Friday, July 29, 2011

Stephen King, "The Eyes of The Dragon'

The Eyes of the Dragon  by Stephen King takes place in the realm of Delain (which, I have since found out, is located within In-World from The Dark Tower series). This beautiful and poetic tale is told from the perspective of a narrator who speaks as if he were an old friend, frequently adding his own commentary on characters' motivations and the like; just as an uncle would.

King Roland is a middle-aged king who marries late in life and finds a wife who is both young and intellegent.  The Royal Wizard Flagg, Roland's advisor, attempts to assassinate Queen Sasha because he dislikes her good influence. He finally succeeds in forcing the Queen's maid to kill the queen while she was giving birth to Thomas, her second child. As time passes, Peter, the older brother, grows older and he begins to show a great deal of his mother's common sense and intelligence. Flagg realizes that the Crown Prince is a far greater threat to his position as royal wizard than was Sasha. Therefore Flagg has King Roland poisoned and Peter framed for the murder.

Twelve-year-old Thomas witnesses the murder through the glass eyes of the mounted head of King Roland's greatest trophy, the dragon which he once killed in an act of incredible bravery. After a brief trial, Peter is judged to be guilty, and he is locked up in the enormous tower called the Needle in the center of the city. His younger, weaker brother Thomas is then crowned King, although he is only twelve years old. Due to his youth, inexperience, and fear of both his own precarious position and Flagg, Thomas allows Flagg to become the defacto ruler, earning the hatred of the people in the process.

This story is told in a lyrical, old-fashioned way that is reminiscent of the way the great fairy-tales were told in my childhood.  King's prose is poetic and beautiful; it draws you in to his world and paints a vivid picture of the events that unfold before you.  If you have never read a Stephen King novel because you 'don't read horror' then this is the novel for you.  In my opinion it is his finest work, and it was the first novel I ever read of his.  I highly recommend this book!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rick Riordan 'The Lost Hero'; and Gary Hoover 'Land of Nod - The Artifact'

 I read and loved the Percy Jackson series, so I was wondering where Riordan was going to go with this tale. Well, he went straight to the bank with this one; this book bodes well for the new series "Heroes of Olympus".

The action starts immediately. Jason is a boy who is suffering from amnesia. He wakes up on a school bus not remembering anything from his past, including anything about who he is. He is sitting next to Piper McLean, a girl who is apparently his girlfriend, and a boy, Leo Valdez, who claims to be Jason's best friend. The bus is taking them, along with the rest of their grade at their school, the Wilderness School, on a field trip to the Grand Canyon.  The Wilderness School is apparently a school for delinquents.

While they are there, they are attacked by ‘venti’ or storm-spirits. Their teacher, Coach Gleeson Hedge, reveals himself to be a satyr, and helps fights the venti. Jason surprises himself by automatically using a sword disguised as a coin to fight off the spirits when he is threatened. Coach Hedge is captured while defending them. At the height of the battle, pegasi (two winged-horses) land next to them, carrying strangers: Annabeth  and Butch (who has a rainbow tattoo; he is a son of Iris). Annabeth is angry because she had a vision that she would find a clue to her missing boyfriend, Percy Jackson, at the Grand Canyon. She was told to look for the "boy with the missing shoe"; Jason lost a shoe in the battle, but has no memories of his own identity, let alone Percy Jackson's whereabouts.

The three students are informed that they are demigods (children of a god and a mortal) and are taken back to Camp Half-Blood where they meet other demigod children like themselves. There, Leo is revealed as a son of Hephaestus, Piper as a daughter of Aphrodite, and Jason as a son of Zeus and the brother of Thalia. He remembers his sister while seeing a picture of her in Cabin One. After scarcely 24 hours of learning about their previously hidden identities, the three receive an urgent quest to rescue Hera, queen of the gods, who was captured by unnamed forces.

This book hits the ground running, and doesn’t stop until the end, where Riordan sets you up for the sequel, in classic Riordan style.  The action is great, and the monsters are wonderful.  There is even a mechanical dragon, which I find to be an interesting idea.  I liked this book and will definitely be reading the sequel, The Son of Neptune when it debuts in October for sure!

Land of Nod – The Artifact’  is one of those genre-bending tales that sucks you in and soon you are hooked. It is a little bit sci-fi and a lot fantasy.  The plot details the adventures of Jeff Browning, a fourteen year old boy who is struggling with the loss of his father. Jeff has dreams that frighten him and he tries to avoid sleep as much as he can. One day he decides to search his late father's locked office, and while he is in there he finds a strange machine with a hole in the center that leads to somewhere else. He climbs into it and embarks on a strange series of adventures; finding that his father may not be dead; but is actually there too, somewhere.

There are some similarities to 'The Lost Hero' in 'The Land of Nod - The Artifact.  In Riordan's 'TheLost Hero' Jason suffers from amnesia.  In 'Land of Nod - The Artifact' Jeff Browning feigns amnesia in an effort to conceal that he is not from that world.   Also, Jeff, too, has mysterious powers that aren't fully explained but they are hinted at, rather strongly, as being more fully explained at a later date.
Fortunately, Jeff is taken in by a family, and they help him.  As he begins searching for his father, he is accused by some of being a spy, and is thought by others to be a prophesied figure, 'The Raja' a savior who may be the key to victory in a war that is looming on the horizon.  This is because of the locket which he wears that his father gave him years before.
This world is populated by fantastic and dangerous creatures and also an advanced society of humans. That society, while very different from those on earth, parallels Jeff's earth in many ways.  

Hoover blends science and technology with mysticism and prophecy to create a world that is both familiar and strange.  There are many different issues keeping Jeff from finding his father, from useless politicians whose self interest outweighs the greater good to a war that he eventually finds himself in the middle of.
The characters are well drawn, and the strange world is also well crafted. The beasts that Jeff must fight are quite frightening and the battles are very realistic. While this is a great stand-alone tale Hoover sets you up for a sequel quite neatly, and I will definitely be looking forward to it! This is another good adventure book for readers of all ages. I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Double Header: 'New Spring - the Novel' and 'Heather's Heart'

This week I am featuring two reviews. One is for mainstream author, the late Robert Jordan's 'New Spring - The Novel', which was recently re-released by Tor Books following in the wake of the graphic novel that was released in January based on his original offering; and the other is for indie author Douglas A Sanburn's new book 'Heather's Heart'.

First up is Robert Jordan's New Spring - The Novel (first published in January of 2004).  Because of the complexity of the Wheel of Time series, I have included links to various Wikipedia articles on the different characters described in the book, rather than going into detail here.

'New Spring - the Novel' is very much a stand alone book, but it also sets the stage for the action that commences in book one of the 'Wheel of Time' series, The Eye of the World.  In 'New Spring' we meet Moraine Damodred and Siuan Sanche as young women who are not yet fully Aes Sedai, but are in the last stages of their training, in the White Tower of Tar Valon. The two young women witness a foretelling, and though they are still not fully trained, they are sworn to secrecy and they are set on the trail to discover the whereabouts of a baby boy who is the reincarnation of last of the great male Aes Sedai, Lews Therin Telamon, known as The Dragon. He had been the most powerful, most hated, most feared man in their history; a man who'd gone mad and broken the world and also killed his entire family. Since his time, no males with the one power have been allowed to live as they all eventually went mad and had to be either severed from the ability or killed for the safety of everyone.

Jordan gives us enough background in this tale that we have an idea of the grim nature of things. The world is harsh, and the people are harsher.  The city of the Aes Sedai, Tar Valon, is besieged by an invading army and looks as if it will be defeated, taking the Tower with it.  After completing their task for the tower to the best of their abilities, Moraine and Siuan are given the final test which will earn them their shawls as full Aes Sedai.  Upon their being raised to the shawl, the two women continue their quest to find the child.

Each character in the story emerges fully fleshed, and the reader feels as if they know them. As a reader I was full engaged in the whole story, and found myself unable to put the book down for long.  The characters and the events that happen to them are as real as if they had happened to the reader.  Destiny looms large - the events that the book is the prequel to weigh heavily, but do not overpower the story, allowing this book to stand on its own. 

This book is much shorter than most Robert Jordan books, and focuses more completely on the main protagonists instead of going off on side stories as the rest of the series, especially the later books are wont to do.  If you have never read a book in the Wheel of Time series, I highly recommend this one to begin with. 

'Heather's Heart' by Douglas A. Sanburn is a modern fantasy, set in the modern day. At first glance, the cover looks like a paranormal romance, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The tale begins with one of the protagonists, the powerful sorcerer Lord Emrick Evenwood hanging by the neck in Hades as an eternal warning to anyone who would oppose the evil demon/sorcerer Baron Adrien von Klaus, the current ruler of Hades. He has been hanging there for twenty-five years.   Evenwood escapes with the help his friend who is also a demon.  When he returns to his home which has been abandoned while he was in Hades, he finds it occupied by a woman, Lillian, and her twin teen-aged children: uber-normal Artie, and Heather, who is infatuated with all that is Goth.   He comes to an arrangement with Lillian who, unbeknownst to her children, has been illegally squatting in his house rent free while trying to save up to buy a home of her own for her children.  He arranges to move into the attic apartment, while he searches for the artifact that that he originally stole from the Baron von Klaus, and who so desperately wants it back. 

As the time passes, Emrick gets to know the family, and he realizes that there are some terrible difficulties in their lives, and that they don't even know the truth behind their problems.  Despite the fact that he is in hiding from the Baron who is looking for the stolen artifact, Emrick finds himself trying to help the children and by helping them, he helps their mother.  Along the way he discovers that at least one of the children, Heather, has the ability to work magic and he finds an appropriate teacher for her.

Heather's Heart touches on real life issues facing parents and teens: bullying, abuse, siblings, and homelessness, and the aftermath of rape.  All these tough subjects are handled in such a way that the book is appropriate for readers ranging from teen to adult, but they are dealt with in a realistic and compassionate way.   The epic battle of good versus evil, the way Sanburn portrays the use of magic and the fact that everyone  has secrets that affect their actions in that battle makes this a very good novel.  I read this book in two nights, because I could not put it down.  Heather's Heart is currently available as an e-book through Amazon for the Kindle, and through GoodReads.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Magic of Recluce

The Saga of Recluce is a series of fantasy novels written by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. The first novel in the series, The Magic of Recluce (from which the series derives its name), was published in 1991, and I fell under the spell of Modesitt’s ability to convincingly build a world and people it with amazing characters when I first read that story. The series is still available, and I am currently enjoying reading the most recent installment, Arms-Commander which was published in January of 2010 on my Kindle. That book sparked my interest in re-reading the whole series again, in the order that they were published in, which is the way that the author himself suggests that they are read, despite the fact that the books are published out of chronological order. As of the 16th novel, Arms-Commander, the saga covers 7 different time periods and 10 major storylines, and many of them are stand-alone novels.

This series describes the frequently antagonistic relationship between the descendants of two technologically advanced cultures which have been marooned on a sparsely inhabited world. The two cultures which populate the world are the same space-faring cultures who refer to themselves as Angels and Demons and who are featured in many of Modesitt’s hard-science-fiction books, such as The Parafaith War; one of my favorite Modesitt sci-fi tales. The way that he transitions the cultures for which he has already established a sci-fi fan-base into this fantasy series is masterfully done, although that transition is not made clear until later in the series.  In The Fall of Angels’ we discover that because of a terrible accident with their weapons of war knocking them out of the ‘normal’ universe and into a strange parallel universe, small groups of the two cultures have found themselves stranded on a world where gradually their technology has failed. With no way to communicate with their commanders, they are as completely lost to their families and friends as if they were dead.

At the time of ‘The Magic of Recluce’ their descendants have had a low-technology agrarian-based culture with a heavy reliance on magic for so long that their roots have assumed a mythical place in the collective memory.  With Modesitt’s flair for style, themes of gender stereotyping, sexism, ageism, racism, ethics, economics, environmentalism and politics are explored in the course of the series, which examines the world through the eyes of all its protagonists.  Both sides of the conflict are represented well within the series; Modesitt argues for both magics with equal enthusiasm.

Recluce itself is an island off the coast of the continent called Candar. The planet never is given a name that I have ever seen, but in that universe, the Angels' technology does not work at all, although the Demons' technology does for a while. The magic is expressed as a person's ability to harness the natural order or chaos; the basic building blocks of the world. The feats of magic that are possible rely on the user's understanding not only of order or chaos, but in the interaction between the two and how they occur in balance in nature. Modesitt’s unique style of writing in his sci-fi tales is perfected in his fantasy writing in the way that he shows how the use of the two magics, order and chaos, affects all aspects of society. For example, his Black (or Order) wizards have regular jobs, such as a carpenter or as a smith; jobs in areas where the comprehension of order in the work environment improves the finished product. There are rules and if you don’t fit perfectly into their society they exile you to a place where you are more likely to fit.  The White or (chaos wizards) like a safe, tidy, clean environment but they impose rules and social constraints upon their citizens, and enforce that civil order in the role of the police.

In 1992 I purchased the paperback of ‘The Magic of Recluce’ and I was completely hooked, and have followed the series avidly ever since.  Within the series there are several books that I have ‘read-to-shreds’, such as 'The Fall of Angels', 'The Magic Engineer', 'The Colors of Chaos' and 'Scion of Cyador'. I have also read and enjoyed each and every science-fiction book written by Modesitt and consider him to be not only one of the most prolific writers of the last thirty years, but one of the finest.  If he writes it, I will probably read it!  His work has been one of the guiding influences on my own writing.

And now to the main course:

The Magic of Recluce’ By L. E. Modesitt Jr.

In L.E. Modessitt Jr.’s world, magic is divided into two categories – Order (which is represented by black) and  Chaos (which is represented by white).  The two do not coexist well.

Recluce is an island country that was founded by those who follow Order, the ‘black wizards’. When the story opens, Lerris is a bored, dissatisfied fifteen-year-old woodworker who has just been apprenticed to his Uncle Sardit, who is a Master Woodworker of world renown although Lerris is unaware of his uncle’s fame. He is also unaware of both his father's high position in the community and of his own magical potential.  Because of his dissatisfaction with the eternal, static perfection that the mages who govern his country insist upon, Lerris’ family enrolls him in a training program that allows him to develop his basic mage-skills and a rudimentary understanding of Order.  During the training he develops a love-hate relationship with Tamra, another ‘blackstaffer’ as he is, and also develops an attachment to Crystal, an older woman who is an adept swordswoman.  They and most of the people in their class are eventually exiled to Candar to undertake a ‘dangergeld’. Exile is how the ‘Blacks’ deal with dissatisfied individuals living in Recluce, especially those who have an affinity or ability for either order or chaos.  When Lerris completes his training, he is given a quest and told that he cannot return to Recluce until he completes it.  

During his exile in Candar, Lerris makes some unfortunate choices and runs into trouble. He meets his uncle Justen, and travels with him for a while, but is forced to run and hide after a series of misadventures that are his own stubborn fault. During the course of his adventures he discovers his father's ulterior motives for sending him off, when he meets Antonin, a powerful white wizard. Centuries of dominance by Recluce and their order engineers has once again led to increasingly more powerful chaos mages in Candar, with Antonin in particular rising to great prominence. Gunnar, Lerris’ father, has sent Lerris to Candar because he knows that a strong order mage and strong chaos mage will ultimately be drawn into direct conflict, and that Lerris will have to kill Antonin; and Recluce will win without being directly involved.

At times Lerris is a sulky teenager, and at times he is a compassionate adult.  As the story progresses, Lerris grows more settled.  His love-hate relationship with Tamra is central to the story, and the tension between the two adds a bit of spice to the tale, as is his wistful longing for Crystal.  The three dangergelders all have character flaws that they overcome while fulfilling their quests.

Lerris finds a position as a journeyman woodworker to Destrin, a low-ranking master woodworker who is in failing health, and whose business is failing.  He rebuilds his master’s business and falls in love with his master’s daughter, Dierdre. As time passes Lerris learns to understand Order, and as he does so, he learns to be more brutally honest with himself about his motives.  He realizes that he can’t marry the girl because of what he is as an order-master and what he must still do in regard to the white wizard. Lerris does the only thing he can think of to keep her safe.  He takes an apprentice, Bostric, whom he trains to both take over her father’s business and be her husband. 

There is an incident in which he manages to accidentally infuse too much order into some chairs that he crafts for a highly placed official.  When the chairs create problems Lerris finds himself once again on the run, but not before he discovers how Antonin is turning ordinary soldiers into mindless slaves of chaos, and destroys the means by which Antonin is accomplishing it.

This time Lerris ends up in Kyphros, where Crystal is now a well respected and highly placed military officer. His feelings for Crystal resurface, but he cannot act on them until he has completed his dangergeld.  He offers his services to the leader of the country, a competent woman who rules a prosperous but threatened country.  Meanwhile, Tamra has simply vanished and Lerris suspects that she is tied-up somehow to Antonin and his mate, Sephya, whom he has heard is a body-changer.  Lerris realizes that he must complete his quest before he can settle down with Crystal.  During the course of completing his dangergeld he discovers what happened to Tamra.

Lerris’ journey to learn what he must know about his magic and the process of developing his skills so that he will survive the completion of his dangergeld make for a tale that is engrossing and well written. This tale is told in the first person from Lerris' point of view, which I usually do not enjoy, but I was quickly drawn into the tale despite that annoyance.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a well crafted coming of age tale.  It is not a tale simply of good and evil or black and white.  It is the tale of a complex, dangerous world and the men and women who inhabit it.