Friday, October 28, 2011

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

I was unsure how I wanted to follow up last week's wonderful series of books, and I thought, why not go back to my roots? .  I have read the entire series every year since I snuck my father's Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of 'The Dragonriders of Pern', a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them.   I can't tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, 'When I think of dragons, I think of Pern'.

Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses 22 novels (plus 2 more in the works) and several short-stories.  In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!

Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, 'Weyr Search' which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part 'Dragonrider', with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.

Pern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years.  However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval).  The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).

The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold.  She was ten years old the day her family's hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds.  Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher's kennel during the massacre.  Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family's rightful home.  However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should.  Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him.  Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa's vengeful care.

Unbeknownst to Lessa, the dreadful menace of thread is about to make itself known once again.  This time, however, there is only one undermanned weyr to combat the menace, and only one Queen Dragon to propagate the species. Jora has died, and her dragon is only hanging on until her eggs are ready to hatch.  The Dragon Rider F'lar, rider of Bronze Mnementh, has brought his wing of dragons to Ruatha hoping to find a woman who will be a the Weyrwoman of Pern.  Fax despises the Dragon men, and is spoiling for a reason to kill him.  However, he unwillingly makes the pilgrimage to Ruatha, bringing all of his ladies, including his pregnant wife, Gemma.  When they arrive in Ruatha, the hold is a filthy disgrace, the food is unfit and tensions are high. Lady Gemma goes into labor during the disgusting meal that is all that the warder can scrape together.

Lessa secretly uses her abilities to manipulate F'lar into a fight to the death with Fax, with the eye to claiming Ruatha for herself, as was her right and due.  Before the fight, Fax is maneuvered into renouncing his claim on Ruatha, but to her chagrin, it is only in favor of Lady Gemma's babe, should it live.

This is where the story really begins.  At this point in the book, I am completely enthralled; and my own work, dishes and other domestic tasks fall by the way until I turn that last page!
The action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters.  The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined.  Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me.  Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.

Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story.  Every year there are new books to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks to get through it!

This is the colorful book cover as was published in 1970 by Corgi.  I never liked this cover nearly so much as the green one that is at the top of this post, though I did have several copies of this particular book.

This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction.  I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for new stories by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything that even remotely promised to be as good as this book.  I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this book stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.

'Dragonflight' has captivated generations of fans, and was the first adult book my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck it off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). My children are firm fans of Anne McCaffrey's work, and so are my granddaughters! I inadvertently raised a fan-club! As a family, when we think of Dragons, we think of Pern!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Imago Chronicles: A Warriors Tale, L. T. Suzuki

Just like every other obsessed, fanatic reader of High Fantasy, I am always on the lookout for that one special book that presages the advent of a new classic series in the genre.  In my opinion, L. T. Suzuki has written that book in Imago Chronicles Book One: A Warrior's Tale.

Over the last few months since I began blogging on what I consider to be the best fantasy reads that  come across my Kindle, I have read, on average, 4 fairly good books for every one really good book that made the blog; but 'fairly good' is not good enough for me to call a book 'Best In Fantasy'. Hence, my frequent excursions back to my library of classics. In order for a book to be featured here, I have to LOVE it!   In 'A Warrior's Tale', Suzuki has written a book that stands beside the works of my beloved heroes of modern fantasy Jean Aul, Mercedes Lackey, and David Eddings.  Imago now ranks as one of my all-time favorite epic fantasy series.  And now, joy of all joys!  Books 1,2 and 3 have been optioned for a major motion picture trilogy!

And now the story:

In an intriguing twist, A Warrior's Tale begins with the end.  Taking shelter from a freak blizzard, Nayla Treeborn, half elf, half human and not fully either, huddles next to the corpse of a dead soldier; using his body and the now un-needed cloaks of other dead soldiers to shelter her from the killing weather.  As she shelters there, she finds herself thinking about her life to that point; going back to a day when she had been a child the mental and physical equivalent of a mortal 12 year old, but was in reality 37 years of age.

Nayla's father, a high Elf and the Steward of Nagana, Dahlon Treeborn, despises her for reasons which are not made clear in this book.  He has punished her for publicly disagreeing with him; nearly beating her to death.  Joval Stonecroft discovers her, dreadfully mutilated and bloody and is horrified. Healing her as well as he can, he spirits her out of the elven city of Nagana to the human city of Anshen, home of the legendary Kagai Warriors.  Taking the name of Takaro, the young girl embarks upon a lifetime of training, eventually becoming the only female Kagai Warrior ever accepted into the brotherhood.  When at long last she reaches womanhood, not only is Takaro fully trained in the manly arts of the warrior, but she is also a woman fully trained in the womanly arts as a spy, a courtesan and an assassin.

In book 1 of the series the main antagonist is Eldred Firestaff, a sorcerer who combines the nicer qualities of Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) with the personal charm of Ctuchik (The Belgariad), and who is an immortal tool of evil, resurfacing every generation or so.   Each time he comes back, he uses the armies of the weak Emperor of East Orien as his power-base in his eternal quest to conquer the world of Imago. However, in this first book of the series, although the battles with this slippery and long-lived villain are colorful and intense, they are almost secondary to Nayla's personal battle for acceptance and with her own inner demons.  This book is concerned with fleshing out Nayla and really whets your appetite for the rest of the tale!

As a half-caste, Takaro/Nayla ages much more slowly than humans, and much more quickly than elves.  During the course of the story she outlives three of her Kagai Masters, all of whom live to be very old men.  She also outlives their grandsons and their grandson's grandchildren, yet at the end of the book she appears to be a woman of about twenty-five years of age. Her wisdom and abilities are that of a warrior at the prime of life, and she becomes the most respected of the fierce Kagai Warriors.  When her father is maneuvered into asking for the finest Kagai Warrior to train his own warriors, Nayla finds herself back in Nagana, and her father is forced to suffer her presence there; a situation that is bad at best.

The world of Imago is clearly drawn, and is every bit as compelling as that of Tolkien's Middle Earth. Here we have two distinct cultures living side-by-side in peace and harmony for generations; coming to each other's aid whenever the other is threatened.  Loyalty,  honor, hard-work, love and family are the central facets of the human society that Nayla/Takaro finds herself adopted into as an abused child, and these values are echoed in the society of the Elves.  Within each society, the political and social divisions are clear and the differences between Elves and Men are well drawn and consistently portrayed throughout the drama that unfolds. 

Suzuki is herself a master of the martial arts, being a practitioner and instructor of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu; a system that incorporates 6 traditional Samurai schools and 3 schools of Ninjutsu.  As one who was once a mere grasshopper in the obscure art of Shou Shu, I fully appreciate the wisdom and experience that the master crafts into the fabric of this tale.  Every element of this story evokes both the martial and the spiritual aspects of the culture of Imago; every element is vivid and believable to the reader.

With each book in this series, I am drawn deeper into this amazing and very real world of Imago.  In book 2 of the series, Tales From the West we find out more about the real evil that threatens Imago, and discover who or what is behind the sorcerer Eldred Firestaff.

I know I am repeating myself, but Suzuki has created a masterpiece in this series.  I have been compelled to read every single volume in the series (when I should have been  researching other books for this blog).  Work-ethic aside, the most recent installment in the series, 'Destiny's End' calls to me, and I must quit working now, and curl up on my sofa for a good long read.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rick Riordan, Son of Neptune

The Son of Neptune – Rick Riordan

As many of you know, I love everything Percy Jackson, and last Sunday I was privileged to hear author Rick Riordan speak in Olympia Washington at an event promoting the local Timberland Library. He spoke in an outdoor plaza to a crowd of about a thousand avid fans. I was also quite inspired by his ability to motivate the young authors in the crowd. Unfortunately, I was not able to get my copy of ‘The Son of Neptune’ signed, as I didn’t know about the event in advance and didn’t realize that I would need a ticket, but I felt good about the whole event despite that disappointment. Riordan is an extremely funny man; personable and quite humble about his success. 

The Son of Neptune opens with Percy Jackson picking up where he left off in ‘The Lost Hero’. In that book, Percy had disappeared, and the tale revolved more around Jason Grace. This tale starts with Percy suffering from Amnesia and being hunted by two gorgons who refuse to stay dead whenever he kills them. All he knows is that he is looking for some one named Annabeth. As he is running from the gorgons he rescues an old bag lady who turns out to be the Roman Goddess Juno. She gives him the choice of remaining where he is and being safe or going to the Roman camp for demi-gods where he must save the gods but could regain his memories. Percy being Percy, he opts for his memories.

The Roman camp is quite different from the Greek Camp Half-blood, and Percy doesn’t know why he feels like everything is all wrong. There are Lares (household gods) and the camp is divided into legions in the same way that the Roman Army was. The military culture of the Romans is alive and well in this camp.

Here is where we meet Hazel, a daughter of Pluto and a girl whose darkest secret is her talent of creating precious metals and jewels spring from the earth comes with a curse for those who find them. We also meet Frank Zhang, a son of Mars and a gifted archer. His golden arrows are very unique, and he too has a dark secret.

Mars sends them off on a quest to Alaska, to rescue Thanatos, guardian of the underworld. During the quest we learn that the ancient Goddess Gaea is plotting to destroy the Gods, and how the demi-gods like Percy are supposed to stop her.

First they travel up the coast, to Portland, Oregon looking for Phineas, and on to Seattle, Washington where they discover that is run by Kindle-reading Amazon Warriors!

Continuing with his third-person narrative as he did in The Lost Hero, Riordan switches perspective from Percy to Hazel and to Frank, giving a well rounded view of what is going on with each character. I felt completely involved with them and learned a lot about Roman Mythology that I had never known. I also discovered that my birthday (which I share with Mercedes Lackey) falls on the Feast of Fortuna, which begins at sundown on the 24th of June.

Riordan neatly answers some of the questions that were raised in the first book, and of course, raises more. I laughed out loud several times, and held my breath as the heroes made their way through the dangers set before them. I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves an epic adventure, epic mythology and likes their epics with a modern twist!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Losing Beauty, Johanna Garth

As the title of this blog  proclaims, normally I read epic fantasy and science fiction. However this week I am blogging on a tale that is very different from my favorite epic hack-and-slash-fest type of saga.  Stay with me - I haven't lost my love of all things Tolkien, just temporarily branched out a bit.

Losing Beauty by Johanna Garth is an urban fantasy in the broadest sense, being a modern take on the Hades - Persephone tale.  I am a sucker for mythology of any sort, and Greek mythology offers a lot opportunity for new retellings, as Rick Riordan has shown us in his Percy Jackson Series.

I met Johanna in the course of business since we are both published by Fantasy Island Book Publishing.  I was intrigued by the cover of her book, and when I bought the Kindle book I found myself completely absorbed in her tale.

The story begins with Persephone Campbell, a girl with a problem. Persey is a beautiful girl, and everyone loves her. Even as a child, people find themselves telling her their  problems: terrible things which no normal person would ever tell anyone, much less a child. Even so, people can't resist telling her their deepest and darkest secrets; a thing which continues into her adulthood. Her ability to draw the deepest secrets from people is strange, and it emerges that she was adopted as a baby and her father was listed as 'unknown'.

Three men love her to the point of obsession. After high school, Persey marries her high-school sweetheart, Aaron Strait out of a sense of duty, more than anything else.  She loves her husband, but she realizes that her love for him is not the sort of love that a wife should feel for her husband. Still, she does love him and remains a loyal wife.

Persey goes to work for the same company as Daniel Hartnet, a man with an uncanny ability to read people, that he calls his crap-o-meter. This ability to read motives is every bit as uncanny as is Persey's ability to draw out secrets. He discovers that he can't read Persey, and that really intrigues him.  He soon becomes obsessed with her, but like the moderately decent man he is, he respects her commitment to her marriage.

Johanna Garth draws her characters well. Haden is a bad man, selfish and focused only on his own desires but quite seductive and very compelling.  Daniel Hartnet is not lily-pure in his motives, but he is a basically good man and also quite seductive.   Aaron is a simple, high-school jock-made-good; a man who is solely driven by his desire to protect and provide for her; and she is completely aware of that. Aaron becomes very successful, and on the surface everything looks perfect.

What she does not realize is that she is the one true love of Haden, also known as Hades, God of the Underworld. He has followed her progress since her earliest childhood, grooming her to be his wife in various different guises. He has even posed as the coach in her highschool. There is no length that he won't go to to have her.  When she marries Aaron, Hayden puts a terrible plan into action, using all of his resources as Lord of the Underworld; and soon she finds herself tied to the last person she wants to be tied to.  That is where the adventure really begins.

Persey is a nice girl, but her secret ability is hard for her to bear; and she feels that she is responsible for a tragic event that is the sole responsibility of Haden. He, of course, uses her insecurity to bind her to him even more tightly.
Johanna Garth has written an urban fantasy that is sophisticated, and romantic. It is a wonderful adventure that takes Persey from rural america to New York to Asia, and has many twists and turns that are quite unexpected. The ending was quite unexpected! 

While this book was a real dip into uncharted literary waters for me, I freely admit that I had a great time reading this story and highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good romantic urban fantasy. I am now a fan! I will definitely be reading anything Johanna Garth writes!