Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best In Fantasy Year in Review

This year, in July I began my quest to try to read and discuss one really good fantasy read a week.  At the time that I began this quest, I had no idea just how difficult and time consuming a task that would become!  I quickly discovered that for every one book that I loved, I had to read four or five that I quite frankly didn't love. Many books that have received high critical praise didn't ring my chimes at all. 

For this post, I had to decide which book-cover was my favorite book cover, and that was incredibly difficult!  The art and graphics on most of these books is so great that I would be proud to have it on my walls.  Still, Stephen King's incredible cover for 'The Dark Tower' looms as the best cover that I have seen this year.  The joke there is that I never reviewed that book, although my friend Jesse Schlecter reviewed the series as a guest post!  Still, I am using it as the cover of choice for this post. A very close runner-up for cover of the year is Valerie Douglas' 'Servant Of The Gods', which was my final review of the year.

Since my reason for writing the Best in Fantasy was to discuss the books that I loved, you have never heard of the ones that I like moderately, or even not at all, and you will never hear about them unless we are chatting in person! I don't have the deeply rooted belief that I am the final word on whether a book is bad or great that a true critic needs to have.  You have come to realize, I am sure, that I have a rather quirky sense of what I consider to be a great read.  My choices of books tend to be quite divergent and often obscure.  Reading pleasure is so subjective and individual, that I simply try to promote what I personally consider to be little gems.

Several little gems really stood out in my mind this year, and they may or may not surprise you.  The first book that leaps to my mind when I think of the book that I enjoyed the most this year is  L. T. Suzuki's 'Imago - A Warrior's Tale'.  I was blown away by that first book in the series.  I dropped everything and immediately began reading everything in the whole series.  The more I read, the more I was addicted!

Another little gem that rocked the Casbah for me was 'Black Numbers' by Dean Frank Lappi.  That is the scariest, most compelling book I have read in a very long time.  I am now waiting on pins and needles for the sequel! 

I also dipped deep into the realm of Young Adult Fantasy, and along with J. K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' (which was my inaugural post) I read Alison DeLuca's 'Night Watchman Express', Rick Riordan's 'The Lost Hero' and Gary Hoover's 'Land of Nod - The Artifact'.  Although all of these books are written from a teen's point of view (an age which I left behind along with the dinosaur), each and every one of them captured my attention and drew me completely into their world.

I also review many books by authors who have passed on, but whose works live on and still pull the reader in, even after all the years since their passing.  Fritz Lieber's classic ' 'Swords and Deviltry', Robert Jordan's 'New Spring', and Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon' were just a few of the classics that I re-read this year for this blog.  I was so happy to re-read their work, and discovered many things in them that I hadn't noticed the first time around.

We also lost several great writers this year. The prolific, amazing Anne McCaffrey passed on in November, and Diana Wynne Jones in March.

Despite the losses, and despite the amazing number of books that I have had to read just to find one gem a week, this has been a truly great adventure.  Each and every book that I have reviewed in this forum is a book that I absolutely loved reading, and I would gladly read again. Thank you all for being a part of my first year at this!  I hope to be able share many more little beauties with you in the years to come!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Servant of the Gods, Valerie Douglas

Servant of the Gods -Valerie Douglas

Chapter one of Servant of the Gods by indie author Valerie Douglas begins this tale with one of the most moving and dramatic beginnings that I have ever read. I couldn’t wait to begin reading the story of how the Egyptian Priestess Irisi came to such a moment her story.
Chapter two takes up with her memories, beginning with events which happened when she was a child of eleven years of age, and was a shepherd girl named  Eres.  Her village has been attacked.  Now she is orphaned, and taken in by the druids who raise her to be a warrior. She becomes a mercenary soldier.  Her travels as a mercenary lead her to participating in a battle against Egypt, where she ends up on the losing side. This leads to her meeting the love of her life, Khai, in battle.  He captures her, but sees beauty in her as both a warrior and a woman.

To spare her being harshly used by others, he temporarily takes her as his servant.  Despite Khai’s wishes to the contrary she is sold at an auction to the court magician, an evil man named Kamenwati.  He chooses to use her as a gladiator, but eventually he plans to make her his sexual servant and use her in an arcane and evil ceremony.  He orders her to kill in cold blood, something she is loathe to do.  She will fight an opponent in honorable battle but only to first blood or disarmament.   To kill in cold blood is murder and is punishable by death, moreover she does not want to do such a thing. It would place her in Kamenwati’s power even more firmly than she is. 

To avoid having to commit murder in Kamenwati’s service, Eres offers her swords to the gods, in the hope that they will find her acceptable.  She is accepted as a priestess by Isis, and given the name Irisi which means ‘fashioned by the gods’.  Needless to say, her master Kamenwati is livid that she has escaped the fate he had planned for her, and he vows that he will reclaim ‘his property’ one way or another.

While at an audience with the Pharaoh she once again meets Khai, and thwarts an assassination attempt, engineered by the evil vizier Kamenwati who intends to be the next Pharaoh.

Kamenwati is secretly the servant of the God Set, who is the god of evil, chaos and war. He has also made a bargain with a Djinn, a very powerful demon.  An army of Djinn is poised to conquer Egypt, and Set will be the only God.

For several years, Irisi and Khai do not act on their mutual attraction, as Kamenwati would certainly punish them, and he is too strong for Irisi to defeat.

The Djinn that Kamenwati has called attack Egypt and Khai and Irisi are brought together, often enough that others begin to notice how they look at each other.  Eventually, they do become lovers, but they are very discrete, keeping their relationship a secret from Kamenwati.

This is high adventure. Khai is a romantic and sexy hero, and Irisi is a strong woman who never forgets that she is a woman.  She never competes in battle with men by trying to be a man. She is a female warrior, and proud to be so.  There are some very graphic scenes, both of violence and of sex, and frankly there is quite a bit of both. Still, I would recommend this as an adult book because the story is so compelling. 

I am looking forward to reading more works by Valerie Douglas in the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

This week I finally read Diana Wynne Jones' classic tale, Howl's Moving Castle.  I have long been a fan of the classic animè movie by Hayao Miyazaki that is loosely based on the tale, but I must say that the movie does not tell the tale at all the way that Diana Wynne Jones wrote it. In her book, there are no enemy aircraft bombing anyone. Rather, the tension is between Howl, his personal failings and the Witch of the Waste. 

The book begins with a young woman named Sophie Hatter.  She is the eldest of three daughters living in the town of Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary, where magic and witchcraft are accepted ways of life. She is very talented with the needle and makes the most beautiful hats and dresses, unknowingly talking life into the hats she creates and other objects.

As the eldest of three girls, she believes that she will have no chance of finding her fortune, accepting that she will have a dull life running the family hat shop.  That is, she accepts it until she is turned into an old crone by the Witch of the Waste, a powerful witch who is not at all pleased with one of Sophie's hats. Mortified, Sophie leaves the shop and installs herself as a cleaning lady for the notorious Wizard Howl, by simply moving in and taking over.  He is infamous in her town for eating the hearts of beautiful young women. Sophie hopes to make a bargain with him to have her spell removed so that she will be young again.

However, she soon learns that Howl is a rather self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier but ultimately good-natured person and an extraordinarily talented wizard. She discovers that he spreads many malicious rumours about himself to ensure his privacy and smears his own reputation to avoid work and responsibility.   As she gets to know him better, she frequently refers to him as a 'Slither-er Outer' because he always  manages to slither out of things that are disagreeable or involve real work. 

The door to his castle is actually a portal that opens onto four different places: the moving castle Sophie first encounters in the hills above Market Chipping, the seaside city of Porthaven, the royal capital of Kingsbury and Howl's boyhood home in Wales, where he was named Howell Jenkins.

Sophie immediately makes a bargain with Howl's resident fire demon, Calcifer: if Sophie can break the contract Howl and Calcifer have signed, then Calcifer will return Sophie to her original form. Part of the contract, however, stipulates that neither Howl nor Calcifer can disclose the terms of the contract to any third party. Sophie tries to guess the specifics of the contract, while Calcifer supplies frequent hints which Sophie usually doesn't pick up on.

Howl himself realizes that Sophie is under a spell and secretly attempts to remove the curse, but when he is unable to remove it, he comes to the conclusion that, for some reason, Sophie wants to remain an old woman.  Since she apparently wishes to be an old lady, he plays along with it, not letting on to her that he is aware that she is under a spell.

Howl's apprentice, Michael Fisher, does all the work of running of Howl's business, while Howl himself is out chasing his long string of paramours.  The minute a girl gives in to him, Howl falls out of love with her. Soon it emerges that Howl and Michael are courting Sophie's two younger sisters Lettie and Martha.  Michael is sincere, and truly loves Martha (who is going by the name of Lettie due to the girls switching places in their jobs). Sophie is worried about the real Lettie, whom Howl is obsessed with, knowing that the minute Lettie admits her love to him he will drop her like a hot rock and she doesn't want her sister to be hurt by him.  

Prince Justin, the King's younger brother, goes missing while searching for Wizard Suliman, who is actually Benjamin Sullivan, also from Wales.  The King orders Howl to find Suliman and Justin and kill the Witch of the Waste for him, as she is responsible for their disappearances. Howl, however, has his own reasons to avoid seeking a confrontation with the Witch of the Waste. The Witch, a jilted former lover, has laid a curse on him.

Howl attempts to weasel out of this exalted royal appointment by having Sophie pretend to be his mother and petition the King against the appointment.  Her attempt to convince the King that Howl is a self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier 'Slither-er Outer' is unsuccessful.  Howl becomes the official Royal Wizard despite his wishes to the contrary.

I must say that I really enjoyed this book.  It was first published in 1986, and how it was that I never read it before this, I don't know. I am now going to read more of Diana Wynne Jones' work, as this is also the first book of hers that I have read.  I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has seen the movie, because, as so often happens, the movie is a completely different tale altogether. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Voices in the Field and Other Stories, J. Allen Fielder

Periodically, I go on binges of reading short story compilations.  Recently I came across one written by indy author J. Allen Fielder, and I am now hooked.  He has gone back to the roots of science-fiction and fantasy with his book, 'Voices in the Field'.  This book is definitely a thinking-person's sort of book.  There are morality tales, and tales that are simply meant to make you go "hmm...."

Fielder's own description of his book on Amazon is as follows:   "Voices in the Field" is a collection of short stories by J. Allen Fielder. Titles include previously published and unpublished short stories, from the eponymous "Voices in the Field," to the humorously creepy "Mom's Eye View," these stories were written to thrill, chill, and make the reader wonder "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" Other titles include "Liquid," "Truck Stop Love," and "Homemade Pie." Stories range from horror, to mystery, to children's . . . and various points in between."

I must say, Fielder delivers on his promises!

In the first tale, which the book takes its title from, Fielder introduces us to a man whose car has broken down along a rural stretch of highway.  This tale is both homey, and frightening, with a sort of Stephen King intensity.  Harold is a 71 year old academic who has taken a less traveled route from Kansas State college on his back home to Corinthian College.  Alas, this road is exceedingly less well traveled, and Harold's car breaks down.  Being a naturally cheerful sort, he settles in to wait for a passing car to get help. To while away the time, he records his thoughts on the machine that he uses to record his notes on.   He is a bit old fashioned, and doesn't have a mobile phone. He soon regrets having taken the back road.  This is an unsettling story and it sets the tone for the rest of the book very well.

For those of us who are fans of horror, the fourth tale, 'Liquid' is one of the creepiest tales I have ever read.  A doctor at the top of his craft is the victim of an attack that completely changes his life.  It is a terrible case of 'There but for the grace of God go I', taken to an appalling extreme.

I must say, that I may never eat a pot pie again, having read 'Homemade Pie'.  The twist at the end of this tale is a real surprise, and gruesome though the tale is, it is one of my favorites.

'Cowboy Up' is the tale of an urban cowboy with an identity crisis, and a marriage proposal gone awry.

'The Party Pooper' is an extremely graphic tale of two buddies who make porn films in their spare time.  These are men whom I wouldn't want to know, but hey - it's all in good fun. (NOT!) 

The book ends with 'Weight' a tale of a young man who has suffered a lifetime of abuse for being obese.  It is not a long tale, but it is the sort of tale that would have found its way onto 'The Twilight Zone' back in the heyday of morality tales.

I could practically hear Rod Serling 's voice introducing each of these well crafted and deliciously thought-provoking tales!

All in all, J. Allen Fielder has written a wonderfully creepy series of short stories.  This book is going on my list of keepers!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

 A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens is one of the first modern paranormal fantasies.  First published by Chapman & Hall on December 17, 1847, this tale has remained as one of the great classics and has never been out of print.

Dickens divides ‘A Christmas Carol’ into five chapters, which he calls ‘staves’, or in old English terms, ‘song stanzas’, in reference to the title of the book. The book is short, in modern terms it is a novella.  However, this tale is a showcase of Charles Dickens’ amazing ability to completely draw the mood of a scene and the set of qualities that make a character unique in only a few sentences.   1840s London IS grim; Bob Cratchit IS a good and noble man, and despite his cold heart Ebenezer Scrooge IS worth saving.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve in the 1840's, exactly seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is established within the first stave as a greedy and stingy businessman who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity or benevolence.  His shabby treatment of Bob Cratchit and his rudeness to his nephew Fred are examined in the opening paragraphs. That night, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost and warned that he must change his ways in order to avoid coming to a miserable end like him. Scrooge is visited by three additional ghosts, each in its turn and each visit detailed in a separate stave, who go with him to various scenes with the hope of achieving his personal transformation and redemption.

The first of the spirits is the Ghost of Christmas Past.  This ghost takes Scrooge to scenes of his boyhood and youth, which stir the old miser's gentle and tender side by reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. We see the school where he had spent his youth, and meet his sister Fan, whom he dearly loved. We are also introduced to the root cause of his cold, miserly behavior:  the events which had caused him the most pain had always occurred around Christmas, and his own father had never forgiven him for the death of his mother, although we are not told the reason for that.  Now Ebenezer holds a grudge against his own nephew, Fred, for the death of Fan in childbirth. 

Dickens also shows us that Scrooge’s own fear of poverty and a subconscious desire to gain his father’s approval has caused him to care more about money than about people. One of the reasons for his miserly ways is the pain he feels for losing his love, Belle. Engaged to be married to her, he keeps pushing back the wedding until his finances are as healthy as he would like them to be; something that, given his insatiable lust for money, he will never happen. Realizing this, Belle calls off the engagement and eventually marries someone else, giving Scrooge more reason to further withdraw from society and relationships.

The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several radically differing scenes (a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner, the family feast of Scrooge's near-impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit, is an amazing window into 19th century London.  Tiny Tim is a sweet boy, filled with innocence and love despite his illness and his poverty. Scrooge finds himself quite drawn to him.  A miner's cottage  is visited, and also a lighthouse, among other sites in order to instill in Scrooge a sense of responsibility for his fellow man.   Finally, this ghost warns him of the evils of Ignorance and Want. As the spirit's robe is drawn back Scrooge is shocked to see these two aspects of the human condition suddenly made real before him as hateful, terrifying little children who are more animal than human in appearance.

The third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, makes his case to Scrooge with dire visions of the future if he does not learn and act upon what he has witnessed. Tiny Tim has died, and there is so much sorrow surrounding his passing. In another scene ‘a man has died’, one whose passing has brought only joy, profit and relief to everyone who knew him. Finally Scrooge's own neglected and untended grave is revealed, prompting him to swear that he will change his ways in hopes of changing these "shadows of what may be."

I read this tale every year.  I watch every movie version of this story, and love and appreciate each and every version that is made for the unique qualities that they bring to the story.  I know that I am not the only person whose life has been touched by this story; touched by the annual affirmation that charity begins at home and spreads to the world.  I am comforted in the knowledge that I am not the only person who ‘binges’ on Dickens in December!