Friday, April 18, 2014

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

I don't know why, but I have always been under the impression that I had read Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. I had seen the film, but for some reason it didn't seem like the book I remembered.

There are 2 reasons for that -- first, I had never actually read the book, and second, the film bears only a passing resemblance to the book. (No cross-dressing pirate, a lot more colorful characters...a much better get the drift.)

First published in 1998, Stardust is a beautiful, lyrical and sometimes violent journey into fairyland.

The Blurb:
Young Tristran Thorn will do anything to win the cold heart of beautiful Victoria—even fetch her the star they watch fall from the night sky. But to do so, he must enter the unexplored lands on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, Tristran learns, lies Faerie—where nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman comes a remarkable quest into the dark and miraculous—in pursuit of love and the utterly impossible.

My Review:

First off let me just say I loved this book.  Tristran is naive yet brave, and obsessed with the notion of true love. Victoria is snobbish and not really worthy of him.  Yvaine has all the best qualities of a true star--she is coldly, amazingly beautiful, and childish.

The Lord of Stormhold and his heirs are awesome characters. They are not evil, but they are not good (good people don't kill each other as they scrap their way to the throne.)

There are 3 evil characters in this tale (though one is not a character, it's more of a doom): The obviously evil Morwanneg who wants to cut out the heart of the star so she and her sister will regain eternal youth, Madame Semele who is just plain greedy and who holds Tristran's mother captive, and the overhanging evil of what will happen to Yvaine if Tristran succeeds in taking her back to Victoria.

Each and every sentence of this book is beautiful. I fell into the prose and the dream that the tale evokes and didn't want to emerge even for food. This ability to draw a scene and set it with both mystery and clarity is why Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.

If you have seen the movie, and think you know the story, you couldn't be more wrong. The book holds more magic, love, epic adventure and sheer fairy tale inventiveness than the movie ever could. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sinners of Magic, by Lynette Creswell

Periodically I like to check out the Young Adult and Teen books available out on the indie market, as I have grandchildren and like to be able to recommend a good read for them. Sinners of Magic, by Lynette Creswell is a YA fantasy book, suitable for readers age 12 and up. 

The Blurb:
Crystal is no ordinary sixteen year old girl. Ever since she was a small child she's been able to sense things, feel when danger approaches and now she's gone one step further and saved a boy’s life by summoning a supernatural being.

Little does she know it but her natural parents are powerful immortals. Secret lovers in a magical land where procreation outside of their own realms is forbidden, the Elders punish Amella and Bridgemear by banishing their new born child to the world of mere mortals.

Years have passed and dark times have descended upon the Elf Realm. Crystal is visited by a shape-changer and tricked into believing if she returns to the Kingdom of Nine Winters, she will find the answers regarding her newly revealed birth right.

Soon she is caught up in dangers greater than anything she could have ever imagined while those who fight at her side, battle to protect her from a wicked sorcerer gone insane and one who is willing to take her to the very edge of destruction...

This is an excellent novel for teens. The characters are compelling, and the storyline is a good play on the traditional switched-at-birth theme. If at times the dialogue is a little stilted, over all this book was an enjoyable read. Crystal is a kind, rather cocky and headstrong girl. She is somewhat confrontational, but it seems to be her nature.  Matt, whom she meets on Earth and whose life she saved is also a well-drawn, three-dimensional character.

Bridgemear is hard to like, but he is Crystal’s birth-father and a powerful magician, and Amella is a strong, usually likeable character. I like the way their relationship was handled.

Tremlon, the shape-changer  and King's envoy, has a major role in this tale, and his burden of guilt and responsibility is handled well.  At the end, I was left wondering about Amadeus, a strong, loyal and brave elf warrior who struggles with many issues. I’m definitely curious to see where that thread leads in the next book.

I did find the wood sprite, Bracken, to be quite hilarious, and I enjoyed Nekton, the innkeeper of Fortune's End, who longs for a real adventure. There is great atmosphere in this tale, and great adventure.

As in all good tales, bad things happen to good people, and worse things happen to the bad people. I liked the way the evil King Forusian, who kidnaps Crystal with lustful intentions, was dealt with.

I’d gladly recommend this book to any young teen, and give it four full stars for inventiveness and a good, immersive story. The narrative may be a little too young for some adults, but I found it to be an excellent afternoon of reading.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird – A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird – A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi -- I was lured to this book by false advertising--the publisher is billing it as a fantasy. It is not, but it is a good read, and despite the bait-and-switch by the publisher, I am glad I read it.

The Blurb:
From the prizewinning author of Mr. Fox, the Snow White fairy tale brilliantly recast as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.

In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

My Review:
This is a book that is hard to categorize. It is a fantasy in some ways, and in others, it is a period piece chronicling the era of the 1950s through the 1970s. The novel spans two generations of women but unbeknownst to them, their lives are molded by the choices made by the grandparents.

The tale is told in the first person, from the point of view of two women, Boy and Bird. Boy is a girl who is hardened by her childhood. Her father is a cold, vicious man, who catches rats for a living. In all her life, she never thinks of him as ‘Father’ or Daddy’—only as the rat catcher. His cruelties eventually drive Boy to take some money and run away. She is blonde, so blonde that with her quiet reserve and inability to express love, she is frequently compared to the snow queen. All her life, she notices that at times she has no reflection in mirrors.

She ends up in a small New England town where the people are artists and craftsmen. She finds a landlady who rents to single women, and makes friends. She gets a job in a bookstore, and marries Arturo, a wealthy widower with a daughter named Snow. Snow is as pale and blonde as Boy, and her new in-laws frequently mention how she is the image of her late mother, who was a noted beauty.

At first her relationship with Snow is good. Boy loves Snow, and Snow is happier than she can ever remember being. Boy is a good stepmother, and despite her terrible childhood, she is determined to provide the sort of home she never had. For a time, all goes well.

However, with the birth of Bird, Boy and Arturo’s daughter, the first family secret comes out—Bird is obviously black, or colored as they referred to it in that era. Arturo and his entire wealthy family are light-skinned Negroes passing for white. Suffering from post-partum depression, Boy sends Snow away to live with Arturo’s dark-skinned older sister. At this point, Bird takes up the narrative.

I enjoyed this story, despite the fact it is not really a fantasy as it was billed. While it is a bit disjointed at times, it has a mystique. Three women whose reflections occasionally do not appear in mirrors and the obvious parallels to various fairytales make this urban tale unique.

Oyeyemi’s prose is literary, and her characters are well drawn with an economy of words. The atmosphere of the Boy’s world is clearly drawn. The rat catcher is evil; the town of Flax Hill is mysterious and magical in a way. I must say that this is not the sort of book I normally read, as despite the magical atmosphere of Flax Hill, reflections not appearing in mirrors, and the parallels to fairytales, it is most definitely NOT a fantasy—it is literary fiction.

I give it four stars because Oyeyemi’s prose and character building more than make up for the somewhat disjointed narrative. This is a compelling book, and if you are in the mood for literary fiction, I recommend waiting and buying the paperback, as the Kindle book is price outrageously at $11.99.

Friday, March 28, 2014

SIN, by Shaun Allan, Audio Book narrated by R. D. Watson

Today I am discussing the most recent of my audio-book purchases, Sin. I have in the past referred to the written version of this book by indie author Shaun Allan as  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Finnegan’s Wake." Beautiful plays on sarcastic, witty words formed into lyrical, wonderful prose. I thought the written book was wonderful, but I am here to tell you, the Audio Book as read by R.D. Watson is nothing short of AWESOME!

Dead, dead, dead. Say it enough times and it becomes just another word. What would you do? Could you kill a killer? Does the death of one appease the deaths of a hundred? What about that hundred against a thousand? What if you had no choice? Meet Sin. No, not that sort of sin, but Sin, crazy as a loon (you ask Sister Moon), and proud of it. Sin locks himself away in an asylum and, every so often, gets violent. That's only so they'll give him those nice drugs, though. The ones that help him forget. It's a pity they don't work.

Sin is a dark, urban fantasy, written with a large dose of sardonic humor. We hear the tale from the man who was given the name 'Sin Mathews' at birth, but who goes by the name of Sin only, as the last name doesn't matter; only the name which is the sum of his parts matters. R.D. Watson's reading of Allan's shining, witty, prose is moving and brilliant in every aspect. He gets into Sin's head, and you are completely spellbound.

Sin finds a coin, a two pence coin, or perhaps the coin finds him. Either way, this is the catalyst for Sin's curse. He finds himself flipping the coin compulsively -flip, catch - and it arcs through the air he sees images of disaster and death, which is then reported on the news. Eventually he realizes every time he flips the coin, someone dies; sometimes a lot of people die in what he believes are 'unnatural disasters' timed perfectly to the flip of the coin.  Though he tries to avoid flipping the coin, he finds himself doing it anyway.

No matter how he tries, he can't throw it away, or lose it. The coin always comes back to him when he buys something and gets his change; or even just appearing in his pocket.

Sin receives a letter from his sister Joy, telling him she had found a coin, and when she flipped it she made lives. She wrote that the responsibility for making the world happy was too much for her. She was alone in a world of happiness she couldn't be a part of, and she killed herself.  Sin apparently had found his coin right after her death.  He decides to check himself into an insane asylum in order to get the sort of psychotropic drugs which will render him incapable of seeing the visions, and flipping the coin.

Sin's conversations with Dr. Connors in the opening chapter are adversarial, and illuminating. For the most part, he enjoys his stay in the asylum, but, being sane, he sees the sordid truth in the callous treatment and chronic over-medication of the patients.

Although posing as a mentally ill patient works for a while, the medications soon cease to be effective and he decides that since the coin always comes back to him as if by magic, maybe he has the power to teleport.  He resolves to commit suicide by teleporting himself into the heart of a furnace, hoping for instant incineration.  Unfortunately, he finds himself on a beach, instead of in Hell where he had hoped to be.

Sin has an encounter with Joy who tells him death is not what it is cracked up to be. She warns him "a storm is coming".  He continues his inadvertent journey, trying to get his bearings. After a chance meeting which reveals more of his powers, he finds himself in Grimsby, the home of his childhood.

The atmosphere throughout is surrealistic, but it is well-balanced. I adore Allan's lyrical, intimate style of prose, as in this series of images describing Sin's disorientation, “History doesn’t relate whether Jonah, Gepetto, and Pinocchio sat around a table eating pizza, sharing stories of prophecy and puppetry while in the belly of the whale, but I thought that I could relate to being swallowed whole.”

Throughout the novel, Sin's ruminations are self-mocking, and world-weary, yet naive and innocent.  He bears the guilt of the world, and suffers the unbearable pain of being the cause of so many deaths, but still he finds ironic humor in every situation. Joy is grounded and guides him to the truth, but is not allowed to tell him anything.

 Nothing is what it seems in this tale, and right up to the end, you are not sure which reality is real.

The facts come out, or do they?  This book is a roller-coaster ride from the start to the finish, and I give it 5 stars for originality, and if I could I would give this audio-book version ten!

Sin is available as an audiobook at Amazon.  Buy it here!

If you are in the UK - you can buy it HERE!

OR you can go to these fine vendors:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fall of Angels, L.E.Modesitt Jr.

I had one of those weeks where I cracked open 4 indie books, and shut them after getting a third of the way into them. No plot? No problem--No way.  So I was looking around my dusty shelves and came across my beloved Saga of Recluce collection and picked up "Fall of Angels."  Written in 1997 by L.E. Modesitt Jr., this is one of the most enduring fantasy series of modern times.  I think its longevity has to do with the way the saga takes place over many generations, and takes you into both sides of the conflict, with not usually more than two books dealing with a particular protagonist.

The Blurb:
Now in Fall of Angels, Modesitt moves deep into Recluce's past to chronicle the founding of the Empire of the Legend, the almost mythological domain ruled by woman warriors on the highland plateau of the continent of Candar. He tells the story from the point of view of Nylan, the engineer and builder whose job it is to raise a great tower on the plateau known as the Roof of the World. Here the exiled women warriors will live and survive to fulfill their destiny. Here a revolutionary new society will be born . . . if Nylan can get the tower built and defenses in place before the rulers of the lowland nations come with their armies to obliterate them all. And if Nylan can learn to control the magical powers that are growing within him.

Thus Modesitt relates the story of how magic comes into the world of Recluce, in a fantasy novel destined to please the growing Recluce audience and win new readers to the series.

Fall of Angels is the sixth book of the saga of Recluce.

My Review:

Two radically different magics--The black of order vs the white of chaos--this is the central facet of each tale in the saga.  In each book the protagonist is either of the black or white persuasion, and in a few there is a grey area of magic. In Fall of Angels, Modesitt explores the side of order, the black magic of healing and building.

At the outset of the tale, we meet a crew that by happenstance, is made up of women, with only three male crew members. Nylan is the ships engineer, and, as are all the officers, he is connected into the ships neuronet, the mental command center that completely controls the ship and its environment. Ryba is the ship's captain, and while she and Nylan have a sexual relationship, there is no doubt that she is in command. I didn't say romantic, because though they sleep together and care for each other, there is no romance involved. As a result of a great battle, they are thrown into an alternate universe, above a strange planet. With no way to return, they are forced to land.

They are "angels," humans from the various cold planets of Heaven. Most are from Sybra, the coldest planet, but a few are from Svenn, a warmer planet. Nylan is half-Svenn. The Sybrans cannot take the heat of their new world and are pretty much trapped in the cool mountains. Unfortunately the first thing that happens is they have landed on a world previously colonized. It probably happened in the same way, but by the Rationalists of the warmer worlds of Hell, those humans called 'demons' with whom they have been at war with for thousands of years. The lord of the land immediately attacks them, and the conflict is on.

This tale takes the concepts of traditional gender roles and twists them inside out. If she hadn't been thrown out of her universe, Ryba would never have had the chance to rise any higher than she already had, as women are considered technically equal, but there is a glass ceiling most women can't break through. In their new world, she makes sure the three men know they are now the ones with lesser stature, coldly telling Gerlich, "I could amputate both your arms and you would still retain your stud value." She is determined to build a culture where women have all the power and men are simply a means to reproduction. She is deadly, calculating, and will ruthlessly use anyone to achieve her goal.

Nylan is a strong man but he is not a leader, and feels like he has no other options, other than to march along with plans Ryba sets down for them. Using their failing technology he forges the weapons and builds their tower so they can survive the first winter in their mountain home. As events unfold and his relationship with Ryba disintegrates, he is confused and unsure of what to do. He is a man with a temperate mind, believing in equality with neither sex having the upper hand. A few of the women feel the same way he does.

This age old conflict makes for an awesome tale.  Each character is sharply drawn, and the contrasts in their philosophies and the way they relate to each other drives this to a dramatic finish. I have read this entire series several times, and absolutely love it.  In my opinion, this is one of Modesitt's better tales.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Reprisal, by Thomas A. Knight

Reprisal, by Thomas A. Knight is the third and final book in the Time Weaver series. A Canadian, Knight is an avid D&D player and understands the nuances of fantasy from the point of view of a participant.

The Blurb:
Galadir is in trouble...

Their hero is missing in action, and the trouble isn't over yet. The remnants of the Findoor army, led by Malia, flee into the west after the dark wizard Grian usurps the throne.

Grian is the most dangerous threat the people of Galadir have ever faced. With a massive army of undead, he invades a kingdom to the west. Narshuks to the south are dying of a disease unleashed by Grian. Wizards to the east struggle against his wraiths to hold on to their stronghold and the libraries within.

Hope comes from an unlikely source, as one man hatches a plan that will show Galadir they can fight for themselves. But Grian has finally found what he's been looking for, and as he prepares for his final assault on the east to capture what he seeks, all of Galadir confronts him, brought together by a mysterious force.

All of the pieces are in place, but nobody can be sure if the resistance will be enough to defeat Grian once and for all.

The battle for Galadir has begun.

My Review:
The tale opens with a fierce battle, and continues on that note. Malia and Ceridan desperately attempt to get their forces to safety.

A terrible spell has been unleashed on Findoor, waking the dead and turning them against any and all intruders. Malia Corsair has evolved into a strong, and headstrong character. She fights with all her heart.

Seth is still missing, and the wild rifts around Findoor have settled or stopped. The evil wizard Grian appears to have the upper hand.

Meanwhile, things aren't going too well in Iowa. Dave McAllister has his own troubles.

It's an awesome opening for an awesome book.

Knight sets the scenes well. There are many exciting twists and turns as Malia, Seth and Serrin battle to save both Galadir and the Earth as we know it.

His characters are fully fleshed and real, they behave the way they should, even the bad guys. Mathers is still stupid and Grian is consumed with evil. The dungeons of Galadir are dank and dreary, and the forests are full of the life you would expect. The cities of Earth are high-tech and urban. The system of magic Knight has written into this series is logical and feels natural. The action is pretty much non-stop, as Knight winds up all the many story threads, bringing the tale to a fabulous ending.

With each book in this series, Knight has gained strength in his ability to tell a good tale. All in all, I found this book to be a satisfying conclusion to an excellent trilogy. A reader could purchase this book without having read the first two and be happy with the tale, but I highly recommend reading the entire trilogy.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Realmsic Conquest

One of the most unique indie books I have recently read is the The Realmsic Conquest, written by indie author A. Demethius Jackson. This is most definitely a book no major publisher would touch, because it is completely written in prose, committing that most heinous of crimes loudly decried in any modern writing group—that of telling the story. Not only does he tell and not show, he does it in rhyme, four stanzas to a paragraph, each numbered 1 through 4. I discovered this most unusual book by accident, through Twitter.

First the Blurb:

Throughout its history, the kingdom known as the Realm has never known peace. From its establishment, it has possessed the gift of magic, which is a treasure that exists no other place in the world! As a result, the Realm has endlessly defended itself against conquerors, but now faces its greatest peril.

As our heroes battle the wicked and unlock mysteries, they must also face overwhelming circumstances as they are guided by ancient lore on a quest to find the greatest treasure their kingdom will ever know... peace.

My Review:
The characters Leoden and Kelm open the story, speaking in verse, discussing the problem and what to do about it. I’m not going to detail the story. Instead I will give you my impressions.

This book written completely in verse that young people can understand, but with a style that holds interest for the adult readers also. The author states in his foreword that he initially conceived it to be in the style of The Canterbury Tales or Beowulf, but in modern simple verse:

1.       It was our fate, a fall from grace
2.       that led us here this time and place.
3.       I pondered deeply inside of my mind
4.       the questions for answers too hard to find.

Because it is written in verse, the reader is an observer, and does not become an immersed part of the tale as one does in typical narrative-style tales. But this is not a bad thing, if the reader is in love with poetry and words that rhyme.  The story is good, the characters are interesting and their deeds are large and bold.

The Author does not use words that are hard to understand or obscure, and his telling of the tale is like that of a bard, or a shaman around a campfire. It is mysterious and captivating in an almost foreign way.

My background is in Anglo-Saxon studies and Old English literature so I found the concept of an epic tale told in modern rhyme refreshing. I think any young person who, as I most certainly did, loves popular music as much for the lyrics as the music might be attracted to this book, as will people who enjoy poetry for the sake of the words.

When we modern, civilized people were roving tribes, we told epic tales about the fire at night. Now we are no longer tribal, no longer in harmony with our environment. But in our digital world we feel the need to remember that fundamental part of us, which is why we read books detailing epic fantasy and go to the movies. All in all, I am giving it 4 stars for telling a good tale, for originality, and for keeping an essential traditional part of our global human culture alive.