Friday, November 16, 2012

The Crown Phoenix Series, Alison DeLuca

Today we enter the wild, wonderful world of Edwardian England, as we examine Alison DeLuca's magical, steampunk Crown Phoenix Series.

Alison DeLuca hits the ground running in the opening chapters of 'The Night Watchman Express', and the story never stops moving until the last page.This tale combines everything that makes for a good story: well crafted characters, good plot and great adventures.

Orphaned, and angry, Miriam is forced to accept her life has been given over to her new guardians, her father's business partners, the Marchpanes. The Marchpanes immediately move into Miriam's house, and take over her father's rooms. (Mrs. Marchpane is deliciously evil.) They make their attempt to gain full control of Miriam's money and her father's company.

Gradually, Miriam begins to find common ground with the Marchpane's son, Simon, and their other young `guest' Neil. A nanny who is both wise and skilled in certain magics is hired, and she saves the day, sort of. Mana is a woman who is of a race of people, who are considered to be second-class citizens, and contrary to the Marchpane's hopes, she turns out to be exactly what both Miriam and the two boys needed.

There is a reluctant camaraderie that develops between Miriam and the two boys. The three of them do a certain amount of exploring the grounds of the estate, and discover a strange machine that her father has constructed. Another interesting thread is also Miriam's strange emotional attachment to her father's typewriter-like machine, the Crown Phoenix, which she has claimed for her own since his death, and keeps hidden in her room.

The Marchpanes are not pleased by Mana's good influence on Miriam, and they fear her. They fire Mana and get rid of Miriam.

Nightly Miriam has heard the mournful Night Watchman Express, a mysterious train that passes close to her home, on its way to a sinister place called Devil's Kitchen where children are enslaved, and become subjects of evil experiments. Though she has never known where the train actually went, the sound of it has always terrified her.

In the course of her experiences, Miriam becomes a strong young woman, and her resourcefulness and courage make for a great adventure. Mana proves to be not just a governess, and the two boys have parts to play in the story.

In book two, The Devil's Kitchen we see just what those horrors are.
The book opens with Miriam and Simon on the terrifying train known as the Night Watchman Express. She is immediately thrown into a prison, the infamous `Devil's Kitchen' and forced to labor in horrible conditions. Simon is also held captive, in a prison of a very different sort, but one that is a prison nonetheless.

Miriam strength and courage make both friends and enemies for her in the frightening underworld of the Devil's Kitchen. She grows into a much more likeable, resourceful girl, while trying to maintain her sense of self and keeping her dignity while being forced to labor and live in the most the appalling conditions. Simon also is forced to find his courage and his strength and use his wits to survive the situation that he finds himself in.

Neil has found himself in a more comfortable but still extremely dangerous position in his effort to rescue Miriam, but has found support in Mana’s secret return and in an unexpected friend.

The 3rd book in the series, Lamplighter's Special is a wild journey to the islands, featuring Neil's sisters, Ninna and Lizzie. They too are caught-up in the dark world of those who search for the Crown Phoenix. While they are searching for their brother, they are forced into servitude, forming close friendships with the young men of the manor, Priam and Toby, despite the restrictions on such fraternization.  Everyone wants the Crown Phoenix which Miriam's father invented, and they will stop at nothing to gain it.

Lizzie's and Ninna's stories are told almost as if they were in a fairy tale, but it is a tale with a gritty steampunk quality that makes it a perfect rainy weekend read. There is danger, there is darkness, and suspense; there is a serious good vs. evil plot. I found that I was thinking about the characters at the end, and wondering what was going to happen next.

I LOVE this series!  I am buying this series in BOOK FORM (!) for my nieces and nephews.  They will love it as much as I do. You can also read Alison DeLuca's wonderful post on her characters Neil, Kyoge and Riki at my other blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams


First published in 1988 by the master of epic fantasy, Tad Williams, the watershed series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn begins with The Dragon Bone Chair. Just like the most enduring of marriages, this tale of three great and dangerous swords begins a bit slowly, but once you are into it, these books are sheer magic.

The main protagonist is Simon, a fourteen-year-old kitchen boy and servant in the great castle Hayholt. He is not really very enthusiastic in carrying out his duties as a kitchen-drudge in the last days of the long reign of King John Presbyter. However, he is happy when he finds himself apprenticed to Doctor Morgenes, the castle's healer and wizard. Simon alternates his time between his chores as a drudge and learning to read and write, taught by the good doctor. Upon the death of the great King John, his son Elias, whom many say is a pawn of the evil cleric Pryrates, becomes king.

Soon after he takes the throne, King Elias' brother Josua, whom Elias hates, vanishes and no one is sure if he went voluntarily or was murdered. Elias is blinded by his desire for power. He creates a pact with the undead Sithi ruler, the Storm King, who plots to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood.

Simon accidentally stumbles into the castle dungeons and discovers that Prince Josua is being held captive. He and Morgenes conspire to rescue the prince. Simon and Morgenes are successful, and Josua escapes, but Elias' soldiers, led by Pryrates, storm Morgenes' office, and Morgenes is murdered by a dark magic. Terrified and confused, Simon is able to flee the castle through a secret passage at the back of the doctor's office. With only with his mentor's biography of the good King John for companionship, Simon is lost and despondent.

In the process of escaping the Hayholt, Simon witnesses Pryrates and Elias performing an evil ritual with some strange white demons.

Simon rescues a member of the Sithi from a trap, and receives a white arrow as a token. At the same time he is befriended by a troll, Binnabik, who travels with Simon to Naglimund where they hope he will find safety. While traveling they save a servant girl and her sister from wild dogs, and meet a witch who helps them escape the soldiers who are pursuing them.

Upon arriving at Naglimund Simon discovers that the serving girl whom they saved is actually Miriamele, the only child of King Elias. She has run away to join her uncle Josua.

Simon finds himself on a quest to recover the magical blade, Thorn which once belonged to the greatest knight in their history. In the process, he runs into the Sithi Prince that he had rescued from the trap, and Jiriki joins Simon in his quest.

The changes that Simon and Miriamele go through as they leave their childhood behind are both tragic and amazing. The ways they react to and are formed by the pressures they are under, and the strengths they both have make this series one of the most compelling character studies I’ve read.

There is a large cast of characters, but I found it easy to keep them straight because they are drawn with attention to their individual personalities. Each character is all the more real because they have individual flaws and weaknesses. They make bad decisions, and they do things which seem incomprehensible, but they are behaving the way people under stress behave. This is why this take on the age-old tale of the kitchen-boy who is really a hero remains fresh and wonderful twenty five years later. Of course, there is an Appendix in the back with the names and pronunciations of all the characters and places.

The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele are told in a way that is detailed and very real. Williams has painted his world with such detail that reader feels as if Osten Ard is a real place, and you feel as if you know it well. This series is so well drawn and plotted that I found myself dreaming about it when the books ended.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fireseed One, Catherine Stine



Fireseed One by Catherine Stine  - guest review by Alison DeLuca


Fireseed gripped me from the start. Stine introduced the action, the concept, and the characters right away, and I loved all of them. Varik, the son of an agar farmer who has to shoulder responsibilities too large for anyone, let alone an adolescent, is strong and intelligent. More than that - he is REAL. He makes bad decisions and gets crushes, and I thoroughly related to him right away.

Marisa, the girl who breaks into the precious seed discs that keep Varik's agar farm going, is also real. Yes, she is beautiful with long, red hair and a gorgeous figure. yes, she is rich, and she is also brave and intelligent. But she also makes mistakes, and it is those fatal flaws that make her and Varik so human. Marisa has been "seduced" (in every sense of the word) by a political group. This compels much of the action.

No one, except for Varik, realizes how important the seed discs and the agar crop are. When the whole farm nearly is destroyed, it puts the entire world in jeopardy of starvation, since food no longer grows in the "Hot Zone" which is most of the US.

Varik's father developed something called Fireseed years before the action begins, and it is this mysterious plant that Marisa is after. When the farm is nearly shut down, Fireseed becomes the last hope for the human race.

This may sound very serious and grand-scheme, but Stine also focuses on the relationship between Varik and Marisa, which is touching and also very real. The arcs of the story ebb and flow perfectly, like the waves around Varik's farm, and I breathlessly followed all of them.

Add to this Stine's lovely prose, and the book is very compelling. I had to ration it out because I loved reading it so much, but at the end I just couldn't stop.

Beyond that, in this installment Stine has presented a complete adventure. However, at the end, there is a twist that makes me long for the next book. That is a very difficult thing to do, and the writer has pulled it off brilliantly.

I highly recommend Fireseed One.

Today’s guest reviewer is Alison DeLuca, blogger and well known author of the Steampunk ‘Crown Phoenix’ series. Alison can also be found blogging at Fresh Pot of Tea.