can remember.

I’m not good enough with names to do that, and I felt having a character card for each of them that I filled in as I went was a little bit over the top.  It might be intriguing but it’s so heavily wrapped in useless words that it’s impossible to engage with.

Jordan truly lost himself with this book.  He lost sight of the point of reading.  For enjoyment.  There’s little enjoyment to be found in Crossroads of Twilight, and nothing of note.  You could skip this book entirely and miss almost nothing of events in the world.  Given this is the first book I hadn’t read anything about, it’s disappointing to confirm it’s also one of the worst.

The Retrospective

Some quite nasty spoilers here for the series to date and this book.  Be warned.

I haven’t read this book before, so the retrospective is going to focus on how it stands up so long after it was written.  I think Jordan accepted that the book didn’t work as well as he’d hoped, and it was pretty much universally panned by critics.

After such a long build up, and a promise by Jordan that the series would end around book 12, people expected at this point for story threads to be coming together, nearing their end.  However, the book showed no signs of that and instead we got the following,

  • Mat – making almost no progress physically or mentally in his escape from Ebou Dar
  • Perrin – making almost no progress in rescue of Faile
  • Egwene – making almost no progress in her siege of Tar Valon
  • Elayne – making almost no progress in her claim on the crown of Andor
  • Rand – having one idea, and in the space of 6 paragraphs confirming a deal with the Seanchan

I don’t understand how Jordan’s editor at this stage could read book 10 and think it was good and okay to publish.  It only confirms my worst fears, that Jordan’s editor (I believe it was his wife, I could be wrong) was not objective enough, and/or not strong enough to guide Jordan to properly edit his work.

The Angry Spoilers

No spoilers, but plenty of anger.

Every time Jordan described the perfectly in-line cook fires in the cavalry camps, I wanted to murder someone.  Every time Jordan told me the same thing about the same people over and over again, I wanted to burn the book.  Every time someone ground their teeth, smoothed their skirts, pulled their braid, thumbed their knife blade, or made any quality of bow, curtsey or knee that wasn’t quite perfect, somewhere, a unicorn died.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (10)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Winter’s Heart

 The Rambling Introduction

Ah Winter’s Heart.  the ninth book, there’s no going back now.  If you’ve made it this far, there are so many questions you need answering that you know you’re going to go all the way.  Even if it means walking the last 10 miles barefoot across broken glass.  Which is good, because in the back of your mind there’s a voice telling you that’s exactly how painful it’s going to be.

The Review

Winter’s Heart is the 9th book in the Wheel of Time series.  The primary story threads this time focus on Mat, Rand, a little bit of Perrin, Elayne, and Nynaeve.  They have all pretty much split up by this point, with some of them crossing paths, but all of them getting some time on their own.  There’s no mention of Egwene other than a brief visit.

Rand’s story is engaging, thrilling and moving in parts.  Mat’s story is both funny and sad, and in one moment very moving.  Nynaeve and Perrin are what they always are.  Elayne’s plot is engaging, but other than some brief flickers of life, it felt dry and forced to me.

As with other books in the series, book nine feels like 600 pages of build up and 7 pages of climax.  It’s a familiar pattern now with Jordan, but it no longer holds the magic like it used to.  There’s just not enough in the final few pages to justify the extended story before it.  What happens is huge, momentous, it’s just the delivery is too distracted, too fragmented to do it justice.  It’s a real shame.

Character-wise there are some excellent moments.  We finally see what Verin has been up to, we discover some startling things about a bunch of other characters and we learn some new things about the One Power.  Mat shows once again that he has a heart, and Rand shows that his is turning into ice before our very eyes.

I still can’t decide if the relationship between Rand, Elayne, Min and Aviendha is a stroke of amusing genius or some kind of weird wish fulfilment on Jordan’s side.  At least it finally comes to a head and gets ‘resolved’ during Winter’s Heart, which cheered me up.  I hated all the confusion and doubt, and some of the scenes are worth reading.  However, Jordan still uses more words than necessary and ruins what could have been a good moment with repetition.

I could read an entire book filled with nothing but Rand and Lan going on adventures together.  We could call it ‘Rand and Lan go on some adventures’.

Winter’s Heart is neither amazing nor terrible, it once again delivers some interesting developments hidden among too many words, far too many adjectives, and more skirt smoothing than is good for anyone.  Read it because you have to, not because you want to.

The Retrospective (partial)

Mild spoilers!  Well, maybe not so mild.  You’ve been warned.

Only half a retrospective this time, since I don’t think I’ve actually read the whole book before.  What I have done, is read chapter summaries, and maybe some snippets from the book.

When I started Winter’s Heart I was sure I’d read it before.  After all, it’s the one where Rand cleanses Saidin.  However, two pages in it was clear I had no clue what happened in the prologue.  A few chapters in and it was clear I’d never read the whole book.  However, every now and then a page or two would be familiar, a conversation, an event, something would trigger a memory.

I either read this book while I was very drunk, or I read snippets of it without reading the whole thing.  The latter is more likely, the former is probably wiser.

So it was a curious mix of ‘yes, yes I know that’ and ‘Wait, really?’  Some questions I had were answered, such as what Verin was really up to, and some events were true surprises, such as the four way bonding of Rand and his Girls.

It’s clear then that this was the point previously where I just gave up on the series, and stopped reading it properly.  I may have scanned summaries for one book after this one, but probably not in any detail and so we’re arriving at the point where there might not be a retrospective at all.  Virgin territory.  A hundred thousand adjectives all crying out for attention for the first time.

I’m not sure how good that news is, to be honest.

Despite the lack of having read it before, I still found myself skimming some pages.  I don’t need to read about the dress of every woman in Ebou Dar, nor about the moustache of every man anyone ever meets.  I don’t need to hear about skirt smoothing, or dry hand-washing, nor about smooth faces and the lack of sweat.  I just want to get to the meat, and wish Jordan would stop serving peas and carrots over and over again.

The Angry Spoilers

No spoilers really, just the sad lurking memory of them from the past, when I cared enough.

As with the previous book, there’s not a lot to get angry about in Winter’s Heart, which I guess is good news.  The annoying characters continue to be annoying, but they’re slightly tempered now, and there isn’t as much glaring stupidity that there was at one time.

The only thing I can get worked up about is that when this whole bloody thing started, it felt like it was going to be ‘The Story of Rand al’Thor’, but has turned out to be ‘The Story of everyone around Rand al’Thor which sometimes includes bits about Rand as well’.  I wanted to read an epic fantasy with Rand at the centre, but Jordan’s story is too big for that and so despite being The Dragon Reborn, so far, he’s been only one of many parts, and not always the most interesting.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (9)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Whispers Under Ground

 Whispers Under Ground is the third book in the Rivers of London (or DC Peter Grant) series.  The book sees familiar characters DC Peter Grant, Nightingale (his boss), Stephanopoulos (his other boss), Seawoll (his other, other boss), and Lesley, who’s face he ruined, work together to solve another mysterious crime in London.  This time, there’s been a murder on in the London underground and if DC Peter Grant isn’t careful, he might have to do some real police work.

Ben’s prose is punchy, witty and very easy to read.  His insight into both the mind of DC Grant and the workings of various London authorities is entertaining and laugh out loud in places.  DC Grant is great, and he feels amazingly real.  There isn’t any cliché here or a feeling of made up emotions.  Peter is honest, embarrassing, offensive, offended and emotionally stunted in all the right places.  His interactions with those around him are a master class in observational writing, and frankly, I could read pages and pages about Peter doing little other than going shopping.

Thankfully, Aaronovitch gives Peter just a little bit more than that to do.  As is traditional with urban fantasy there’s a ‘background arc’ and the actual police case to be getting on with.  Both are engaging, to some degree, although neither was rivetingly interesting.  The murder case is about some people we don’t really know, or get to know much, and the background arc is a little thin on the content.

However, the introduction of a couple of new characters (an FBI agent, and someone from the British Transport Police) give Peter and Leslie some excellent material to work with, and generate a load of excellent banter.

The whole book felt rather gentle, there’s no great surprises, and although there are a few moments of genuine peril, overall it was a much more relaxed investigation than either book one or book two.  The magical content is pretty low as well, with the primary focus being on the police procedural aspect and actually pounding the pavement as it were.  I didn’t miss the supernatural elements, and there’s still enough to make it fantasy rather than a crime drama, but I do wonder about the overall direction.

The end is rather simple, and delivered pretty much out of the blue.  There’s plenty of supporting material, but if you could figure out the detail in advance, then it was too clever for me.  It’s not an issue, because without the legwork it wouldn’t have been there, but it’s certainly not the climax to a long and thrilling chase, for example.

In the end, Whispers Under Ground is a book about DC Grant, and along the way he solves a murder with the help of some other interesting people.  It’s engaging, witty, and absolutely well worth reading, but it’s not going to bowl you over with suspense.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (3)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

The Path of Daggers

 The Rambling Introduction

I started writing this introduction and realised I was really writing the retrospective, so I had to start again.  The Path of Daggers is the shortest of all The Wheel of Time main series books (at ~226,000 words).  It made it to number 1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction best seller list, the first of The Wheel of Time books to do that.  Given how low I rated some of the books before this one that’s quite an achievement.  I think at this stage, pure weight of numbers of people who need to know what happens next probably had a lot to do with it.

Given both my memory of the book and the low reviews on Amazon, I wasn’t really looking forward to it – let’s see how it faired.

The Review

The Path of Daggers is a bit like someone you know, who you don’t like spending time with but you can’t really describe why.

The book, as we have come to expect now, flits about with many different PoV’s and many different threads.  The main groups are still, Nynaeve & Elayne (Nynlayne as I will call them for a while), Rand and whoever he drags with him, Perrin and Faile (Peraile from now on, although Failin might make more sense), Egwene and the rebels and then a bunch of also rans.

Mat doesn’t make any appearance in the book, which given my irritation with him in the last one, might not be a bad thing overall.

What we have in The Path of Daggers is a small collection of events, described in conflicting amounts of detail.  A walk through the woods for a few Aes Sedai might cover 10 pages, covering their complete thoughts and conversations about almost everything.  A battle between Rand’s forces and say, a large group of enemies might be tossed out in 30 words or less.  What Jordan chose to focus on at this stage is legendary in its annoyance factor, but if you’re not used to it by now then you’ve not been paying attention.

The actual events themselves are certainly interesting for the most part.  Nynlayne use the Bowl of Winds and have a run in with an enemy they’d rather not meet again.  Egwene manipulates the rebel Aes Sedai until she gets what she wants.  Peraile go after the Prophet and have some fun doing it.  Rand, well, Rand has some of the best scenes but essentially consolidates his position from the last book and then puts the boot in at the end of this one.

The problem is that we don’t need to hear the thought processes of every character involved in every one of those actions, as a stream of consciousness.  It’s just dull.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t in a good mood when I read the book, but I’m trying to remain objective.  I have absolutely no doubt that Jordan could, and should, have condensed the last three books into a single novel.  It would have had better pacing, and delivered a much better story.

However, Path of Daggers isn’t as bad as some of the books before it, and it wasn’t as frustrating as it could have been.  There are some good scenes, with Perrin, Rand, Egwene and Elayne all getting moments that are enjoyable.  Some of the bit part characters reveal stuff, and there’s some ‘mystery’ with the One Power going on.  Those good scenes balance the tedium and The Path of Daggers comes in at just around an average read.  Hardly any progress, but not so offensive that it sticks in the mind.  The worst thing a piece of art can do is leave you disengaged, neither loving it nor hating it.  A Path of Daggers is just bland.

The Retrospective

Here be spoilers!

There’s a theory that the Wheel of Time book you dislike most is the first one you had to wait for.  I can’t remember if The Path of Daggers was the first one I had to wait for, but I do remember being really unhappy with it when I first read it.  It was slow, nothing happened and there was no progress in the overall story.

I’m not sure now, that that is a fair assessment of the book.  It reads okay, and while not a lot happens, there are certainly some story-progressing events, it’s just that they’re wrapped up in so many useless words they’re not easy to remember.

I wasn’t expecting the book to be so bloody bland.

I’d forgotten most of the big events in the book to be honest, remembering them only vaguely and as they started to unfold, but none of them were a real shock even then.  Rand and Min are the best thing in the book, and I had forgotten how good she was for him.

I was waiting all the way through for Dashiva to betray Rand so it was a surprise when it turned out not to be just him at the end.  I think I remember how that plays out but it must happen in the next book since it didn’t in this one.

I want to be more passionate about the book, but I can’t.  It’s like a naughty school child you’ve given detention to 30 times already.  They’re never going to change, they don’t care, and there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation.  This book was like that – it just is, it exists, and in order to read the next one you must read this one first.

The Angry Spoilers

One minor spoiler, wafer thin, nothing really at all to worry about.

In order to be angry, you need passion, and there’s no passion to be found in A Path of Daggers.  Bland page follows bland page, where the actors we’re used, to carry out the same actions they’ve carried out in previous books, with pretty much the same outcome.  Even momentous events such as the use of the Bowl of Winds are surrounded by so much adjective laden junk that by the time it happens you no longer care about it.

I can’t help but think that Jordan wrote some of the books by sitting down every day, writing 1000 words, and then when he’d written 230,000 of them, he stopped, spell checked it, and handed it in.  There’s no sign of an editor here, no sign of someone asking him to keep the story tight.  It’s just a stream of words.  He may have had amazing notes, and he certainly had a plan, but his journey towards appears to be based on just putting one word after the next until it happens.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (8)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

A Crown of Swords

 The Rambling Introduction

One of the things I have to be careful of in my re-read is ploughing ahead without really reading the books.  I need to avoid thinking I can remember enough of what has happened that I don’t need to really concentrate, in some way trying not to get bogged down in the annoying bits.  A Crown of Swords has reminded me very clearly that I do not remember the story well enough, and that I do have to pay attention (mostly).

The Review

Despite covering a very short period of time (around 10 days), A Crown of Swords packs an awful lot of events in to the story, and that more than anything, sets it well apart from the previous two books.  I accept I think, that Jordan believes political and emotional/relationship developments are just as important to the story as real progress in the war, or character development.  However, to me they’re worlds apart and that’s why I enjoyed A Crown of Swords so much.  The characters develop, the world progresses and we edge forward more in 10 days than we did in the entire previous 100 days in Lord of Chaos.

The story follows three different threads.  Rand and his group, and their continued progress towards the attack on Illian, Egwene and her role with the rebels, and Nynaeve/Elayne and their progress in Ebou Dar.  As before, the story picks up exactly where it left off in the previous book, and in fact, a little bit before that.  In the prologue, we get the Shaido view of the Battle of Dumai’s Wells, which I really enjoyed.  From there, the story progresses at a good clip, covering mostly those around Rand and Egwene for the first 12 or so chapters.

They were, I have to say, refreshingly good after Lord of Chaos.  I found myself almost jubilant by the time I got a third of the way through the book.  This was everything Jordan had promised previously but not delivered for a long time.  Consistent characters, excellent exchanges and true character development.

After that the story starts to jump around a bit, with more PoV’s, spread between the three major groups.  It did start to slow down for me here, and there were some truly agonising exchanges between Mat, Elayne and Nynaeve, but they were spread through with Birgitte and a few others, to put some honey on that kaf bitterness.

However, there’s a clear direction, and clear character progression for Elayne, Nynaeve, Min, Rand, Mat and a few others, and I really enjoyed that.  The plot elements make sense, and I didn’t feel there was much wasted paper in general.  Don’t get me wrong – there are still paragraphs of descriptive text that I just totally skipped across, and don’t feel I’ve missed anything at all, but generally I don’t feel there were too many chapters that could have been dropped altogether.

Generally the pace is good, and there are some very, very enjoyable scenes here.  A favourite character makes a strong return, Elayne and Nynaeve make a startling discovery, and we begin to think just for a moment that it might not all be so bleak after all.

Until Padan Fain makes an appearance.

A Crown of Swords shows just how much change The Dragon Reborn is likely to bring to the world.  It’s one of the better books in the first seven, and it was a real surprise to find how enjoyable it was against the memories of the two before it.

The Retrospective

Be warned – the retrospectives are getting more spoilery, and this one may be very spoilery, for this book, the series, and all the books before it.

Well well, this was a real surprise.  I’m not sure how much I enjoyed A Crown of Swords first time around, but I certainly did this time.  Oh sure, there are annoying bits, and I had to skip over some paragraphs, but other than that it’s far better than I was expecting.

Once it got rolling I remembered a few of the things coming up (The Kin, Moghedian) but not anywhere near everything, and some of the reveals were like new.  Very enjoyable.

I wasn’t looking forward to any of the scenes in Ebou Dar, I had memories of them dragging and dragging, but they weren’t as bad as I feared, and I quite like the moment Elayne snaps and truly discovers her backbone.  I think the Aes Sedai are in for the biggest change of everyone in the land, and not all of it driven by the Dragon Reborn directly.

I have memories of the backlash this book faced when it was first released, covering only 10 days.  How was the series ever going to finish people feared.  I still understand that, but given how much the book actually drives the plot forward, I think it’s a moot point.  The previous 100 days in Lord of Chaos changed almost nothing in the world until the very end, so I’m willing to forgive Jordan the short time-scale if he finally drives the story.  I fear though, that book eight covers a longer period again, with even less happening – time will tell.

The Angry Spoilers

At this point, I’m too angry to care what I spoil.  I might even spoil books by other authors (not really).  Who knows.  Reader beware.

Spoilers!

What can I say that hasn’t been said in the previous 6 iterations of this section.  Jordan uses too many adjectives, he focuses far too much on what people look like, how they dress, how they think about how they and other people dress, and the colour of every wall and piece of furniture in the world.  I skipped paragraphs of this junk, especially in Ebou Dar.  I know what they look like, you’ve told me two hundred times.

I was overjoyed when Nynaeve broke her own block.  Firstly, it’s an excellent piece of writing from Jordan, with plenty of emotional undercurrents (that’s an awesome pun, read the book to find out why).  Secondly however, it dispenses with the need to make her insanely angry all the time just to get her to channel.  Hopefully Lan can take the girl in hand and finally get her calmed down.

I have come to realise that one of the reasons I dislike some of the characters is not only because they are stupid, but because they make constant and non-stop assumptions about everyone and everything around them.  I try not to assume anything in life, I find it leads to making mistakes, upsetting other people and generally fucking things up.  Of course, it also leads to far too much thinking and planning and stepping carefully around people – but I’d rather do that than make an assumption and screw someone else over.  However, Jordan’s characters never ask, never engage, never discuss, they just assume.  About each other, about the weather, about their intentions, and it’s that which leads to their downfalls, and that which leads to me hating them all so, so much.  Elayne & Nynaeve are the two worst offenders, and so each time one of their chapters came up, I groaned inside.

There is one moment of contempt from Jordan, one reminder that this is only just the middle of his story.  A moment in which I think he panicked about having gotten rid of Moiraine, and having polarised the Aes Sedai (Kill Rand vs. Obey Rand).  Jordan introduces ‘the most powerful Aes Sedai ever’, a legend in her own time, Cadsuane Melaidhrin.  It’s irritating on both levels, why someone so ‘important’ so late (and she’s not the only one, Moridin /cough), but also, she just happens to be the most irritating woman in the whole of Randland bar none.  Ever.

But having said all that – there’s not a huge deal to moan about in this book.  We make some progress and we resolve a few small threads.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Robert Jordan
  • Series: The Wheel of Time (7)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)