Monday, 28 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(Harry Potter re-read concludes.)
I've come to the conclusion that being famous is a problem, largely because people won't say "no" to you. You could ask Michael Jackson about that, except... yeah.
Case in point. For a long time - roughly the first 418 pages - this was a long three-star book with a much shorter four-star book trapped inside it, and apparently nobody dared to tell the author this.
I also recall wondering how they were going to make two movies out of it, because my memory was that not much happened. Actually, in the last third, quite a bit happens - it's very exciting - but unfortunately there are the first two-thirds.
The problem is that these books are written to a formula. There's a mystery plot, and Harry kind of thrashes about and solves the mystery mainly by accident; but in the previous volumes there were so many subplots about Quidditch and exams and the Triwizard Tournament and the House Cup and who's snogging whom and potion books and Snape and Malfoy and whatnot that we stayed interested, even though the mystery wasn't progressing very fast. In this book, there's none of that distraction, the mystery plot is standing on its own, and it's just. Not. That. Interesting.
Not only that, but the contrivances by which Harry does make progress have nowhere to hide, either. The whole series, with the exception of the prologues-by-another-name (that name being Chapter 1) that begin each book, sticks to a very tight third-person limited, which is Harry's viewpoint. This means that while he's travelling round the country with a price on his head, it's very difficult for him, and hence us, to find out what's going on or, in fact, get any new information that might help him to solve his problem.
So we get a Convenient Eavesdrop, when by incredibly unlikely coincidence several people who happen to have exactly the information he needs talk about it in his hearing without realising he's listening to them. I groan when I encounter a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's a hack's solution, unworthy of Rowling, who, most of the time, is original and clever.
And then we get the faithful companion who becomes unfaithful and leaves, and can't get back by the nature of the case, and then by what looks like deus ex machina (only explained near the end) does get back, with important information, and also saves the protagonist's life.
And the "makes mistake, captured by the enemy, not only escapes but takes others with him and gains several advantages by doing so" sequence. It's old. It's tired. It was creaking in the 1930s.
I'm willing to forgive these lapses, though, because the last 200 pages are mostly one thrilling episode after another. There's a trip to the Department of Backstory (which, however, suddenly makes sense of everything that's gone before), and a few hokey moments along the way, but the final third of this final book makes up for a lot. There's much to be said for a good ending, and I was genuinely moved as Harry, invisible, passed Ginny for what he believed was the last time and heard her comforting an injured girl. Some of the deaths of beloved characters, though, left me strangely unmoved, perhaps because there's no build-up to them. Just, "Oh, so-and-so is dead".
The epilogue? I'm still not sure. On the one hand, it shows what they were fighting for, and does a good job of it. On the other, it's a perhaps clashing change of tone. On the whole, I think I like it.
Verdict on the series? Uneven, certainly. Full of minor style issues, definitely (commas where they have no business being, passive voice, and all the rest). Dark, sometimes gruelling fantasy oddly built on a fifty-foot-thick foundation of whimsy and outright silliness. Pitted with plot holes and more than a few contrived coincidences. But engaging, often funny, frequently (though not always frequently enough) suspenseful and adventurous.
Despite its flaws, I love it, and I wish there was more of it. Which isn't the same as wishing the books were longer.
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Saturday, 26 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
(Harry Potter re-read continues.)
I mentioned in my review of the last book that, even though it was long, it didn't drag. This one does, a bit. It becomes especially noticeable when you hit the 30 or so pages near the end that are actually exciting and gripping, and realise that the preceding 500-odd felt a bit over-padded, thick with teen relationship angst, arguments about a potions book, detentions, and Quidditch (including an off-screen Quidditch triumph that is, therefore, not exciting). It's a commonly-made joke that Voldemort is considerate enough to only spring his serious stuff at the end of the school year, obviously respecting the educational process, and never was it more obvious than here. The fact that, after the climax, there's a long denouement doesn't help, either.
The plot also seems a bit strained. There's a massive lampshade hung on the fact that it's only by good luck that Harry is able to carry out an important mission, and his friends are able to avoid being killed. All the worldbuilding is whimsical, which means that it's hard to ask the question "How would that even work?", but... lucky potion?
And speaking of being killed, authors are a bit like dogs. Once they get a taste for killing, they'll do it over and over, and escalate. The first three books (if I remember rightly) had no on-screen deaths, though death was certainly hanging about in the backstory and being narrowly and luckily avoided. Then a secondary character we'd not seen in previous books went down. Then a secondary character that we'd seen in a couple of previous books went down. Now a major character who has been in all the books goes down, and we're set for the final book's total bloodbath, beloved characters dropping left and right, George R.R. Martin style. I mean, I understand that stakes have to get higher as the series progresses, but I don't know that this is the only way.
Rowling is interested in writing female characters, of all kinds (there's a YouTube video about it that's worth watching), and in this and the previous book we finally get Strong!Ginny. Ginny starts out whiny and tearful and characterless, progresses through "helpless victim to be rescued", and finally, in Order of the Phoenix, grows some ovaries and starts to be interesting. We don't really see how she makes the transition, unfortunately; she just gets a sudden personality transplant. And then at the end of this book Harry makes the "we can't be together because it's too dangerous for you" speech, and she takes it equably and without arguing, which I found surprising. Anyway, she had some good moments for a while there.
Second-to-last books are like second books, hard to make strong, and this one isn't strong, by the standards of the series. I know I saw the movie in the theatre, because my wife complained bitterly all the way home about the scene where everyone lights up their wands like cigarette lighters at a rock concert, but to be honest I can't remember any other scenes from it apart from that one. I can't even remember what Horace Slughorn, a reasonably major character, looked like. Was it (as we thought at the time) because it was a bad movie, or is this part of the story just unmemorable? I'm starting to think the latter.
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Thursday, 24 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The reread continues.
The longest of the series manages to pull off the difficult feat of (mostly) not seeming too long. There is a slightly swampy middle where Umbridge's reign of terror drags on longer than it really needs to, but otherwise it's well-paced, and the battle near the end would be worth wading through a lot more to reach.
Speaking of Umbridge, I think the movie casting improved on the book. Book Umbridge is toadlike and ugly, in the unfortunate code that says that villains are unattractive. Movie Umbridge is all the more sinister for her relatively normal appearance, in exactly the kind of bureaucratic, falsely nice way she should be. And, of course, the movie has the wonderful callback moment: "Tell them I mean no harm!" "I'm sorry, Professor, I must not tell lies."
I had a good smile at the insight that banning a publication is a great way to ensure that people will want to read it, something the author had plenty of experience with by this point (not to mention her youthful experiences in Amnesty International).
As well as a fine portrayal of what it's like to live under tyranny (and how to resist it), this book has a strong theme of family. The whole series does, but this book does in particular, with Hagrid giving voice to it specifically, while many little touches, like the way Molly Weasley regards Harry as another son, or his relationship with his godfather, reinforce it.
Unfortunately, this is the book of Angry!Harry. He's angry pretty much throughout, and although being psychically linked to Voldemort offers some excuse, it's still tedious to have so much teenage anger. As the Chosen One, he can be lacking in discipline and still ultimately succeed, with the bulk of the cost falling on someone else. Not his finest hour.
Whatever else you say about Rowling, though, she certainly can do pacing, and by keeping lots of plates spinning she holds our attention through nearly 800 pages as if it weren't no thing.
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Monday, 21 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Harry Potter series re-read continues, and now we come to one that, on re-read, has a couple of plot holes or inconsistencies. (Very minor spoilers for this extremely well-known, 13-year-old book follow.)
Inconsistency 1: How Portkeys work. At the beginning of the book, Portkeys appear to be single-use and one-way, and only work at a specific time chosen by the person who set them up. But at the end, we see a Portkey used a second time, to go in the other direction (but not to exactly the same place, to a more dramatic one), without any apparent time issue. I can't think of a logical, in-universe reason why this Portkey would work this way. It's only there to serve the plot.
Inconsistency 2: This is only apparent on a re-read, because in the next book, we're told that people who have seen death can see Thestrals, the horselike creatures that pull the carriages that take students to and from the station at Hogwarts. However, at the end of this book, Harry apparently doesn't see them, even though the "horseless" carriages are specifically mentioned. He can see them in the next book, because of a death that he'd already witnessed at the time he was going back to the station at the end of this book.
OK, with those out of the way, how was the book overall?
By this time, J.K. Rowling was a major public figure, of course, and having to deal with an ill-informed and sometimes hostile media. She takes beautiful author's revenge using the character of Rita Skeeter, the classic distorting reporter, and even manages to characterise her as an annoying insect. There are more indications of corruption in the Ministry of Magic (even Mr Weasley and his friends deal in favours to "fix up" potential problems with the law), culminating in the Minister's cowardly denial at the end, which creates the starting point for the next book.
Rowling has had multiple plot threads going right from the first book, and in this one, the first of the really long books, she certainly has plenty going on. The main plot appears to be the challenges of the Triwizard Tournament, but there's also the Yule Ball and the Scooby mystery ("I would have got away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!"). Behind it all, the series plot, the return of the Dark Lord, lurks, signaled by the prologue and referred to in flashes throughout before climaxing near the end with a significant plot turn. All of these kept me reading and moving from plot point to plot point, and I didn't feel that it was overpadded or bloated, despite its much greater size.
As I write, I'm already reading the next, and thoroughly loathing Umbridge. I have to say for Rowling, she doesn't just do one flavour of a type of character. Whether it's "strong woman", "unpleasant woman", "borderline nutter", "bully", "hero", "comic relief", "mentor"... there are multiple examples of each of these, and they're not interchangeable. It shows a depth of observation that you don't always see in authors, and it's part of what I enjoy about these books.
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Thursday, 17 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(The Harry Potter series re-read continues.)
After a slightly disappointing second book, the third book in the series comes back much stronger, with more action and tension, sustained well throughout. Admittedly, the author tries a little too hard for a little too long to keep us believing the wrong thing about the eponymous prisoner, but when the switch is finally flipped, we get to learn a bit more about Harry's father and his days at Hogwarts, casting an important sidelight on Harry himself.
I agree with Snape that Harry is incredibly irresponsible in his choices, something which is a problem for the series overall. Because he's the Chosen One, he gets away with being stupid, stubborn, pouty, dramatic and undisciplined for far too long (well into Book 5 or 6, if I recall correctly), and while it ramps up the tension, it reduces both his believability and likeability. Snape is the designated lampshade hanger/frustrated-audience mouthpiece for this annoyance.
(A minor odd thing while I think of it: If Lupin had only just been appointed as DADA teacher, why did his case say "Professor" in peeling letters?)
I don't think I'd reread this since I saw the film, and I was struck by how much the film version differed. No Quidditch, and the whole time-turner sequence was notably different. Film Hermione is much stronger than Book Hermione, not least because she gets one of Book Ron's brave lines about having to go through him/her to get to Harry. Book Hermione is a bit wimpy and panicky, in fact, which is a pity.
The series arc, the return of the Dark Lord, isn't advanced much in this book (the next more than makes up for that, of course), and yet it manages to be suspenseful and exciting anyway - partly through the phantom menace of crazy Sirius Black, but there's also the real menace of the Dementors. This book also introduces the theme, which grows much stronger later in the series, especially in Order of the Phoenix, of corrupt and incompetent government endangering and harming those it claims to protect. Well done, Ms Rowling, especially as this book came out in 2000, at least a year before the big-time security theatre really got started. The best bits of this series are like thrillers, and political thrillers at that, cleverly disguised as fantasy books for kids.
The next book's the first of the chihuahua-crushers. Now we're getting serious. There are still some lovely touches of humour here, though, for example when Snape pulls a Christmas cracker and gets a hat like the one that Neville's grandmother wears. Humour, snark, and practical jokes abound in these books, even among the very dark moments, and they're all the better for it.
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Monday, 14 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm rereading the series, after several years, paying closer attention now to what J.K. Rowling is doing as a writer. I remembered this as not being one of the stronger books, and the reread confirmed that at least partially.
It's a book of two parts (not halves; the first is, roughly, three-quarters of the book, I think). Part one is rather lost in relative mundanity, inasmuch as Hogwarts can be mundane, interspersed with bits of the Big Mystery. Part two, the descent into the Chamber of Secrets itself, is fully as dark, scary and action-packed as the later parts of the series.
If Part 1 had been either shorter or more interesting, this would have been a four-star book for me. Book 1 gets away with a lot of stuff about Quidditch and classes and minor rivalries and feasts because it's introducing the world, and it's all new and wonderful, but Book 2 doesn't have that advantage, and it feels a bit slow. It's also doing a lot of setup for later books, so there are threads that don't go anywhere much within this book but are significant later.
Book 2 of a series is always a tricky one to write, and Rowling has done a fair, but not amazing, job here.
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Friday, 11 October 2013
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In theory, I should hate this book.
It has a Chosen One and a Dark Lord, for goodness' sake, which is a trope that's been so driven into the ground you can barely see the top of it. The worldbuilding is whimsical and absurd. Half the moments of progress for the protagonist involve luck or coincidence. The heroes are 11 years old and excessively competent. It starts with a prologue (not labelled as such, but it is) all about the dull and ordinary lives of some unpleasant people who aren't even the protagonists.
So why do so many people love it? Why do I love it? Why do we even seek out badly-written fanfiction of it in order to get more?
Here's what I think. On the flip side of the whimsy is a powerful sense of wonder. Harry's dull suburban life at the start is replaced by the wizarding world, which is full of life and colour and fun - and risk and adventure, too. It's exactly that prologue-of-mundanity that sets us up for the world to open out like a tropical flower as Harry and Hagrid enter Diagon Alley, and later Hogwarts. The wizarding world is intense, it's a place where things matter and great issues are at stake, like high school only much more so.
I used to think of J.K. Rowling's great strength as being plotting, because she weaves plots and subplots together so competently. Every book has them: Who will win the House Cup? Who will win at Quidditch? How will the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher be nobbled? Will Harry get caught sneaking round and punished? Will he find out about the mysterious thing? What new method of transport will be used? What will Malfoy plot, and how will he be foiled, and will his father hear about this? Later on, who will snog whom, and will it last, and who else will be jealous? Who will be killed? Will Neville do something courageous and/or stupid?
Now, I look at it in a slightly different way. What Rowling is so very good at is raising questions, like the ones I've just posed, and giving us reasons to care about the answers. Then she staggers questions and answers so that we keep on having a reason to read on.
Very often, the reason we care is that the characters care, and we identify with the characters. Her most important characters are outsiders: Harry, raised by abusive foster parents without knowledge of his heritage; Hermione, too smart to be popular; Ron, from a family without much money or status; Neville, raised by his grandmother and a bit of a nebbish; Luna, eccentric as a brush; even Snape, greasy, bullied, unlucky in love. We see how they're underdogs, and we cheer for the underdogs as they strive and struggle and triumph (and sometimes fail, and pay the cost, and keep fighting anyway).
Her characters have distinct voices. Hagrid's is the most distinctive on the page, but every one of them sounds different, from sarcastic Harry to hoity-toity Hermione to rough-hewn Ron to dreamy Luna. Having seen the films, of course, helps, but even in text, the voices are clear and distinct. A few of the background characters might be interchangeable, but even then, you'd never confuse Seamus with Dean, for example.
And the characters matter to each other. Their relationships, good or bad, have power. They answer the questions together, and those relationships help and hinder and change and develop as they do so.
Not everything about the series, or the writing, is as good as it could be. There are parts you don't want to think too hard about, and sentences that don't bear close inspection. Overall, though, we see relatable characters with important connections to one another, solving multiple overlapping problems that they care about in a world that's vigorous, fresh and alive, and that's what made the author richer than the Queen.
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Monday, 7 October 2013
The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a book I (and many others) have been waiting for literally for years. The author had some tough personal times, involving severe depression, and the series was put on hold as a result. Now it's back, though, and when I saw on Netgalley that I could get a pre-publication copy for review, I jumped on it.
Why do I like this series so much? On the face of it, it's not my kind of thing. The characters are lawbreakers in a cruel and unjust sword-and-sorcery world, foul-mouthed, and continuously abused by their author. It's like someone took Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and turned everything up to 11 (and I'm not a big fan of those books at all).
I think it's partly because Locke Lamora, the protagonist, is so hapless I can't help being on his side. It's partly because I do love a trickster story, and Lamora is a classic trickster, not only in his cleverness but also in the way his cleverness often ends up getting him into horrible, horrible trouble, and then out again, and then in again, and then out again...
It's partly, too, because it's just so very well written. Smooth, well-paced, not a wasted incident over the whole long book. Everything connects to something else. In this book, two stories are interweaved in two different time periods with some of the same characters, and they throw light on each other in a way that's wonderful to watch.
Because it's been so long since the last book, I can't remember for sure if the previous two books also do that. In fact, I can't remember the previous two books particularly well at all, in terms of actual incidents. This was a slight drawback, since this book keeps making callbacks to those earlier incidents and I didn't remember what they were talking about, but I still enjoyed it as almost a standalone. It would be worth re-reading the previous books immediately before this one, though.
You can tell a book by an author who's suffered, and knowing that Lynch has struggled with depression adds extra emotional resonance to some of the early scenes in which Locke's friend upbraids him for wanting to give up and die. The characters have powerful emotions, great hopes and great triumphs and great disappointments, without ever seeming theatrical or over-dramatic.
One minor negative for me was the worldbuilding, or comparative lack thereof. It's a fairly typical sword-and-sorcery setting, feeling late-medieval/early-renaissance (though without guns), with Italian-style city-states that remember the fallen Empire. There are important cultural differences between the city-states (at least, they're important to the inhabitants), and there are a few cultural referents that are made up, but a lot of the world, the culture and the language is just taken whole-cloth or minimally altered from our own world, including expressions like "you could hear a pin drop". I'm not going to call that lazy worldbuilding (nothing about this book is lazy); it's a particular approach, which trades requiring a bit of extra suspension of disbelief from those like me who notice such things against not letting a lot of unfamiliarity in the worldbuilding distract most readers from the story being told.
Overall verdict: this was worth the wait, and I hope the next one is well underway.
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Tuesday, 1 October 2013
The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let's start with the disclaimers. I know the author on Google+, which is why I read the book. I'd picked it up on a free promotion, and when I realised I didn't have the up-to-date version, he kindly sent me his latest build. We've corresponded about some questions I had (which he cleared up, so they won't appear in this review), and I'll be sending him some more notes too. Based on his response to me so far, many of the issues I identify may well be fixed soon, so there may be things I mention below that are no longer problems in the later version that you buy (because I hope you do buy it).
I actually started reading this book twice. The first time, I got through the part where the protagonist/narrator gets back from deployment in Afghanistan, and his wife has left him, and then the phone rings and his mother tells him his father's died... and I stopped, because I thought it was going to be too dark and tragic for my taste.
Then I kept reading Sam's posts on G+, and realised that he's a very accomplished writer, and decided that I did want to read it after all. And, in fact, after that second shoe drops, apart from the scene where people are being dragged down to be consumed by an evil god it's mostly not that distressing, despite the "dark fantasy" label.
When I say "very accomplished writer", I mean that he has a feel and a skill for language that's unusual in the indie writers I read. His prose is not without flaws, though. He's over-fond of the semicolon, his imagery can shade towards the purple and, sometimes, the incoherent, and he does the Steven Donaldson thing of dropping vocabulary words every few pages, which, taken all together, comes across to me as maybe trying too hard.
Unfortunately, too, the words don't always mean what he seems to think they mean, and occasionally mean the opposite. He describes two characters as having "reedy" voices, for example. From context, he means big, booming voices, but "reedy" means thin and weak. "Sojourn" is twice used to mean "journey", but it means staying in one place (that's a common error).
Then there are the florid descriptions which leave me unable to imagine what's being described, like "a black frock coat swarthy with curly pinstriping". If it's black, it's already swarthy, and what on earth would "curly pinstriping" look like?
Very few people have the vocabulary to pull this kind of writing off, and even those who do, I think probably shouldn't attempt it. I know it's a classic way of writing fantasy, but I find it distancing even when done well, and annoying when done badly. Here, it's not done terribly, but it could be done better. It's possible (though difficult) to write lucid, straightforward prose that's also beautiful and evocative. Emma Bull does it, Ursula Le Guin does it, and I wish more genre writers did.
When we come to characters, there's some good news. The protagonist/narrator is based on the author, but he is definitely not Gary Stu. He's in poor physical and emotional shape, he gets scared, he freaks out. Things don't fall into his lap; he struggles, he suffers. He makes meaningful decisions, he's loyal to his friends. I'm happy with him as a character.
The secondary characters are not as clearly drawn. In particular, the minor characters in the other world I found difficult to separate in some cases, or remember who was who, perhaps because a lot of them are introduced in a short span of time. I'm sure they'll gain depth in the second book.
The premise is interesting. The main character's father is a well-known fantasy author, and it turns out that he wasn't making up his other world; he'd lived there, and was more a biographer than a novelist. The protagonist goes to the other world and becomes involved in defending it, and by extension our world, from other-dimensional villains.
It's a good premise. Portal fantasy is out of fashion, for some odd reason, but I've always liked it, and of course the fictional-worlds-are-real trope is a popular one (see Jasper Fforde for perhaps the best-known of many examples). I think the author does it justice, though with a couple of reservations which I'll mention next. He also does a nice job of including quotations from the father's books, which are in a subtly different style, though I didn't always see the relevance of them to the chapters they preceded.
I wasn't that happy with the worldbuilding. The narrator says that "there are very few analogs between Earth and Destin when it comes to culture", but there totally are. Destin is basically a mashup of classic swords-and-sorcery fantasy with the Old West, and the two elements don't blend well. Shields and sixguns. Characters who wear doublets and jeans. Yes, those are actual examples. It didn't work that well for me, technologically or historically. Or linguistically; I have a degree in English language, so I know how contingent and random the development of the English language was, and having another world in which people speak a version of it is unlikely on the face of it (though I'm willing to give it the Trope Pass, reluctantly, so that we don't have to struggle with language learning and translation to the detriment of the story).
The big, all-too-common worldbuilding gaffe, though, is this. One of the characters, an Earth person who's familiar with the other world from reading the books, says at one point, "There's no Christ. No Bible. Why would there be a Christmas?" And then roughly a thousand words later there's a minor character called Joshua. I understand why authors don't want the Christian religion in their books, but if you're going to take it out, take it all out. (The thing is, it's so entwined in our culture, to a degree that most people are unconscious of, that unless you base your books on a non-Western culture, you can't take it all out. This is an enduring problem of fantasy worldbuilding.)
Anyway, so much for the world. What about the plot? This is the first of an epic fantasy series, and as is often the case with such series, it's not a complete story in itself but an introduction to the world and the characters and the situation. That's not to say that nothing happens, by any means, but there's more a sense of beginning at the end than there is a sense of ending, if that makes any sense. Thinking back on my experience of reading it, I remember more explanation and exploration than I do action, though there are certainly several well-written action sequences, spaced well throughout.
One of the important questions to ask, when talking about plot, is "What do the characters want? Do they strive for it?" What the characters want is reasonably clear. The main character, Ross, wants to investigate the mystery, possibly avenge his father's death, and rescue and defend his friends. His friends want to visit the world of the books they loved growing up - and this weaker motivation leaves them as weaker, less interesting characters in this book, though they'll no doubt strengthen in future books thanks to the revelations towards the end of this one. Stakes are both cosmic and personal, which is a strong combination, and shows promise for the series.
Overall, this is definitely an above-average first novel, though for me it has some (non-fatal) issues. With more discipline applied to the language, and better integration of the different elements of the worldbuilding, I can see this becoming a classic series in the future.
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