On Reading

Now that school is over with I am slowly (ever so slowly) starting to have a life again. Part of that untangling is getting back into reading and tabletop gaming. This post is about where I’m at with the former.

I’m trying to explore the modern supernatural genre, surely inspired by my acquisition of the Dresden Files RPG at Origins earlier this month. And I’d already read Storm Front, the first of the Harry Dresden books, a couple of years ago (it’s not like I got no reading done while I was in school). I stalled out on Fool Moon, which is the second volume, but the crowd seems to agree that the series doesn’t even start accelerating up to full speed until book 3. So with the RPG books at hand I muscled my way through book two, and went farther.

I’d agree with the general notion that the Dresden books start really rolling in book three; Fool Moon is chiefly interesting for continuing the novel world-building Butcher began in Storm Front, and it plants seeds that begin to sprout in Grave Peril. By book four, while the narrative is self-contained, a full-blown inter-volume arc is in place, with elements streaming in from the preceding three books.

The Dresden Files books (now numbering sixteen) are grim and moody with a splattering of whimsy and humor. Some might consider them an ideal mix in this regard; they’re dark but not relentlessly so. And they’re light, breezy reads. In that context I can’t help but compare them to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Although I think Rowling is the superior proseweaver and storyteller out of the gate, Butcher does get better with each book at least through the fourth volume, Summer Knight, which contains his best writing to the point I’ve read — even though the convoluted plot makes no goddamn sense at all. The next book in the series, Death Masks, is on deck, but after crushing out three Dresden books in half a week, I’m trying to mark out some additional territory as well.

With that in mind I set upon Stephen King’s On Writing, which has lingered on my to-read list for quite a while. It’s very engaging, less a book about writing than about King as a writer, and his process. This was very illuminating, because I’m not really that big a reader of King’s books, in part because of his choice of subject matter — I’m not really a horror fan. I acknowledge King’s mastery of the craft and did very much enjoy The Stand… but I felt The Gunslinger was an interminable turd and am still staggering clubfooted through The Shining. On Writing showed me why King’s work sometimes seems to me to meander plotless through a featureless landscape, and at other times, when the characters are human and crisply drawn, to be extraordinarily compelling despite that. I therefore took On Writing as incisive criticism of King’s own work, in the best sense of what criticism is supposed to be: not to tell you what to like but to shine a light on some of the machinery and therefore on your own interaction with the work.

Next up, again in an effort to read in a number of different areas, was Leviathan Wakes, the first in a series credited to James S. A. Corey. “Corey” is actually the nom de plume of two writers: well-regarded veteran Daniel Abraham and (at the time of its publication) newcomer Ty Franck. The book is written in alternating chapters with their own viewpoint characters, with Abraham taking one set and Franck the other. I could tell who was writing who even before confirming it; early on the Holden chapters, penned by Franck, are less fluid than the Miller sections authored by Abraham, even though Franck’s part of the story is closer to the central narrative and he gets a number of the choicest scenes for himself. Holden himself is less interesting than the tortured, half-insane Miller, but Franck grows in ability even through the course of the novel and by its end the story seems nearly seamless.

Now I’ve moved on to Charles Hazen’s hoary old The French Revolution and Napoleon. Written during the throes of World War I, it was not the definitive work on the subject even in its day, but it’s a good short treatment of the period written in a dense but unscholarly style. I’m about 15% through it and France has barely received a mention except in relation to Prussia or England; Hazen spends lots of time on Frederich and Peter the Greats. But that’ll change as La Révolution unfolds and Napoléon emerges. I figure that the book will be a nice warm-up to an eventual reading of David Chandler’s massive and definitive The Campaigns of Napoleon.

Next on the nightstand will be, I think, finishing The Shining, followed by Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path, an epic fantasy and also first in a series. I have the next Dresden book, Charlie Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and Benedict Jacka’s Fated on deck as well, but I’m going to try to mix the order up a bit, so I’ll toss the next Expanse novel in along with some other dusty old history book.

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