Christopher Ruz weaves a rich, multi-layered epic in The Ragged Lord: Century of Sand 2, continuing the journey of Richard and his half-wild daughter Ana as they flee across the wastes from the seemingly unstoppable Magician and his pet creature, the Culling. In addition to a rotating cast of two-faced desert dwellers, Richard and Ana are joined by the Kabbah, a tribal warlord with a sword in his hand and wry commentary always on his lips.
With the exception of G. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I don’t think I’ve ever been as captivated by a series as I am with this one. I’m anticipating the next book maybe as much as I am Winds of Winter, if not more. Martin’s story has become so convoluted and he’s killed off so many characters I’m not entirely sure why I should keep paying attention—there are almost no antagonists left to drive ASOIAF’s story and if he keeps killing heroes, he won’t have any payoff left. Meanwhile, Century of Sand keeps surprising me with a never-ending inventiveness and top-notch quality that puts some of the best to shame.
I’ve already voiced my feelings about the dreamy Australian indie-drama style of Century of Sand in my review of the first book, so I won’t repeat myself here. But suffice it to say Ruz’s writing has only gotten better, more focused, and more fantastical, and this sequel builds on and towers over all of the original.
Like Martin, Ruz’s writing style is economic and sensible, propelling you through the narrative at a breakneck pace while still slipping you enough descriptive hints to build a believable visual. He crafts living, breathing characters so realistic you might just think of them as your own friends—halfway through the book I found myself in the loo in the middle of the night, fantasizing about a tense situation between Richard and the Kabbah I feel like I could have solved with a brotherly hug.
Richard himself remains a complex everyman, the metaphorical descendant of Roland Deschain and Indiana Jones, stoic enough to stand up to danger, but wise enough to flee in terror in the face of overwhelming odds.
Ruz manages to keep building a huge world while maintaining what’s turning out to be his signature, a feverishly intimate style straight out of the mid-20th century. In the first book, Richard explains the catalyzing events leading up to Century by telling his daughter a decades-old story about Parkin, a soldier enlisted to accompany the Magician to a faraway obelisk known as the Ant Tower.
In Ragged Lord, Richard pencils in his own past by telling Ana about his childhood and how he and Parkin met during the Magician’s rebellion against the King.
This leapfrog technique goes a long way toward elevating suspense in the present, but in the past, the details of the larger world remain cloudy and storybook-like. It allows Ruz to greatly expand his setting without sacrificing his tight scope and the reader’s feeling of discovery, as Richard forges through foreign cities and bizarre badlands, struggling through one revelation after another. The final twist is extremely well-done—I was completely taken off guard, yet at the same time I thought, “Duh, that makes total sense.”
My only real issue was a frustrating detour two thirds of the way through the book that seemed tonally out of sync with the rest of the series, a pit stop that turns into a bit of an Agatha Christie whodunit. But honestly the rest of the book was so good--especially the bizarre Laboratory of Capir and the climactic battle--that I didn't mind the breather.
Century of Sand doesn’t deserve to be relegated to the back-alleys of indie publishing. Not only is Ruz a hell of a good dude (I tracked him down on Twitter to fanboy at him after I started reading his work), but he’s a teacher and he supplements his income with his novels and novellas.
Help me convince him he’s got the talent to be a literary rock-star—if you consider yourself a fantasy fan, pick up the first book, then come back here and grab this one. Then you can come find me and we’ll go fanboy at him together.
WHEN THE HAPLESS TEEN protagonist Roberto is crowned Pope Hadrian and finds himself dropped into a web of shadows worthy of an Escher painting, oily backstabbers and greedy nobles come out of the woodwork to puppeteer him to their own ends. As I plowed through John Oakes's new alternate-history adventure, Death Pope's deceptively dry beginning turned out to be the first clues that this novel would prove to be a very highly-researched and smartly-written thriller.
The characterization, as is customary of Oakes' novels, is top-notch. Every character is a well-realized human unto himself, making the Vatican seem to crawl with activity. The three characters closest to the reader, Roberto, Petruccio, and Cosimo, begin the book as a trio of carefree Italian boys that could have stepped straight off the pages of Romeo and Juliet; their personalities made me feel as if I were reading a novel decades if not centuries older than their author.
A few of the older characters, like members of Roberto's new papal cabinet, are a bit interchangeable, but the Italian names are so colorful that they stand out well and it's easy to overlook.
The Vatican itself is a Hogwarts of detailed passageways, choked with every opportunity to stage an interesting scene--honestly, I never knew it was so expansive and easy to get lost in. It's a testament to Oakes's talent that I feel like I've finally been properly introduced to it, even after years of reading Dan Brown.
Where DEATH POPE really shines is the dialogue scenes. While Oakes's previous outing THE RIGHT KIND OF STUPID was no slouch in the quality department, DP's dramatic scenes were a shocking step up in maturity and complexity. Besides the obvious point that Oakes has had more practice, I point a finger directly at the amped-up authenticity: where TRKOS was made of stoner coming-of-age humor and barroom conversation, DP absolutely gleams with intricate political thumb-wrestling and the cadence of 16th century speech. I have absolutely no complaints here--like Martin's books, DP said, "Here comes the airplane!" and spoon-fed me a helping of Mafia diplomacy I didn't even know I wanted. Oakes must have spent a lot of late nights poring over ecclesiastical references and protocol documentation.
I won't spoil the catalyst that finally switches the story into high gear, but it culminates in a caper sequence that'll have any fan of Tarantino cheering and cackling like I did. I thought the book ended rather abruptly--it feels like the pilot episode of an HBO series--but if Oakes has his way, this won't be the last one, and I'm very much looking forward to the rest of the series.
Angry Elf follows the character Winton Chevalier's life several years before the events of The Right Kind of Stupid as he comes to terms with life as an achondroplasic dwarf and the son of a decorated police officer.
I'm not one to recount plots in reviews, but the core of the story is Winton's angst about having to resort to being a stereotype to make ends meet, and the nasty, defensive attitude that arises because of it. Needless to say, in classic Oakes style, Winton gets the good old Scrooge treatment.
What impressed me the most about Angry is how empathetic and incisive Oakes is with portraying a dwarf. Where other, lesser writers could have made Winton a two-dimensional joke or a piece of the scenery, Oakes pulls a G. R. R. Martin and does this Texan Tyrion every justice possible. Winton is an emotionally invested and realized character, and Oakes doesn't pull any punches or withhold anything the character deserves--he gets into fights, he has a love interest, he gets arrested, other characters lecture him.
He might be in a four-foot body, but he has a six-foot soul and I think that deserves a five-star rating.