Sprinklers in the Rain Blog

The Rain Wild Chronicles, by Robin Hobb

This is one of those reviews I feel is pretty redundant: it’s Robin Hobb. I’m a Robin Hobb fanboy. Chances are, if I know you I’ve already been frothing at the mouth in front of you over it. And if you’re reading this, you probably know me. Regardless, posting a review is half the fun in finishing a book for me so I’m doing it anyway. I will do my best to keep this spoiler free.

Upon the release of The Dragon Keeper, a little over five years had passed since last we visited the Elderlings saga in Fool’s Fate. Yes, five years. I had to go back and triple check those numbers. And it’s been even longer since we visited Bingtown and the Rain Wilds specifically, so this is a welcome return for some of us.

When reading Keeper, it’s important to remember that these two volumes were written as one stand-alone novel. I read a lot of negative reviews in various places complaining of a lack of climax in the first volume, no resolution and in general a lot of getting started without really going anywhere. The main reason Hobb tends to write in trilogies is because she sprawls. I think she is incapable of writing a standalone novel. Combined, The Rain Wild Chronicles amounts to 1,136 hardcover pages, which is quite a bit more than most publishers are comfortable with any more. So it was split in two volumes, and sadly 99% of the action happens the moment the second volume begins. This is something I fault the publisher for more than the author, and I think the least they could have done was release the two volumes closer together. Personally, I waited until both volumes were available to really get rolling and went from one directly into the other. I understand the disappointment readers may have felt having only the beginning without any middle or end a year ago, but I urge such people to pick up Dragon Haven because it’s worth it.

We do see some old friends from The Liveship Traders again, though this is not their story and as such they serve only a minor role. As usual, Hobb’s characters and their personal plights take center stage, but in the end their world as a whole is changed by their journey. It’s a very worthy addition to the saga, and I’m excited to see what direction the series goes from here.

It’s not without it’s faults – I’m beginning to wonder what is going on with Hobb’s editing staff. There is a typo in the very first sentence of Keeper, and a few more pop up along the way. Such things have plagued her books for some time now, since her Soldier Son books, if I recall correctly. I don’t recall ever encountering this many typos with any other author, and it’s a bit jarring when you run into it considering her typically graceful flow of writing.

And as much as I love the characters, their complete ignorance does get frustrating. Everyone seems to know what’s going on except the one character it would matter most to, and even when someone sits them down directly and tries explaining to them what’s going on they still fail to grasp it. It’s Fitzism at it’s highest, and it’s annoying. Denial and having a blind eye is understandable to a certain point, but I can only go so long before wanting to throttle people.

But these are minor complaints. I enjoyed the books as a whole, and I highly recommend them to fans of the series.

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The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie’s debut fantasy novel, The Blade Itself was quite the hit among genre fans a few years ago, and all the hype drove me to find out what all the fuss is about. Yes, I’ve owned the book for about two years. I’m a slow reader.

“Jezal’s heart sank. A deep voice, she sounded like a fat one. Jezal couldn’t afford to be seen walking about the Agriont with a fat girl on his arm. It could ruin his reputation.”

The Blade Itself is the first in Abercrombie’s trilogy, The First Law. The story jumps between various characters, but focuses primarily on four characters: Jezal, the dashing and entirely assholeish nobleman; Glokta, the crippled inquisitor; Logen Ninefingers, a barbaric warrior from the north; and Bayaz, a mysterious wizard who seems to be behind more than he lets on. Cliché, cliché, cliché… oh yeah, and cliché. So it seems.

Surprisingly, Abercrombie’s greatest strength is breathing new life into these fantasy stereotypes, and wastes no opportunity to poke fun at them. In fact, fantasy clichés are littered throughout the whole novel and shamelessly made fun of. As the novel goes on, these characters really begin to grow on you, and you can’t help but love even the worst of them. Their snarky comments and unique insights are enough to carry even the most boring of scenes.

The book has also been tauted for it’s intense and violent fight scenes. The battles are wonderfully written, though I wouldn’t say this book is quite as brutal as others claim it is. I blame this on George RR Martin torturing spoiling me, but really, when the characters have so many funny things to say it can really take the edge off the bloody scene you just read through.

Speaking of George RR Martin, it’s clear that Abercrombie is a fan. At times, the book felt so much like an imitation of A Song of Ice and Fire that it came off almost as a parody. This comes through in Glokta’s character especially, the bitter and scheming cripple who reminded me a little too much of our favorite imp, Tyrion Lannister. In fact, I found Martin equivalents in nearly every character in the book, and sad but true… Martin wrote them better.

Then we come to the story: I really couldn’t tell you what this damned book is about. 527 pages and nothing happened. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. At least two things happened. We’re just not sure what they were yet. There’s something going on up in the north, some guy’s brewing a war, some other people are preparing, but overall nobody seems to care all that much. Except that one guy. A few scenes left me hopeful that something was about to go down, but the following chapter always let me down.

I understand that this is only the first in a trilogy, and many fantasy authors use such a book as a simple introduction to the world and characters. The Blade Itself does well in that regard, but I prefer some sort of climax and/or closure in whatever book I read, regardless of it’s position in a series, and I just didn’t get that here. Even the amazing characters, whom I grew to love very dearly, weren’t enough to motivate me to keep reading a lot of the time, and as a result I can’t agree with a lot of the hype surrounding this book.

Will I pick up the next book? I’m not sure. I don’t have a clear enough idea of what’s going on in the story to care very much, but I am somewhat curious where Abercrombie’s road will lead Jezal, Ardee, Glokta, and all the others.

The rest of you: pick it up for a light and fun read. Check it out at the library if you can. But if you have a high pile of books to read, I wouldn’t say this book is quite worth bumping to the top of your queue.

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FDA’s E-Cigarette Release – Why It’s Bullshit

Since the FDA released their news release warning against the use of electronic cigarettes, I have found myself bombarded by friends and co-workers trying to save my life. “I saw it on the news last night, e-cigarettes cause cancer,” one said. Another merrily informed me that, “There’s antifreeze in your liquid! You’re inhaling anti-freeze!” Then the inevitable, “They’re pulling them from the market.”

Nine out of eleven of these people were smokers, I might add. The worst was when a friend of mine who also uses an e-cigarette instant messaged me in a panic, under the impression that he had made a terrible decision and needed to go back to tobacco cigarettes.

After enduring this all day, I feel like I need to write about it in more detail than I can get into during passing conversation to defend my decision to quit smoking and enjoy vaping instead.

The FDA reports that they found a trace of Diethylene Glycol in one of the two samples of e-liquid they tested, a “chemical used in antifreeze”. Upon further review of the lab test, I found that they obtained both of their liquid samples from American companies (NJOY and Smoking-Everywhere), and the Diethylene Glycol was found in the Smoking-Everywhere liquid. My first thought upon reading this is, “Awesome. Leave it to the least reputable company in the business to give the FDA just what they need to launch their campaign against e-cigarettes.”

Regardless, some people have been lead to believe that they’re practically injecting antifreeze into e-liquid. However, the main ingredient in antifreeze is Ethylene Glycol, not Diethylene Glycol. In fact, in a material safety study performed by JT Baker, Diethylene Glycol was listed as only requiring fresh air when inhaled in high doses, and that it’s “not expected to require first aid measures”. The danger in this chemical lies mainly in the ingestion of high amounts, where it may cause lesions and other damage to the liver and kidneys. Conveniently, the report provided by the FDA failed to mention exactly how much Diethylene Glycol was found in the liquid and in which specific liquids it was found in – be it in one flavor/nicotine concentration, or in all of them.

Redundantly, they move on to report the findings of nitrosamines in the liquid, failing to also mention that FDA-approved products designed to help people quit smoking like Nicoderm CQ and Nicorette contain the same nitrosamines! This is because it’s impossible to extract nicotine from tobacco without also getting traces of the nitrosamines that come with it. Where you have nicotine, you also have nitrosamines.

The real kicker for me is their fear of electronic cigarettes appealing to minors due to the wide variety of flavored liquids available. This after the FDA approves Perrigo to market Cherry and Cinnamon flavored nicotine lozenges. They talk like any child can walk around the corner, buy an e-cigarette and begin puffing away just like that. The fact is that even American manufacturers are few and far between, the mall kiosks you may happen to find do card, purchasing on-line requires age verification, and it costs anywhere between $100-$200 dollars to get started properly. There’s also the learning curve and upkeep factor that even most smokers I’ve introduced it to can’t handle. The truth of the matter is that it’s so much easier for a teenager to walk to the corner gas station, hope they don’t get carded and fork over five bucks for a pack of cigarettes and light up. Or, if they’re so concerned about flavor being a factor, what makes them think the kid won’t just do the obvious and buy a chocolate bar or some mints? Tobacco has always tasted disgusting, and the taste has never prevented anyone, young or old, from getting addicted.

The FDA is missing the point. E-cigarettes are not marketed as a risk free past time. They’re marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking for smokers. The manual that came with my e-cigarette states:

“E-cigarette is a revolution in the market directed toward smokers. […] Suitable User: Adults; People with long smoking history, and suffering from uncomfortable feeling.”

Granted, the Chinese aren’t so great with their English, but their intentions are stated plain and simple.

Everyone is aware that nicotine is bad for you. We’re also aware that there is nicotine in the e-cigarette cartridges. There is no one saying that vaping is a 100% healthy way to smoke. What the FDA has blasted off for the media to broadcast is really nothing but a statement of what we already know, however twisted around to essentially give smokers the message that they should continue to smoke because this whole e-cigarette thing is simply too good to be true. Or use one of their FDA-approved products like Nicorette that rarely work and cost you an arm and a leg. Better yet, try their nicotine free alternative, Chantix, which has driven at least 55 people to suicide! How’s that for healthy?

Hidden behind the blatant propaganda of this report is some actually very good news for people who care to look. They found one harmful chemical in their test. One, compared to the over 2,000 chemicals found in tobacco cigarettes. Another study was done on e-liquid by Health New Zealand which reported nitrosamine findings in 16mg nicotine liquids of 8.183 parts per billion, with obviously much less found in lower nicotine strength liquids. To put a bit of perspective on the bigger picture here, the typical tobacco cigarette contains around 1,230.00 ppb.

However, I agree that e-liquid needs to be regulated. Different studies for different liquids always provide slightly different results, as occurred with this Diethlyne Glycol fiasco. I agree that the same efforts made to keep minors from attaining tobacco should be applied to e-cigarette products. However, I can’t stand behind the FDA when they’re attempting to ban something that could save thousands of lives. This device totes the highest success rate of any nicotine alternative method to date, and I’m stunned the FDA is ignoring it.

“Health care professionals and consumers may report serious adverse events (side effects) or product quality problems with the use of e-cigarettes to the FDA’s MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program either online, by regular mail, fax or phone.”

Dear MedWatch,

I began using an e-cigarette in my eleventh serious attempt to quit smoking tobacco. After three days, I no longer had any cravings for a cigarette. I stopped having nicotine fits at work. Within a week I developed a horrible cough and began to hack up dark gunk that had built up in my lungs from smoking at least a pack a day for five years. Now, my lungs feel clean and I’m breathing better; even my asthma has settled down. I have a better appetite, and more energy. I can run farther than I have in years. My sex drive has shot through the roof. I no longer waste three hours a day going outside to smoke. I stopped smelling like cigarettes and I have fresh breath. My overall quality of life has improved immensely.

This is serious. Please help.

Yours desperately,
Sincerely, me

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The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, wastes no time in getting started. The story opens on the tragic murder of an innocent family, and follows the killer through their home in search of his final kill: a boy, no more than a toddler. The boy, something of an escape artist, had managed to climb out of his crib earlier in the night, and unwittingly slips past the killer and out the open door into the night. While “the man Jack” tears through the family’s home, the boy wanders up the road to find himself in the local graveyard. He’s recovered by the ghosts who live there, and at the pleas of his recently murdered mother, they agree to raise and protect the child from the outside world. They name him Nobody Owens, and as far as he’s concerned, he has never known any life outside the graveyard.

Each chapter opens at different points in Bod’s coming of age, written as short stories with their own beginning, middle, and ending on a significant event in his life. Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, but a part of him yearns to experience the living world outside the gates. As he grows, makes mistakes, and learns, the man Jack continues his search for the boy that escaped. The chapters are meant to be read gradually, as something of a macabre bedtime story. Granted, the setup makes for very, very long chapters, and would be something of a nuisance should one of the short stories fail to catch your interest. I only had issue with one such chapter, but the one prior and every one after that had me completely hooked.

I read someone describe the book as a story about living told among the dead, and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Bod’s tale is incredibly touching, exciting, and bittersweet all at once. The ending tied everything together and finished things in a very complete way that’s not too common these days. And that kind of annoys me, because I’ve grown somewhat attached to Nobody Owens and wouldn’t mind another adventure or two with him. I’ll miss all the ghosts he met as he grew up, all of those that have had their chance to live, those who will forever remain the people they were as they died.

Winner of the 2009 Newbery Award, and with a movie already under production before the book’s even hit six months on the shelves, The Graveyard Book seems to be the “big thing” in children’s literature right now. I’ve been hearing so much about it that I couldn’t resist putting my To-Read pile on hold for a bit to fit it in. I lost a dangerous amount of sleep finishing it, and I don’t regret a minute of it. It’s been a long time since a book has drawn me in like this. My only complaint is that there isn’t more.

Read it.

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Wizard of the Pigeons, by Megan Lindholm

Wizard of the Pigeons, published in 1985, is considered by many to be a pioneer of the urban fantasy genre, sometimes even cited as a prime example of how to “do urban fantasy right.” It was written by Megan Lindholm, who now writes – as many of you know – as Robin Hobb.

The novel is set in modern day Seattle (well, modern in the eighties), and focuses around a group of street people who call themselves Children of the City. In Lindholm’s Seattle, the homeless are powerful wizards held in poverty by the rules of their magic. Their job is to take care of the city, and in return, the city takes care of them.

The magic varies from person to person, and isn’t the kind of thing you would typically expect from something called magic. Some of the street people find chilling portents in things as simple as children’s jump rope songs, or in graffiti. Others make their way by playing music for change on the streets, with a particular knack for catching a song that’s been stuck in your head all day. Every wizard has rules for their magic, and they must never take more from it than they give.

The main character, known to the others simply as Wizard, has the power of Knowing. The citizens of Seattle seek him out and – hardly conscious to his presence – they lay out their problems. He mutters a few words of wisdom, just the right words to set them back on the right path, and they leave with a seemingly sourceless sense of clarity. Wizard must care for pigeons as if they’re sacred. He must never keep more than a dollar in change. He must remain celibate, and above all, he must always tell people what he Knows. In return, Seattle sees to it that he gets by fed, safe, and unnoticed.

Billy was a sniper, Billy got a gun
Billy thought killing was fun, fun, fun
How many slopes did Billy get?
One, two, three, four…

A dark and unseen force arrives that has the potential to spell disaster for the entire city. It soon becomes clear that it’s after Wizard, and he’s the only one who can stop it.

This was my first foray into the Megan Lindholm back list, and I was very curious to see how her older works compare to her recent epics. I was delighted that her writing, even then, is graceful as ever. This woman wields prose better than anyone I’ve ever read. Wizard, in typical Hobb fashion, was often frustrating but you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him anyway. He makes Real Person decisions, and that’s never an easy thing to swallow. All of the characters are strong, believable people, and no one is without flaws.

Seattle almost becomes a character in itself, and the detail put into describing it was both dead on and fascinating. I’ll admit to squealing with excitement a few times when a scene took place somewhere that I’ve been.

I’ve read a few complaints about a slow pace, but it was the exact opposite for me. It was an easy story for me to get absorbed in, and I found myself flying through the pages, eager to find out what would happen next. When I realized there were only seventy pages left, I had to deliberately slow down because I didn’t want it to end. However, there is very little action. If that’s something you look for in your fantasy, then this may not be the book for you. If you enjoy getting wrapped up in strong character development, then this book is a must read.

I only have two complaints, and neither of them are the fault of the book itself.

  1. In the edition I read, the description on the back nonchalantly throws out a HUGE spoiler about something that doesn’t even happen until near the end. Not only is this aggravating, but it also made the book sound incredibly lame. Whoever thought this would be a good idea should be shot. Luckily, the more recent Harper Collins edition seems to have fixed this problem.
  2. The book is out of print and pretty much impossible for the casual reader to find.

And point two is a very sad thing, because Wizard of the Pigeons is a treasure of a book that doesn’t deserve to be as lost as it’s become. It may sound biased, considering the setting and the author, but I honestly can’t think of a book I’ve enjoyed more. If any of you happen across this book in the future, I DEMAND that you pick it up and treat yourself to some truly amazing urban fantasy. At a mere 250 pages, you have no excuse not to.

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