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June 5, 2017

Book Review: A Peace Divided by Tanya Huff - Peacekeeper Book Two


Cover A Peace Divided.jpegIn A Peace Divided, being released by Penguin/Random House June 6 2017, author Tanya Huff returns readers to the world or ex Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr and her team of ex-marines and civilian specialists who are working to maintain a delicately balanced intergalactic peace. After fighting a war which turned out to be an experiment conducted by a hyper-intelligent, organic plastic, shape shifting, super intelligent being, to see how various sentient beings would react under certain circumstances, most inhabitants of known space are just trying to pull their lives back together.

However, as Kerr and her team have discovered there are those who would rather take advantage of the ensuing confusion for either their own gain or to push forward a personal agenda. While The Confederation is made up of a incredibly mixed bag of species, ranging from humans to what is basically an intelligent giant spider, its not the big happy family the government wants everybody to believe.

There are those among the races who were brought into fight the war, (humans, di'Taykan - who are the most sexually indiscriminate race in known space and are said to have invented flavoured massage oil before the wheel - and the Krai, who can, and will, digest almost anything) who are feeling just a little pissed that no one figured out they were killing and being killed for no good reason and are looking to get a little of their own back. Unfortunately this resentment is also causing people to fall back on old species prejudices and blaming everybody else for their troubles.

With a whole lot of ex military, from both sides of the war, and military hardware now floating around there are plenty of opportunities for folk to create a little havoc. Hence the government creating teams like Kerr's to try and put out fires before they can become infernos. In this instance a group of scientists doing an initial exploration of an ancient civilization have been taken hostage. Further complicating matters is the fact the hostage takers include both members of the Confederation and their former enemies (The Primacy) in the recently ended war.

In order to keep everybody happy, Kerr and her team are joined by former soldiers from The Primacy on this mission. (Those who've read Huff's previous books about Kerr will recognize the Primacy soldiers from Valor's Trial) As they've already worked together before integration of the two teams of ex-soldiers while not seamless, isn't difficult.

Anyone who has read any of Huff's previous books featuring Kerr, both "Confederation Books" and the previous book in this new "Peacekeeper" series , knows of her amazing ability to combine action, plot, and character into a wonderful melange that makes her books a joy to read. On top of this she also manages to seamlessly work in some subtle, relevant, social commentary. Nothing big enough to stand out, but casually so we can notice if we want; same sex partnerships or the lack of help for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are just two examples.

This is what separates Huff's work from others of the military/science fiction genre, there's more to them than just find the bad guys and kill them. In fact she's careful to distinguish between those who are genuinely nefarious and those who have been so badly damaged they are desperately hanging onto something familiar in order to retain their sanity. While damaged people can still be dangerous, they aren't the problem. The problem is those who would exploit them for their own ends.

A Peace Divided is an intelligent, well written, and far more complex book than one would expect from the genre. However, it does live up to expectations readers have of Huff's work. If you've read and enjoyed any of the previous books featuring Torin Kerr you will be thrilled with this one. If you've never read one, stop denying yourself the pleasure.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: A Peace Divided by Tanya Huff - Peacekeeper Book Two)

November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff


Fantasy literature, specifically pertaining to werewolves and vampires, has been seriously tainted by the rise of the unholy spectre of romance novels hiding their true nature in the guise of something called paranormal romance. While this plague has spread seemingly unchecked over the past few years, there are still a brave few willing to stand against the hoards and do their best to drive the stake of a well written werewolf (and vampire) stories into their malevolent hearts.

Tanya Huff has been writing great fantasy and science fiction for more then thirty years. She has not only taken on this new scourge on the literary front, her vampire detective series, Blood Ties has been adapted as a successful television series. While werewolves have made appearances in some of her earlier books in her latest, The Silvered, from Penguin Canada, they take centre stage as the rulers of the small country Aydori.

The world Aydori is part of sees Edwardian technology, steam engines, hot air balloons and gas lights, co-exist with a kind of elemental magic and werewolves. While some have no problem with this rather unique blend, there are those who see magic as a thing of the past and werewolves no better than beasts. As the Hunt Pack, the werewolves of Aydori, are male and only mate with female magic users, known as the Mage Pack, those who hold to this negative opinion of werewolves also condemn the women for sleeping with animals. Unfortunately for Aydori, Emperor Leopold of the Kresentian Empire is a firm adherent to this belief and also has a strong desire to rule his neighbours.
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So when his troops advance through neighbouring provinces and begin an assault upon Aydori, nobody is too surprised. Unfortunately the empire's technology has come up with a method of countering the Hunt Pack's superiority in combat; artillery firing rockets which unleash silver shrapnel. While members of the Pack can heal from normal gun shot almost instantaneously, silver will lodge in their flesh and can kill them. However, in spite of the Emperor's supposed disdain for magic, and desire for land, it turns out his invasion of Aydori is merely cover for a more sinister purpose involving specific members of the Mage Pack.

Mirian Maylin has washed out of university, told by her instructors her magical power is too unfocused for her to amount to much. While the reactions of the Hunt Pack to her, (werewolves are attracted to the smell of magic and pick their mates according to how they react to a woman's scent), say she has a latent source of power, she's never been able to produce more than the weakest and lowest level spells. However, when the Aydori forces are overrun and the leaders of the Hunt Pack are killed, she and the rest of the country are forced to flee to the Pack's mountain retreat. It's during this trip she witnesses a small group of Imperial soldiers capture five of the leading members of the Mage Pack. With a magical artefact designed to neutralize their powers, the five women are hustled away.

Unfortunately for Captain Sean Reiter of the Imperial army his orders were to bring back six mages, not five. So he sends the five captured women back to the capital and with a small band sets out in search of his sixth mage. Picking up the trail of Mirian, he and his men capture her as she's searching for any surviving members of the Hunt Pack to tell them of the kidnap. While most of them have been killed, young Tomas Hagen, the Hunt Pack leader's youngest brother, has managed to survive. Desperate with grief he has fled the battle field only to come across the strong scent of a mage. Finding Mirian held captive, he manages to help her escape.

Thus the stage is set against which the rest of the story plays out. Tomas and Mirian play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Captain Reiter and his small troop while attempting to make their way to the Empire's capital city in order to rescue the captured mages. However, instead of merely telling their tale, Huff splits the narrative three ways. We not only spend time with the young mage and wolf, she also gives us Reiter's perspective as he attempts to recapture them. We are also travel further down the road with the captured mages and begin to learn why the Emperor has gone to such trouble to take them prisoner.

Huff's greatest skills as a storyteller has always been the strength of her characters and her ability to bring the world they inhabit to life. From deep space to times without technology she is able to immerse her readers in a book's environment. However, unlike others who use long descriptive passages to create a sense of place, she develops the picture gradually through the eyes of her characters. It's from young Tomas' descriptions of the battle field we learn of the nascent technology of the empire. Coupled with Mirian descriptions of the type of magic employed by the Mage Pack and Captain Reiter's dealings with his men, we discover both the nature of the relationship between the Mage Pack and the Hunt Pack and different people's different feelings about magic and werewolves.
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Thomas, Mirian, Captain Reiter and the other characters, including Emperor Leopold when we meet him, are drawn as complete human beings. While some, like the Emperor, we only meet through the eyes other characters, even then we are given as balanced a view as possible. For when Reiter is made a member of the Emperor's inner circle he sees the various sides of the man's character. On the one hand he's a loving and doting father who obviously takes pleasure in the company of his family. On the other he can casually order ghastly experiments be carried out on those he considers lesser beings. Its like reading a description of those who blithely sent millions to their deaths in the concentration camps during the day and were loving parents at night.

Huff is one of the best story tellers I've ever come across. Aside from her ability to create characters and intricate, but understandable, plots, she also has a knack for inventing new and intriguing forms of magic. While she's used elemental based magic systems in the past, here she's expanded upon it to include metals and healing as well as the more traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. Most of the Mage Pack are able to control one of the elements.

As their proficiency increases their eyes acquire flecks of colour associated with their power. In the rare case when a person is able to work with multiple elements, like Mirian, their eyes gradually turn silver. This is isn't the only transformation she goes through as her power increases, and watching her and Tomas deal with her transition into a person of power is one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Aside from the whole "with power comes responsibility" thing, there's also a personal cost to be paid. Huff handles the two young people coming to grips with Mirian's new reality in the same practical and straight forward manner she deals with all issues. There are no histrionics or melodrama involved, just a very real description of a young woman's fears and how she copes with overcoming them with the help of a close friend and companion. (By the way, for anyone concerned about the seemingly hetro-centric nature of relationships in the book, rest assured we meet a happily gay werewolf and his soothsayer partner.)

Tanya Huff has always shown a flair for making the fantastic realistic and believable and The Silvered is no exception. If you've given up hope of ever reading about werewolves without having to wade through the treacle of romance novels, this book should ease your mind. While a romantic relationship is obviously starting to flourish between Mirian and Tomas, it's a perfectly normal and natural development based on their experiences together. Their relationship is indicative of the book as a whole, everything happens organically and with good reason. The characters might be mages and werewolves, but they're firmly grounded in reality.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff)

June 24, 2013

Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


History books are full of the names of the so called great leaders who have been responsible for the great moments in human existence. However, if recent history has shown us anything leaders are the ones who capitalize on popular movements started by people like you and me who generally pass unnoticed. Look at all the uprisings which have taken place over the past few years, from the Occupy Movement in the West to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and what do you remember most about all of them? Scenes of masses of people spontaneously demonstrating against their leaders. In Cairo, Tunisia and other capital cities in the Arab world the middle class joined forces with students, house wives and workers to topple their governments.

So who were these "unseen" individuals who helped bring down dictators? How did they all of a sudden find the strength and will to stand up to and take on not only the state but armies, police forces and secret police whose jobs it was to ensure this type of dissent shouldn't have happened? In her book, Alif The Unseen, now available in trade paper back from Random House Canada, American author G. Willow Wilson gives us not only a portrait of one of those disaffected individuals, but one potential scenario for how these momentous events could have happened.

In a fictional unnamed emirate somewhere on the Persian Gulf lives a half Arab half Indian computer hacker named Alif. He and his mother, the second wife of a well to do Arab, live in the poorer district of the city, out of sight of his father's Arab first wife. Alif has two major preoccupations. One is providing protection for bloggers and dissident voices of all stripes from the state's secret police. The second is Intisar, the daughter of an aristocratic Arab family with whom he's been carrying on a clandestine affair. His dreams of the two them running away together come crashing down when she lets him know her father has arranged for her to marry an important member of the royal family.
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Heartbroken and angry Alif does two things which will change the course of his life forever. In a fit of pique he has his childhood friend Dina, a properly veiled and draped Muslim girl, deliver a box containing the sheets displaying the marks of Intisar's lost virginity on them to her. He also writes a piece of code which can identify a person from the way they use their keyboard. This will allow him block out any and every communication from Intisar without having even check his email. When Dina returns with an old book Intisar has instructed she give to Alif he thinks nothing of it, except to note the oddity of its title, The Thousand and One Days, the inverse of the famous The Thousand and One Nights.

More dangerous, at least as far as he's concerned, is the discovery The Hand, the state's super hacker responsible for trying to track down and arrest the people Alif is shielding, has somehow co-opted the program he wrote to identify Intisar's presence on line. The Hand has been able to plant the program virus like on all Alif's client's computers and will soon be able to not only trace all of them, but Alif as well, if he hasn't already. As one by one his client's go silent, Alif hastily tries to shore up his own defences. However, when Dina warns him a member of the secret police has tried to frighten her into turning Alif in, he knows he was too late, and they are both forced to flee.

Up to this point the book has read like a pretty straight forward adventure story with only its non-Western setting separating it from other books of its kind. Computer whiz kid stumbles on government plot to silence dissent having to flee with childhood friend who he's been ignoring in favour of some exotic rich beauty could be the plot of any young adult science fiction story. The difference, and a wonderful difference it is, is who and where they end up fleeing to. A friend recommends they seek out a mysterious underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire in the hopes he can help spirit them out of the city to somewhere safe. It turns out "spirit" is an appropriate word for describing Vikram, because he's one of the race of djinn, the magical, beings of Islamic myth.

The djinn exist unseen by most of those around them. While they appear to be human shaped, if you happen to look at them in just the right way you begin to notice differences in their physiology. In the case of Vikram, there's something of the giant cat about him. His legs seem to bend in ways a man's shouldn't be able to and he's able to move faster and in ways that shouldn't be possible. It's Vikram who recognizes the book Intisar gave Alif as more than just a simple collection of stories. Long ago a djinn had been coerced into dictating the book to a human alchemist. Hidden within the text of the stories are some of the deepest secrets of the djinn waiting to be uncovered by the human who is able to see the unseen.

With the help of an American woman convert to Islam studying at the emirate's university, Dina, Vikram and Alif try to crack the secrets of the mysterious book. Alif's quest for knowledge leads him into strange and horrible places including the Emir's prisons and the unseen world of the djinn. However, it turns out the knowledge he was looking for was his all along, it was a just a matter of learning how to see inside himself and find out what he really wanted from life. The Hand wants the book because he believes it will give him the means to exert complete control over the emirate. What he doesn't understand is its power isn't something which can be used for exerting control. its power is in what it can teach us to see.
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Normally I'm suspicious of books set inside a culture written by someone from another background. However, Wilson is not a carpetbagger looking to exploit someone's else beliefs and traditions. She has done a wonderful job of bringing a modern Arab state to life. It's a world filled with computers and smart phones just like ours and populated by people as diverse in their beliefs and habits as any place in the world.

She even has the courage to make fun of herself in the form of the white American woman convert - who is almost always referred to as "the convert" in the book. For she is an outsider, no matter how much she wants to be a Muslim. This is shown by her inability in the beginning to see Vikram for what he truly is. Initially, she was not steeped enough in the tradition and culture to appreciate the subtle nuances of belief allowing him to exist. She literally has to be impregnated by him, to become part of the culture, before she is completely comfortable and able to accept every aspect of her new faith.

There are many ways a person or a people can be unseen. Some of us are unseen because we choose to be - covering our faces with veils or out identities with an alias. Than there are those who aren't seen due to the nature of the society they live in. From the faceless masses who go about their lives, one among millions, without recognition to those who others consider so far beneath them socially they don't exist. Finally there's the unseen who populate the worlds on the fringes of our belief systems - the fairies, the djinn and all the other vaguely defined mythological creatures who we are lucky enough to sometimes glimpse.

However, as recent world events have pointed out even the invisible have the power to change the world. In Alif The Unseen Wilson shows us the many ways the unseen exists around us and how easy it is to learn how to see. Everybody has his or her blind spots, people or things we choose not to see for one reason or another. Maybe if we open our eyes a little bit wider we'll find we have more in common with each other than we might have thought. The people in this book might dress differently then us and use words for god we might not understand. All we have to do is learn to see past those small differences to see the people beneath. This is a fantastic story filled with far more than meets the eye at first glance while being a great deal of fun to read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson)

May 19, 2013

Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer


What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates so many modern writers these days? Not only are people setting novels in the time period, a whole sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy has developed out of it, steampunk. While the stories are set in England of the 19th century, anachronistic elements from our time period are introduced to create a kind of alternate history. What makes the best of these stories work is when the author finds a way of taking the technology of the era and giving it either abilities equivalent to what we have in our world or imbuing it with fantastical gifts equivalent to magic.

This era also saw changes in the way people thought and the things they believed possible. For the beginning of the technological age also saw the beginnings of science fiction writing. Jules Verne and H. G Wells speculated about traveling to distant planets, under the oceans and through time long before the first two were considered possible. In fact, such was the nature of Victorian society, spiritualism and other marginal sciences flourished during the time, they would have been more willing to believe in time travel and other magical events more than either travelling to the moon or delving into the earth's oceans.

In the first book of his latest young adult series, W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, Eoin Colfer (creator of Artemis Fowl) has opted to collide the 20th century with the Victorian era. Along the way he gives readers the chance to experience the differences between the two societies and a taste of steampunk by transplanting some modern technology and ideas into the past through the book's plot.
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The letters WARP are the acronym for an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top secret witness protection program, Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. Even most of the FBI's agents have never heard of the program. The only reason young Chevron Savano finds out about it is because she has been sent to London by the bureau after the trial program she was a part of blew up in their faces. Recruiting high school students to monitor potential terrorist recruits their own age had seemed like a good idea, until Savano actually had to take action to protect her suspects. It was only then the bureau realized the shaky legal and ethical ground they were on utilizing underage agents. So Savano finds herself whisked out of the country guarding a basement full of equipment which looks like its straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie in order to avoid being questioned by the United States Congress.

It turns out to be the WARP program's nerve centre. Unlike other witness protection programs which create new identities, WARP transports people back in time to Victorian England to keep them safe. Savano only finds out its true nature when the machinery comes to life one evening and accidentally transports 14 year old Riley into the future. The apprentice of a Fagin type figure, Albert Garrick, ex-stage illusionist and now the 19th century equivalent of a contract killer, Riley was transported forward to the present because his master's latest target was the inventor of WARP. At the moment of his death he activates the machine and transports both his corpse and Riley into the basement where Sayano is waiting to receive them.

When Garrick highjacks the FBI team, including Sayano's direct superior, sent back into the past to pick up the pieces, he not only follows his young charge into the future, in the process his body absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of the agent in charge of the program. Something about the mechanism changes him on a molecular level resulting in Garrick obtaining superhuman powers. Not only is he still a murderous devil, but he now possesses the ability to change his appearance and assume the identity of the agent whose thoughts he's absorbed. This not only gives him access to all the bureaus' secrets, but allows him to put the blame for the deaths of the team sent into the past on Savano.

At first Savano and Riley's main preoccupation is staying alive and free. Fleeing both the FBI and Garrick they manage to slip through both their fingers and jump back to the Victorian era with Garrick in hot pursuit. It's while in the 19th century they start to uncover the secrets of the WARP program and unravel Riley's strange life story including the secret behind his relationship with Garrick. In the process Colfer takes us on a tour of London featuring stops not on most tourists agendas. From a seedy bar, the hangout of a criminal organization know as the Battering Rams, the well appointed mansions of the mysterious spiritualist Tibor Charismo (advisor to the Queen and the Duke of Westminster and author of such wonders as the symphony "Another Brick In Yonder Wall" featuring the crazed lutist Pinkus Floyd) and finally the horror of the city's slum life in the form of the Rookery, home to the dregs and castoffs of society.
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While the story clips along at a fairly rapid pace with Colfer switching between Garrick's and Savano's perspective of events, he still manages to find the time to fill out his character's history and personalities. As Savano and Riley get to know each other we begin to learn more about each of them until they become fully developed characters.We not only learn the particulars of their lives prior to them meeting, we start to find things in them we can identify with. The same holds true with Garrick, the more we spend time with him the more we begin to understand him. While his life story raises our sympathies, unlike the two young people he chases who have chosen to rise above their troubles, we see how he took the opposite path and chose to lash out at the world.

Colfer has also done an admirable job in bringing both the modern world and the past to life. By showing us 19th century London through Savano's eyes and its modern counterpart through Riley's and Garrick's eyes they both turn into strange and wondrous places. From the way the city smells to the sounds of daily life he reminds us how much we take for granted about our own existence and creates an extremely vivid picture of what life would have been like 120 years ago. Colfer does such a good job with his depictions the past starts to feel as familiar to us as the present and we feel equally at home in either era.

W.A.R,P, Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is first and foremost a fast paced adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes from the opening chapters to its close. Colfer also manages the rather tricky work of making the two worlds his story takes place in, and each setting's respective characters, believable. While the contrasts between the two eras and the character's reactions to the culture shock of shifting time adds an extra dimension to the story, it's the way Colfer manages to integrate all the elements of plot, atmosphere and character development into one cohesive unit that makes it a pleasure to read. What he's created in this first book bodes well for the rest of the series and will have his fans awaiting each new instalment with the eagerness of those who used to anticipate the next edition of The Strand and further adventures of a certain pipe smoking detective.

(Article first published as Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer on Blogcritics)

February 3, 2013

Book Review: The Golden Door Book One Of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda


When writing for a younger audience, the Young Adult or teen reader, an author has to find the perfect balance between going over his or her audience's head and appearing to talk down to them. What made books like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series such a success was her ability to create characters who were not only believable but whom her readers could identify with. As our perceptions of the world she created were shaped by Harry's reactions any false notes in her characterization would have shattered the illusion of reality she had created. If a reader can believe in and identify with the character who we see the world through he or she will accept just about any reality they find themselves transported into.

Australian author Emily Rodda has obviously taken that lesson to heart judging by her most recent release in North America The Golden Door, the first book in her The Three Doors trilogy, published by Puffin Books and imprint of Penguin Canada. Following in the footsteps of generations of storytellers before her Rodda's story sends a hero out into the unknown on a quest. However, with the careful injection of her own ingredients, she manages to put a new spin on the ages old format.

Young Rye lives with his mother Lisbeth and two elder brothers Dirk and Sholto in the walled city of Weld on the island of Dorne. According to the city's legends it had been founded over a thousand years ago by a sorcerer Dann. Seeking a place of peace and refuge for him and his followers he had led his people into the secret centre of the island, surrounded by the mysterious Fell Zone, and with his magic raised a towering wall within which Weld nestled safe from the fierce creatures and barbarians that plagued the island. Generations later the city is ruled by a Warden, a direct descendant of Dann's original appointed heir.

As the years have passed the magic supposedly used to create The Wall (the citizens of Weld refer to it with a reverence akin to the way others talk about a god or a hero) has waned. Until recently this hasn't been a problem. So grateful are they for their supposed safety the people of Weld have willingly obeyed all the strictures imposed on them by the Wardens down through the years. Notices placed around the city in the Warden's name remind people to dress warmly in the cold months, tell children to be careful not to play too roughly in case they hurt one another and generally dictate every aspect of their lives.
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However all that began to change five years ago when the skimmers first appeared. Fell creatures from the sky with an appetite for warm flesh and blood, the skimmers fly over The Wall in the warm season and attack anything they find out in the open. As they are attracted by light, sound and the smell of flesh summer nights see the citizens of Weld locking themselves up into their houses. Sitting in the dark, eating cold meals and carrying on conversations in whispers they listen to the sound of leathery wings flying overhead. Even leaving a shutter over a window open a crack could be enough for the skimmers. Many a morning houses have been found cracked open like eggs and their inhabitants slaughtered.

As the attacks have grown fiercer and the measures taken by the Warden to protect the people have failed, disquiet begins to grown among Weld's citizens. Both Rye's older brothers, big burly brave Dirk and clever Sholto, the apprentice healer, have given voice to their frustration. So when the Warden calls for volunteers to leave Weld and search for the source of the skimmers its no surprise that both end up leaving as they each in turn come of age. When they both fail to return Rye obsesses over their fate. For although the Warden declares them dead after they have each been gone a year, Rye believes they are both still alive.

When disaster strikes Rye and his mother, skimmers destroy their only means of livelihood, they are forced to seek shelter in Warden's Keep, Rye's decision to lie about his age and volunteer to leave Weld is only inevitable. How though does one leave the city? For one of the oddities of Weld is there is no visible gate allowing exit or entrance. Hence the title of the series. For secreted well beneath the Keep lies a secret chamber containing three doors. Made of gold, silver and wood each of the doors leads to a different destination in the outer world.
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While Rye's first instinct is to pick the wooden door, his quest isn't to find the skimmers like everybody else. No, he is determined to find his two brothers and bring them back alive. Knowing his brothers as well as he does he realizes brave Dirk will have chosen the door of gold and Sholto the silver. Determined to bring his older brother back he's just about to leave through the gold door when he's interrupted. A girl his age climbs out of the fireplace in the secret chamber and demands he take her with him. He only gives in when she threatens to tell the Warden he's underage. So Rye and his unwanted companion, Sonia, step through the gold door into another world.

While its through the door Rye and Sonia's quest begins, they are also presented with another mystery which Rodda's establishment of their life within Weld set up. Growing up Rye was taught Weld and its Wall were the centre of their universe. But once out in the world he soon discovers its merely one, insignificant, part of something much larger. Things aren't as cut and dried as he'd been taught. While he goes about completing his tasks - finding his brother Dirk and rescuing him - as readers we feel his amazement at the size and diversity of the world beyond the shelter of his city.

While Rye himself is too preoccupied with his quest to begin the process of questioning what he has been taught, we're left no doubt that seeds of disquiet have been planted. Rodda is too smart a story teller to spell these things out for us, but from his reactions to what he sees and the things that happen to him Rye's world view is being shaken. As readers we begin to wonder about the real reasons behind the creation of Weld, its impenetrable wall and the amount of control exerted over its inhabitants by the Warden. Was The Wall created to keep the rest of the world at bay or to keep Weld's citizens in?

At first glance the characters of Rye's older brothers seem to be less real people and more types. However, as the story develops we realize this is because Rodda has done such a good job of telling the story from Rye's point of view. Until he understands the world more a younger brother sees his elders only in terms of their dominant characteristic and not as complete humans. As Rye's horizons expand with his travelling beyond Weld he comes to understand there's more to both himself and his brothers. He's no longer merely the younger brother who must be looked after and worried about.

With The Golden Door Rodda has created the beginnings of what has the potential to be a fascinating multi-layered adventure. Not only will Rye's quest to find his brothers and deliver Weld from skimmer attacks continue, there is also the mystery of Weld's creation and the nature of the world its located in to solve. Of course there's also the question of Sonia and Rye's friendship. While they started off in adversity, they quickly came to trust each other and gradually earned each other's respect and friendship. It will be interesting to see how both their characters and their relationship develop over the course of the trilogy.

All in all this is a very promising start. It's not often you find a Young Adult fantasy series which does more than recount the adventures of its heroes. Without being didactic or obvious Rodda raises some fairly sophisticated and pertinent social issues. In these days of heightened security we are being asked to surrender various rights in the name of safety. In Weld we see that carried to an extreme, with a ruler trying to dictate everything about how its people live for their own good. Isolation from the world around you might keep you safe, but at what cost? It will be very interesting to see what Rodda does with these themes while continuing to tell her story.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Golden Door Book One of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda on Blogcritics)

December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2012

Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont


It's not very often you have the opportunity to read the same story told from two different perspectives. Occasionally we will see the same events through the eyes of two separate characters, but how often do we have a chance to read a whole series of books which run concurrent to another series? Well this is exactly what Steven Erikson and Ian C Esslemont have been attempting to do with their epic fantasy series set in the mythical world of The Malazan Empire.

Erickson began the process with his ten book sequence The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, but Esslemont is quickly catching up with the publication of his 5th book set in the same world, Blood and Bone, from Random House Canada. As the books have been published over the years it's become obvious the two men are not just telling the story of an Empire, but recounting the history of a world, if not a universe. While there are occasions when the authors' work intersect and characters first met in one's work show up the other's, each of them are responsible for recounting different aspects of the history. At times events in one book are concurrent with those of the other series while on other occasions they take place at different times in the history.

While Erikson's books have predominately centred around action within the Empire, Esslemont switches back and forth between the Empire and characters and locations only briefly mentioned in the other series. As with a previous book Blood and Bone features members of an elite fighting force who have taken a vow of eternal opposition to the Empire. The Avowed of the Crimson Guard, who are nominally a mercenary army, have gained immortality with their vow to follow their leader Prince K'azz Davore until the Empire has been overcome. However, dissension within the company has caused a split leading to around fifty warriors to be disavowed by the Prince for betraying the spirit of their oath. Unfortunately merely disavowing them turns out to be insufficient, and the book opens with K'azz being forced to gather his forces and head out to bring the renegade members of his troop to heel.
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Unbeknown to the Guard the continent of Jacuruku where they are heading has become a lodestone for several powers who will all converge upon its shores simultaneously. Long ago the entire continent was under the rule of one so terrible a group of sorcerers known as the Thaumaturgs attempted to depose him by bringing a god from another universe down upon his head. Unfortunately all they succeeded in doing was killing themselves in the resulting conflagration, scattering pieces of the god all over the world, pissing their former ruler off and leaving the world vulnerable to the presence of a very angry and crippled alien god. Although his power was somewhat curtailed by various powers, the Crippled God has still managed to exert considerable influence in the world.

While Erikson recounted how the Crippled God's story was resolved, inBlood and Bone Esslemont focuses on how some parts of the world are still dealing with the repercussions of his landing. After the fall Jacuruku gradually came back. While the descendants of the Thaumaturgs who caused the original destruction have carved out a kingdom they rule by means of terror and magic, a huge swath of the continent is covered by jungle ruled by the goddess like figure of Ardata - also known as Queen of The Witches. While expeditions into her jungle have never been successful - few who set out have ever returned alive, the Thaumaturgs have decided to send an army against her.

An ungainly beast which would be almost impossible to move under ideal conditions, the idea of trying to take an army and the thousands of bearers required to carry supplies through the jungle seems to be madness of the first degree. Ardata need not send out troops to defend her borders as the jungle itself appears to be sufficient to overcome any invaders. However, they aren't the only invasion force heading into her heartland. A shard of The Crippled God buried near her land has attracted quite a bit of attention. The disavowed of the Crimson Guard have been sent by the Crippled God to try and recover this piece of himself in exchange for his patronage and protection. However, power attracts power, and the extremely powerful sorceress, Lady Spite, has hired a mercenary company made up of ex-Malazan marines and magicians to help her secure the same shard.

When the marines are stranded on the continent they are forced to attempt to cross through Ardata's territory. Having recovered the shard of the Crippled God, at the cost of losing their employer temporarily, they have become a lodestone for other beings of power. So not only are they forced to deal with the jungle's dangers, they also have to worry about what this piece of a god they are carrying around could call down upon them. While this struggle is being played out, a mysterious Warlord has landed on another coast with a mercenary force. He manages to unite the fractious desert warriors of the continent into an army and is now leading them in an invasion of the Taumaturg kingdom.
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If that sounds like way too many plot lines to keep track of, and that's not even all of them, you would be right if they were in the hands of a lessor author. Not only is Esslemont able to keep his hands firmly upon the reins of all the action taking place and tie them all together quite nicely, he also manages to bring the environment they take place in to life with remarkable vividness. Part dream world, part claustrophobic jungle and part nightmare we follow each party's progress through one of the most inhospitable habitats you've ever encountered. Even more impressive is what we learn about the various characters and their cultures from the way they interact with this environment.

It might sound odd to say this, but Esslemont also manages to deal with all these social and personal examinations without ever taking himself or the circumstances too seriously. Not that he turns the experiences his characters undergo into a joke, but the story never becomes bogged down in needless naval gazing on the part of either himself or the characters. After all this is a fantasy novel, not some 19th century naturalistic examination of the human condition. So while you can make the obvious comparison with Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, with its description of a journey into a land where the rules of civilization as we know them have vanished, there's one major difference.

For instead of depicting his characters as having descended into some uncivilized dark pit, Esslemont makes it clear a social structure governed by rules of behaviour still exists, they're just not the ones his characters are used to. Those who stubbornly refuse to adopt suffer while those who are willing to accept change have an easier time of it. Ironically, while the struggles of these characters seem loom huge in both our's and their eyes, events in the world beyond this small continent end up making most of their voyages irrelevant. However, this in no ways diminishes the book, as Esslemont has done such a fine job of taking us on each journey the lack of any finite conclusion is irrelevant.

Blood and Bone is the latest chapter of the magnificent epic sequence set in the universe created by Esslemont and Erikson. Somehow or other they have done the seemingly impossible of finding ways of fleshing out the world and introducing new and exciting ingredients and characters with each book. Esslemont continues to show he's every bit as imaginative and literate as Erikson. The ability to combine the fantastic with literary elegance is something I've come to take for granted with the writing of both authors, yet each time it catches me by surprise and takes my breath away. There really are no other books quite like them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Wurms Of BlearmouthBy Steven Erikson


One of the crasser ways devised by television producers to cash in on the popularity of a show was the "spin off". This usually involved taking a second tier character from an original show and trying to make something out of nothing for no other reason than to make more money. Invariably, with only a few notable exceptions, these shows were not only inferior to the originals but would never last more then one or two seasons. The problem was that most supporting characters didn't have the substance to base a show around. They had been created with the purpose of being incidental to the main action and that quickly became obvious when the spotlight shone on them. Just because a character could grab an audience's attention for thirty seconds a week didn't mean he or she was interesting enough to have their own show.

In the literary world spin offs aren't as common as they are in television but they still exist. However, they are rare enough occurrences to make them noteworthy if for no other reason than the author has been able to find the time to write about secondary characters. Therefore when Steven Erikson, best known for the ten book series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, began writing novellas featuring three characters who made a brief, yet memorable, appearance in one of his books I decided to check them out. Everything I had by Erikson up to that point was worth reading, so the chances were good these would be too. That the characters in question, the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their man servant Emancipator Reece (also known as Mancy the Unlucky for his history as a sailor on doomed ships and the fact that all of his prior employers had meant untimely ends) had made an indelible impression in their brief appearance, was evidence there was a good chance they could carry a novella on their own.

The Wurms Of Blearmoth, currently available from Britain's PS Publishing and hopefully soon to be released in North America by Macmillan who have published three previous novellas in omnibus form, is the fourth tale to feature two villains you'll learn to love to hate and their luckless manservant. (A fifth book, The Crackedpot Trial, focused on a group of disparate hunters trying to track down Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the various crimes they have committed against society) As we have discovered in their previous adventures evil and villainy are relative terms, and as often as not the two necromancers are relatively benign compared to those they have encountered on their travels.
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When the Suncurl, the ship they had boarded to make their hasty exit from the town of Lamentable Moll, finally gives out under them, Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and Emancipator Reece find themselves wading ashore at one of the most desolate outposts in West Elingarth, Spendrugle of Blearmouth. Why anyone would want to hold sway over such a backwards outpost is unknown, but Lord Fangtooth Claw the Render, has only recently usurped his brother to take control of the remote backwater. That he takes his position as local tyrant seriously is made clear by his keeping his brother chained in the dungeons of his moulding keep for a bit of routine torture, his edict that all newcomers be brought to said keep in order to be put to death and his employment of a scribe to make sure his words are remembered for posterity. While Fangtooth is ruler of this little cesspit, the town's inhabitants are more than his equal when it comes to being memorable. From the inn keeper/madam with the strange additions to her anatomy and her beautiful yet simple daughter, the ex tax collector who plots to leave the town with the aforementioned daughter, the town's sole militia member who carries out his master's edict of arresting all newcomers, the hung man who refused to die to the strange old fellow who lives in a cabin by the beach, the town seems filled out of proportion to its size with the weird and the odd.

Yet as strange a collection of folk they might be, they are still woefully unprepared for the onslaught of visitors they are about to receive. For not only do everyone's favourite necromancers make it ashore from the wreck, so do three of the boat's crew. These three bring with them a history which includes a posse of heavily armed, but not very intelligent, soldiers intent on bringing them to justice for a theft they carried out in a far off land. The first mistake the locals make is treating Bauchelain and Korbal Broach as they would any other visitors - which means being taken up to the keep for Lord Fangtooth's pleasure.
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Not content to merely allow events to take their natural course, having Bauchelain make short work of the local despot, Erikson shows why the two sorcerers have become favourite characters in spite of their own predilections. Before disposing of Fangtooth, Erikson has Bauchelain engage him in a philosophical discussion on the nature of tyranny over dinner. Over a meal that was designed to poison its guests, the two debate on the hows and wherefores of what is required to be a successful tyrant and how to best subjugate towns people. Needless to say Fangtooth is much distraught to find his company still alive when the evening's repast is complete and excuses himself in order to kill the cook.

Of course the arrival of the other visitors has not gone unnoticed in the village, and the result is quite a todo that ends in substantial bloodletting. Of course it doesn't help matters that the witch who Fangtooth deposed, who also happens to be a shape shifter, manages to regain her powers and chooses this moment to exact vengeance on those town folk she believes betrayed her. So all in all it ends up being a night of glorious bedlam resulting in the local population being somewhat diminished by its conclusion.

Anyone who has read anything else by Erikson will know of his ability to write humour, and this book is a great example of just how twisted and dark it can be. Yet in spite of some of the more gruesome and macabre moments to be found there is an underlying layer of intelligent satire that elevates it above most stories of this type. Filled with strange and interesting characters and action suiting their various miens The Wurms Of Blearmouth is a treat for Erikson fans everywhere. If you've been intimidated by the sheer size of the Malazon Book Of The Fallen the novellas featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach provide an easier path of entry to the wonderful world Erikson has created. However, be warned, like all entry level drugs you'll find them highly addictive and habit forming.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wurms Of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics)

May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) By Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo


In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the first millennium CE the door was opened for Europe to be invaded from the East. While early leaders like Charlemagne tried to fill the vacuum with the Empire's demise, their reach didn't extend beyond the boundaries of Western Europe. The situation didn't improve with time either. First of all the cream of European soldiery were being spent in fruitless attempts to re-conquer Jerusalem after the city was retaken by Saladin and his armies. Then in the1100s the Mongol hoards came sweeping out of the Steppes of Asia conquering and pillaging everything in their path in a huge swath stretching from the Ukraine to Poland.

With the Mongol hoards threatening expansion into the West the church and secular leaders finally turnd their attention away from Crusades into the Holy Land and attempted to deal with the threat closer to home. It's against this backdrop the story told in the first instalment of a new series unfolds. The Mongoliad: Book One, published by 47 North, an Amazon Publishing imprint, had its genesis as an online co-operative effort between a collection of known and unknown writers with a shared passion for medieval weaponry and martial arts. Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Mark Teppo are established science fiction and fantasy writers. E.D. deBirmingham and Erik Bear have written historical fiction and for a bestselling video game respectively while Joseph Brassey teaches medieval fighting techniques to members of the armed forces and Cooper Moo is an ancient weapons enthusiast. While this might seem rather an odd (if not motley crew) collection of authors, once you begin reading the fruits of their efforts you quickly forget its provenance.

While The Mongoliad is itself a trilogy, it is only the first part of the far more ambitious Foreworld Saga that will eventually take readers on a trip through the ages via the 19th century adventurer and literary translator Sir Richard F Burton and into modern times via a group of archaeologists who uncover manuscripts Burton was attempting to translate when he died. While these details aren't available to readers who pick up The Mongoliad: Book One we can only assume their pertinence to the story being told in this volume will be revealed as the saga continues.

This story begins in what appears to be an abandoned monastery deep within Mongol controlled territory in Eastern Europe. A mysterious young women has travelled a dangerous road to bring a message to a group of Christian warrior monks who have taken up residence among the ruins. While most of us are probably familiar with the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, religious warrior orders infamous and famous from the Crusades, there were other, more obscure, but equally dedicated, military sects. The knights gathered at this monastery were all members of The Shield Brethren, or the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, an ancient military order with roots stretching back to a pre-Christian Norsemen brotherhood called the Skjaldbraedur. They were gathered here close to the encampment of the Mongol Kahgan, Ogedei, third son of the great Genghis Khan, in response to a challenge issued to all warriors of the West. Defeat the Kahgan's champion in a tournament and he would spare their countries the sight of the Mongol hoards attacking them.

However, we don't just see the world through the eyes of the Christian knights, as the authors take us into the world of the Mongol tribesman as well. Expansion and empire are not resting easy on the former nomadic plainsmen. Kahgan Ogedei is sinking into a pit of despair fuelled by his ever increasing consumption of wine. He has reached such a bad state that one of his brothers sends a young hunter/warrior, to Ogedei's court with explicit instructions to protect his brother from the wine he consumes. At first glance this seems like an impossible task to set for anyone, but especially for the young man chosen for the job. While a hero in battle and a great hunter Gansukh has no experience in dealing with the intrigues of life at court. In fact even being inside a building cut off from sight of the sky and hearing the wind play on the grass leaves him feeling imprisoned and trapped. Trying to figure out how to protect somebody from himself is difficult enough as it is, but when that person's word is law and to contradict him is tantamount to treason it's next to impossible.

As the book continues on readers not only move back and forth between the Mongol and Christian worlds, we also see the action through the eyes of multiple characters. While initially we meet the Christian knights via the observations of Cnan, the young messenger, as their journeys progress we are also given the perspective of one within the order, Raphael, a warrior physician. While Cnan is able to give us an outsider's objective observations and appraisals, Raphael's insights into the divisions and rivalries between the various warrior monk factions add another layer of intrigue to the story taking it beyond a simple hack and slash fantasy novel. A veteran of the Crusades Raphael has few illusions left about righteousness and those who claim to be on missions for God. The war against the Mongols is a matter of survival, and whether God's on their side or not doesn't really make any difference.
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While Gansukh is able to provide us with a view of the world from a tribesman who has lived his entire life on the steppes of Asia following the traditions of his ancestors, we are guided through the intrigues of life at court by the Chinese slave assigned to instruct him how to survive in this new and dangerous environment. The instruction she offers him also serves to help us understand what is plaguing Kahgan Ogedei. So, those times when we are offered the chance to see the world through the eyes of the Kahgan, we understand why he has come to rely on wine for solace. While it's true their are ghosts of events from the past that haunt him, they're only one part of the problem.

While there might be some truth to the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth", it doesn't apply to The Mongoliad: Book One. In fact it's a distinct advantage in a book where we see the world through the eyes of such a diverse group of people. Differences in voice make each character a distinct individual while not detracting from the story's coherency or cohesion. The overall narrative actually flows far more smoothly than usual for a book covering as much ground as this one as events build upon themselves naturally and logically. While there's no indication as to who wrote which parts it ends up being irrelevant. After the first few pages you'll find yourself so wrapped up in the story you'll no longer care who the author is, you'll just want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The authors have also done a wonderful job of bringing the world they are describing to life. There is an air of verisimilitude about everything that leaves you little doubt as to the historical accuracy of their descriptions of not only life during the era described but the behaviour of the characters as well. From the descriptions of the armour worn by the knights, individual fighting styles to the various personality traits of the characters, everything rings true.

It's early days yet, being only the first book of a trilogy which is the first instalment in what promises to be an incredibly complex and involved saga, but judging by The Mongoliad: Book One The Foreworld Saga promises to be not only intelligent and well written, but a lot of fun as well. The characters are intriguing, the plots interesting and complex without being convoluted and the fighting and descriptions of battle scenes realistic and exciting while not shirking from describing the more brutal truths of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. In other words this has all the characteristics of being a must read series in the making. Lets hope it can keep the pace up.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo on Blogcritics.)

May 4, 2012

Book Review: Except The Queen by Midori Snyder And Jane Yolen


Once upon a time fairy stories were things told to children and had very little to do with fairies. Oh there were spells and other enchantments would make appearances, but by the twentieth century most of the ones my generation grew up on owned more to a late nineteenth century romantic version of cute little winged creatures than anything else. This, in spite of the fact these depictions ran contrary to every precedent established by centuries of English language literature. Even changing the name and spelling from Faerie, or the Fae, to fairy, thus eliminating the allusions to madness that fae implied, seems to have been part of the attempt to make them cute and precious instead of the wild and untamed creatures they had been previously.

While the cutesy "Tinkerbell" image of the Fae persists, recent years have seen the pendulum beginning to swing in the other direction again. In fact it might even have swung too far with depictions of the Fae as a mixture of succubi and deadly killers out to rule the world. While it's true they have always taken delight in causing mischief and consider mortals as toys for their amusement, the dark image created by some, with the heavy sexual overtones, has more to do with the imaginations of those who depict them than anything else. Thankfully there are writers who are doing their best to write stories that find a balance between both misconceptions.
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One of the best of those is the recently published Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen published by Penguin Canada. Both women have a history of writing exceptional fantasy novels, with Yolen best known for her prolific output of children's books and Snyder for her young adult New Moon trilogy. Together they have penned something special - a Faerie tale for the modern era.

Meteora and Serena were typical Fae. Sisters, they loved nothing better than to beguile mortals with their looks and charms. They lived lives of indolent pleasure among the forests and glades of The Greenwood. However one day they chanced upon a scene which would change their lives forever. While out hunting for mortals to play with they heard the unmistakeable sounds of lovemaking taking place among some trees. Upon further investigation they first found a baby sleeping gently upon a blanket and then her parents under the cover of some bushes. Only then do they discover that its the Queen of the Fae who is the woman of the pair. While all the other Fae never hesitate to take human lovers, the Queen would lose face in the eyes of the nobility if it was ever discovered she had surrendered to such base appetites.

While the sisters escape discovery initially, Meteora indadvertedly lets the secret out. Needles to say the Queen is irate and punishes them in the worst way imaginable. Not only does she banish them to the mortal world, but she changes them so they are stripped of the glamour which gives them the illusion of beauty and endless youth and they are turned into dumpy middle aged women. On top of that they are sent to separate places in the mortal world and have to figure out how to get by on their own. Meteora receives some guidance on how to survive from the witch Baba Yaga and is allowed to stay in her house in the mortal world. Serena, on the other hand, ends up in the hands of social services. While she doesn't receive instructions on how to get by like Meteora, she is given some money and a place to live.
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In their separate cities the two sisters begin to find their way among the mortals. Using what little magic is left to them they are each able to communicate with birds. Eventually a dove manages to pass messages between the two sisters. So even though they don't where each other are, they know they are three days by dove flight apart, they are able to communicate. It's a good thing to, because they soon discover the Queen had banished them not only as punishment. For while our main focus is on the activities of the two sisters, we are also given occasional glimpses of events in the world of the Fae. Dissension among the nobility of her court is causing the Queen serious problems, but that's the least of her troubles. The Unseelie court, home to the truly evil denizens of Faerie, have begun plotting against her, and somehow their plans are tied up with two young people in the mortal world.
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It's no coincidence that Meteora and Serena have ended up placed in a position where they can help the young man, Robin, and the young woman, Sparrow. It becomes obvious to both sisters that each of their young charges have been touched by Faerie in some manner. In her previous form Serena had the gift of foresight and even in the mortal world she retains some small talent for predicting the future. Which is how she knows she must send Robin to stay with her sister and Sparrow. In someway the two young people's fates are entwined. Unfortunately bringing the two of them together also seems to focus the attention of the Unseelie court's hunters. It will take all of Meteora's and Serena's skill and bravery to keep themselves, the two young ones and those they've befriended alive and solve the mystery of why the Unseelie want them so desperately.

What makes this story different from many other modern urban fairy stories is the fact it manages to retain the love of nature and growing things that's at the heart of Faerie instead of dwelling only on the dark elements of the magic realm. Even though their magic has been weakened by the transition to the mortal realm the two sisters carry within them the heart and soul of carefree children of the Greenwood and those they meet can't help but be effected. The occasional glimpses we have of the sisters through the eyes of the mortals they befriend and meet, gives us a good idea of the impact they have on people.

On top of that Yolen and Snyder have written an exciting story filled with surprises and an eclectic mix of characters. Wait 'till you meet the crones! While the bad guys are enough to unsettle even the bravest, we never dwell too long amongst them. Just long enough to make our skin crawl, but never long enough for their darkness to take over the story. There aren't many authors out there who have the ability to depict the world of the Fae in as balanced and non sensationalistic manner as these two have. Like their two lead characters the authors bring a little magic into the lives of all they encounter, and we can all use a little more magic.

( Article first published as Book Review: Except The Queen By Mydori Snyder And Jane Yolen on Blogcritics.)

April 20, 2012

Book Review: Elves Once Walked With God & Rise Of The Taigethen by James Barclay


For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.

British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.
For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.
Cover Elves - Once Walked With Gods.jpg
British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.

The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.
Cover Elves Rise of the Taigethen.jpg
Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read. The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.

Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read.

(Article first published as Book Reviews: Elves: Once Walked with Gods and Elves: Rise of the TaiGethen by James Barclay on Blogcritics.)

April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited By Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray


You can find them in almost every culture around the world; stories about the little people. Creatures from a different realm but who happen to share the world with us. Sometimes they are portrayed as evil, other times as good and sometimes simply indifferent to the wishes and wants of humans. They are described as either being inhumanly beautiful or unspeakably horrific, but either way we've always been in their thrall. Among people of European descent they are known as the Fae, or Fairy, and they've appeared in everything from nursery rhymes to the plays of Shakespeare.

It was in the Victorian era, the 1800s, that we first started to turn them into the cartoon figures they've become today. Instead of the wild folk who lurked in the woods they became darling little creatures with gossamer wings who lived in flower gardens or who sprinkled fairy dust on you to make you fly. This set the stage for the fairies that most of us know today thanks to Tinkerbell and her ilk. Creatures who have as little to do with the Fae, the Unseelie Court and all the other beings who live under the hill, in the deepest parts of the forest or on abandoned moors shrouded in mist. Fortunately the tide is starting to turn again and beginning in the late twentieth century fantasy writers have been mining the older tales for their inspiration. As a result we're beginning to see stories depicting the Fae as they appeared for thousands of years.
CoverThe Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity.jpg
Not content with merely resurrecting old tales, this is especially true of the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, authors are bringing the Fae into modern times. While this has resulted in some interesting and fascinating stories, it has also posed the question of how have these creatures of magic and imagination managed to adopt to life in the twenty-first century. So many of the wild places they used to live have disappeared and you can barely move without running into something made from iron. Well a new anthology of stories, The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity published by Penguin Canada and edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray being published on March 6 2012, shows just how inventive the Fae have been in dealing with the modern world.

The premise the editors gave those they approached about contributing to the anthology was a simple one. What if the Fae still existed in the modern world? The answers they received from fourteen authors were as diverse as the mythical creatures the stories were about. However the stories can be broken down into three distinct categories. Those in which the Fae try to "pass" or blend in with the human world, ones where the two worlds share an uneasy co-existence and ones where the Fae are still living as they used to and trying to carry on as they did in simpler, less technological times. However no matter which approach the authors have chosen to take, they have all taken remarkable pains to make the stories as true to the original tales of the beings described in their versions as possible.

As a result all of the stories, from the comic to the dark, not only capture the magic and mystery of the Fae but very realistically describe how they could overcome the challenges facing them in order to survive in the twenty-first century. Whether it's running Undermart, a WallMart type discount store, in an attempt to increase the proliferation of plastic products to and keep the Tuatha de Danann in M&Ms in "We Will Not Be Undersold" by Seanan McGuire (a fairy glamour sure explains why store greeters are able to smile all the time without killing customers), working as motivational speakers convincing people that meaningless platitudes will change their lives in "How To Be Human TM" by Barbara Ashford, or using an off the beaten track MBA program to head hunt for humans looking to change their lives in "Continuing Education" by Kristine Smith, we see those Fae who put their minds to it can assimilate quite nicely. Oh sure they occasionally get caught out, but all in all if you had to work as a greeter in chain discount store wouldn't you prefer the option of having your brain shut off for the duration of your shift?

Those who try to carry on as they did in the old days have a slightly harder time of it. Although they might be able to get away with some stuff, like scooping up changelings in "Changeling" by Susan Jett and "A People Who Always Know" by Shannon Page and Jay Lake because most people don't believe in fairies anymore, it's not always easy for the more traditionally minded. Take poor Green Jenny who used to lure hapless humans into swamps where she would feed on their life force. As we find out in "Water Called" by Kari Sperring, if the draining of marshes and building of canals to confine waters hasn't reduced her source of food badly enough, people carrying out experiments on the drunks and down and outers who normally fall into her embrace, are making it extremely difficult for her to get by. Or as the dryads in "The Roots Of Aston Quercus" by Juliet E. McKenna discover, they have to adapt somewhat in order to save their grove of trees from being cut down for a new bypass.

However if you think they've got it hard, imagine being a transgendered werewolf like Edie in "The Slaughtered Lamb" by Elizabeth Bear. With the human and Fae worlds coexisting peacefully she chose to live among humans because of the Pack's rigid rules on sexual identity. Anyway shapeshifting is hard on a girl - shaving your legs is a nightmare after you've taken on wolf form. It also loses some of its impact on others when you require a the help of a dresser before you can make the shift - you try removing a gaff by yourself. Still, anybody who tries to get rough with this girl is in for a nasty surprise.

Sometimes the quality of stories in these types of anthologies is quite frankly uneven. Far too many of them seem to rely on one or two stories by a name writer and then fill in the rest with what is quite frankly padding. However in this case I had only vaguely heard of one or two of the contributing authors and all of the stories were equally captivating. The editors have also done a good job in selecting stories that represent a cross section of the various types of fantasy story on offer today. Fae of all shapes, sizes and character are represented from those just seeking to get by, those interested in making a little mischief and those whose intentions are not what anybody would call friendly. The Fae have always had an uneasy relationship with mortals. Whether it's our use of iron which is poison to them or how the more callous of them look upon us as playthings to be discarded when we grow too tedious. However, as this collection makes clear, the world would be a lot less interesting a place if they didn't exist, and it's good to see they've found so many ways of getting by even in these complicated times.
Article first published as Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray on Blogcritics.)

April 12, 2012

Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moonby Saladin Ahmed


Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn't blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn't prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either "swarthy" or "svart" while his heroes are universally pale skinned by employing the well worn "product of his times" argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can't be offered the same out. In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

In some ways fantasy has been the worst of the two culprits as title after title roles off the presses with stories whose roots lie somewhere in Europe. When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author's imagination, or the fact that you can't walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of colours, sizes and shapes among the populace, its a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale skinned lovely. Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you'll notice quite a difference from what you'd see on the street. It's awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs; i.e white Anglo Saxon Protestant only.

This isn't a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn't look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in a title being released by Penguin Canada on February 7 2012 - Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Cover Throne of the Crescent Moon.jpg
The combination of the book's title and the author's name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn't be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myth and legend in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there's a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full length novel, and its not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of story telling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past. In this case he has looked to the ancient city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed's descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it's true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he's as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family. As this story commences he's forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he's asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he'd been able to make peace with this trade off, recently he's began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.
Saladin Ahmen.jpg
Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you're morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack. The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men's lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he's picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn't just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades. Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor's home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man part jackal, who can't be harmed by normal weapons, only those made of silver. It's only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survived the attack. For while Zamia's silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its "blessed friend" sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn't bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane. The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince's uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader's attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won't be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over explained and filled the story with unnecessary details supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture through the deeds and thoughts of his characters. Whether it's something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you'll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you're more knowledgeable about.

However, don't read this book because its different. Read it because its well written and as good as most other fantasy titles out there. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that's something to look forward to.

(Article first published as Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed on Blogcritics)

April 8, 2012

Book Review: Song Of Ice And Fire - Books 1 - 4 Four Book Box Set By George R R Martin


It might seem a little odd to be reviewing books that have been available for the best part of the past decade. However, with the renewed interest in George R R Martin's epic fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire", thanks to a Home Box Office (HBO) television adaptation (A Game Of Thrones - season one in Canada and season two in the US) and the publication of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about. After all the books were written by the man whom Time Magazine had referred to as the "American Tolkien" and I've been a fan of the original's work for decades. Even given Times' reputation for hyperbole it had to mean there was something worth reading in the series.

So, in order to see what all the fuss was about I bought Game of Thrones 4-Book Box Set, put out by Random House Canada in the spring of 2011 containing the first four books in the series: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Feast For Crows and A Storm Of Swords. Set in a world roughly equivalent to our history's dark ages where the majority scrabble to eke out an existence from the land or from what little money a skilled tradesperson can demand and a minority rule through inherited wealth and military prowess, "A Song Of Ice And Fire" takes readers from the throne rooms to the whore houses of Martin's invented world of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands surrounding it, to detail the struggle for control of its Iron Throne. While there is a wide world beyond the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, the majority of the action takes place in one of three geographical locales; the far north of the kingdom where a small band of warriors, The Night's Watch, man The Wall that keeps uncivilized tribes people (and if the myths are true other, less human, foes) at bay, the kingdom itself, which is a seething cauldron of plots and counter-plots as various factions strive for control of the throne and the Free Cities where the scion of the former ruling family looks to find the means to regain the throne her family lost.

Book one, Game Of Thrones, introduces us to all the main players, the world they inhabit and shakes out the various plot lines the series will continue to follow through the first four books. Rather then following the standard format of telling a story through the eyes of characters representing one perspective, Martin chose to try and tell his tale from as many angles as possible. In each book he has chosen to follow a specific collection of characters who represent as many sides of the story as possible. He then proceeds to switch back and forth between those characters with each chapter. As a result readers, over the course of each book and cumulatively over the course of the series, get to know the main characters far more intimately then is usual for this type of story. For not only do we see them through the eyes of others, we also step inside their heads and hear their version of events. It's amazing how what one person sees as a strength in them self is seen by others as a means to defeat them.

Even more fascinating is how Martin is able to use this format to change our opinion of a character. Someone who is depicted as vain, venal and indolent by others turns out to be far more complex and multifaceted than anyone else ever gave him credit for when we finally meet him. The eldest son of the wealthiest family in the kingdoms, Jamie Lannister, has been decried as a breaker of oaths and a king slayer since he killed the king he was meant to be guarding. While others, like Ned Stark, head of another powerful family and enemy of the Lannister clan, claim he dishonoured himself, when Jamie tells the reader why he killed the king, even though he knew he would be cursed and damned, we see him in a far better light.

The same applies to the aforementioned Ned Stark and his family who are all central figures in the struggle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. A descendant of one of the oldest families in the kingdom, and ruler of the far north in the king's name, Ned Stark initially comes across as your typical tragic hero. Yet for all his supposed nobility and honour his adherence to the code governing knights is so inflexible it blinds him to both the realities of the world he lives in and how others suffer because of his actions. It's his inability to see the world as anything other than black and white which leads to both his own downfall and the kingdom's descent into civil war.

Initially we are sympathetic to him, seeing how easily others are able to manipulate him because his reactions are so predictable. However, the more we learn about other people and see the history of the land through their eyes, the more we realize how flawed he was and how his simplistic view of the world was unfair and unjust. Of course Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister aren't the only characters whose stories we follow, and with each, whether Ned's wife and children (Catelyn, his youngest son Bran, his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, and illegitimate son Jon Snow) other members of the Lannister family (Tryion Jamie's dwarf brother and their sister Cersei, Queen and then Queen mother/regent of the Seven Kingdoms) or any one of a number other major and minor players in the struggle for power, we learn more about the land and the history behind the current conflict and the other currents of power at work in this world.

While this rather novel approach does serve to give readers a better than average understanding of the characters in the series, in the end it also ends up being the series' biggest limitation. While the details offered up by each character are interesting enough to hold your attention, after a while it began to feel like too much minutiae and not enough focus is being paid to the big picture. In spite of there being any number of battles and fights, countless plot twists involving betrayal and counter betrayals, we are never able to fully appreciate their scope as we always see them through the narrow focus of one person's perspective. It's like trying to see a panoramic view using a magnifying glass which only lets you focus on one small area at a time.

Only on very rare occasions does Martin give readers the distance required to appreciate the full sweep of events. As a result, even the most momentous of battles and happenings felt trivial and I began to feel like I was endlessly waiting for something important to happen. The few times he allowed action to begin to take place he'd leave readers hanging and end a chapter, However, instead of coming back and picking the action up where it left off, the story would have moved on and we'd find the characters somewhere else. Instead of experiencing the events begun earlier directly, we have to make due with the character's memories which makes them far less immediate and reduces any impact they might have had. This has the unfortunate result of making the books more like history texts than fiction.

While the first four books in the series "A Song Of Ice And Fire" are well written and are populated by a fascinating collection of characters the sum of its parts doesn't add up to a cohesive whole. While the idea of constantly switching focus from character to character is interesting enough, not enough has been done to tie the different perspectives together for it to have the flow required for a story of this length to have any sense of continuity. Having purchased the box set I waded through all four books, but by the third volume, Storm Of Swords, I found myself caring less and less about certain story lines and skimming the sections I found more tedious and have no real desire to read the most recently published fifth book. These are not bad books, or poorly written by any means, but the comparison with Tolkien is without basis and does Martin no favours. All it does is heighten a reader's expectations and makes the books that much more disappointing.

(Article first published as Book Review: A Game of Thrones, 4-Book Boxed Set (A Song of Ice and Fire Series) by George R.R. Martin on Blogcritics.)

November 20, 2011

Book Review: Inheritance - Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

I've begun to notice a worrying trend in fantasy novels these days. It seems like more and more people are writing epic length books and epic length series when they could just as easily have told their story in half the number of pages. Not only are many of these books a prodigious waste of paper, they do the authors a horrible disservice. Most of the time there's a descent enough story lurking somewhere within the dross, if only the publishers had taken the time to properly edit the books. However, because they've been allowed to wander off in all directions authors learn all sorts of bad habits and their books either become progressively worse or appear to as we lose patience with them. There are times I want to reach into a book and shake the author by the shoulders and yell, "Get to the point already".

When Christopher Paolini was fifteen he self-published the young adult fantasy book Eragon. When he started to have some moderate success with sales on his own, Knoff, a division of Random House, republished the book and bought the rights to the series. Eragon and its sequel Eldest had shown a great deal of promise. An exciting adventure story filled with magic and magical beings. Sure it wasn't the most original of ideas, but there were enough new wrinkles thrown in to make the first two instalments at least compelling and interesting to read. Some of the sub plots were probably unnecessary but they at least helped further the story and didn't interfere with its forward motion. However even before the third book, Brisingr, in what was supposed to have been a trilogy, was published there were indications Paolini was running into trouble. For along with the announcement of its forthcoming publication came the news the series was being extended to a fourth book as the author hadn't been able to find a way to finish it in three books.
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Brisingr wasn't a bad book, no better or worse than any number of fantasy books on the market, but it did very little to advance the overall plot of the series. There were a few pieces of information given out that would prove significant, but for the most part it was taken up with adventures which did little or nothing to advance the plot. So when it was announced that book four, Inheritance, published by Random House Canada on November 8 2011, was going to be over 800 pages long, I seriously wondered what Paolini was going to fill that number of pages with. Sure there were a number of questions that still remained to be answered, not least of which were how was the hero going to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe, but even half those pages should have been sufficient to bring the series to a conclusion.

The most pressing of those questions was how the hero of the series, Eragon, and his dragon Saphira, were going to overcome the evil king Galbatorix who ruled Alagaesia with an iron fist. Eragon had been the first new dragon rider since Galbatorix had killed the rest of them, along with their dragons, when he rose to power. Everything we've seen in the series to date has made it look like a long shot at best that the younger rider succeed. Even with the four races of people banded together, elves, humans, dwarves and Urgal (a race of warriors with large ram's horns growing out of their heads) to form an army of resistance known as the Varden, the forces of the king seem overwhelming. Not only are his armies equal to, if not larger, than those of the Varden, his powers of magic are so strong even if Eragon and every other magic user in the kingdom linked their powers they wouldn't be able to overcome him through force. Galbatorix is so strong he was able to force Eragon's half-brother Murtagh, and his dragon Thorn, to swear oaths of allegiance to him against their wills; oaths that if broken would destroy them.

The only clue Eragon has to a possible solution to the problem of how to overcome Galbatorix is the second part of a cryptic piece of advice given him soon after he became a dragon rider. "When all seems lost and your power insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls". Unfortunately nobody he's talked to, not even the werecat who gave him the advice, have any idea where either of them are located. When the leader of the Varden, Nasuada, is captured in a daring midnight raid by Murtagh and Thorn, the chances of their success have never seen slimmer. Their armies may have captured some of the cities controlled by Galbatorix, but they are running out of supplies and have to figure out how to defeat him quickly.
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From that summation of events the final book had the potential for at least some nail biting adventure. However instead of focusing on the matter at hand, having Eragon search out the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls and then confronting Galbatorix, Paolini clutters up the book with page upon page of battles that could just as easily taken place off stage. While some people might find the battle scenes and side adventures exciting, overall they merely slow the story down and needlessly detract from the through line of the series. In fact by wasting so much time on insignificant details along the way, the final confrontation with Galbatorix when it comes feels rushed. Even worse, discovering the location of the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls feels incredibly contrived. It's almost like the author used the peripheral details hoping to distract us from the weaknesses of his resolution for the main plot.

Even more difficult to understand is how the last hundred or so pages of the book are spent in a very awkward attempt to tie up all the lose ends he had created throughout the series. While questions like who should rule Alagaesia after Galbatorix could only be answered once he was defeated, there should have been a way of resolving other threads more organically. Instead it feels like Paolini has remembered at the last moment he's left questions unanswered and tacked on the answers in order to satisfy fan forums.The most truthful part of his conclusion was the ambiguous way in which he dealt with some of the issues facing his characters. This at least fit in with the idea they and the world they lived in were facing a new beginning and an uncertain future.

The first two books of the Inheritance cycle showed great promise. Paolini had created a world complete with an intricate history and a variety of different races. However, somewhere along the way he lost his focus, and the details took on a life of their own until they overshadowed the main plot of the story. As a result the final book in the series, Inheritance, felt contrived and rather forced as the author tried to cram in answers to all the questions he had raised in the earlier books. While I'm sure die hard fans will find much to enjoy, it could have been much better.

(Article first published as Book Review: Inheritance, Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2011

Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

Like most other genres fantasy has evolved over the years until it now includes its own sub-genres. One of the more recent twists on it is something called urban fantasy. While that might imply stories specifically set in the city, it pretty much encompasses any tale set in modern times which contains enough magical elements for it to qualify for the fantasy genre. Unfortunately these days the most predominant form these stories take seem to be paranormal romances dealing with illicit love between humans and either vampires or werewolves. Basically your typical romance drivel with the dark brooding guy being a little more mysterious then in earlier works of the same ilk.

Thankfully there are a few authors out there who have shunned that path and understand fantasy and imagination don't have to be strangers. One of my personal favourites for years has been Canadian author Tanya Huff. She seems to be able to write everything from military science fiction to pure old fashioned fantasy. Perhaps it's this versatility which allows her to be so comfortable with urban fantasy's demands for combining contemporary settings with magic and other fantastic elements. In 2009's The Enchantment Emporium she introduced us to the Gale family whose women wield extraordinary powers and whose men sprout antlers.

The Gales are all about family and setting down roots. Each generation has their role to play in establishing the family's connection with their territory, and once established the family is pretty much tied to that land. They not only draw their power from the area, but are also responsible for using that power to take care of it. However once every few generations or so a Gale is born who is different. Known as wild powers they don't settle down and have the gift to travel through time and space. In Huff's second novel about the Gales, The Wild Ways, published by Penguin Canada, we are reintroduced to many of the characters we met in the first book, but this time the focus is on Charlie, this generation's wild power.
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Charlie is a musician and until recently has lived on the road playing with any and every band that can use her. However since her cousin Alley established the family in Calgary Alberta Canada she's become something of a homebody, sharing space with her cousin, her cousin's husband and a fourteen year old Dragon Lord named Jack from the under realm who also happens to be a cousin. (Read The Enchantment Emporium for details) While part of her is enjoying the domesticity, another part of her is chaffing at settling. The Aunts - a designation given to any Gale woman once they obtain a certain age - a group of matronly women who strike fear into the hearts of any sane being, human or otherwise, are starting to drop hints if she doesn't make up her mind soon about what she's going to do with her life they'll make the decision for her. Since that would probably involve far more domestic bliss than she's really interested in coping with, a call from musician friends in need of her skills from the East Coast of Canada, comes as a relief. She can hit the road and put off making a decision for the summer.

However, fate, destiny and or the Aunts have something else in mind. Upon her arrival in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Canada Charlie discovers her aunt Catherine, a previous generation's wild power, has stirred up trouble for some of the locals. While not human or from this realm, Selkies, seals who can take off their pelts and turn into alluring women, have been living in Cape Breton for as long as there have been humans. In order to preserve their natural habitat, the ocean, they have formed the core of a very powerful environmental lobby group. Already instrumental in curtailing the annual seal hunt and working to preserve depleted fish stocks, their latest is Carson Oil who is determined to begin drilling for off shore oil near what is not only protected land, but one of the largest seal colonies on the island.

If one wants to control a Selkie you wait until they have assumed their human form and then you steal their skin. According to ancient lore if a man takes a Selkie's skin she is obliged to become his wife and love him. However if she ever finds her skin again, she will return to her home beneath the waves. Carlson Oil isn't looking for the love of a good seal, they're looking to get permits for drilling rights. So when Catherine Gale says she has a solution to their problem the oil company's CEO will pay any price she asks. While she may not understand the supernatural, Amelia Carlson understands blackmail. So hiding the seal skins from the Selkies until they come out in support of her company's drilling operation makes perfect sense to her.
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With the assistance of her Dragon Lord cousin Jack, Charlie decides to not only help the Selkies recover their skins - one of her band mates is married to one of the Selkies - and attempt to figure out why a member of her family would align herself with one of the greedheads of the world. While it might be just be perversity on aunt Catherine's part - I'm doing because I can and I never really liked that holier than thou attitude of the Selkies to begin with - with the Aunts one can never tell. Wild power or not, all of the Aunts are manipulative out of habit, and who knows how many ulterior motives might lay behind Aunt Catherine's decision to scoop the seal skins.

I don't know how Tanya Huff is able to do it, but she has this great ability to write whimsical and funny fantasy novels which on the surface don't appear to have much to them. However, you're sailing along enjoying the bad jokes, occasional sexual innuendo, the characters and the adventure when all of a sudden you run into a serious thought. It's so subtly done you could almost miss it. Yet, as in the case of The Wild Ways, you all of a sudden realize it is the heart of the story and everything has been winding its way towards this point from the beginning. While the plot is important as it creates the opportunity for the character(s) in the book to make the journey required of them, it's this underlying theme which gives Huff's books their real strength.

Most books of this type would be content with just being an adventure/comedy/fantasy, which while tasty enough, usually have all the substance of cotton candy. With a core of intelligence beneath its surface, what would have been the equivalent of a literary snack with the potential for tooth decay, becomes a meal to satisfy most appetites. Combined with Huff's ability to blend ancient traditions seamlessly into the modern world and making them seem perfectly normal and characters who are appealing and fun to hang out with, you're in for an amazing read. A perfect example of how there's more to urban fantasy than teenage girls swooning over the undead and how so many others are failing to exploit the genre's full potential.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
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As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis on Blogcritics.)

July 17, 2011

Graphic Novel: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson - Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero

I guess I'm something of a snob, because for the most part I've looked on so called graphic novels as being nothing more than glorified and overblown comic books. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with comic books, I've loved them ever since I picked up my first Avengers and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos books when I was kid. They were, and are, a great way of escaping reality for however long you wanted to spend poring over their pages. I have to confess, however, I have a hard time with those titles that have started to take themselves seriously while still depicting the female body as something out a male adolescent fantasy. I don't understand how you can claim to be making some great moral or social statement when your female characters defy the basic laws of physics.

Now before I'm inundated with hate mail from graphic novel apologists eager to point out how wrongheaded and stupid I am and wondering how far I've my head stuck inside my intestinal track, I'm perfectly aware there are exceptions to the above. Anything Neil Gaiman is associated with won't look like it was created by someone who has been sitting in his parent's basement glorying in the elasticity of spandex. Those titles, along with a thankfully increasing number of others, have instead focused on how to best take advantage of utilizing two mediums simultaneously in order to tell their story.
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From our earliest drawings depicting hunts on cave walls man has been telling stories through images. With the development of language there was a time when imagery took a back seat as a means of telling a story. Now, while theatre and film both use visuals and words, the former doesn't leave a permanent record behind and the latter has come to rely on visual technology to the point where language has become secondary and in many cases movies are now equivalent to paintings on a rock face as far as telling a story is concerned. The graphic novel has the potential for putting language and imagery on an equal footing. However, finding the balance between the two, where the images and the words compliment each to the point where they have equal weight in telling the story, requires both artists and writers to make changes in the way they would normally approach their work.

So I was curious to see the results of the recent collaboration between one of my favourite authors, Christopher Moore, a film director and writer friend of his, Ian Corson and Magna illustrator Jennyson Rosero in the graphic novel The Griff published by Harper Collins Canada. According to Moore's forward The Griff originally started out as an idea for a movie, but he and Corson scraped the idea when it became obvious it would cost way too much to make and went with the far less expensive graphic novel format instead.
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The plot line is your basic War Of The Worlds scenario and the world has been invaded by man eating lizard type creatures from outer space. Nicknamed "Griffs" for their resemblance to the mythical griffins, the flying lizards easily overwhelmed earth's military defences. With all early warning defence systems geared towards picking up metal objects, earth, as the tag line for the novel says, "Was totally unprepared for an enemy made of meat". With heat seeking missiles unable to lock onto the cold blooded lizards air forces were quickly demolished and mankind was quickly devoured leaving only isolated pockets of survivors hanging on by a thread. After quickly taking us through scenes of devastation and destruction the book changes pace and we join up with two of the small gangs of plucky survivors. In New York City we meet the skate border Steve, sexy video game designer Mo (short for Maureen) and Curt Armstrong, former paratrooper whose most recent employment was behind the make-up counter at Macy's. Down in Orlando Florida we meet Liz, who trained killer whales at Sea World before humans became snack food for giant lizards, and Oscar, a professional squirrel - mascot for the theme park.

The Griff had been transported to earth's outer atmosphere by a space ship and when the ship is taken out by forces unknown down in Orlando, our plucky heroes in NYC decide to risk the journey south in order to join what they think is a burgeoning resistance movement. With the aid of a research sub (The Griff don't like going underwater), a guy and his tank and a few lucky breaks they make it down to the Gulf. Meanwhile back at Sea World Liz and Oscar make the discovery that with the downing of mothership the Griff no longer seem as intent on working together to hunt down humans. While that means they're no longer acting as a collective, it doesn't make them any less dangerous as they still consider humans tasty treats. However it does mean when Liz stumbles on a clutch of Griff eggs the little hatchlings latch on to her as mommy dearest when she's the first creature they lay eyes on when they stumble into the world.
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While the story line pretty much follows along the predictable plucky survivors theme taking down the aliens out to rule the world, The Griff is saved from being typical by the minds behind it. How often do you find the ex-military guy in one of these stories giving make-up and highlighting advice? Although two female characters are built and dressed (Mo's wardrobe gives new definition to the word skimpy and Liz is permanently in a skin tight wet-suit) like stereotypical comic book "babes", their characterization makes it feel like the authors are making fun of the convention. When Mo and the boys are raiding an armoury in New York City she unearths a massive gun which reduces her to a puddle. Even funnier is the first time she fires it, for although she takes out her target, the recoil sends her flying backwards through the wall of a shed into New York's harbour. Her response to the question don't you think that weapon is too big for you, is a smirk and "I'll grow into it".

As for the telling of the story itself, Moore, Corson and Rosero have done a skilful job of blending their two media in order to tell the story. I'm sure Corson's film experience, having to work with story boards, came in handy for the parts of the book where they let the pictures do the talking, but I was very impressed by how well Rosero was able to sum up what would have been paragraphs of descriptive prose with a few illustrations. This is especially noticeable in the opening pages of the book during the depiction of the invasion and its immediate aftermath. In fact throughout the book his visuals were excellent in serving as replacements for prose in setting the mood of a scene and developing atmosphere. I especially appreciated how instead of showing the readers pictures of carnage we would be given images of our characters responding to what they saw. The horror and revulsion depicted on their faces was more powerful than any images of blood and gore could hope to be. We're so inundated with visuals of the aftermath of war and disaster, reactions to them have a far better chance at reaching us on emotional level than more of what we see on the evening news.

The Griff is not great art or literature by any means, but neither does it pretend to be anything other than what it is; an action adventure comic book. With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks the authors have jumped feet first into the medium, embracing its conventions wholeheartedly while gently poking fun at them at the same time. Like one of the better Bruce Willis action movies there's lots of action, but there's a sly wink to the audience at the same time. It's as if the writers are saying, yeah okay we know this is a little over the top, but it's a lot of fun isn't it? Which of course it is.

(Photo of Christopher Moore Eric Luse)
(Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson, Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma

Its always there, yet we hardly ever see it. Its always moving, but we hardly ever notice it. Its tasteless, soundless, weightless and without body or form yet time rules almost all of our days. It dictates when we wake up in the morning, when we eat our meals and when we go to bed. We compartmentalize our lives into segments because of time telling us where we have to be, how long we have to be there and when we're supposed to show up. Look at the effect it has on our language. How many words do we use which suggest something to do with time? How much of our daily conversations or thought processes are dedicated to our relationship with time and the way we've chosen to sublimate almost everything else to the arbitrary system we've devised for measuring its passage.

Maybe it's because our time is so tightly controlled the idea of travelling through it holds so much appeal, Who hasn't wanted to travel into the future in the hopes of finding out what is in store for them? Who wouldn't love to go back in time armed with our knowledge and change aspects of our earlier life? It can't be a coincidence that it was during the late nineteenth century the idea began to take hold. For not only was this the period in our history when time began controlling individual lives as more and more people began to work in factories and be paid based on how much of their time they surrendered, it was also an era when science and invention worked together to overcome barriers previously thought insurmountable.

It was this heady atmosphere which inspired writers like Jules Verne to imagine machines capable of travelling great distances underwater and, even more outlandishly, to the moon. However, it was the British writer Herbert George Wells, known as Bertie to his intimates and H. G. Wells to most of us, who first postulated the idea of time travel in his now famous novel The Time Machine. So who better, and what era could be better suited then the one he lived in, for taking a lead role in a contemporary novel about time travel? Judging by the latest book from Spanish author Felix J Palma, The Map Of Time published by Simon & Schuster Canada and translated into English by Nick Caistor, they are the perfect combination as they provide both the motivation and the atmosphere necessary for creating one of the most imaginative and pleasurable reads you'll come across.
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Part mystery, part fantasy and part historical fiction, Palma has woven together a story whose twists and turns will leave you guessing at what is real and what is illusion. Although the novel is populated by historical figures like Wells, and in cameo appearances Henry James and Bram Stoker, the reader who is paying attention will notice quite early on an anomaly in the events described which mark it as different from the history we believe to be true. This small clue dropped early on in the book offers us the first hint there is more happening than what we first assume to be the case. However it is so subtle and presented in such a matter of fact manner, that we are able to convince ourselves it doesn't really matter, yet in the end it becomes the fulcrum the whole story balances on. Like a teeter-totter, when the weight on either end shifts radically, the question of whether time travel is actually possible is first made credible as we join characters on their journeys into the past and the present, then dismissed as we are made privy to the elaborate charades that created the illusion.

One of the fascinating contradictions of the nineteenth century was how concurrent with the rise in science there was also a burgeoning belief in the occult and all things supernatural. People as notable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were firm in their belief in fairies a la Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, attended seances firmly convinced they would be able to communicate with their beloved who had crossed over and a host of other nonsense which we wouldn't think twice as dismissing as a load of hokum. Therefore when a company in the novel called Murray's Time Travel claims to have discovered a fourth dimension that allows them to travel to a hundred years in the future, it is easy for us to believe people are only too willing to fork out the hundred pound asking price to make the trip.

It's also equally understandable how a young man, Andrew Harrington, can readily believe that Wells possesses a time machine like the one in his book that will allow him to travel back in time to prevent the woman he loves, a Whitechapel prostitute named Marie Kelly, being murdered by Jack The Ripper. Or that a police inspector can be convinced the person responsible for a series of murders could only be somebody from the future as envisioned by Murray's Time Travel - as no nineteenth century weapon could inflict the wounds which killed the victims. Even the young lady who runs into somebody she met in the future in her own time believing he has travelled back in time especially to see her doesn't come off as being especially naive, merely a product of her times.
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Ironically one of the biggest sceptics about time travel is the man who introduced the concept to the world, Wells himself. However even he is mystified by the wounds in the corpses which have caused the London police inspector to have a warrant issued for the arrest of a person living in the year 2000. Where did the weapon which made these wounds come from and who could have scrawled the opening lines from the book he's just finished writing, The Invisible Man on the wall over the first corpse? Nobody else in the world should know those words for nobody else even knows of the manuscript's existence.

With The Map Of Time Palma has created a story which works on multiple levels, like one of those dolls which hides numerous smaller and smaller replicas of itself. He starts with what appears to be a number of unrelated story lines, but as each new version of the story is revealed they converge until the solid core in the centre comes to light. Along the way he presents us with all the usual arguments we've heard for and against time travel, the various dangers involved with tampering with the past, the idea that alternate realities are created each time such tampering occurs and finally how it's possible for the choices we make during the course of our lives to also create multiple versions of the world, even if only in our imaginations. What if I had turned left instead of right that day and never run into so and so who offered me that job through which I met the woman who became my wife? Would everything have ended up differently? Perhaps right now some other version of me is living out that choice in another universe?

However, all the philosophy and speculation aside, Palma has written a book that is not only a delight to read for its intelligent plot and wonderful characterization, but for the sheer joy of observing an author delighting in his art. At times he steps out of his neutral position of narrator and takes an active role in the story by freely admitting he is the one who is actually controlling the actions of his characters. His sly asides about how he already knows what's going to happen to them and his arguments for introducing individuals in the order he does and for writing the book in a style similar to that of something written in the nineteenth century are more than just a writer's conceit. For, while initially they interrupt the narrative and remind us of the separation between us and his characters, we gradually become so accustomed to them they become part of the overall story until we can no longer differentiate between what we thought of as being the present and the past during which the book takes place.

Time travel has been the subject of movies and books for years now, but Palma's approach is by far the most original that I've ever experienced. Brilliantly executed and wonderfully conceived it will at times leave you both puzzled and smiling in equal measure. While some might be disappointed with the book's lack of the normal paraphernalia they've come to expect from modern science fiction, this is as true and wonderful an exercise in imagination as you'll read in a long time.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma on Blogcritics.)

May 28, 2011

Book Review: Pyre Of Queens by David Hair

I've gone on record a number of times expressing my displeasure with those who appropriate stories from other cultures. For far too many years there has existed a type of cultural colonialism which has seen people's stories all over the world retold by others and passed off as being accurate representations of a tradition. Whether it's been British colonialist writing about India or new age European Americans retelling Native American stories it amounts to the same thing. A people's stories are their life blood. They are their history and the means of passing that history from one generation to the next. When someone from outside enters into that stream of knowledge they are as much a pollutant as mercury dumped into a freshwater stream.

Thankfully, as more and more writers are coming forward to reclaim their people's heritage with either modern retellings of their traditional stories or the creation of new stories which accurately reflect both their traditions and their current place in the world, those old types of stories are falling into disfavour. An even more positive sign, in some ways, is there are now a third group of writers striving to find a way to reflect their admiration for another culture's traditions and stories in their work while being sensitive to their status as outsiders. Walking the fine line between appropriation and respect is a delicate tightrope for any writer to negotiate. While historical and cultural accuracy are important elements in these attempts, it's what the writer does with the material that's crucial to maintaining their balance.
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If they merely attempt to retell stories or sensationalize elements of the culture for effect they are no different from any other exploiter. On the other hand if they allow the material to inspire them to create a story which is accurate in its depiction of the culture in question and are only concerned with the story's telling and not setting themselves up as some sort of authority or other they can create something wonderful. This is just what New Zealand author David Hair has made a stab at doing with Pyre Of Queens, published by Penguin Canada, the first book in his four part series The Return Of Ravana.

Inspired by The Ramayana, arguably the most well known and influential Epic Poem in India, if not South East Asia, Hair has combined elements of Indian culture, fantasy and contemporary young adult fiction in the telling of his story. Divided equally between the past and the present he tells how a despotic ruler from ancient India seeks immortality through a ritual that will allow him to host the spirit of the ancient demon king Ravana. By feigning his death and then arranging to have his queens burnt with him on his funeral pyre under very specific conditions he has been assured by Ravana's spirit he will live for ever. Unfortunately all does not go according to plan and one of the wife's is rescued from the flames by the court poet.

Aided by the Captain of the ruler's guard they would have made good their escape save for the fact the partially resurrected spirit of the king and the queens who did "die" in the flames join the pursuit and track down and corner them. Using a flimsy rope bridge across a chasm to escape while the captain attempts to slow down the king, the poet and queen try to find a way out of the underground caverns they have ended up in. The poet, being both jealous of the captain, as the queen obviously loves him and not the poet, and certain the king will be soon pursuing them, weakens the main ropes supporting the bridge. Unfortunately it's the captain of the guard who next stumbles across the bridge and when it gives out underneath him the queen perishes attempting to save him. Wrecked by guilt, the poet eventually makes good his escape but lives out the rest of his days in despair for what he has done.

In the twenty-first century three youngsters at the same school, but from widely divergent backgrounds, begin to have odd dreams. Vikram, a shy intelligent kid with an interest in poetry is the son of a middle class salesman, Amanjit, a boisterous popular athlete lives with his widowed mother knowing his only future is driving taxi for his uncle and Deepika, smart, brash and thoroughly modern, would under normal circumstances probably have had nothing to do with each other. However when chance brings them together and strange things start happening, like spirits appearing or they start seeing things nobody else can see, they begin to realize there is some mysterious tie which unites them. After careful research, and eliminating all other possibilities, the only conclusion they can come to is they're the reincarnations of the poet, the Captain of the guard, and the young queen respectively.
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It's only then they realize the visions and dreams each of them have been experiencing individually and collectively are the spirits of the dead king and his queens coming back to life in an attempt to complete the ritual required to revive both the king and Ravana. In order to do so they need Deepika and the spirit of the escaped queen she carries within her. The adventures the three undertake will test them and the new bonds of friendship that have been forged between them as they are faced with the same choices their previous incarnations dealt with. How they react may well decide their fate and whether or not one of the great evils of the past is able to rise again.

While David Hair is obviously a keen observer of life around him, as can be told by his detailed and accurate descriptions of life in modern India, a solid writer with the ability to bring both scenes and characters to life and the possessor of a deep respect for the culture and traditions of India, there were certain aspects of Pyre Of Queens that left me uncomfortable. While I understand the importance of magic and the forces of good and evil in a fantasy story, and how heroes need a villain to overcome in order to prove their worth, intentionally or not the author has created a somewhat sensationalized view of aspects of Indian culture. Evil spirits, arcane rituals involving burning people alive and reincarnation are going to be what most readers around the world are going to remember most from reading this book, not Hair's descriptions of modern life in India or any of the other less garish parts of the story.

Yes those things make for a good story and are necessary for his plot, but the impression it creates is more of the same old "mysteries of the East" type of story that used to be prevalent in years gone by. The problem is how this type of story reduces complex and sophisticated cultures to sounding like a collection of superstitions and trivializes the people who live within them. Obviously this was not David Hair's intention, and he has done his best to depict the Indians in this story, both those in the past and the present, as sophisticated and intelligent people. However, as he continues the series he needs to step back and think about what stands out the most in each book - the most powerful imagery - and the kind of impression it will make on those who know little or nothing about India.

When somebody from outside a culture attempts to depict it in any shape of form, be it a book, a painting or even a piece of music, they must carefully consider the impression their work will leave on those unfamiliar with the world they are describing. Somebody born and raised inside a culture lives and breathes all of its complexities and any depiction they recreate will usually (not always of course) be far more balanced than anything an outsider can offer. While David Hair in his new book Pyre Of Queens does a far better job of depicting India and her people as multidimensional and real than most of those who have come before, he falls short in his failure to consider how his more flamboyant material will shape people's impression of India. It's a well written book with interesting characters, but as one intended for a young adult audience I could only wish he had taken more care with how he presented his choice of material.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pyre of Queens by David Hair on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear: Day Two Of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

Anyone who has read any of my book reviews in the past is probably well aware of my love for Epic Fantasy. I love the way the authors painstakingly develop the worlds and cultures their characters inhabit and appreciate deeply the time, energy and imagination that has gone into their labour. However, what I've grown to especially appreciate is how, in spite of the book's length, there never seems to be an extraneous word. Perhaps because I have my own struggles with pithiness and tendencies to ramble, I can't help but be impressed by an author's ability to tell a story of such length without resorting to padding the story with extraneous words. As far as I'm concerned the mark of a great Epic Fantasy is coming to the end of an eight hundred plus page novel and be left wanting more. Anything else is merely a long book.

It's been three years since I published my review of The Name Of The Wind, the first book in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. Based on the fact my review was of the mass market paper back edition of the book, it's probably been four years since it was first published. Since then there have been many false alarms regarding its sequel's publication, including the title being listed in its publisher's on line catalogue, only to hear it was yet again being mysteriously delayed from hitting the shelves. Finally, in March of this year the false alarms were over and The Wise Man's Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicles Day Two, published by Penguin Canada, was here for all to read.
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To be honest it had been such a long time since I had read the first book many of the specifics regarding the story's plot had escaped me and I wondered how easy it would be pick up the story again without having at least skimmed its predecessor before starting. Fortunately Rothfuss seems to have anticipated this, because over the course of the opening few chapters he not only manages to reintroduce us to the world and the characters he'd previously established, he also subtly reminds us of sufficient portions of the plot to ensure we know what's going on.

Once again we start in some unknown present where a man of some infamy, Kvothe, whether he's a hero or a villain seems to depend on which stories people are telling about him, is continuing the process of telling his life's story to a scribe who goes by the name Chronicler. Having set himself up as an innkeeper in a small backwater of a hamlet, he's obviously put that life behind him, but when the opportunity presents itself for him to separate the myth from the facts concerning his life by dictating the details of his life, he decides to take up the challenge. The second book picks up where the first left off with disturbing events happening in the present and young Kvothe continuing his education at the University in the past. This university teaches students what most would refer to as magic, although quite a lot of it appears to our eyes to be a mixture of alchemy, science and wizardry.

While the young Kvothe is a natural in most areas of study, he was one of the youngest students ever admitted, he faces some very real obstacles. Primary among them is the fact he has made a powerful enemy of a fellow student who is not only wealthy but influential. It's because of this animosity that he ends up broadening the scope of his education. He is advised it would be wise to take some time away from the University as the Masters are sick of the bother and embarrassment the squabbles between the two young men have brought upon the institution and would be happier if neither of them were around for a while. With the aid of a friendly member of the nobility he finds himself a position at the court of one of the most powerful men in the country. If he is able to win this man's favour his future will be a lot less uncertain.

Through his knowledge of the arcane, his ability as a musician and his own inherent wit and intelligence he is not only able to save his new master's life, but helps him secure the bride of his choice. Unfortunately his initial reward appears at first blush to be punishment as he's sent off to lead a small band of mercenaries with orders to track down and kill a party of bandits who have been preying on his new master's tax collectors. While his band are successful in the end, his real adventures, and the beginnings of his legend, commence after the mission is over. First, he is ensnared and escapes a legendary lovely from the land of fairy, with whom no man has managed to survive an encounter and retain their sanity and second, he is accepted into an isolated community of feared warriors and introduced to their secrets.
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While there's no doubt that Patrick Rothfuss is a good storyteller and the story itself is interesting there were times during the The Wise Man's Fear I found my attention wandering. I was puzzled as to the reason at first as the book is well written, the characters are interesting and realistically drawn and its filled with fascinating details about the world he has created, the arts Kvothe is studying and other minutiae. What I gradually came to realize was that it was a case of losing site of the forest because of the tress. Like a nineteenth century naturalist writer who would spend pages detailing some item or other with no mind to its relevance to plot or narrative, Rothfuss spends so much time on details the book seems to lose track of its purpose, becoming aimless and rambling in places.

Supposedly Kvothe is on a quest to track down the mysterious people who slaughtered his parents and the rest of his extended family of travelling players when he was young. The whole idea of attending the University, and everything else he does for that matter, is so he can both prepare himself for this confrontation and find the villains. Yet, while the character occasionally remembers his obsession, it seems like Rothfuss has to remind himself of the story's central point periodically and force the story back on track. Understandably his lead character is only seventeen years old and easily distracted. But is there a need for all the side trips in order to stumble across small bits of information or for the amount of elaborate detail each step of the way as the legend of Kvothe is built? While I love Epic Fantasy, less is still more and Rothfuss needs to learn that lesson.

I'm sure those who have been waiting patiently for The Wise Man's Fear to be released will be more than contented with the result. After all it's still a well told story with some intriguing concepts and ideas covered. However, unless you're a devil for details, or a closet naturalist, there's a good chance you'll find yourself skimming pages. If you have any doubts, wait for it to come out in mass market paperback and save yourself the expense and weight of the hardcover edition. It will make a much better companion for a long distance trip in that form.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss on Blogcritics.)

April 15, 2011

Interview: Steven Erikson Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence

For the best part of the twenty-first century Steven Erikson's and Ian Cameron Esselement have bewitched and amazed readers with their joint creation of the world inhabited by the Malazan Empire. As the first of the two authors to publish books in the series, and the first to finish his contribution to world building with the publication of his tenth and final book in his "The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence, The Crippled God, Erikson's name is the one most still identify the series with.

Over the course of reading the series I've read little bits and pieces of quotes from Mr. Erikson about the series. However, to be honest, I have avoided sitting down and reading any of the interviews he's given or delving too deep into any of the other background material that has surfaced on the web that either he or Mr. Esslement have let slip. At one point I made a half hearted attempt to see about interviewing him through his publisher in Canada, Random House Canada, but part of me didn't want to hear anything about the hows and whys of the series from his point of view while he was still writing it.

Somehow or other it just didn't seem right. As a reader I think I might have thought that asking questions about the series while it was still in progress might have taken a little bit of the magic out of it. Spoiled the illusion that perhaps this world they created could really exist outside of the two fevered brains which had cooked it up. My reviews of both author's books have reflected this as they lacked anything approaching critical objectivity and usually ended up being somewhat incoherent peons of praise as I was usually at a loss as to how to stretch "Holly Fuck what a great book" into something resembling review length.

Like a glutton waiting for a particularly lavish meal to end, but for whom anticipating each course makes up a great deal of the pleasure, any hints as to what was in store for dessert would have been a deadly disappointment. However with Mr. Erikson finished his contributions I found myself wanting just that little bit more, so emailed him to see if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that had occurred to me over the course of reading his books. Here then are both the questions I emailed him and his answers. Hopefully they will not give anything away for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading his books or finishing the series, but will give all of you a deeper appreciation for what he has accomplished in their writing.

Why writing? What is it about the media that attracts you and when did you first start becoming interested in writing?

From early on and throughout high school I was being directed towards painting and illustration. I was sent by my school to life-drawing courses taught at the city’s art gallery, and I spent most of my free time drawing (especially during Math and other subjects that baffled me). I was reading fantasy and SF at the time, ever since I was about twelve, and had initially been drawn to those genres by the cover illustrations, in particular those painted by Frank Frazetta. This was where my ambitions seemed to reside. Increasingly, however, my efforts pushed me towards a kind of visual narrative. I toyed with the idea of doing comic books, but it seemed like a lot of work (this was in the time before computers handled the formatting tasks, etc – I recall using Letraset for the first few panels), and I wasn’t quite as nimble with India ink as I was with ball-point pens (me dipping a quill while doodling in class would not have gone over well).

When I entered university a friend tracked me down and invited me to a partnership doing a cartoon strip for the campus newspaper. I did a few editorial cartoons as well. We then schemed to produce a spoof edition of that campus newspaper, and this led me into writing mock articles and the usual juvenile attempts at satire. From there we ended up co-editing a magazine for the Faculty of Arts (the mag was called "The Sophisto", stolen from A Clockwork Orange). This led to quasi-journalistic writing of the offensive variety (I remember a phone interview my co-conspirator conducted with Barbara Amiel (future wife of Conrad Black) that really ticked her off).

As that endeavour was wrapping up, with booze-spiked coffees at faculty meetings, and us putting a sign up on our office door (GO AWAY), I saw in the local city paper an invitation to a short-story contest, and decided to try for it. Won second place, a hundred dollars and the adoration of a gaggle of very old ladies.

Finishing my degree in archaeology I wrote up two more stories along with the second-place winner and applied to the Vermont MFA in writing program and got turned down. So I applied to take an undergraduate (BFA) in creative writing at the University of Victoria a year later, and got accepted.

Illustration led me into narrative, and words were much faster for me than drawing.

Have there been any particular writers, styles, or media that have influenced your writing? Who what and why?

Influences can be pernicious. I recall reading George MacDonald Frazer’s The Pyrates and writing everything in pirate vernacular for six months thereafter, including memos at work. The thing is, one takes it all in, and hopefully when it comes back out it’s all a mishmash, which eventually becomes your ‘style.’ I remember fellow students in the writing programs I was in taking up the styles of famous writers and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much is actually learned by doing that. The only thing that teaches a beginning writer is writing, and in as many unique voices as one can manage. We all have our peculiar rhythms, and learning to write is learning to see and hear one’s own rhythms (once you know them you can then mess with them, experiment, etc). This ‘finding’ process is often what frustrates beginning writers, to the point that they end up quitting. It’s not ego that drives one so much as it is faith, and the early twenties for most of us is not a time when faith in oneself is at its strongest. What drives someone to write? Is it all the books seen in bookstores? Is it all the books read followed by the dream and conviction that I can do just as well? The desire for recognition, validation, fame, wealth? To be honest, probably all of those things came to the fore at one time or another, but dreams are not tickets to entitlement, and the end goal may not be what one first dreamed about – no matter. It’s all down to work in the end. You could take ten writers and task them all with the same subject on which to write about; even the same plot; and no two will be alike.

You will see that I pretty much avoided answering your question. I could offer up lists, but those lists would consist of writers and books I like or once liked: but it’s just a list, not a guide book to understanding, or, heaven forbid, following in my footsteps. But, before people jump, it’s not a position of arrogance I’m taking, but the opposite. Influences are down to tastes, but I well know that my ‘list’ is constructed as much from what I haven’t read as from what I have read, and if anything only highlights my deficiencies.

I could note that I am presently reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Why? Because it’s fun and perhaps more significantly, it justifies my buying a Kindle.

I've read that the Malazan Book Of The Fallen evolved out of yours and Ian Esselemonts's love of role playing gaming. Can you give me a quick overview of how that evolution happened. (I spent many an afternoon in smoke filled basements with others playing versions of Dungeon and Dragons back in the early 80s and only ever came out of those games with headaches - so there must have been something different about the way you guys approached these things then we ever did. Ours usually degenerated into drunken/stoned, bleary eyed, silliness)

The first game I ever played was run by Cam (Ian) on a dig on Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. We were bored rigid. We got stoned, and when the wolves attacked to mark our first effort at fighting, my character threw away his weapons and climbed a tree; another player’s character hid under his shield. Later on, yet another player tried to backstab a ranger NPC, but being a Halfling only managed to prick the back of his leg. Not an impressive first outing.

When Cam and I ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, we started gaming in earnest and you’re right in guessing that they were unusual games. We were both in the writing program at the time, and narrative was uppermost in our minds: these sessions were as much storytelling as gaming and often involved little more than protracted conversations between characters – finding their voices, acquiring a sense of their histories, their world-views, and all the conflict born of those world-views clashing. When scraps arrived they were brutal and irreversible for the characters, and we liked that. A lot. We burdened those characters with bitter memories, with old pains and open wounds; we made them tired of living but unable to give up. Not your typical game, I guess.

Later on, when I ran an actual group, I carried all that over, and the players often ended each session looking shellshocked.

When a reader picks up Gardens Of The Moon they have the feeling they're entering into a story that's been going on for some time. This goes against almost all the traditions of narrative in Epic Fiction, which usually has a static beginning, middle and end. Why did you elect to work from the middle, backwards and forwards, out, so to speak, and did you run into any significant resistance from editors/publishers along the way because of that decision?

Eight years of resistance. We did it because we’d gamed a history that provided the foundation on which to build new tales. Also, as archaeologists, we were well aware that in history there is no real beginning or end: it just goes on. The old lesson we had drilled into us in our writing workshops was that a story begins with a crisis of character, and we began our novels with that in mind. We could do that because we had a sense of the backgrounds of these characters – we’d been them for years, after all – and it’s that sense that gave the crisis meaning, each and every time (at least for us, and for it to affect others it had to affect us first – what followed then was simply the challenge of communicating what we felt. When it works, we and the reader share something, and if there’s one single desire behind writing, it must be that one).

I have to ask - you did work from an outline right - you didn't just wing it and hope for inspiration along the way? If yes, what form did the outline take and how detailed was it?- I have visions of a huge flow chart covering the wall of a fair sized room filled with circles and arrows and notes.
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I had a big chart for Gardens of the Moon, but all it had was chapter listings made up of sections defined by character names, and then a square box that I filled in once the section was done, physically tracking my progress. I had notes in a notepad, and I still do that in a chaotic, confused way. No physical outline, then; just the one in my head, which consisted of big scenes loosely arrayed in a particular order, and from that the driving need to move from one to the next, and to make sure that the ‘filler’ provided as much as was needed to give those big scenes the impact desired. Mostly, what drove and drives me still is the sheer pleasure of writing: the telling of a tale.

In the midst of writing a scene, I would on occasion hit on an image that I would mentally flag, and file away. And I learned to trust in my instincts on when next to riff on that image (or word choice) to create a kind of resonance. This was how I was taught to write short stories, and I extended that across novels, and then across all ten books. Even now, only a few months after the series is done, I look back and am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all in for so long, across so many thousands of pages. I don’t myself understand the creative process well enough to say: this is how it’s done; this is how I remembered everything I needed to remember (besides which, I obviously didn’t remember everything, as inconsistencies did indeed arise from time to, uh time). All I can say now is: I remembered the stuff that was important to me, in the telling of this tale. I did that much, at least. How I did it, I’ll never know.

You created numerous different civilisations and societies for the series and I wondered if you could explain your process in developing them. Were they based on ones from earth's history, did they just spring out of your imagination, was there any specific intent behind some of their characteristics? The Letherai Empire for example with its extreme version of free market social Darwinism and organisations like The Patriotists.

If you can steal but leave no clues, no tracks ... well ... no, it’s not even that. Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society’s relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment). There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency – even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean. To create a fictional culture in fantasy (quick guide), begin with the environment. Plains, boreal forest, mountains, steppes, flood-plain, dry, wet, warm, cold, coastal, mineral rich, fauna poor – the more details you decide on, the tighter the potential characteristics of the resident culture. Next: choose technology level and principal sources of subsistence. These will further shape that culture: farmers, fisher-folk, whalers, raiders, herders – when it comes to food procurement, we’re all rather limited. If, say, it’s a hunting culture, well, it’s not likely to be a populous one, is it, since no wild environment can sustain a large, sedentary population of predators such as people. If it is a herding culture, and you have steppes, well, best expect a mobile boom and bust cycle for that culture (see Mongols) involving rapid, violent expansion followed by fragmentation and assimilation into the more materially established sedentary cultures they may have conquered – a civilisation that can vanish like dust in the wind (Huns). If you want cities you need to work out what feeds its denizens ... outlying farms, mercantile wealth (if in, say, a trading crossroads like Constantinople), harvest from the sea – and in each case you should refer to the technology level. If farming, do the farmers irrigate and if so, where does the water come from? Related to the seasons and weather patterns – is it in fact situated on a cusp of potential disaster should drought strike, or is it relatively stable as with, say, The Nile. For comparison on how the two shape their cultures, do a compare and contrast between ancient Egypt and the Mayans of Central America. Fairly similar in terms of technology – how much did the need to appease capricious sky gods affect the almost psychotic sacrifice frenzy of the Mayans, compared to the sedate, generally passive culture of Egypt?

What other factors might impede that culture in its pursuit of quality of life? Caste, class systems, indenture – who’s pulling the strings and how firm is their grip? The Mayan priests might have felt on top of the world (on top of the pyramids, too) but when the environment collapsed so too did their power base. What forces are at play resisting progress? Religious dogma, social institutions (slavery), indolence? Is there any social mobility? How fares its arts, its centres of learning and philosophy? Is it warrior-based? If magic exists, how does it work and what does it do to shape the culture using it?

All anthropological, I suppose, and geographical too. It’s why I always started with a map, because that told me so much of what I need to know about the resident civilisations. Obviously, the question of the role of magic was a central one that needed answering early on: we chose an egalitarian structure, based on hard work – not gender-based in any way – and from this we posited civilisations that could not impose gender-based hierarchies in terms of access to and exploitation of power. This, as you might imagine, opened things up considerably, which was most pleasing.

I was fascinated by the system(s) of magic you created for this world. A system which seemed based on a person's ability to channel an aspect or characteristic of a particular god or goddess yet wizards weren't necessarily priests and vice-versa. How did you come up with this system and why did you elect to use it.

See above! We wanted something malleable yet mysterious; so instead of devising a single or handful of paths to magic, we created a multitude of paths, and then embodied that theoretical theme in the Warrens (made the metaphor real), which is why when people ask us about the magic system we mostly just shrug. It defines itself. It is exactly what it looks like: multiple paths to magic. For us, that’s all we needed, and we could adjust all we liked for each character using it – potential applications are endless, unconstrained, forever fluid. It became a dynamic system where even the attempted impositions (Deck of Dragons, cults and priest-hoods) had a tendency to slip from the grasp of the users. We’re not into ‘systems.’ We never were. We like things much messier.

Psychologically, we wanted magic to have the effect of napalm descending from the skies to hammer into the ground peasant soldiers. It’s ugly, terrifying, unpredictable.

In the books there are a strata of people who appear to exist on a plane somewhere between the gods and mortals, ascendants. What was the purpose of having this type of hero class of character?

Inspired by two things: on the one hand, this was all Homeric, incorporating the ancient bronze age/iron age proto-Greek sense of the pantheon and its mix of Olympian and chthonic deities, including demigods, Lapiths and forces of chaos – all of them as venal and petty-minded as our regular mortal affairs. On the other hand, we role-played characters in the old ‘powering up’ fashion consistent with all fantasy games. They had to have the potential to achieve something, if they so chose. The interesting is that, in the games, we ended up with so many characters who ultimately chose not to ‘ascend.’ And that was brilliant, and from these individuals came the real story of the world, as we have and are telling it. Because they were just like us.

Was there any particular pantheon of gods in our world which inspired your depiction of gods and their relationship to the mortals who worshipped them? How would you describe that relationship?

The key was giving those gods personalities, not just ‘aspects’ or ‘themes.’ Make them old, yet some older than others, some almost forgotten, others ambitious and young, some remote, others not so remote. As personalities, they were then open to specific relationships with their followers, sometimes benign, sometimes malicious. Many gods in our own world were worshipped to appease, lest vengeance and terror descend. That was not a benign relationship, was it? Its fuel was fear, and the notion of getting direct attention from a god was, for very good reasons, terrifying. By extension, exploring such relationships in fiction can also address how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us, to the vagaries of happenstance, fate and bad luck. Cause and effect is central to our intellect, and for those causes we cannot find, we invent, and so persist in a lifelong dialogue with indifferent nature.

We spend a great deal of time among soldiers and on the battle field during the course of the series and you don't hesitate from describing the action in graphic detail leaving us no doubt as to its grim reality. Yet most of the lead characters, those we come to admire, are soldiers who take part in those battles and I was wondering if there were any message in particular you were trying to deliver because of that, and if so what it was?

All too often in fantasy fiction we’re stuck with the rulers, the leaders, and we see their machinations in a generalised sense of victory and loss, even good and evil. Until Glen Cook, we rarely saw the brutal consequences of all these toffs vying for dominance. When approaching our own novels, we wanted to emulate Cook’s ground-up approach, covering the entire social strata from the lowly street urchin to the gods and everyone in between. History is, as you mentioned, a thing that flows in all directions, and we liked the idea that even though shit always flows down, on occasion some poor bastard is going to rise up from the muck and throw a handful back upward, hopefully straight into the face of one of those toffs. There is always an implicit commentary in medieval-style fantasy, whether the author intends it or not – that has to do with inequality, with purity of blood and nobility of form, with who the heroes are and just how beloved they are when the last battle’s won. For the majority of people, feudal life was misery; yet here we get again and again all these tales about high-born elites – granted, some authors make a point of highlighting just how well-meaning and benign those rulers are. The fact remains, however, that they take as a birthright their right to decide who lives or dies among their subjects.

For myself, I’ve had my fill of those implicit assertions on inequity, and some central threads of the Malazan Book of the Fallen made a point of addressing that.

I have to ask - where did Kruppe come from. He's an absolutely brilliant character and I'd love to see more of him elsewhere. Any hope of that happening?

Character I rolled up, and on spur of the moment elected to make him ... the way he is. I believe he makes a return in Cam’s novel set in Darujhistan.

There were quite a few loose ends left behind with the conclusion of the tenth book and I was wondering if you were considering filling them in, or will that be Ian Esselemont's job with his books set in the Malazn Empire?

Cam will cover some of them, but not all, nor should anyone expect him to. We’re comfortable with threads left dangling. No history is complete and if people are left with questions, well, how like real life is that?

I can't think of a more appropriate note to end this on save to say thank you to Steven Erikson for taking the time to answer my questions. Now when will Ian Cameron Esslement's next book be released?

(Article first published as Interview: Steven Erikson, Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)

March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

And in the end we return to where we started. An inconsequential city on the small island which gave its name to an empire spanning continents. The seat of power has long since moved away from Malaz City on the Isle of Malaz, but it was here that an empire was formed, and it was here we first walked into the lives of those who were woven into the fabric of the empire's storied existence. A wine merchant's son standing on the parapet overlooking both the town and the sea, his head filled with dreams of glory and battlefield victories, has a chance encounter with two soldiers. In the town below fires burn and smoke billows as out of control soldiers brutally carry out the orders of their regent to kill all the cities magic users. When a gust of wind carries the smell of burning flesh to their perch the boy innocently opines that a slaughter house has caught fire, mistaking the smell of humans for beasts.

Many years later, another young boy, looking over the empty sea from the end of the same town's pier, lets his dreams of heroic deeds be interrupted by an old man's apparently pointless attempts to catch a fish during the middle of the day. The setting is somewhat more peaceful then before, as there is no riot taking place and the smell of burning blood isn't wafting over the two, but for the old man who had been one of the soldiers on that parapet all those years ago, the conversation must have been eerily familiar. Yet for all that, and all that we know he has been through in the years between the two conversations, he makes no attempt to dissuade the boy when he speaks of leaving the island and becoming a soldier. Instead he merely echoes words spoken years earlier, "Well, the world always needs soldiers".
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In some ways there couldn't be a finer epitaph for Steven Erikson's ten book epic masterpiece, The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. "The world always needs soldiers", for primarily this was the story of soldiers. Brave ones, evil ones, honourable ones, cowards, heroes (intentional and otherwise), but mainly the soldiers who marched in ranks, fought, died, were wounded, survived and went unnoticed by history. For all the intricacies of plots, for all the twists and turns Erikson so successfully navigated in bringing us to his conclusion in, The Crippled God, now available from Random House Canada, like the Malazan Empire itself, the series marched on the backs of its soldier's lives.

For while the gods and other races with powers, including the ability to transform into dragons or change the shape of the world without breaking a sweat, schemed and plotted against each other, it was the mortal soldiers whose footsteps we followed in, and whose boots we stood in on the front lines. Deep into the press of bodies we went, where men and women lost their souls and minds. Swords gouged, shields smashed, blood flowed, piss ran and sweat stank of fear and pain. We learned what it felt like to fight on when there was no way to win and how there was rarely anything worth celebrating when the victories did come. Usually in the latter it meant you had delivered such slaughter as to feel sick. For dead is dead no matter what flag you fought under and in the corpses opposite you can easily see yourself. But for a slip here, or a lunge there your guts could just as easily been spilled on the ground as anybody else's.

After nine books we have learned not to become overly attached to any of the characters we've met on our march around the world. Even those who have lived thousands of years can still succumb to a sword stroke eventually. So as we come down to the penultimate battles for all those who have endured what the world has thrown at them until this point, and already witnessed the deaths of many we've come to know, we can only hope some will survive. Yet given the circumstances, the odds they face and the mauling their armies have already experienced, we, as well as they, know they all could die. Even worse, their lives could have been spent for no reason if even one of the forces set in motion should go awry.

For in this far off corner of the world an ancient race, the Forkrul Assail, have begun their campaign to rid the world of mortals. They call themselves adjudicators, and they have decided humans no longer deserve to live. Since they long ago killed their own god when they found him lacking, they now seek to steal the power of an alien god, The Crippled God of the title, who fell to this planet thousands of years ago. It was to counter this threat former Adjunct to the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Tavore Paran, set out on her seemingly aimless campaign. After the losses suffered by both her and her allies' armies in their last engagement their chances of succeeding, slim to begin with, appear next to impossible. They go to face far superior numbers commanded by beings whose very voices can tear the flesh from human skin. What hope do they have of success?
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Everyone, from the lowliest camp follower to the highest ranking officer in the allied armies know their role is to die so that others might have the chance to live. Most of them know nothing of the other forces at work, within the very fabric of existence itself, who are fighting the same desperate struggle on the other plains of existence. However as they are marching towards what will be their final battles, Erikson takes us from one field of battle to the next. Plots and characters he set in motion in previous books, which at the time seemed to be separate stories of their own, are now revealed to be another front on which this war is being fought. In a brilliant feat of engineering he slides the last little piece into place in each area providing the final links tying them all together. Even more amazingly is how he does it with such ease we are left wondering how we could have missed noticing the connections earlier.

Yet, in spite of the grand sweep of events that he created, the crooked paths the story has sometimes walked down, it has been the characters who have been the glue holding it all together. From the ones we've loved to hate, Kallor the high king, to the ones we've loved; Fiddler, Hedge, Whiskeyjack, Kalam, Quick Ben, Toc the Younger, Onas T'oolan, Kruppe, Crokus, Apsalar, Karsa Orlong, Ganoes and Tavore Paran, the humans, the undead, the gods and even a couple of dogs, they are the ones who gave the series the flavour that made it so special. They were a celebration of all that was good and bad in humanity, proving over and over again how situations can bring the best and worst out in everybody. Now here, at the end of their story, we are given a chance to celebrate all that they were and what they meant to the books.

I realize I've not talked much about what actually happens in The Crippled God, but to do that would give too much away to those who have been eagerly awaiting this concluding volume and mean nothing at all to those unfamiliar with the previous nine books. If you belong to the latter group I envy you still having all ten books to look forward to. For those who are in the former all I can say is you won't be disappointed. It will not only live up to your expectations, it will exceed them. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is an extraordinary work of epic fiction and this final instalment is not only a fitting conclusion to what's come before, it takes the series to an even higher level than you would have thought possible. Fantasy and science fiction are often thought the poor cousins of so called serious novels, but I defy anyone to think that after reading this series.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics.)

January 5, 2011

Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queens Command by Michael A Stackpole

I first started reading historical fiction when I was really young. There were some great British authors who wrote books for young people which were not only historically accurate but brought the eras they were set in wonderfully to life. So I spent a great deal of time travelling through time and and around the world from the Crusades in the 1100s to the French Indian wars in 18 century North America. However as I grew older I discovered that historical fiction for adults didn't quite live up to the same standards as those established by the authors I read as a kid. Far too many of them were really romance novels in fancy dress and I found them lacking in both the quality of information and story telling I had come to expect from the genre.

As a result I pretty much ignored historical fiction for quite some time. Even today I'm still not all that enamoured of the genre, but there is a sub-group of authors who have revitalized the field by using human history as their inspiration instead of a backdrop for their latest costume drama. Historical fantasies are usually set in recognizable times and places given new names and where the circumstances are influenced by the inclusion of fantastical elements. The trick to creating a successful work of this type is to be able to recreate an era so its recognizable to readers without ever spelling it out, while at the same time writing a story that captures our imaginations.

While this may sound fairly straight forward, it takes an author of some skill to be able to pull it off successfully. For as well as having the skills we usually expect of an author in creating characters we are interested in enough to care about and plots that hold our attention, they must be sufficiently well versed in the era they are attempting to emulate to recreate its social structure, styles of speech and all the other elements necessary for it to be believable. With the publication of the first book in his new historical fantasy series, Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queen's Command from Night Shade Books, Michael A Stackpole shows that he's more than up for the challenge.
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The wars that have embroiled two empires, Norisl and Tharyngia, in the Old World are expanding to the New World and threaten all who live in Norillian crown colony of Mystria. Captain Owen Strake, a veteran of the wars on one continent, is sent to the new one to survey the territory and evaluate the strength of the Tharyngian colonial forces. The Norillians hope that a strike against their foe's colony will not only force them to divert resources away from their battles elsewhere, but also deny them access to the trade goods which has been fuelling their economy. For Captain Strake the mission represents a chance for him to secure his financial situation and make a place for himself and his young wife back home. In the rigid class system of Norisl the adopted son of a Duke's youngest brother, his birth father was a Mystrian ship's captain by pirates, lacks the resources and position to either purchase or obtain promotion.

While Strake is well aware of the Norrillian scorn for their colonial subjects, having felt the brunt of it himself because of his father, he is shocked by the level of resentment he finds among Mystrians towards the crown. These feelings are reflected in the treasonous desires for independence expressed by some of those he meets. Accepted by neither the local representatives of Norisl because of his mixed heritage, nor the locals for being a Norrillian, it looks as if Strake might fail in his task before he even starts. Thankfully for his sake, the Colonial Governor-General, the Queen's nephew Prince Vladimir, is far more concerned with the well being of his colony and its occupants than most of his fellow aristocrats and has earned the respect of the Mystrians. So, while he might not have much political influence in the home country, he is able to smooth things over for Strake with the locals.

Aside from their desire for Owen to succeed in his mission, the Prince and he have something else in common. Strake is a Captain in the Queen's Own Wurms, and is used to being around the long flightless dragons whom form a vital part of the Royal Forces, and the Prince is the owner of a magnificent wurm by the name of Mugwump. Mugwump is different from the wurms Strake is used to, he was born from a clutch of eggs discovered in the new world. However, the fact he's as at home with the creature as the Prince establishes a bond between the two which goes a long way to ensuring Strake won't just be taken out into the forests and walked in circles, eaten by the strange beasts who inhabit them or killed by Tharyngian native allies.
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Even before we meet Mugwump, Stackpole lets us know there are sizeable differences between our world and the one inhabited by Owen Strake. For while the soldiers use recognizable weapons, muzzle and breech loading muskets and rifles, they are fired through a mixture of magic and science. Instead of a flint generating a spark and firing gunpowder to propel a ball from a musket, soldiers use a spell to ignite a blasting cap of brimstone. Each time they "cast" the spell they pay a cost in blood, and a person's magical ability is rated according to the number of times he is able to fire his weapon before being forced to stop because of being incapacitated by the bruising the blood loss causes to whichever digit, usually the thumb, they use for that purpose.

As both we and Strake find out, there's more, some of it deadlier, magic awaiting him as he travels into the interior of this untamed new world. Those indigenous to the land (referred to as The Twilight People for their ability to disappear into the woods by settlers, and feared by many because they are different) use magic in ways that Strake has never seen before. However there's is a benign power. What awaits him at the hands of the Tharyngian in charge of their colonial forces is a horror beyond his wildest imaginings. Like his Norrillian counterparts he has mixed science and magic in order to develop a power that could see the Tharyngians not only wrest control of Mystria from Norisl, but change the face of the world.

With At The Queen's Command Stackpole has laid the groundwork for the rest of the series by taking the time to establish the world in which it takes place; introducing us to a variety of multidimensional characters and setting in motion the plots which will dictate the future of both his characters and their world. While that in itself is a difficult task, even more impressive is how he has accomplished it. Sometimes when reading a historical novel there's the feeling of looking backwards in time with everything filtered through a modern sensibility. In this instance though, with everything viewed through the eyes of his characters, not only do we observe their behaviour and dialogue, we are party to their feelings, thought processes and reactions and are thus completely immersed in their world. If Stackpole can sustain this over the balance of the series, The Crown Colonies promises to be a great addition to the historical fantasy genre. As it is, this first book is a great opening salvo full of adventure, magic, intrigue and even a little romance that makes for a highly enjoyable read.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book One: At The Queen's Command by Michael A. Stackpole on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Book Review: Stonewielder Ian C. Esslemont

Humans have been making up stories about heroes and gods since before we even had a written language. They not only served as the means to explain the world around us, the adventures described were used by each society as benchmarks against which people could judge their own behaviour. Heroes gave us characteristics we could aspire to emulate while the foibles of the gods served as object lessons with regards to having to deal with the consequences of our actions. In a kind of inverted social structure the mortal heroes of most epic tales were usually paragons of moral virtue while the gods and goddesses were subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

The most drastic change that has occurred in story telling down through the years has been the devolution of their protagonists from figures of noble birth, who either suffered from some moral weakness causing their downfall and were defined as tragic or were examples to be emulated, to being men and women much the same as those reading about them. There is nothing cut and dried about the anti-hero of modern fiction. Neither completely good nor evil, he and she muddle their way through life doing the best they can. While in some ways this makes for more interesting reading, as audiences identify with these figures more readily than any paragons of virtue or nobly flawed individuals, how do these "regular folk" hold up when placed in epic situations? Is it indeed possible to have proper epic fiction without the epic heroes to go with them?

While there have been any number of science fiction and fantasy works written which have attempted to fill the void of the great heroic tales of the past, there have been precious few which have been able to give answer to that question while retaining the qualities that made the originals so riveting. By no means have I read every epic fantasy series published in the last century, but to my mind there has only been one fictional world created which matches up favourably without an epic hero to carry the load. Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have combined forces over the last decade or so to bring to life the world populated by the Malazan Empire and a multitude of other civilizations, gods, ancient beings, demons, and assorted other types. While the gods and goddesses continue the tradition of their Greek and Roman predecessors with their all too human behaviour, those mortals populating the tales aren't liable to be confused with either Ulysses or Rama anytime soon.
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While Erikson's tenth and final instalment in the series will be published in February, the recently published Stonewielder, from Random House Canada, represents only Esslemont's third entry. (Won't be released in the US until May 2011) Like all massive empires, the Malazans have been fighting wars on many fronts; at home and abroad and on the human plane of existence and alternate realities as well. So while Erikson has been concentrating on reporting from one half of the battle, Esslemont has been going back over the history of the Empire to help show how it arrived at the point its at now and reporting back on action that have only been vague rumours before.

Such is the case with this title as he picks up the story of the characters he was following in his previous title, The Return Of The Crimson Guard. At times throughout the telling of the story of the Malazan Empire we've heard of the continent of Korel; the mysterious Storm Riders who assail it and the Stormwall that guards against them and the failed efforts of the Malazan Empire to subdue them completely. Stonewielder is the name given the disgraced ex-Malazan military commander, Greymane, who led the first invasion and was introduced in Return of the Crimson Guard, by the indigenous people of Korel because of a gift he received from the Storm Riders. The gift, a great stone sword, as well as the fact he met and talked with the Storm Riders, are the reasons Greymane is considered a traitor by both the Korelians and the Malazan Empire. The former because he treated with their ancient enemies, and the latter, because after the meeting Greymane inexplicably resigned his commission and deserted. Now Greymane is given the chance to redeem himself and is named to head the new invasion force being put together by the Empire.

However, this is no mere recounting of an invasion, nor is it the story of one person's quest. For while Greymane and his young companion Kyle, who also is the owner of a sword blessed with the powers of an unusual being, have their roles to play in the events that unfold, Esslemont is working with a much broader canvas. Not only does he offer us multiple perspectives of the Malazan invasion by letting us see it through the eyes of characters as diverse as a new recruit in the army, the High Mage for the invasion and one of Greymane's senior officers, but does the same for the forces arrayed against them. Korel is an archipelago comprised of various island nations who are united by two things; their need for the protection provided by the Stormwall and their worship of a single deity know as The Lady.

The two we learn are directly intertwined as it was The Lady who gifted settlers with the power to build the wall. All she asked in exchange was they worship no one but her and eradicate any and all other existing beliefs they found in the region. While this seemed like a good deal at the time to those few attempting to fend off the Storm Riders, and who cared about the beliefs of the savages who lived there already, in the present not everybody is as convinced of its benefits. For The Chosen, those who lead the defence of the Stonewall, there are no doubts. Every winter they force thousands of prisoners to stand chained to the wall and face both the elements and the Riders. The Lady has given them the power to protect their people, and they see nothing wrong with doing whatever is necessary to carry their mission out in her name.

However, the further inland one travels things aren't so cut and dried. While the ruling class have no trouble maintaining the status quo, dissatisfaction has grown among the peasant farmers and the poor in the cities to the point where an army of rebellion has been raised. In the past attempts at rebellion have been quashed with ease, but this time looks to be different as they are not only better organized militarily, they have allied themselves with the powers of the indigenous people who predate The Lady. For while The Lady has been able to quash most conventional wielders of magic, they seem to be able to operate under her radar and provide some magical assistance to the rebellion.

Things aren't any better away from the battle fronts for the establishment, as a magistrate's investigation into decades of mysterious deaths among the young people of his city offers proof of something vile at the heart of the belief in The Lady. With fissures starting to appear in their power base, the church begins to crack down even harder on any dissent. Playing on people's fears of the Malazan invasion they incite mob violence against anyone who might bring The Lady's "disfavour" down on Korel. Without The Lady we are doomed, so in these times of trouble we must crack down even harder on those who would preach anything but absolute devotion to Her.

Esslemont deftly guides us through multiple settings, plot lines and characters as he carefully fills in the details of his immense canvas. Whether we're standing the Wall with The Chosen, riding the waves with the Malazans, marching with the rebel army or skulking in the back streets of the cities, we learn both a little bit more about our location and have the plot advanced a little further. What's more, the characters he has chosen to be our guides at each stop along the way become more and more real to us and in the process help give a deeper understanding of the world they move in.

What's most amazing about Stonewielder is the way in which Esslemont takes the epic sweep of history and is able to reduce it down to a human level. The manipulations of gods and goddesses are like ripples whose effects touch both the humblest of foot soldiers and the leaders of countries equally. We not only read about the great events that are the result of a deity's actions, but live through them with each of the characters in this book. Where epic tales in the past would recount the heroic deeds of those involved, here people slog through mud, scavenge for food and water, fight to survive and express their doubts about their so-called destinies.

Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, this makes them all the more heroic and all the less savoury depending on how they react to their circumstances. It's just as easy for a man or woman to choose to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. In creating his characters Esslemont has been very careful to make sure its those choices that define them. Few of the people we spend any real time with are so one dimensional that you'll be able to say he is evil or she is good, instead its only through what they do that we truly know them.

Stonewielder is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an immensely satisfying one. For not only is it as exciting an adventure story filled with great battle scenes and descriptions of combat unlike any you'll read elsewhere, the sea battles alone make it worth reading, there's also an intimacy you'll not often find in a story of this type. It is epic fiction at its finest, yet proof positive that you don't need the heroes of yore for a story of this scope to hold a reader's attention. In fact I'd say it is just the opposite. For once you start reading you aren't going to want to stop - and you might just find yourself staying up half the night finishing what you've started.

(Article first published as Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

November 15, 2010

Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie

Stories exist on levels most of us aren't even aware of. We pick up a book, read the words written by an author, and usually we've forgotten what we've read by the time we pick up the next book, A whole world that somebody has striven to create obliterated by our need to move on to what comes next, to our search for distraction and our need to be entertained. However, stories are what define people, give meaning to their lives and explain the world around them. In our culture we have The Bible, and while some might not like to hear it defined in this manner, the stories contained in its pages shape the way most of us think, and have been the motivation behind the majority of decisions that have shaped our world.

What happens to one of those worlds created by an author after we've moved on to something else? In the case of stories like those recounted in The Bible, or other holy books still being followed, there's no question the people and events talked about are still real to those who believe in them. But what about those Gods and Goddesses who are no longer actively worshipped? What about other worlds created and populated by authors throughout the ages? Do they cease to exist when we no longer read about them, or is there some alternate reality in which those people brought to life continue leading the lives we dropped in on for the brief moments allowed us by the author's imagination? Does the storyteller's power extend beyond the boundaries of our attention span?

In his newest novel, Luka And The Fire Of Life published by Random House Canada, Salman Rushdie manages to not only create a fantastical world and a great adventure for his young hero to explore and experience, he gives us an intriguing look at the relationships between stories, their listeners and the way the two come together to shape the world around them. While it contains most of the elements we've come to expect from a tale involving a hero's quest, its the twist and turns he throws in for him to navigate that makes this one special
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Luka is the youngest son of the renowned storyteller Rashid Khalifa, known to some as the Shah of Blah for his love of talking. From the very first he was an amazing child - he amazed his parents with his birth as he came so late in their lives; eighteen years after his older brother Haroun. Young Luka soon showed that he was going to be different from other children. Maybe it was the fact that he was left handed that gave him a different perspective on the world - having to struggle with doorknobs that were apparently backwards can have an odd impact on you. Perhaps it was because he grew up the son of a storyteller hearing about the wonderful alternative reality known as Magic World, but he spent a great deal of time imaging different worlds - including his personal favourite where everything worked counter-clockwise to suit his left handed abilities.

Luka's two closest companions were his two pets, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing Bear. One day a particularly nasty circus, known as the Great Rings of Fire for its "Famous Incredible Fire Illusion", had come to town. It was one of those which relied on abusing animals to make them perform for an audience's pleasure. Luka and his father had been in town when the circus had paraded through and the young lad had been so distraught by the sight of the poor animals he shouted at the circus owner "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire burn up your stupid tent". Much to the audience's amazement at the first performance in town all the animals stood up to the ringmaster and refused to obey his commands. When later that same night, after everybody was asleep, the circus's big tent burnt to the ground people began to wonder at the power of Luka's words. While all the other animals escaped into the wilderness, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing bear showed up at Luka's door and made their gratitude known by becoming his boon companions.

While Luka was thus reasonably content, he still yearned for the chance to have a great adventure and dreamed of alternate realities where they might take place. It should therefore not surprise anyone that he spent quite a bit of time playing computer role playing games where he could send himself on adventures into an incredible variety of words. It turned out it was good thing he had taken the time to prepare himself, because he was soon faced with having a very real adventure of his own. A day came when Rashid said his legs felt heavy, then his arms and finally his body. Eventually he fell asleep and couldn't be woken. It soon became apparent that this was no natural sleep, and Luka discovered that it was caused by the evil circus ringmaster seeking revenge for making him look foolish. Thankfully he also discovers the means of reviving his father. All he'll have to do is travel to the World of Magic and steal the Fire of Life and somehow return home with it for his father.
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The world Luka and his faithful companions enter in their attempt to save his father turns out to be strangely familiar. He soon recognizes landmarks and countries that have all appeared in his father's stories, yet at the same time there are elements that reflect his own experiences. For, every time he manages to accomplish a task he is rewarded with the gift of extra "lives" to spend, much like one would gain by accumulating points in a video game (A running tally of his lives magically appears as a number in the upper left hand corner of his vision). He is also given the opportunity to save his progress through the world so he won't have to go all the way back to beginning if he should lose one of his lives. At the same time, while some of the characters he meets on the way are those he's heard his father describe, a number of them are based on people from his own life and share many of their characteristics.

What Rushdie has done with his story of Luka's adventures is not only create a rather whimsical adventure quest that audiences of all ages can enjoy, he's also offered a somewhat wry commentary on the whole idea of stories and how they influence us. At first Luka is content to merely follow the path laid out by his father's stories in his attempt to transverse the various strange lands and creatures he encounters. However he soon realizes he'll not succeed unless he starts exerting his own will on events and search for his own path to success.

We all have our own lives to lead, and what Rushdie has very gently pointed out in his book is while we might look upon other's accomplishments with envy and admiration, it's only by striking out on our path that we will realize our full potential. For while the stories that have come before us will definitely influence us, and have shaped the world around us, we are all given unique characteristics which allow us to write our own story. With humour and intelligence Rushdie's book shows just how important our choices are and the importance of exerting our influence on the world around us. You don't have to blindly follow in anyone's footsteps, in fact you'll be far better off if you don't, and while those trapped in stories might be fated to repeat the same meaningless actions over and over again, there's no reason for an individual to do so.

Our world, or more specifically our cultures and our societies, have been shaped by the stories we have told ourselves for thousands of years. Everything from how we behave to who and what we worship and believe are based on we've been told and re-told hundreds if not thousands of time before. While they all serve the valuable purpose of providing frameworks within which people can carry out there lives, there is also plenty of room within all of them for individuals to create their own stories based on their hopes, dreams and experiences. Luka And The Fire Of Life not only is a wonderful read for the diversity of its characters and the fantastical worlds it takes us to, but for the way in which it reminds us not to ignore what each of us has to bring to the world and the power we have to shape events. Just because a story has been told a thousand times before doesn't mean it can't have a different ending every so often.

(Article first published as Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie on Blogcritics.)

September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Truth Of Valour by Tanya Huff

Science fiction, for a genre that prides itself on imagination and imagining exciting possibilities in the future, used to be home to some of the most reactionary and conservative writers around. While there were some wonderful exceptions (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and a few others) a great many of what was written could just as easily be classified as "Boys With Toys" as anything else. By toys I mean everything from rockets and big weapons to women in either tight fitting or very little clothing. The story lines were, more often then not, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic - characteristics of human behaviour I would have thought most would have hoped were eliminated from future, more enlightened cultures.

Thankfully the genre started to mature around the end of the 1960s and the first anti-war science fiction novel was published in 1972 (Joe Haldeman's Forever War). However, aside his work there really hasn't been much written in the sub-genre known as military science fiction that has appealed to me. That changed a while back when one of my favourite fantasy writers, Tanya Huff, wrote her first book in what has now become known as the Confederation series. While she's probably best known for her books about a vampire private detective (they formed the basis for the series Blood Ties) I had known her as the writer of some really great fantasy books, as well a former employee of the best Science Fiction/Fantasy bookstore in Toronto Ontario - Bakka Books, that were the antithesis of those early "Boys With Toys" books as you could get. While they still contained violence, the lead character was as likely to be female as male, sexual orientation among her characters was very flexible, and characters usually came in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
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So I've followed Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through four books as she's travelled through space fighting alongside two other sentient species against a mysterious enemy known only as "The Others". However, in the last book, she had discovered that both sides had been manipulated by another race of beings who had been using them and the war as a huge "social experiment", and had prolonged the war in order to gather as much information about their peoples as possible. That revelation had a two-fold result, not only bringing the war to a somewhat screeching halt, but forcing Torin to reconsider her career choices. Having fallen in love with the civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, leaving the Marines wouldn't have to mean leaving space, it just meant operating in it without weapons or having as many resources or technology to call upon in case of trouble.

And trouble is just what she and Craig find in the fifth book of the series, The Truth Of Valor published by Penguin Canada. For while the authorities have been busily involved with a war, salvage operators have been dealing with their own troubles, pirates stealing their hard earned cargo. Up until now there haven't been any fatalities, mainly because most salvage ships are unarmed (weapons are illegal for anything but military vessels), but also because most operators value their lives more than cargo. However that all changes when two friends of Craig's are found dead, having tried to fight off a pirate in order to protect their find. It turns out that what they had was not only valuable, but deadly - deadly enough to shift the balance of power in space. They had picked up a fully loaded Marine armoury that had survived a space battle intact; an armoury containing enough weapons to arm a small army and allow pirates to go beyond hijacking cargo and begin taking over space stations.

However the pirates need a salvage operator to help them crack the codes securing the armoury, and although its been said that space is big, its not that big. Especially when you accidently get into a poker game with members of the pirate crew who proceed to set you up by "selling" you information about some prime salvage so they can ambush you. While the pirates carry out their ambush of Craig and Torin perfectly, capturing Craig alive and mainly intact, they make the mistake of thinking they've left Torin to die. Probably the one person most pissed off at the universe for fucking with her enough to figure out a way of surviving when she's been left to float in a debris field and eventually suffocate when her oxygen supply runs out.

When she fails to get help from Craig's fellow salvage operators to mount a rescue mission, she calls upon a few of her former squad mates who have not only also survived, but retired from the Marines for the same reasons she has. Unable to go after the enemy they really want to, the alien race which kept them all fighting for no reason, they are more than happy to join her in kicking another being's deserving butt, especially to help out their old Gunnery Sergeant who had helped see them through some pretty horrendous times.
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Huff has done her usual skilful job of writing an exciting adventure story which never descends into cliche or the expected. As those of you familiar with the previous books in the serious know, Torin Kerr operates by a pretty simple code - don't fuck with me and mine and I won't fuck with you. When she was in the Marines her job was to try and make sure she brought all of her people home alive with her and she took every loss personally. So with the man she loves at risk, she's pretty much prepared to do or risk anything and everything to bring him back alive. However she's not a robot, and having only recently discovered that so many of those lives she wasn't able to protect had died for nothing, the threat of losing Ryder pushes her close to cracking.

Military training has given her not only the ability to survive situations most people couldn't even imagine being in, but also the skills to kill people in ways you wouldn't think possible. Unfortunately there's only so much human circuitry can take before it starts shorting out, and the rescue mission fast becomes a race against time; how long will the pirates keep Craig Ryder alive and how long can Torin hold it together.

That doesn't mean she's going to all of a sudden sit in a corner and start crying, it means she'll cross the line between caring about the consequences of her actions and not giving a damn who suffers as a result. She may have killed before as a Marine, but it had only been a case of kill or be killed against an enemy who was following the same modus operandi. However she's not in the military any longer and there are what's known as innocent bystanders involved in her current mission, a mission without any official sanctioning and maybe just as illegal as the pirates' actions.

Through both Torin and one of the pirates who captures Ryder, Huff has painted a very stark picture of what can happen to the human mind when it witnesses too much suffering. The thin veneer of civilization that provides us our moral compass and makes sure we follow the rules of our respective societies can only take so many poundings before serious cracks form. The Truth Of Valor does a remarkable job of depicting both the results of these cracks and how they form. Torin Kerr was an exemplary Marine and a compassionate human being, but even she has her limits, and watching her fight her internal battle not to give into the urge to cross the line between not caring and caring is one of the most exacting battles ever written about in Science Fiction.

On the surface the battle in this book may appear to be a pretty straight forward one between some good guys and some bad guys. However Huff not only starts blurring the lines by sending us on board the pirate ship with Ryder and allowing us to get to know the beings crewing it, but she also takes us into the battlefield that is the human mind. Probably the scariest battlefield in the universe. While The Truth Of Valor might share some elements in common with the old school military science fiction books, you'll soon realize that Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, its a good book period.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2010

Book Review: Instructions By Neil Gaiman Illustrated by Charles Vess

As adults we tend to forget how to children everything about them is strange and wondrous; that every step away from the familiar is fraught with peril and filled with potential dangers. Who knows for sure what lurks beneath the roses or what caused the bush in the deepest darkest corner of the garden to tremble? If the garden itself is filled with so many mysteries, what great adventures await should you choose to leave its safety? In the garden shelter is only a short sprint away, but out there in the world there will be no kitchen to replenish supplies when they run low or door to lock behind you when the sun expires and the shadows come alive.

It will take nerves of steel and a brave heart to venture beyond into the unknown for the first time. In fact, it's almost to much to expect anyone to take that dangerous plunge on their own. Even the bravest of adventurers has always at least consulted some wise person or oracle prior to seeking his or her fortune in the wild world, so it's not asking too much to seek some guidance. The only trouble is who can today's explorer turn to for advice in these matters? Parents may know about not touching burners or pulling on electrical cords, but what do they know about the little people who live under toadstools, the proper way to deal with giants, or how to hitch a ride on a giant eagle? No, one needs to turn to those who haven't forgotten how to look at the world and see behind the prosaic.

Thankfully not only do two such people exist, but they have just put out a guide book for all those wishing to travel through that door in the garden they've never seen before; a door leading to the world of imagination and mystery. In fact as their new book Instructions, released by Harper Collins Canada April 19th/10, (April 27th in the U.S.) shows, there can't be two gentlemen more suited for this task than author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Charles Vess. Not only have they created numerous fantastical worlds together in the past, (worlds where almost everything imaginable, and even some things unimaginable exist) both men have always seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the secret places where magic exists. I've always been inclined to believe their work in the past has been based on first hand experience, as if they had travelled to the places they've written and drawn about and not just visualized them in their mind's eye.
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Instructions is one of the handiest guides an explorer will ever come across as its filled with all sorts of useful information about the world in which fairy tales, myths, and legends exist. Unlike those boring guide books you see some people reading, filled with pages upon pages of text telling you where to find the best hotels and various tourist attractions, here words are kept to a minimum. Seeing is believing after all. Therefore, anyone you come across, or anything, in these pages, one way or another there's a good chance you might meet up with them someday.

Now instead of merely describing what awaits you beyond the wall, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Vess have enlisted the help of a friend to take a trip into the unknown so you can experience everything first hand. He's come into quite a few tales on his own and is known as quite an adventurer. Since they don't mention his name, I think he wanted to remain anonymous; but he has whiskers and a tail, and wears a fine set of boots, so you'll probably guess who he is easily enough. The first thing you'll notice when we step out through the door in the back of his garden is how important it is to keep your eyes wide open. There is plenty to see everywhere right from the start, including many friendly faces you've known from earlier days.

However, that's no reason to let your guard down, for you never know what might be lurking under the roots of a tree or when something as innocuous as a door knocker could give you a nasty bite. That's where what little text there is in the book become so important, for they are the specific instructions for you on how to act in certain situations. Whether they remind you to be kind and compassionate to any beings in need you meet along your journey, to be very careful about falling into wells as they lead to dark and dangerous worlds, how to best avoid giants or what you need to know about witches, their advice is the type of common sense you'll need when out in the world.

As might be expected from a work by the team of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Instructions is a lush and beautiful book filled with their love of the fantastic and the imaginary. You'll find they've paid homage to fairy tales and nursery rhymes from all around the world through both indirect and direct references. Part of the fun for people of all ages will be the moment of recognition they'll feel when they come across something or somebody familiar. Even though they are fantastic you will feel like you have met an old friend, somebody you loved dearly but haven't seen in a long time.
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Vess's illustrations do a wonderful job of bringing all the creatures, both good and bad, to life. What I especially appreciated was hoe he did so without resorting to imagery that was so nasty younger adventurers would fear the world beyond their door and how good wasn't always depicted as pretty and cute. You'll still know who is to be avoided and who is safe to talk to, but it will because of who they are, not just what they look like. An important lesson no matter what world you're travelling through.

As already mentioned Gaiman's text is sparse, but it applies equally to the fantastic journey depicted in the illustrations and the journey through life we all take. For while it's not very likely you'll be literally flying on a giant eagle's back anytime soon, it is important for you to aspire to fly as high as you can without being afraid of falling. Perhaps younger readers may not understand all the allusions in the text, but they can't help but get the overall message of not to be afraid of new experiences, and while the world might seem big and mysterious its nothing to be afraid of.

Like all the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes Instructions is as much set in our world as it is in the fantastic. Gathering together elements and characters from throughout familiar imaginary worlds in one place, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have created a world that is both recognizable and mysterious in much the same way the real world might look to someone when they prepare to set out into it for the first time. However, the instructions in this book are ones we'd all be wise to follow and remember, no matter what our age or experience.

April 3, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The art of storytelling is difficult enough as it is, but when an author attempts to recreate a culture, any culture, be it based on reality or imagined, he or she has set for themselves a task equivalent to scaling the highest of peaks. It's not enough to simply offer descriptions, the characters have to live and breath every nuance of the world created for them in order for it to come to life. Otherwise you end up with vessels moving in front of a pretty background like shadow puppets in a panorama. Everything from the way a character thinks to the way they hold themselves must be as carefully considered as any plot twist if an author is to have any hope of being convincing.

Guy Gavriel Kay has carved his own niche in the world of fiction through his ability to not only accomplish the above, but successfully meld it with historical fiction and fantasy. From the Byzantine Empire, Medieval France, Ottoman Spain, to Renaissance Italy, the pages of his books have exuded the colours and textures of historical eras with elegance and verisimilitude. The kings, peasants, warriors, and courtesans who wander through the market places, courts and battlefields where his stories unfold not only dress and act appropriately to their environment and status within it, the poetry they recite, the duels they fight, and the attitudes they strike are equally at harmony with the world they live in.

While his attention to detail would put a documentarian to shame, remarkably the reader never notices. Everything is so subtly integrated into the overall telling of the story, it's only upon reflection that you realize the amount of work that has gone into to the making of what you've just read. It's like the sudden realization when looking at a painting that has so accurately captured a person in time that thousands of brush strokes have gone into its making; you don't want to see them, but knowing they exist make you appreciate the work all the more. One need look no further than his new release, Under Heaven, being published by Penguin Canada April 3rd/10, (April 27th/10 in America) to see this in action.
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Inspired by the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China, Under Heaven is set in the fictional kingdom of Kitai and follows the fortunes of the second son of a general in the imperial army. Twenty years prior Shen Tai's father had led imperial troops into their last great battle with the neighbouring Tagur kingdom. Beside a remote lake bordering both kingdoms forty thousand men of both kingdoms lost their lives. When his father dies Shen Tai takes it upon himself to spend the official two year mourning period in a hut beside the lake burying the bones of as many of those who died there as possible. Without regard to rank or nationality he has spent nearly two years at his self appointed task with his only contact to the outside world being visits from soldiers of both empires' nearest forts who bring him supplies.

While Tai had been only the second son a general, one of many young men studying to pass the exams that would allow them admittance to the lowest level of the court's civil service, prior to his father's death, his actions by the lake have not gone unnoticed. It's on one of the re-supply visits from the Tagur soldiers that he first becomes aware of the enormity of what he's done when the Captain accompanying the soldiers gives him a letter stating he has been gifted with two hundred and fifty of the most magnificent horses in the world.

While he's till reeling from the news that he now owns horses whose worth will either make his fortune or, if he doesn't handle matters just right, result in his death, he just as unexpectedly receives a visitor. Here, beyond the final outpost of the empire he never expected to receive visits, yet a fellow student, accompanied only by one guard, deemed it so important he receive the news he carries that he's travelled across the land's breadth to tell him. It's a message he never delivers, as the guard turns out to be an assassin hired to ensure Shen Tai doesn't return to the capital. Although his friend dies, Tai miraculously survives the attempt on his life, and with the aid of the Tagur Captain concocts a plan that will not only see him survive the journey back through the empire, but ensure the safe delivery of the magnificent horses.

As we make the long journey back to civilization with Tai, we learn that he's not quite the unimpressive figure we might have thought at first. Not only has he served as an officer in the Imperial army, he had also studied for a time with warrior monks who are known not only for their martial prowess but their trustworthiness. While he may not have completed his training with the order, he still possesses some of their skills with weapons, which comes in handy as the assassination attempts weren't finished with that first one. However, by the time he reaches the capital city, and word has travelled ahead of him of the present he has been given by their former enemies, he might find himself remembering the assassination attempts with fondness. At least he could see where the danger lay in them and defend himself. The Emperor's court on the other hand is a seething mass of plots and intrigues. Most of which seem to be primarily centred around the newly appointed prime minister, his senior advisor, the prime minister's cousin, who also happens to be the Emperor's favoured concubine, and the most powerful military governor in the country.
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Trying to weave one's way through these webs of intrigue takes an amount of skill that would try most men at the best of times. Having to do this while attempting to find out who among the powerful wanted you killed, figure out what to do with two hundred and fifty horses whom everybody covets, and deal with the fact your eldest brother - the aforementioned advisor to the prime minister - has pretty much sold your sister into slavery by having her sent off to be the bride of tribal chief's son, is a seemingly impossible task. On top of this it seems that the machinations of the prime minister are about to send the country into a bloody civil war that could very well see the end of the current dynasty and result in millions of deaths. With war brewing, two hundred and fifty of the finest horses, faster and stronger than any to be found in the kingdom, are all of a sudden even more key to the empire's future.

Kay has never shied away from showing the steel that lies beneath the beauty on his pages and the ugly truth behind the romantic images of finely dressed nobility. In Under Heaven he not only manages to convey the nearly sublime beauty of the empire, but the brutal reality of what it takes for a small ruling class to keep millions to heel. The same man who can wax eloquent about the beauty of a flower, will think nothing of giving an order that will see thousands die or have a servant beaten nearly to death because his wine was not the right temperature. For all its sumptuous beauty, we are never allowed to forget the harsh truths of this empire and the iron fist required for its running.

The characters who populate the book's pages are as multilayered, if not more so, than the society they live in. While we gradually learn about Tai, he is learning about those around him. What's interesting is how in some cases the more we learn about a character the less impressive he is. For all his vaunted intelligence the prime minister turns out to be more cruel than anything else. Everything about the characters though, is consistent with the society they live in and the culture they belong to. From the way the women manage to manipulate events even though they are supposedly powerless in this society, to how servants take advantage of being beneath notice, all tell us a little bit more about the world they live in while making the picture Kay has created that much more believable.

Guy Gavriel Kay has the ability to bring worlds and people alive on the page in a way that few authors today seem capable of. Although he uses the same repertoire as other authors, characterization, plot, atmosphere etc., somehow they are employed in such a manner that we're not aware of them as individual components. Like dancers and music they move together in such harmony we can enjoy the image they create without noticing the steps taken bringing it about. In Under Heaven he not only reaffirms his reputation as a story teller par excellence, but as a master of bringing people and cultures alive. This is a magnificent creation that you will want to read over and over again for the joy reading it brings you.

March 24, 2010

Book Reviw: Werewolf Smackdown by Mario Acevedo

In Charleston South Carolina the upper classes try to retain something of the gentility of their plantation ancestors and celebrate the history of their colourful town. Like other major Southern cities, it suffered greatly during the Civil War and no effort was spared over the years to restore some of the pristine beauty that was lost during those troublesome times. So, the proud city fathers would be horrified to learn their city might soon be at the centre of another type of civil war, one that not only has the potential to raze the city to the ground and destroy its inhabitants, but also plunge the entire world into chaos and change life as we know it.

Sound a little over the top? Well consider the situation that Felix Gomez, veteran of the Gulf War, private investigator, and vampire, finds when he responds to a request for his services and travels down from his home in Denver to Charleston. The alpha leader of the area's Werewolf clans has died under mysterious circumstances, her small plane crashed killing all on board, and the two highest ranking males from the local packs are both vying to replace her. Gomez's hopes of the job having nothing to do with the world of the paranormal are quickly dashed when he discovers the person who requested his services, Eric Bourbon attorney-at-law, is not only one of those two leaders, but he wants Gomez to assassinate his opponent, Randolph Calhoun.

Normally vampires and werewolves have nothing to do with each other and either hiring one of the others to take care of internal business is not done. In fact, according to Gomez, official policy as set forth by the Araneum - Latin for spiderweb - the worldwide secret network of vampires, is strictly hands off when it comes to vampires getting involved with werewolves. Therefore it's only natural that Gomez tells Bourbon to handle his own killings. However as he is on his way back to his digs, a local mortuary who rents out coffins to vampires, to prepare to leave town he's ambushed by two vampires carrying not only Bourbon's business card, but one with the name of a renegade vampire scrawled across its back. A vampire who not only came real close to killing Gomez sometime back, but who was intent on revealing the existence of the supernatural to the human world in the hopes of provoking a war between the living and the un-dead.
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So the scene is set for the most recent of Mario Acevedo's hard boiled detective novels, Werewolf Smackdown published by HarperCollins Canada, featuring the latest inheritor of Philip Marlow's mantle of the tough talking gum shoe. While he shares his predecessors predilection for beautiful dames and hard liquor, he differs from Chandler's famous creation in some key ways. Aside from preferring a chaser of A-, and pleasuring his human companions by releasing enzymes into their blood stream through the holes he leaves in their neck (don't worry he's also neat as he heals them up after he's done), you'd have a hard time picturing either Marlow or Sam Spade knowing as much about foundation make-up as Gomez does.

As a vampire Gomez has some supernatural advantages over the rest of us; speed, agility, strength, and some amazing healing abilities. However he also shares many of the traditional aversions that have afflicted his kind throughout history with garlic and sunlight being the ones most likely to ruin his day. While Raybans, a good knowledge of foundation makeup and the liberal application of the highest ratted sun-block have made it possible for vampires to handle all but the brightest sun - a sun rise will cut through anything he can slather on his skin - he still has no defence against garlic or silver. Unloading a full clip from an Uzi into his chest might crack a few ribs, but when you don't have a heart regular bullets don't do any permanent damage. Jab him with a silver fork from your family's fancy flatware on the other hand and you're liable to cause some serious damage.
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It's a good thing that vampires are so durable because in spite of his best intentions, he quickly finds himself up to his neck in werewolves. No sooner has he dealt with the two vampires sent to kill him then he's forcibly taken to meet the man he was brought to town to kill. Needless to say while Bourbon has painted Calhoun the villain of the piece, Calhoun has a different story to tell and does his best to enlist Gomez to his cause. He also fills Gomez in on a few details Bourbon neglected to mention. In four days time Charleston will be swarming with werewolves as hundreds of them will be convening for a gathering of the clans in order to select a new area alpha and there is a very real threat of civil war breaking out between them. If a war of that scale starts it will be next to impossible to keep the existence of the supernatural a secret from the humans, and the possibility of out and out war between the two worlds ensuing as a result is a given.

While others have introduced the idea of the co-existing worlds before, and there's even a couple of vampire/werewolf detectives scattered among the pages of fiction already, the film noir world that Acevedo has created does a great job of bringing the genre to life in a way that is both matter of fact and realistic. Perhaps it's because all of the action takes place in the world of the supernatural where mortals very rarely make an appearance that he is able to make it all seem so matter of fact. Aside from those who hold positions of wealth in the "real" world, there's nothing glamourous about their lifestyle, nor are they particularly romantic figures with tragic pasts or any of that bullshit. Gomez is just a private investigator trying to make ends meet in his world. That he has an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a dryad or can talk to ghosts when they chose to make themselves visible, only seems natural considering who he is and the world he moves in.

Werewolf Shakedown is that wonderful creation that manages to successfully marry genres without sacrificing anything of what makes either of them intriguing. With humour, a good sense of the absurd, and wry intelligence he has in fact improved upon both to create a highly entertaining read. Don't come to this looking for cheap thrills, romance, or high intellect, but be prepared to hold on to your hat as Acevedo takes you on a great ride.

January 27, 2010

Book Review: Dust Of Dreams By Steven Erikson

How often do you read an eight hundred plus page book and get to the end not wanting it to end? I don't care how good a book it is, or how great the author, it takes something pretty special to not only hold your attention for that many pages, but to make you want it to keep going. Well, that's the case with the latest book from Steven Erikson, Dust Of Dreams, published by Random House Canada. In this, the ninth and second last book of his Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, not only has Erikson managed to maintain the level of intensity of the previous books, he ramps it up another notch, to the point where the reader is pretty much kept on the edge of their seats for the entire book.

Throughout the series Erikson has introduced us to literally hundreds of characters of various sizes, shapes, colours, and powers. Regular soldiers, kings, queens, wizards, gods, goddesses, demons, un-dead warriors of a variety of species, and shape-shifters, who represent an amazing array of species, worlds, and eras. In what has to be one of the most virtuoso pieces of universe creation yet, the action in Erikson's books is not limited to one world or one time period. In almost every book we are whisked backwards and forwards through time as the action not only spans continents and different planes of existence, but the past, present, and sometimes future of each location.

While locales and characters may change from book to book, the one constant in every book has been war. From the opening pages of the very first book, Gardens Of The Moon, where we find ourselves in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle, we haven't been able to escape the battle field. While some of the books deal with the battles waged by the Malazan Empire as it strives to both expand its territories and hold onto what it has captured at the same time, others deal with wars between races on distant continents with the latter seemingly unconnected to the former. However, no matter if the battle takes place between humans using mundane weapons or is being fought in the spirit world by gods and other outlandish folk, it's gradually become apparent that all of them have been skirmishes in one great conflict.
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One troop of humans the series has followed through various battles has been the beleaguered 14th army of the Malazan Empire. From their first battles quelling an uprising in the outlying reaches of the Empire, to their betrayal by the Empress herself on their return to their homeland, we've watched them turn from wide eyed, green recruits under the tutelage of a few veterans, to world weary, cynical, battlers. Having survived almost everything war can throw at them, from fire storms to sorcery, one would think they are now prepared to take on anything the world has in store for them. Yet when we meet up with them in Dust Of Dreams they seem more intent upon tearing themselves apart than readying for what might be their most deadly battle to date.

Part of that can be put down to the fact that they are still cut adrift, flying no country or empire's flag. They represent no one but themselves and the will of their leader, former Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore Paron. They neither know who they are about to fight, nor why they are heading off into some of the most inhospitable lands the world knows for this battle, but there are whispers of battles between gods and ancient forces making the rounds of their camps that make even the stoutest hearts quail and loyalties to waver. If Tavore knows what they are heading into, she's not saying, as not even her closest advisors and highest ranking officers are able to enlighten the troops. Those few among the troops, wizards, healers, and diviners of the future, who might reassure the troops with foreknowledge are no better off than the rest. In fact what little they are able to glean by reading signs or consulting their gods only makes them so uneasy it only increases the tension among their fellows.

It's not just the Malazans, or humans for that matter, who are preparing for battle. In fact it begins to appear that all who have survived the series to this point are about to converge at the same place and at the same time as the 14th army. Gods from the ancient days of the planet's life are plotting to regain power by attempting to depose those who have replaced them in mankind's pantheon. While their children and grandchildren may have come to ascendancy in other lands, here on this continent, belief in them is still strong enough for them to have the power necessary to strike what could be a blow that not only topples their descendants, but destroy the world. What better vengeance against a population that has begun to reject you is there for a god than destroying the world in which the mortals live?
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Does all this sound a little much? Are you confused? Well if you've not read the previous eight books in the series, or at least some of them, you'll be hard pressed to understand the context of what your reading and the majority of the plot lines won't make any sense. However, anybody who has been following Erikson from the beginning won't have any trouble keeping pace with events. While some new threads are introduced into the pattern, Dust Of Dreams is primarily populated by familiar faces and names continuing on the paths that Erikson set out for them whenever they first made their presence felt in the series. Whether it's Quick Ben or Fiddler, who we've followed all the way from the first book, or one of the myriad other characters who we've met along the way, their histories are sufficiently well known even if they've not been mentioned for a couple of books we're able to pick up their tale again with ease.

For it's the characters that have made this series so compelling from the onset. Erikson's careful attention to detail when creating the people who play significant roles in this world has ensured the reader will have no problems with continuity. It also means that even at this late stage in the game he is able to introduce new and seemingly unrelated story lines without creating any confusion. In fact those who have received only passing mention before, or who are introduced for the first time, not only play significant roles in helping build the series to its climax, they provide answers to questions that have been left dangling from previous books.

The Malazon Book Of The Fallen has distinguished itself from other epic ventures in the way it has always successfully melded action with thought. Not only is Erikson a master weaver of plots, a creator of fascinating characters, and the possessor of a vivid imagination, his work is far more intellectually stimulating than what you'd expect from the fantasy/sword and sorcery genre. His books raise questions about religion, faith, societal structure, war, human nature, and culture that both treat the subjects with the seriousness they deserve and integrate them seamlessly into the story lines. As a result there's never even the faintest whiff of pontification to be smelt while reading. Dust Of Dreams is no exception to this, as he continues to have his characters pose questions about their circumstances that encourage readers to think more carefully about their own situations without preaching or pretending there is only ever one solution to a problem.

Dust Of Dreams is the second last book in Steven Erikson's epic series The Malazon Book Of The Fallen, and like its predecessors its a masterful piece of storytelling. Not only does the author continue to hold our attention throughout the eight hundred and eighty some pages of the book, he does so through his usual admirable mix of action, thought, and humour. For those who've read all of the previous books in the series, this one will not only not disappoint, it will exceed your expectations. For those who've not read any of his other books - you don't know what you've been missing out on. In the future this will be the benchmark against which other epics will be measured.

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

December 2, 2009

Book Review: Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia By Christopher Paolini

When I first saw a copy of Christopher Paolini's Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia, published by Random House Canada, I have to admit to being of two minds. My first, albeit selfish reaction was, damn this is going to cut into sales of the book, What Will Happen In Eragon IV, I had been commissioned to write by Ulysses Press last year. However, as a fan of the series I was also interested in seeing how the various artists involved would bring Paolini's world to life visually. I've not seen the video game, but having found the movie adaptation of the first book in the series, Eragon, to be disappointing not only as a retelling but visually as well - heck they couldn't even recreate some of the beings accurately in spite of Paolini giving very accurate descriptions - I hoped for something a little better in this attempt.

I don't know how much say Paolini had in the decision making process as to the art used or the artists employed for the book, for the usual practice in book publishing is the author has little or no say in things like what a book's cover will look like or the design of the book. However in the case of Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia there would have had to be some co-ordination between the artists and the author as the art and text have been very carefully integrated. Still, Paolini could have come up with the text independently, and the artists and designers worked to create the illustrations and lay out of the book based on what he had written without consulting him. Therefore, much like the movie, there's a good chance he didn't have much say in the matter, meaning there was the possibility this could have been equally disappointing.
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Thankfully his publishers aren't about to mess around with one of their hottest properties, and as this book is obviously meant to tide people over until the release of book four, they have gone to great pains to be as true to Paolini's vision as possible in their selection of illustrators and illustrations. Again I'm not sure whose idea it was, but it was a brilliant stroke to have the text read like a personal letter from Eragon, welcoming the reader into the fold as a dragon rider and offering them the benefit of his knowledge of Alagaesia and its inhabitants. This allows the text to have a much more conversational tone then most books of this type. Far too often they end up coming across as a mixture of encyclopedia, dictionary, and history text, with the words and the illustrations end up existing as completely separate entities within the same covers.

The illustrations, by Fred Gambino, Larry McDougal, Ian Miller and David Wyatt, range from wonderfully detailed black and white pen and ink drawings, coloured illustrations, detailed maps, to the equivalent of full colour paintings that capture both the magical attributes and the harsher realities of the world created by Paolini. Jonathan Lambert's design has ensured the artwork is not only shown to its best effect, it also integrates the text superbly. There's always the risk in a book like this of trying to cram too much information onto one page resulting in a confusing hodgepodge of information. Lambert has avoided this through his careful use of fold out flaps to expand some pages, small, beautifully decorated, booklets that when opened reveal information specific to the subject at hand, and occasional samples of the objects under discussion, while never over saturating a page.

For example, on the page devoted to discussing the elvish people of Alagaesia the reader not only is treated to illustrations and text describing them and their home city of Ellesmera, you will find a collection of key phrases in Elvish, a description of their queen Islanzadi, and a description of their clothing in the small booklets affixed to the page. Carefully attached to these pages are also a small sample of the fabric elves use for making their clothes, while another envelope contains a small piece of elvish craftsmanship the reader can carefully remove to treasure as a souvenir of their trip to that country. There are treasures like this scattered throughout the book, ranging from an example of what a dragon wing feels like, to a very special treasure at the end of the book which I'll leave for the reader to discover on their own.
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As for the text itself, well you won't find out anything new about Alagaesia, the story, or anything about the characters in the story. What you will find in each section is that all the information Eragon has compiled during his journeys about a particular subject has been summarized in easy to digest chunks. From the overall history in the shape of a timeline, the map of the continent (with accompanying illustrations of some of the story's key locations), the history of each of the four main races of beings (elves, humans, dwarfs, and urgals), and on down the list including the wildlife found on the continent, each section will gives the reader an overview at a glance and the opportunity to explore the subject in more detail through the added pockets of information.

From Eragon's letter of welcome, tucked into an envelope stuck on the inside of the front cover, to his final message on the inside of the back cover, Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia offers a beautifully illustrated history and overview of the world Paolini created for his adventure. The individual illustrators have done a remarkable job of realizing Paolini's vision by bringing the environments and beings of the world to the page in a manner that is faithful to his text. While some people or places may not be exactly as you might have visualized them in your head while reading the books, there is never any doubt in your mind as to who or what are being depicted.

While you won't find any clues or discussion as to what the future holds for Alagaesia or Eragon, you can find that in another recently published book, for the fan of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle this book will be a visual treat and a pleasure from beginning to end. It may not be Book Four, but in the interim it will do just fine.

October 29, 2009

Book Review: The Forest Of The Pygmies By Isabel Allende

Far too often adventure stories set in places like Africa or other exotic locales feature Western heroes who have to overcome various challenges in order to achieve their goal. If the people who live in the area play any role in the proceedings it's either in the guise of savage natives who mean them harm, or simpletons who have to be led by the hand in order to get anything accomplished. If anything is said about their belief systems it is either represented as superstitious nonsense or some sort of black magic.

One of the things that impressed me the most reading City Of The Beasts by Isabel Allende was the way in which she depicted both the peoples, and their beliefs, of the Amazon rain forest. While some of her characters might have spouted the usual lines about dangerous savages, Allende made every attempt to counter that view in her descriptions of them and their behaviour. Her two central characters ended up spending time with one particular group of indigenous peoples and through their eyes we learned about their society and beliefs in as real a way as possible.

Therefore I was interested to see what she would do with the same characters when she transported them to Africa in Forest Of The Pygmies, being published in a brand new edition by Harper Collins Canada in their Perennial Editions imprint on November 3rd/09. It's been a couple of years since Nadia and Alexander shared their first adventure in the Amazon, and in the interim Nadia has moved from South America where she was born to New York City to live with Kate, Alex's grandmother, so she can go to school. With Alex still living in California with his parents they don't see each other any more than they did before, but they have stayed in constant touch via e-mails, and their friendship has grown far deeper than is usual between a teenaged boy and girl.
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When Kate receives an assignment to report on a new type of safari being offered to tourists in Kenya by the wildlife magazine she writes for, she and the two young friends are already overseas, so she makes it a condition of her acceptance that they accompany her. Initially the trip appears to be rather tame in comparison to their previous times travelling together. The new safari is adventurous enough, as it has the tourists being ferried around by elephants, and allows them unprecedented access to the wild life of the great plains, but its relatively safe. All of which makes the warning Nadia and Alex received from a Voodoo priestess to never separate or they faced death at the hands of a three headed ogre prior to beginning the safari all the more incongruous. The only danger they faced on the safari was from a troupe of mandrils who trashed their camp after breaking into Kate's store of medicinal vodka.

However, fate in the shape of a missionary searching for missing companions changes their plans just prior to their departure from Kenya. Agreeing to help Brother Fernando in his quest results in the air plane they were travelling in crash landing deep in the jungle at a spot near where he claimed his fellow missionaries had established a mission. It turns out that the closest village is ruled by a couple of army officers who have established their own personal fiefdom. They controll the local population of pygmies and Bantu tribes people through threats and violence. By holding their women and children hostage, King Kosongo and commandant Mbembele, force the pygmy tribesmen to carry out illegal hunts for elephant tusks which they in turn sell to smugglers.

It soon becomes obvious that the missionaries Brother Fernando is searching for were murdered by the two despots. When Alex, Nadia, Kate, and their companions are made "guests" in the village they realize the only way they can save themselves is if they can convince the locals to rise up against their rulers. Alex and Nadia manage to escape the village and join up with a hunting party of pygmy men - they have a day within which to capture an elephant or their children will face reprisals. The challenge for Alex and Nadia is to find a way to help the men regain their confidence sufficiently to be able to stand up for themselves against their enemies.
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As in the earlier book, The City Of The Beasts, Isabel Allende has her heroes find the answer by learning about the people they are trying to help. The pygmies are ancestor worshipers and believe in the power of the spirit world. Alex and Nadia spend a night in their burial grounds in an attempt to communicate with those who have gone before in order to find the means to restore the people's pride and sense of self. While the experience they have may border on the supernatural in some people's eyes, they learn not only about the pygmies, but gain a deeper understanding of their own fears and aspirations.

Even with the knowledge they gain through this experience the adventure is far from over, but just as important is the fact that Allende is opening the minds of her readers to the possibility that there are more ways to look at the world then the ones we've been taught. Knowledge can be gleaned from places other than books and the Internet, and simply because people look at the world in a different way than we do, doesn't make their view any better or worse, just different. Through the experiences of Alexander and Nadia readers learn of the diversity of beliefs and the multitude of wondrous ways which people have of seeing the world.

Not only has Isabel Allende written a novel that works as a rollicking adventure story for young people, but she manages to present as balanced a view of the world as you'll see in any work of fiction. Without making it obvious, or rubbing a reader's face in it, her stories teach valuable lessons about tolerance and understanding. The new Harper Perennial editions of the work include interviews with the author and a reading guide to help increase appreciation for the story. If you missed out on Forest Of The Pygmies in its previous editions, these enhancements make it the perfect time to pick up a copy.

October 28, 2009

Book Review: City Of The Beasts By Isabel Allende

Most adventure stories for young adults don't go much below the surface of the story. Oh sure there will be some sort of morale or lesson to be learned in some of them, but on the whole the action is what matters. The stories themselves aren't bad, but the books always seem to lack something in sophistication and too often have little or nothing to do with most young people's reality. Oddly enough the books that do the best jobs of dealing with subjects that are pertinent to young people are usually fantasy books set outside are everyday world. It's as if the story doesn't take place on earth or in our time period the author has licence to mention the subjects because he or she aren't dealing with reality.

So when I discovered South American author Isabel Allende, best known for her novels The House Of Spirits and Zorro had written a series of books for young adults I was intrigued as to what she would do with the genre. Allende usually does a remarkable job of mixing contemporary political and social issues into her novels without ever losing track of her responsibilities as a story teller. With Harper Collins Canada issuing new editions of her trio of young adult titles under their Perennial Editions it seemed like as good as chance as any to check out if she was able to have the same success with this genre as she's had with other titles.

City Of The Beasts, first published in 2002, is the first of three books (the other two being Kingdom Of The Golden Dragon and Forest Of The Pygmies) that see teenaged Alexander Cold flying halfway around the world with his grandmother Kate. Kate is anything but your average grandmother being a writer for naturalist magazines whose assignments invariably take her well off the beaten path to check out rumours of various exotic and dangerous creatures. At fifteen Alex's world is being turned upside down by his mother's battle with cancer. When his father decides that she will be better off be taken for treatment in a hospital in Texas, Alex and his two sisters are sent off to live with their grandparents.
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While he would have gladly joined his sisters in going to stay with his maternal grandmother, he's less than thrilled to be told he'll be spending the duration of his time with his dad's mom. When his father casually mentions for him to make sure to take his passport with him because it looks like he'll be going into the heart of the Amazon rain forest with Kate, he's heart sinks even further. When he finds out that he'll be joining an expedition searching for a mythological Yeti like creature, simply referred to as The Beast, who is said to release a scent that paralyses its victims before it cuts them open with huge claws, his only consolation is since nobody has ever found the Yeti, the chances of them finding The Beast will be pretty slim.

However he can't deny that he's not excited about the trip as well. He's been learning in school about the effects of civilization encroaching on the rain forest and the damage being caused to both its human and non-human inhabitants. As he's about to discover the reality of the situation is a lot more deadly and shameful than anything he's read or studied in school. He first hears rumours of it when he and his grandmother reach the small village that serves as their staging post for their exploration. Santa Maria de la Lluvia is considered the last outpost of civilization, and its dominated by the compound of a South American businessman Mauro Carias, who is always accompanied by the commander of the local army barracks, Captain Ariosto. While the army is nominally supposed to be there to protect the indigenous peoples on behalf of the government, the reality is that many of the local officers are in the pay of businessmen like Carias, and act as their personal armies.

Alex is soon taken under the wing of their guide's daughter, Nadia, who is about two years younger, but far more experienced in the ways of the jungle and its people. Shortly after he arrives she introduces him to one of her friends, Walimai, a shaman from one of the local tribes. When she tells Alex that he is accompanied by the spirit of his late wife he doesn't know whether she's teasing him, or simply deluded for believing such nonsense. However shortly before they are to leave he has an experience that forces him to change his attitude somewhat. Carias takes them on a tour of his compound where he has caged a magnificent black jaguar. Standing outside the wire fence looking in at the animal Alex experiences an out of body event where he feels like he becomes one with jaguar. When he explains what happened afterwards to Nadia she tells him that he has discovered his animal totem, and the jaguar will always be part of him.
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As they journey deeper into the jungle and Alex and Nadia encounter more of the people who live there, including a tribe who have had little previous contact with outsiders. The People of the Mist, so named for their ability to seemingly materialize and vanish into thin air, have managed to avoid contact with others until now because of the remote location of their village. However, Carias and Captain Ariosto have plans to exploit their land, and have developed the foolproof means of removing them as an obstacle. It's up to the two young people to come up with a way to foil them, and in the process they discover the secret of the mysterious Beast and other secretes of the Amazon basin.

Allende has done a remarkable job of not only writing an adventure story that will capture the imaginations of young people, but will also introduce them to the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin and the threat they face from the exploitation of their environment. At the same time she opens their eyes to the possibility there is more to the world than what meets their eyes. Both Alex and Nadia experience events that can't be explained away by logic or other rational means, yet at the same time everything that happens to them takes place in what is obviously our modern world not some fantastical creation of the author. However, the most important message that she's able to convey, and all this without once preaching or distracting from the quality of her story, is no one people have the answer as to what is civilization. While the ways of The People of the Mist are obviously completely unsuited for life in a city, that doesn't make them any better or worse than we are, just different.

Travelling around the world with Alex Cold, his grandmother Kate, and his new friend Nadia, will introduce readers to the amazing diversity of life that exists in the world around us. Whether it's on the physical plane experiencing the wonders, both beautiful and frightening, of nature and the importance of learning to co-exist with whatever environment you find yourself in, or the possibility of things existing that defy explanation, Allende opens your eyes to the fact that the world is quite a bit different from what we see every day. With so many amazing things to discover here on earth you may just find yourself wondering who needs fantasy or science fiction after all.

October 26, 2009

Book Review: In His Majesty's Service By Naomi Novik (Omnibus Edition: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, And Black Powder War)

When I was young I was fascinated with European history, especially the Napoleonic wars that changed the shape of Europe from 1798 to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Aside from the fact that he conquered most of Europe he was also responsible for the rise of nationalism among countries that had been former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of those countries he occupied actually looked to him as an example until his troops showed up on their doorstep. However that was knowledge I only came by later when studying the era in school. As a kid I garnered my history lessons from the books of two British authors, Ronald Welsh and C. S Forester. Welsh's books followed the fortunes of the Carey family in war from the Crusades to WWI, while Forester's books traced the career of British naval officer Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral.

It's been a long time since I read any books of that type, and to be honest, I didn't really think there was anyway an author could come up with an original enough way of presenting the same history over again to make it interesting enough to read. Well, I have to tell you that when I'm wrong I'm wrong. As I'm sure many of you have already discovered American author Naomi Novik not only created the means to do just that, but has done so in a manner which recreates everything that made those original books so wonderful to read at the same time. If you're like me and had never read any of her Temeraire series, Random House Inc is releasing the perfect answer on October 27th/09, In His Majesty's Service, an omnibus collection of the first three of the five books so far published; His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War. As a bonus they've also thrown in a previously unpublished short story set in the world she has created "In Autumn A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River"

In the world that Novik has created dragons exist and have the ability to communicate with humans. Not all dragons are fire breathers, some are prized for their weight, some for their manoeuvrability, while others for their ability to spit acid. However, no matter how valuable a resource they might be considered in times of war, in British society it's not the done thing for a gentleman to become an aviator. Buying a commission in the navy, the cavalry, or even the infantry is an acceptable occupation for a younger son of a good family, but Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy knows just what his father's reaction will be when through sheer chance he ends up bonding with a dragon.
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It matters little that his dragon, whom he names Temeraire after the first ship he served on, turns out to be an exceedingly rare dragon of Chinese breeding, a Celestial, he knows his father will look on it as a stain on the family's good name. However he soon discovers that he neither cares, or has time for his father's, or anybody else's, prejudices. For one thing he is astounded at Temeraire's capacity for learning and intelligence. However what amazes him most of all is the emotional bond that develops between him and Temeraire. He soon discovers he prefers his company over that of most humans. While the first book in the omnibus, His Majesty's Dragon is mainly concerned with developing the characters of both Temeraire and Laurence and establishing the world they live in, we do find out pieces of information which will bear significantly on the duos future adventures. Laurence had captured Temeraire's egg from a French vessel that it attacked as it would normally during the course of battle. However what they didn't know at the time was that the egg was meant to be a present for Napoleon from the Chinese Emperor.

So even though Temeraire almost single handed (winged) managed to repulse Napoleon's invasion fleet off the coast of Britain, the British government seriously considers sending him back to the Chinese when the emperor's second son shows up demanding he be handed over. In Throne Of Jade we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they travel to China in an attempt to plead their case. It's while in China that the two come face to face with how unfairly dragons are treated in the West. In European countries dragons are kept at a far remove from humans, and treated with only a little more courtesy than other domesticated animals. However in China they discover the society is set up to accommodate both species, from city streets being wide enough for dragons to stroll through them freely, dragons being paid for their services, knowing how to read and write, to having positions of authority both in the military and civilian life.
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While Black Powder War details their return to Great Britain, we also learn that as a result of their activities in China they have made for themselves, and Britain, a deadly enemy. Lien is a giant albino dragon who holds a personal grudge against them for their role in the death of her rider. That he was trying to kill Laurence and overthrow his father the emperor of China is irrelevant, and now she has offered her services to Napoleon in order to see Britain overthrown and Temeraire dead. What can one dragon do you might wonder? Well plenty once she's able to convince Napoleon to start using dragons the way the Chinese do and teaching them the battle plans she studied in China.

While all dragons carry a certain number of crew, nobody had thought to use them to act as troop and supply transports until Lien suggested it to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire witness the success of her new tactics first hand as they barely escape from the debacle of the defeat of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon while making their way home from China. For using dragons to increase their mobility the French army is able to advance so fast that they take the Prussians by surprise and cut off their planned retreat through Poland to join up with the Russian army. Even though our heroes manage to escape from Europe they are returning to an England totally bereft of allies and faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince the British high command to change their means of employing dragons or fall to Napoleon as surely as Europe did.

What's amazing about these books is how well Novik has managed to not only bring 19th century Europe to life, both in the attitudes of her characters and her descriptions of society, but how seamlessly she has integrated dragons into the mix. As we get to know dragons through the eyes of Laurence, as his awareness of their capabilities and sentience grows, so does ours. Like most people of his class and generation he never had considered dragons beyond their uses in war. Now that his eyes have been opened to the their place in society in China, he knows that things will have to change, We watch with astonishment as Temeraire learns to not only speak Chinese but to write its characters first using a claw. In many ways Temeraire is like an exceptionally bright teenager who is only now beginning to realize just how curtailed his activities have been by the adult world.

At the same time Novik has done an equally credible job of bringing aerial combat with dragons alive. Similar to naval engagements with boarding parties and rifle fire, there's the added thrill of the dragons assaulting each other, and of course the dangers involved with fighting pitched battles on the back of a bucking, twisting, weaving, and roaring dragon. If your guy wire holding you onto your ride is somehow cut, you could very well find yourself tumbling thousands of feet to your death. Like navy crews who spend days on end in the rigging of their ships with the deck seemingly miles away, those wishing to crew a dragon need a good head for heights.

Obviously Novik has taken some liberties with history - there were no dragons present at the battle of Trafalgar as far as I know, but she has done much to bring new life into what had become a moribund and predictable genre. I've never been a fan of alternate history, but instead of floating some what if premise about the course of history, Novik has merely added another ingredient to the mix to make historical fiction that much more interesting and exciting. If you've not read any of her Temeraire series yet, I not only recommend it highly, but can think of no better introduction then the omnibus In His Majesty's Service containing its first three books. The Napoleonic Wars, and historical fiction, will never be the same again.

September 16, 2009

Book Review: Gods Of War By Ashok Banker

One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.

Thankfully that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15th/09. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and its all the better for it.

For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up, a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders, Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
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While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation as they have fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation. If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is, Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth the red necked lesbian who works in a ship yard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan whose differences are more significant than their similarities.

It seems no matter what they believe, or who they are Ganesha wants the same thing from each of them. To come with him to the ends of the universe in a desperate attempt to save the world, if not all of creation itself, by stopping a war that's being fought for control of what they are told might as well be the City of Heaven. When they reach their destination they discover they aren't the only beings who have been invited along, as there are creatures of all shapes, sizes, smells, and sounds from all over the universe involved as well. Yet what is it they were watching when they witness the war taking place in and around the City of Cities - the home of the Gods? Who would have the nerve to attack the gods?
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In Gods Of War Ashok Banker shows us the great battle line that exists in our world today between faith and science. The war may not actually be taking place in as graphic a manner as he depicts in this book, but what else would you call the actions of people who use the name of God as their justification for rape and murder but an attack on the Gods themselves? Yet in spite of the heavy theme of the book, Banker never forgets he is a story teller, and its within that framework that he delivers his message.

We get to know each of the characters in the book as intimately as possible and we see the story unfold through their eyes. It's because he takes that care his message is so powerful. As readers we are absorbed from the moment we first meet Santosh in Mumbai until the last page because whether we like the characters personally or not, they have become so real for us that it's like we are their sixth companion. While we may not fully grasp the significance of what's happening, or fully appreciate what each character is experiencing, there are enough universal elements to allow us to relate to each of them on some level. Emotions are emotions no matter who you are, and Banker's ability to describe people's emotional reactions to circumstances act as a bridge carrying us into the heart of the action.

Yet in spite of its large scale, he somehow manages to keep the story remarkably personal so that we take in each detail of what his characters are feeling and experiencing. Banker has an unerring knack of being able to bring any scene he describes to life in vivid detail, and although there are times in this book we may wish he wasn't quite so good at this job, the fact that location after location graphically comes to life in our mind's eye pulls us deeper and deeper into the story. In some ways its like watching an epic film unfold as scene after scene comes alive on the page.

Gods Of War proves once again that not only can Ashok Banker describe the great sweeping events of history, but he can do so in such a way that we are all able to relate to them on a personal level. He takes a complicated theme, and instead of dumbing it down or trivializing it, he integrates it into his story in such a way that it comes to life. This is a wonderful story, by a remarkable and gifted storyteller.

September 7, 2009

Book Review: The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet By Arturo Perez-Reverte

S'Blood, tis perilous times for a man to keep tryst with a lady. If proper care isn't maintained, why you could find four feet of the finest Toledo steel has given you a button hole in both the fore and aft of your doublet. While tis true that Madrid under the most blessed Catholic rule of King Philip IV is known to be home to some of the most hot tempered, proud, and boastful rouges in all of Christendom, a man might reasonably expect to make his way to the warm succour offered by his current paramour's arms without worrying that behind each shadow lurks his untimely demise.

Yet when Diego Alatriste, known far and wide by his honorific, Captain Alatriste, sets forth to meet with Maria de Castro, the most beautiful woman to trod the boards of theatres in any country, his sword and dagger are brought into play in order to chase off two ruffians. Now it's widely known that Senora de Castro not only routinely cuckolds her husband, although whispers say he accepts bags of coin in exchange for her favours, she is wont to have more than one gallant "paying" homage to her beauty at any one time. So the good Captain assumes the ruffians attempting to separate. him, his body, and his soul from this mortal coil were merely those hired by one of La Castro's many other suitors blinded by rage, envy, and spite who believed his own path to her delights would be smoother without another already in position.

Alas, if the matter were only so simple for the Captain that having dispatched those two in the shadows of Madrid's night shrouded streets, he could have continued on enjoying the affections of this truly beautiful woman until she bored of his attentions. However as we continue to peruse the pages of The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet, from the noble pen of Arturo Perez-Reverte being published on this forthcoming eighth day of September in the year 2009 by Penguin Canada, we will see the matter is not as cut and dried as thrusts and parries exchanged in the night either by a man and a woman or two men with forged and tapered lengths of steel.
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For while it is one thing to compete with one's fellow man for the affections of a lady, no matter how base or noble her birth, it is another matter all together to vie with God's anointed majesty Philip IV. Where his noble father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were known for their empire building, a sign of Spain's faded glory is that the current Philip is best known for his love of hunting both in the fields by day and bedrooms by night. Alas for Spain, for although to all outward appearances nothing may seem amiss, this king's willingness to put much of the running of the country into the hands of others while his hands are busy elsewhere has weakened her terribly.

Even sixteen year old Inigo Balboa Aguirre, Alatriste's ward and our sometime narrator, whose loyalty to his king and country is unquestioned, can not help but commenting on how the king's failure to attend to matters of state himself has left many another man's pockets filled with gold, the county's coffers barren, and the course Spain pilots through international waters threatening to cast her upon the shoals along side the wrecks of many a lesser country. In fact it is the job of one of the king's closest companions and advisors to ensure his most Catholic Majesty's path to pleasure and sport is cleared of any obstructions that might interfere with his success.

It is this same gentleman, the Count of Gaudalmedina, who discreetly tries to warn Alatriste of the danger he runs by daring to compete with the king for the same woman. However, this being Spain as recreated by Perez-Reverte, plots hatch quicker then chicks from a hen's eggs. Spain in the seventeenth century is a dangerous place even for those God has set higher than the commonality, and there's always a faction looking to find a way to increase their power at the point of a sword even if it means regicide. What better way to throw the scent off the real criminals then to make Philip's death appear to be the work of a lover whose affections were overthrown by a beautiful woman so that she could dally with the King instead?
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However, not even the Count is able to see through the mists of deception that hang over Madrid this season. For although word has reached his ear of a plot against the King, he is of course not privy to the form or shape it would take. For how could anyone, unless gifted with an ability to peek through the curtain of time, been able to foretell what was in store for all concerned. Plots using beautiful women as bait succeed where others might fail, for the principles, blinded to their surroundings. are lucky to even see the sword that impales them .

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet is the fifth recounting of the adventures of Captain Alatriste to be translated from the tongue of Kings into heretical English, but even this can do nothing to diminish the shining light that is the talent of Aturo Perez-Reverte. While in the hands of some lesser writers the protagonist of a series of books may start to take on mythic qualities, the Captain's metamorphosis takes a far different direction. Honour and pride, virtues in some instances, can also prove ones undoing, especially when combined with a streak of stubbornness which prevents a man from retreating from an untenable position. Unfortunately sometimes a man is placed in circumstance where his choices are take away from him, and in those instances his darker side is revealed. When wine and anger form an unholy alliance in Alatriste's woe be any who happen to catch his eye in the wrong way, or even by chance, as he proves when he casually picks a fight with a lout in a bar and with equal casualness runs steel through his heart.

True the fates had made it seem like his friends had all turned against him, and he was being denied what little joy he could get from life by the very person, the King, for whom he had risked his life time and time again in battle fields across Europe and the allies of Madrid. To be so discarded, and thought so little of must have galled a man of such pride, but to go out and commit murder because of it - well that paints a picture of a man inside whom dark forces are at work. Who knows what awaits our Captain in the future, only God and Arturo Perez-Reverte know for sure, but one thing is definite, neither redemption nor peace will ever come easily for one such as he.

Deftly written, with pinches of humour and snatches or ribald poetry scattered throughout to lighten some of the darkness, Perez-Reverte, continues the adventures of Captain Alatriste and Inigo with his usual aplomb and skill. As is usual half the fun are his descriptions of life in Madrid in the waning days of Spain's imperial might. However, like Alatriste himself, when it's time to get down to the business at hand he once again proves there is no one cooler under fire. His plots, while complicated are never convoluted, and we walk down the same paths as his characters only hoping to find our way out in time to save our necks.

For those who have grown tired of the romantic view of history so common in fiction, these books are the perfect antidote as Perez-Reverte does not shirk from showing the foul with the sweet. Very little separates the heroes and the villains in these books in terms of character and motivation save for the side on which they are fighting. While we may be on the side of Alatriste and Inigo, that's only because they are telling us the story - who knows what we'd feel if we heard the same tale from the other side of the table? There's nothing cut and dried about these books, and that's what makes them invaluable. Once you've read one, you'll want to read them all, and then impatiently wait for more.

One can purchase The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet from either Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

August 25, 2009

Book Review: MarsboundBy Joe Haldeman

I've never been much of a fan of what's known as hard science fiction. You know people flying on space ships to distant galaxies and the alien life forms they meet while travelling. Part of that reason was when I started reading them back the in 1960's and 70's the majority of what I picked up always seemed to in some way reflect the cold war mentality that was prevalent at the time. Obviously there were some exceptions to that rule, Ray Bradbury, for instance, is a great story teller who happens to write science fiction and fantasy, but most else what I attempted to read by the supposed big names of the time, read like so much propaganda.

I might have even given up on the genre altogether if I hadn't come across The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. A Vietnam war veteran Haldeman not only took an anti-war stance, he openly questioned the us and them mentality and other black and white visions of the world that were commonplace in other books.
It's been over twenty-five years since I first read one of his books and he's yet to disappoint me, and his most recent release, the mass market paperback edition of Marsbound from Penguin Canada is no exception. Something I've always admired about Haldeman is his ability to take the standard science fiction plot idea and put his own distinct touch to it. In this case its a first contact story between humans and alien life and he's breathed some much needed new life into.

It's some unspecified time in the future when the story starts and eighteen year old Carmen Dula, her mom, dad, and little brother Card are about to go on the longest journey most of them have ever taken. They along with a couple dozen other people - family groups from around the world - have won the chance to join humanity's first tiny outpost on Mars. Carmen and Card had to spend a year studying so they could pass the pre-evaluation test for children and once they proved they wouldn't show any psychotic tendencies from being confined in a small space with a couple dozen other people for six months, it was a matter of hoping they would be chosen.
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At least when they began the process it was a matter of hoping to be chosen but with the voyage immanent Carmen is starting to experience doubts. Some are, naturally enough, trepidation about the trip itself as there are still plenty of things that could go wrong on the voyage. First of all there's the fifty thousand mile ride in the Space Elevator that takes them out of Earth's atmosphere up to where the space ship John Carter is waiting to take them to Mars. If the cable should break on this elevator it's not the impact at the end of the fall that kills you, it's the burning up on re-entry. Carmen's trip to Mars ends up being relatively un-eventful save for a couple of scary minor hiccoughs with the Elevator cable and an oxygen leak on the space ship, and the fact that she began an affair with Paul the pilot of said ship after quite a bit of wine and a zero gravity dance party. Interestingly, the latter ends up setting off a chain of events that not only leads to first contact, but the near destruction of earth.

A drunken tryst in zero gravity nearly bringing about the annihilation of earth could be used by some as an argument against pre-material sex I suppose, except it's just the sort of person who would make an argument like that who actually sets in motion the chain of events leading up to the near cataclysm. Dargo Solingen, the general administrator of the Martian Outpost, takes such a dislike to Carmen because of her dalliance, she monitors all of her conversations either by bugging her room or eavesdropping on her radio when she's in a space suit in the hopes of catching her doing something wrong. Dargo can't punish Carmen and Paul for having sex, but she's in a position to make Carmen's live miserable whenever possible.

It's a fit of pique at the first of these punishments that sends Carmen unwisely out alone onto the surface of Mars. When she falls through the a thin section of the planet's surface and breaks her leg and damages her back-up oxygen supply she figures she's as good as dead. However she's rescued by beings who have been living under the surface of the planet for thousands of years - beings who mysteriously speak most of the main languages spoken on earth. Technically not Martians as they did come from another planet originally, and definitely not descended from any species ever known to exist on earth as they have eight appendages instead of the usual four of most primates and mammals, they're also more than just another life form. They're an organic early warning system put in place to warn their developers when humanity begins space travel and assess their potential as a threat.
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While much of the scenario outlined might sound distressingly familiar to readers of science fiction, Haldeman as usual adds his own flavouring to make it much more interesting than you might think. Experiencing the story through the eyes of an eighteen year old young woman on the verge of adulthood gives the reader a far different perspective on this type of situation than they've probably ever experienced before. Haldeman has created a very realistic young person, filled with the insecurities and worries of all young adults learning how to take responsibility for their actions. Her reactions to Dargo are typical of those of any intelligent teenager to an autocratic and vindictive authority figure, it's just the circumstances and the results that aren't what we're used to.

Haldeman's message in this well told story is there for anyone who wants to see it as Dargo uses security as her excuse for compromising not only Carmen's personal rights, but in the end the safety of the whole human race. He makes it perfectly clear which side of the phone line tapping argument he comes down on, as Dargo's continued, and increased, unauthorized and illegal surveillance of Carmen pushes things dangerously closer to disaster. One person can't take the law into their own hands, no matter what their position or their excuse. While Carmen, as the person who first made contact is designated ambassador to the Martians, is being advised by scientists of all stripes, Dargo's actions are based on her personal prejudices and carried out without consultation with anyone.

One of the things I've always appreciated about Joe Haldeman's writing is his ability to make the extraordinary matter of fact. The worlds he creates in his books are all the more believable because the characters go about their business just as you and I do. We might not recognize the circumstances, but we can see ourselves in the people who are trying to deal with them which makes it much easier for us to believe in what's going on. Marsbound is no exception as Carmen is a teenager much like many teenagers - maybe a little smarter than average, but still filled with the same hopes and doubts. We've all been there - but not all of us have travelled to Mars. Part coming of age story, part romance, and part mystery Marsbound is an excellent read providing a new twist on an old science fiction theme. This is another fine book from one of science fiction's most original and thought provoking writers.

You can purchase a copy of Joe Haldemans' Marsbound either directly from Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

July 5, 2009

Book Review: The Lees Of Laughter's End By Steven Erikson

There's nothing like the sea air for rejuvenating you, so you'd figure an ocean voyage would be just what the doctor ordered for Emancipor Reece. The luckless servant of necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach is in need of the tranquillity and peace that is supposedly offered to those who travel those wide open expanses. Sure he has gainful employment that takes him far away from his wife and the children she claims are his, but as we've seen in previous titles featuring him and his masters, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead, working for necromancers hasn't been without its disadvantages.

Having to leave town in a hurry when their habits have disturbed the locals too much is the least of the tribulations that has driven Reece to find various means to render himself insensate. It was one such occasion which forced him to book passage for his masters and himself on a vessel not asking many questions about its passenger's reason for travel or recent history. Unfortunately for Reece the captain and crew of the good ship Suncurl haven't been completely forthcoming when it comes to their own provenance, meaning they're all in for some unpleasant surprises during the course of the voyage.

While not much can ruffle Bauchelain's equanimity, after all his travelling companion in an effort to compensate for the loss of his manhood (Broach is a eunuch) has constructed a child out of living organs that he's removed from other humans, even he is a little put out to find that not only has a lich manifested on board, but a god is after the little ship as well. While the lich, a being composed of a multitude of souls that manifests as the bodies of said souls mashed together, is trouble enough when it starts grabbing crew members in an effort to bulk up, the god and the reason it's chasing the ship could be more than even the combined talents of Bauchelain and Broach together can handle.
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Welcome to author Steven Erikson's third book devoted to the adventures of three characters who played a small roll in his epic series The Malzan Book Of The Fallen. Published by Nightshade Books The Lees Of Laughter's End reunites readers with the two most likeable evil characters you're liable to ever meet. As long as you skirt over their nastier habits, and the fact that their very presence sends shivers up and down most people's spines, as evil necromancers go these two aren't such bad sorts, even when you get to know them. Why Bauchelain is probably one of the most urbane and witty types you'll ever meet. All right so he has any number of demons that he has summoned at his disposal, and could probably peel the flesh from your bone with a spell if he was so inclined, but everybody has their little foibles.

It's unfortunate that Korbal Broach doesn't share any of his partners more redeeming features when it comes to social interactions, but he's shy by nature and prefers to skulk in the shadows and avoids most company. On the other hand it's doubtful you'd want to meet him under those circumstances either, because he's usually out hunting for "components" to add to his child. So unless you're prepared to become an unwilling live organ donor, you'd best avoid dark allies when Korbal is in town.

Needless to say both gentlemen are also exceptionally handy to have on your side in a fight, so the crew of the Suncurl are quite prepared to overlook any and all of the duo's nastier habits when the screaming starts and crew members start vanishing in the hold of the ship. However even they can't prevent the lich from wrecking havoc and when the god shows up, from securing his prize. Yet in the end our erstwhile heroes and their faithful manservant come through this scrape relatively unscathed, and with enough of the ship and crew intact to continue their voyage.
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Those who are familiar with Erikson's from the Malazan series have come to know and love his ability to create memorable characters and fascinating story lines. However, what they might not be as aware of is his very macabre sense of humour. It's not often an author can make the actions and behaviour of a blood thirsty monster funny, but listening in on the lich as its various souls complain, voice opinions, and generally argue amongst itself is as funny a bit of writing that will turn your stomach as you've probably ever read.

It's not just the demons who are fun to read about either, the motley assortment of crew are as strange and original as any of the odd characters Erikson has created to populate the fringes of his world in the past. The Captain and her three companions turn out to be something other than just your standard sea faring folk, being ex-members of a city guard who stole from the city they were supposed to be guarding and took to the sea in an effort to put their former employers behind them. Unfortunately aside from just stealing coin of the realm, the also lifted some statues from the treasury, which is what has attracted the attention of the god who is in hot pursuit of the ship.

While the sea voyage might not have agreed with Emancipor Reece so far, and the crew's numbers have been drastically reduced, those of us merely observing the action on board the good ship Suncurl are having a great time. I don't think I've read an author who can make gruesome as funny or bring it to life with such skill and wit as Erikson does in The Lees Of Laughter's End. Others might be as funny, but nobody can match him for intelligence and character creation. His ability to take the absurd to its logical conclusion - if a creature like a lich is made up of multiple souls it only makes sense that it would occasionally argue amongst itself - is what separates him from most others and keeps a reader in stitches.

If you've read other books set in the world of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, you'll appreciate this stand alone story featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the different view of the world it offers. However, even if you've not read anything else by Erikson, you'll find a lot to enjoy in this odd little tale. Originally published in England by PS Publishing, Nightshade Books has now made The Lees Of Laughter's End available to North American readers and it can be purchased either directly from their web-site or any discerning on line retailer.

July 4, 2009

Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk underneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odours that waft out from the bakery she or he passes by on their morning walk, and feel the same cold wind they do bite my cheeks. Sure, it's all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it when I read. If I wanted to just look at something as a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.

Well, if you share any of that sentiment than you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game, that was just published by Random House Canada. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. The book opens in 1917 with our narrator, David Martin, recalling how it was that year, when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. However, instead of this being a pleasant memory, he says from the moment a writer first sells a piece he is doomed and his soul has a price. When soul and price are mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.

However before we take that plunge Zafon makes sure we know why it could happen to David. Not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-soldier, father. However, it's the fact that Zafon manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child - takes away his or her expectations of anything good happening to them, that makes this important for the story. In fact it's a copy of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations that makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous. For he's lucky that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. However, after beating David for wasting money by using electricity in order to read the Dickens novel, his father begins to have a change of heart and starts to allow David to buy books. But as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
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However, as a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for that first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end it's Pedro who finds a publisher who employs David to write an ongoing series of crime fiction adventures. With an income assured, he's able to consider finding a place to live that's not a slum. Ever since he was a child David had been attracted to an old abandoned mansion whose prominent feature was a tower. As soon as he has the money to be able to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.

Although he considers he long ago sold his artistic soul by agreeing to write pulp fiction, the selling of his own soul comes about in a slightly different manner. Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David had started to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These turn out to be from a man who claims to be a book publisher who has a most unusual request; he wants to commission David to write him a religion. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent, and finally David agrees to the contract. Anyway, 100,000 francs is an awfully large amount of money for a years work.

Needless to say agreeing to the job is the beginning of his descent into his personal hell. It turns out that the previous occupant of where he lives died under very mysterious circumstances. When David begins to investigate he discovers that before he died the man had been working on a book for a mysterious publisher who had promised him 100,000 francs. David is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches into the highest ranks of society. The deeper he digs, the deeper he gets into trouble for as corpses start to pile up around him the police begin to blame him. However, he can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all no matter what happens.
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With The Angel's Game Zafon has created a multilayered treat for readers that incorporates all the best elements of gothic horror and murder mysteries while at the same time creating characters who are incredibly realistic. We watch how disappointment after disappointment pushes David into the arms of his tempter. For it's only when the last of his personal dreams and expectations are squashed that he surrenders. As David descends into darkness so does the book. For while the beginning of the book does contain some sadness, the death of his father, there are moments of genuine humour and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light".

Zafon has gone to great pains with this book to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The city, and all the other environments in this book are as much characters, and are as well drawn, as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvellous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martin and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page turner but also as thought provoking as this one. A rare combination that deserves to be savoured and read over and over again.

You can purchase a copy of The Angel's Game either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

May 28, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium By Tanya Huff

Most authors end up being identified with a specific type of writing. He's a horror writer, she writes romance novels, and he writes historical fiction. There aren't too many writers out there who are able to switch between genres easily and create stories as credible in one as they do in another. One of the exceptions to this is Canadian fantasy/science fiction/horror novelist Tanya Huff. She's not only capable of delivering well crafted stories and plots in every genre she attempts, but she also consistently creates memorable characters whom her readers can identify with whether they're the bastard vampire son of Henry VIII of England or a Marine Staff Sergeant fighting in deep space.

Therefore, whenever a new novel by Huff is released I always look forward to discovering what she's planned for us this time. For while she does have some continuing series, she also can be counted on to bring out something apart from them at regular intervals. That's the case with her latest release from Penguin Canada, The Enchantment Emporium. Like so many others of her books this one is set primarily in a landscape that will be alien to most of us, the city of Calgary in the province of Alberta Canada.

The second largest city in the province best known for being the home to Canada's largest population of cowboys, and the largest producer of Natural Gas and Oil, seems at first glance to be an unlikely place to set a fantasy novel. Yet that's just what Huff has managed to do with her usual flair. It seems that beneath its rather roughneck surface Calgary is home to a rather large population of fantastical beings and they all seem connected to the Enchantment Emporium of the title. However, there's also something not quite right in Calgary, and it looks like some sort of deadly convergence of powers is about to take place that could end up levelling the city.
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Alysha Catherine Gale isn't to know this when she receives a mysterious letter from her grandmother saying that if she's reading it that means her grandmother is probably dead, and could she come out to Calgary and take care of her store, The Enchantment Emporium. Now while the news of a grandmother's death might come as a shock to most families, the Gales, by anyone's stretch of imagination, aren't most families. They are a family of magic users who can change the course of events with the charms they cast. However there's more to them than just being spell casters. The men of the family having a tendency to manifest antlers when they exert power and butting heads with each other on occasion being only one example.

If the thought of the Gale men growing a rack the dream of every weekend hunter gives you pause, than what the women who are the real power in the family can do with pie and cakes is better left alone. Sufficient to say that evil sorcerers will go into hiding for years on end in order to avoid being sniffed out by just one of the Gale woman, let alone the older women known as the aunties who try to control the family. To the younger generation like Alysha, the aunties as a group are a combination matchmaker and interfering busybody who ninety percent of the time you wish would stay the hell out of your business. However, the other ten percent, when the you know what is about to hit the fan, you couldn't find a better group for guarding your back.

It's mainly because of their annoying tendencies that Alysha jumps at the opportunity to go and check out what's going on in Calgary. While no one really believes that there's anything out there that could have put grandma down, something did make her disappear which makes it worth looking into. So with the help of Joe, a rather oversized leprechaun, she takes up the job of both running the Enchantment Emporium, and trying to figure out what happened to her grandmother. Her job would be a lot easier of course if she didn't have to deal with any number of her cousins "helping", and trying to figure out a way of preventing the aunties from killing the new love of her life just because he happens to work for an evil sorcerer.

While said evil sorcerer doesn't appear to have had anything directly to do with her grandmother's disappearance, after all been he's hiding from her for the last ten years, (The Gales kills sorcerers just on principal alone because they are the epitome of the saying, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) something he's done just might be be behind it. Of course the fact that there's a gateway open between the other realms - places where demons and other assorted nastiness lives - in the middle of downtown Calgary might also have something to do with it. It also might explain the presence of the twelve dragon lords who keep buzzing the Enchantment Emporium every morning and giving the local pigeons heart attacks.
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If it sounds like there's a lot going on in The Enchantment Emporium, you're right there is. However, one of the wonderful things about Tanya Huff is her ability to build a story like a giant jig-saw puzzle, and each piece that's supplied makes the picture that much clearer, not more confusing. So as Alysha, and her compatriots, gradually figure our what's going on, so do we. In this way Huff not only has created a story that's easy to follow, she also pulls us into it by keeping us involved with its development. Even better is the fact we are able to enjoy the ride at the same time.

Part of what makes the ride so enjoyable is that all of the characters, from Alysha to the dragon lords, are a pleasure to read about. They are funny, smart, and not without their flaws; all of which makes them real to us no matter how outlandish they might be. The depiction of a dragon lord in his human form, a being who could destroy the city of Calgary without thinking twice, white knuckling through his first car ride is a great example of not only Huff's humour, but her ability to create multidimensional characters.

Tanya Huff fans will be pleased to know that The Enchantment Emporium is filled with examples of her rather offbeat humour like the scene described above, and that her slightly askew world view hasn't changed in the least. While there's nothing normal about the Gale family in terms of our world, within the covers of this book their reality is normal and it just might change the way you look at things. It's not very often that you find a book that's not only hugely entertaining, an exciting adventure, and that also provides you an opportunity to change your perspective on the way the world works, but that's what Tanya Huff does here. If you've never read anything by Huff before, this is as good a place as any to start, and if you're a long time devotee you won't be disappointed either. This is one fantasy book that is genuinely fantastic.

Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or another on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 10, 2009

Book Review: Sivler Phoenix By Cindy Pon

To the eyes of us in the West the geographical area of the world we know as China has been long a mystery. I'm sure the majority of North Americans still think of breaded chicken covered in lurid red sauce and badly dubbed Kung-fu movies as the epitome of Chinese culture. Those who are slightly more enlightened maybe able to tell you that its one of the world's most populated countries and has recently developed into an economic giant. Depending on your view point she's either an oppressive regime using slave labour to flood the world with cheap merchandise, or the land of opportunity where a shrewd businessman can make his fortune.

Thankfully things are different when it comes to books, and we've seen the publication of numerous works translated into English from Chinese starting to show up on the shelves of bookstores. Even better, is that after years of silence the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants are also beginning to create art which honours their heritage. Cindy Pon, whose first novel Silver Phoenix was just released by Harper Collins Canada doesn't quite technically fit into either of the above categories as she was born in Taipei Taiwan, but her family immigrated to the US in 1980 and she writes in English.

I'm no authority on Chinese culture, particularly folk tales, but in Silver Phoenix it appears like Pon has drawn upon her knowledge of figures from myths and tales to create her story. She has elected to set the novel in an era a Western audience would be familiar with as it sounds like the typical feudal society depicted in many of the better Karate movies, but has included the added touch of making it obvious that initial contact has been made with people from beyond China's borders.
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At seventeen Ai Ling is feeling unwanted. As the daughter of a respected scholar and former advisor to the Emperor you would think her parents wouldn't have any trouble arranging a marriage for her. However seventeen is old, and when that is combined with the fact she is a little tall, somewhat wilful, and rumours of her father having left the court in disgrace, it's fast becoming apparent that finding her a husband is going to be a lot more difficult than her parents anticipated. While Ai Ling feels somewhat badly for her parents, she is also relieved, as the thought of having to surrender the freedom she's enjoyed up to now to marry someone she doesn't know hasn't been filling her with great joy anyway. Unlike most young woman of her age she's been taught to read and write and has a great deal of independence.

Just as she's resigned herself to a life with her parents, her father is called away mysteriously to return to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams - the court of the Emperor. While saying his good byes, Ai Ling's father gives her a beautiful jade pennant with the instructions that she's never to remove it while they are separated. Although slightly bemused at the request she complies and a good thing to. For, after a couple of months she is forced to flee her house to escape the attempts of a loathsome local merchant to force her to marry him, and sets out to bring her father home, and the pennant becomes a key to her survival.

For no sooner has she set out then inexplicably demons from ancient folk tales start showing up where she is travelling. At first she only sees one in action, but soon she realizes they have taken an unhealthy interest in her. She barely escapes drowning when a young man pulls her from the lake where the first demon that attacked her was attempting to drown her. Naturally as a young woman travelling alone she is at first wary of Chen Yong, but he eventually wins her trust. This is partially due to the fact that he's as much an oddity as she, due to the fact that he is obviously of mixed blood. It turns out he's never met either of his birth parents, but he knows his father was a foreigner from the lands to the north where they have hair that's so pale it's almost white and eyes the colour of the sky.
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Like Ai Ling he's hunting for information about his father, and they decide to join forces. Along the way they are joined by his younger step-brother, Li Rong, and the three of them continue to encounter beings, both benign and evil, from myth as they make their way to the palace. As the journey continues and they find out more about why Ai Ling is the target of these attacks, they also discover that she and Chen Yong's fates have been intertwined since before she was born. However if they have any hope of discovering the truth, and finding Ai Ling's father, they are going to have to survive the hidden danger that awaits her at the Palace of Fragrant Dreams.

In Silver Phoenix Cindy Pon has done the remarkable job of not only telling a wonderful fantasy story with believable characters, but bringing alive a period of a culture's history. It comes as no surprise to learn that she is a student of Chinese brush painting, as she has a gift for bringing a scene to life in a reader's mind's eye. As only a few perfectly selected brush strokes of a water colour painting can create a picture, Pon's words bring each scene in her book to life vividly. Whether she describing the beauties of a garden, the intricate patterns of the two brothers sparring in unarmed combat, or the evil incarnate of one of the demons who attack the trio, a reader has no trouble visualizing what she's written.

While Silver Phoenix is nominally a book for young adults, the story is sophisticated enough and interesting enough for anybody who not only appreciates good fantasy, but who thinks there might be something more to Chinese culture than take out food and action movies. While it may only be a represent a sliver of time in the history of that country, and a glimpse at a few of their folk tales, its far more than what we are used to seeing and might just whet your appetite to find out more on your own. An adventure story with a taste of romance and an author with an ear for dialogue and an eye for description are a combination that's hard to beat, and that's what you'll find in Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 1, 2009

Graphic Novel Review Tank Girl One & Two Re-mastered Editions Alan C. Martin & Jamie Hewlett

Nowadays when people speak of graphic novels they mean that the item in question is usually a comic book with the equivalent number of pages as a prose novel. Therefore the graphic they are referring to is the media in question not the content of the work. However, there are instances when the word graphic does double duty in describing both the content and the form of a graphic novel. One of the earliest, and still one of the best, of those comics, was Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl.

Giving new definition to the three "Rs", Raunchy, rebellious, and more than a little revolting, Tank Girl, her main squeeze Booga the kangaroo, Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and friends (and enemies) first saw the light of day in the late 1980's. She flaunted her stuff in black and white and colour for a while before disappearing in a cloud of dust into the Australian Outback where she first appeared. Along the way she managed to confront and confound authority and hypocrisy while propagating her own version of anarchy from behind the wheel of the super charged and heavily armed tank she took her name from. While the original individual comics were packaged together into five graphic novel sized issues a number of years ago, Hewlett and Martin and Titan Books have now begun the process of reissuing them chock full of all sorts of added bonuses.

Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition and Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition have now been released for a new generation of malcontents and disgruntled types to enjoy the havoc she wrecks upon the forces of conformity and normalcy. However these new books aren't for new readers only for not only do they contain the stories that appeared in the original books, they also include new illustrated introductions from the Alan Martin and reproductions of rare Tank Girl artwork.
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Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition includes the first thirteen issues of the comic originally published from 1988 through 1990. Watch as she deals with a gang of desperado kangaroo bikers, fails in her top secret mission to deliver a colostomy bags to the president of Australia, and then in subsequent issues has to deal with the consequences of her failure. However neither a bounty hunter come to collect the reward placed on her head for allowing President Hogan to mess himself in public, nor her former boss in the Australian Armed Forces, Sergeant Small Unit, and his team of special operatives can defeat our heroine.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised by that, for how could they stand up to anyone able to out wit the devil by trading him God's bathrobe for three wishes and using one of her wishes to trick him into performing a charity marathon instead of invading heaven? Nope, nobody is going to get the drop on Tank Girl, not even the Australian Mafia and their efforts to control the beer market by flooding it with cheap swill and confiscating all the descent brew. No wonder, for as we find out she's the incarnation of the aboriginal earth spirit Tanicha who was first invoked to protect the tribes from white red-necks encroaching even further into their lands.

Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition covers our force of nature's publication history from 1990 through 1992, and this time she's in living colour - at least some of the time. The second collection also sees Tank Girl start to head into deeper water as she rails against conformity by storming a state run "reconditioning" centre and frees the inmates in order to attempt an assault on Tasmania. However the powers that be have other things in mind, and the creators of the comic interrupt the story line to announce their retirement from comics. After taking a few well aimed kicks at the industry - likening it to a British private school run by a demented headmaster - we're returned to the regularly scheduled strip and more adventures of Tank Girl and her band of merry crazies.
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What separates Tank Girl from your more run of the mill graphic comics is not just the gratuitous sex and violence, it's the manner in which Hewlett and Martin present it. Normally comic super heroines always look like they were drawn to fulfill adolescent male fantasies, have zero in the way of sexual identity, and end up doing as good a job of objectifying women as pornography. Tank Girl not only features a heroine with a healthy libido, by featuring a character who is gleefully aware of her own body, and who cheerfully threatens her creators with dismemberment whenever they try and show her naked, they prevent her from becoming anyone's object of desire.

The whole "adult" graphic novel business is lampooned mercilessly in Tank Girl as everything is kept as cartoonish as possible. From the outrageous plot lines to the excessive violence that like a scene from a Monty Python movie verges on the absurd, Hewlett and Martin skewer every last pretension in the business and roast them on a barbecue. Yet, even while they were doing that, they still managed to create stories that were both fun and intelligent in of themselves. Normally reading something like a comic book more then twenty years after it was first released, it feels dated as the world has changed so much since it appeared and its subject matter is no longer relevant. Hewlett and Martin did such an amazing job with Tank Girl that it seems as fresh and irreverent as it did when its first issue hit the shelves in 1988.

While the new introductions to the books and the extra artwork are cool, the best thing about these re-mastered editions of Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two remains the comic itself. Devout fans of the series will want to buy these new editions for the extra bonuses while newcomers will have the luxury of not only enjoying Tank Girl's mayhem for the first time, but also owning the most complete versions of these anthologies published to date.

March 25, 2009

Book Review: The Dark Volume By Gordon Dahlquist

While it may be true that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing, too much of the same thing, no matter how good it is, can get tired after a while. At least this is the case with The Dark Volume, the conclusion to the adventures started by Gordon Dahlquist in his books The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 and The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.2, being published by Random House Canada on March 24th/09. For what was novel in the first volume, had started to wear thin by the end of the second, and is just tedious here in the third instalment.

Set in a fictional England during the Victorian era, the first two books brought together three adventurers from divers social backgrounds as they each accidentally stumbled upon a mysterious cabal who appeared out to control heads of state and captains of industry. Celeste Temple, a proper, upper middle class young woman of independent means; Dr. Abelard Svenson, a military surgeon serving in the navy of the German principality of Macklenburg; and Cardinal Chang, an assassin for hire who is neither Chinese or catholic but takes his name from the red leather coat he wears and the disfigurement a whip caused his eyes, are as an unlikely trio of allies you're liable to find anywhere. However, when circumstances brought them together they set aside their differences in the hopes that together they could thwart the cabal's plans.

Those behind the cabal have developed a process that allows them to distil emotions and experiences as a type of blue glass. When a person touches just a piece of the glass they immediately become immersed in, and relive the details of, whatever was "recorded" onto that piece of glass, which could be anything from sexual experiences to murder. Naturally for an era that prided itself on repressing emotions as much as the Victorians, exposure to these pieces of blue glass was rather an overwhelming experience. However, as shocking as the emotional voyeurism might have been, it was the recording process that was the real danger.
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Advertised as a means of liberating oneself from the constraints of a hide bound society, the "process", was actually a means of a few exerting control over many. For each person who underwent the process had a keyword or phrase implanted into their sub-consciousness that allowed anyone speaking it to assume absolute control over them. Minor modifications to the process allowed the cabal to siphon memories and emotions from their subjects as well to generate the material for the blue glass, while another modification allowed for a subject to be transformed into a being of blue glass who could use their thoughts and emotions to control others.

Over the course of the first two books we followed our erstwhile heroes as they tracked down the ringleaders of the group, first alone, and then working as a team. Each of them in turn experienced the blue glass first hand with differing results. For Celeste it involved the awakening of thoughts and desires that left her reeling, while the Cardinal experienced the dangers the material posed when one is forced to breath in the substance that forms the blue glass and have it crystallize in your system. The Doctor meanwhile discovered that the glass also contained people's memories and saw how the cabal was using them to find out valuable information that could be used for their nefarious purposes.

Initially, especially as the trio were discovering just what was going on, the story was fascinating in the way it depicted the characters reactions to what they were experiencing. This was especially true in the case of Celeste as we observed how she dealt with coming to grips with the pleasure she experienced via the blue glass. As emotionally repressed as any product of her times, she was both appalled and enthralled by her reactions, and continually struggled against this new awareness of herself as a sexual being. However as the books progressed, and neither her experiences or her reactions to them evolved, it began to feel like the author was writing his own version of Victorian pornography, instead of examining the effects of strong emotion on someone whose own have long been kept in check.
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The fact that the plot began to feel like it was meandering towards a conclusion, rather than building steam for a denouement began to make it feel like the author was merely spinning out the tale so he could exercise his fascination with dark eroticism. It was if it was becoming the reason for writing this final chapter, instead of it merely being a by product of the plot, and reading variations on Celeste having to fight her urges became tedious. While the Doctor and Cardinal Chang faired slightly better at the hands of their creator, they too seemed caught in an endless cycle.

Each of them were either in constant pursuit of some quarry or another, which involved innumerable train rides, treks through the corridors of ancient houses, and fits of random violence. While inevitably their journeying did result in them arriving at a destination, it was definitely not a case of getting there being half the fun as it rapidly became an exercise in tedium. What had started off as an interesting voyage in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol. 1 and had continued quite successfully in Vol.2, has become something of a trudge in The Dark Volume.

Far from being the "gripping tale of suspense" that its advertised as, The Dark Volume is a rather tedious exercise whose "dark eroticism" is simply Victorian era pornography revisited. You'd be better off picking up a copy of Fanny Hill, for at least its honest about its nature.

The Dark Volume can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

February 2, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two By Gordon Dahlquist

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume ONe Gordon Dahlquist created a fantastical version of 19th century Europe which he populated with an intriguing cast of heroes and villains. On one side a mysterious cabal of individuals made up of captains of industry, government insiders, high ranking military officers, and the aristocracy of various nations and their diabolical plans for obtaining power. Seeking to thwart their plots an unlikely a trio as you'll ever see; Celeste Temple, a single woman of good breeding and some money, Mr. Chang, also known as The Cardinal (a disfiguring scar from the whip of a young noble that gave his eyes an Asiatic cast and his preferred garb of a long red coat are the genesis of his names), a killer for hire, and Dr. Abelard Svenson, an army doctor attached to the diplomatic mission of the Duchy of Macklenburg, a German principality.

While Volume One explained how each of our heroes became embroiled with the intrigue and gave us a good idea as to what their foes were attempting to do and how they were going about it, The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two, being published by Random House Canada on February 3rd/09, reveals the extent of the cabals plans, and goes into even more explicit detail as to how they aim to fulfill them. Although we had previously learned something of the mysterious alchemy that allows a person's experiences to be recorded in blue glass and that an individual looking into that glass becomes immersed in the emotions recorded, it becomes clear that is only the tip of the ice berg.

After a brief period of working together to discover more information about the cabal the three again split up to pursue separate investigations. Although their parting helps each discover more details of the plot they are up against, it was not the result of considered planning. Instead it was an indication of the emotional fragility that marks each of the three characters. One of the things that Dahlquist has recreated accurately about this era is the state of emotional repression that most people existed in. What's more he also manages to capture the effect that an emotional upheaval has upon people who are normally alienated from their feelings perfectly.
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For when Celeste succumbs to her feelings about finding her ex-fiancee among the cabal, and falls to pieces in front of The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson, she is mortified with thoughts that they might think her weak. Blind to anything else, including reason, she decides that in order to prove herself she must carry out a dangerous adventure on her own. So she slips away to confront the leaders of the cabal. Not having any idea where she might have gone, The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson are forced to separate in the hopes of finding her, with the result that they all end up in deadly peril.

While there have plenty of fantasy and science fiction books that deal with mind control or psychological manipulation of one kind or another, Dahlquist's books are some of the first that I've read that deal with the power of emotions in the same way. Politicians today are past masters of manipulating our emotions at the expense of reason by playing on our fears in order to convince us they are the ones who will keep us safe. What Dahlquist does is take that basic premise and magnify to a degree that is horrifying.

His decision to set the series in a fictional 19th century setting and retain the moral codes of the time have given him the ideal societal conditions to explore the effects of unbridled emotions. In a society where propriety is the foremost consideration and sexuality is sublimated, experiencing sensual pleasure would be like taking a drug. Using their method of recording people's experiences, the cabal feeds its targets undiluted doses of the most stimulating and rawest emotions they can accumulate in order to seduce them to their aims. However the process not only encodes emotions, but all of a person's experiences and thoughts as well. So anybody going through the process allows the cabal access to any knowledge they have stored in their memory.
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Imagine if you have lived your life in a state of near frigidity, and all of a sudden someone promises you that they can not only free you to experience waves of pleasure without any guilt or shame, but also help you achieve any ambitions you might have for power, wealth, or status. Simply undergo "the process" and you will ascend to a higher level of being. If you were an ambitious politician or a greedy industrialist in the 19th century would you be able to resist? It may not sound plausible to our ears put so baldly, but Dahlquist makes it all ring true.

For even our three heroes become ensnared by the strength of the emotions that emanate from the pieces of blue glass which contain a specific moment and the deadlier glass books which are the record of person's entire experiences. Even the ways they are able to overcome the effects of the glass are such that it adds to the verisimilitude of the circumstances. For it's not because they have any superhuman powers or are "better" people than those who surrender, it's because they know that the people behind the scenes don't have their best interests at heart. Remembering you're in deadly peril usually helps prevent you being seduced by your enemy.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two like its predecessor is not only an exciting and alluring adventure, its a terrifying look at the potential to control people through emotions. What was impressive about the first book, an intriguing plot and interesting characters, is improved upon here as Dahlquist not only manages to spin new webs of intrigue in this volume he also unravels them with eloquence. Meanwhile he also allows his three lead characters to learn and grow from both their experiences and their acquaintance with each other and show how it is possible to free your emotions without the aid of alchemeny.

It's not often that a book can be escapist fun and thought provoking at the same time, but that is definitely the case in this instance. I'm looking forward eagerly to the release of the final volume in this series for what promises to be more of the same.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two can be purchased directly from Random House Canada as of February 3rd/09 or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 30, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 By Gordon Dahlquist

There's something about the mid to late nineteenth century that makes it the ideal period for setting a mystery novel. Perhaps it's because of the atmosphere created by the lack of electricity and houses lit by either gas or candles. Even in the best lit houses there are places where the light didn't reach creating pools of shadows in which anything could happen. It was also a period of great political and social unrest as various nationalist interests across Europe strove for independence and the aristocracy were being forced to share power with a merchant class demanding their money give them a voice in government.

A writer couldn't find a better era to create intrigues involving people of power lurking in the shadows seeking to take advantage of the era's industrial and scientific advancements in order to carry out their nefarious plots. It doesn't hurt either of course that cities of that time would have been filled with rundown and desperate neighbourhoods and even in the better parts there would have been plenty of ill lit allies where anything could happen to anyone. It's an age that positively cries out for stories of secret cabals, knives in the dark, and other strange carryings on.

Which is exactly what playwright turned novelist Gordon Dahlquist has done in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume One, published by Random House Canada, that kicks off what promises to be an adventure/fantasy trilogy different from anything you might have read previously. Set in an era much like our nineteenth century Dahlquist has created a tale of gothic splendour to match those written during that time, but laced it with doses of modern awareness. The characters might be governed by the morality of the times, but unlike their counterparts written by authors of the period, these people have thoughts that would never have made it to print in Victoria's time.
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Through coincidence and luck three very disparate characters stumble upon a plot involving people from the highest ranks of the military, government, aristocracy, and industry from countries across Europe. Exactly what the plot is neither Celeste Temple (a single woman of good background and decent money), Mr. Chang, the Cardinal (a killer for hire whose names are derived from his penchant for wearing a long red coat and disfiguring scars he received to his eyes when young), or Dr. Abelard Svenson (a military doctor assigned to the principality of Macklenburg's diplomatic mission as medical baby sitter to the state's heir apparent) are certain, except that it must be dark and nefarious. For even before fate brings them together to pool their resources each of them has escaped a near death situation by the barest of margins.

What they have found out is that this mysterious cabal has discovered some sort of process that allows them to record one person's experiences and memories in such a manner as to allow others to relive them completely. They also discover that the people who undergo the process of having their memories duplicated become malleable to the point of being puppets. The implications of this of course are enormous, especially when Dr. Svenson discovers that his charge, Prince Karl-Horst, has undergone the process and has been taken into the plotter's inner circle.

With The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Gordon Dahlquist has created the perfect opening salvo for what promises to be an intriguing trilogy of books. Not only has he created a tantalizing trail for our three erstwhile heroes to follow, and us to be captivated by, he has created three characters that allow us to have completely different perspectives on the same situation. The experience offered by partaking of the blue glass allows an individual access to another's innermost feelings and passions, and each of the three are effected when they experiment with a shard the doctor finds.
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To a typically repressed person of the era like Celeste a glimpse of raw, unbridled emotion of any kind is both shocking and alluring at the same time. For while her conditioning tells her she should be repulsed by what she is observing, no descent person would give into those types of feelings, a part of her yearns for the freedom of emotion that's she experiences. Each of the three react differently, according to their natures, but they each up end up realizing some sort of regret about their lives as well.

Not only do we begin to understand the allure offered by the process through the experiences of each of our main characters, it also allows Dahlquist the opportunity to give us a deeper insight of our leads. By allowing each of them to explore the feelings that looking into the blue glass awakens in them, he makes them far more interesting to read about. At the same time we also learn why each of them is willing to risk their lives pursuing a matter which they could just as easily have walked away from.

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Dahlquist has done a great job of recreating the world of the nineteenth century through descriptions of the cities that the action takes place in and the behaviour of the characters involved in the story. As you follow his characters into darkened corridors or down dimly lit streets you can almost hear the hissing of the gas lights or the clip-clop of the horse drawn carriages as they proceed along cobbled streets. Even the plot reeks of the time as a key element of the intrigue is offering people the temptation to free themselves to experience emotions and feelings they have long held in check because of the morality of the times.

Not only has Dahlquist created a great period piece, he has managed to imbue it with enough of a modern sensibility to make it exciting and interesting to a contemporary readership. The characters are intriguing, the action exciting, and the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. If the final two books match up the standard set by Volume One, this trilogy promises to be one of the most unusual and unique fantasy rides of the last little while.

You can purchase The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 22, 2009

Interview: R. Scott Bakker - Author Of The Prince Of Nothing & The Aspect Emperor

The last time I had interviewed R. Scott Bakker it was in reference to his book Neuropath that was due to be released. To say that Neuropath was a departure from his previous books - the epic fantasy trilogy The Prince Of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought) was an understatement, so we had lots to talk about at that time.

However, his latest novel, The Judging Eye is not only a return to epic fantasy, but a return to the world he had created in the previous trilogy. The Judging Eye is the first book in a new trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, that picks up a couple of decades after events described in The Thousandfold Thought. So the questions I e-mailed to Scott to answer focused mainly on the forthcoming series, as well as specifics to do with aspect of the books that piqued my interest in particular.

Like his books, Scott's answers are though provoking and intelligent, so enjoy the read.

Can you describe the evolution of what is now I presume going to be a sextet - the three books that make up The Prince Of Nothing and the new trilogy The Aspect Emperor - Had you always visualized six books, or did it gradually take on a life of its own?
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The entire sequence is titled The Second Apocalypse, which in its initial conception way back in the 1980's was to be a trilogy consisting of three books, The Prince Of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor, and The Book That Shall Not Be Named. The Prince Of Nothing, of course, turned into a trilogy in its own right, as has The Aspect-Emperor. The final book will likely be a standalone or a duology, with the second book containing a massive omnibus.

The amount of detail that you provide your readers when it comes to the world you've created is incredible - the history and the various cultures in particular. Was there any specific time period in our own history that you used as a springboard? What's the overall impression you were going for?

Epic fantasy is unique as a literary genre in that it strives to tickle its readers with a sense of awe. The thing I realized long ago–in my teenage D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) days as a matter of fact–was the importance of believability. From that point, I strove to create the most believable world I could–the world that ultimately evolved into Earwa. It’s literally been twenty-five years in the making.

In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy we witness society, for the most part, through the eyes of four characters who are outsiders; Drusus Achamian - as a schoolman (sorcerer) is considered damned by society, and even among schoolmen he is an outsider because his order believes in something no one else does, Esmenet, a prostitute, Kellus, and Cnaiur the barbarian. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and what opportunities did it allow you as a writer?

Great observation. I initially chose my characters because of the generic types they represented–the sorcerer, the barbarian, and the whore–not because they were outsiders. The fact that they were outsiders, of course, afforded more than a few dramatic opportunities. If you think about it, The Prince Of Nothing is a kind of ‘rags to riches’ narrative: I had to have rags (disempowerment) to make the rise to riches (power) dramatic. And now, particularly with Esmenet in The Judging Eye, you have the dilemma of someone bred to subservience finding themselves forced to rule.

I've always loved words just for their own sake, the layers of meaning that can be found within just one word, a sentence, or how you can change meanings just by repositioning one or two letters. The system of magic that you introduced us to in the first trilogy, especially as practised by Achamian's school, reminded me of that and I wondered how and why you devised it.

Humans are born essentialists, which is to say, we generally think things and people are what they are by virtue of their intrinsic properties or characteristics–their ‘immutable essence.’ We think that the way things appear to us are what they are fundamentally–and given the invisibility of ignorance, we generally encounter few reasons to think otherwise. No matter how narrow, how stupid or peevish, our perspectives always strike us as exhaustive.

This (combined with the logical function of language) underwrites the intuition that words have ‘essential meanings,’ that a passage of scripture, say, has one fundamental reading (which always magically happens to be our reading). So for the longest time essentialist interpretations of language ruled the theoretical roost.

In Earwa, however, essentialism is true, words have pure meanings, significations unpolluted by the contextual vicissitudes of circumstance. The idea is that if you can speak from the all-seeing perspective of the God, then you can literally rewrite the world. The different Schools of sorcery are based on the way in which these essences are mined. In the Anagogis, concrete metaphor is the primary mechanism. In the Gnosis, conceptual abstraction is the royal road to sorcerous power. (Both of these are what I call discursive magics in that they are linguistic and compositional, and as such quite distinct from intuitive magics like the Psuke).

Why did I design the world this way? Because I think epic fantasy has to be believable to succeed (and the fact that my fantasy theory of magic has interested a few real occultists (!!) suggests I succeeded). I’m certainly not an essentialist myself. I’m actually starting to think that language as we experience it doesn’t exist, that it’s a kind of epiphenomenal smoke. But the fact is no one knows what the hell language is...

You've allowed nearly twenty years to pass in the world of the books before continuing with the story - while this allowed certain things to be established - Kellus as Aspect Emperor over all the world of The Three Seas - it also left large holes in your reader's knowledge of events leaving them to pick up the information through second hand sources rather than being first hand observers and making them sift through a variety of perceptions to form their impression of the state of the world. What was your intent with disseminating information in that manner?

Since history in the real world is interpretative and fragmentary, I think this approach actually makes the world more believable. This isn’t a license to be lazy–quite the contrary–since you have to continually gauge the way each fact (and I introduce more than a few contradictions) you give will contribute to the reader’s sense of the whole. When you get this right, you can generate and sustain not only some cool atmospherics, a real sense of epic gravitas, but quite a few message board debates as well!

In the first books Kellus was an active character who we saw the world through, but in The Judging Eye he is no longer a character, merely somebody we see through other people's eyes. Why did you make that change?

The original plan was to have Kellhus progressively disappear as a viewpoint character as he gained power throughout The Prince of Nothing. The problem, it turned out, was that all my draft readers began to believe him, rather than continually conditioning everything he said and did with what they had learned from their initial glimpses into his manipulative psyche. So I was forced to go back and to add several viewpoint sections to remind them what Kellhus was up to.
The reader is on their own in The Aspect-Emperor, I’m afraid. This is a lesson I learned from Hawthorne: if you want to create the intimation of power and transcendence, it’s far better to draw down the veil than to lift the skirts. I presume this is why all the ways the Bush Administration has saved America from further terrorist attacks seem to be ‘classified.’
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The Judging Eye of the title can be seen as referring to a talent that one of the characters introduced in this book, Mimara - Esmenet's daughter from when she was a whore- possesses, the ability to see a person's nature - evil or good. Yet in spite of her ability to see these absolutes you've still left a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to good and evil in the book, why?

The thing about fantasy worlds–what makes them fantasy worlds, you might say–is that good and evil are more than projections of human self-interest. But think about a world where good and evil not only exist, but can be intuitively apprehended by everyone. Almost all conflict–and by extension, all narrative–turns on our inability to resolve our incompatible moral claims. If Earwa didn’t share the same problem, it would be so conceptually alien as to be unrecognizable. A hard place to tell interesting stories about, for sure!

I've often wondered why people who claim to be the reincarnation of somebody or other always say they are princes and kings but never somebody mundane like a slave. So I find it interesting that in Achamian's dreams that it's when he starts reliving mundane details of his forerunner's life that he realizes an important change is occurring. Did you have any particular intent with making the mundane and personal memories that come to Achamian in his dreams important, or is it just because they were different from the world changing events he and other sorcerers of his school normally experience in their dreams?

The relationship between the epic and the mundane is something that I’m deeply interested in, which is why I explore it throughout The Prince Of Nothing as well. Academics and literary writers generally regard spectacle with suspicion or outright derision–unless it happens to be more than a century old. I just finished reading a piece by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail (Canadian Newspaper), where he describes how unbearable he found The Dark Night–because of the spectacle, it turns out. I’m sure that for him his disdain feels entirely obvious and natural, and that given time he could cook up numerous aesthetic rationalizations for why he dislikes spectacle.

I actually think this attitude is not only self-serving and pious, but socially pernicious as well. It’s no coincidence that literary specialists only came to regard spectacle as a kind of ‘opiate for the masses’ around the same time literacy rates boomed in Europe and North America. Humans have a hardwired yen for the spectacular, so if you want to distinguish your tastes from the general public, all you gotta do is turn your nose up at it. The next thing you know we have a literary culture a la Russell Smith, where our brightest, most socially and psychologically penetrating writers waste all their creative output on people who already share their values–become high-end entertainers in effect.

And where the masses harbour a defensive contempt of the mundane. (It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the media ignored the fact that Obama’s single biggest liability wasn’t his race but his intellectualism).

From the very beginning, I’ve looked at The Second Apocalypse as an experiment in bringing criticism, writing that actually challenges, back to mass commercial culture. I see myself as part of larger sea change, one which integrates rather than segregates criticism and community. The Russell Smiths of the world need to be disabused of the self-congratulatory illusion that they are doing something critical with their artistic output, as opposed to simply confirming the educated assumptions of the educated classes. The so-called ‘literary mainstream’ is simply where we lock up our cultural rabble rousers where they can do the least amount of damage. The fact that they write books that would curl an evangelical Christian’s toes if they were to read it means nothing. Challenging is as challenging does. I’m no more clear on the ‘essence of literature’ than the next guy, but it strikes me as painfully obvious that literature–real literature–reaches out rather than in, that it bridges differences rather than reinforcing them.
And I can think of no better way of reaching out than with genre and spectacle.


You first introduced the ancient race of beings, the Nomen, in the books of the first trilogy, mainly through Achamian's knowledge of history and his dreams/memories, but Kellus also briefly met one in the first book. In the The Judging Eye not only does Achamian take one for his companion, but he enters into the ruins of one of their former retreats deep within the ground. Where did you draw your inspiration for the creation of the Nomen from?

Tolkien’s Elves have always exercised an almost totemic power over my imagination, and the Nonmen are simply my way of exploring that fascination. Psychologists will tell you that we are inclined to see individuals as belonging to moral orders, to see some as essentially better than us, and others as essentially worse than us. The tradition in epic fantasy is to concretize this with various races.

But where the Elves of Middle-earth have dwindled, the Nonmen of Earwa have fallen, the idea being that the very things that once made them better have reduced them to depravity over the ages. The result, I hope, is an associational palate quite distinct from the one you find in Tolkien, a sense of something glorious that has become ingrown and dark–something halfway between ruined and rotted.

As I hope The Judging Eye makes clear, the Nonmen will figure large in the events to follow.

I've been trying to avoid mentioning any particulars of the events in The Judging Eye, but I have to ask about Cil-Aujas, the ancient retreat of the Nomen. The journey through it reminded me of a cross between Dante's Inferno and the trip through The Mines of Moria in The Fellowship Of The Ring. If neither of those, what did inspire your descriptions of those events and the environment?

I reread both several times in the course of writing the Cil-Aujas chapters. There’s the ‘journey through the underworld’ component to be sure–which is a classic saw of the ancient epic. But there’s also a concretization of the past involved as well. In Cil-Aujas, you actually pass through the layering of history, plunging deeper into the atavistic bowels of Earwa’s past. But the bottom line is that I’m an just old, dope-addled D&D addict. Dungeons, man! Dungeons! Like many writers, I’ve had a life-long love affair with my fear of the dark.

R. Scott Bakker's fantasy isn't quite like anybody else's that you'll ever read, and I hope that you were able to catch a glimpse of what makes him so special through this interview. I didn't bother asking him what he had planned for the future as its pretty obvious he has his work cut out for him over the next little while. I'd like to thank Scott for taking the time to answer these questions, and encourage you to start reading his work. It's an adventure you'll not soon forget.

January 17, 2009

Movie Review: Appaloosa Is A Western With A Difference

They don't seem to make Western movies much anymore. I'm not sure why, and to be honest I don't really miss them all that much. That's not to say there weren't some redeeming features in Westerns. Nothing I've seen to this day can match the panoramic camera work that permeated the best of John Ford's movies in their ability to capture the Big Sky of the desert and the western plains. Or on occasion you'd get a movie which featured two actors whose chemistry together on the screen who made the movie a delight to watch no matter how lame the overall story line might have been. It takes a couple of special actors to pull that off, and aside from the occasional comedy pairings, I haven't seen any in recent memory that have done so successfully.

That is until I downloaded the DivX version of Appaloosa, written, directed, and co-starring Ed Harris. He and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of hired guns who work on the right side of the law. Harris' character, Virgil Cole, acts as Marshal and Mortensen's Everett Hatch as Deputy. Over the years the two have been bringing law and order to towns willing to pay their price and accept their authority, and the town of Appaloosa is the latest in need of their special skills. Their last Marshall was gunned down by local rancher Randell Braggs (Jeremy Irons) and since then he and his men have been acting like they own the town; stealing, beating, and even murdering with impunity.

After Cole and Everett dispatch three of Braggs' men in a gun fight the movie appears to be heading down the well worn Western path of a series of minor gun fights leading up to an O.K. Corral type of shoot-out as the grand finale. However Harris throws a couple of twists into the plot, the bane of all buddies, the woman with the potential to come between them, and a witness willing to testify that he saw Randell Braggs shoot the former Marshall and his deputies. The widow Allison French, Renee Zellweger, shows up one day on the train and immediately latches onto Cole. Before he knows it Cole finds himself looking at curtain samples for the parlour that Allison is planning for their new house. Never having been involved with a women for more then a night, and doing nothing more with them than what they were there to do, he's a little at a loss as to what's expected of him.
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It's a different story when one of Braggs' men comes forward and claims to be willing to testify that he saw his boss commit murder, Cole knows exactly what to do in those circumstances. But bringing someone to trial and getting them sentenced is a far cry from having that sentence carried out, and Braggs knows Cole's weak spot. He hires two gun-men to kidnap Allison and they force Cole and Everett to turn Braggs over if they don't want her brains blown away. Unfortunately the widow French has a roving eye, she'd all ready made a play for Everett by then, and when our boys catch up with the bad guys they find her frolicking naked in the water with one of Braggs' hired guns.

As co-writer and director Ed Harris has created an interesting dynamic between the three main characters of Cole, Everett, and Allison French. Instead of having the "girl" come between the men, Allison's character helps clarify the strength of the bond between the two men. With both Harris and Mortensen giving new meaning to the word understatement when it comes to their performances, it's only through subtle indications from both of them over the course of the movie that we come to understand the depth of their relationship. Needless to say over the years they have developed an instinctual understanding of how each of them are going to react under a given set of circumstances, and that is depicted beautifully, but there's more to it than even that.

There's the notes that each man is able to strike with the intensity of their gaze or the quirking of an eyebrow while talking that communicate a level of understanding of the other person's character that can't be expressed in words. The slump of Mortensen's shoulders when his character recognizes what the stubborn set of his buddy's chin means, quickly followed by him squaring them in acceptance of shouldering his share of whatever will ensue says more about the level of trust the two men have for each other than any speech. In those two movements you not only see Everett's loyalty to Cole, but the knowledge that Cole's would do the same for him without question.
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While Mortensen and Harris are undoubtedly the stars, both Zellweger and Irons do fine jobs with their characters. Zellweger in particular manages the difficult task of ensuring that we don't hate her character, which it would be easy to do. Every so often she allows the genuine fear of being alone her character suffers from to slip through the various masks she wears in her efforts to snare the man who will bring her the most security. A single woman in post Civil War America out west has very few options for survival, especially if your trying to maintain the illusion of civility.

Irons doesn't get to play villains often enough in my opinion, because he does such a wonderful job. His Braggs is a cultured and educated man who is personal friends with the President of the United States. Yet beneath that veneer lies a viscous killer who strikes with the speed of a snake. It would have been easy for Irons to overplay this role, but instead of chewing the scenery he only occasionally allows his character to explode. There is something very frightening about how he allows Bragg's suave exterior to crack momentarily and allow the monster within loose, only to seal it over again immediately.

Appaloosa is one of those rare movies that manages to transcend its genre and the cliches normally associated with it through the strength of its script and the quality of the performances from the actors involved. This movie will appeal to all those who appreciate fine acting and a well told story whether you're a fan of Westerns or not. The cowboy may ride off into the sunset at the end of this movie, but it's the how and the why he does so that makes it worth watching.

January 12, 2009

Book Review: Brisingr (Book Three Of The Inheritance Cycle) By Christopher Paolini

At the conclusion of Eldest, book two of his Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini had seemingly laid the ground work for the series' climax in book three. Concluding as it did with a second major battle being fought and a meaty surprise being revealed it would have been easy for him to throw all his characters into the final confrontation and bring the story to an end. After all many a trilogy before this one has rushed headlong to its conclusion with an eye for its destination without worrying overly much how it arrived there.

However, Paolini has risked his reader's impatience by not giving into that temptation with Brisingr, book three of four, that was published by Random House Canada in the fall of 2008. Instead he takes the time to build a more complete picture the world and the people who inhabit her as well as continuing the story. Of course with each step down the road there is less and less time and the pressure on Eragon and Saphira to discover a means of defeating Galbatorix, the king who would destroy all the free people, increases. For unless they can solve that riddle it doesn't matter how many battles they win, they will ultimately lose the war.

Brisingr sees Eragon spending and extended period of time among the dwarfs. While he'd much rather be staying with the army of the Varden, (the resistance), their leader, Nasuada, insists that he go to the dwarfs as her representative. The King of the dwarfs had been killed in the last battle of book two, and they are now going to select from among the thirteen clan chiefs a new monarch, and its vital that whoever it is continue to support the war against Galbatorix. Nasuada hopes that Eragon's presence there will serve to remind those dwarfs who might be wavering in their commitment, of the need to fight for their freedom.
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Paolini's decision to enmesh Eragon in dwarf politics and spend a sizeable chunk of the book in the dwarf kingdom observing the process of selecting a monarch, instead of hastening the conclusion of the series might seem odd at first glance. However, by doing so Paolini is making the point that just because you're under threat doesn't mean you surrender those things that define you, even if there is a risk that it will cause a result not to your liking. If Eragon were to use his power as a Dragon Rider to influence who is chosen as the next dwarf king, no matter what his intentions, he would deprive the dwarfs of their freedom of choice, making him no less a tyrant than Galbatorix.

Throughout Brisingr Paolini returns to the theme of being responsible for one's actions with different people. For this isn't just Eragon's story, and the character of Roran, Eragon's cousin, represents how any of us can make a difference. How, even without magic or the companionship of a dragon, we each have the power to exact change. Yet Roran too learns about having to take responsibility for his actions, when he disobeys a direct order from his commanding officer in the midst of a raid against an enemy patrol.

It doesn't matter that by doing so he saved the lives of a great many men, ensured the success of his mission, and personally slew a great many of the enemy, Nasuada still has to have him punished. No one, no matter who they are or what they have done, can be seen to be above the law. After reading Roran's heroics it might seem ridiculous to us that Nasuada punishes him. but that is her living up to her responsibility to the people she leads to ensure that the law is equally enforced. Of course the fact that she demotes the officer who gave the orders that Roran disobeyed and then promotes Roran to be one of the Captains of her army mitigates the punishment and shows that she understands the true nature of justice.
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The sign of a really good author is if he can draw you so deeply into the story that you're reacting to characters or situations as if they were real. At one point while I was reading Brisingr I was really frustrated with Eragon's impatience and near arrogance when it came to accepting other people's orders or suggestions. It was only in the middle of saying to myself, "What an arrogant little..." that I realized what an amazing job Paolini had done in his depiction of Eragon.

Sure he's gone through all sorts of magical transformations, has magical powers, and has a spiritual link to a dragon, but at the heart of it all he's still only a teenage boy unsure of his identity and insecure about his capabilities. For Paolini to have been able to elicit that reaction from me about Eragon, is a perfect example of the magnificent job he's done in bringing this world to life. Though Eragon is the hero of the series, Paolini, doesn't shirk from showing him warts and all. Even when we are seeing the world through Eragon's eyes, his character is so honestly presented we can't help but wanting to slap him upside the head on occasion.

While the first two books of The Inheritance Cycle were exciting, fun to read, and well written, Brisingr gives us a deeper understanding of the world the series takes place in, and brings us closer to the people we had been getting to know in the first two books. Christopher Paolini took a risk by slowing down the course of events to allow us this opportunity, and its a risk that's paid off handsomely as I feel we now know more, and care more, about Alagesia and the people who inhabit her then we did before. If you weren't emotionally involved with the story before now, there's no way you can avoid it now. The table is set - let the final confrontation begin - we're ready.

Brisingr can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

January 9, 2009

Book Review: The Judging Eye (Book One Of The Aspect Emperor) By R. Scott Bakker

History is the record of what came before us and reminds us of who we once were and how we became who we are now. However, there is often a marked difference between what is recorded as history and what actually happened. Whether it's the mists of time that cloud people's memories or a deliberate colouring of the truth that distorts reality doesn't matter in the end as the result is the same and the past becomes a murky shadow filled with rumours and half truths.

In the world of The Three Seas that R. Scott Bakker introduced the world to in his The Prince Of Nothing trilogy most men had forgotten or refused to believe what had come before them. Partially from ignorance, and partially from hubris, for wasn't their civilization the pinnacle of achievement, they refused to believe that thousands of years ago the world came within a hair's breadth of being obliterated. However over the course of the trilogy events unfolded that brought history into the present and a long forgotten enemy was revealed for all to see.

Anasurimbor Kellhus is descended from the kings who fought against the doom two thousand years ago. Over the course of The Prince Of Nothing he rises from being an obscure outsider to becoming the Warrior Prophet who leads the faithful in battle against the heathen so they can reclaim their southern empire and he also confirms the existence of The Consult, the long forgotten enemy. When Kellhus is acclaimed Aspect Emperor at the end of the trilogy, one of his first promises is to seek out the strongholds of the Consult in the Northern reaches of The Three Seas and destroy them to prevent a return of their master the No-God.
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Ten years have passed since the events described in the first trilogy as Bakker picks up the story again in The Judging Eye, book one of The Aspect Emperor trilogy, being released on January 20th by Penguin Canada. It's been a busy decade for the newly anointed Aspect Emperor, what with eliminating opposition to his rule, consolidating the power of the Empire, and making the necessary preparations for his war on The Consult.

Yet there are still those who harbour misgivings, if not even doubts, about their Aspect Emperor, and chief among them is his former teacher Drusas Achamian. In the days before the ascent of the Emperor Achamian had been one of the few who believed in the existence of The Consult. A schoolman, the name given sorcerers in The Three Seas, he had belonged to the school known as the Mandate were gifted with possession of the most powerful sorcery in the world, The Gnosis, and cursed with the memory of two thousand year old wars.

Although it was Kellhus who vindicated Achamian and his fellow Mandate schoolmen by verifying the existence of The Consult when all else had ridiculed their belief, he turned his back on the Emperor the day he was crowned. Kellhus had stolen Achamian's lover, Esmenet, and made her his consort, a betrayal that Drusas could not forgive or forget. He also possesses the knowledge of who Kellhus really is and where he so mysteriously came from, which only increases his doubts and suspicions.

In the Judging Eye Bakker sets in motion two great quests; "The Great Ordeal", the holy war, led by the Aspect Emperor to scour the world of The Consult and prevent the rise of the No-God and a second apocalypse, and Achamian's quest to find Ishual, the birth place of Kellhus.
The two quests are as different as night and day. For while Kellhus and company are the bright shining light set forth to cleanse the earth of evil, Achamian's party are a motley collection of mercenaries and bounty hunters who have lived on the edge of civilization for years.
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In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy Bakker not only was able to bring to life the sweeping events of history but take us inside of it by rendering his characters and their place in events in exquisite detail. In book one of The Aspect Emperor, The Judging Eye, he shows that he hasn't lost that touch. No matter where we are, or whose eyes we are observing the world through, we not only live through overwhelming events as if they were happening to us, but Bakker never lets us forget the overall picture either. He is able to do this because not only are his characters are so well drawn that we feel we've known them all our lives after only just meeting them, but the environments they move through are depicted so vividly they appear in our mind's eye as if painted there.

Bakker has deftly laid the foundations for the various strands of plot and intrigue that will run through out the trilogy. From the religious cult plotting against the Emperor, the inner workings of the Emperor's court (and the strange behaviour of his children), the Emperor's army in the field, to Achamian's perilous journey into the North, events have been set in motion that promise the The Aspect Emperor trilogy will be just as memorable and remarkable as its predecessor. Return with R. Scott Bakker to the world of The Three Seas for a journey unlike any other you have experienced. Part Dante's Inferno and part Conrad's Heart Of Darkness this is fantasy literature like you've never read before.

You can purchase a copy of The Judging Eye as of January 20th/09 either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 1, 2009

My Favourite Reads Of 2008

Another year has winged its way by and with a day left it's fair to assume that I'm not going to be reviewing any more books slated for publication in 2008. So it seems like as good as time as any to put together a list of the books that I liked the most over the past twelve months. Naturally the ones I liked the most stuck in my memory, but I still had to wade through the site's archives so I could locate their links, and I was shocked to see how many articles I had actually published in this time, and how many had been book reviews that I'd forgotten about.

The trouble was that even before I started to wade backwards in time to last January I had already compiled a list of nine books, and the list didn't change. The criteria I used for selecting the books that would make my top list was simple enough; which ones would I be most inclined to re-read. I also decided to limit myself to books that were published in 2008 for the simple fact it made my life somewhat easier when it came to choosing.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine books, of those I reviewed in 2008, that I preferred over the rest.

Binu And The Great Wall by Su Tong was a retelling of a traditional Chinese folk tale/myth of one woman's quest to find her husband after he was conscripted to work on the construction of The Great Wall of China. Accompanied by only a blind frog, she sets out across the breadth and length of China in what seems a fruitless quest to bring her husband a winter coat so he might stand a better chance of surviving the deprivations of slave labour. A beautifully told, and eloquently written story of devotion that provides readers with a wonderful portrait of life in China during the time of the Emperors.

You wouldn't expect a book that deals with the accumulation of statistical evidence about HIV/AIDS to be entertaining, but The Wisdom Of Whores, by former UNAIDS worker Elizabeth Pisani, not only crunches the numbers of the whys and wherefores of the spread of the disease, it does so in such a manner as to leave the reader fascinated. Part of that is due to Pisani herself, who is equal parts iconoclast and idealist. The breeziness of the writing style only accentuates the passion she feels for her subject, and the compassion that she feels for the people her work on the front-lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS has brought her in contact with. From board rooms to brothels, Pisani, takes us behind the scenes everywhere to paint one of the clearest pictures about the state of our attempts to curtail the wave of death and destruction the disease is causing.

Skovbo by Viggo Mortensen, is the companion book/catalogue to a photography exhibit in Reykjavik Iceland. As befits the title, Danish for forest, Skovbo is a collection of photographs of trees and forests taken by Mortensen. Not merely content to "take pictures" of trees, he manages to depict their interaction with light and shadow to bring them alive in ways that makes even the solitary tree in a town square majestic. Even more impressive is his ability to celebrate the tree without romanticizing nature as something ethereal and beautiful. There are dead animals in the fields, broken branches on trees, and ugly and gnarled limbs proliferate. The true beauty of nature is its wildness, and that's at the soul of each picture in Mortensen's latest collection.

Neuropath by Scott Bakker probably caught a lot of people by surprise. Bakker's first three books had been the opening salvo of a major epic fantasy series, so for him to come out with a psychological thriller that bordered on a horror story was a bit of a shock. Be that as it may, it was a brilliantly written, terrifying descent into the potential (and unfortunately very real) dangers of how the mind can be controlled and manipulated. Pleasure becomes pain, feelings and emotions can be artificially stimulated with the flick of a switch or the removal of a synapse. Nothing you feel is real, it's all just conditioned response, and the government can condition you to feel and believe anything they want. Neuropath might be one character's roller coaster ride into a personal hell, but we're all along for the ride, and while the scenery isn't very attractive if we don't learn to recognize it now, it soon might be too late.

One of the best ongoing epic fantasy series took another step towards its conclusion this year as two new instalments in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen were released. Toll The Hounds by Steven Erikson, was followed by The Return Of The Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont and what a one two punch they packed. For while Erikson was following events that were unfolding in the farthest reaches of the Empire affecting the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses of the world, Esslemont was writing about the Empire's struggle for survival. Both men once again prove that not only can they handle the sweeping events of history, but the demands of creating characters who we care about and believe in. Each new book released in this series only reconfirms its pre-eminence among a world of pretenders in the field of epic fantasy.

The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte continued the adventures of Captain Alatriste during the waning days of Spain's power on the world stage. Here he has been chosen for the delicate task of stealing gold from Spanish merchants for the King's treasury. Hiring some of the worst cut throats and pirates he can find, Alatriste once more takes on the jobs no "honourable" man could be trusted with. However, since Alatriste has no illusions about fights for glory, king, and God, and only does a job when the money is good, he can be counted on to succeed where others would fail. Set against the backdrop of the Inquisition and the church's grab for power in 17th century Spain, The King's Gold proves once again that cynicism can be every bit as noble as blind faith.

A Man Most Wanted by John Le Carre drips with the author's scorn for the "War On Terror". On the surface it deals with the attempts of a German intelligence officer to convince his superiors to let him use an illegal Islamic immigrant as the means to establish a double agent among the jihad terrorists. However, at the moment where he thinks he's scored his ultimate triumph, it's snatched away and he's left holding nothing, while the Americans and British have another prisoner to interrogate at their leisure. What does it matter that the subject knows absolutely nothing? It looks like you're getting results when you arrest somebody, even though the next bomb attack will surprise you as much as the last one did. This is Le Carre's searing indictment of the way in which intelligence communities the world over have botched their job, and succeeded in motivating terrorists more than stopping them with their ham fisted behaviour and stupidity.

Ravensoul by James Barclay sees an author carry off the impossible; bring back a group of characters from the dead and succeed in making the story believable. Most of the Raven had been killed in their last battle, but when even the dead are no longer safe, who else is there to ride in and save the day again but dead heroes? It's a rollicking good time when the Raven come back from the dead, and once they convince their old companions its really them, it's time to try and save the world if they can. Of course if they can't do that, there's the next best thing - find a new one where we can all start over again. Probably the most fun you can have with sword and sorcery without strapping on a sword yourself.

Well that's it, I know these lists are supposed to be ten, but only these nine were able to pass the test of being ones that I'd want to re-read. Whether they're the best books of the year is another matter, but I read because I like too, and these were the books I liked reading most of all. See you next year.

December 5, 2008

Book Review: Ravensoul By James Barclay

When an author kills off the majority of his lead characters after having written six books tracing their adventures you tend to accept that just maybe you won't be reading any more stories about them. Oh sure the author could write some sort of pre-quell which could tell of their early days together or how they first met, but no matter how well written those things are they can be strangely dissatisfying. It's like having grown up with a group of friends and shared many life experiences with them along the way to all of a sudden have them revert back to the way they were when you first met them. In your minds eye you can still see them as they are today, but what you "hear" and witness is them years ago, and they are virtually strangers.

Of course there are other ways an author can bring characters back from the dead if he or she so chooses especially when they inhabit the type of worlds that exist in fantasy literature. There's usually no shortage of magic or magic users capable of performing a resurrection or two. In fact so many characters do seem to pop back after having kicked the bucket that it has become something of a cliche. Even worse is that the majority of those stories are a disservice to the original books that featured the characters in question as they end up feeling like attempts to exploit the characters' popularity.

When James Barclay wrote Demonstorm he seemed to have brought the adventures of the mercenary group known as The Raven to an end. After two trilogies, The Chronicles Of The Raven and The Legend Of The Raven only two of the group of soldiers and warrior magicians remained alive after saving their world from the grips of a demon invasion. So when I learned that a seventh book, Ravensoul, distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company, was forthcoming, I was surprised. Yet, after having watched as the books featuring The Raven had grown increasingly complex, and seen how Barclay's ability to make the implausible possible had resulted in another magnificent Epic Fantasy series, The Ascendants Of Estorea (Cry Of The Newborn & Shout For The Dead), there was reason to hope that he could make bringing his people back from the dead work.
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It's been ten years since The Raven had successfully beaten off the invasion of their world by the denizens of the demon dimension, and under the leadership of Sol, The Unknown Warrior, who had once led the mercenary troupe into battle, the country of Balaia is finally starting to recover. While some things, like the destruction of the various colleges of magic and their attendant cities, and in particular one college's heart (the conduit of magical power for all who studied a specific college's methodology), will take longer to recover from than others, it's finally starting to look there will be a future that is based on more than just eking out an existence.

However, for the last while Sol has been plagued with nightmares of his former companions desperately reaching out to him for help. Although his wife puts it down to his having had to watch them all die while he and Denser, the magician who was the only other survivor, made their way back to their own dimension, when a re-animated corpse claiming to be possessed by the soul of his former brother in arms, Hirad Coldheart, shows up at his front door the dreams take on a new meaning. For it's not just Hirad who has returned, but other members of The Raven, even some who had died long before the battle with the demons, are walking around in other bodies, claiming that their dimension has been destroyed, and Sol's world faces the same threat.

Needless to say, despite the presence of forty or fifty re-animated corpses walking around the city of Xetesk, the strongest surviving college of magic, Sol and Denser take a little convincing that the threat is real. However when they lose contact with the Southern continent, the home of the elves, they begin to suspect there might be some truth to what these lost souls are saying. Yet how do you pack up a whole continent's, let alone a world's, population and move them to another dimension? In fact why should you? Hadn't Balaia and its people proven itself in conflict before and overcome almost impossible odds to fight off the demons? What could be worse than that?
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The elves know, as two thousand years ago they had fled their original dimension to travel to the one they all now occupy in an attempt to escape the destruction wrought by the Garonin. It's not that this race comes to conquer - they come to suck the very life force out of any dimension they enter in a bid to fuel themselves to fight the wars being fought in their own dimension. Fighting the Garonin is impossible as for every soldier cut down they are immediately able to transport 100 across dimensional space to take its place. Even worse, since they are harvesting the life force of the planet, once they reach Balaia they are focusing their attacks on the centres of magic - the college cities - where that essence is concentrated in each magical branch's heart. As the hearts die, so does the country's best means of defence, magic.

The Raven stories were always a cut above typical sword and sorcery stories in their sophistication as Barclay always managed to make them about more then just the plot. Somehow topical themes; the relationship between power and responsibility, no action exists in isolation, and the very delicate balance that must be maintained for any world to survive, were always an integral part of each plot without them ever being in your face. Even more impressive, was that no matter how incredible some plot twist might seem, within the context that he created for the world of his characters and their adventures, they always made sense and were never outlandish.

If you haven't read the previous six books featuring The Raven, the bald details of Ravensoul's plot that I've laid out for you might seem outrageous, but within the context of what he had previously written this book not only fits into the world, it feels like an even better conclusion to the series than the previous book. It's as if Barclay has gathered up all the various threads of the previous stories and woven them together to finish the picture he had begun drawing in the first book.

As a band of warriors The Raven were always greater than the sum of their parts, somehow always managing to win through in the end no matter how insurmountable the odds against them appeared. Yet what made them such an appealing group of individuals was their humanity as none of them were perfect and they were subject to the same fears and foibles as the rest of us. However, not even death could shake their faith in their belief that they would win through in the end, simply because they were The Raven, and The Raven always won through in the end.

In the hands of a lesser writer a book that relied on resurrecting the majority of its characters for the story to work could have come across like a crass attempt to cash in on earlier popularity. Instead James Barclay has written a story equal to, or better, than any of the ones previously featuring The Raven. However, no matter how good any of the individual novels in either The Chronicles or The Legend Of The Raven are, like the mercenary group itself they are greater than the sum of their parts. Reading one of the seven books might be an exhilarating experience, but it's only by reading all of them that you can truly appreciate Barclay's accomplishment with this series. Now, with the publication of Ravensoul the picture is truly complete, and we can see just what a masterpiece it is that he has created.

December 2, 2008

Movie Review: The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian (DivX Version)

I always feel a certain amount of sympathy towards those who attempt to adapt beloved stories into movies. No matter what they do, or how good a job they do, there will be always someone who will find something to criticize about the final result. The majority of the time the criticisms, rather unfairly I think, revolve around changes made to the story that were necessitated by the adapting process. Whether it's a character omitted, or a plot line trimmed, most movie adaptations are forced to shorten the original story because of the time constraints of the medium.

So when I go to see a movie adaptation of a book that I've really enjoyed, I do my best to try and look past the the story as it unfolds on the screen and focus on how well they've managed to recapture the spirit, or intent, of the original. The last three movie instalments of the Harry Potter series; Prisoner Of Azkeban, The Goblet Of Fire, and The Order Of The Phoenix, all took liberties with the books they were based on, but did such a great job of bringing the world and the characters to life, and capturing the essence of each book, that they worked.

After having been pleasantly surprised by the excellent job those involved with bringing the first book of C.S. Lewis' series of children's stories set in the magical land of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, to life, I was looking forward to enjoying the second movie, The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian, just as much. Not able to get out to movie theatres easily, and too impatient to wait for its release on DVD, I downloaded a DivX version from a legitimate site. (Not that I'm worried about depriving the Disney Corp. of a few bucks, but I don't trust file sharing sites, so I'm more than willing to pay $1.99 for a copy of a movie that I can play on my computer). Unfortunately, and almost right from the start, Prince Caspian fell far short of the mark set by its predecessor, as those responsible for it took what was a straightforward story, complicated it needlessly with sub-plots, and buried the book's themes of faith and belief to the point they were almost unrecognizable.
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English brothers and sisters, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) had stumbled into the magical land of Narnia while evacuated to the country from London during the air raids of WWII. While there they, with the help of the great lion Aslan, had led the mythical beings (talking animals, fauns, satyrs, giants, and centaurs) of the land in overthrowing the evil White Witch who had ruled the country and kept it locked in winter for a hundred years. Although they stayed in Narnia until they grew to be adults, and ruled as Kings and Queens, when they stumbled home as accidentally as they had gone in the first place, they found that absolutely no time had passed at all. One hour passing in our world could be the equivalent of anything from a year to a century passing in Narnia.

A year has passed and while the four children are waiting impatiently to return to Narnia, things have changed drastically since they left. Humans still rule, but instead of caring for the beings of the country who inhabited it when they arrived, the Telmarins conquered the country and done their best to exterminate all the original inhabitants. Those who survived have hidden themselves deep in the woods, or in some cases reverted to being dumb animals. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is the rightful heir to the Telmarin throne, but with his father dead, his Uncle Miraz rules as regent. When Miraz's wife has a baby son, Caspian's life is in danger, as Miraz will want his son to inherit the throne, so his tutor sends him away just in time to avoid an assassination attempt by soldiers in his Uncle's employ.

Caspian's tutor, a half dwarf, had told him the real history of Narnia, so he knew who had originally occupied the lands, but like other Telmarins thought them to be extinct. As a farewell gift, his tutor gives him Susan's magic horn, which he had somehow recovered. When that horn is blown it will bring its user powerful help, and in this case when Caspian blows it, it hauls the four children back to Narnia from England. Joining forces with Caspian and the old Narnians who have been in hiding, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy - battle to overthrow Miraz and restore Caspian as rightful King.

While the movie followed the same basic plot line as the book, what's described above, they seemed to have lost track of what the story was about. While the original books were dominated by Christian imagery, which was only natural as Lewis was a devout Christian, they also were designed to teach children about the power of faith and belief. Narnia was a wondrous place where myths came alive, animals talked, and trees danced. However, in order for it to survive, people have to want it to survive, which means not just sitting idly back and waiting for someone to come and save them when things go bad, but to make the effort themselves to set things right. According to Lewis, that, and faith in what you believe in, are an unbeatable combination.

While the movie version of Prince Caspian makes passing reference to believing and having faith, it's done through showing the opposite traits in characters; impatience, questioning, and losing faith; rather than any positive demonstrations of belief. The various side plots introduced for the movie; turning the Telmarins into refugees from 15th century Italy, complete with thick, and in some cases bad, Italian accents, a rivalry between Peter and Caspian, an extra battle, and added in action sequences that hadn't existed in the book, might fill up screen time, but they do nothing to advance the main themes of the story.

In the book, when the four children land in Narnia, Caspian had blown the horn that summoned them after he and his forces had suffered a defeat at the hands of his uncle's army. Like in the movie the children meet up with the character of Trumpkin the dwarf (Peter Dinklage and he guides them to Caspian. However, in the book, while on the way to meeting Caspian the five of them meet up with Aslan. He sends Peter, Edward, and Trumpkin off to meet with Caspian, while he and the two girls travel through Narnia waking the tree and river spirits and generally reviving the magic of the country. It's a beautiful journey that reminds the reader of all that is wild, exciting and beautiful about Narnia and makes Aslan real to us. What we are given in the movie instead of this is the extra battle scene, which might make for excitement, but does little to weave the spell of magical beauty that the book or the first movie did.

After watching the movie I was left with a feeling of disquiet, like something wasn't quite right. For although the acting was in general as good as that in the first movie, if not even better (aside from the silly Italian accents every Telmarine has to speak with), the creatures were every bit as believable as they were as before, and the cinematography just as lush and gorgeous, it wasn't anywhere near as satisfying to watch as The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. It was like the difference between eating a fast food meal, and one that somebody had worked at for hours preparing for you. They both fill you up, but only the latter has the intangibles that make it satisfying to both body and soul.

If you only are interested in watching an exciting action and adventure movie, than The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian won't disappoint you. However, if you were hoping for something a little more, something that would capture the same feeling of lightness and delight that you felt from the first movie or from reading the books, you won't find it here. Narnia is a magical country where we can go and remind ourselves of the meaning of faith and belief, no matter what it is we believe in personally. Prince Caspian, the movie, takes place in a far different Narnia, and is the worse for it.

November 24, 2008

Book Review: The Cream Of Tank Girl By Alan C. Martin & James Hewlett

Once upon a time, well in the late 1980's anyway, when we were all younger and lost in the wilderness, desperate for the type of example only a true leader can set, fortune sent us an anarchistic typhoon to clear all the bullshit from our path. With a can of lager in one hand (well actually anything with an alcohol content that could be used in an internal combustion engine without too much corrosive activity) and the other either on the steering wheel of her favourite vehicle or the controls of its weapon's system, she'd stomp out any perceived injustice and give conventional morality a few swift kicks to the groin.

It was 1988 when Tank Girl first saw the light of day. The world had only just survived eight years of Ronald Ray-guns and conservative Christianity's first kick at the can, and anybody else who was down on the ground hurting. By blaming society's woes on the poor they were able to stop spending money on pesky programs like school lunches and increase military spending in order to ensure American business interests around the world were safe from local government interference. Restoring pride in family values meant they were able to call HIV/AIDS the price of amoral behaviour - fags are only getting what's coming to them - and turning the clock back on any advances society had made on gender equality in the previous decade.

We were in desperate need of someone willing and able to give that world the collective finger followed by a boot up the arse and a grenade enema and Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's creation was just what the doctor (if he was stoned out his head on weird cacti found only in the remoter parts of the Australian outback) ordered. Tank Girl, her somewhat faithful companion, Boga, the kangaroo, and various hangers on, partied, pillaged, rampaged, and generally behaved in ways that would make the average barbarian hoard green with envy, in adult comics, graphic novels, short stories, and one brief appearance on celluloid for a glorious seven or so years.
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Now, just in time for the festive season, the good folks at Titan Books have served up a heaping pile of steaming - uhmm - a celebratory coffee table book, The Cream Of Tank Girl, in honour of her thrusting herself upon the unsuspecting world of comics chest first twenty odd years ago. According to Messrs Hewlett & Martin "Tank Girl" came about by accident. Together with other art school classmates in 1987 they had self-published a twenty-eight page comic featuring the two strips they believed showed most promise as being their entrées into the glamourous world of comic books. As neither "Atomtan" or "Max Nasty" have become household names, and "Tank Girl" was a one page ad on page twenty for a comic they never planned on writing, it's obvious prescience wasn't one of their strong suits. However when the editor of Deadline magazine approached them for a strip featuring our heroine they showed they could be counted on to deliver the goods when it mattered and a legend was born.

As its a book you're meant to give pride of place to on your coffee table (which when you think about how many Tank Girl readers own coffee table let alone furniture not made out of orange crates you have to wonder about the minds in the marketing department at Titan Books) the primary focus is of course on illustrations. From full colour reproductions of comic book panels and front covers of Deadline that Tank Girl graced, story boards and design ideas for Tank Girl the movie, to black and white pen and ink drawings, The Cream Of Tank Girl doesn't disappoint in that department.

Over the years Tank Girl underwent various modifications in her appearance as Hewlett's illustrations became more sophisticated. Yet no matter what there has always remained that certain je ne sais quois about her that would shrivel the balls of miscreants to the size of an atom. For, although there is no denying her lasciviousness nature, or that she is built along the lines of super heroines designed by men who still live in their parent's basement where gravity and the laws of proportion don't exist, the glint in her eye - and her willingness to level small towns with her tank - are enough to make even the most testosterone laden idiot pause for thought. Of course there are always those who aren't that swift on the uptake and they find out that yes indeed those are rocket launchers attached to the side of her tank.
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As a bonus Hewlett & Martin have also included some of the other strips they have worked on, or attempted to put before the public eye. It's nice to see that Hewlett's talents stretch beyond drawing kangaroos with attitude, tanks, explosions, and Tank Girl as we are introduced to various other characters in their arsenals and a variety of strangeness that somehow has yet to have seen the light of day.

One thing that they make clear in the books is that as far as they are concerned the movie version of Tank Girl not only was awful, but ruined her for ever. Instead of being the parody of the over-endowed super heroine (no those aren't intercontinental ballistic missiles under her t-shirt) the movie softened the hard edges and pointy bits about the character we liked so much and diminished her by filling the movie with stupid locker room humour in an attempt to make it appeal to a mass audience. What the studio didn't realize is that most of "Tank Girl's" appeal was the fact that it wasn't for mass consumption and didn't play well in Peoria.

The Cream Of Tank Girl is a trip back in time to those innocent days when a girl and her tank could travel the outback in the company of her kangaroo boy friend content in the knowledge there were stupid people to terrorize and towns to blow up. If you missed out on the action the first time round, it will give you a taste of what you missed. For the seasoned traveller its a fitting memento from your misspent youth and one that just might make you question your judgement in selling out and taking that straight job.

As of May 2007 that time has come as she made her triumphant return in the Gifting and is now appearing on a regular basis in the British magazine Judge Dredd in a twelve part series, Skidmarks. Look for it to be made into a graphic novel next year around this time, as a new generation of illustrators, Rufus Dayglo and Ashley Wood, have set Tank Girl loose on the world again. Just when we need her most, after eight years of George Bush's social conservatism, Tank Girl is back to send the forces of decency back to the rat holes they came from.

November 20, 2008

Book Review: Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress - Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone Book 3

In works of fiction, especially fantasy and romance novels, the old maxim of nice guys finishing last receives a reworking to "nice guys just aren't as interesting". While its true that the really evil characters have diabolic natures that make them fun to read about they're usually too one dimensional to to make and enduring character from. No, since the earliest day's of story telling, the characters that have made reader's hearts of both genders beat a little faster have been those bearing the scars of a tragic past.

Preferably he, or she, should exude the type of sadness that only comes from being the cause of their own misery. They should never simply sit and think, but always brood - lurking in a shadowy part of the room where the occasional flicker of light from a nearby candle or fire can throw their face into momentary, stark, relief or give a glimpse of eyes that send shivers down spines. Ideally they are of course loners who eschew the company of others on the grounds that being cursed as they are, all who they dare to love, or even have a casual drink with, will die in their arms.

It was the 19th century gothic novel where these characters pushed their masses of dark hair, and smouldering good looks into the forefront - Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame being the Platonic ideal - and they have been brooding their way into the hearts of millions ever since. Unfortunately the line between archetype and cliche is a thin one, and an endless supply of tall, dark, and morose characters can start to wear on you no matter how attractively they are packaged. So when Michael Moorcock first introduced the character of Elric, the brooding, sickly, and cursed albino scion of Emperors from the lost kingdom of Melnibone, novelty alone made him interesting. Bone white skin, long flowing white hair, and pink eyes may not sound immediately romantic, but make him tall and thin and clothe him entirely in black and have his sickly body sustained by the souls his sword, Stormbringer, steals as it slays, and that puts an entirely new complexion, so to speak, on the matter.
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Since his first appearance in the 1960's Elric has been popping up in everything from comics, graphic novels, magazines, to books. As Moorcock primarily wrote the Elric stories with the magazine market in mind, most of them were of short story or novella length. A new series, Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, has gathered together not only the tales of Elric, but all of Moorcock's work that intersects with Elric and his world. In volume three of the series,Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress, being released by Random House Canada on November 25th/08, two interconnected series of stories have been gathered together. The three novellas that make up the title series, The Sleeping Sorceress are set in the mortal realms, The Young Kingdoms, with Elric in his familiar guise of a soldier of fortune. The second series, originally written in 1972, Elric Of Melnibone, is a prequel that details events that took place when Elric was still Emperor and how he came to be in possession of Stormbringer, his fearsome runesword.

The three parts of The Sleeping Sorceress detail Elric's attempts to track down an evil sorcerer named Theleb K'aarna before he can find him. Jealous of a queen's unrequited love for Elric, Theleb hopes that by destroying the albino he will win the heart of the woman who spurned him. While Elric doesn't really have a problem with dying, in fact there are days he would quite welcome what he hopes would be the lovely embrace of oblivion, he knows that Theleb K'aarna won't be satisfied with only killing Elric, but will seek further vengeance by harming those few Elric loves.

As Elric and his companion Moonglum seek out the evil one they meet up with an unexpected ally, the beautiful Empress of the Dawn, Myshella. Although a long time enemy of Melnibone, she serves the gods of Law while those of Melnibone served Chaos, it is Elric she turns to for help to free her from an enchantment that Theleb K'aarna has placed her under. Her body has been forced into an almost eternal sleep, and although she is able to resist and appear to Elric in his thoughts for now, soon she will succumb to the curse and die.
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Moonglum and Elric are able to successfully revive her and with Myshella's aid defeat Theleb not just once but twice over the course of the three books. Unfortunately the last battle, from which Theleb still manages to escape alive, costs Myshella her life. When Elric first set eyes on her he had been struck by her uncanny resemblance to the lost love of his life, Cymoril, and all his old guilt and remorse had been brought to the surface. Worst of all was the fact that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't resist loving Myshella. Her death only further convinces him that there is a doom upon his head that ensures any who he loves, or who love him, will die a violent and needless death.

Was there ever a time when Elric wasn't a tragic and doom laden figure? In answer to that question Moorcock takes us back in time to when Elric still sat upon the Ruby Throne as Emperor of Melnibone. The only child of the previous Emperor, not only was he born weak and sickly, his birth killed his mother. Needing special herbs and medicines to maintain his strength, he, unlike previous Emperors, spends a great deal of time studying the ancient tomes that have been collected in the nation's libraries. The world is changing outside of the island on which Melnibone is located as mortal men, recent arrivals to the world, are gaining in strength and gradually building kingdoms that might soon threaten the ancient land's existence.

However, in Elric Of Melnibone Elric's most immediate threat lies much closer to home, as his cousin Yrkoon makes no secret of his disdain for his sickly relative and ambition to usurp him. Complicating matters is that one, Elric tends to agree with Yrkoon's assessment that he would be a better Emperor of Melnibone than Elric, and two that Elric is in love with Cymoril, Yrkoon's sister. Ironically Yrkoon points to his own survival as an example of Elric's unfitness to be Emperor. For what occupant of the Ruby Throne worth his salt would let someone like him live?
Yet, we see in these stories an Elric whose life has not yet been burdened by the death of those he loves, and he is happy in the company of his true love, even if he is not content with the cruelty of his people. His studies, which have made him a far more potent sorcerer then any Emperor before his time, have also caused him to question the use of violence and power as a means of exerting control over others. Wouldn't it be better to co-exist with the people of the Young Kingdoms, mortals, then engage in a never ending struggle with them to see who would control the world?

After defeating his cousin's attempts to overthrow him, and in the process claiming the runesword Stormbringer, he returns to Melnibone determined to travel among humans for a year so that he might begin to understand them better. Thinking Yrkoon thoroughly cowed after his second defeat, he not only allows him to live on, but appoints him regent for the year he will be absent. Cymoril begs him not, fearing, rightly so of course, that her brother is even more dangerous now that he has been humiliated. Elric in his pride disagrees, and of course dooms them all; his beloved Cymoril, the Empire, and him. The first two to their death and destruction, and he to a life spent seeking out the means to forget, even if only for the shortest of times, the sorrows that plague him.
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The stories in Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress have all been released before, but these new editions being published as part of the series Chronicles Of The Lost Emperor Of Melnibone represent an opportunity for those who have never experienced Elric, or the writing of Michael Moorcock for that matter, to do so in a convenient and elegantly packaged manner. The books also contain some fascinating extras, and in this edition they include; examples of the original art work that accompanied previous publications of these stories, essays by Moorcock on the nature of fantasy and comparing Elric to the Spanish hero El Cid, and the introduction to the graphic novel version of Elric Of Melnibone.

The stories as they appear in this book are the definitive editions, with any edits that magazines or other publications might have made in the name of space restrictions, or whatever, restored by Moorcock. The illustrations by Steve Ellis, which are superb black and white pen and ink drawings, are all new for this publication and are a wonderful compliment to the text. Reading these stories in their new surroundings means even those of us who have followed Elric for years, will feel like we are coming to him fresh. They not only still have the power to entertain and move, they will also give you plenty to think about. That's the real difference between Elric and other heroes, not his lack of pigmentation or the colour of his eyes.

You can pick up a copy of Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 7, 2008

Book Review: The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest Omnibus Edition (Part Two) By Philip Paolini

Continued from Part One

When an athlete has a remarkable first year in their sport and then fails to live up to the expectations generated by his accomplishments in his second year they call it the sophomore jinx. While there's equivalent for talking about works of fiction there are plenty of examples of an author scoring a success with their first novel only to stumble badly with their second. An even stranger phenomenon is what I've taken to calling the curse of the second book.

It seems to be something that is reserved for trilogies, especially those in the fantasy genre, and is something that I first became aware of when reading Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first time I read the books, it was The Two Towers, the second book in the trilogy, that almost prevented me from finishing series. While the battle scenes are of interesting enough, and the Ents are fascinating, the trek through Mordor with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum was tedious. However, it's not just Tolkien, I've seen the same thing occur in other trilogies, where the second book is the weakest of the series.

Unlike an opening book it lacks the excitement inherent with starting something new. Nor is there a rousing finish to look forward to like there is in the concluding book. When I was an actor I quickly learned that while it was very easy to recreate either emotional highs or lows, mid ranges were another matter all together. How could you make yourself interesting to your audience while portraying something somewhere in the middle? That's much the same conundrum that the writer of a trilogy faces when he or she is needing to keep their audiences attention riveted without the emotional peaks that are built into a beginning or an end.
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Perhaps it worked in Christopher Paolini's favour that I read the second book of his trilogy as part of an omnibus edition, The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest, containing it and the first book. Yet I'm inclined to think that even if I had read Eragon (the first book) and Eldest (the second) as separate editions it wouldn't have mattered. Eldest is not only as good a book as its predecessor, but in some ways I think it may even be better. For not only is Paolini able to sustain the interest in the story and the characters he had begun in his opening chapter, he managed to draw me deeper into the story.

Pace is a very key element to sustaining a reader's interest, and when an author establishes the type of high speed tempo that Paolini did in Eragon, if he slows it down in the second book he stands a very good chance of losing his readership. Yet the problem Paolini faced was that he was committed to sending his lead characters, Eragon the dragon rider, and the dragon Saphira off to be educated among the elves. I'm sorry, but no matter how you dress it up, school is school, and if the majority of Eldest had been spent on going to lessons with Eragon and Saphira, the book would have died a slow death.

Instead, Paolini took a very big chance and began a new story line to run alongside the ones all ready established. Although he begins Eldest by picking up the story where Eragon concluded and adding some new wrinkles to the plot line, after the opening few chapters the scene changes completely. We travel back to the village of Carvahall, from which Eragon had fled in his search for vengeance against those who killed his uncle. It's his cousin Roran who becomes the focus of our attention, first as he copes with the knowledge that his father is dead and his farm destroyed and somehow his beloved younger cousin is responsible, then as the repercussions of Eragon's actions continue to grow.

For Roran has little time to build up resentment against Eragon, because it's not long before the Empire, in the form of a troop of thirty soldiers led by two of the evil Ra'zac, comes for him. Initially he is able to stay hidden in the woods surrounding the town, but when it becomes obvious that the soldiers and the Ra'zac have no intention of leaving without him things reach a head. The townspeople decide to actively resist the soldiers, and do surprisingly well. Although they suffer casualties of their own, they manage to kill off over half the soldiers and prevent them from taking Roran or inflicting too much damage on their village.
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Unfortunately they are betrayed by one of their own, and a squad of soldiers and the Ra'zac attempt to take Roran from where he is staying. Although he successfully avoids capture, his betrothed, Katrina, isn't so lucky and is spirited away by the Ra'zac on their flying steeds. Like his cousin before him he vows that he won't rest until he tracks the Ra'zac to their den and destroys them, and hopefully rescue Katrina in the process. In the meantime the villagers have to deal with the eventuality that the King won't allow them to get away with defying him. Seized by a messianic zeal, Roran is able to convince them that their only hope is to pack up, leave, and make the dangerous trek across land and sea to the country where the Varden - those who are fighting the king - have their base and seek shelter with them.

With the fate of his home village providing the action to stir our blood, the more static adventures of Eragon while he is undergoing his next level of training to be a dragon rider with the elves becomes more interesting through the contrast they provide. It's here that Paolini shows his subtlety as a writer in the ways in which he develops the characters of both Eragon and Saphira. For they are each assigned a teacher by the elves, who works with them not only on their martial skills but also hones them intellectually and emotionally. For if Eragon hopes to succeed in his attempt to overthrow the evil King Galbatorix he will have to not only become far more proficient physically, but he will need to somehow gain the strength of self that usually only comes through years of experience in a short while.

While Roran is leading his people across the empire to what they hope to be the relative safety of joining the Varden, and Eragon and Saphira are being honed as a weapon, Galbatorix has not been idle either. Using magic to shield their movements from the Varden's spies, he has gradually gathered together an army of close to one hundred thousand men, far more than the Varden can hope to field. The only hope the Varden have in defeating an army of that size is if their allies the dwarves can reach them in time, and if Eragon and Saphira have come into sufficient strength to even up the odds.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Christopher Paolini has managed to avoid the second book lag that happens so often in fantasy trilogies by taking chances. Adding a new plot line, and throwing in new twists to the all ready existing plot, could have easily backfired on him by making the story too confusing. However he has the wisdom and the confidence take his time with each new element so that we are able to absorb the information properly. Not only does this allow us the opportunity to fully appreciate the new characters and circumstances, but we also grow closer to those we had met before.

Eldest draws us deeper into the world that Christopher Paolini has created with his trilogy The Inheritance Cycle. While action and adventure play a role in keeping our interest in the story piqued, he is a gifted enough writer that the moments spent by characters in introspection are every bit as enticing as those in a flurry of activity. He also continues to display a fine eye for detail, which allows him to bring the wonders of the elf homeland in all its splendour, the bleakness of the villagers' exodus, and the confusion of battle to life in equal measure.

First Eragon, and now Eldest; one can only wonder at what marvels he has in store for us in part three - Brisinger.

The omnibus edition of The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada
or an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

November 5, 2008

Book Review: The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest Ominbus Edition (Part One) By Christopher Paolini

As an adult reader, and somebody whose literary tastes have been known to include the likes of Joyce and other so called heavyweights, I occasionally wonder about my predilection for reading fantasy and other material that presents little or no intellectual challenge. Yet, when I think more on it I realize that although there might be a certain intellectual gap between the various books that I read, the authors I enjoy the most are the ones that are primarily story tellers. It doesn't matter whether it's Joyce or Rowling, as they are both concerned with recounting the events that have impacted on their characters, and how those events bring change into their character's lives.

I'm sure I've scandalized quite a few folk by likening Leopold Bloom to Harry Potter, but I read for enjoyment, not for prestige or any other sort of intellectual bedpost notching. So while some may think Ulysses and Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone are worlds apart, as far as I'm concerned they are both well told stories that bring me great pleasure to read. Certainly the authors have such vastly different styles that there can be almost no comparison between the two, but in the end they both have created a series of characters whose stories they are intent upon telling.

Whenever I find a story that I've not read before that gives me the kind of pleasure that the ones mentioned above do, I feel like I've been given a great gift. Most recently that gift came in the form of an omnibus edition of The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest by Christopher Paolini and published by Random House Canada. This is another occasion of me coming late to the feast, as I know the first two books have been available for a while now, and although I'd seen their titles in the book stores for a while, and had toyed with picking up a copy, I confess it took watching the movie adaptation of the first book, Eragon to make me interested enough to read the series.
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For those of you like me who are playing catch-up on the series, the third and final book, Brisinger was published at the end of September, this omnibus edition containing the first two books is a convenient and inexpensive way to get up to speed. It not only contains the complete texts of both books, but as a bonus feature (not just in DVDs anymore) they've thrown in copies of Paolini's original hand-written manuscripts - making you once again grateful for the marvels of typesetting as outside of a doctor's I swear that authors have the worst handwriting I've ever seen.

In Eragon we meet the title character, a farm boy of fifteen, around whom the action of the whole series will be focused. While hunting in a mysterious mountain ridge near his village known as the Spine, his quarry is disturbed by a sudden explosion, and although he misses his shot at a deer, he is left with a mysterious blue stone. On the off chance that he may be able to barter the stone for money or food he returns home with it, only to discover the treasure it contains is far more dangerous or valuable than he could have ever imagined. For the blue stone is a dragon egg, one of three that remain from the glory days of when dragons and their riders led the land of Alagaesia and peace and prosperity reigned. But those days are long gone, and an evil king, Galbatorix, now rules with an iron fist.

Once a dragon rider himself, Galbatorix betrayed his comrades and with the aid of followers equally corrupt destroyed the rest of the dragon riders and the dragons. He preserved three eggs in the hopes that he could induce them to hatch for people of his choice so that he could raise a new breed of dragon riders, ones who would enforce his will upon the people of Alagaesia and allow him to expand his empire beyond its current borders. However those who resist him managed to steal one of the eggs and have succeeded in killing all of his former underlings.

Dragons will only hatch when the egg senses the one whom they are destined for is nearby, so for years the resistance has passed the egg between three races; human, elf, and dwarf, in an attempt to find a rider among them. It's when the egg is being transported from one group to another and the courier intercepted by the king's forces that it was sent off to land at Eragon's feet. It was no accident that it ended up near his village though, because one of the chief architects of its theft had gone into hiding there years ago, and in her desperation the courier had tried to send it to him but had fallen short.
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Brom, whom the village has always regarded as nothing more than a storyteller, turns out to have been not only a former rider, but the one who managed to steal the egg from Galbatorix. When Eragon's home is attacked by evil minions of the king known as Ra'zac, and his uncle slain, it's Brom who leads Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, into the wilderness in pursuit of the evildoers in the hopes of exacting vengeance on them. It's also Brom who begins to train Eragon in the intricacies of becoming a dragon rider. Not only does this involve learning how to fight with a sword, but how to use magic as well.

Unfortunately, the further they travel, the more they realize how desperate the situation in Alagesia has become. Not only has Galbatorix allied himself with the Ra'zac, but he's also begun to raise armies of Urgals, fearsome bestial creatures, who are terrorizing the population. Eragon is one harrowing adventure after another, filled with unexpected joys and sorrows, as Eragon and Brom chase across the breadth of the country. In spite of all the action taking place, and all the information that needs to be imparted, Christopher Paolini, not only plots a sure course that prevents the reader from becoming overwhelmed by information, he knows when to slow the pace of events so that we have time to get to know our characters.

Eragon may not age physically during the course of the first book, but he grows in other ways. We watch as he struggles to understand what it means to be a dragon rider; exalt in his triumphs and mourn the defeats that inevitably occur along the way. As the connection between him and Saphira grows stronger we watch as they both learn from each other, and see how Eragon grows to realize what it means to truly be responsible for another being. While new characters are introduced through-out the book; Arya the elf-courier who they rescue from the clutches of an evil sorcerer known as a Shade, and the mysterious Murtagh; they enter in such a manner that they don't interfere with the flow of the narrative.

Desperation forces many of Eragon's decisions near the end of the first book, but he has matured sufficiently by then to marshal his resources and see him and his new friends through to the relative safety offered by the stronghold of the Varden - the name given to those who oppose the rule of Galbatorix. It's here that he and Saphira prove themselves in battle for the first time as an army of Urgals led by the Shade who had imprisoned Arya manages to penetrate the stronghold. Although Eragon manages to defeat the Shade, and the Varden repulse the invasion, neither escape uninjured.

As the curtain falls on act one of the series, Paolini lets us know that Eragon's voyage has only just begun, and he and Saphira have leagues yet to travel before they are able to fulfill their promise. The battle against the king has only started, and they've barely survived a small taste of the power that can be brought to bear against them. For what were to happen if Galbatorix himself were to enter the fray - the oldest and most powerful of dragon riders? Will Eragon and Saphira have time to complete their training under the tutelage of the elves before they are needed to fight yet another battle against the king's soldiers, and will even the elves be able to prepare them sufficiently for the battles to come?

Eragon is a wonderful opening chapter to what promises to be a spellbinding trilogy. Not only has Christopher Paolini showed that he can write action and adventure, but he has the required empathy to create characters, both human and non, that are easy for a reader to identify with. Even more amazing is that the world these beings populate is so well envisioned that it doesn't take very much to believe in it's existence. You will believe that man can fly dragons. To be continued in Part Two of this review.

The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 3, 2008

Book Review: Nation By Terry Pratchett

When I think back on the version of history that I learned from attending school and from reading I can't decide which I find more amazing; the conceit of Europeans to believe that they were doing things first or that supposedly rational and intelligent people accepted those facts without question. Even as they traversed the globe discovering new people and evidence of ancient civilizations in countless places European explorers, and subsequently historians, remained unshakeable in their belief that nobody before them could have possibly been capable of doing the things they did.

Even in the twentieth century when Thor Heyerdahl was able to prove, by successfully recreating their voyages, that earlier cultures had accomplished many of those feats long before Europeans, people were, and are, still reluctant to accept that we weren't the first. Unfortunately quite a bit of that reluctance is based on the attitude that before contact with us, everybody were just savages who couldn't possibly have been sophisticated enough to build boats sturdy enough for ocean travel, let alone navigate them across the ocean and back again.

It was during the height of Britain's colonial rule in the 19th century that the term "White Man's Burden" was coined. The great burden that the Empire shouldered in those days was the task of bringing the light of "civilization" to all those poor misguided dark skinned people around the world. Of course you couldn't expect miracles, but it was at least hoped they could be taught English and to put pants on every so often, especially in mixed company.
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In his most recent release, and his first for young audiences, Nation, published by Harper Collins, Terry Practchett has not only created a wonderful tale of self discovery, he rebukes those histories of our childhood that had us believing nothing of importance happened before the white man appeared on the face of the earth. With a remote South Pacific archipelago as its location, and an alternate 19th century as the reality, Nation is the story of two young people from vastly different backgrounds thrown together by nature and what they experience together.

Mau was no longer a boy, as was proven by his having survived his time alone on Boy's Island. However instead of his heading home to the island home of his people for his celebration feast, the world had something far different in store for him. A tsunami wiped out the entire population of his island, destroying his whole nation, and leaving him entirely alone - or so he thinks. Unknown to him the storm that sent his people away brought him Ermintrude Fanshaw (the Honourable Miss) who is 139th in succession to the throne of England, via the ship Sweet Judy that the wave had picked up and planted on his home island.

While its true that Ermintrude, who would much rather be called Daphne thank you very much, must face up the fact that nothing in her previous life has prepared her for being stranded on a desert island, her plight is nothing compared to what Mau has to overcome. One of the first tasks he has to undertake upon his return to his home is burying all of his former friends and family by dragging their bodies into the sea and weighing them down with stones so they will sink. What kind of Gods are his that they would allow everyone to be killed? He wants nothing to do with any of them any more. In fact if not for Daphne he might have surrendered to death instead of having to cope with the sense of loss and betrayal.

As the days pass and the two young people establish their new home they begin teaching each other bits and pieces of their respective languages and how to survive. Once they are able to light a fire, other refugees start to trickle in attracted by the smoke and the knowledge that this island has always been favoured by the Gods. The newcomers are shocked by Mau's attitude of feeling betrayed by the Gods and come to think of him as a demon, At the same time though they can't help but respect him for his ability to find ways of taking care of them. Who else would think of attempting to milk a pig in order to feed a starving baby?
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However it falls to Daphne to discover the most amazing thing about the island and its history. She convinces Mau that he must uncover the "Grandfather's cave" where all the old warriors of the tribe were laid to rest. With the help of a crow bar that was part of the tool kit on the Sweet Judy they are able to roll back the the cap stone and aside from discovering the corpses of many generations of men, they discover a chamber depicting information and technology that the people had known about at one time. There's even a map of the heavens showing various planets marked out in glass and gold on the ceiling.

As far as Daphne is concerned the chamber of the ancestors proves that at one time the people of Mau's nation had been great seafarers and had travelled around the world long before any other people. It's this discovery that she uses when the inevitable happens and she is "rescued", to convince her father that Mau's island should be left alone and deserves not to conscripted into the British Empire. Unfortunately, along with her rescue comes a return to reality, and the realization that the two friend must separate as Daphne is needed back in her old life, as much as the island needs Mau.

Nation by Terry Pratchett is a wonderful book for many reasons but what I found to be most compelling was the way in which he brings to life the changes that each of his two main characters goes through. Not only does it make for a more interesting story that way, as it maintains our interest in Mau and Daphne far more than is usual in a book written for young people, but it also serves as an example to those reading of the benefits of being open to new ideas.

The idea that this supposedly primitive island nation had at one time travelled the world is not at all far fetched, as it has already been proven that many of the Polynesian and South Pacific nations had at one time been great sea farers. By making this a key element of the story Pratchett is opening his reader's eyes to the fact that Europeans were not the first great explorers of the world and that we need to be careful in making judgements on a people simply because they dress and look different than we do. Unlike so many writers though, Pratchett has incorporated this "lesson" so thoroughly into the story that you never feel like you are being preached at or being told how to think. Rather he carefully builds his arguments by allowing us to see everything through the eyes of his characters. It's their reactions to circumstances, the thought process they go through to form their opinions, that gives the reader the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the world.

Of course no Pratchett book is complete without humour, and Nation is no exception. However there is also a level of sadness to the work as it becomes obvious that Daphne and Mau are becoming very close, and equally obvious that they will not be able to be together. There's a beautiful little afterward to the book, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye, something I'd not expected from either a book by Terry Pratchett or one written for young people.

Nation by Terry Pratchett may be nominally a book for young people, but it is a tale that will bring pleasure to people of all ages. Intelligent, entertaining, and a little sad, Nation might make you think at times, but it will never bore you. It's too bad we couldn't receive more of our education through books like this.

October 22, 2008

Book Review: The Aventures Of Amir Hamza By Ghalib Lakhnavi & Abdullah Bilgrami - Translated By Musharraf Farooqi

It's always been a source of amazement to me that stories from the days preceding the written word have survived down through the ages to this day. How many years after Homer sat around the fires at night relaying the history of the sacking of Troy was it before the words were written down on paper in an attempt to preserve them? Of course we have no way of knowing how much what is written down today resembles the original stories that Homer recited to his companions. Yet in spite of that it remains the touchstone for Western epic fantastical narrative to this day.

Without Homer where would the world of fantasy as we know it be today? Perhaps we might have invented giants on our own, but single eyed ones named Cyclops? I think not. Mermaids probably share a common ancestry with the sirens and the first witch to lure men to their doom. appeared in this tale to turn Odysseus's companions into pigs. Sadly, as we are beginning to discover to our chagrin, cultural chauvinism robbed us of access to even greater resources for inspiration as epic tales from both before and after Homer, that are equal to, if not surpassing, The Odyssey in splendour and imagination, recount the tales of heroes and the histories of peoples all over the world.

While Valmiki's Ramayana might be the oldest and most renowned of the great epics from South East Asia it is not the only one. Via the Muslim migrations and invasions of what is now India came the great heroes and villains of the Islamic world. Like the heroic tales of other cultures the dastan (literally tale or legend) of The Adventures Of Amir Hamza had its origins in history. However, as Musharraf Ali Farooqui reveals in his recently published English translation available through both Random House and Random House Canada, that although the central character is named for the historically real figure of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib, who was renowned for his bravery, aside from that, very little of the subject matter is historically accurate.
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This pattern of using real names from history or legend in the story, but ascribing them different characteristics and histories then had been previously recounted, holds true for all of the characters in the story. While the identity of Hamza remains a constant, over the years various legends and folk tales have been grafted onto the story which has led to the contradictory claims as to its origins. Some hold that it first began being told by the women of Mecca to honour the deeds of the original Hamza after he fell in battle, while others say it was first composed by the dead man's brother. Whoever originally began compiling it, whether it was in the 8th or 10 century CE, the version Farooqi has translated into English from Urdo - the language of Islam in Pakistan and the rest of Indian sub-continent - was first compiled in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and then revised and expanded by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871.

One of the first things you'll notice in setting out on this epic journey, we're talking nine hundred plus pages, is the ornate style employed by Farooqi. Unlike another recent new edition of an ancient classic, Ashok Banker's Ramayana, this is not an adaptation but a translation, which means that he has adhered to the style of the original. For those who have read Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton's (not the actor, but the nineteenth century British explorer and writer) translation of The Book Of One Thousand And One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights, you'll see similarities between the two. This has less to do with the translation as with the material Farooqi was working from as both the original text and Burton's book were subject to the same influences.

In spite of the fact that Lakhnavi, and later Bilgrami, both wrote in Urdo they seemed to be no less influenced by their colonial masters, the British, then Burton had been by the Muslim world he was interpreting. The result is that both texts, while set in Arabia, Persia, and India, have a distinctively nineteenth century British aftertaste to them. This isn't a judgement on their quality, merely an observation, and a compliment to the skills of Farooqi as a translator for being able to recreate that sensibility. Don't worry though, because once your ear has acclimatized to the sound of the text, and it should only take a few paragraphs or pages at most, you'll find that not only does the style fits the content, it increases the verisimilitude of the experience.
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I've always asserted that if you want to learn about a people, the best thing to do is read the stories that the people tell about themselves. What do they admire in their heroes, what do they consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and other characteristics are revealed in these epic stories that will tell you more about a culture than any history book ever written. Not only that, but as they were created to glorify the people involved they are full of countless adventures that range from waging battles, outwitting devious enemies, and battling with fearsome monsters.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza actually begins before he is born as there are events that occur prior to his appearance on the face of the earth that help shape his destiny. We also learn valuable information as to the various factions within the kingdom where the story originates. We see how even before his conception he has had created some deadly enemies who would along with their descendants, conspire against Hamza for his entire life. Of course once he's born the action really picks up as at the age of five he's all ready having adventures that would put grown men to shame. As Hamaz ages his exploits continue to grow and his reputation expands as he fulfills the destiny foretold before he was born of rescuing the Emperor's throne and crown from the clutches of a notorious outlaw while still a teenager.

One of my favourite characters in the story isn't Hamza, but one of his boon companions, Amar bil Fatah. Amar is a trickster who delights in the discomfort of others and a great thief. As an infant he contrived to steal the milk from the breasts of the wet nurse who was caring for him, Hamza, and another baby so that he grew plump while the other two stayed small. At first his trickery is indiscriminate and mean spirited so that only through the friendship of Hamza is he saved from being sent away or cast aside. While he never loses his taste for stealing and trickery, as an adult he puts his talents to good use to take revenge upon those who would discredit or harm his dearest friend and patron Hamza.

Not only does Amar provide comic relief from the seriousness of other events he is also, like other trickster characters throughout history, a teacher of humility. He takes especial delight in deflating those, even his closest friends, who have let pride puff them up beyond their worth. He is a constant reminder to all the characters and the reader of what happens to you when you think too highly of yourself and that it is important to retain a certain amount of humbleness at all time.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza is not only interesting to read because of its subject matter, its a lot of fun. It contains all the adventure and excitement of some of the best of sword and sorcery stories while supplying an introduction to the legends and mythical heroes of a culture few of us in the West know little or anything about. While reading this book might not answer all the questions you have about the history of the Islam or the Muslim world, it will give you a far different perspective on it than any you'll have had before now.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza can be purchased either directly from Random House.com in the United States, Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 3, 2008

Book Review: Little Brother By Cory Doctorow

Back in the dark ages of technology, the early 1990s, a friend tried to convince me of the necessity of learning about technology. As he was (and remains to this day) the smartest person I know I didn't dismiss his argument that we needed to understand technology in order to know what the government could do with it to keep tabs on us as complete paranoia. Hell if I had graduated from University it would have been in 1984, so the idea of Big Brother looking over our shoulder wasn't something I ever took lightly.

Still, at the time, I really didn't understand what he was so worried about, not realizing just what technology could do and its potential for surveillance work. Sixteen years later I'm wishing I took him a little more seriously as the world has gradually given itself over to technology, and more and more opportunities exist for monitoring our every move. Information chips on credit cards, GPS systems in cars that track your movements, and CCS Cameras on every corner equipped with gait and face recognition software to pick out individuals in a crowd are only the tip of the iceberg, as its the stuff I know about. It's the stuff I don't know about that worries me now.

In the past decade science fiction writers have had a field day with technology and its applications for surveillance and control. Yet, perhaps because they are so obviously science fiction, or the stories I've read just a little too outlandish, it's been easy to disassociate what they have written from the world we live in and dismiss them as fantasy. That is until I downloaded a copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother from the free download page at his Craphound web site
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Cory Doctorow is a Canadian science fiction writer and, for lack of a better description, copyright and free technology activist. He's one of the co-editors for Boing, Boing, has worked extensively with groups around the world at freeing up copyright restrictions and creating open source technology, and founded the open source company, OpenCola. It's his belief that by making his work available as downloads it creates the potential for more, not less sales, so all his books are available as free downloads under the Creative Commons Licence. (If you're interested in reading up on this sort of thing in detail Cory has gathered together a collection of essays he's written about it in Content that can be downloaded from his site)

In Little Brother we are introduced to Marcus Yallow, a seventeen year old high school student living in San Francisco. In Marcus' San Francisco the schools have introduced various means of monitoring their students, including handing out free laptops for their school work that monitors their on line behaviour, surveillance systems that use cameras and gait recognition software to monitor their whereabouts, and library books with chips that can be used as homing beacons. Marcus and his friends are able to stay two steps ahead of the system and have figured out work-arounds and hacks for anything the school board can throw at them.

Marcus is pretty much your typical, self-assured, slightly cocky - bordering on arrogant teenager, believing that he can handle anything the grown-up world can throw at him. A terrorist attack that blows up the Bay bridge between San Francisco and Oakland changes all that and his world forever. Caught out in the open when the bomb happens he and three friends at first try to head for shelters like everyone else. Deciding they're better off out in the open, they head out to the street where they try and flag down a cop after discovering one friend has been injured. Unfortunately the first vehicle to stop for them is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who immediately arrest all four of them for being somewhere they're not supposed to be.

Like any other American Marcus assumes he has rights, and demands to see a lawyer and refuses to co-operate with any of their requests for information without one. Which is when he finds out that he doesn't have any rights and the DHS are perfectly prepared to keep him in jail without telling anyone where he is forever if he doesn't co-operate. One night in a jail cell having to piss in his pants because he is handcuffed convinces him that they are serious and he caves in. He and two of his friends are released after four days, but told if they ever tell what happened to them they will disappear forever and that the DHS are watching them. Their injured friend isn't released and nobody is willing to tell them anything about him.

Marcus quickly discovers the whole world has changed and that DHS have instituted monitoring on everything. Once he recovers from his shock at being imprisoned, he makes the decision to fight back. Using his knowledge of technology he believes he'll be able to stay under Homeland Security's radar and organize resistance against them. Using various cracks, hacks, and loopholes in the Internet, and through the distribution of copies of an open source operating system, he establishes an alternative network for those wishing to stay anonymous and untraceable. (All the technology and tricks described in the book exist and are available for anyone to use if they are willing to learn how. In an afterward to the book Doctorow provides articles written by some of the people who developed them.)

At first he thinks he's accomplishing something, and in some ways it's just another computer game to him, but gradually the cat and mouse game he's playing with DHS starts to get dangerous. Not only do his opponents have access to the same technology that he does, and people working for them just as smart if not smarter than him, they have blackmailed teenagers into working for them as undercover spies who are closer to Marcus than he knows. Yet in spite of his constant and real fear of "disappearing" Marcus refuses to run away or cave in. Along the way he learns valuable lessons in what it means to take responsibility for your actions, and the responsibility of leadership. For whether he wants it or not, his online personality becomes a rallying figure for all the people resisting DHS, and people are putting themselves at risk because of his ideas.

Like I said earlier their have been lots of books written about this sort of thing recently, but Little Brother works where they haven't for a couple of reasons. The reality that Doctorow depicts is highly plausible, we only have to read unbiased news reports to verify it. Innocent people have been sent to foreign countries to be tortured, people are locked away in nameless prisons without trial and without being told why they have been arrested, and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust manufactured by governments in order to justify suspending civil liberties is a reality.

Into this very believable world he has dropped some very real people whose behaviour is completely plausible. Marcus and his friends, and the other young people we meet, could very well be any group of young people today. They are tech savvy in a way that people of my generation will never be as they have grown up taking it for granted and accepting it as a part of life, while to us it's still something alien that has to be learned and not to be completely trusted. While they understand some of the risks involved with chat rooms and such (pervs looking to score with young kids etc.) they have a hard time separating their online world and reality. Like Marcus they don't understand the real consequences of what will happen to them if they're caught as that's beyond the scope of their experience. To them it's just one more on line role playing game, but brought to life.

For those of you who have trouble getting your heads around the idea that a bunch of teenagers can be motivated enough to take a stand on issues like civil liberties, Doctorow has the brains to work recent history into the text to establish precedents. It was only as recently as the 1960's when young people were involved with voter registration drives in the South as part of the Civil Rights campaign, or protesting the war in Vietnam. Give people enough motivation and direction and they can be galvanized to action, and Doctorow provides his characters with both making their behaviour believable and realistic.

Little Brother is a well written and intelligent story that will keep you on the edge of your seat no matter what your age. It not only provides its readers with an overview of the technology that's being employed to monitor your behaviour and the means to counteract it, but it does so within a moral and legal framework that can't be argued with. Young and old, this book will help you see the world around you in a new light, and will open your eyes to the reality of our not so brave new world.

September 2, 2008

Book Review: A Tale Out Of Luck by Willie Nelson With Mike Blakely

There are two types of cowboys in this world. There are the ones who populate Hollywood's movie screens who wear six shooters strapped to their waists in order to gun down those ner-do-wells stupid enough to challenge them to duels on the main street of town. On the other hand there are the men who hardly ever shot a pistol in their lives, and spent their days out on the pasture lands shepherding herds of cattle from point a to point b.

It's the former of course that captures everybody's imaginations. It's far more romantic to see oneself as a lone gun man facing down incredible odds then riding a horse in the freezing rain in the middle of the night trying to track down a cow that's gone missing. It's far more likely that a cowboy met his end because of an accident like being thrown from a horse and cracking his skull or falling under the hooves of a herd of cattle than from staring down the business end of any weapon.

Of course there were bank robbers and train robbers, but most of them probably never saw the inside of anybody's bunk house anymore than a bank robber today would work on a ranch so you can't really call them cowboys either. People who take to robbing banks for a living aren't going to find the hard work and lousy pay associated with herding cattle and other ranch associated chores that appealing. On the other hand cattle theft, or rustling, was probably one of the few crimes committed where a knowledge of cattle and the wilderness was needed in order to succeed
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In his first novel, A Tale Out Of Luck, published by Center Street an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA and being released Wednesday September 3rd, Willie Nelson, with the help of Mike Blakely, has combined the reality of life on a cattle ranch with a dash of the cowboy myth to create a story that's every bit as enjoyable as the songs he sings. Real cowboys (the guys who work as ranch hands), rustlers, Texas lawmen, tavern girls and even a band or two of Indians meet up together on its pages with the expected, and some unexpected, results.

Set in Texas in the years following the American civil war the action takes place in a small town called Luck and it's surrounding environs, specifically the Broken Arrow Ranch owned by former Texas Ranger Captain Hank Tomlinson. When the post war reconstruction government of Texas disbanded the Texas Rangers for political reasons - they wanted to rid the South of anything that had been around before the war - Hank decided to turn his hand to ranching. In those days most of Texas was still considered "open range", and the government was only just beginning to parcel up the land and sell it to those willing and able to work it.

In Hank's case that means establishing corrals for his horses and fencing in swathes of the range as pasture for his herds. His almost adult son Jay Blue works on the ranch just like any of the hired hands, and is proud to consider himself one of them. In some ways he's almost too proud, of himself and his abilities, and that ends up causing him all sorts of trouble. Trouble which also happens to find his closest friend, Skeeter, Hank's adopted son, and eventually, damn near engulfs the whole ranch and the town of Luck.

It all starts with the disappearance of Hank's prized Kentucky thoroughbred mare who was whisked away out of her pen one night as if by magic. It had been Jay Blue's turn to stand watch that night, but he'd convinced Skeeter to cover his shift so he could go into town and romance Jane who works in Flora's Saloon. It was only when both boys woke in the morning to the sound of Hank going off like a Howitzer that they knew they were in trouble. Deciding it was safer to take on what ever the wild world had to offer instead of an irate ex Texas Ranger, the boys set off in hunt of the missing mare.

While there's dangers a plenty out on the range as it is, when a ghost from Hank's past shows up bodies start being found. Feathered with arrows and scalped, all the signs read like a party of renegade Comanche are operating in the area. However, Hank recognizes the arrows that feather one of the first bodies that's found and realizes that not only is somebody trying to throw the blame onto an innocent group of Comanche hunting in the vicinity, but are out for his blood and the blood of any close to his heart - especially his son.
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Willie and Mike have written a neat and tidy book that combines all the best elements of a mystery story with the genuine wildness of life in the wide open spaces. Out there sometimes the weather and the environment are your toughest enemies, and this book does a wonderful job of bringing the real wild of the "wild" west to life. From beautiful box canyons full of winding trails and deep chasms where the mist from hidden waterfalls paint rainbows in the air, to the arid desert where a man's blood can dry out from the heat of the sun, the authors paint a very realistic picture of the stark beauty of the desert.

You'd think a trail would be easy to follow in the desert, what with so much sand to leave tracks in, but the wind can shift the sand so quickly that the trail from a hundred head of cattle could vanish within half an hour. But a good tracker doesn't look at the ground when following a trail, he looks for clues rubbed into the bark of a tree or in the twigs of a tree gone missing. In A Tale Out Of Luck the authors lay just this kind of trail for us to follow so we can pick our way through the story. Like all the characters we start off blind to what's happened but gradually we begin to see the big picture and can only hope our heroes and their friends can weather the approaching storm.

A Tale Out Of Luck is well written, with characters that have the ring of truth to them and their actions, offering a nice alternative from the cliches of old that used to encumber Westerns. We meet unexpected good-guys and even more surprising bad guys as our two guides, Willie Nelson and Mike Blakely, lead us along paths that no other western I've read has taken. So sit back and put your feet up by the fire for a spell and enjoy an entertainingly spun tale.

August 25, 2008

Book Review: The King's Gold by Arturo Perez- Reverte

Under the reign of his most holy Catholic Majesty Philip IV, the glorious Spanish empire, although lustrous as the gold it plunders from the new world, is being hollowed out by greed, avarice, and everyone's desire to gain a larger piece of an ever - shrinking pie. Of course she is also having to pay to ensure the misguided Dutch stay true to the one True Faith whether they want to or not. Although she has no problem in spending her loyal sons' flesh and blood, the gold it costs is another matter altogether.

There was a time when Spaniards could strut with pride through the streets of their bustling cities knowing that they were kings and queens of their hemisphere, and neither the heretic English nor the cowardly French would dare challenge her divine right of conquest. Alas, the impudence of a heretic know no bounds, and privateers flying English colours now dare the impotent wrath of Spain. Those cowards, with their better cannons and faster, more manoeuvrable ships, stay well out of range of Spain's heroic guns, and splinter ships into slivers while stealing away her ill gotten gains.

Still, is Spain's pride pricked? Do her gallants display themselves any less flamboyantly? Do her nobles conspire to rob and cheat the crown with any less avarice or the Church stop doing what is necessary to stamp out heresy and line its pockets? No of course not - they all must still receive what they feel they are entitled to, even if it means stealing it from the king's pocket. Like the rest of Spain, their needs being met depends upon how much of the bounty from the fleet of ships making the annual voyage from South America with their holds full of pagan gold ends up in their pockets.
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As has been faithfully recounted by Arturo Perez-Reverte in previous stories, that although Spain is becoming the old whore of Europe, the pretty exterior doesn't stand up in close proximity and corruption riddles her like the pox, there are still those to whom honour and pride are not just for show, even if they're sometimes for sale. While there might not be much credence given the saying honour among thieves in most societies, in the Spain of Philip IV its among the company of cut-purses and throat slitters that you're liable to find men sufficiently stalwart, for the right price, to fight for king and country.

So when Captain Alatriste, recently returned from the fields of Flanders fighting for God & King, is required to put together a company of men to carry out a mission of extreme delicacy and importance at the behest of his King, it's among the scoundrels and rogues of Seville that he looks. Accompanying his master, and narrating the events of The King's Gold, the fourth book of the Captain's adventures to be published by Penguin Canada and written by Perez-Reverte, is the now sixteen year old Inigo Balboa. While the mud of Flanders may have opened Inigo's eyes to the reality that the honourable and the proud die just as easily as the craven and cowardly, it has not dampened his enthusiasm for adventure.

It was Alatriste's misfortune to have come to the attention of one of the most powerful men in Spain, the Conde-Duque de Olivares. De Olivares is responsible for ensuring the smooth running of what's left of the Spanish empire, including ensuring the King's treasury receives the share of treasure from the colonies it deserves. Unfortunately a great many of the King's subjects spend much effort and ingenuity figuring out methods of diverting the gold into their own pockets. After all, as nobility they should not have to actually do anything as tedious and demeaning as earn money through industry and trade when every year a fleet of boats comes to Seville laden with treasure.

One family in particular has taken great pains to ensure that they continue to live in the style they are accustomed to, no matter who they have to bribe, and what documents they have to forge. If a ship's documents say that she is only weighs nine tons, and the harbour master and the customs official who examine it agree when it enters port, nobody will look too closely at the extra ten tons of cargo in the hold that doesn't exist. When word of this plan reaches the Conde-Duque de Olivares, and through him the King, it is decided that gold and treasure that doesn't exist can't be reported stolen so perhaps there are some honourable men somewhere in Spain who could be prevailed on to steal it on behalf of their King.
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When the King calls, and fifty pieces of gold accompany that hail, Captain Alatriste and Inigo answer. The non-existent treasure is being offloaded onto a smaller boat and Alatriste is to lead a boarding party that will kill the crew, and set the boat adrift so it floats downstream into the hands of the King's guard who will claim the vessel as salvage. As it would never do for soldiers of the crown to be involved with stealing from loyal subjects, if anything goes wrong Alatriste can expect no help from anyone, and be left to suffer the consequences.

As we have seen in previous histories recounted by young Balboa, Captain Alatriste is no stranger to the world of the hired sword. When Spain is done with her soldiers she leaves them to walk the streets of her cities to make their livings as they are able. Since most of them are most able with the sword and the pistol, it's not surprising that the majority make their livings with aid of either one, the other, or both. With Seville being a major port of entry for not only treasure ships but soldiers returning from the wars, there is a thriving community of ex-soldiers living within the confines of Seville's Cathedral. The sanctuary offered by the church has made the Patio de los Naranjos a comfortable spot for many gentlemen of the sword, as it is sometimes the only way to avoid the malady of the neck caused by prolonged exposure to rope.

Needless to say the Captain and Inigo have few problems finding interested parties to join their venture, but finding ones they can trust is another matter. As has become the usual in one of Perez-Reverte's books featuring Alatriste and Inigo, in spite of the sardonic tone of the narration, and the heroic attitudes struck by young Inigo, echoes of Cervantes' work, Don Quixote, ring loud. Alatriste is truly an honourable man, but the windmills he tilts at abide in his soul, as he wars against the stain that killing has left on him.

Ever since the widow of his old comrade in arms placed Inigo in his care four years earlier he takes the charge of educating the boy very seriously. The last thing he wants is for him to follow in his footsteps and become a man of the sword. Occasionally Inigo catches the Captain looking at him with an expression he doesn't understand and is at a loss as to why the Captain thinks he should receive an education beyond that of the sword.. For his part, Inigo hopes to impress the Captain with his bravery and fighting prowess, having a young man's typical affection for the ideals of heroism. In The King's Gold Inigo takes a couple more irrevocable steps down the path that we know is his destiny.

Honourable men die from a knife in the back just as easily as they do from the sword in the heart, and kill with same knife when they have to. But they need to have something or someone in whose name they can carry out their deeds. It doesn't matter who it is or what it is, as long as there is a reason for fighting that one can bow before, honour is maintained. So when Inigo sees his master in court bowing to the King, a King he doesn't necessarily believe in, he begins to understand the despair that his master feels at times; the despair that keeps him awake all night drinking until he can stare off into the distance blind to the future and deaf to the past.

Arturo Perez-Reverte's series of books featuring the adventures of Captain Alatrisre are the stories Alexander Dumas would have written if he had lived in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Heroic attitudes are all very well and good, but if you don't live to see another day what purpose do they serve? In The King's Gold both we and Inigo learn a little more about what the reality of being a swashbuckler for a living entails and it's got far less to do with heroism than any of us have been led to believe.

You can purchase a copy of The King's Gold either directly from Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

August 16, 2008

Book Review Toll The Hounds Steven Erikson

For all its innocuous sounding meaning, a place where things come together or meet, there is something inherently portentous about the word convergence. Referring to a place as a point of convergence implies a significance to the events that will incur as a result of this coming together that meeting, rendezvous, or even tryst fail to convey. Of course until one knows the nature of those converging there is no way to tell how things will fall out. One thing you can count on though is that the convergence will change not only those who involved, but the place where they meet will never be the same again.

In author Steven Erikson's epic fantasy series the Malazan Book Of The Fallen he has introduced us to seemingly unconnected characters, places, and plots that have gradually been woven together into a web that ensnares them all. In the first seven books of the projected ten part series Erikson has laid out tantalizing strands for us to follow. We have learned about the interpersonal relationships between gods and goddesses; met humans and alien races who have ascended to assume god like powers; been introduced to demons and creatures from other dimensions; warlocks, sorcerers, magicians, wizards, shaman, and other beings who control forces of frightening power; and most dangerous of all, the wide variety of mortals on whose power of belief most of the above depend for their existence.

Now as we approach the end of the series Erikson is starting to pull the strings of the web tight around his characters, and plot lines whose beginnings can be traced back as the first book begin to converge. Toll The Hounds, published by Random House Canada, the eighth book of the sequence, sees many familiar faces, and a couple of new ones, brought together at three points of convergence, where some plot lines come to a conclusion and others are propelled a few steps further along their way. One of the truisms expressed early on in the sequence, power attracts power, is proven not only accurate at this time, so does the prediction that such meetings result in an unholy mess.
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If you've not read any of the books preceding this one, a plot summery will do nothing but confuse you, come to think of it even if you've read the whole series up to now, a plot summery will confuse you. That's not to say that the book is confusing, its just the strands are so many and so complicated that laying out the bare bones in a paragraph or two and expecting anyone to create anything coherent would be the equivalent of handing you a skein of wool after a kitten has reconfigured its molecular structure and asking you to knit a sweater from the resulting snarl. Over the course of nine hundred plus pages Erickson carefully and coherently leads us through the maze of interconnecting lines to produce a heartrending, joyful, celebration of life that poses thoughtful questions about the real meaning of faith, love, responsibility, justice, and sacrifice.

Does that sound unusually heavy for a fantasy story? Perhaps, but in Erikson's hands you don't even notice what he's doing as you are far too embroiled in the lives of the people involved and caught up in the sequence of events to realize he's making these points. It's not until you take a pause for breath - which I would recommend doing after each section to allow your pulse to return to normal- that the implications of what you've just read sinks in. As is the case with all of the books prior to Toll The Hounds layers of meaning are carefully stacked into almost every paragraph, and while you may think you know what's just happened based on the action described, the reality is oftentimes far more complicated.

Yet unlike previous books, Toll The Hounds starts to pull back the veils that have hidden secret motivations and real agendas. For this reason, this is also perhaps the most introspective book yet in the sequence. Where before we might have been merely observing a character's external reactions to a scene, or perhaps their immediate feelings of fear, repulsion, joy, or sadness when confronted by circumstances, we now follow them along their sometimes torturous processes of assimilating implications. Within each of us there abides a place where we can no longer avoid the mirror that reveals our true face, and while some are much more adroit at avoiding that particular confrontation, in the end the majority of us can only put it off for so long.
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What good does it do if we fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart if in order to do so we break it on the way? Are you honest enough to be able to see that in the pursuit of justice that committing an injustice diminishes you and your goal? Are you strong enough to look in that mirror inside of you and admit to your own true motivations, or acknowledge that you might not understand another's? Well, it's down those avenues that Erikson takes his central characters in Toll The Hounds. Some come close to being broken by the journey, others are tempered and honed until like the finest steel they shine with an inner light, and some discover a new capacity for life and love.

With the Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence Erikson has taken fantasy out of the hands of the swashbucklers where action is the credo and the only consequences anyone suffers is usually at the receiving end of a weapon. In Toll The Hounds he continues to prove that he is a masterful writer capable of creating characters who do more then just bleed and kill. At times his narrative is nearly poetic in nature as he makes use of his various character's flights of fancy and singularity of thought to colour his prose. While in the hands of a less skilled author this might prove disastrous and end up trivializing the content of the story, here it increases the poignancy while adding some necessary lightness of spirit to moments that might otherwise have been too devastating to cope with.

If you have not yet read any of the books in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence you could probably read Toll The Hounds and enjoy it for the pure spectacle, but you would have little or no idea of what was going on. For those of you who have been with Steven Erikson since he began the series, be prepared to read things that will break your heart, make you laugh, and have you on the edge of your seat all the way through. As hard as it maybe to believe, not only does the series continue to get better with each book, it continues to amaze and surprise. A brilliant effort by a brilliant author.

Toll The Hounds can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

July 20, 2008

Book Review: Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn - The Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone Part Two Michael Moorcock

Heroes have always been of a singular nature. Dating back to the times of the heroes as depicted by Homer in his Odyssey the hero has stood alone in the world, either through choice or circumstances. Yet what has really distinguished the iconic hero from the rest of us mere mortals has been the ability to reduce the world down to a single focus. Nothing or nobody else matters aside from their quest. Be it a one off rescue of a maiden in distress or a life guided by vengeance for something that took place centuries ago they let nothing interfere with their "destiny".

While this ability to focus can be seen as admirable, taken from another perspective it can also be seen as a form of narrow-mindedness that leaves them with a very limited perspective on the world. Their world is black and white with no room for anything that doesn't fit into the parameters that they have devised for themselves. Anyone who does not support them wholeheartedly is against them, and there is never any question in their minds as to the justice of their mission.

Heroic fiction and the science fiction/fantasy genre of sword and sorcery have fit each other like a glove since the days of pulp fiction magazines. Stalwart heroes like Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian piled bodies around them as they cut a swath through the pages of cheap magazine serials and ten cent pocket books. However, the last forty years have seen some authors in this genre begin to emulate the rise of the anti-hero in other forms of writing. These heroes are beset with doubts while the purity of their mission and motivations are open to doubt.
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One of the leading proponents of this new style of heroic writing has been Michael Moorcock and his famous character Elric of Melnibone - the albino prince who is the sole survivor of a royal dynasty sworn to serve the lords of Chaos. Yet, while Elric is his best known character, a new collection of Moorcock's stories, Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, published by Random House Canada shows that Moorcock has always had more than one sword in his arsenal. (It turns out that this is the second in a series of four books - Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnione - being published by the Random House Imprint Del Rey Books gathering together all of Moorcock's short fiction)

In To Rescue Tanelorn the editors have gone back as far as 1962 for the first story, the novella version of "The Eternal Champion", and continued on down through the years until reaching "The Roaming Forrest" published in 2006. Each of the stories, whether featuring Elric or one of Moorcock's other "heroes", is not only a well told adventure story, but goes some distance in redefining the idea of the hero.

As far back as "The Eternal Champion" Moorcock was already showing his willingness to break the mould that so many other heroic stories had been cast from. Erekose is called from our plane of existence into another world where humanity is locked in a desperate struggle with creatures referred to as "The Hounds of Evil". As the story progresses though, Erekose discovers that the so-called "Hounds" have never instigated war between the two species, and in actual fact possess the means to have obliterated humanity generations ago, but have refrained from using them in the hopes that somehow peace can be won.

Unfortunately humanity's leaders are unwilling to see beyond their blind hatred and aren't about to listen to reason. Erekose himself is held by a vow to protect humanity and oppose its enemies and is initially helpless to prevent the slaughter of the world's other inhabitants. Eventually he is forced into making a decision about where his loyalties truly lie, with humanity or with justice. For no matter what the people who summoned him might say the one is not necessarily the same as the other.

Of course any collection of Moorcock's work will feature plenty of stories with the original anti-hero of sword and sorcery - Elric of Melnibone. The albino prince, who depends on a soul stealing rune sword to maintain his life force, is the only survivor of his once proud kingdom and roams the world, and its many parallel planes of existence, looking for answers about the origins of his people. He knows that at some point they entered into a pact with the Lords Of Chaos - who compete with the forces of Law to control the world - and that resulted in their gradual decline into decadence and eventual extinction.

As a result of the pact he is able to call upon various demons of Chaos to come to his protection in times of need, and wreck horrible havoc upon his enemies. Unfortunately he also seems cursed to bring about the death of those closest to him, and anyone unfortunate enough to ally themselves with Elric usually dies a horrible death. Couple that with his need to kill people and steal their souls at regular intervals in order to stay alive and he ends up not being the most pleasant of companions.

Moorcock's characters drift back and forth through what he terms the "multiverse". So if you're reading a story set in our world and happen to stumble across someone who reminds you of Elric or another character you ran into somewhere else, it's because they all exist in one form or another in the various dimensions. Sometimes they are buried deep within layers of another character, but there will be the smallest of clues that will give them away.

Michael Moorcock was one of the first writers in the sword and sorcery genre to dare and tamper with the sacred icon of the hero and make him fallible. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he was able to do this while never forgetting that he was also responsible for writing exciting and interesting adventure stories. Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, the second instalment of four in the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, is a wonderful collection featuring some of Moorcock's most memorable characters and provides all the proof anybody would need that this man is one of the great fantasy writers of ours or any time.

Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn and the rest of the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

July 7, 2008

Book Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Complete first Serial Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black

I have to admit that I'm prejudiced. With very few exceptions, I believe that the best books for young people are written by the British. For imagination, intelligence, and maturity nothing I've read by authors from any other country has matched anything that has come out of the British Islands. From the historical fiction of Geoffrey Treece, Arthur Ransom's sailing adventure stories (Swallows And Amazons) the fantasy of C.S. Lewis (Narnia) to today's magical Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, they have offered sufficient proof to convince me of their superiority in this field.

My prejudice has reached the point where I now automatically assume that any halfway decent novel for young people has to have been written by a Brit because no one else seems capable of achieving what they do in the field. So when I watched the DVD of The Spiderwick Chronicles for the first time I took it for granted the movie had been based on books by a British writer. Even the movie being set in the United States did nothing to shake me of my conviction as plenty of books have had their settings transposed to appease an American movie audience.

So to say I was surprised to discover that the book's author and illustrator, Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, were both American was an understatement. I had been so delighted with the movie, I looked the books up on the Internet to find out who had published them to see if it were possible to obtain a review copy, and was directed to the Spiderwick Chronicles web site and found out the truth of the matter.
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Of course I still hadn't read the books and there was always the off chance that they could suck, but given how good the movie was I seriously doubted that. Now, thanks to the good people at Simon & Schuster Canada who supplied me with a copy of The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Complete First Serial, an omnibus edition containing all five books, (The Field Guide, The Seeing Stone, Lucinda's Secret, The Ironwood Tree and The Wrath Of Mulgarath), I have confirmation that the books are every bit as, if not more, wonderful than the movie. Like the titles named earlier, these books have a timeless quality that will ensure them being read by children, and adults, for generations to come.

After the break-up of their parent's marriage, the three Grace children, Jared his twin brother Simon, and their older sister Mallory, have moved out of New York City to the country with their mother into the rundown house owned by their Great Aunt Lucinda. The house has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda was committed to a psychiatric institution, and nearly half of it is uninhabitable. Almost from the first moment they move in they discover that the house hides a mysterious and perilous secret.

The first sign of trouble is a mysterious knocking in the walls, that leads to the discovery of some creature's nest made up of odds and sods of junk that its obviously collected over a period of years. Somehow, even though they have barely been there a day, a medal Mallory received for fencing from her previous school has ended up in amongst the other items However, it's in their great, great Uncle Arthur Spiderwick's hidden study in the upper reaches of the house, and what he had secreted in a trunk in the attic, where the real mystery and danger lie.

In a secret compartment of the trunk in the attic, Jared discovers an old and tattered book, Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide To The Fantastical World Around You. While finding the book was amazing, and discovering that their great, great uncle had painted all the illustrations and hand written the text was pretty cool, it was the contents of the book that was truly astounding. The Field Guide was crammed with illustrations and descriptions of magical and mythical creatures that Arthur Spiderwick claimed to have observed in the woods surrounding the house.

Needless to say their initial reaction is one of disbelief, that is only dispelled by meeting one of the beings described in the book, Thimbletack the household brownie. Thimbletack is able to assure them that the entire contents of the book are true, but he also says that by searching out and finding the book they have put themselves in grave danger. It seems that many of the magical creatures don't think it's a good idea for humans to be in on the fact that they exist and will stop at nothing to get the book back. If that isn't it bad enough, it turns out the information in the book would allow a fiendish ogre, Mulgarath, to take over the world and eliminate all other species.

Jared, Simon, and Mallory must pit their courage, wits, and ingenuity against the ogre and the various inhabitants of faerie; including goblins, elves, a griffin, dragons, dwarves, a variety of pixies, nixes and spites, and of course Mugarath the ogre if they hope to not only save their lives, but the world itself. Their adventures span the pages of all five books of The Spiderwick Chronicles and author Holly Black and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi have done an amazing job of not only bringing these adventures to life, but making their world very real.

Black's story not only includes adventures among the strange and wondrous creatures from the pages of Arthur Spiderwick's book, but also does a good job of describing the reality the kids deal with in the so called real world. Jared has been having a hard time adjusting to his parent's divorce and is continually losing his temper and getting in trouble at school. Unlike many books of this kind we never forget that our world exists and plays just as important a role in the character's lives as the fantastic one does.

Tony DiTerlizzi's illustrations are so good that it's hard to know how or where to begin when talking about them. Not only do they compliment the story perfectly by bringing all the characters to life, they add an element of wonder and enchantment that stirs the reader's imagination. Equally impressive are his illustrations of the human world, especially those of the children. He is able to capture the children's characteristics and ages with accuracy and charm.

The Spidderwick Chronicles are without a doubt one of the best series of stories that I have read for young readers in a long time. Intelligent, fun, and adventurous they deal with the real world and the fantastical with equal care and attention to detail so we never forget that it's all taking place in our world. I'm happy to say that my prejudices have been dispelled and I no longer believe that only the Brits can write high quality stories for children.

For those wishing to purchase a copy of The Spiderwick Chronicles you can order a copy directly from the publisher Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

June 20, 2008

Book Review: Sly Mongoose Tobias Buckell

As a kid I remember one of my favourite stories was the Rudjard Kipling tale called "Riki-tiki-tavi", about a brave and resourceful mongoose. From what I could tell from reading the story as a child, a mongoose was a weasel or rodent like mammal not that much bigger than a martin or a fisher. What makes them so unique is their absolute fearlessness when it comes to facing down the mighty King Cobras of India. The mongoose takes advantage of its speed and agility to elude the deadly bites of its opponent, until it can manoeuvre itself into position to grab the snake from behind and snap its neck.

Ever since then I've had nothing but admiration for those little mammals and their bravery. Finding out later that they not only will take on Cobras above ground, but will follow them down into their tunnels as well, only made them that much more impressive. This was one tough and brave little animal willing to go up against creatures many times bigger than it and from whom the smallest of bites would mean death. Even today any reference to a mongoose, no matter how oblique, attracts my attention.

So when I was offered the chance to read and review an advance copy of Tobias Buckell's forthcoming release, Sly Mongoose I jumped at the opportunity. I was even only slightly disappointed when I found out that it wasn't about a sentient race of mongooses, but that the Mongoose of the title referred to the elite fighting force of a Rastafarian government in space.
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At some point in the future Earth had made contact with an alien race called the Sataraps and proceeded to sell millions of their people into slavery in exchange for technology. Eventually the descendants of those slaves revolted and were able to defeat their overlords and form their own societies. Instead of unifying under the banner of their species though a good many developed their own societies, while others created a type of imperial federation known as The League of Human Affairs.

That the League's main interest seemed to be forcing the independent human governments to join them, resulted in the world of New Anegada creating its elite force of warriors, The Mongoose, to help protect the other free worlds from the League. When Pepper, one of the founders of the elite fighting unit, literally falls out of orbit and through the protective shield keeping the city of Yatapek on the planet Chilo safe from the boiling hot acid of the world's atmosphere, it's not because he was trying to set a new record for free fall.

It was a desperate move, that cost him literally an arm and a leg, so that he could carry a warning of a deadly invasion force making its way towards Chilo, from which no human would be safe. One by one the passengers and crew of the ship he had been travelling on had succumbed to the infection that turned them into mindless extensions of a collective consciousness known as The Swarm. Instead of killing those who stood in their way The Swarm was more interested in making everybody one of them by spreading the infection through the simple expedient of biting their potential victims.

At first it's thought that Chilo was only a random target, but Pepper finds out information about the city of Yatapek that makes him question that assumption. The city depends on what little precious metal it can excavate from the beneath the surface of the planet for its survival. Centuries ago when it was founded the original colonists had purchased protective suits that allowed people to walk on the surface for short periods of time. Over the years the suits have worn down and the city can't afford the technology to repair them let alone upgrade them. The only people able to fit in the suits anymore are teenagers willing to starve themselves to maintain a small enough stature to fit in them.

On the day Pepper fell through the atmosphere Timas was walking the surface in an attempt to gauge the extent of the damage that the debris from Pepper's forced entry caused the drilling apparatus. While out there he swears he saw other life forms moving across the surface. While nobody else believes him, when he tells Pepper, the Mongoose Man thinks he sees a reason for the invasion. What if there are survivors of the former overlords somehow living on the planet's surface and the League has created this "infection" as a means to eliminate them?
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With Sly Mongoose Tobias Buckell has taken your standard space action adventure story and given it a little extra bite with the addition of a zombie army seemingly intent on replicating itself until it swallows all of humanity. While the story line is pretty much as old the genre, mysterious alien threat, Buckell's ability to create interesting characters keeps the book from descending to the level of a cliche. While at first glance Pepper appears to be nothing more than a standard action hero, he's gradually revealed to be a far more complicated and interesting character than your average killing machine.

Of course what made him all the more appealing to me was that he shares many of those attributes that I had so admired in Riki-Tiki-Tavi all those years ago; not only is he brave and a good fighter, he's also smart. Many a good strong fighter has gone down in battle because they don't have the ability to think three steps ahead of their adversary. That's not a problem for Pepper, for like any good mongoose knows, his survival depends on being able to anticipate where the cobra's fangs are going to strike before they do - so he can be somewhere else.

Yet it's actually Timas, the young man who serves his city by walking on the surface of Chilo in a dangerously old environmental suit, who is the most interesting character in the book. He's spent his whole life being conditioned to believe that no sacrifice is too big to make in order to preserve both his city and the status allocated his family because of the work he does. They are given preferred housing, access to better food, and whatever luxuries are available to the city because Timas risks his life on a weekly bases.

Racked with guilt every time he eats at the thought that he might gain weight and no longer be able to fit in the environmental suit, he has become a bulimic. After every meal he forces himself to throw up in a desperate attempt to stay small. Timas' struggle to overcome the emotional blackmail of his parents and his community is as interesting a battle as the one that rages between The Swarm and Chilo's defenders. Its the added dimension that elevates Sly Mongoose out of the ordinary and into the worth reading category.

With Sly Mongoose Tobias Buckell has written more than just another two dimensional space adventure. While it contains plenty of action, and enough plot twists to satisfy anyone's need for excitement, it's his ability to create convincing and interesting characters that makes this book really worthwhile.

Sly Mongoose will be published this August by Tor Books, and is available for pre-order at most on line retailers.

June 16, 2008

Book Review: Tigerheart Peter David

When J. M. Barrie wrote his famous children's book Peter Pan it was an era when British children of the middle and upper classes were relegated to the nursery - as far removed from the company of their parents as possible. The majority of fathers were distant figures who rarely ever figured in their children's lives and mothers ran their households with the assistance of a bevy of household staff. It was the nanny who featured most in the lives of Victorian children.

Children were expected to be proper little ladies and gentlemen, ideally this meant miniature representations of their parents. Not seen and not heard, boys of school age were sent off to boarding schools, while girls were tutored on how to be ladies and wives. In such an environment, the figure of a boy who vows never to grow up, and lives a life of endless adventures touched by magic, would be a figure of irresistible appeal to children and more then a few adults as well.

Yet, while there is no doubt that the repressive Victorian age needed a figure like Peter Pan as an antidote for the constraints placed upon children, his character's refusal to grow up represents a denial of the change needed for the emotional growth required to outgrow the selfishness of childhood. For as children the majority of us believe that the world revolves around us, and everything has been put upon it for the express purpose of supplying us with amusement. Any of us who have run into adults who still cling to those beliefs know full well how annoying these people can be.
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In his new book, Tigerheart, author Peter David has taken J. M. Barrie's classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up and has passed it through the prism of his imagination to present a slightly different vision from the original. Instead of the central figure being the boy who doesn't want to grow up, our hero is Paul Dear, a boy who wants more than anything to make his mother happy again.

Paul was enthralled by the tales his father told him about The Boy. and the magical land of Anyplace where he fought pirates and caroused with Indians. At night when Paul looked in the mirror he was certain that the figure who appeared opposite him in the glass was none other than The Boy himself. In his travels through the Kensington section of London Paul would chat with the squirrels and pixies who inhabited the various shrubs and trees he passed, and in his dreams at night he would hunt the lands of Anyplace in the copy of a fearsome white tiger.

Paul's life is proceeding along just fine until a tragedy strikes his family that results in his father telling him that he has to be the man of the house, and his mother telling him that it's time to grow up. As growing up means no longer talking to pixies or seeing The Boy in the mirror, his mother takes him to a doctor who gives him pills that will ensure he grows up. Yet Paul knows that the only way he can make his mother happy again, and pull the family out of its tragedy, is by going to Anyplace, and for that he has to believe.

A chance meeting with an ex-pirate in the park sends him on a quest to a curio shop where he finds the mummified remains of Flickerbell the pixie. Through the standard practice of clapping his hands and saying "I Believe" he is able to revive what turns out to be a very pissed off pixie. She promises to take Paul to Anyplace if he will exact revenge upon the person responsible for "killing" her; The Boy. Obviously there's something rotten in the state of Anyplace, and The Boy's denial of Flickerbell's existence - pixies can only die if people stop believing in them - is only the tip of the iceberg.

Welcome to the dark side of Peter Pan - The Boy is selfish, egocentric, lies to ensure that he is the centre of attention, and is firm in the belief that nothing can happen in Anyplace that he doesn't want to happen. Like all spoiled children who are used to getting there own way, he is blind to anything but his own needs, and sulks when he's not the centre of attention. In fact even when Paul, more by fluke than anything else, saves The Boy's life, The Boy convinces himself that he wasn't really in any danger and that Paul's intervention hadn't really been necessary.

For The Boy not growing up means not accepting responsibility for his actions and not caring about the feelings of others. For Paul growing up doesn't mean giving up all he loves in the world, his ability to talk to animals and pixies, it means opening up your world to include others in it. The Boy only thinks of others in terms of what's in it for him. He doesn't rescue Flickerbell from pirates because he particularly cares what happens to her one way or another, but because it give him an opportunity to be the centre of attention by being brave.

While the theme sounds serious, author Peter David has done a wonderful job of making Tigerheart slyly humorous. While Paul and his family speak and act like people from our time period, other characters talk and think like they came out of Victorian literature. Gwenie - a girl who The Boy has been bringing to Anyplace as a den mother for his followers for quite a while, acts, thinks, and talks like she just stepped out of the pages of the original Peter Pan. The depiction of the Pica Tribe, the local "Red Indians" in Anyplace, is so Victorian, politically incorrect that it's funny, and an obvious dig at the whole "Boys Own" Adventure/White Man's Burden attitude that characterized children's literature of that period.

Tigerheart is that a rarest of creatures, the gentle satire, where instead of twisting a dagger into your side to make a point, the author pokes you in the ribs with his finger. From start to finish this book is a delight to read and is sure to raise more than a few smiles, and offer readers any number of surprises. Most of all though it reminds us that just because we're adult doesn't mean we have to be boring and that change is a nothing to be afraid of.

Tigerheart by Peter David will be released on June 17th/08 and can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

June 13, 2008

Book Review: From Deep Within The Earth: Book One Of The Eternal Vigilance Series Gabrielle Faust

For a guy who first made a name for himself defending Christianity against the infidel hoards of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad the Impaler's reputation has sure taken a beating. Oh sure there was the whole stake thing, where he was supposed to have impaled hundreds of Turkish soldiers up in the Transylvanian mountains while doing his bit for Christ, but the Church has always been forgiving when it comes to excess when dealing with those it considers its enemies. It wasn't until the late 19th century and the publication of gothic novelist Bram Stoker's classic horror novel Dracula that the first stain appeared on Vlad's reputation, and since then it's been down hill fast.

Now I'm sure tales of vampires had been around for a long time before Mr, Stoker was inspired by the good Count's zealous behaviour to create Dracula, but it was his story that first introduced them to the mainstream and helped make them the popular culture icon that they've become today. Films, novels, comics, and television series have been devoted to their exploits, or their exploitation depending how you look at it. Unfortunately many writers have taken the romantic sexuality of their characters and turned it into violent pornography; using them as an excuse to glamourize rape and other non-consensual sexual acts.

Thankfully there are still some writers who understand the difference and are able to distinguish between their character's need to feed upon human blood for survival and other aspects of their life. In fact the really good writers, as far as I'm concerned, make a concentrated effort to show how their character has no control over their need for blood, and that there is nothing sensual in the ripping open someone's throat in order to drain them to the last drop. While they may enthral their victim prior to feeding on them, it's more by way of anaesthetizing them than anything sensual.
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Judging by book one of her Eternal Vigilance series, From Deep Within The Earth, published by Immanion Press, one writer who looks to know how to write a great vampire story is Gabrielle Faust. In this, the first of a four part series, plus a prequel, she sets the stage for the rest of the books, by establishing the major characters, the world they live in, and by offering a different perspective on immortality from that which is normally presented.

It seems that vampires, like their mortal counterparts, can wonder if there isn't more to existence than what's in front of them. Vampires may be immortal, but that doesn't mean they can't be killed, and what, some of them wonder, happens to us when we die. Is there an afterlife for those who are supposedly damned or upon their deaths do they blink out of existence, snuffed out like the flame of a candle by a sudden gust of wind?

A few hundred years ago Tynan Llywelyn thought he had discovered an answer; something for vampires to believe in like mortals have their religions and gods. Yet his own tormented soul refused to accept what he had himself created and he walked away from it, abandoning those who had believed in him and his vision, and betraying their faith. Seeking oblivion, he cast a spell of eternal sleep upon himself and entombed himself miles below the earth's surface. So it comes as something of a surprise to him when he finds himself waking from a nightmare at the beginning of From Deep Within The Earth.

Unfortunately that's only the first of many shocks he's about to experience. In the hundred years that he had spent entombed the world had been taken over by the Tyst Empire. After a series of brutal and bloody wars had decimated the population, the Tyst now rule with an iron fist. By denying the general population access to anything but the basic technology needed for survival, they have subjugated nearly every mortal on the planet. Only the Phuree, a rebel army that uses magic to combat the technology of the Tyst, remain as a viable force in opposition to the empire. Yet what hope do they even they have of standing against the empire if its leaders fulfill their dream of obtaining immortality by allying themselves with the ancient vampire god - a god that most vampires themselves don't want to believe exists because of the evil he represents.

Vampires have always held themselves removed from the wars that have plagued mankind in the past, but now that the Tyst have found a way to threaten their existence they have been forced to enter into the fray on the side of Phuree. Yet there is understandable reluctance among the Council of Elders within the vampires to accept the Phuree prophesy that Tynan represents their one and best chance of winning this war and survival. How can they trust him when it was his betrayal that resulted in so many vampires losing their will to live and killing themselves?

Tynan no more wants to be cast in the role of saviour than those on the Council of Elders who doubt him want him to be, but it seems like nobody has a choice in the matter. He's the only one who stands a chance of being able to overcome the Tyst defences and prevent their plans for obtaining immortality and freeing Victus the vampire god, from reaching fruition. The only trouble is that while the prophesy might say he's the one with the best chance of saving everybody, its a little unclear on the details of how he's supposed to go about doing it.

From Deep Within The Earth is completely different from any vampire novel that you've ever read before. There aren't any vampire hunters out to eliminate evil from the world, nor do we enter into a world of twisted, sadomasochistic sexuality that reeks of snuff films. Instead Ms. Faust has made the vampires we meet into complex and deeply troubled people. For the first time in history their numbers have dwindled drastically and their very survival as a species is threatened. Certainly they are proud and believe themselves superior to the mortals they are forced to ally with, but they also remain enough vestiges of their former humanity to know doubt, even if they can't bring themselves to show it.

It's that ability to feel, and his understanding and empathy of mortal emotions, that make other vampires judge Tynan as weak and flawed. It's something he should have outgrown after his first century of being turned; why he still suffers pangs of guilt for every human life he takes when the Thirst comes and he has to feed. Not only that, but he absorbs and retains, on a subconscious level, the memories and feelings of all those whose blood he has drained. Yet, it's that very characteristic that could save them all, if it doesn't drive him insane.

Not only does Ms. Faust have a great talent for creating characters, she shows great skill in bringing the reality of the world that the story takes place in to life. From the devastated city, the opulent luxury of an Elder's mansion, to the austerity of the primitive Phuree camp, the environment is so adeptly drawn that we can't help but be drawn in and feel like we are experiencing all that Tynan does, when he does. Even more impressive is the fact that we are seeing the world from the perspective of a vampire, not a human, and it is every bit as believable as if it were a human's eyes we were seeing through.

Gabrielle Faust has a remarkable imagination, and the talent to make that vision live on the pages of From Deep Within The Earth. If the balance of the Eternal Vigilance series is able to maintain the standard set by its first book, we are in for a wonderful ride. Be prepared to experience the life of a vampire as you've never experienced it before, but most of all, be prepared to believe that they exist.

June 8, 2008

Book Review: Valor's Trial

Living in a small city that has both a military base and a military university changes one's perspective on the military. Seeing men and women in uniform everyday changes the military from a faceless monolithic entity into a collection of individuals. That awareness, coupled with the knowledge that people stationed at our base are rotated in and out of Afghanistan, is enough to make it easy to distinguish the difference between disagreeing with how the military are used and disparaging the men and women who are part of the armed forces.

It's unfortunate that neither the people who support Canada's involvement in Afghanistan nor those who oppose it seem to be able to handle that distinction. On one side are those who say you have to endorse the war in order to support the troops, while the other seems to think that saying anything positive about the military implies implicit support of Canada's military presence in that country. Like everyone else soldiers are more than just their profession, and by forgetting that we make it easier for governments to expend their lives without responsibility. There isn't another profession in the world where those in charge would even consider the death or injury of their employees in terms of "acceptable casualties"

It doesn't help that the majority of military fiction, either in books or filmed, has a tendency to deal in stereotypes and cliches when it comes to the depiction of soldiers both on and off the battle field. It's rare indeed for them to take the time to recreate in any detail the day to day routine of soldiers not under fire, or develop their characters beyond types. There have been some exceptions over the years of course, but not nearly enough, which is what makes Tanya Huff's Confederation series of military science fiction novels such a pleasure to read.
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Valor's Trial, distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is the fourth instalment of the series that's set sometime in the future. Humanity, and a couple of other less evolved, war like races, have been enlisted by a confederation of elder races (i.e. pacifists) to fight a mysterious alliance of beings known only as the Others. All attempts at finding a diplomatic solution to the war have ended in a lot of dead diplomats. As the two sides are able to imitate the other's technological advances far too quickly for anybody to gain an advantage, the war looks like it could be interminable.

As Valor's Trial begins Gunnery Sgt.Torin Kerr is finally coming home. Well it feels like home to her, as after a series of special assignments she is back with her own company again. Just in time too, as it appears the Others are planning a large offensive and her people look to be finding themselves in the thick of things. Regular combat will almost be a relief to her after having to deal with being at the beck and call of the high command and being a guinea pig for a mysterious alien life form. (See The Better Part Of Valor and The Heart Of Valor, parts two and three of the series, for details) Unfortunately for Kerr, the universe isn't finished messing with her, and it turns out that the first three books were merely a warm up for the main event. One minute your taking cover on the battle field from incoming artillery, and the next minute you find yourself waking up battered and bruised in a cave that's part of a larger complex of tunnels.

It was always supposed that the Others didn't take prisoners, at least there had been no record of it ever happening before. Yet, after somehow surviving the blast that apparently wiped out the rest of the platoon she was with, Torin wakes up to find that she is apparently in some sort of Prisoner of War camp. The section of the Prison Camp she's landed in has been turned into a personal fiefdom by a particularly vile human Sgt. and her first order of business is to rectify that situation. Once she's done that, by the simple expedient of killing the leader and seven of his cronies, she can begin the process of trying to figure a way out of the prison.

Unfortunately that's easier said than done as the food supply has been treated to sap a person's will over time, and the majority of the Marines imprisoned have been so for a good length of time. Eventually Torin leads a party of eight out into the tunnels in a search for a way to the surface of the planet. They're not doing too badly when they run into another party of escaping prisoners - only they aren't Marines or even from the Confederation, they're a party of Others.
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So if the Others aren't holding them captive, and vice versa obviously, who has been keeping both of them captive. It looks like Torin's desire for a simple combat mission was never in the cards from the word go. Somebody or something has done a lot of orchestrating to make sure that each escape party is the same size and contains exactly the same proportional representation of species from each alliance. When Torin's lover and a reporter, who both came in contact with the same alien mysterious alien life form that she had in the two previous books, are dropped into space near the prison planet without knowing how or why, it's just one too many coincidences for anybody's liking.

Aside from the fact that Tanya Huff has written the usual taut and exciting story she is capable of, what really makes this book work are the characters. Instead of populating the book with the usual stereotypes - the Marine who was going to be shipped home to his wife and kids after this one last mission and ends up going home in a box after heroically giving her life to safe everybody else - these are all living, breathing beings. They get scared, angry, and occasionally lash out at each other, just like anyone else would under the same circumstances.

Even Gunnery Sgt. Torin Kerr, in spite of the fact that Marine Gunnery Sergeants are able to accomplish three impossible things before breakfast, and then again after lunch, becomes all too human - something she most definitely keeps from her people. The people under her have to believe that she will get them home and alive whether they want to or not and she has to act infallible no matter how devastated she personally might feel.

No matter what species, or what "side" they are on, all of the soldiers involved in this book are individuals characterized by behaviours that anybody can understand. A soldier is a soldier, and a soldier is a person, no matter whether they have fur, exo-skeletons, or human skin. Valor's Trial does the remarkable thing of lifting the mask we place over the face of soldiers, and letting us see the being beneath it, without ever once making it seem like a big deal or preaching. Valor's Trial proves once again that the best anti-war novel is the well written war novel, and Tany Huff is probably the best war novelist I've ever read.

Valor's Trial can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or another on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 11, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter 6

The bump on the top of my head was starting to make me wish for bed and a cold compress, and the last thing I wanted to be doing right now was sitting in a dank cellar chatting with the two folks, no matter how good their intentions had been, who'd made me feel like this. Still there was something compelling about the way her lower lip trembled when she was emotionally distraught that made me want to investigate how she reacted to other stimuli.

But those were idle thoughts suited to other occasions, and even contemplating them made me wince with pain. Anyway, they looked like a couple of nice earnest, concerned types who wanted to save the world, and from previous experience I knew that was one road better left un travelled. They weren’t casual about anything, and politicized sex was always on the low end of the enjoyment scale for me, especially when working on a migraine.

I suggested that we keep in touch and if they thought of anything more, or if anything happened, that might lead me to an answer about who croaked the professor and what happened to the Kyoto accord. I told them if I ever did get any answers that I would make sure they were filled in, if for no other reason so they could stop bashing people over the head that came into the store asking about the Kyoto accord.

Couldn't be good for business if you kept hauling concerned environmentalists down into a cellar and giving them the third degree. Unless they had a sideline in headache remedies: "Hey does that store of yours have anything for a wicked headache, induced by a minor head trauma?" I asked her pointing at the point on the noggin he had tried to stave in.

He had the good grace to look embarrassed and mumble another apology, while the smile she bestowed made me start reconsidering my earlier resolution and thinking a little tender loving care administered by her capable mouth might not be such a bad thing after all. But when my eyes made contact with daylight, it was still only mid afternoon, when we reached the street all thoughts of anything but lying alone in bed with the blinds drawn and me out cold quickly vanished.

Even her bashful, eye's down looking up at me through her eyelashes, "Is there anything else that I can do for you…" only elicited a request for a cab. Her suggestion as she shepherded me into the cab that she'd call tomorrow to see how I was doing, was laden with meanings, but all I could do was smile weakly and mumble my address to the cabbie.

His initial reluctance on driving me was quickly overcome by my suggestion that the quicker he got me home the less chance there was of me puking on the back of his head. Mentioning the names of a couple of gentlemen I knew in the people cartage business who were known for their efficiency in dealing with those who upset their friends helped to overcome the last of his doubts.

It also ensured I was spared the usual commentary on the state of the world that cabbies seem to believe is their prerogative to deliver. By the time we pulled up to the office whatever placebo she had given me was slowing me down sufficiently that I tipped the cabbie a twenty, which led to the unprecedented site in Ottawa of a passenger having his door opened for him by the driver of his hack. He also did me the favour of pointing me in the right direction of my buildings door, so I didn't wander dazed into traffic.

Harry the day doorman had seen me in quite a number of states before this, but even his eyes showed some concern as he clocked the state of my pupils and the discreet swelling on the back of my head.

"You want me to check on you every couple of hours or so Mr. Steve, to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma?"

"Actually", I told Harry, "a coma sounds pretty attractive right about now. Just get me on the elevator and hit the button for the right floor and I should be able to take it from there." The last thing I needed right now was to be mother-henned by six foot–seven-inch, 300lb, ex linebacker with one eyebrow, a shaved head, and a gold loop earring the size of a hoola-hoop. Nope I just needed my bed and a lot of pitch dark.

Which I almost didn't get until I remembered how a key and lock mechanism worked, after surviving that challenge, navigating through the clutter of the office to the private room in behind was nothing. The only distraction was the flashing red of the answering machine light, which caused a momentary fixation, quickly overwhelmed by the intense pain its pulsation produced in my skull.

I let the back of my knees hit the side of my bed that allowed it to welcome me into the comfortable bosom of its embrace. I wish I could say I slept like a log and didn't feel anything until I woke the next morning, but I was disturbed all night by wild dreams that featured Ms. Magnesen and the environmentalist cutie literally tearing me in half; Professor Magnesen lecturing both of my parts on separate occasions on how to control emissions; and in amongst it all was the sound of people pounding at my door and yelling for me to wake up as they were the police and it was long past time that decent people were awake and at work.

Unfortunately that last part turned out to be true, (I don't want to think about the implications of the other parts thank you very much) and I eventually had to stagger to the door so as to prevent the noise from continuing. It was only as I turned to lead my old buddies from the crime scene back into the apartment that I realized the ten o'clock I had read on the dial of my bedside clock meant the next morning, not later that same evening.

"I didn't even know you drank tea, let alone took sugar in it" was followed by harsh laughter from behind as the assholes chortled at my misfortune. "Was that one lump or two?" That ain't the kind of shit you deal with before coffee on the morning after the day I had had yesterday. I couldn't even muster the energy to give them a baleful stare, let along a snappy retort.

I didn't know what I had done to deserve the honour of a home visit, but I figured I'd better be slightly somnambulant before trying to cope with the excitement of it all. I pointed in the general direction of where I remembered my bathroom as being, and received a leering grin and a sweeping, be my guest, arm gesture in return.

It was only after I had held my head under the cold tap for five minutes that I began to realize the potential for trouble that a visit from two cops, who were being overtly genial, could forebode. For two guys like McIntosh and Gates to show up at my door without kicking it down first meant they had either come to gloat or…I couldn't think of any other reason.

If they were going to arrest me they would have kicked the door down and hauled me away, that would seem more their modus apprehenda- so to speak- over this polite routine. Of course this all could just be an elaborate game of good cop bad cop, as I noticed Gates hadn't done anything except show his teeth at McIntosh's jokes. Like with any mad dog that could mean he's laughing or readying himself to go for your throat.

When I could look in the mirror and only see one of me looking back I figured I could just about cope with the boys in bad suits and headed back out to the office area. Still studiously avoiding any sort of contact with them I headed to where the coffee pot that was my morning cup awaited. From the damage inflicted upon my kitchen and the depreciation in the level of the pot, I could see my guests hadn't hesitated in making themselves at home.

"You must have finished the lumps off last night" Gates called through " We couldn't find anything but these packets of "nude" sugar. Oh and your out of cream." It's a good thing I like black coffee cause 25 years with no chance of parole is a long time to spend behind bars, and guards inside don't like cop killers.

After gulping a first cup, burning the roof of my mouth and finishing the process of returning to consciousness simultaneously, I poured a second cup and headed out to meet my early birds, hoping I wasn't the worm awaiting eating. From the way Gates was looking at me like a side of beef I couldn't help feeling that prospect was pretty good.

"Who gave you the love tap?" McIntosh asked pointing his chin at the lump on my head.

"Someone who wasn't as genteel in looking for information as the police officers of our nations capital. Now what can I do for you boys, I wouldn't want to think I'm holding you up from serving and protecting the good people of Ottawa" I tried to look at them with as much innocence as I could muster with my eyes still slightly crossed and the knowledge that the last time I had seen them a dead body with a machete in its back was laid out like a – well like a corpse since that what he was – at my feet.

"It's what we can do for you chum" Gates was licking his lips, hopefully licking off lingering drops of coffee but it was hard to tell what was going on behind those beady little eyes. "We thought you might like to know the identity of the stiff who fell at your feet the other night. We thought hearing his name might jar your memory, although I see others have tried less subtle means. Which reminds me do you need to report a crime, we're police officers you know and we're here to protect the public." He laughed a horrible little laugh that sounded like a cross between a growl and the wind blowing over a grave on a cold November night.

"That was just a misunderstanding, and why should hearing the dead guy's name jar my memory?" I was trying to think if I had given beautiful anything like my card which she could have given her dad which would take some explaining if it were found on his corpse.

"The crime scene boys found this", he reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie of the type you use for sandwiches, pot, and evidence. This one held a piece of yellow paper torn on two edges so it had obviously ripped from the bottom corner of a larger page. "Your ad in the yellow pages was found in Mr., I should say Dr./Professor Magnesen's jacket pocket with the name of the bar scrawled on it, and the words "last brass pole on the barkeep's side" written in the same hand."

He paused and looked at me, and just in case I hadn't caught the implications of what he was suggesting, spelt it out for me." We think you were arranging to meet him there, and you've holding out on us for some reason and we want to know why?"

I took a sip of my coffee and looked up at him. "Well that's better then your usual average, batting .500 could almost make a person think you know what you're doing. Yes I was supposed to be meeting him at the bar, but I wasn't holding out on you because until you just told me I had no idea that the corpse at my feet was Dr. Morgensen.

We had only talked on the phone up till that point, which is probably why he had the directions on where to find my scrawled on my ad in the yellow pages. I just figured he had shown up after the murder and found the bar locked up and him not able to get into seeing me. I've been hoping to hear from him again since, but now it looks like that hope is a pretty vain one…"

It's always good to leave a thought or sentence hanging when talking to cops, they don't like to think you know everything, and it gives them the illusion that they have some room to manoeuvre with you even though you've built a pretty thick brick wall up for them to run into. And if they do have something in reserve, you can always hold on to I hadn't finished as an excuse.

I wasn't going to have to worry about that this time, because although it was obvious they didn't like it, they didn't seem to have anything more than that piece of paper connecting me to the dead doc. If they thought otherwise, obstructing a murder investigation would be the least of my worries. I'd have to start worrying about my name finding its way to the attention of individuals I don't want knowing it.

They had finished their coffees by then and knew their chances of refills were non-existent, so they'd have to head over to Tim Horton's and have an official coffee break if they wanted any more. Gates was out the door and McIntosh was close behind him, when he turned and looked back.

"This is more than just a divorce case gone bad, peeper, it's even more than just a homicide. There's a lot of pressure on us to get results, but results that end it without it going far. There's talk of not letting it go further than this room, unless something else shows up soon.

Everybody's called the chief today from the horsemen, to the spy guys, and somebody from Parliament Hill to ask that we keep them posted. Everybody's walking around the station house right now so uptight that they're scared to fart. Whoever worked you over last night was an amateur compared to these boys from up high. I've heard that they can make it so you get to the point that you want to tell them what they want to hear just so the pain will stop."

He nodded at me then and closed the door behind him. Have a nice fucking day. It looked like my time on this case was running out fast no matter what I wanted, so the option of another day in bed, however tempting was a no go. The problem was that unless something fell in my lap pretty soon this case was no go as well.

I had to hope that someone was having more success than me or I could be looking forward to a long time away from home.

Book Review: Lonely Werewolf Girl Martin Millar

Werewolves always seem to get the short end of the stick. When it comes to the undead it's always Vampires who get all the attention. Everybody considers them so sexy and cool with their pasty white complexions and unusually good fashion sense. Vampires always seem to be portrayed as having money, living in fancy castles in exotic locals, and, of course, getting their choice of buxom mortals to snack on.

More often than not when you meet a werewolf for the first time in a story or movie you're not left with a favourable impression as they're usually ripping someone's throat out. They never get to wear fancy clothes in the movies, partly due I suppose to the tendency for clothing to suffer during their transformation from human to wolf. (There is some debate as to what happens to a werewolf's clothes after they change from human to wolf, and more specifically what they do about their clothing situation when they convert back to being a human). Then there' the whole bestial thing - there's just no talking to them when they change into their wolf selves.

So it can't be an easy life being a werewolf in the first place, but can you image what it must be like if you were a teenaged werewolf, filled with all the usual adolescent angst, and being outlawed by your family? Well that's the situation that seventeen year old Kalix MacRinnalck finds herself in as the heroine of Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl, published by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada
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In a fit of anger young Kalix attacked and almost killed her father, the Thane of the MacRinnalck clan, and for that crime had to flee the families ancestral home in Scotland and seek shelter in the mean streets of London. In spite of her tender years, and being skinny to the point of emaciation as a human, Kalix is a fearsomely powerful werewolf when the battle rage takes her. She was born during a full moon when werewolves are unable to resist the change so she and her mother were both in their werewolf forms. The majority of werewolves are born as humans, so when Kalix changes into her werewolf form she becomes twice as fierce and powerful as kinsman double her size.

All things considered this is a good thing, because not only has she been outlawed by the family, but the clan's ruling council has demanded she be brought back to stand trial for nearly killing her father. Some of them aren't too fussy about what shape she shows up in for the trial; in fact some, like her eldest brother Sarapen, would be happy if only her heart were to show up for the trial. All of which means is that Kalix finds herself having to be continually on her guard against being captured or killed by minions of the family's various factions. Her circumstances are complicated even further by the fact that she is so filled with self-loathing that she's not only anorexic as a human but has developed a taste, well more an addiction, for laudanum.

Not eating for days on end, and taking a very powerful opium derivative on a frequent basis can leave one's resources rather drained. Which is how Kalix ends up being sheltered by two human teenagers, Daniel and Moonglow. Daniel accidentally saves Kalix from one of her brother's more reprehensible minions, and she is so weakened by lack of food and drugs she is unable to resist when Moonglow decides that Kalix only needs some understanding and compassion to feel good about herself again.

Of course Daniel and Moonglow might live to regret, if they live, getting involved with the scion of the MacRinnalch clan as all of sudden they are drawn into a world inhabited by more than just depressed teenage werewolves. First of all there's the rest of Kalix's immediate family, which aside from her previously mentioned eldest brother includes her mother, The Mistress of the Werewolves and matriarch of the clan; her sister Thrix who wants as little to do with the family as possible so she can concentrate on her career as a fashion designer; her other brother Markus who has a thing for women's clothing; and the cousins Beauty and Delicious who fancy themselves as rock and roll stars but haven't been sober enough in a couple of years to play a note.

On top of that are the various minions of all the parties involved, werewolf hunters armed with guns that fire silver bullets, and Thrix's main client, Mallveria, Queen of the Hiyasta, a race of fire elementals from another dimension, who has become addicted to human fashions. It's bad enough when they all start showing up at, or in the vicinity of Daniel and Moonglow's small flat in Kensington, but things get really chaotic when the Thane dies as a result of the injuries he sustained from Kalix's attack on him, and the MacRinnalch clan descends into civil war as both Markus and Sarapen claim the throne.

It is safe to say that there probably hasn't been as funny, or weird, a werewolf story written as Lonely Werewolf Girl. One moment there's a ferocious battle raging with werewolves ripping each other's throats out, and the next we're in the midst of a fashion crises. Mallveria has discovered that her deadly rival in the fire elemental realm has been stealing all of Thrix's designs and showing up wearing the same outfits. It's a toss up as to who is the more deadly - Sarapen in his quest to become the new Thane of the clan or Mallveria in her desire to be the belle of the ball and see her rival burn, quite literally, with jealousy at the glory of her outfits.

Along the way Martin Millar also manages to tell the story of how Kalix goes from being a lonely werewolf girl so filled with self loathing that she cuts herself and suffers anxiety attacks if she's treated well, to a werewolf girl with friends who make her realize that she's not such a bad sort after all. By turn hysterically funny, terrifying, and even a little heartbreaking, Lonely Werewolf Girl is a brilliantly designed and elegantly written book. What makes it even more remarkable is that in spite of the inanity of some situations and its fantastical elements, it also happens to be a very real book in its treatment of Kalix's problems.

She doesn't magically become a well adjusted werewolf teenager filled with joie de vivre. Instead she has to face up to her internal demons in the same way any other person dealing with her problems would, through hard work and lots of soul searching. In fact all of the characters in the book are drawn with a equal amount of depth. It would have been easy for Millar to make someone like Mallveria for instance nothing more than a caricature of a fashion slave. Yet he takes the time to make her a multi dimensional character who becomes more interesting as we get to know her.

Lonely Werewolf Girl has a lightness of tone that makes it a delight to read, but that never diminishes its characters or trivializes issues of importance. It's one of those rare books that make you laugh and think all at the same time, and feel better for having read it.

May 1, 2008

Book Review: East Of Suez Howard Engel

I suppose most of you are familiar with the term "hard boiled" detective? Its usually used to describe some tough as nails Private Investigator from the mean streets of a big American city. He can take a punch and a kiss with equal aplomb, and no matter how many injuries he sustains, from either the kiss or the punch, he never seems to show any wear or tear. Over the years Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and legions of other tough guy actors have brought people like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow or Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade to life on the movie screen to give us all a clear image in our heads of what one of these characters should look like.

Ever since I read my first Howard Engel detective story featuring his character Benny Cooperman from the fictional small town of Grantham, Ontario, Canada, if I imagined him looking like anyone at all it was Saul Rubinek. It turns out I wasn't alone in that as Rubinek played Benny both times he was brought to life on celluloid by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in television adaptations of two of Engel's books. Small, sort of round, rumpled, and obviously Jewish, neither Rubinek or by extension Benny are what one would call hard boiled.

So what is the opposite of the hard boiled detective - soft boiled? It just doesn't have the same ring to it as hard boiled does it? Yet what do you call a guy whose mother keeps wondering why he can't be more like his older brother the successful surgeon who lives in Toronto, and whose father was in the ready to wear business for fifty years before retiring to become the gin rummy champ at the club? Instead of whisky for breakfast at some down at the heels bar in a grimy part of the city, Benny lives for egg salad sandwiches and a glass of milk.
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The other thing about Benny is that if he gets hit, either in the head or the heart, it hurts, and in his newest adventure, East Of Suez, being published by Penguin Canada on May 8th/08, he's still recovering from a serious bang on the head that's left his memory scrambled and his reading ability reduced to spelling words out letter by letter. After months of rehabilitation Benny has finally returned to his office in Grantham in order to close down his Private Investigation business. He figures that there's not much good he can do for clients if he's no longer able to remember their names or the particulars of their case the second after they tell him.

(In 2001 Howard Engel suffered a stroke that left him with a rare condition called alexia without agraphia, which scrambled his memory and left him unable to read but still able to write. He had to learn how to read all over again and come up with methods compensating for not being able to remember a person's name the second after he heard it. Since the stroke not only has he written an account of his recovery, The Man Who Forgot How To Read, this is the second Cooperman novel he's written with his hero having to cope with a similar condition)

But the best laid plans of mice, men, and private investigators never seem to work out the way they're supposed to. When an old school friend shows up in the office one day while Benny is trying to spell his way word by word through old case files, she convinces him to pick up stakes and head off to South East Asia and investigate the disappearance of her husband in the small country of Murinam.

Vicky and her husband Jake had been running a successful diving business for the tourist trade, when the government decided they wanted more than just the taxes the couple were paying, and nationalized the company. When the local politico who took it over ran it into the ground, he hired Jake back to run it and set him up to take the fall for the place's mismanagement. Benny's job is to see if he can find out what happened to Jake, recover any of the family's fortunes, and of course come out the other side alive.

Murinam still holds onto more then a few mementoes of it's French past, and is also marked by the more recent disaster of the tsunami. Fading and crumbling French colonial architecture mix with wrecks of ships cast up on shore three hundred metres from the beach, and a community of European and North American ex-patriots that seem to have stepped from the pages of a Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham novel. Acclimatizing is complicated for Benny by his inability to remember the name of his hotel or the names of anyone he meets even with the use of his memory book. (a note book to write down everything he's come to know his memory will fail to retain)
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Yet in spite of being slowed down by the quirks of his brain and his bout of the local version of "Tourista" stomach, Benny soon finds himself ankle deep in suspects and intrigue. When dead bodies start showing up, and the police and government start taking a little too bit much of an unhealthy interest in his nosing around, Benny knows he must be getting somewhere. Now if only he could remember what it was he said or who he saw that could have triggered those reactions

With East Of Suez Howard Engel has created another wonderful story featuring the self-deprecating and intelligent Benny Cooperman. We can't help but admire Benny as he muddles through his days, vainly trying to remember the name for the local three wheeled taxis, while gradually chipping away at the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of his client's husband. The sounds, sights, and smells of Murinam's capital city. Takot, come to life vividly on the page as he wanders its streets, sampling the food and chatting to any and everyone who might help him crack the case.

All of the characters Benny meets, from the pretty marine biologist, the Catholic priest running the orphanage, and the writer who specializes in travel books for the Kosher trade interested in exotic locales, are potential players in his little drama and wonderful colour for the reader. Of course any one of them could also be a cold blooded killer, and as the bodies start to pile up Benny has to hope that he can read his own writing quickly enough to prevent himself from joining the body count.

Don't come to the pages of a Benny Cooperman novel looking for a hard drinking, hard talking guy packing heat. The only heat Benny might carry would be pocket warmers for a stake out in the middle of a cold Ontario winter. Of course in East Of Suez he won't need to worry about his hands getting cold from the chill of winter - in fact he might just start finding it a little too hot for comfort.

East Of Suez by Howard Engel goes on sale May 8th 2008 and can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or other on line retailer like Indigo Books

April 25, 2008

Book Review: The Red Wolf Conspiracy Robert V. S. Redick

Have you ever fallen into a story? It used to happen to me a lot when I was younger, when I was first reading, and there were still plots and characters awaiting discovery by a mind eager to escape from its own reality. As I grew older my reasons for reading never changed; the desire to be carried away into worlds other than my own remained strong if for different reasons, but the more I read it seemed the harder it became for books to work their magic.

There was a time when I began to feel there might be only be a finite number of stories told, for it started to feel like I was only ever reading variations on stories that I had already read. No matter the genre or the author, the patterns of the plots and the character types were all ones I was already familiar with. What made it even worse was that the more I read, the worse the stories appeared to become, as if the authors were merely writing pale imitations of the story I wanted to read.

It seemed like I was constantly finding stories that languished between covers awaiting passive readers who wanted nothing more than to be spoon fed the same tale over and over again. Thankfully something changed, whether it was me looking farther afield, writers opening up new territories, publishers willing to take the risk on something different, or a combination of all three I'm not certain, but in the last six or seven years I've been able to recapture the excitement of being a new reader again.

It seems like a whole new generation of writers have appeared to take up the challenge of capturing our imaginations: Erikson, Gaiman, Banker, Barclay, Kay and Kerr are just a few of the many names breathing new life into what was becoming a moribund art form. Even more exciting is the fact that hardly a month or two passes when there isn't a new author putting his or her vision down on paper. One who I've just stumbled upon is Robert V. S. Redick, whose latest book, The Red Wolf Conspiracy (book one of The Chathrand Voyage Trilogy) is published by Orion Gollancz and distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company

In the Red Wolf Conspiracy it appears that Redick was inspired by the great sea faring stories of the past when men sailed the oceans through the grace of the wind and the strength of their sails; added dollops of magic and political intrigue, to create a book that draws you in from almost its opening words. With characters drawn from all levels of society, human and otherwise, he has populated the pages with the many faces of good and evil.

Like those aboard their counterparts in our world, the lives of those who crew the sailing vessels that plough the seas of North West Alifros as either merchants, pirates, or navel ships, is never an easy one. It's especially difficult for the lowest of the low, the tar-boys. Young boys, who've either been sold into indentured servitude aboard a ship by their parents or press ganged into service by a mysterious sub-human race known as Flickerman, (for their ability to light up like glow worms and fire flies), they do all the menial tasks aboard ship. On a decent ship, with a decent Captain, their lives are merely hard, but on a ship where bullies are allowed to thrive it can be a living hell.

Pazel Pathkendle has experienced the many sides of this life, and has invariably borne even a larger share of abuse than most as befits his status as the member of a conquered race. Still things could have been a lot worse if not for a benefactor who occasionally manages to pull strings to get him placed in as good a posting as possible. Now, he can't but hope that his fortunes are improving as he has secured a position aboard the grandest ship ever built, the Chathrand. Of course he's not to know that the ship and all it's passengers and crew are about to become a pawn in a plot hatched by the Arqual Empire to conquer and destroy the one power that has rivalled them for control of Alifros, the Mzithrin Empire.

On the surface it appears that the Chathrand's charge is to deliver a new ambassador from the Arqual Empire to the Mzithrins. Former Admiral Eberzam Isiq, a hero of the Empire, his young bride, and his daughter are on more than just your regular mission of peace. Thasha, the admiral's daughter is to be married to a Prince of the Mzithrin Empire in order to cement a relationship between the former foes. Although if young Thasha has anything to do with it the wedding will never happen. Even before she steps on board ship she is plotting and scheming of ways she'll be able to vanish before the great ship reaches its final destination.

Unknown to the Admiral and Thasha is the fact that her marriage is merely one small part of an intricate plot designed to throw the Mzithrin Empire into a horrible Civil War making them ripe for conquest. Through chance, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, both Pazel and Thasha begin to realize there is more to the voyage that meets the eye. Unfortunately that's the sort of knowledge that can get a person killed if the plotters were ever to catch wind of their awareness. Together the two of them form an unlikely alliance, and alongside some even unlikelier allies, (a talking rat and a race of warlike, insect sized little people for starters), they must somehow figure out a way to keep Thasha alive and prevent a war that will result in the deaths of thousands of innocents.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy works in so many different ways to fire a reader's imagination that it's difficult to enumerate them. The various levels of the plot develop gradually so that while we always suspect that there is more to the action than what meets the eye, it's always a surprise when we discover each new layer as its revealed. Perhaps even more interesting is the ambiguity of the characters' nature. Is it so evil what the plotters are doing in orchestrating the destruction of their Empire's enemies? After all they are only carrying out the wishes of their government in this matter, making them not very different from government operatives in our own world.

The Mzithrins have terrorized them and their allies in the past, so why shouldn't they desire to see them finally defeated? Listening to them rationalize their behaviour they don't sound particularly evil; ruthless in the way they'll use whatever means necessary to achieve their ends certainly, but they have hopes and dreams just as Pazel and Thasha do. That doesn't stop them from being the villains of the piece, but it does make them far more interesting as characters, and makes those portions of the story told from their perspective that much more interesting.

In the end though what makes this story so captivating is Robert Redick's ability to bring the world it's set in to life. From storms at sea, everyday life aboard a ship, to life ashore, every scene is so lovingly detailed that you can almost smell the salt of the ocean, or feel the planks of the ship shudder beneath your feet as it weathers a blow. The Red Wolf Conspiracy takes its readers on a wonderful voyage of adventure that they won't regret booking passage on. Keep an eye out though for your next opportunity to sail the high seas with Robert Redick and his cast of characters, as this is only the first leg of The Chathrand Voyage Trilogy.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy is distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company and is available through regular retail outlets and on line through retailers like Amazon Canada. For now American readers can only purchase it online through Amazon.com but it will soon be available for sale in book stores through Del Ray books as they've just purchased the American rights.

April 13, 2008

Grpahic Novel Review: The Complete Underworld Adapted By Kris Oprisko

Vampires versus Werewolfs: Ladies and gentlemen step right up and watch the undead try and kill each other. In the red corner, the previously undefeated rulers of the undead; sexy and decadent - The Vampires. Facing off against them in the blue corner, their former slaves, thought hunted to extinction, but secretly making a comeback: they're furry and barbaric with vengeance on their minds - The Lycan.

The movies Underworld and Underworld Evolution introduced audiences to a world where Vampires and Werewolfs had been at war with each other for centuries. While the Vampires had believed that their former slaves had been hunted nearly to extinction, treachery and deceit by an ambitious second in command had actually allowed the Werewolfs to flourish in secret.

In fact, they were more than flourishing. Under the guidance of their supposedly dead leader, Lucien, (did I mention betrayal among the Vampires), they were in the process of creating a super being who combined the powers of the two species. To the Vampires, believing as most of them do that Werewolfs are inferior beings, the thought of mixing the blood of the two races was an abomination that mustn't be allowed to happen.
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Underworld Evolution, much as the title implies, takes us on the first step down the road with the new species, as the two heroes from the first movie, Michael the mix blood, and Selene the Vampire who has fallen in love with him, have to take on the originators of both species. Marcus and William Corvinus; twin brothers with a difference. One of them is a were-wolf and the other a vampire. Way back when, in the dark ages, they started it all.

The movies were really well done and great visual treats. Although slightly over the top on occasion, they were highly entertaining and quite a lot of fun. A perfect mixture of horror movie gore, love story, and plain old fashioned adventure story, offering a new and interesting take on the world of the undead. What really made them so successful was the matter of fact way in which both species and their world was dealt with. It made it very easy as an audience member to suspend your disbelief and accept the reality the film makers had created.

So when I found out that IDW Publishing had created graphic novel versions of both movies I was intrigued. I have seen movies that have been made from graphic novels, and graphic novels that were adaptations of novels, so I was interested in seeing how well a kinetic art form like film could be translated into the static form of a graphic novel.

The Complete Underworld is an omnibus that not only contains adaptations of both Underworld and Underworld Evolution but a prequel story set in the same world called Red In Tooth and Claw. Both adaptations were written by Kris Oprisko, with art work supplied by Nick Postic and Nick Marinkovitch for Underworld, ( the same team also worked on the prequel) and Antonio Vasquez for Underworld Evolution.

When critiquing any adaptation the key is not to get caught up in comparing it to the original story, but in trying to see how well the adaptors have managed to recreate the story in their medium. The question I always try and ask myself is whether or not the adaptation works as a stand alone project, and would someone unfamiliar with the original be able to enjoy it.

Both adaptations have done admirable jobs of telling the stories, so that even the uninitiated would have no problem in following what was happening. The major difference between the two adaptations is the artwork. While both did fine jobs in doing their part in visually imparting information to the reader, Nick Postic and Nick Marinkovitch's work in Underworld went quite a bit further in creating the atmosphere appropriate to a world existing in the shadows of the mortal world.

Backgrounds are indistinct blurs of dark colours from which a white face or a weapon will all of a sudden materialize. Colours are muted, if distinct at all, yet with deft line work the artists have made it easy for the reader to distinguish between characters and species. They have definitely taken their cues from the design team of the movies, but carried the depth of the darkness even further to great effect.

In comparison I found the more realistic approach taken by Antonio Vasquez in the adaptation of Underworld Evolution to be a bit jarring. While it's true that it made it easier to follow the story line on occasion, it also made it harder to believe in the world that the action was taking place in. The art work was very "comic book" and made no attempt to create the type of atmosphere that had made the first adaptation so effective.

The bonus prequel, Red In Tooth And Claw, was a surprise in terms of it's content. The writers have created the back story for the large Werewolf named Raze from the movie Underworld. It is quite a good, inspired piece, of story telling that manages to recreate the world of the Vampires and Werewolves in another environment. What I really liked about it was its refusal to show either the Werewolfs or the Vampires as "good guys" While our sympathies might be initially with the Werewolfs because they are being hunted by a group of Vampires, the fact that Lucien decides to "turn" the mortal version of Raze because he would be a useful Werewolf makes him a lot less sympathetic.

The Complete Underworld, containing graphic novel adaptations of the movies, Underworld, Underworld Evolution, and a new original story set in the same world, Red In Tooth And Claw, does a good job of bringing the world of the movies to life. While the artwork in the adaptation of the second movie wasn't as convincing as its predecessor, it still managed to do a good job of telling the story. This omnibus collection makes both a great companion piece for the movies that also works in its own right as a stand alone adaptation of the stories.

April 5, 2008

Book Review: The Return Of The Sword Edited By Jason M Waltz

The first real Sword and Sorcery stories I ever read were ones featuring Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. To be honest about it I can't remember whether or not I read them in their book form first, or in the Marvel comic adaptations, but to be honest there wasn't much difference between the two when it came to literary merit. In fact Conan was probably the ideal comic book character.

Robert E. Howard had created him as so much larger than life, and involved him in such spectacular adventures, the stories were ideally suited to the comic book media. In fact the character was so much a figure of fantasy that it really didn't stand up to the scrutiny of live action and the movies were a great disappointment. They weren't even bad enough to be good. Even with Conan being played by the walking, talking cartoon character, Arnold, there was something about live action that robbed the character of his ability to be larger than life.

That's what makes the whole genre so much fun in the first place as far I'm concerned. Nobody reads Sword and Sorcery for it's intellectual qualities after all, they read it for the escapism offered by the adventures. You read them for the very qualities that make it impossible for them to be filmed; the ability to fight twenty-five opponents at once; take on a multi-headed, multi-armed, poisonous creature without breaking a sweat; and getting the scantily clad wench in the end.

The scantily clad wench was of course one of the primary drawing cards for Sword and Sorcery's original demographic; adolescent males. Thankfully it turned out that women liked a good sword fight as much as men, and the genre started to gain a level of enlightenment when it came to the objectification of women; especially when women started creating their own characters and writing the stories. With women stepping out of the harem and onto the battle field the whole complexion of the genre changed.

With the stories no longer being geared strictly for the guys who lived in their basements playing Dungeons & Dragons, the plots became more imaginative, and the characters more complex, while still retaining the all the exciting bits that made them so attractive in the first place. You don't need to look any further than Rogue Blades Entertainment newly published anthology, The Return Of The Sword, edited by Jason M. Waltz, for proof of just how far the genre's come since its comic book days.

Of course that's not to say there aren't stories in the collection that show a fond attachment for those roots, and feature lots of good old fashioned sword play and witchcraft. Let's face it, there's always going to be a market and a need for that type of story, but here they're balanced with stories that delve a little deeper into the psyche of the warrior, and look beneath the armour, behind the shield, and under the helm.

The very first story in the collection, "Alter Of The Moon" by Stacey Berg, is an example of the newer style. Now don't be put off by the title, it's not some New Age, pagan priestess propaganda posing as a fantasy story, rather it's about the price a warrior pays for being a hero, and the price paid for the gift of a magic sword.

Karen had saved her kingdom with the mysterious sword that sang to her and her alone. On the night of a new moon, with her homeland on the verge of destruction the sword called her to it, and gifted her with it's song that made her invincible in battle. Step by step, battle by battle Karen had fought until she had repelled the invading forces and her land was safe and at peace. Yet when the final battle was fought, and the last enemy fled, she was not at peace, as the sword still sang it's deadly song in her ear.

A dream takes her on a desperate journey; a dream of a path that may not exist. Yet if it does, it might just see her being rid of the sword and breaking free of the killing song in her head. While "Alter Of The Moon" is not your typical adventure story, Ms. Berg has included most of the elements that we have come to expect from Sword and Sorcery; magic, swordplay, and mystery. It was even irrelevant that the characters were women, they could just as easily have been men. What mattered was telling the story and Ms Berg did a great job of that which is what matters most of all.

Now if you wanted a story that was slightly more typical of the old style of Sword and Sorcery, Jeff Draper's "The Battle Of Raven Kill" fits the bill nicely. Oth chooses to stand and fight so his clan's people can escape those who would kill them all. While they flee in an attempt to find some safe haven he blocks the one narrow bridge the invaders have to cross to get at them. He knows they can only come at him two at a time and he is willing to buy his people time as long a there is life left in his body.

Draper does a great job of describing the action, and keeping it real. Movies will sometimes show a single man holding dozens at bay when they can only get at him one or two at a time, but somehow they don't seem to be able to capture the reality of the desperation that must grip the person making that stand. Oth knows that his chances of survival are slim, but he knows the longer he can survive the better. As the battle continues he takes wounds. At first they're minor, but as they continue to bleed and his reflexes slow from blood loss and fatigue, the wounds inflicted gain in severity.

"Why don't you just die" the opposing war chief keeps taunting Oth. Finding a reason for being put on the earth is something that plagues many people. For Oth, this moment on the bridge where he has chosen to make his stand to preserve his people, is that reason. "Let this be why I was created" he prays just before the enemy's war party shows up. Duty and self are one for him, and as long he holds onto that he will win. Doubt, not the swords and spears of his foe, is his biggest enemy.

Draper has done a masterful job of giving a very realistic description of close and horrible infighting. No matter what some Sword and Sorcery writers will have you believe, it is impossible for a mere human to fight under such circumstances without having damage inflicted upon them. But sometimes the human spirit is stronger than flesh, and Draper makes that come alive as well.

I could probably go on like this for all the stories in the book, because they all have something of value, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other piece in particular. It's not actually a story, rather its what the editor Jason wisely refers to as a distillation of knowledge. In the middle of the book is a wonderful article by Eric Knight called "Storytelling" where he takes you through the ins and outs of how to get the most out of the story that you want to tell. For anybody with any aspirations to storytelling, no matter what the genre, its an invaluable piece of writing.

The Return Of The Sword is a wonderful collection of Sword and Sorcery short fiction. Editor Jason M. Waltz has gathered together some of the finest examples of the genre that I've read in a long time. Sword and Sorcery has come a long way since the days of the "noble savage" wrecking havoc, but that hasn't stopped it from being a lot of fun and overflowing with action. If you're looking for a wonderful break from your daily grind, there is nothing better than this collection of mayhem to take your mind off things.

March 31, 2008

Book Review: The Name Of The Wind Patrick Rothfuss

The story within the story is one of the oldest formats in storytelling; probably the most famous were the stories that Scharezade spun for 1,001 nights to keep her and her sister alive in The Tales From Arabian Nights; yet to do it well requires probably more skill than just telling a story. First of all it means you have to be able to keep your audience interested in a minimum of two story lines, that of the storyteller, and that of the story the storyteller is telling.

The real difficulty is keeping interest alive in the story that has motivated the story telling. Of course there are exceptions, like in Coleridge's "The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner" where no one gives a rat's ass about the wedding guest who the Mariner corners with his tale, but in general there needs to be some sort of dynamic connecting the two threads of story that sustains our interest in the overall story. Otherwise the author runs the risk of her reader losing interest, or failing to keep track of, the reason for the story being told in the first place.

Of course one way is to have the storyteller recounting his own history, but that creates its own sets of challenges for an author. Coming up with a reason for the story to be told is of course important, but if the author has any intent of going on with the story, how well he is able to blend the past and the present in order to create interest in the future is just as necessary. There has to be something about the story being told that will convince a reader there is the potential for something interesting still to come for the current time period. While it's interesting enough to find out the character's history, there's no real suspense involved as he or she are obviously going to come out of the story alive as they are the one telling it.
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In the first book of his The Kingkiller Chronicle series, The Name Of The Wind a DAW Books publication distributed by Penguin Canada being released as a mass market paperback on April 3rd/08, Patrick Rothfuss takes up just that challenge as he begins the story of Kvothe. As is the case with most fantasy books these days the setting is a world with basic agrarian technology where magic is used in place of science, and an ancient evil has faded into myth and memory.

Thankfully Rothfuss is a skilled enough writer that he is able to take the familiar components and make something fresh out of them by having his lead character deconstruct his own legend. Kvothe is living in disguise at the end of nowhere as the owner of a simple inn in a small village. For the year that he has owned the Wayfarer Inn he has kept to himself, barely interacting with his regulars. He serves them their meals and ales, and listens to their designated story teller tell the old tales of an earlier great hero and the evil race of demons that he fought known as the Chandrian.

Things haven't been going that well in the world recently, there's talk of a third tithe this year as the King's army has been embroiled in a nasty war that doesn't look like it will end anytime soon. Travelling on the road isn't as safe as it used to be, and folk have actually begun taking to locking and bolting their doors at night. Still it comes as a nasty surprise when one of their number is attacked by a nasty spider like creature that killed his horse and would have killed him had it not been crushed by his dying horse's collapsing on it. Yet that nasty is nothing more than a portend of what's to come. Sure that where there was one there would be more of the spider like creatures, Kvothe sets out to destroy the remainder.

In the process of doing so he rescues a traveller, who as bad luck would have it, was tracking down a rumour that Kvothe was to be found in this part of the world. Devan Lochees is a scribe, a chronicler of stories, events, and natural history. In his own way he is as famous as Kvothe and goes simply by the name of his profession, Chronicler. Needless to say it's his presence that is the catalyst for Kvothe to begin the recounting of his life's story; of which the first seventeen years or so take up the balance of The Name Of The Wind.

It's pretty much the typical "hero's" upbringing: a child prodigy with a gift for learning he grew up on the road with his parent's troupe of travelling players. Although they were what sounds like that world's equivalent of gypsies, the troupe were skilled enough that they had the patronage of a member of the nobility and were treated well. It was during this time that the two things that would define Kvothe's life occurred; he met his first teacher who introduced him to the workings of magic, and he found out that the Chandrian really existed and weren't just in old tales to frighten children with.

Kvothe's father was a master musician and had been working on a song based on the legends of the Chandrian for years. One evening when the troupe made camp early, Kovthe went for a walk in the woods for an hour and came back to fine the caravans in flames and everybody dead. The Chandrian were not pleased with his father's attempts to capture them in song and exacted their vengeance. It was only by fortune that he escapes them when he returns and finds them still there.

Driven by thoughts of revenge he stays alive for three years begging and thieving on the streets of a city, until he finally works up the nerve to do what his teacher wanted him to do; apply at the University to continue his education in that world's version of magic. It's during his time at University that his legend is born. One of the best parts of the book is when we hear the local storytellers telling their versions of events we've heard Kvothe recounting to the Chronicler. You could barely tell that they were talking about the same thing, in fact if it weren't for the name being the same you'd never know.

Rothfuss is a skilled story teller himself and wisely gives us breaks in Kvothe's story telling periodically to bring us back to the present day. Each time he does he increases the air of foreboding that he had established at the beginning of the book that portend it's not just Chronicler who is going to catch up with Kvothe, but other, more otherworldly creatures as well. As Rothfuss has Kvothe telling his story he is feeding us the information about his character, his abilities, and how his desire for knowledge of the Chandrian continued to consume him during his early months at the University.

As Kvothe is laying the groundwork for his war with the Chandrian, Rothfuss is leading us to believe that some sort of fell creatures are seeking out Kvothe, and his worst battles are still to come. We still don't know the story of what happened during the balance of the intervening years that lie between the present and when Kvothe was still in University as The Name Of The Wind comes to an end. In fact like all good story tellers Rothfuss has actually generated more questions than answered questions with his opening book.

We still know as little about the Chandrain as before Kvothe went to University, but we do know that as a student in university he was still a prodigy with a gift for learning magic quickly and might even be capable of learning how to speak the names of elements in the right way to control them - hence the book's title. We also know that whatever peace was to be found at the Wayfarer Inn has been shattered and not just by the arrival of Chronicler.

The Name Of The Wind is a fast paced and entertaining first book of what promises to be an exciting series. Patrick Rothfus has woven a nice net of past, present, and potentials to catch our interest and whet our appetite to find out what the future holds; both for the younger Kvothe, and his present day self as well.

You can pick up a copy either by ordering directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon Canada

March 28, 2008

Book Review: Tank Girl: Armadillo! Alan C. Martin

I remember an interview with John Cleese of Monty Python fame where he described how they came up with the skits they performed on their old television series. They would, he said, simply take the most illogical premise to its logical conclusion. That was all very well and good, but half the time I don't think I could even get my head around what the premise was on half the old skits on Monty Python's Flying Circus let alone working them out to their logical conclusion.

In fact the thing I used to like best about that show and a few others of similar ilk was that they didn't have anything for the logical brain to hold onto. All you could do was sit back, enjoy the ride, and don't be too bothered about not understanding the whys and what-for of the action. It was a blissful descent into pure and utter chaotic anarchy that seems to be something uniquely English. Maybe it has something to do with living in a society which has been so rigidly class bound for so long that invites such out and out anarchy as a response.

Whatever the reason, the Brits have a long history of being right over the edge when it comes to comedy. Predating Monty Python with The Goon Show and Beyond The Fringe, and continuing on with stuff like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Red Dwarf. It's not only television and radio that's been host to their comic insanity (Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy first saw life as a Radio show) but comics as well. Of these, the reigning queen of over the top is without a doubt Tank Girl
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The Tank Girl comic, and the indomitable character herself, first saw the light of day in 1988 thanks to the talents of writer Alan C. Martin and illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Together the two men created three graphic novels featuring the outrageous adventures of the girl and her tank. She and her friends fight a never ending war against injustice, anybody that pisses them off, and perform feats of daring that usually involve high powered ammunition and lots of things that go boom. Cutting a tank wide swath through the Australian Outback, they eat well, drink lots, and knock over the occasional bank when in need of cash.

While it might appear on the surface that Tank Girl and her friends are random acts of violence simply waiting to happen, there's far to them than meets the eye. To gain a deeper understanding of the maelstrom that is Tank Girl, you really need to read Tank Girl: Armadillo!, her first completely prose adventure written by Alan C. Martin and published by Titan Books.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! features a novella of the same name, plus some bonus features including a couple of comic scripts awaiting illustrations, poems, and other short writings where our heroine is in full action mode. It's the novella though where most of the action takes place and also where we get a whole bunch more information about Tank Girl herself, and a little bit of insight into the philosophy behind Alan C. Martin's creation.

In his introduction to Tank Girl: Armadillo! he talks about how we are continually bombarded with sensual stimulation until we are literally drowning in information overload. To combat this we raise shells to defend ourselves and learn how to shut off our sensory receptors. Unfortunately by doing this we also block our flow of creative energy. In this way, Martin says, the modern world refuses us our right to be who we are.

Like armadillos we're naked under our armour, and if we didn't create this armour we would be swamped and overwhelmed. According to Martin we need to take control of our armour and not let it form as a reaction to the greed and manipulation of advertisers, politicians, and the rest of the information merchants in order to survive. That's where Tank Girl comes in; her armour is in plain view and she makes damn sure that nobody is going to sell her snake oil of any shape or form.
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So that's the context for reading Tank Girl: Armadillo and it's all very well and good, but I defy anybody to remember that while reading the story. Well maybe it's percolating somewhere in the back of your skull, but the truth of the matter is that it's far too easy to get caught up in the sheer crazy, insanity of the story. I think the secret to enjoying this story is that you make sure your seat belt is securely fastened, your dis-belief checked at the door, and you hang on tight because your in for the ride of my life.

You see the self righteous folk of the town of Chankers, (rhymes with wankers), have been abusing the love of Tank Girls' life, Booga the kangaroo, since he was just young. Now they have finally crossed the line by kidnapping him, tying him up in the basement of the town church and punishing him for being a sinner. There's only one thing to do in a case like this; bring down death and destruction with all the armament the tank can bring to bear.

Of course it's not just death and destruction, there's also some random acts of stupidity and other completely nonsensical incidents which don't bear repeating, but are all good clean fun. Well not really - more like heavy duty anarchic chaos that's good for the soul and bad for the establishment. That's the thing about Tank Girl, she's got a fine sense of justice and a good notion of right and wrong. Sure she might over react just a teensy bit now and then, but sometimes the only way people are going to listen to you is if you drop a small nuclear device on their town.

I think what I appreciated most about Tank Girl: Armadillo! is Alan C. Martin's writing. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book when it came to how the story was going to be told, but not only can he write some mean chaotic prose, he also give us pauses in the action which are not only poetic, but actual poetry. It might sound corny, but these poetic interludes show us the Tank Girl who would exist if she didn't have to be concerned about wearing armour to protect herself from the havoc of everyday existence.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! is the natural heir to the British comedy shows of the 1960's and 1970's like Monty Python's Flying Circus in that it also takes an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. The only difference is that Tank Girl: Armadillo! has far more basis in reality than those other shows did. On the surface this is a hoot and a holler, but underneath it all is a call to arms.

We could all use a little more Tank Girl in our lives and Tank Girl: Armadillo! is just the answer. It goes on sale in mid April at book dealers of class and style everywhere.

March 25, 2008

Book Review: The Born Queen Greg Keyes

The saying getting there is nearly half the fun was obviously never meant to apply to travel by airplane these days. What with having to show two hours early for every flight to allow for potential cavity searches usually being followed by being crammed into a too small space next to an air sick child who screams the whole flight there is only a limited amount of fun to be had. In fact aside from fantasizing about pushing the aforementioned child out an emergency exit at 30,000 feet the only fun left in travel is the relief felt upon arrival.

That's not to say that the saying is completely archaic and without it's uses anymore, because it still holds true when reading successful epic fantasy novels. Authors like Steven Erikson, James Barclay, Ashok Banker, and Roesmary Kirstein have made the how we make the journey to the conclusion of their multi-booked series as an integral part of the process as the plot. These writers, as well as others, have put such effort into creating the worlds their stories take place in they take on a life of their own outside the actions of the characters that you're reading about.

Of course the journey to whatever conclusion awaits is also enhanced by the number of plot lines most of these authors seem able to juggle simultaneously. Instead of merely following the trail of one central figure as he or she rights the wrongs of the world, we follow the fortunes of any number of loosely connected characters, who may never even know of each other's existence. Each one of the characters play not only a vital role in seeing the story through to it's conclusion, they also make the world they live in that much more believable.
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The Born Queen is the final chapter in the series The Kingdoms Of Thorn And Bone by the American author Greg Keyes. Over the course of the first three books of the quartet, The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, and The Blood Knight, we have followed in the footsteps of the various characters he created as they have struggled to overcome not only the foreign powers that threaten their homeland of Crotheney, but the mysterious forces of entropy that have been released upon the world that threaten to devour all life.

The Royal Family of Crotheney has been decimated through treason and assassination until its only surviving members by the time the fourth book roles around, are the late King's wife, her son, who is mentally unfit to rule, and the youngest daughter Anne. Anne is now Queen and is battling to not only preserve her country from invasion by mortal forces, but for control of the ancient supernatural forces that control life in her world.

While she's fighting the war in her way, two of her subjects are off on their own conducting investigations into both the supernatural powers that Anne is trying to control and the force of entropy that is gradually killing all the living things of the world and giving birth to horrible monsters of devastation. When we met Stephen in The Briar King he was a naive student of history with a gift for languages heading to a monastery. Now he has grown in strength of character to the point where he is strong enough to face up to the challenges of uncovering the lost secrets of the mysterious power that could rule the world that has lain dormant for thousands of years. Yet once he uncovers those secrets will he be able to withstand their control over him - or will he succumb to their power and become another threat to Anne?

Asper had been the guardian of the King's Woods, keeping them safe from human incursion and poachers, when we met him back when the story began, and it was he who discovered the first signs that the woods were dying. He and the young woman he loves, Winna, have spent the books in pursuit of the foul monsters, and their masters, in an attempt to find a means of rescuing the natural world. Now that he might finally have the answer as to how he can achieve that goal, will he be able to? When the answer to his prayers appears to be sacrificing his and Winna's unborn child, and he has no control over whether or not it will happen, he feels his heart being ripped asunder.

Than there are the mysterious Sefry, who on one hand are helping Queen Anne in her battles with the mysterious forces that she is seeking to control that will allow her to decimate her enemies, but on the other hand are also working in concert with the foul creatures who are destroying the world. That they are the descendants of a race that had at one time enslaved all mankind until Anne's ancestor, the first Queen of the Dare family line, overthrew them, is yet another reason to wonder at their motivations.

Throw in the head of the Church also looking to control the mysterious powers for his own gain, and making pacts with various forces of evil; the undead brother of the late King lurking in the shadows killing people with a mysterious piece of music that he had the court composer write; a few other sub-plots, and you might wonder how Greg Keyes is going to wrap all this up in one book. The answer is with the same amount of grace and elegance he brought to the first three books.

His characters continue to develop and grow as people throughout the pages of this book, even up to the last couple of pages as they learn about who they are and what their purposes are in the world. Like in life the story doesn't end here on the pages of The Born Queen, it just pauses after this stage of its journey. Throughout the quartet Keyes has shown himself to be a writer of great patience and gifted with an impeccable sense of timing. Not once do you have the feeling that he is rushing the story so that he can wrap it up in this book; if the story demanded you have the feeling that he would have written a fifth volume.

In The Kingdoms Of Thorn And Bone Keyes created a world with enough similarities to ours that we could identify with the environment and the people. Even the magic and and the mystical beasts all have an air of familiarity about them that strikes a chord of recognition for us from tales in our own world. The struggles the characters face are ones that we can identify with on an emotional and human level, even if we have never, or will never, actually experience the exact circumstances they live through.

The Born Queen is a superb conclusion to a masterful series that represents epic fantasy at its best. The Kingdoms Of Thorn And Bone is definitely a journey where all the fun is in the getting there. Readers in Canada can pick up a copy either directly from Random House Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon Canada

March 19, 2008

Interview: Robert Scott - Co-Author Of The Eldarn Sequence

Many years ago, well in in the fall of 2005 anyway, when I had just started reviewing books and was still only reviewing ones that I had bought on my own, I stumbled across a book called The Hickory Staff by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon. It was the first book in a trilogy called The Eldarn Sequence and I thought it was great.

I e-mailed the authors and sent them a link to my review not really expecting anything in return, so was pleasantly surprised to receive a thank you note from Robert Scott. (Quotes from that review have now ended up on the back covers of both the second, Lessek's Key, and third books, The Larion Senatores of the series) The result was that we arranged that I would send him some interview questions and we'd publish the result on line.

A month later his co-author and father-in-law Jay Gordon had died. Robert and Jay had started working on the series when Jay had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS is one of the nastier ones out there as the victim's system gradually shuts down without them ever losing awareness. If you're really unlucky you can linger for a long time, suffering horrible pain and completely immobilized.
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Jay had always loved Epic Fantasy, so although neither had ever attempted this type of writing before - Robert had been a Classical Guitar player and a history major in University and Jay a technical engineer - they began to create their new universe. When Jay died in November of 2005 Lessek's Key had been handed in to the publishers, but The Larion Senators had only been roughed out leaving Robert to finish the series on his own.

When The Larion Senators was published last fall, I asked Robert if he'd like to do a summation sort of interview and he agreed. Unfortunately he had also just started a new job as a high school principal, and was swamped with work, life, and trying to actually write non-Eldarn related material. Somehow though he found time to answer these questions, and as usual is very candid about the whole process.

If you've read the trilogy I'm sure you'll find the conclusion of Jay and Robert's epic, as interesting as you did the final chapter of The Eldarn Sequence itself. For those who haven't read the books I hope it encourages you to do so, as they are a great read. There are some spoilers included in this interview - but only in a general sort of way and won't really spoil the story for anyone - but Robert is nice enough to point them out anyway for those who care about such things.

The last time we talked Hickory Staff had been released for about three months, Lessek's Key was with the publishers, and you were gearing yourself up for writing The Larion Senators. "Senators" was the only book you ended up having to write almost completely by yourself. Did you find that easier or more difficult?

Robert: (Spoiler warning!) Working on the Eldarn books with Jay was one of the most important things I’ll do in my lifetime. I’ve had a few years to think back on it, and while it wasn’t Tuesdays With Morrie, it was something special. I didn’t think much about it while we were working, but looking back now, I am staggered at how much Jay suffered without complaining and how the Eldarn stories provided him with a much-needed break from the emotional and physical exhaustion he faced each day. Starting The Larion Senators, I had a significant pile of notes, mostly driven by un-addressed story or character strands we’d left unresolved in Lessek’s Key. Jay and I had discussed the end of the series, even before we knew how The Hickory Staff would wrap up, and I endeavoured to stay true to that original vision. A few times along the way, characters took the story in a different direction, but that had been happening for years, and I didn’t think Jay would object too much – as long as Steven and Gilmour ended up on Jones Beach as we had planned.

) I'm sure that you anticipated there being a difference without having Jay there at least to bounce ideas off, but did you run into anything that you hadn't anticipated?

Robert: By the time Jay died, he was communicating via blinks and eye movements – selecting vowels and consonants from a laminated grid pasted to a cut up cereal box. It was brutally slow, but one could see that he wanted to be heard and understood. He was less concerned with my progress on Lessek’s Key and more interested in the evolution of the Jay M. Gordon Foundation. When he felt up to it, though, we worked. I told him about wanting to add a few chapters on Steven’s adventures at sea, and we spent a few days pouring over books on eighteenth century sailing vessels and deciding how Mark Jenkins might harness the Larion spell table on a ship. I think Jay trusted me to stick to our plan: writing a traditional epic, like the novels we read in the 70s and the 80s, books that started us down this road thirty years ago. So, no, I didn’t really run into anything I hadn’t anticipated, but as a fledgling scribbler, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate! I confess that the bit about the carrack was something I added in the end. I wanted to bring some closure to Brand Krug’s character, and Stalwick Rees was just such a buffoon, I had to get a bit of extra mileage out of him. I wasn’t expecting him to be so pitiable, but by the time that carrack chapter was finished, I was pleased with Brand and Stalwick – that was unexpected.

What was the hardest thing technically about writing this without Jay's input?

Robert: The technical aspects were probably the easiest. From the earliest drafts of The Hickory Staff, I did the writing – Jay was unable to type; he lost dexterity in his hands early on. The tough part about finishing the series was communication. We tried all manner of strategies to ask and answer questions. Often, my wife or I read passages to Jay, and he asked questions, pointed out inconsistencies, or made suggestions about characters or plot dilemmas. But progress was slow. We were patient, and Jay was a trouper. He was trapped in that bed, trapped in that body, and it was the least we could do to wait while he blinked out his thoughts. If he didn’t have editorial comments to make, Jay would select “OK” on his communication board, and we’d move on. He trusted Jo (Jo Fletcher: Editor from Orion books) and me to finish the series according to the original vision, and, for the most part, we did.

I don't think I can imagine what if must have been like trying to write "Senators" on your own considering the history of the trilogy, and the reasons for writing it in the first place. How difficult was it emotionally to work on it?

Robert: Actually, it was easy. The story was something I had to finish. It was bigger than Jay or me by that time, and I owed it to Steven, Hannah, and Mark to see them home safely – or to see them dismembered by a grettan! There were plenty of emotions wrapped up in the process, but few of them slowed me down. If anything, the motivating stress had me looking for more time, more hours sequestered in my basement scribbling the next chapter. Jo Fletcher was instrumental in seeing the series through to its end. She checked on Jay every week and made certain that Susan knew how the books were doing. Knowing that The Hickory Staff and Lessek’s Key were selling in bookstores, airports, and drug stores around the world, Jay was always up for a planning session. I kept my nose down, writing and editing, even the weekend we were in town for Jay’s funeral. I admit that when I finally had copies of all three books side-by-side, I took a few minutes just to sit and look at them there on the shelf. It was a ten-year commitment; I was glad to see it through. I’m not sure I’ll ever amount to much of a writer, but I know we did something important in finishing those books.

At the end of book two, Lessek's Key you had plot line and characters scattered all over two worlds, did you ever have any concerns about how you were going to be able to pick up all the pieces and tie everything together neatly by the end of "Senators"?

Robert: No. Most of the wandering our characters did over the course of the first two books (much of which we were chastised for by readers who didn’t believe it would ever come together) was deliberate. I knew I wanted Steven to pull together an array of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and concepts when he faced the final challenge on Jones Beach. When The Hickory Staff was released, I received plenty of e-mail from people who were either angry that we had left so many plot and character lines hanging or were tentatively trusting that Jay and I would eventually tie things up. It was the same when Lessek’s Key ended as well. We dealt with most of Nerak’s baggage but still hadn’t addressed the entity that had possessed him. We established a few things early in The Hickory Staff that linked directly to that entity. I was pleased when I finally received e-mail from readers who had stuck with the Eldarn books all along. People were happy to see that unexpected bits of story lines or characters’ experiences came around two books later. The map of symbols, characters, story lines, and questions is a 12-foot section of butcher paper I had hanging in my basement. There are so many arrows, circles, lines, and scratch marks all over it, I’m sure that given another year or two even I won’t be able to decipher it.

I know I'm going to regret this but here goes – throughout the trilogy the character of Steven Taylor is obsessed with Maths and what starts off in the first book as an amusement becomes something he has to master if he has a hope of defeating the minion of evil and controlling the Fold – Do the maths he uses have any basis in reality and what did you have to do to come up with it? (Somebody could get the impression that you're a high school principal or something with comments like "the calculus you never thought you'd use in real life")

Robert: Steven’s maths obsession is perhaps my favourite part of the Eldarn series. From Malagon’s lock box, to Egyptians squaring the circle, telephone and calculator keypads, Larion timepieces, and trapezoidal deductions on Jones Beach, I love every line of a story whose hero is a math geek. How many epic adventures end in a sword battle, a David-and-Goliath fist-fight, or a square-jawed Horatio standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his square-jawed colleagues? For my money, it’s too many. Yes, I suppose that’s the high school principal in me showing the colour of my biases, but hey, fire me; I’m a teacher at heart. Given the state of math instruction and assessment in American public education these days, perhaps we could use a few more epic heroes who, when their lives are on the line, rely more on their mathematics knowledge than their ability to rig a brick of C4 inside a villain’s Cadillac. There are a few elements of Steven’s character that I’d change if I were ever to do it all over again. His obsession with deductive reasoning in mathematics isn’t one of them. As a side note, readers should check out the list of people I acknowledge in each book for ensuring I understood enough maths to write those sections. My own math knowledge is abysmal. I sometimes cheat off the diners at the next table when calculating the tip at a restaurant. Figuring a three-dimensional trapezoidal volume equation with multiple variables is a couple touchdowns beyond the y = mx +b I barely mastered back in 1984.

One of the things that impressed me the most was how the character's developed over the course of the three books. Was that something you and Jay had plotted in the before starting out, or was did they develop organically along the way

Robert: We knew with a few of the characters that we wanted them to do more of their development later in the series. Writing 750,000 words of continuous narrative, Jay and I introduced characters in The Hickory Staff who didn’t emerge as key players in the story until well into Lessek’s Key. Those decisions were deliberate. I joke often with readers kind enough to e-mail their questions that they can chart our characters’ critical developmental turning points back to the most recent death. Versen or Brynne’s death, for example, represented key moments when Jay and I allowed secondary characters – Brexan, Sallax, and Mark – to evolve. By Senators, pushing our main characters to evolve much more would have seemed contrived. So instead, we introduced new players – Captain Ford and his crew or Major Tavon and her officers, for example – to act as catalysts for what was brewing in the final act.

As a writer was there a process you used for developing a character. Take Garec for example – he takes a long and complicated journey through the trilogy coming to grips with what he is capable of doing as an archer. How did you go about plotting his development? Did you deliberately decide to have a character who knew it was necessary to kill people to win the war, but hated the idea that he was good at it – and he became that archetype?

Robert: Garec and Mark are two of my favourite characters because of how they developed over about seven years of planning and editing these books. As for Garec, I knew I wanted him to be a trained killer who, in Book 2, wrestles with what he’s done. I hadn’t known at the time that I needed him to get shot and nearly killed. But when Jacrys shot him at the end of The Hickory Staff, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for Garec’s character to shift significantly. His return to killing, facing a cavalry charge by himself, was another moment, late in Book 2, when it seemed appropriate to shift him back for the final act. He picks up his bow and serves the Resistance with the same brutal accuracy he had wielded in Book 1, but he has changed. The Garec we know in The Larion Senators is only a shadowy reflection of the young killer we met early in the series. Again, developing these characters was a study in how and when to share details of their personalities. We played them pretty close to the vest throughout The Hickory Staff, largely because we were nervous we wouldn’t have anywhere to go with them in Lessek’s Key. (This truly pissed off a lot of readers, and were I to do it over, I might try something different.) Looking back now, I’m happy with how Brexan, Mark, Sallax, and Garec all emerged as key players as the series wound its way through Eldarn.

The end of The Larion Senators is wide open in terms of potential for what could happen next in Eldarn – have you any plans to continue the story. I know I'm curious as to what could happen to the world next – and what happens to certain characters – aren't you?

Robert: Due to a variety of circumstances, I am taking a bit of time off from Eldarn. I accepted a job last summer as a high school principal and have been buried to the neck in deadlines, parent complaints, teacher grievances, and student mutinies ever since. It’s a great job, and if I didn’t love it, I would have leapt from the roof of the building by now. My students are half fascinated and half bemused at the idea that their principal writes epic novels, but I think I’ve inspired a few potential scribblers to get busy and stay busy writing. As for books, I’ve finished a collection of short stories for young readers and am into the second volume of that series now. I needed to do a bit of writing that my own children could read; dismemberment, sex scenes, grettan attacks, and off-colour, Eldarni profanity are a bit edgy for grade school kids. So I created a new character, a fourth grader whose misadventures rival any white collar felon in corporate America. I enjoy writing the stories, and the local school children howl when they read each new tale. My agent has the first collection now, and I’m hoping for good news on that front in the coming months.

I’m also working on a magical realism piece. It’s a mystery/thriller – in first person – that has evolved into a science fiction/horror novel. After 750,000 words of epic, third-person storytelling, I am ready for a change, just something to stretch my legs a bit. Then I’ll get back to Eldarn. I anticipate finishing a draft of the mystery piece this coming summer and will decide then what happens next in Eldarn. I did keep the far portals viable. I don’t know why, except that I believed eventually someone needed to go back to Eldarn, if only to sweep up the damned mess we’d left there. I like the idea of a story that jumps back and forth between Lessek’s early experiences and Milla’s efforts to bring order back to Sandcliff Palace, especially one in which Milla’s decisions now somehow impact Lessek’s choices thousands of Twinmoons earlier.

10) A while ago you had mentioned to me you were working on a non- Eldarn novel, and had already started some rather extensive research (including attending a ritual disembowelment – or was that an autopsy). I seem to remember that your father was a Police Detective and you had been fascinated as a kid listening to the details of his cases over dinner. Is that the mystery/crime/thriller/sci-fi sort of novel you're working on?

Robert: That’s the one. It’s based on the most grisly, terrifying, unbelievable story my father ever told around the dinner table. Our house was the place all the neighbourhood kids wanted to come for dinner, because my father invariably regaled us with hideous stories of true crime – things from Frank Miller’s worst nightmares. What appalled us most was that Dad’s stories were true; he had the photos to prove it. I’ve never seen a graphic novel or read a Stephen King story that truly captures the essence of what happens when some raging drunk takes a chain-saw to his wife’s lover, or when five mob killers boil their lawyer in a bathtub (two examples from my sophomore year in high school). It’s astonishing, and any New Jersey homicide detective could write (and illustrate!) a book that would have the heartiest of us pissing ourselves. Looking back on it all – Dad’s long retired. He works now for a mortician; that’s poetic justice for you! – the most frightening aspect of those stories was that the killers were generally someone who lived across the street, or worse . . . down the hall. Rarely did a lunatic drifter terrorize a beach-front town. But the local pharmacist or Kiwanis Club treasurer did it all the time!

My current novel is loosely based on the worst of the worst, the one time when my father came home with orders from the state medical examiner to remove all his clothes and burn them in our yard before coming anywhere near us . . . nope, not making this up. Granted, I’m stretching an ugly criminal case into a magical realism piece with elements of horror and science fiction, but the fundamental bits of the story actually happened. And it’s a tale that’s just begging to be told, a real testament to homicide investigators everywhere.

I'd like to thank Robert Scott for taking the time to answer these questions for me, and I hope you enjoyed this conversation with him. For those who haven't yet had an opportunity to read The Eldarn Sequence you can pick up copies of the three books at any on line retailer or book store near you. Although this marks the end of Robert and Jay's story, it doesn't look like it means the end of our visits to Eldarn, and I look forward to the return.

March 16, 2008

Book Review: Stormcaller Tom Lloyd


After you read a certain amount of fantasy or science fiction you begin to wonder how many more stories there are still to be told. Sometimes you'll be reading a story and it will begin to sound familiar even though you've never read it before. I'm not saying that authors are deliberately copying other people's work, just that they've ended up telling the same story that someone else had.

It only stands to reason though, how many stories can there be? We used to tell stories as a means of instruction, to teach us how to survive or how to behave. Naturally those stories would change as we changed our manner of living - we didn't need stories that taught us how to hunt when we settled down as farmers, we needed stories that taught us the best way to grow our crops. Along with the Christian creation story, and the stories that have been associated with religious teachings, these have provided the basic blueprints for most of the stories we now tell.

So to find a new way of telling tales that derive from Western culture is nowhere near as easy as you would think. The fact that we can all pretty much identify the same archetypes, X=evil and Y=good, means that we can accept certain concepts in a story without having them explained, but it also gives everything that air of familiarity. So when an author is able to accomplish what Tom Lloyd has done with the first book of his The Twilight Reign sequence, The Stormcaller and create a world where the reader has little or nothing to hold onto that is familiar, it is quite an accomplishment.
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Isak is a white eye, and white eyes are different from all the other people born into the world. They are bigger, stronger, and faster than other people, have a natural affinity for magic, and on occasion are chosen by one of the Gods or Goddesses of the land to be the recipient of gifts that set them even more apart from the humans they share the planet with. If that isn't enough to make people fear, and even hate them, white eyes are also quick to anger and low on patience.

Their anger can be horrible to behold as it can quickly turn into a beserker rage that will see them attack any and all who they perceive as being in their way - in other words anyone in the nearby vicinity. Isak is no exception to this and has only been kept in check in his childhood by a former mercenary who guards the caravan of wagons he and his father travel with. Isak's father hates him because as a white eye he killed his mother while being born; they are just big for a normal woman to birth. Ironically white eyes can only be born of a non-white eyed women so they all sacrifice their mothers in order to be born.

But even for a white eye it seems Isak is special, for when barely sixteen he discovers that he is the chosen heir of one of the most powerful rulers in the land. If that isn't hard enough to deal with for somebody who has been raised as a peasant, it seems one of the Gods has special plans in mind for him. The gifts that the God of Storms brings for him are the armour and sword of a great and powerful king who was the last single ruler of the land. According to prophesy whomever next dons that armour and bears that sword will be the saviour and destined for greatness.

What the Gods want and what humans want of course can be two entirely different things, and various people have various ideas on just who should be wearing that armour and carrying that sword. Not only humans want to have their say in the matter either. Other races who haven't been seen or heard from in a long time start making their presence felt; vampires have started to be seen again andt even more disturbing is the fact that the elves are massing on the borders.

The former king whose armour Isak has been given, just happened to be an elf, and they want it back. Unlike most other fantasy stories where the elves are founts of wisdom and goodness etc. etc., these guys are nasty, and would like nothing better than to exterminate a few thousand humans. So they and their troll friends take to the battle field in an attempt to win back the armour. Yet bad as these troubles all seem, they are merely the disturbance on the surface of the water, and underneath it all some deep and disturbing troubles lurk that no one can quite fathom or see yet.

As in all first books of a series a lot of time is spent introducing the various characters, and plot lines that we will be following throughout the series. Initially I found it hard to keep track, as there is a wealth of information to be absorbed, and for a while it was a distraction. While as the story progresses Tom Lloyd takes some steps to lesson the confusion, I realized that in order for us to properly understand Isak we needed to share in his confusion at the events going on around him, so he has left us deliberately in the dark.

It's important for the reader to remember that in spite of his formidable power and abilities, Isak is still only a young man, not even twenty by the end of the first book. Unlike the majority of the people he now consorts with he didn't grow up among the elite of the world and has little or no understanding of the forces that are being set in motion by his presence and his wearing the armour of the former king. Seeing the world through Isak's eyes, and not having much more of an understanding of what's going on than he does, helps us realize the enormity of the task that he is facing.

Who can he trust and what should he do? We really have no more idea than he does, as Lloyd is holding most of his cards close to his chest. While we see some of the plotting that is going on in the world around him, we can't be sure how it's going to end up affecting him. Tom Lloyd has done a masterful job of whetting our interest for the future of the series without giving anything away as to the future.

Lloyd's characterizations are wonderful especially the way he manages to make Isak appear both powerful and insecure simultaneously. He comes across like a typical teenager in some ways, only of course he has the power to destroy just about everybody he meets including himself if he's not careful. While some of the characters might initially appear to by a "type" we've seen before, he is able to give them all twists that take them into territory that makes them different from any characters we've met in other series.

Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd is the first book of his Twilight Reign, and if it is any indication, this series promises to be like no other series I've read before. It's nice to know that there is still plenty new under the sun. Stormcaller is published by Gollancz Fantsy and distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company.

March 15, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Five

So I admit it, I'm a sucker for a woman in distress. It doesn't hurt that when she says my name it sound like a caress or that four foot nine of her five feet seven are legs. Those are just what we call fringe benefits in this line of work. Sort of like free drinks at a bar, or a discount on a sandwich for work done in the past.

So it was pretty much a no-brainer that when that husky voice, made even huskier by tears, washed over my ear I'd be saying yes to doing anything Ms. Magnesen wanted. If it means ferreting around in the muck of the quagmire that we call politics in Canada then that's what I'll be doing.

Lucy's voice sounded a bit calmer, less full of tears when she called me as agreed the next morning. If we were going to get to the bottom of this whole mess there was no time like the present to begin. I was hopping that she would be able to give me some clues, names of any of the Greenpeace and granola types that had been hanging out with her dad in those last days, would be a good place to start.

Unfortunately she couldn't remember any more details about them that morning then in our previous conversation. It looked I'd be getting on a lot closer terms with soy burgers, herbal teas and hemp shirts than what I'd consider good for a man's soul. But those are the sacrifices you have to be prepared to make for the job.

I'm sure you've noticed how groups tend to congregate into a geographical centre of activities, and the granola rollers are no different. In Ottawa they have taken over a couple of square blocks of what used to be the red light district until the girls got wise and moved out to where all the Embassies are and can now get work as escorts and blackmail material. (usually one and the same thing in the Embassy district)

In the end it meant another nice seedy neighbourhood falling victim to the let's improve the downtown core so people from the suburbs want to come here mentality. It's that type of thinking that has ruined more areas in this city then you can shake a by-law exemption on zoning laws at. The first signs of trouble are when the adventurous ones in their S.U.V.'s and Dockers start showing up in your favourite greasy spoon.

Then it's only a matter of time before they're telling their friends about this "place". The next thing you know there's a Starbucks on one corner, a health food store on another, a new age book store on the third and one of those shops that don't really sell anything in particular but whatever it is they do sell it's for quite a bit of money.

The people I wanted to talk to weren't going to be among that crowd; none of them would be caught dead driving anything powered by anything other than their own leg muscles, eating in a greasy spoon, or, if they drank coffee at all, sitting in a Starbucks. They'd be the ones you see working in the health food stores, or the whole earth type eateries that spring up like boils in these new neighbourhoods

You know the type; never smiling, with a pasty grey complexion from not eating enough protein who drift around filling the bulk bins at the health food stores. Or being your surly wait staff at the new eatery that displaced the greasy spoon within weeks of gentrification. They seem to take some sort of grim satisfaction in watching people pretending to enjoy their tasteless lentil and ground nut burgers or making bulk purchases of certified organic brown basmati rice.

The only time they're known to smile is when some pathetic soul tries to order something that gives them an excuse to for the "lecture". It comes in four standard forms; the evils of globalization, the evils of eating meat, the evils of trans-fats and other unhealthy by-products of processed foods, and the evils found in tap water and the air we breath.

The latter they seem to take special delight in listing while people are trying to eat lunch. Nothing like a graphic description of the effects of P.C.B.'s on a person's liver to turn you off your lentil and beetroot tofu omelette. Lucy had wanted to come with me on the grounds that she might be able to recognize one of the people who was visiting her father, but I told her that it wasn't necessary for the two of us to suffer, and besides I didn't know what danger we could be walking into.

So far all that I had risked was doing some sort of permanent damage to both my intestinal tract and any goodwill I might have towards my fellow humans. I remember reading about the Puritans back in history class somewhere and how they were dour folk who didn't believe in frivolity or fun of any kind. But compared to these environmental martyrs those guys would have been a laugh riot.

For all that I still was no further ahead before I walked into this ring of hell that Dante seems to have forgotten to describe. There was only one store that I hadn't been in yet and I didn't hold out much hope of finding anything there. Factual information and New Age bookstores aren't normally to be found within the same orbit, but as the saying goes no turn un-stoned. I've learned never to discard anything as a potential source of information.

Compared to the rest of the places I'd been in my tour through the pits of despair this was a fountain joy. Bright light, and no smell of rotting vegetation made an immediate improvement in my mood, which was only augmented by the smile and plunging neckline behind the counter. As they were accompanied by a pretty face and a cheery voice asking me if there was anything she could do for me, it almost made the day's efforts worthwhile.

Leaning casually on the counter, trying not to be distracted by what happened whenever she inhaled, I quickly spun the tale I had come up with to cover my real intent. My daughter was doing a school project on global warming and needed to find out more information about the Kyoto Accord. Did she happen to know anyone or could she recommend any good books that a single dad could get for his pride and joy to help her fulfill her dream of becoming an environmental scientist?

As soon as I mentioned the words Kyoto Accord I couldn't help notice an increased agitation in her breathing, how her smile had become a little more fixed, and a look had entered into her eyes that could only be fear. Pressing home what seemed to be an advantage I said surely amongst some of these books there must be something about global warming and the Kyoto Accord.

She was a lousy liar, that pretty little New-Ager, and she knew it. But she bite her lip and said no, that wasn’t the type of book they sold here. She then made a show of catching site of the time, and making her excuses about needing to see a doctor she hustled me from the store so she could close up for her appointment.

I quickly took up station in the doorway of a store a half block down; there was no way I was going to let my little bird fly without following her. If my guess was right she was the lead I had suffered lentil burgers for and all I would have to do was follow her to where I needed to be led.

Sure enough she came out of the store a minute later. After locking the door she gave the street the quick once over and began to walk briskly away from the store and me. I let her get a half block away from the store before I began to follow her. She was wearing a very distinctly coloured poncho with some sort of bird on it's back that made her easy to follow so I wasn't worried about losing contact with her.

At one point she dashed into a store for a couple of moments and when she came back out she had added a headscarf to her ensemble. If that were meant to fool anyone who was possibly trailing her she was in for a surprise. Not even the R.C.M.P. would be thrown by such a simple deception. I was being careful to keep well back from her so there was no chance of her catching a glimpse of my face or recognizing me by some other means, so I almost missed it when she turned off the main road.

When I got to where she exited stage right it turned out to be a dead-end alleyway with nobody in sight. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I noticed a couple of doors in each wall. They were made of identical plain materials, banded with metal; obviously fire doors from the old days when the buildings were first constructed.

It was probably that momentary feeling of being nonplussed that distracted me enough that I didn't notice anyone behind me until I felt the first touch on the back of my head of whatever it was they used to knock me out. I can only assume that I fell like a ton of bricks because that's what you normally do under the circumstances.

March 12, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh

I guess it's only fitting that as a guy who edits a site called Epic India Magazine that I'm fascinated by Epic Poems and stories. I can date it back to the first time I read a version of Beowulf when I was a kid, and I've been hooked on them ever since. After that it became a matter of simply discovering them in order to read them.

First of course was Homer and the Odyssey, and that was followed by reading Virgil's Aeniad (in Latin - not because of any great ambition but solely because I was taking Latin in high school as I had no other course options left if I wanted to collect enough credits to get into university without taking any math or science). Then there was Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, in translation, because Old English is pretty much indecipherable as far as I was concerned.

Of course there have been all the modern equivalents as well that started cropping up in the fantasy genre with The Lord Of The Rings and Narnia for openers and continues today with Steven Erikson's Malzan Books Of The Fallen and of course Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Just as I was starting to lose interest in the genre, there's only so many good versus evil Judeo/Christian based myths you can take, I stepped outside the shelter of Western culture to discover another world.
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In 2005 I began reading Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of Valmiki's three thousand year old epic poem The Ramayana that told the story of the great Indian hero Rama. Since then I've been keeping my ears open for word of other stories from other cultures that I could sink my teeth into. I've always been a firm believer in the theory that you can learn more about a people by reading their stories than through a history or other text book. So when the opportunity to read excerpts from the Persian epic The Shahnameh (The Epic Of Kings) by Hakim Abdol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi (935 - 1020 CE) arose I was very interested.

Hyperwerks a newer graphic novel group, has just added to it's title's listing Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh. Since I knew next to nothing about the The Shahnameh I decided that before reading the adaptations that Hyperwerks were offering it would probably be a good idea to read some of the original poem to get a feel for the style and to understand the context which these excerpts were being taken from. There are plenty of good translations of The Shanameh on line and I read the chapters that preceded Rostam's entrance into the story at the link above and also at the Iran Chamber Society's web site.

In the first four chapters the reader is introduced to Iran and how it's leadership evolved, and the countries in the surrounding area. Once the kingdom is settled and established the reader is told of the coming of the first hero of Iran Zal - who will marry Rodabeh and father Rostam.
The first tale of Rostam that the Hyperwerks recounts is actually one that takes place a little latter on in his history, but is also one of the most tragic; the story of Rostam and Sohrab
To tell you any of the details from that story would be to spoil it, and I'm not going to do that. What I will say is that the people of Hyerwerks have done their best to remain faithful to the original story in both issues of Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh that have been published so far. It's not just in content that they have taken care, but in the graphics as well, for they have carefully reproduced not only the style of dress and armour that was used by at that period in Persian history, but all visual aspects including architectural and decorative arts.

They have also done a good job of telling the story with both illustrations and dialogue, in fact one of the things I liked most about the two issues I've read is their willingness to just use images to tell the story in places. There's no reason to say something like "his sword shattered on his opponents armour when you can just as readily show it happening. That's the whole idea behind graphic novels anyway, to be able to tell the story with the pictures and to find the right balance of dialogue and narration to include so you don't detract from the flow of the story telling.

At the beginning you many find the dialogue a little stilted and overly formal. Yet it's pretty much lifted word for word from the stories these comics have been based on. I don't know if that's the way people would have talked in the days the stories are set in, or just because Farsi and Arabic don't translate well into English. Yet, I found myself growing accustomed to the sound of the dialogue as I read it as my reading progressed, so I have a feeling it's more a case of this is the way the language was used in the original. It's definitely how the language sounds in the two translations I've read.

Rostam: Tales From The Shahnameh is a well illustrated and well written comic/graphic story that will serve as a good introduction to the The Shahnameh. The people at Hyperwerks have done a great job in making sure they have stayed as faithful as they possibly can both visually and in the narration of the stories. These are fine examples of the great things that can be done with he comic book genre.

March 10, 2008

The Case Of Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter Four

Well it looked like I had run into a dead end. I should have known better than to think any of the bar's phones or their accoutrements, which is a fancy way of saying the shit that goes with something, would have survived the types of drunks, junkies, and liars that habituate a strip bar. Probably the first drunk husband whose wife had told him not to come home from wherever he was had performed the Charles Atlas trick on the "Let My Fingers Do the Walking" tome at the first booth.

The second looked like it had been used to mop up something that I didn't want to have a better acquaintance with and the third, like someone had used it as practice before they perforated the late, lamented Doctor Magneson. Sighing a curse or two at the perfidy of my fellow men I headed for the office where I was certain I could find a phone book in somewhat better shape than any of these relics.

After two hours of questioning my sanity and a half bottle of whiskey later I came across the phone book for the National Capital Region (Ottawa, Hull, and anywhere else in the vicinity that uncivil servants might hang their coats and hats) propping up a window. It had sustained a little damage from water and the neighbouring pigeons, and the mice had absconded with the zeds (poor as synagogue mice as they were making they're way through the book backwards) for comfort, but at least the section where gorgeous Scandinavian blondes kept their phone numbers looked to be intact.

That is if they kept their phone number in phone books at all. Two hours of scouring the phone book only confirmed the fact that there was no Magnesons to be found with a listed phone number anywhere within the confines of this sorry excuse for a city. There are 600 Martins, and four different ways that people seem to spell MacDonald, Mcdonald, MaCdonald, and Macdonald, but no damn Magnesons.

Some items when they cause you frustration don't have the decency to give you any means of release. A phone book on the other hand has a nice bit of heft to it so when you decide to chuck it across the room it will make a resounding thud. Indeed if you throw it hard enough not only will it make a satisfying noise, it will rip through cheap drywall like an elephant's fart through tissue paper.

It took my a few seconds to realize that the ringing sound I was hearing in my ears was unrelated to the minor bit of renovation I had begun seconds ago, and had more to do with the phone sitting on my desk than anything else. I was using less then the usual requisite number of brain cells required to carry on a phone conversation when I picked up the receiver; half of them being awash in the best part of a fifth of Canadian Club, another chunk trying to visualize how the filing cabinet would look on the other side of the door, and the remainder trying to figure out how long it would take the mice to work there way backwards through the whole alphabet now that they had ready access to the source.

So it took me a second or two to remember what I was supposed to do with the piece of cheap plastic in my hand out of which a sultry voice was calling hello with increasing amounts of urgency. I tried to shake off thoughts of mice in knit yarmulkes and me wearing a truss, the way a dog shakes off water, and was rewarded with the office attempting to spin me into orbit. It was only by catching the desk with my chin that I was able to prevent myself from hitting the floor.

Pain has the remarkable ability to clear your brain and let you focus on the events at hand. After the sparks that had appeared out of nowhere in front of my eyes had vanished I noticed that I was holding on to the phone. I was just about to hang it up when I heard a vaguely familiar sounding voice saying, "Oh my God what's going on, is there anybody there? Hello, hello?"

"Lady could you keep your voice down I've got quite the headache all of a sudden and you're not helping any by yelling away like this" There was now a much appreciated silence at the other end of the line which allowed me to regain a little bit of my composure so that I could go about this the right way. After all she had just lost the man who I assumed to be her father in a rather grisly fashion and that called for a certain amount of delicacy. (Who else did you think it was going to be on the phone at this time of night in this kind of story – sheesh)

"Why did you do it? Why did you kill your father tonight Ms. Magnesen? I saw you running away from the bar just as he keeled over at my feet so don't deny you were there and that you fled. Any normal girl would have stayed, you see your father drop to the floor like a ton of bricks and you're heading for the proverbial hills – something ain't right with that picture Ms. Magnesen and your gonna have to help me bring it into focus."

There was a pause from the other end of the phone line, followed by the unmistakeable sounds of someone taking a large drag off a cigarette followed by a long slow exhale. Visualizing in my head just how those actions would affect her lips and the thoughts that sprang to mind with those images left me a little light headed again. I barely recovered in time to hear what she had to say next.

"I guess I'm not what you'd call a normal girl Mr?" her voicing trailing away in a suggestive question mark led me to quickly interject in a still somewhat shaky voice "just call me Steve, Ms. Magnesen" to which she replied "there's no need for you to be formal either, Steve; call me Gertrude" Immediately destroying any of the earlier mental images that I had envisioned. Gertrude is just one of those names where even knowing the person in question would look good in a potato sack makes me think of particularly hairy great aunts.

Another cigarette inhalation pause followed this exchange of names, this time bereft of any accompanying imagery, until she continued with, " But then again my dad and I hadn't been having what you would call a normal existence for the past while"

I made appreciative, and what I hoped were encouraging noises, and made myself comfortable on the floor, noticing with contentment that the remainder of the fifth was within easy reach having rolled onto the floor in the confusion. I hooked the bottle over to me with my foot and was carefully unscrewing the cap as she began her story.

"My dad and I had moved up to Ottawa a few years ago, my mother had died from cancer and neither of us could bear to be around places that reminded us of her. He felt especially guilty because his work had kept him from home during a great deal of her last months with us and he knew that he wished that he could have spent more time with her.

I had ended up being her primary care giver, having to bathe her, change her diapers when she could no longer get up to go to the bathroom on her own, and eventually feed her. While he was off at conferences on climate change and global warming I'd be at home making broth and rolling her over in bed to prevent bed sores. He told me later that he was sorry that he had left so much of the burden on my shoulders but he couldn't stand to see her like what she was becoming.

That broken collection of bones and skin with no intellect or brain wasn't the person he had married. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't feel anything but revulsion for her when he was around her, and that ate at him like termites in a clapboard house. He had worshiped the ground she had walked on until the moment she had gotten sick, treating her like she was royalty, and then all of a sudden he found he couldn't go near her."

I was fighting back tears by this time, although that could have been residual pain and medicinal whiskey, so I wasn't all that surprised that she made a slight choking sound as if overcome with emotion and had to pause for a second. As there was nothing really that could be said, I said nothing and let her take all the time she needed to compose herself before she continued.

"Anyway when the previous government was working out ways to try and ensure that Canada was going to meet its Kyoto accord commitments a position became available requiring someone of dad's expertise and skills. I decided to go back to school and finish the thesis work I had begun when Mom had gotten sick and we began the process of putting our live back together.

Those couple of years were great; everyone dad was working with were excited about coming up with solutions that would not only see Canada meet its obligations, but actually exceed them. It was so great to see dad taking an interest in life again. There had been a time just after mom died that I was worried for him, and that I thought he might be going off the deep end into depression, but this new project had revitalized him.

Of course it was too good to be true, and all those other damn clichés about good stuff coming to an end, and last fall when it began to look like the Conservative Party Of Canada had a good chance of forming the next government, dad started asking questions about the accord's future if the change were to happen and it didn't look good.

The word he got was that even if they were able to cut emissions by fifty per cent and improve the economy at the same time by an equal amount, the Conservatives were going to pull the plug on the deal no matter what. When words like 'setting a dangerous precedent for government regulatory powers and interference in the market place' start being bandied about, you could have discovered the cure for cancer and AIDS and you knew your funding would be killed and your program shut down.

Dad became like a figure obsessed; he began working all hours of the day and night in an effort to come up with a devise that could be used to convert carbon dioxide and other dangerous emissions into harmless substances when released into the atmosphere. He knew that even if the government had no intention of ever making use of this technology that there were others who would and could.

It was just before Christmas and after the election had been called that he let me in on a little of what he was planning, albeit it indirectly. He told me that I shouldn't be surprised if he started to receive visitors at home at all hours of the day and night, and that I shouldn't make a big deal out of it. He also said it would be a good idea if I didn't tell anybody about them either."

She stopped to light another cigarette and gather her thoughts for what I assumed was the crux of the matter. I had a good idea where this was going and beginning to see how it ended as badly as it did. I had long since abandoned the bottle of whiskey and was sitting propped up against the desk with my legs splayed out in front of me. Looking out the office window I could see the sky was beginning to change colour; the clouds of the previous night had dispersed and there was a faint blush appearing along the eastern horizon line. It looked like it was going to be a nice day for somebody, somebody who probably wasn't named Gertrude Magneson.

"Maybe I should have said something to him, asked him more about what he was doing, but he looked like he had hope for the first time since the beginning of the fall when we started to hear the rumours of our demise. After all we'd been through there was no way I was going to be the one to pull the rug out from under him.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, up to Christmas and then twice more before New Years, the visits took place. They would usually happen between midnight and four in the morning and the person would arrive on bicycle or foot. Most of the time they'd only come one at a time, but on the last couple of occasions all three of them came together and these visits were also in daytime. It was as if they either believed they were completely safe or they no longer cared whether they were being observed.

The two men and a woman all dressed and looked pretty much the same. Long hair, bulky sweaters, fancy sandals with thick socks on no matter what the weather, and the same zealous fire in their eyes at all times. They were all sort of pale, like they didn't eat enough and never had anything to drink except water and herbal tea. The woman looked at me like I was some sort of evil monster and the two men would sneak looks at me when they didn't think I could see and they knew she wasn't looking.

Obviously they weren’t supposed to approve of me, the way I dressed or looked or something, but that didn't stop them from drooling just like any other straight male does the first time he sees me. I thought they were judgemental little hypocrites for judging me by my appearance, they were probably the types who protested against just that sort of thing, but I didn't say anything because my dad assured me their visits were temporary and they were helping him out in some way or another. Sure enough after those last couple of meetings before New Year's Eve we never saw them again.

After Christmas vacation my dad went back to work and waited for the inevitable to happen. After the elections rumours were flying fast and furious, but dad remained calm and when I asked him about it he just smiled and shrugged. But everything changed again a week after the oily bastards announced they were reneging on the Kyoto accord in order to 'seek a Canadian solution'.

I was at home working on my thesis and two men came to the door. They should have been wearing badges that said undercover R.C.M.P. officer or at least kept their stupid hats on they were so obvious. They said they were colleagues of dad's from work and that he had sent them by the house for some files he needed that he kept at home, and would I mind letting them come in to get them. I told them I would have to check with him first, and pretended to walk back into the house to use the phone, but in reality just slipped around the corner and observed them in the reflection from the hall mirror.

Not much of a surprise that they didn't wait for me to come back from making my 'phone call'. They left the door open when they left, so I did a full production for them of coming out on the step and looking puzzled as to what had just happened. I also used the time to spot where they had parked their Crown Victoria and watched as they pretended to be gay lovers necking in the front seat.

When I told dad about it he asked if I were okay and when I assured him I was, he laughed a little. But it wasn't as if it were at anything funny. He said they had searched the lab as well but they weren't going to find anything because, and he pointed to his head, it's all up here.

It was a week ago that he started to get worried about things again, but he didn't want to say anything to me about it. I had been seeing the same two cops who had come to the door around town, just happening to be where I was every so often. They made no effort to hide themselves, like they wanted to let me know they were keeping an eye on me for whatever reason.

I think it was the fact that they were bothering me that finally convinced him that we needed to find somebody to help us. Somebody we could trust in a situation that looked like it was getting further out of hand then he had expected. I think he had hoped that when they didn't find any files they could use they would leave him alone, but that didn't look like it was happening.

I was to follow him to the bar where the two of you were meeting last night to try and see if anybody had followed him, but it was so crowded that I couldn't even see either of you for a while. The next thing I knew was that he was dead. I was so scared that his killer was standing somewhere near me that all I could think of was getting out of there as quickly as possible. My father's dead Steve, and all I know is that it has something to do with the Kyoto accord and the Canadian government. Can you help me?"

March 3, 2008

Book Review: The Dancer And The Thief Antonio Skarmeta

In 1973 the CIA orchestrated a military coup in Chile and replaced the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The first thing that General Augusta Pinochet did once the army had secured power was to order the rounding up of all potential dissidents. Ten thousand writers, poets, teachers, trade unionists, and former members of parliament were rounded up and taken to Santiago Soccer Stadium where they were executed. They were probably the lucky ones.

Countless thousands were arrested and tortured by Pinochet's secret police and prison administrators. If it was even suspected that you might know somebody who knew something you could vanish without warning and be lost for years without your family knowing whether you were dead or alive. These disappearances continued throughout Pinochet's rule and the majority of those who vanished were never seen again.

When Pinochet was finally removed from office and a democratically elected government was again in power it didn't change the fact that people had died and been tortured at the hands of the police and the prison system. I can not even begin to imagine what it would be like to have lost a family member, or have survived an extended stay in Pinochet's prisons, and know that the people responsible are still walking around free without having to suffer any reprisals.
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This is the Chile in which Antonio Skarmeta's novel The Dancer And The Thief takes place. A country where resentments, bitterness, and sadness are nestled just below the surface of so many people's skin. It's also a poor country where unemployment is high and even the criminals are struggling to make ends meet. It's against this backdrop that we meet our three major characters; Angel Santiago, Nicolas Vergara Gray, and Victoria Ponce, and watch as they come to grips with the world around them.

Nicolas and Angel have both just been released from prison as part of an amnesty program for non-violent offenders. While Nicolas had served five years of a ten year sentence for robbery, and keeping his mouth shut, he is coming out relatively unscathed. Angel on the other hand was sent to jail because the brother of the man whose horse he borrowed for an afternoon's ride was his judge and agreed that five years was a reasonable sentence. On his first night in prison, the warden of his jail had him stripped naked and thrown in a cell with five other men where he was viciously gang raped.

Victoria was still in her mother's womb when Pinochet's police shot her father on the steps of the school where he taught. Her mother has been sunk into a deep depression for all of Victoria's seventeen years, and is barely aware of her daughter's existence. Victoria has dreams of being a ballet dancer, and studies privately, but by the time we meet her she is close to giving up on everything. Her school, the same one her father taught at, has finally given up on her and expelled her for the third and final time, and she's taken to hanging out at pornographic cinemas during the day during the hours her mother thinks she is in school.

Nicolas has been anticipating there would be a small fortune awaiting him when he is released from jail; his share of the loot from the job that sent him inside and his payment for keeping silent so his partner could stay free. His plan is to retire quietly with the money and do his best to make it up to his wife and son for abandoning them. Unfortunately he finds there is no money left, and his former partner is verging on bankruptcy. As little as wants to, he may just have to break into one more safe if he wants to retire.

On his first day out of prison Angel meets Victoria standing outside of the pornographic cinema that she's taken to haunting during the day. At twenty he's only three years older then her, and they immediately form a bond. He encourages her to try and go back to school one more time and even more importantly to dare and believe in her dream of dancing. Angel was given the gift of the perfect crime by a fellow prisoner before he left, and if he can pull it off their future will be secure.

He has the plans for gaining access to a safe that is full of money that won't be reported as stolen, because it is the illicit profits of a protection racket. Even better it is run by people who used to work for Pinochet as torturers so if the robbery was carried off successfully it would be enacting a measure of revenge on some of those who managed to escape justice. The only problem is that he needs a safe cracker.

Angel sets out to woo Nicolas with the same amount of intensity and passion as he brings to his campaign to make Victoria believe in herself. Gradually the three very different people's lives begin to intertwine as they each look to the other for salvation and support. In the end it's because of Victoria that Nicolas decides to go through with the plan. She had failed the exam that she needed to pass to be accepted back into school and then degraded herself by selling oral sex to men in the pornographic theatre where Angel first met her, before falling deathly ill.

There are plenty of people in Santiago Chile who don't think justice was ever done, and that compensation is owed to the victims of Pinochet's regime. In Victoria and the robbery they see their opportunities to do both. A police officer with a conscience, a teacher in Victoria's school, her dance teacher, Nicolas' wife and son, and a couple of others all come together to carry out a two pronged plan.

Since Victoria's dream is to dance on a major stage, they take over Santiago's Metropolitan Theatre after its closed for the night through the simple expedient of having the police officer telling the staff there is a bomb threat and they all must leave the building. The plotters take seats in the front row and Victoria dances for them. Like any other patron of the arts they also put up money to help stage the second act - the robbery, for which they are all repaid with interest.

What makes this such a beautiful story to read, almost a fairy tale with its moments of sublime beauty, is Antonio Skarmeta's ability to create magic on the page with words. Somehow he is able to capture the beauty of life and love; how caring and compassion are more beautiful than any treasure known to man, through the interaction of his characters.

He also knows that without sorrow, we would never be able to feel joy, and that real grief is as much a part of our lives as anything else. There is real heartbreak in this book, but that is part of the coming back to life that a country which dared not feel for so long needs to experience if they stand any chance of recovering from the deprivations of the past.

Dreams and hope are the fuel that drives people to keep trying in spite of the odds they face. Victoria, Nicolas, and Angel are hopes and dream personified. In a land where people hadn't known hope for so long, and dreams were only something that you had at night, seeing them walking and talking in that environment was magic at its finest.

I've always loved South American writers for their ability to depict reality with unflinching honesty, while simultaneously seeing all that's magical in the world and giving that life as well. Antonio Skarmeta's The Dancer And The Thief is a wonderful example of this. Like a great painting the book is simple to look at, but moves you beyond what words can describe. Read this book and know what it's like to be truly alive.

February 29, 2008

Book Review: Fangland John Marks

I have to admit that after the first time I read Bram Stoker's Dracula it took me years to work up the nerve to re-read it. It had to be one of the most singly terrifying books I had read up until that time. In spite of its archaic language, and the almost absurd melodrama of the story, there was something about the way in which Stoker wrote the story that made my skin crawl and my mind ache like no other book had done before or has done since.

Perhaps it took a 19th century author's perceptions of good and evil, or it might have been the style, a mix of the old naturalism and the new realism, that allowed the evil incarnate of Dracula to come to life. I don't think it could have been the actual story, because I've read and seen variations on the story in a number of different guises, and only the silent movie version, Nosferattu came close to capturing what Stoker managed, so it had to have been in the telling.

In the 21st century vampires, and other legions of the undead, have taken to popping up all over the place. Zombies have shuffled their way across this mortal coil as either attempts at social commentary/horror with it being a disease or virus run amok in our plague ridden society, or as outrageous comedy/satire where the characters don't notice anything wrong until the undead try to use them for appetizers. But it's the old standby, the vampire, who has made his mark on popular culture thanks to the long running television show Buffy The Vampire Slayer based loosely on the movie of the same name, and of course Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire books and movie.
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No matter what we think of any of the present incarnations of Bram Stoker's famous blood sucker, there can be no denying that the fiend from the pits of hell is here to stay in all his glory. While I must admit to having a rather jaundiced view of most of the modern versions - save Christopher Moore's Blood Sucking Fiends and its sequel You Suck - there was something about the new book by John Marks, Fangland, published by Penguin Canada that caught my attention and piqued my interest.

Perhaps the fact that it was set in the world of television news, a bastion of evil and the undead if I've ever seen one, or its promise of "biting satire", that had me hoping the author would be able to breath some fresh life into the story and make the undead alive again in a way they have not been for over a century. That John Marks had worked behind the scenes for the original television news magazine, 60 Minutes, made it seem all the more likely that he would be able to deliver on the promise of opening a vein or two when it came to writing about the world of television news, in the process of telling his story.

Associate Producer at the venerable TV news show The Hour, Evangeline Harker is much like her predecessor in Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker, young, wide eyed, newly engaged, and anxious to succeed in her chosen profession. So when she is sent off to Romania to in an effort to meet with the mysterious Ion Torgu, reputed to be the head of all of Eastern Europe's underworld activity from drugs to prostitution, to asses his potential as the subject for an interview, she disregards her colleagues' premonitions of danger.

Evangeline is given even an extra warning in the form of a mysterious woman, Clementine Spence, whom she meets in the hotel coffee shop in Bucharest. As they are both headed for the same ultimate destination - the small town in Transylvania (an odd coincidence that Evangeline fails to understand the significance of as she fails to understand the significance of most things until it's too late) where Evangeline is supposed to meet her contact - the offer of a ride seems like the most natural of suggestions on Evangeline's part.

It turns out that Clementine is her last chance at turning back from a road to...well we're in Transylvania and Evangeline is meeting with a man who will insist that she leave with him immediately and then attempts to cut her off from the rest of the world by making her sign a series of letters telling everyone that she's secreted in negotiations of a delicate nature and can't be reached. Does any of this sound familiar? Well it's straight from Stoker's Dracula of course.
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In fact, despite a few variations, Fangland follows Stoker's plot faithfully. Torgu is not a blood sucking fiend, instead he is a blood drinking fiend who worships the sites of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century and brings the dead from those places to life. He is akin to our collective awareness of the subject and wants to bring all of humanity the gift of that knowledge and the ability to hear the stories of the dead. Is it any wonder that he wants to be interviewed on television, or at the least to have entry into the world Evangeline Harker comes from.

When the scene shifts from Transylvania back to the twentieth floor offices of The Hour we find mysterious events and behaviour are the order of the day. Torgu has found a minion among the lowly to prepare his way, and in television there ain't nothing lowlier than the production assistant. Promises of power and exclusive interviews carve him his entre into a world that's ideally suited to his needs.

Paranoid and secretive, the employees of The Hour need little manipulation on Torgu's part to be played off against each other. Those within his power are easily separated from other staff either because of the divisions between the technical and on air personnel or due to their own ambitions. This is where author John Marks is able to put his knowledge of the behind the scenes machinations of a television news show to good use, as the horror of the circumstances is leavened with his cutting descriptions of how a Network News show is an ideal spot for horror to develop and flourish.

I have to wonder what his former colleagues at Sixty Minutes make of his descriptions of the on air talent as prima donnas, producers as despots ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists, and associate producers as bright eyed and blinded by ambition to the realities of anything but -"how will it play in Peoria?" There's nothing innocent about the wide-eyed Evangeline Harker, or anyone else for that matter on the staff of The Hour, more a blinkered, wide-eyed stupid that blinds them so much they are easy prey for Torgu and his plans.

There is so much back biting and discord among those who compete for coveted time slots in each week's show, and to make their story "The Story" of the week, that the work place is referred to as "Fangland". They are past masters of manipulating reality so that it becomes good TV, and in the end the story is secondary. Torgu's offer of the most sensational stories ever told; the individual story of every person who died in any of the twentieth centuries horrors, is like raw meat to a shark, but also shows us how far removed the world of television news is from the realities of the world.

Torgu isn't the vampire in this book, even thought he drinks blood by the bucketful. The vampires are those who are waiting and wanting to feed upon the stories of the dead that he can offer them. Fangland is a biting satire of the world of Network News shows, that makes use of Bram Stoker's Dracula story to emphasis how removed the stories that appear on our television screens are from the real horrors that exist in our world.

John Marks' has created a world full of people who can't see beyond the artificial sets their interviews take place on and even when the real world intrudes in the shape of incalculable horrors they can only see it in terms of their own reality. Vampires steal the life blood of other creatures to continue their own existence - television news presents stories that have had their life blood drained from them, and both create a form of life that is neither living or dead.

February 25, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Three

It took what seemed forever and a day for the boys in blue to get finished with me that night. I guess I was lucky it was only the local boys and the R.C.M.P. didn't think it worth getting down off their high horses for a simple bar knifing. Probably if they had known what was behind it all they would have pried their saddles loose from their butts, but I'd been playing it close to the vest so far. As far as anybody could tell I was only another witness to a senseless act of random violence.

Well that's what I thought it looked like, but Ottawa's finest must have had other thoughts. The obligatory uniform had shown up twenty minutes after the first screams and in the meantime the bar had emptied quicker then a tourist's bowel in Mexico. By the time the boys from Homicide made it to the scene it was only me, the peelers, the girls who served the drinks and the bartender.

The bartender hadn't looked at all happy when I suggested we call the cops, but even he couldn't think of a way of disposing of this problem. While I had been phoning 911, he had been on the other line to his boss. The type of guy who owns these bars likes to know when the police are going to be visiting his premises just as a matter of principle. Usually it's to check whether the paperwork for the Eastern European girls' will be needed or not.

Sometimes the owners will give these girls an incentive for working by "holding" on to their documents for them – to keep both the girls and the documents from getting lost. Those girls usually have had someone do them the great favour of buying them a ticket out of their shit hole village in the Balkans and offering them a job in the "Entertainment and Hospitality" business. If they were lucky it only meant stripping.

But they didn't have to worry, the homicide dicks took one look at the seven inches of steel (it only looked like three to me, but the guys who write up the reports think the bigger the better, although I've always thought it's not the size that matters; dead after all is dead) sticking out of the guy's back and are immediately on to bigger fish to fry. Me.

McIntosh and Gates might have been nice people off the job, hell they probably were kind to widows and orphans and all that other good stuff too, but being homicide cops for twenty years can make you pretty jaded when it comes to the job. Thankfully they didn't dislike me personally, only on principle. Detective work should be left to the cops and private dicks should stick to ruining people's marriages was how Gates had summed it up the first time he met me. (I don't think he ever found out about the manila envelope full of prints of him and the little Russian stripper that his ex – wife had paid me two thousand dollars for)

"Look who it is Mac, the big time private detective holding up a bar with a corpse leaning on his size elevens. That's a sight to warm the cockles of a person's heart, providing of course they have one." He was a skinny little guy who looked like he should have a cigarette dangling out his mouth as he was always talking out of the other side.

"One what? A heart or a cockles?" was McIntosh's humorous reply. He was a regular laugh riot that guy. He was an average build sort of type; the kind whose clothes hang around them to see if anything interesting was going to happen to the body and gradually lose what ever shape they might have had as they give into the inevitability of gravity.

They were both eyeing me in that appreciative manner that lions have for fresh meat, and Mac mimed flipping a coin. Nodding in an unspoken agreement Gates moved off to talk to the girls and the bartender while Mac figured he'd keep me company in case the body started to scare me.

It was one of those awkward moments between two men in a bar ever since they had banned smoking in public places. When you don't have the action of lighting a cigarette to use as cover for starting a conversation you can feel mighty exposed. To cover he fished in his jacket pocket and brought out his little flip-top note book and cheap chewed pen and began scanning the notes he had taken down from the preliminary results given him by the scene of the crime boys and the uniforms who had got here first.

After that little show he looked over at me, nodding his head imperceptibly to give me permission to talk. He knew that it as a matter of course I would be telling him as little as possible about any case I was working on and the only information he was going to get from me was stuff he already had. This was just their way of letting me know what was what.

So I told him I'd come to the bar to meet a contact who had called me over the phone, and that while waiting for him to show up this guy had fallen down dead at my feet after trying to swallow a sword with his sternum. McIntosh obviously had something up his sleeve that he was waiting to drop on me like an Acme anvil taking out the Coyote. He was just letting me play out some line so that he could see if I'd let slip with anything he was going to be able to use to string me up with.

When he played his trump card it wasn't anything that I wasn't prepared for, it was all just part of the game we played. The corpse was my contact it turns out, or the fact that he had my business card, with the time of our meeting and the bar's address scribbled on the back of it would have to rank up there with one of the largest coincidences on record.

Mac stood there waving the familiar card with the unfamiliar writing on the back in it's little evidence bag, as if dangling it in front of my face would make me all of a sudden break down to confessing the killing of all my clients. But I was made of harder stuff than that and came right back with my own question.

"Since you seem to think this guy must have been a client, why not give me his name. I hate it when they die on you before they've introduced themselves. It really puts a damper on future relationship possibilities and collecting from their next of kin"

I could see him mulling it over, wondering how much it damage it would cause his reputation if he were just to give me the name. At the same time I could let something slip that might just tie me a little bit tighter to the corpse. Finally he cleared his throat and recited what little information they did have. "His name was Dr. Samuel Magnesun, but he's not the sort of doctor you go to when you have a sore throat. He works, well worked for I guess you'd say now, the National Research Council here in Ottawa. We haven't been able to find out what he'd been working on yet; we're still waiting to hear back from his section head at the Council. I hadn't said more then dead in a bar, when the words National Security came whistling down the line, which than went deader than a dodo."

He eyed me even more expectedly now, to see if I could add to anything to the sketch of information that he had gathered. Even if I could give him something more, I think we both had the feeling of inevitability that strikes you when something is going to be swept under the carpet. National Security could explain away everything from not accepting tenders for military equipment so you could award the contracts to your buddies or those whose support you, to explaining the paperclip shortage at the Revenue Canada offices.

Truth be told I was thinking of a particular Nordic looking blonde and wondering what her relationship was with this middle aged chap laid out on the floor with a rib separator jammed into the area of his heart from the back and whether or not she'd require some consoling, when a loud throat clearing brought me back to reality.

Reality in the shape of Gates glowering at me from McIntosh's shoulder and saying, "Dick head are you listening to me? Unless you got something important to say, you've got to clear out. I've just got the word that the men in the grey suits are on their way to check out the body before we can take it down to the morgue. I only hope they hurry it up as this guy is starting to stiffen in that shape. Families hate it when they have to bury the corpse in pieces cause we had to break it to fit it into the bags."

I don't need to be told twice to vamoose when the feds are going to be making an appearance, but their appearance started to change the whole completion of this little exercise. What did my friend the corpse, the late Mr. Magnesun have to do with the Kyoto accord? Had he made some sort of breakthrough that certain bodies wanted silenced? Or was it just he had knowledge that ran contrary to what the government and its supporters wanted the public to believe about the accord's necessity?

Stopping on my way out of the bar, I checked the least vandalised pay phone for a directory and as I suspected there was only one listing for a Magnesun in the phone book. It wasn't that late yet, so I figured I'd swing by the address listed on my way home and see if a certain ash blond head was around to talk to.

I could offer my condolences, maybe some comfort, and hopefully pick up a few answers about the good Doctor's work and how or if it related to the Kyoto accord and what it was she was doing in the bar earlier that evening. With the feds swooping down on Magnesun's corpse like so many vultures, it would only be a matter of time before they had everything about him and the Kyoto accord under lock and key where they would never see the light again.

I still had far more questions then answers, but at least I was beginning to know which questions to ask. Like why were the feds so keen to keep the information about the Kyoto accord quiet? One way or another I was going to find me some answers, and I didn't care who I had to walk over or sleep with to get them. Although as far as the latter is concerned my preference would be for a certain ash blond.

February 17, 2008

Movie Review: Bookie

Ask any writer what's harder to write, a short story or a novel, and you might be surprised at how many would tell you the short story. Sure novels get all the attention, and they take a certain amount of stamina to produce, but writing a short story takes very specific skills that many successful novelists lack. Fully realizing characters, and telling a story from beginning to end in under 10,000 words is far more daunting a task than most novice writers realize until they try.

The short film maker faces many of the same difficulties that the short story writer must overcome in order to be successful. In fact I would say his job is compounded by the fact that not only must he have a story that accomplishes all that a short story does, he or she is also faced with the daunting task of accommodating the needs of the medium.

A good movie needs to be visually entertaining as well as intellectually challenging, and it must be very difficult to accomplish both in a piece that's only eighteen minutes long. Unlike the guy whose shooting a feature film you can't linger over establishing shots or utilize any of the other cinematic techniques to set the mood or atmosphere that are common place in today's movies. Somehow or other you have to communicate all of that to the audience while the action of the movie takes place. It would be the equivalent of a writer somehow writing dialogue and descriptive passages simultaneously.
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Bookie, is a short movie from Persistence Of Vision Films directed by Tran Quoc Bao, that was completed in 2007. Set in Seattle Washington in 1963, it focuses on the action that takes place in and around a seedy night-club one evening. The club is owned by a local mobster, and aside from offering the standard music and booze, he also offers his clientele the services of an in house bookie. On this night in particular the bookie is swamped as a championship boxing match is being fought.

The bookie of the title, played by Ken Quitugua, has obviously been doing his job taking bets for his boss Jackson (Lester Purry), for some time now, and has lasted this long by not rocking the boat. He might not like what he sees sometimes, but he knows better than to go against his boss. Bookies don't gamble after all, they know only too well how the odds can be stacked against you. Tonight all that is going to change as "Bookie" will decide that sometimes the risk out weighs the gambol, and there are some bets worth taking.

It's a woman, of course, that brings about this change of heart. Billie (Angela Adto) is a waitress in the bar, who is supposedly Jackson's girl and off limits if you know what's good for you. Still there's only so long that a man can stand on the side lines, and when "Bookie" sees Billie being mistreated by Jackson he wants to help. He convinces her to bet on the upcoming fight, because it's a sure thing that the champ will win, and she can use her winnings to make a clean break from the bar.

When the champ goes down in the first round Billie accuses "Bookie" of setting her up for Jackson, because it's obvious that the boss either had the fight rigged or had known in advance what the result was going to be. Stung by her accusation that he would never do anything without Jackson's permission, and knowing it's the truth, he finally decides to take a chance. When he goes to collect the winnings for the one person who happened to place a winning bet he slips in a claim for Billie as well.

In the wrong hands this movie could have ended up a cliche with a very large C but director Bao and his actors have done a fine job in avoiding letting the movie descend to that level. Right from the start we see that "Bookie" isn't thrilled with what goes on around him when he attempts to interfere with a punishment beating two of the boss' enforcers are carrying out. Even when Jackson pulls him back into line, Ken Quitugua lets the camera see the shame and regret he feels because he gave in.

Throughout the movie, even as he's impassively taking bets for people, there's the impression that "Bookie" only needs the right push, and he will cross that line from safety into risk. In bits of conversation we hear him having with a customer, and his reaction to Jackson hitting Billie - where he begins to rise out of his seat but is stared down by the boss - we see his wish that he was something more than he is.
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While the other characters are mainly there as for "Bookie" to play off, Angela Adto as Billie is able to bring a nice touch of reality to her part. While naturally cynical and bitter because of her treatment at the hands of Jackson, she manages to convey something that shows why "Bookie" is willing to risk everything for her. She has a wonderful moment near the end of the film, where she is able to communicate volumes about the true nature of her character with just a smile.

That's really what makes the movie Bookie work; director Tran Quoc Bao's ability to elicit those little moments from his actors and then utilize them to propel the story to its conclusion. There's not a wasted moment in the film with every scene communicating a piece of information that is essential to telling the story. Although the consequences of "Bookie's" actions are inevitable, Bao manages to create a nice measure of suspense, and include a couple of surprises along the way. All in all, what he is able to accomplish in eighteen minutes is remarkable.

As befits its film noir atmosphere Bookie is shot in grainy black and white, and his use of shadow and light add nicely to the gritty atmosphere of the movie. In fact everything from the sets to the live music being performed by the band in the night club all make contributions to creating the atmosphere that gives the movie the edginess needed to make it work.

Like a well written short story Bookie manages to convey a lot in a little time. Its pacing is perfect, and its timing elegant; you couldn't ask for more from a short movie.

February 15, 2008

Book Review: Special Assignments Boris Akunin

Sometimes when an author writes a series of books featuring the same hero he or she gets lazy. In fact in quite a few cases the author merely tells the same story over and over again, but changes the scenery in the hopes that we'll be fooled by a different location or an occasional new character. It may take you a couple of stories to catch on, but sooner or later you'll find yourself being able to predict exactly how the story will unfold.

Mystery stories can be the worst culprits for this, as it seems once an author has found his formula for success she is unwilling to tamper with it. The lead character is worse than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their ability to always get their man (or woman as the case may be) with the only mystery being the reader's wonder as to why they bothered to read the book in first place when it was identical to the one before and the one before that.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule and there are some authors who are able to make each story featuring their character completely different from the previous one. What I've found in those cases is that the writer has the versatility to make each scenario that they place their character into unique enough that it allows us to view different facets of his or her personality with each outing.
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Such is the case with the stories by Russian author Boris Akunin that feature Erast Fandorin. In each of the four novels that Fandorin has been in to this point, Akunin has yet to allow his adventures to become formulaic. More importantly, in spite of Fandorin's obvious skills and special talents, he is never anything but human, as he is continually proving himself as fallible as the rest of us.

When last we left Fandorin, he had barely escaped with his life while solving the mystery surrounding the death of an old army comrade. After years of travel abroad, serving as an attaché in the Russian Embassy in Japan, he has once again settled in Moscow where he holds the title of Deputy to the Governor of Moscow for Special Assignments. It is his job to investigate those cases considered either too sensitive for the regular police force to handle or that the Governor decides to take a personal interest in. It's two cases of this type that Akunin's latest Fandorin novel is named for.

Special Assignments, published by Random House Canada, contains two full length novella's, each detailing a case of such a delicate nature that only Fandorin can be entrusted with their handling. In the Jack Of Spades he must track down a con-artist who has had the unimaginable gall to not only separate the elite of Moscow from their money, he does it in such a manner as to make them look like fools. Still it's only when Fandorin's boss becomes one of his victims that our erstwhile hero is called in to deal with the problem.

In previous books Akunin has used a third party as our eyes onto the investigation, and he employs that technique again here. Anisii Tulipov, is a young and timid courier in the police department, who can't believe his luck when Fandorin asks him to assist him in tracking down the elusive miscreant. Although he is in desperate awe of his new boss, it doesn't stop Tulipov from wondering at his peculiarities, including the fact that he appears to be living with another man's wife who makes Fandorin's life a living hell with her petty demands,

Of course there's also the fact that he and his Japanese man servant spend a good part of each morning before getting down to work beating each other up, either with their hands and feet or long wooden staffs. Young Tulipov starts his work day sitting in his master's study poring over the prior day's papers and police reports looking for any hint that the Jack of Spades is back in business. (So called because the knave will always leave a Jack of Spades at the scene of his hoax in order to let the world know he was responsible) Nobody knows what the elusive thief looks like as he is a master of disguise; once he was a war veteran confined to a wheelchair, another time an elderly notary, and yet a third time a dashing young nobleman.

Twice they almost have in their grasp, once when they find him running a fake lottery for charity where the prizes are deeds to properties in other countries, and the second when they set an elaborate trap for him and his accomplice. But he is too clever for them, and even strikes back by managing to steal all of Fandorin's temperamental mistress's possessions, guaranteeing a rather frosty work environment for Tulipov and a living hell for Fandorin.
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The Jack of Spades may embarrass people, and separate them from their money, but even Fandorin has a sneaking admiration for him and his abilities. The same can't be said for the creature they find themselves up against in The Decorator. A serial killer is loose on the streets of Moscow seemingly intent on doing the same work there as Jack The Ripper did in London, killing the prostitutes.

Akunin chillingly takes us into the mind of the person responsible and it's not a pleasant experience. According to this creature's way of thinking, removing its victims flesh and exposing their internal organs is improving their appearance. Internally we are all pristine, just like our creator made us, it's only on the outside that we are ever disfigured.

Fandorin knows that only someone wiith a knowledge of anatomy and experience using a scalpel, in other words someone with a least some medical training, could be responsible for this butchery, yet there are thousands of medical professionals of some sort or another in Moscow alone - they have to figure out a way of eliminating suspects.

Slowly but surely Fandorin and Tulipov start closing the net, but with each step they take towards the fiend, another person dies, and the bodies are no longer those of strangers, but of people they know. While they desperately try to predict where the fiend will strike next, we walk with the killer and are filled with the helplessness that goes with not being able to do anything about preventing a horrible hurt from happening.

The Decorator is not a nice story and there's none of the lightness of spirit that accompanied the Jack Of Spades. Although both stories feature Erast Fandorin as the central character they are as different from each other as night and day. Like the full length novels that have come before these two shorter stories Akunin has created situations that prevent his character from becoming stale or predictable.

In Special Assignments Akunin once again shows that he is a writer willing to take risks, and not afraid to make his hero look foolish. Well written and peopled with fully realized characters Akunin's stories are the benchmark against which other writers of detective or crime fiction should be set against.

Canadian readers wishing to obtain a copy of Special Assignments can purchase it either directly from the Random House Canada web site or from an on line retailer like Indigo Books

February 3, 2008

Book Review: Illustrated Stardust Neil Gaiman & Charlie Vess

Back in September of 2006 the books section of Blogcritics.org shone its spotlight on the British author and fantasist Neil Gaiman. In a period of about two weeks I ended up reading four novels, a couple collections of short stories, and one movie script. While I appreciated each individual title at the time, I have to admit that I was probably suffering from sensory overload before I was halfway through the pile of books resting beside my computer.

Neil Gaiman's writing is so vivid it's impossible to read his books without having your imagination stimulated to the extent that your mind's eye is flooded with imagery based on his writings. Anything from pictures of characters to panoramic vistas of strange landscapes could pop into your mind unbidden as you read through his work. It's no wonder that so many of his stories have either been created, or adapted by others, for graphic novels and film, if there was ever an author whose work cried out to be illustrated it's Neil Gaiman.

What's wonderful about Gaiman's work is that it ranges stylistically from the brooding urban fantasy of Neverwhere and Mirrormask to the near pastoral of Stardust. As a result there has been room for so much diversity in the pictorial representations of his work that no two works are have had the exact same look. Unlike some of his contemporaries whose work has the same feel pretty much all the time and becomes predictable after a while, you can never be sure what you're going to "see" when you begin reading a Neil Gaiman story.
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The first time I read Stardust a couple of years ago it was in a standard paper back edition that had line drawings and ornamentation scattered throughout the text, but it wasn't what you would call illustrated by any means. When the DVD version of the film was released I was impressed by their interpretation of the story and how they visualized it, but I felt there was still something lacking from the experience.

So when I found out the DC's graphic novel imprint Vertigo had released a new, fully illustrated version of Stardust last fall I was intrigued. Somehow, perhaps because it was published by Vertigo, I had assumed it was a graphic novel adaptation of the story, but it is a true illustrated version of the original text. Originally published as softcover this version is a deluxe, oversized, hardcover that not only reproduces all of Charlie Vess' original artwork, but comes with additional pieces that he created specifically for this publication.

Stardust, for those who are still unfamiliar with the story, tells of the adventures of Tristran Thorn and his quest into the land of faerie to retrieve a fallen star in order to win the hand of his true love in marriage. Along the way he meets many characters, both savoury and unsavoury, of whom the most important is Yvaine, the fallen star. While most people might have been deterred by the fact the object they set out to retrieve was in actual fact a person, Tristan initially remains resolute in his intent to return the star to his home in the village of Wall as proof of his devotion to his lady love.

Of course stories being what they are nothing goes according to plan, although everything works out fine in the end. Tristran grows up considerably, marries the love of his life, and learns a thing or two about life, the universe, and everything. In short it's your typical fairy tale, but as they say in the movies, it's rated for a mature audience because of adult subject matter. In other words the characters are anatomically correct and have sex. Something usually unheard of in fairy tales, but only stands to reason when you think about it - even people born under toad stools have to have parents, and the parents have to do something to ensure propagation of the species.

There's also a fair bit of what's now referred to as fantasy violence, what with evil witches and ambitious princes, all who will stop at nothing to get what they want, including, but not limited to, the heart of a fallen star. So there is a fair bit of stabbing, poisoning, hacking off of heads, entrails reading, and other similarly gruesome activity that when illustrated might prove a little too much for a younger audience.

Where a graphic novel tells a story relying in equal measure upon illustrations, text, and dialogue and an illustrated book will depict highlights from the text, this telling falls somewhere in between the two. This version of Stardust is so replete with black and white drawings and coloured paintings illuminating moments from the text and vividly depicting the setting, the story comes to life and almost jumps off the page.
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Charlie Vess' style of illustration is probably not what most fans of graphic novels are used to, as his work has more in common with 19th century water colour paintings than the bold colours and strong lines that have became the trademark of late 20th century fantasy art. But that doesn't stop him from being able to paint heart stoppingly beautiful landscapes, nor does it soften the blow of any of the violent or macabre scenes.

In fact they become somewhat even more disturbing when seen depicted in the muted colours of water-colour due to our own expectations of the medium. I know for myself that normally I would associate that style with pastoral images or something equally peaceful and sublime in nature. So the contrast between the style and the act depicted makes the violence even more unsettling than if the realism we're accustomed to with graphic novels was used.

However, the real highlights of this book remain the full page spreads that depict various locales in the story. There is a wonderful painting of the market which is a delight to spend time lingering over, because the longer you look the more you see, as details that weren't visible immediately appear. In fact that's a characteristic of Vess' style in general, there is always much more to any of the paintings then at first meets the eye, and it definitely pays to linger over all of his drawings.

Now I realize I've not said much about the story itself, and what sort of job the author has done. In short, (for more details may I direct you to my Stardust review of while ago) it is not only a wonderful romantic adventure story told with a great deal of humour and intelligence, it also understands the difference between romantic sentimentality and genuine emotion. Without preaching or moralizing Gaiman very gently lets us know a few important things about growing up, and how being true to yourself is still more important than almost anything else in the world.

For those of you who have never read Stardust and to those of you who have only read it in the regular book form, I would suggest that you have not really experienced the story to it's fullest until you read the illustrated version from Vertigo. It may cost more than other editions, but for what you get, I'd say its worth every penny, and probably more so. It's the perfect example of how a wonderful story is made exquisite by the right illustrations.

January 30, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere Mike Carey & Genn Fabry

For as long as we've been telling stories, we've been adapting them to other media in attempts to gain a different perspective on what the story has to offer. From the moment the first actor stepped out of the chorus to start "performing" the myths and stories of Ancient Greece to the film adaptations of popular novels today almost every mode of artistic expression has turned to the written (or spoken word) for inspiration.

The visual arts in the West have always had a long association with literary adaptations, as painting. sculpture, and other modes of representation were preoccupied with interpretations of the Christian Bible for hundreds of years. Even when they moved on to more secular subject matter it wasn't uncommon for artists to draw upon imagery from classical literature for their subject matter.

Of course the use of illustrations in literary works to augment a story is an even older tradition, as the earliest manuscripts, predating the printing press, were filled with decoration and ornamentation. One only has to look at any page from the Book Of Kells to appreciate that. Of course more prosaic forms of the illustrated novel have also existed for some time, but it wasn't until the means of mass producing printed material became common that the illustrating of books began in earnest.

Harry Clarke, perhaps most famous for his stained glass, and Aubrey Beardsley both had great success with illustrating the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With the introduction of the comic book in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the practice of telling stories with pictures and words became commonplace. I can still remember as a child the Classic imprint that specialized in abridged adaptations of classic childhood adventure stories by authors such as Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson.
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So it's no surprise that as comic books have become more sophisticated and broadened their audience base to include adults as well as children, that their literary adaptations have grown accordingly. Of course the work of some authors lends itself more readily to this form than others; the chances of seeing a graphic novel version of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe are probably slim while it wasn't surprising to find that an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere had been produced by Vertigo, the DC comics' graphic novel imprint.

As with most comic/graphic work, the adaptation of Neverwhere is dependant on the quality of its illustrations as much as, if not more than, the writing for its ability to tell the story. Like a movie or a play, the graphic novel is a synthesis of the visual and the literary arts. In some respects it's an even purer form than the others, because it only has those two elements at it's disposal, while the others can utilize sound and visual trickery that's not available to those working in a static format.

The story of Neverwhere is deceptively simple. Richard Mayhew is your typical office drone working in London England. His life consists of work and doing what his fiancee instructs him to do. He drifts along in this manner until one day he stops to help a young woman who he sees lying injured on the sidewalk. This moment of compassion will change his life forever.

The young woman he helps turns out not to be from the London he knows, but a London that exists underneath the city he is familiar with. Her name is Lady Door and we quickly find out that she is in serious trouble indeed. Her whole family has been killed by persons unknown and she's desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the killers until she can find out who was responsible for ordering the killings.

Although Richard initially doesn't become involved with Lady Door's quest, he soon finds he has no choice in the matter. Once he has been exposed to the world of the London below, he finds that the people in his own London no longer recognize his existence. Not only has his job disappeared, but his Bank card has stopped working, and his apartment is being rented out from under him. In desperation he seeks a way to find the Lady Door again, hoping that she can find a way for him to regain his old life.

He joins Lady Door and her companions and sets out on the quest to help her find the one who ordered her family killed. As the journey continues Richard grows and rediscovers his sense of self worth, and value as an individual that had been trampled under foot by his fiancee and the realities of working a boring office job. Although he spends a good deal of his time scared out of his wits, and wishing he were back in his London. he is more alive then ever.
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The author and the illustrator have done an amazing job in both telling the story and creating a visual representation of the world it takes place in. While they have had to streamline and leave out some bits from the original novel to accommodate the medium, they have done so without sacrificing any of the elements essential to the tale. What I found especially powerful was their willingness to let the illustrations speak for themselves and tell the story pictorially in places.

There are some truly wonderful moments, where they have elected to use large panels that succeed in both setting the scene and generating the atmosphere of the moment without any dialogue. It's times like these when you realize what makes this media so special, and how potent great visuals can be. With one or two panels they are able to accomplish what would take an author three to four pages to describe.

To my mind Glenn Fabry's illustrations captured the world Neil Gaiman described in his book perfectly. While I never develloped any clear idea of what individual characters would look like, I had an image in mind of what I thought the world should look and feel like. Fabry was able to capture the essence and atmosphere of the world perfectly. A sort of 19th century England gone to seed mixed with a strong sense of the exotic and fantastic thrown in for good measure.

For those of you who are fans of Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere and are looking for a visual adaptation of the novel, Vertigo's presentation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Glenn Fabry is the perfect solution. It's as exciting as the original story, and superbly illustrated. What more could you ask for?

January 26, 2008

Book Review: Un Lun Dun China Mieville

If you've ever been to one of the older cities in Europe, Paris, London, or Rome you'll know what it's like to feel the weight of history bearing down on you when you walk through certain parts of the city. There are areas in those cities and certain others where humans have lived for well over a thousand years, and in some instances even longer. I remember getting off the plane in Athens - after fifteen hours in transit - walking out of the airport and almost being bowled over by the weight of history that came from seeing the Acropolis the first time.

London may not be as old as Athens, or even Rome, but there are parts of it where you feel like if you turn a corner you'd all of a sudden drop into another time, almost another world. Enter into one of the twisty back alleys that run off any of the main streets that make up the old City Of London, and there's the feeling if you only knew the right way of looking you'd be able to see into them.

In a great many of these older cities the new buildings, the new city itself in some places, has been built over top of the remains of its older versions. Catacombs that were once streets where a city's populace carried out their lives can be found buried beneath many a city in Europe; empty caverns of brick and mortar patiently waiting to be useful again.
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It's little wonder that authors have been inspired to create stories that centre around alternative or separate versions of these cities. The most recent of these stories is China Mieville's strange and wonderful Un Lun Dun published by Random House Canada through it's Del Rey imprint.

Un Lun Dun exists somewhere where London isn't; maybe beside it, maybe beneath it, at the very least near by enough so things, and occasionally people, slip through for a visit or to stay. Most of what comes through is Mildly Obsolete In London, referred to by Un Lun Duners as moil. Anything left lying around that is considered junk by Londeners, old computers, the out of date fridge, even vinyl records, will eventually make its way into Un Lun Dun where it will be put to good use as building materials.

Zanna and her best friend Deeba are ordinary twelve year old girls in ordinary London, who notice that extraordinary things are starting to happen to Zanna. How many times have you had a fox come up to you in your school yard and bow to you? Or a bus driver approach you in the coffee shop where you and your friends are sitting after school and stammer out how pleased to meet you she is and call you by the title of Shwazzy. To make matters worse the very next day a post man was waiting for Zanna outside her house when she went to school with a note saying, we'll see you soon, and a pass for what looks to be strange version of the London Transit system, in the name of Shwazzy!

Well as you can guess Zanna and Deeba are drawn into Un Lun Don where they learn of the prophesy that foretells the coming of the Swazzy who will defeat the Smog. The book of Prophesies describes Zanna down to the last letter, and as the book says himself - everything written in him is either true or will be true. But then something goes horrible wrong and it's up to Deeba to save the day.

At first that means getting Zanna safely home to London, but it ends up with Deeba being the one who is called upon to protect the Un Lun Duners from the horrible plans of Smog and its allies who want to take over the city. So she returns to Un Lun Dun where she's joined by a band of motley followers who to set out on a quest for the one weapon that can defeat the The Smog - The Un- Gun.

China Mieville has created a world that is filled with strangeness, beauty, and wondrous oddities. Creatures come to life made from the words that one character speaks, carnivorous packs of giraffes roam the streets at night looking for prey, highly skilled guards known as binja's, (trash bins that are ninja warriors), Black Window Spiders (windows with eight legs that guard the treasures of Webminster Abbey), and of course Hemi the half ghost boy who becomes Deeba's closest companion (his mother was a ghost and his father alive).

These are just a small sampling of those who inhabit Un Lon Dun. Just as in our world some act like they do because that's just who they are, the flesh eating giraffes and the Black Windows, while others act just like humans in spite of their inhuman appearances. It means that in turn they are brave, afraid, mean, gentle, and all the rest of the things that qualify a being to be considered rational and aware - even if they are a book of prophesies or an old fashioned diving suit named Skool that turns out to be filled with water and fish.
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At first no one is prepared to listen to Deeba, after all the book of prophesies describes her as the Swazzy's funny sidekick, so who is going to take her seriously, and believe her when she tries to warn them of the threat they are under. But as she and her companions have more and more success, and are finaly able to collect the Un Gun, Deeba is gradually accepted and eventually becomes the leader of the resistance against Smog.

Un Lun Dun is not only a wonderfully funny, exciting, and even a little bit sad and scary, story for people of all ages, it also has a really nice message that I'd hope young people, and others too for that matter, can pick up on. No matter what anyone says about you, or what other people believe you are capable of, you make your own destiny and control your own fate. For although it is written that Zanna is the Swazzy who will save Un Lun Dun, it is Deeba who must find the courage within herself to confront not only her fears, but the evil minions of Smog and eventually Smog himself.

China Mieville includes a thank you to Neil Gaiman in his acknowledgements, where he make reference to Mr/ Gaiman's book Neverwhere. While it's true that both books take place in alternative Londond, they really don't have all that much else in common. While Un Lun Dun might have it's scary moments, there's nothing of the nightmare quality or atmosphere that prevails in Neverwhere. Un Lun Dun seems a much friendlier place, one you'd be more inclined to want to visit again, than the alternative setting in Neverwhere

Un Lun Dun is the work of a mind with a vivid imagination, a remarkably strange sense of humour, and on top of that is a wonderful adventure story filled with great characters and some truly bizarre locations. If you have the ability to suspend your disbelief, and a taste for the fantastic, than Un Lun Dun should definitely be on your reading list.

China Mielville's Un Lun Dunwill be released on January 29th 2008 and Canadian readers can pick up a copy of either directly from Random House Canada or through an online retailer like href="http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/">Indigo Books

December 30, 2007

Book Review: The Death Of Achilles Boris Akunin

According to myth Achilles had been dipped in magical waters as a babe rendering him invincible to harm by any weapon wielded by human arm. But when he was submerged in the magic waters, there was one place where the waters failed to cover; the heel that was held by the hand of the one dunking him. Thus the one place that Achilles could be harmed was his heel.

Today when we speak of a person's weakness, or a point at which they are particularly vulnerable, we refer to it as their Achilles heel, in memory of the myth. But Achilles was one of the greatest of the warriors who fought for Greece in the Trojan War. Flamboyant with his golden armour, he was headstrong and bold in battle and captured the imaginations of his soldiers.

For a soldier to be christened Achilles by public acclaim, in honour of his exploits on the battlefield, implies that he too is dashing and bold. It would have no place on the battlefields of today, where Generals serve safely in the rear, spending the lives of their countrymen with minimal risk to themselves. But in 19th century Russia, when generals led the charge into the teeth of cannon fire, they were still the stuff Romantic heroes were made from and more apt to capture the public's imagination.

In Boris Akunin's fourth book translated into English recounting the adventures of Erast Fandorin, The
Death Of Achilles
, six years have passed since our hero was last in Moscow, and by the time of his return from his posting in Japan, the annual clock has struck 1882. Any gains that the Holy Russian Empire made in her wars with the Turks have been rolled back by a Europe unified in its wish to contain her power and sphere of influence. But to the populace of Russia, General Michel Sobolev, the dashing hero of the earlier book The Turkish Gambit is still their Achilles.
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Erast's delight upon finding that his old friend the general is staying in the hotel that he had just checked into is quickly tempered upon his reporting for work in his new capacity of special assistant to the Governer-general of Moscow for special cases. His first investigation turns out to be an inquiry into the death of the hero of the Empire.

Although "Achilles" is found in his room, sitting in a chair, having been felled apparently by a heart attack. Erast is quick to realize there is something amiss. First of all the good general had not died in situ, and what they found in his chambers had been carefully staged in the hopes of creating that impression. In spite of the general's staff attempts to deter Fandorin from investigating further, by one after another challenging him to duels, he perseveres and traces the generals movements of the night in question.

It seems he died in the arms of a "professional woman" and his staff have only tried to preserve his reputation. While that maybe true, in as far as what occurred following the general's demise, Fandorin has doubts about the "naturalness" of the heart attack. Sobolev was known for his devotion to staying fit, even when not on active duty, and had shown no signs of ill health until that moment. There is more to the death of General Sobolev than meets the eye, and Erast's powers of observation are quick to start assembling the clues.

While the nation prepares to bury her hero with full state honours, Fandorin begins his investigation into what he thinks is the murder of his old friend. It quickly becomes apparent that their are layers within layers to this crime. Like the dolls that Russia is famed for, open one and find an identical but smaller version lying within, there are many times he thinks a conclusion is imminent, only to have the husk fall away and find himself no closer to a final solution.

With plots and intrigues that lead our intrepid hero on a chase that leads from the lowest criminal class to the highest echelons of power, The Death Of Achilles is Akunin's most complex novel of the series. He does strike an almost discordant note at about the two - third point in the novel when for what appears to be no apparent reason the narrative switches location and time to a small village in the Caucasus mountains. But it comes clear in the end as it turns out to be the story of Fanorin's adversary in the matter at hand.

Not only is this story within the story an extraordinary character study; how a man who started as a child like anyone else became an amoral murderer, but it allows Akunin the opportunity to reveal the true movers behind the conspiracy against the general, and the truly precarious position Fandorin is in. A government will go to great lengths to dispose of a "nation's hero" when they deem him a threat. Even while they praise him with funeral orations, they are taking steps to ensure his killers are never caught.

Erast had set out in good faith to seek out the murderer of his friend supposing he was doing his nation a great service. In spite of the fact that all the engines of the state are being brought to bear in an effort to prevent him from succeeding, he tracks down and corners his enemy. Little does he realize that his accomplishment could mean the end of his life, and not at the hands of the assassin.

Akunin has written another masterpiece of detection and mystery, and even though the plot this time is by far his most complex, he shows himself as deft as ever in ensuring that it never becomes convoluted or unbelievable. In fact the circumstances of this story ring only too true to the modern reader the least bit familiar with the lengths governments will go to preserve their secrets.

With each instalment of the series the character of Fandorin continues to grow as a person and become increasingly fascinating to observe. Even though Erast occasionally appears next to superhuman with his powers of observation and physical skills, he is very human underneath and bears emotional scars that most of us would find far too overwhelming a burden to bear. In fact his dedication to physical and mental exercise can be seen as a means of sublimating his emotions, making him as fascinating a character study as that other clinical and calculating detective of the 19th century, Sherlock Holmes.

While Conan-Doyle may not have meant for us to ever see beneath the surface of his sleuth, Akunin allows his character moments of introspection so we see him with his guard down, and his armour off. It's those moments, as well as Akunin's ability as a storyteller, that will sustain a reader's interest to the extent that you will be eagerly awaiting the next recounting of the adventures of Erast Fandorin.

Canadians wishing to purchase a copy of the The Death Of Achilles by Boris Akunin can do so by either ordering it directly from Random House Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 29, 2007

Book Review: Murder On The Leviathan Boris Akunin

When we last saw Boris Akunin's erstwhile hero Erast Fandorin, he was disappearing from view out the window of a railway car that was heading back to Mother Russia from the battlefields of the Russo -Turkish wars. A beautiful young woman was surprised to find that her eyes were unable to keep him in focus as they were being clouded by tears. She knew that he and she were to be irrevocably parted, not in the least because the man she was sharing a carriage with was her husband to be, but also because Erast was off to Japan where he was about to begin his seven year term as an assistant counsel in the Russian embassy.

Young Erast's mood was particularly despondent, because although he had succeeded in catching the spy who was intent on foiling Russia's military victory, and the Empire had vanquished her opponents in the field; the victories were pyrrhic. All of Europe were prepared to stand in opposition to the terms of the peace treaty, and the spy had achieved his real long term goal of creating the opportunity for his chosen man to take the reigns of power in Turkey.

So even while all around him are celebrating the Empire's great victory, Erast sees the truth has no desire to return to Russia. As he prepares himself for the journey that will take him from the battlefields of Eastern Europe to the island Empire of Japan, events in a secluded house in Paris, France are unfolding that will turn his expected relaxing sea voyage into an event every bit as perilous as his stay on the Russian Front.

A ghastly murder/robbery has taken place, where all eleven inhabitants of a household are found murdered and a valuable object d'art has been stolen. Although it is quickly figured out that the ten servants had been poisoned, and their master bludgeoned to death, mystery surrounds the crime. How was the culprit, or culprits, able to subdue all ten servants without a struggle? Why is the only item of value stolen recovered within twenty-four hours; fished out of the Seine river by a young lad.
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The gold statuette of Shiva was valued at easily half a million francs, so to find it discarded, blood spattered and stained, like your typical murder weapon that was grabbed on the spur of the moment by a surprised intruder, is yet another mystery for Commissioner Gustave Gauche of Special Crimes section of the Paris Police. His only clue to the identity of the murderer is the emblem of a golden whale that he finds clutched in the bludgeoned victim's hand; as if in his final struggles he had been able to rip from his killer's clothing.

It turns out that this trinket had been especially made and minted for handing out to all first class passengers who intended to travel on the maiden voyage of the S. S. Leviathan, departing Southampton in England and bound for Calcutta. What Gauche had hoped would be an easy process of elimination turns out to be a far more difficult matter than first anticipated. Over a hundred first class tickets had been sold, and could have been purchased anywhere between Southampton and Constantinople. Thus, we find him, at the beginning of Boris Akunin's Murder On The Leviathan, standing by the gangplank scrutinizing one Erast Fandorin, first class passenger, as he boards ship at Port Said en route to Tokyo via Calcutta. As his whale is not clearly visible, our Gauche quickly adds him to his collection of ten suspects, and ensures Erast is assigned to the Salon reserved for the detective and his suspects.

If there is not a specific genre of murder/mystery for passengers on a train or cruise ship, there probably should be. Agatha Chrisite used the setting to great success in Murder On The Orient Express (train) and Death On The Nile (steam ship). It immediately creates a wonderful atmosphere of suspense and paranoia with its "one of us is the murderer" scenario, and allows for wonderful displays of character interaction, abundant use of red herrings, and of course the piece de resistance of "the unveiling of the murderer".

Akunin proves himself an adept of the genre as he pulls out all the stops. From his choice of ten for the number to inhabit the salon, (a nod to Christie's Ten Little Indians no doubt) to the "types" selected. The foreigner, a Japanese man who has been studying in France, the addled British aristocrat, the young pregnant bride travelling to reunite with her husband, the prim, single woman on just this side of spinsterhood, the seemingly respectable ship's doctor and his wife, a professor of Indology (remember the statue of Shiva used as the blunt instrument), the ship's Lieutenant (a bronzed, buffoon in our good Commissioner's estimation and not really a suspect but the captain's representative at the table), Erast Fandorin, and of course the Commissioner himself. All in all as classic an arrangement of people and circumstances if it had been ripped from Dame Agatha's notebook.

Of course Akunin has added his own deft touches. In Christie's novels bigotry and British moral superiority are taken as fact (Ten Little Indians was originally /i>), but on board this ship they are no more tolerated than the plague or any other ugly infestation. It's astounding how quickly the Japanese gentleman goes from being the prime suspect to a respected individual once it is discovered he is a doctor fully versed in Western medicine.

As in The Turkish Gambit the narrative is not from Fandorin's point of view. Through out the course of the novel we see him through the eyes of of his fellow passengers. Whether through diary entries, the British aristocrat and the Japanese gentleman both keep journals, or interactions with him told from another character's perspective, we not only see that our young hero is starting to recover some of his ebullience, although still primarily taciturn, and that he has lost none of his powers of observation.

But what's even more interesting is what each of the characters, reveal about themselves in their written observations or their internal reactions to Erast. The inferences he draws from every new revelation, his disconcerting habit of speaking the truth, or his reaction to their stratagems, elicit responses that are interesting and revealing. He must be some kind of a pervert is the young bride's conclusion, when she attempts to seduce him as a test of his character of course, and he cooly rejects her advances.

Akunin's plot follows as many switch-backs as a steep mountain road. During the course of the Leviathan's cruise through the Suez canal and into the Indian Ocean the picture clarifies, and the object of the original crime is revealed: a literal king's ransom of jewels is at stake. One of their number is a ruthless killer who has already killed eleven people in their quest for what is estimated to be worth 55 million Francs of precious stones - what's to prevent him or her from eliminating whomever they feel poses a threat?

When the Indologist succumbs to a slit throat, at the very moment he's about to reveal a clue to the treasure's whereabouts - tensions heighten. Who among them is the next potential victim or worse yet the murderous villain? Murder On The Leviathan proves once again that not only is Akunin a master story teller, but he is an adroit student of the various genres of crime and detective fiction. Perhaps, best of all, his affection for the material is so obvious that it is impossible not to be caught up in the fun.

Canadian readers wishing to travel the seven seas with Akunin and Erast Fandorin can either order a copy of Murder On The Leviathaneither directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

December 28, 2007

Book Review: The Turkish Gambit Boris Akunin

Can there be no more inspiring a sight then a brave young captain of the hussars atop his charger leading his men into battle? His uniform gleaming white in the sun as his charger ploughs a furrow in enemy ranks and his sabre reaps its deadly harvest scything from side to side, separating a head from its shoulders here, cleaving another like a melon, while flashing like God's own thunderbolt brought down upon in retribution on heathen heads, he can not fail to stir the passions and the blood of any true Russian.

Is there no sight more likely to crush the heart to see his proud body brought down by a seemingly insignificant hole in the sacred white of his tunic? The new scarlet ribbon will be his final battlefield decoration - and although it attests to his courage as surely do all the other gilding upon the white canvas of his cloth combined - is not the cost paid for its awarding too high? One among the thousands of lives spent on the empty and endless road to Constantinople; a road that is destined to be denied Holy Mother Russia by either Turkish arms or European deceit.

Why even now, the Europeans are plotting ways to take away the gains that the blood of that brave hussar paid for. After eight hundred years of living under Turkish yoke the Christian states of Romania, and Serbia were liberated and guaranteed independence, and a new principality for Bulgaria has been established. But instead of celebrating the deeds of their brothers in Christ, the duplicitous Europeans - led by the nefarious British - are even now plotting to overturn the victories their armies had failed to accomplish in crusade after crusade.
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But I see from the confusion that clouds your visage that I have jumped to the conclusion without giving you the benefit of the story that led up these events. As the full details are available for all to read in Boris Akunin's famous recounting The Turkish Gambit I will offer a truncated version here and encourage you to seek his detailed accounting at your leisure.

As is the case with all great histories this one has innocent beginnings; for what could be more innocent than the love of a woman for her betrothed? It's 1877 and all those who believe in the greater glory of Russia, be they reformers seeking rights for peasants or nobles of the court, know that their duty lies with the army fighting the infidel Turk. Young Varya Suvorova, whose heart overflows with her love of Russia and her desire to bring democracy to the people in equal measure, takes it upon herself to travel from St. Petersburg to the front so that she might rejoin her fiancee.

Disguising her womanly charms within the garb of a young man, she almost succeeds in making the journey without trouble, but fate in the shape of a dishonest guide finds her stranded, penniless in a roadside tavern of the worst sort in Romania. If not for the intervention of a mysterious young Russian she could have met with the sort of fate she had hopped her disguise would prevent. When she discovers that the mount he secures for her was won by betting her against it she is furious; a fury that is only doubled when she learns the identity of her saviour.

He is none other than Erast Fandorin, the hero of an earlier adventure recounted by our narrator in The Winter Queen where he uncovered a nefarious plot to place spies in positions of power and influence in governments around the world, a member of the special police assigned to protect the state from forces that would seek to do it harm. To Varya's way of thinking this makes him a lackey of the throne and an enemy of those like her who seek to change the system for the greater good of the people. So in spite of the fact that he saves her honour not once but twice before they have even reached her destination - she takes a decidedly frosty attitude towards the diffident young man with the stammer and prematurely white temple hair. (Those of you aware of the sad end to Erast's previous adventure, on what should have been the happiest day of his life, know full well the cause of those two slight imperfections to his appearance and manner)

While Varya is at the front in order to follow her heart, Fandorin is there to continue the hunt that started his career. The master mind behind the Turkish strategy both on the field of battle and domestically is the mysterious Anwar-enfendi, one of the spies who had infiltrated the highest reaches of government. Fandorin's mission is complicated by the fact that no one in the West knows anything about him save reputation and name; finding him might well be a task even beyond our hero's talents.
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But when Russian battle plans are first tampered with, and then betrayed Fandorin knows that there can only be one culprit responsible. When Varya's betrothed comes under suspicion and is arrested, Fandorin knows he is innocent but will have to prove it to save an innocent man's life. But he now has a willing assistant in the shape of Varya, who is desperate to free her fiancee. But is Varya, who prides herself for her intellect, willing to take advantage of her comely shape, one that has already attracted much comment and attention from the flower of Russian manhood far from home, hearth, and female companionship, in order to investigate the matter?

Already she has felt herself be torn between being flattered or insulted by the attention, and indeed has been forced to remonstrate with herself quite fiercely after each occasion that she has been the cause of a duel (one which resulted in the death of a suspect) and been mortified at finding her modern mind unable to prevent her heart from being thrilled and flattered by the attention. But who she wonders, would not be made weak at the knees from the examples of male pulchritude on display.

While Varya is lamely fending off admirers with increasingly feeble reminders of her status as a woman already spoken for, she also observes how her benefactor Fandorin conducts himself in the course of his enquires. What puzzles her most is while quite naturally she continues to loathe him as an enemy of the people, and feel nothing but the deepest of devotion for her fiancee, how is it that she looks forward to Erast's return when he is absent, and indeed is forced to restrain an urge to fling her arms around his neck upon his return from a particularly protracted absence.

As narrator of the events contained with The Turkish Gambit Boris Akunin (alias for Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) once again has proven himself not only a master raconteur with a deft hand for developing character and a devious mind for plots, but also a fine eye and ear for style and caricature. While those who populate the pages of this story at times might appear larger than life in gentle satire of 19th century Russian literature, he never once lets them descend into the pit of buffoonery. At any time one or the other of them might rise to an occasion magnificently, proving that behind what appeared to be bluster was in fact an open heart, a brave soul, or a superior intellect.

I'm sure that at some time in our lives, all of us have been touched by the romantic illusion generated by the gallant figure of a cavalry officer perched atop his rearing horse urging his troop onward into the valley of death with cannon to the left and cannon to the right. Somehow their uniforms and courage rendered them in our minds invulnerable to bullets and the gore of war. Akunin has turned that image into a human being, not letting their charm or uniform serve as a barrier to musket fire or cannonade.

The second book of the adventures of Erast Fandorin is easily as enthralling as its predecessor, and we gain a different perspective of our young hero as we see him through the eyes of another character for the first time. The cloak of sadness that he wears reminds us of his recent sorrow without once having to bring it up in detail, and offers sufficient motivation for his behaviour and his zeal in tracking down the elusive Anwar-enfendi.

The promise that was shown with the Winter Queen of a series of books that would be both fun and insightful has more than been matched its sequel The Turkish Gambit. I can't help looking forward now to the next instalment in the adventures of Erast Fandorion.

Canadian wishing to purchase a copy of The Turkish Gambit may do so directly from Random House Canada or through an online retailer like Amazon.ca

December 26, 2007

Book Review: The Winter Queen Boris Akunin

North Americans of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have grown up with a horribly skewed impression of Russia. Years and years of indoctrination have caused us to dismiss one the oldest and most complex civilizations in history as simply the enemy without knowing or even attempting to understand its history or culture. Ever since the Western powers conspired to overthrow the popular revolution of 1918 by sending in troops to try and restore the Tsar to power, it's been an us and them situation that's only ever briefly abated.

The time it did abate was the one period in the last century when it appeared Russia was willing to bend its knee to the will of the west. But the moment the current government began to think for itself, to put its interests ahead of the interests of the West, the assault upon their character began again. Fear of the old Soviet Union shaped American foreign policy for fifty years, causing them to overthrow legitimate governments, prop up dictators, fight unpopular wars, and forge alliances that have since come back to haunt them. It's to be hoped that their reaction to the new Russian national pride won't be as extreme and they won't be as quick to judge Russia by their own standards.

But even back in the days before the Revolution, and all the crowned heads of Europe were still related to each other, Russia was considered different. Being on a different calendar, the Russian Orthodox differed by twelve days, practising another form of Christianity, and speaking a language with a different alphabet was enough to make them as alien to most Europeans as if they were from the Ottoman Empire of the Turks.
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The oddity was the result this seemed to have upon the character of the educated Russian and the nobility. Where one might have expected an outburst of fervent nationalism as a reaction, instead the trend was to emulate the trends and styles of their cousin courts. It was common practice for the educated Russian to be at least fluent in French, if not German and English as well. Even after Napoleon had attempted to expand his empire into the Motherland, capturing Moscow in the process, a knowledge of French was considered de rigour for acceptance among the sophisticated and the elite.

So the fact that Erast Fandorin, a lowly clerk in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Russian Police in the 1870's, would speak fluent French, English, and German would not be considered too out of the ordinary. If there is anything out of the ordinary about Fandorin, it's the fact that he is a character in a book written by contemporary Russian author Boris Akunin and not someone brought to life by Tolstoy, Gorky, or Checkov during the nineteenth century.

Written in Russian in 1998, and translated into English in 2004 by Andrew Bromfield, Akunin's first Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, could easily pass for the work of one of those great masters in tone and sensibility, while at the same time possessing a uniqueness of character and voice that sets it apart. Much like Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Allatriste novels set in seventeenth century Spain, The Winter Queen pokes affectionate fun at the quirks of style and the modes of expression used in his predecessors' masterpieces.

Akunin, (Boris Akunin is the pseudonym used by Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) aside from being a novelist is a translator of Japanese, a critic, and an essayist in his native Russia. Since he began publishing the detective novels that feature Erast Fandorin in the central role, he has become the most widely read author in Russia and enjoys almost legendary popularity. So far ten stories featuring the adventures of the young hero of The Winter Queen have been published in Russia, of which four have been translated into English with the fifth due out in February of 2008.

But every hero has to have his or her origins, and in the case of Erast they are of the humblest. Although born into a genteel family, his mother died during his infancy and his father had squandered the entire family fortune and his life in such timely a fashion as to leave young Erast an orphan at nineteen, forcing him to seek gainful employment instead of continuing his studies at the university like other's of his generation.

Having sat his exams for government service, and passed with flying colours, he was appointed to his current position at his own request. Our first impressions of him as a romantic, ignorant of the workings of the criminal world, is based on the opinion of his superior. While it may be accurate based on his relaxed and old fashioned view of the world, we quickly realize that it was biased and unfair when Fandorin takes the lead in investigating the mysterious public suicide of a young aristocrat.

Fandorin's worth seems to become apparent when his first boss is replaced by an official from St. Petersburg who immediately promotes our hero and lets him carry the investigation abroad when he discovers a trail that leads to England. Through chance and his own ingenuity Fandorin uncovers a web of intrigue and betrayal that leads into the highest chambers of powers in capital cities around the world.
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But will he survive long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery and uncover the true mastermind behind the deceit? Twice he has escaped death at the hands of the villains, and that was before he had even come close to pulling aside the curtain to reveal the hands controlling the levers. Who knows what lengths they will go to in order to prevent our stalwart from reaching the final stage of the investigation?

While readers who are not accustomed to the style being emulated by Akunin in The Winter Queen may be slightly nonplussed initially, once they accustom themselves to it they will find it quite enjoyable. Personally I've always had an affection for the naturalistic style of the nineteenth century, having some of the same predilections for adjectives and descriptive phrases, but I know most modern readers have grown used to terse texts that deliver just the facts at the expense of colour and may find the prose a shade of purple not quite to their liking. But I say to you persevere; put aside your prejudices and let yourself be seduced. A world of pleasure awaits you that you may never have experienced before.

Don't let memories of struggles to read War And Peace hold you back, Boris Akunin's work never descends to that level of turgid immobility. (And nobody has more then two names thank goodness - I spent the first half of War And Peace under the impression there were twice as many characters in the story as actually existed because of Tolstoy's propensity for diminutives, and even worse, second, third and even fourth names for some characters) He may have stylized his work in the manner of the nineteenth century but his pacing is pure twentieth and twenty-first, meaning the action moves along briskly and with enthusiasm.

If The Winter Garden is any indication of the type of fun that's in store from the rest of Boris Akunin's novels featuring Erest Fandorin, then there are hours of pleasure awaiting readers. He has somehow managed to balance the floweriness of nineteenth century naturalism with enough twentieth century realism to create a confection of wit and intelligence that won't set your teeth on edge with it sweetness nor purse your lips with its acridness. It's such a harmonious meeting of style and culture that it could serve as an example to many governments how seemingly disparate elements can coexist with ease.

If you live in Canada you can purchase a copy of The Winter Garden either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 16, 2007

Book Review: 9 Tail Fox Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I've never quite understood why it is that science fiction and fantasy writers ever feel the need to create brand new worlds from scratch. It seems like such a waste of time considering the wealth of material that's at their fingertips if they were only to look into the stories of the various people of this planet. Even staying within our own culture you can find some pretty amazing stuff.

How much more fantastic can you get than a guy dying and then coming back from the dead three days later? And that's just for starters. Of course people have mined the tale of King Arthur until its been bled white, but what about the Vikings, the Greeks, and the Romans? The Gods and Goddesses alone could supply enough material for who knows how many books.

Of course if you wanted something a little more exotic there's always Asia and the far East i. Incorporate a few figures from their stories into your books and believe me you'd have something that's as fantastical as anything that came from the most fevered imagination. Of course you'd have to make sure and do proper research so that you don't use someone else's stories inappropriately or disrespectfully.

One of the best examples of an author who's been able to incorporate bits and pieces of other cultures into his work without it feeling like appropriation or cheap exploitation is the British author Jon Courtenay Grimwood. So far I've read works of his that have integrated Islam, Japanese, and Norse mythology into his stories. (No, not all at the same time) Therefore, it didn't come as too much of a surprise that in his novel 9 Tail Fox, published in North America by Night Shade Books he'd been able to accomplish the same feat successfully with Chinese culture.
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Set in contemporary San Francisco the protagonist is initially Sgt. Bobby Zha, whose a second generation Chinese immigrant on his father's side and very British via his mother. When both his parents died young it was his paternal grandfather who took over his upbringing. At the time we meet him his grandfather has been long gone, but Sgt. Zha still retains the fluent, if slightly archaic, Cantonese he learned from his grandfather, and the memories of the stories he had been told of creatures like the Nine Tailed Celestial Fox.

Even so, that doesn't stop him from being surprised to see Jinwei hu of the pure white fur, nine tails, and coal red eyes, as he lies dying, spewing his life's blood onto the concrete floor of the warehouse he'd been ambushed in. After all how often do you find out the mythical creatures of your childhood really do exist, let alone have one appear in front of you no matter what the circumstances? Of course, it could all be just an illusion, and it doesn't really matter as he's dying - isn't he. Still what did the fox mean he has only one more chance to set things right?

Telling you that the main character dies might sound like I'm spoiling the plot of the book, but since it happens in the first couple of chapters, you'd learn about yourself soon after starting to read the story. Anyway in this case death really is just the beginning and the fox was telling the truth and Bobby is being given a one last chance to set a whole number of things right, some of which date back to before he was even born. For in some ways the story doesn't even begin with Bobby Zha but with his grandfather and the early history of the Chinese in San Francisco when the Tongs were more than just crime families.

Of course he's also going to have to figure out what the connection is between what's happening to him now as he's resurrected in the body of a coma patient named Bobby Vanberg, and experiments that were being carried out is Leningrad during World War Two. As Bobby Zha he had been investigating the disappearance of homeless people from the streets of San Francisco and the mysterious shooting of a burglar by an eleven year old girl who doesn't appear strong enough to have lifted the gun used let alone fired it.

Somehow his death ties in with all of these events and even though the trail is as convoluted as a pretzel he has to try and find his way through the labyrinth. He also knows that somehow or other, if he is able to get to the bottom of all this mess, he will also find a way to make things right with the people he'd hurt the first time around - especially his daughter.

One of the wonderful things about any of the books I've read by Jon Courtenay Grimwood is his ability to create a story that exists on more then one level at a time without seeming to try. In the case of 9 Tailed Fox not only has he written a great, action packed detective story full of interesting and unusual characters, he has also written a remarkable book about identity and the different ways people go about defining themselves.

Through Bobby's examination of his own life and his investigation into the crime, Grimwood gives the reader some interesting things about identity to ponder. What makes us who we are; our race, our gender, genetics, or is it something even more ethereal than that? When Bobby awakens in his new body his awareness is still that of Sgt. Zha even though he's as physically different from his former self as a cat is from a dog. So who is he?

Sgt. Bobby Zha is dead, he felt himself die, and he saw himself being buried. Yet, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary he's also alive, it just happens to be in another person's body. His first instincts are to react to people like he always has, but of course he can't because he no longer has that appearance. He has to learn how to be Bobby Zha in the new body, and in doing so begins the process of using his chance to set things right.

In the theatre there are characters in classical scripts who act as catalysts for change or that cause the action of the play to go in a certain way. In 9 Tail Fox the Jinwei hu of Chinese mythology serves that purpose. It not only gives Bobby a chance to expose his murderer and get to the bottom of why it happened - but to also make amends for his own screw-ups. But it's not easy, and he is only able to do so when he begins to change the way he treats people this time round.

For you can't just put on a new body like a suit of clothes and expect that to change who you really are underneath, it has to come from within. Through his examination of the character of Bobby Zha before and after his death Jon Courtenay Grimwood shows how we are all ultimately responsible for who we are as individuals no matter what the circumstances.

9 Tail Fox has all the attributes of what I've come to expect from a novel by Jon Courtenay Grimwood; a great story well told, characters so realistic that you see them in your minds eye right from the start, and a sub-plot that provides thought provoking insights into human nature. A book to savour from start to finish, and almost wish it would never end.

December 11, 2007

Book Review Life Of Pi Illustrated Edition Yann Martel

Antoine de Saint Exupery's story The Little Prince begins with the author recounting a period from his childhood when he discovered just how limited an adult's imagination can be. Perhaps he tells us this to explain why he chose to become an aircraft pilot and live among the night sky where anything and everything can be real. When he meets the Little Prince of the title his plane has broken down and he is stranded in the deserts of North Africa.

I'm sure most of us would have been slightly more nonplussed than our author to be greeted by a young boy asking us to draw him a sheep. But Exupery takes it in his stride and learns the story of his new companion. The Little Prince is a beautiful story about a voyage of self-discovery and the nature of love written as a children's tale. Each time I've re-read it I've often wondered about the fact that the hero is a child and how it is told in the language of a story for young readers, yet the content is so incredibly adult.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye" couldn't be more true when considered in the light of an adult parable hiding inside the story of a child as in the case of The Little Prince. Perhaps it is the same element in Yann Martel's Life Of Pi that was responsible for me being continually reminded of Exupery's work as I was reading it, as it too features a young man whose adventures result in some very adult philosophizing. On the surface the stories seem to have little in common, but at the heart of each is the wide eyed wonder of a child experiencing the world for the first time in all it's glory.
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We first meet Pi (his parents had named him Piscine Molitor in honour of a friends favourite swimming pool in Paris, and Pi wisely took it upon himself to change his name as soon as possible - there are far too many temptations in a name like Piscine for other children not to take advantage of it) through the eyes of the writer who is preparing to recount his tale. It is in present day Toronto Canada that the story starts, but it doesn't take us long to go back in time and across the Pacific Ocean to the Indian province of Pondincherry.

Pi is the youngest of two sons in a family that has the unique distinction of owning a zoo. While his classmates might receive a cheerful farewell from their mothers as they head off to school, Pi's morning benediction includes the growls of lions and tigers, the trumpet of an elephant, and a wide variety of grunts and squeaks from the animal kingdom. It is easy to see how his awe and delight in the wonders of the world was born growing up in this type of environment. That he also chooses to celebrate his wonder of the world by embracing each of the major religions India, is somewhat odd, but is completely in keeping with his character.

Of course all of the background information, Pi's childhood in India, and the times we meet him as an adult in Toronto, are only preparatory for the main event, his sojourn aboard the life boat with an adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. His family had decided to emigrate from India to Canada, and in order to pay their way had sold the majority of the zoo's animals to the United States. Therefore, instead of flying like most immigrants, they take a tramp steamer to shepherd them to their new homes. It's during this voyage that the shipwreck happens, leaving Pi alone aboard a life boat with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and the aforementioned tiger.

The natural order exerts itself upon the life boat over the first few days as the hyena dispatches the zebra and the orangutang while Pi can only hope he continues to ignore him. It's only when Richard Parker recovers from his seasickness that Pi realizes that it has been the tiger's presence that has kept him safe from attack. Of course that doesn't prevent him from being terrified of his protector, and his struggle to figure out a way in which the two of them can survive in harmony is the crux of the story for the balance of their voyage together.
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Life Of Pi was originally published in 2002 and received all sorts of critical accolades, including being awarded the Mann Booker Prize. Now in 2007 Random House Canada through its Alfred A. Knoff imprint has published a lavishly illustrated new edition with beautiful full-page colour plates by Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanic. To select an illustrator for the book, an international competition was held, and out of the thousands of artists who entered Torjanic's work was judged best suited to the needs of the book.

Not having seen any of the other entrants there's not much basis for comparison, but to be honest I can't see how anyone could have done a better job than Torjanic. His work has the lushness of Paul Gauguin's paintings of Fiji, making it ideal for capturing the richness and vibrancy of the South Pacific locations that predominate in the book, combined with an illustrator's capacity for capturing a moment in a story and reproducing it with the accuracy of capturing a frame in a film.

What I found especially rewarding about Tomislav's work was the fact that the illustrations, no matter the size, were always drawn from Pi's perspective of events (The temptation to say Pi -eyed view is too great to resist, I'm sorry) reinforcing the fact that this is his story, while making it easier for the reader to understand what he is experiencing. Of course this also serves to draw us into the story, because when we look at the pictures, we become the object of the subject matter's focus as much as they are ours. So, when the perspective of an illustration has us looking down the length of the lifeboat at the back of a 450 pound Bengal tiger, and his head is turned to look over his shoulder, his one eye stares back at us, not some unknown target.

Yann Martel's creation, much like Saint Exupery's all those years ago, is about the power of faith and having the ability to believe in the invisible bonds that connect us, one to another. None of us have ever seen the love we claim to have for another person or being, yet we are confidant it exists. Why? We have no proof, yet like Pi with Richard Parker, we are assured that the person we love isn't going to do the equivalent of eating us.
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In his poem, "i carry your heart, i carry it in my heart", American poet e. e. cummings wrote that love "is the wonder that holds the stars apart." In Life Of Pi Yann Martel brings that wonder to life in his story of the young man trapped in a lifeboat for nearly a year with an adult Bengal tiger. The illustrations by Tomislav Torjanac, in the newly published illustrated edition, not only reflect that wonder, but succeed in drawing the reader into a deeper appreciation by offering us the means to enter into the story as a participant.

For the longest time I resisted reading Life Of Pi because I was afraid of being disappointed by it failing to live up to the expectations of its publicity. The last thing I expected was to find myself reading a book to match The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery in its simple beauty and ability to express awe in the wonder of life. Yann Martel really did create a thing of beauty and a joy forever when he published this story, and I for one will always be grateful.

Canadian readers wishing to purchase a copy of the illustrated Life Of Pi can do so by either purchasing it directly fromRandom House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 29, 2007

Book Review: Felaheen: Book Three Of The Arabesk Trilogy Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Why do all good things have to come to an end? Whose idea was that anyway, some sort of killjoy who thinks suffering is good for you? Personally I don't see anything wrong with good things going on and on in ad infinitum. However, since I appear to be even more a minority of one when it comes to opinions these days, I'm sure nobody else agrees with me, if they even can be bothered about it.

On the other hand, there is the problem of who exactly keeps the good thing going. How many times have you attended a concert you've not want to end, but of course the band can't play forever, so that good time will have to stop. The same thing applies to books or a series of books. There are any number of books I've read that I never wanted to end, but obviously, that's not fair to the writer. He or she might have other things they want to write about, and not keep writing the same story, or about the same characters.

It's bad enough that we ask some writers to create trilogies (I don't know how Rowling was able to do seven books around the same character), it starts sounding pretty selfish to say, how about some more books featuring so and so. But I'll tell you, having just finished reading the last book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk Trilogy, Felaheen, I'm quite willing to be whatever kind of asshole necessary to convince him to write more books about Ashraf Bey and the streets of El Iskandryia.
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Published in North America by Random House through their Bantam/Dell Spectra imprint, the Arabesk Trilogy has been one of those series that I forced myself to read slowly so I could extend its life for as long as possible. Grimwood created such a remarkable world, and peopled it with some of the most intriguing characters to trek though the pages of science fiction, it would have been easy to sit down and devour the books in one sitting.

Ashraf (or Raf as he's more often referred to) doesn't look like your typical member of a royal family in the Ottoman Empire, being rather blonder then normal. But as he discovered in the first book, Pashazade, blood matters more then blonde, even when you've no idea how you ended up with the blood in your veins. According to everyone who should know Raf is the legitimate son of the Emir, Moncef al-Mansur, because he was conceived during the five days he was married to his mother.

Until Raf had found himself whisked into El Iskandryia at the beginning of book one, he had never had any contact with either his father of any of their extended family. In fact, his mother had always insisted that he was the result of an affair she had had with a Swedish backpacker in Tunisia. While he may not have met his father, that doesn't mean his father hadn't exerted influence on him.

As a child Raf had been hospitalized a number of times in order to treat what he was told were kidney problems. It turns out that he was having a number of modifications done to his body and his mind. His eyes and hearing were augmented so he was able to see in the dark, and hear the slightest whisper through locked doors and a floor or two above or below anywhere, he was in a house. It turns out the expenses for these procedures were being met by the Emir.

In all his time in the Empire so far, Raf's neither been invited to meet the emir, nor even seen hide nor hear of him. All that changes in Felaheen when an attempt is made on the Emir's life and Raf is approached by the Emir's head of security to investigate the attempt and help protect his father. Although Raf publicly turns the offer down, he takes off on his own to see what he can finally find out about his parentage and his genetic makeup.

As in the first two books, he's joined in the action by his ten year old niece, Hani and his ex-fiancé Zara who provide him information and motivation as he journeys into his own life. If Raf has spent the first two books in a state of confusion as to his identity, in Felaheen he takes the necessary steps to find out once and for all who or what he is.

Once again, Grimwood proves himself brilliant at descriptive writing. Whether in the hovels of the wretched, the mansions of the powerful, or the desolation of the desert, his words draw elaborate pictures that fill the reader's mind with the image of where the action takes place. Every last crevice in the wood paneling of an office's appearance, and the smallest dust devil in the desert are important for us to know about, and through his pen we see everything.

Of course, it's not just the physical that he's so adept at bringing to life; atmosphere, mood, and emotions of all stripes play through every section of the book like a musical score underpinning an opera. Very few writers of any genre have the ability to create mood as completely as Grimwood has done in both Felaheen and the whole Arabesk Trilogy

Unfortunately the book eventually does end, and with it the series. My only disappointment with it of course; this great thing ending. Of course there's nothing stopping Mr. Grimwood from coming back to these characters at some time in the future and pick up where they left off. I'm sure there's always some intrigue or other happening in El Iskandryia that they can be sucked into. Then the good things start all over again...

November 20, 2007

Book Review: Pashazade - Book One Of The Arabesk Trilogy Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I wonder if people are aware of the huge influence the Ottoman Empire had on the world, as we know it. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the Ottoman Empire lasted from around the time of the Crusades until the end of World War One. At one time they controlled all the territory from Turkey along the Mediterranean to Spain; most of the Balkan States including Greece; North Africa, Egypt, the Gulf States, and of course Israel.

Part of that legacy is all the Dracula stories. It was the Moors, as they were sometime referred to, of the Ottoman Empire that Vlad the Impaler slaughtered by the bucket load. After the Empire was forced from Spain, the border between East and West was Bulgaria and the Danube River. At one point, the Empire made it all the way to gates of Vienna, Austria before being turned back by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

If you lived in the Balkans, either the Turks or the Austro-Hungarians were constantly liberating you until the 19th century. If you ever wondered where the Muslims came from in Bosnia during the ethnic cleansing of the mid 1990's, it was because of the Ottoman Empire. Although it had been well over a hundred years since they had ruled that part of the world nationalistic hatreds seem to have no shelf life.

So when I found out that British author Jon Courtenay Grimwood had set The Arabesk Trilogy, in a world where the Empire has survived until modern times it was only natural I was intrigued. Since it hasn't been released in Canada yet, the good folk at Random House U.S. were kind enough to send me review copies ahead of the Canadian release date.
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In Pashazade, the first book of the series, Grimwood introduces us to not only the characters who will be populating the pages of the trilogy, but his version of how the world turned out after World War One. The Kaiser's temporary advisors to the Sultan still haven't left, but all in all the treaty of 1916 between Germany and the Ottoman Empire has worked out quite will for the Turks. They are able to rule independently in North Africa and follow their own traditional social structure.

The majority of the action takes place in the capital city of the new Empire, El Iskandryia, affectionately known by those who love and despise her as El Isk. It's everything you'd want from a capital city of the East. Part free city like Tunisia in the 1950's with a thriving multinational population of tourists, spies, and even an American chief of police. However, it's first and foremost a Muslim city; with formal manners, exquisite taste, and an aesthetic sensibility the west can never hope to obtain on the surface, and a seething cesspool of crime and deep-seated passions just below the surface.

When the man you meet for dinner smiles and bows to you after the meal, you always look over his shoulder to see if that was the cue for the man behind him to kill you with a well placed bullet or knife. Alcohol is illegal, but you are offered a hookah with the locally cured hash with your morning coffee and newspaper. Women have power behind the scenes but if they walk down the street with bare arms, they risk a fundamentalist slashing their arms to mark them as wanton.

It is into this world that Zee Zee finds himself magically transported from a prison cell in Seattle Washington where he's doing the time for a murder he didn't do, to being a ruling elite by the name of Ashraf with the title of Bey affixed to his name. It turns out that his blood father, who was married to his mother for five days, is an emir, and Ashraf is his only living heir.

An aunt he's never met has had him released so she can sell him and his title as a husband to the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. When his aunt turns up dead a few days after his very public refusal to marry somebody he's never met, and his nine-year-old niece Hani witnesses their ensuing argument, he becomes a prime suspect in her murder. Fortunately for Ashraf, and Hani as well it turns out, the police who want to arrest him don't have any evidence to hold him with. When you have the honorific Bey attached to your the name the police actually need evidence to hold you for more then eight hours.

One of the things I found so amazing about Pashazade was that after awhile you accept the surroundings without noticing that you are in a different culture. Grimwood is so matter of fact in his writing that El Iskandryia becomes as familiar as any generic Western city in similar circumstances.

The calls to prayer, the sounds of the bazaar, and coffee urns hissing in cafes, form an interior soundtrack that loops throughout the story, only fading as the city wraps itself in the shroud of night that cloaks activities that would be otherwise frowned upon under Muslim rule. Nightclubs with no fixed addresses run on ecstasy and pirate music transmissions and are the playgrounds for the children of money and tourists.

As long as they are discreet, a blind eye will be turned, but if a message needs to be sent, to somebody in specific, or just in general, they are very publicly raided. It's a way to remind the new rich and the spoiled children of the aristocrats who really are in charge, and how little say they have in the matter.

For Ashraf to survive in this world he has to quickly shed all who he was, and become who he is expected to be. Thanks to a few artificial enhancements, and some genetic engineering that his mother invested in his creation, he is able to survive some initial surprises on instinct and nerve. However, in a society as subtle and ancient as the Ottoman Empire, that will only get you into the game, not offer any guarantee of walking away from the table.

Grimwood does a remarkable job of carrying us through the development of Ashraf Bey. Through flashbacks to childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, we find out how Zee Zee came to be walking through the airport of El Iskandryia at the beginning of the book as someone he'd never heard of. From there, we watch as Zee Zee effects the transformation into Ashraf Bey, a role, it turns out he was born to play.

The opening salvo in the Arabesk Trilogy , Pashazade, does a remarkable job of not only creating the world where the story takes place, but also in developing the characters who it appears will dominate the action over the course of the final two books. Aside from Ashraf, we meet his nine year old niece Hani who until now has lived her entire live indoors in front of a computer monitor; Zara the young woman he was supposed to marry who, appearances aside, is not your typical spoiled rich brat; and her father, Hamzah, the underworld king with as many legitimate businesses as illegal ones.

The success of this trilogy will rest on Grimwood's ability to sustain what he has started in book one. Character's who constantly surprise and don't know what the word stereotype means, combined with an atmosphere so thick you can taste it, are an unbeatable combination. If books two and three are of the same quality, this will be an incredible ride.

November 16, 2007

Book Review: The Larion Senators Robert Scott & Jay Gordon

I will always associate two series of books with my starting to write book reviews online. One is Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of The Ramayana and the other is The Eldarn Sequence by Robert Scott and the late Jay Gordon. Although the books are literally worlds apart, the impact they had on me was identical: "I must tell people about these books."

Ashok's books were already past the mid point when I caught up with Rama on his quest, but in the case of The Eldarn Sequence I came in at the beginning just after book one, The Hickory Staff, was published. I have followed it through the process of publication until now as it prepares to go to press with book three The Larion Senators I am able to be in on its completion as well.

As firsts go, first literary interview may not rank too high for some people, but my interview with Ashok will always be the first author I interview I conducted and to this day remains one of my favourites. Robert Scott was my second author interview but his series represents two other firsts for me. Lessek's Key, book two of the series, is the first ever book to carry a quote from one of my reviews on its dust jacket, and will always be the first set of author's proofs I've ever read.
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The final book of The Ramayana was released some time ago, and my review is gathering dust in many site's archives but my association with Ashok hasn't ended as I now edit his online publication for international Arts & Culture Epic India Magazine. I don't know what my association with Robert Scott will constitute in the future, but I do know that my head is still reeling from the ride of reading The Larion Senators, and bringing that journey to its successful conclusion.

Don't worry I'm not going to tell you how it ends, except to say that it doesn't end it begins, but I do want to tell you what an excellent job was done in bringing the story to it's conclusion. Robert and Jay had left us with a pretty nasty cliff-hanger at the end of book two (if you haven't read that don't worry I won't even give that away) and the challenge as far as I could see was going to be creating a plausible way out of it. Even with 550 plus pages, I thought they'd be hard pressed to accomplish that and stitch together all the loose ends that have been left dangling since book one.

When you write fantasy or other sorts of speculative fiction you are able to define the rules your world abides by, thus allowing your characters to accomplish certain feats that they wouldn't be able to if they were living in our reality. However, you are bound to abide by your own rules and not take any short cuts to solve your dilemmas. You are as much a prisoner of the world you have created as your characters

All the way through the first two books, Robert and Jay were scrupulous in making sure that the characters kept to the limits of their abilities. While Steven Taylor learned how to control the magic he discovered was his in Eldarn, and began to understand just how powerful he could be, nothing he did was outside the realm of possible as far his character was concerned.

It's wonderful to see that adhered to faithfully right through to the end of the books. There is precedent for everything that occurs and nothing is pulled out of a hat in order to save the day in that final moment when all seems lost...at no matter what point it occurs in the story. But, it's that sort of attention to detail that has distinguished this series from the start.

Where it really comes through is the characterization and the development of the relationships between the characters as the story progresses. Whether it's sexual tension between Hannah and Hoyt after their prolonged time together in emotionally trying situations, Garec's struggles with his conscience about his ability as a killer, or Gilmour desperately trying to find out just what his role will be in the final confrontation, each process is organic and has the ring of authenticity to it.
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When The Hickory Staff was published in 2005 there were two living authors, and before Jay Gordon succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gerig's disease in November of that year Lessek's Key had been handed over to the publishers. With The Larion Senators though Robert was left with only the notes that Jay had prepared as an outline and his own awareness of the story. In spite of previously only dealing with specific characters and aspects of the plot, he managed to seamlessly integrate everything and everybody without there being any noticeable difference in style and voice from the previous books.

It seems that a trilogy is only ever as good as its third book. The first two books could be brilliant, but if book three is anti-climatic, nobody will remember them. While each book of The Eldarn Sequence up to now has been well written and exciting, somehow Robert has managed to hold something in reserve for The Larion Senators and the tension level and excitement are raised another notch all the way through. It not only lives up to the expectations for a finale, it exceeds them by a long shot.

When Jay Gordon was diagnosed with ALS in 2002, he and his son-in-law Robert Scott set out on their quest to write the type of fantasy trilogy that Jay had loved to read. With The Larion Senators about to be released not only will that journey have been completed successfully, it will be done in spectacular fashion.

The Larion Senators will be distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company Publishing and can be purchased directly from them or through Amazon.ca.

November 14, 2007

Book Review: Stamping Butterflies Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Some people live their life on a timer where everything starts at zero as if they have a certain amount of things to accomplish within a limited time. Other people take their time, not worrying about how long it takes them, but about the quality of the time they put into doing something. No matter the approach, they both see time as being a straight line from a – b that never deviates from its inexorable path.

Some people believe in reincarnation, returning to lead a succession of lives until they complete whatever it was they were meant to complete, or learn what they needed to move on to somewhere else. They still see time as a line that inches forward entropically eating up the ages with an insatiable appetite, otherwise how could they progress and grow.

Time is the barrier against which humankind finds itself running into whenever we consider travel beyond our own little planet's sphere of influence. Even the closest star – our Sun – is an unobtainable objective because of our limited time alive. No matter what system you use to measure time, what calendar you follow, doesn't change the fact that it takes more then a human's life span to make it there, never mind back again.
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Science fiction writers have spent as much creative energy on figuring out ways to circumvent the problem of overcoming time as they have on creating plots and character. If a story features space travel and humans, writers feel compelled to show off their make believe physics to justify their characters crossing distances that take more then their life spans. While there have been some interesting theories in that regard suggested, everyone still accepts the premise of linear time.

Things aren't quite as straightforward in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's book Stamping Butterflies, released in Canada by Random House Canada's Bantam/Spectra imprint. While it's not the first novel to take place in the past, the present, and various futures, it also explores the possibility that time isn't necessarily linear. In fact, things could be construed as confusing at the beginning as we try to get our bearings in three separate eras, but Grimwood ties it all neatly together in the end.

Of the three timelines we follow in "Butterflies", the connection between the past and the present seem obvious enough. The book's current time, a near parallel time to ours, revolves around the attempted assassination of an American president by what appears to be a deranged individual. What else are you supposed to think when a person tells you that the "darkness" has ordered him to carry out the attempt? But when the prisoner turns out to be some sort of idiot savant who is scrapping quantum physics equations into his arms or in his own excrement that he has smeared over his cells surfaces like plaster, his jailers are forced to re-evaluate his status.

Who is the mysterious "Prisoner Zero" and where did he come from? What's his connection to a punk rocker from the States who supposedly died in a fire in a junkie's squat in Amsterdam? Where does the street kid from Marrakech of the sixties and seventies, who wants to know how things work fit in, and what does his relationship with the rock star Jack Razor forebode for the future?

Thousands of years in the future a young emperor exists in what appears to be a vast artificial replica of the "Forbidden City" of Chinese empires from ages long past. Zaq is the latest in a line of "Emperors" who originated with a cryogenically frozen Navigator of a star ship launched by the book's present-day China. It's from that Navigator's brain that the empire in the future was created.
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When you read a novel like this you have two options; try and make sense of all the different circumstances as they are happening or sit back and enjoy what's on the page in the moment and trust in the author to pull it all together in the end. In the case of Stomping Butterflies my suggestion is to go with the latter and it will be well worth your while. While some author's might be able to only carry off the conundrum part of the book and not have anything left over for character creation or story telling, that's not the case with Grimwood.

This is a beautifully written book with characters and situations unbearably real in their ability to break your heart and make you rail at the injustices of the world. I would say that Grimwood writes with precision, in the way he uses his words to paint pictures that come alive in your mind, but that makes him sound cold and clinical, the furthest thing from the truth.

I know from nothing when it comes to physics, and in spite of that, I was able to enjoy even the technical parts of the book. Although I think that had more to do with Grimwood's abilities as a writer – if he wrote phone books he'd find a way to make them interesting –then my understanding what was written. At the same time if something of a technical nature was truly important to the story, he ensures that it is understandable to anyone willing to make some effort.

Stamping Butterflies is one of those rare books where you forget what genre you're reading and simply enjoy the story. It's not often that you find this good a story combined with an intellect that challenges you without the author being a show off or the thinking being intimidating. Jon Courtenay Grimwood is rapidly becoming one of my new, favourite writers, and I can only hope that more of his work is made available in Canada soon.

Canadians wishing to buy Stamping Butterflies can order it through Random House Canada's web site or through an on line retailer like Amazon Canada

November 7, 2007

Book Review: Gentlemen Of The Road Michael Chabon

In the Dark Ages, when most of Europe was covered in mud, shit, and the Black Plague, there was still a golden civilization in the East centred on Constantinople. The Byzantium Empire was all that was left of the once fabulous Roman Empire that stretched through Europe and Asia. In the eyes of the Christian world, it was a beacon for all things glorious, and was regarded as the toehold required for the re-conquest of the Holy Lands.

But just across the Black Sea lurked the Caliphs who controlled the lands that were so coveted by the Popes in Rome that they lost no sleep over spending the lives of the "faithful" on useless Crusades in the vain hope of recovering Jerusalem and putting the Infidels to the sword. But these were not the only two empires, nor the only faiths represented in the area. For reasons best known to themselves the Kings of Khazar had in centuries past converted to Judaism. If Constantinople represented a beacon of hope for Christians, can you imagine what a Kingdom of Jews must have been for those who were spat upon, cursed, and routinely burned at the stake by their fellow citizens?

Even in Muslim controlled Spain, where Jews had risen to positions of power and were able to lead their lives relatively free of the injustices faced by their Christian ruled brethren, Khazar represented a place of wonder. Everybody wants to be masters of their own fate and not worry about if they will be welcome tomorrow, and to the Jews who felt like unwelcome guests wherever they went, Khazar would have represented that hope.
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So it's not surprising that Michael Chabon's latest novel Gentlemen Of The Road published by Random House Canada through their Doubleday Canada's Bond Street Books imprint, featuring two Jewish adventurers would end up with Khazar being the locale for the greater part of their exploits. Though polar opposites in appearance, Zelikman, the white skinned, rake thin, and black clothed itinerant physician from the country of the Franks (present day Germany and France), and Amaran, a descendant of the Queen of Sheba's day's as bride of Solomon, hailing from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) is aside from being black as coal, is as heavy set as his companion is gaunt, are as close as two men can be who are not related or sharing a bed.

Euphemistically referred to as Gentlemen of the Road, latter days might have found them called con artists, grifters, and hustlers. But in the days when the only law was if you cut your way out of the mess you created you were adjudged innocent, while if you ended up spilling your entrails across the courtyard of some misbegotten Inn you were guilty, the position of freebooter was often all that was available to a man of limited lineage but possessing martial skills. So it should surprise no one that the end of the first millennium would find such two such disparate characters doing whatever was necessary to keep the flesh on their bones and the devil off their back.

What does come as a shock to both of them is the sudden onset of altruism that sees them willing to lend their arms and brains to the cause of a deposed Prince of Khazar. A callow youth possessed of no redeeming features of character, he still somehow manages to embroil them in his cause to usurp the usurper of his father's throne. Trivialities like raising an army, dealing with Viking raiders, and marching across miles of some of the least inhospitable terrain in the East at the onset of winter, The Caucasus Mountains, and the surrounding steppes, are simply inconveniences to be overcome en route to his goal.

In his after word, author Michael Chabon confesses to the fact that originally he had wanted to call the novel Jews With Swords but had such a hard time getting anyone to take that title seriously, including himself after a while, that he relented. How often do we hear tales of Jewish swashbucklers fighting their way across a continent with swords and wiles? Not very, in fact in all the annals of Jewish storytelling you'd be hard pressed I'm sure in finding such a creature.

Jewish characters tend towards the scholarly, with maybe the occasional intellectual revolutionary or troubled artistic soul thrown in for good measure. But men of the sword, Gentlemen of the Road, never. But with Michael Chabon's example, perhaps a whole new area of literary territory has been opened for exploration. Jewish Knights errant in search of Talmudic treasures guarded by fierce Dragons will roam the forests of Europe. Bands of mercenary Jewish warriors will be hired to attack on Sundays when all others are observing the Sabbath and be seen roaming the highways and byways of adventure stories.
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Probably not, but that's not for lack of a good example. This is a beautifully executed, highly enjoyable adventure story that is more fun than your standard swashbuckler because it refuses to take itself seriously. But even with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Chabon has created two wonderful characters whose interplay throughout the novel provides more then half the fun. Chabon's use of language makes up the rest, at least for me, as he's created his own adventure story argot that sounds like typical pulp fiction dialogue and description with a heavy Jewish inflection.

But that doesn't stop there from being moments of genuine emotions that are so often scarce in the novels of adventure writers and pulp fiction. Instead of just being participants in the story carrying out the demands of the plot, the characters are real human beings who are what we really care about. In some ways Chabon inverts the traditional adventure story by having the plot merely be a means for us to get to know the central characters.

No review would be complete of this book if there were no mention of the illustration scattered throughout by Gary Gianni. Without a doubt they are some of the best pen and ink drawings I've seen in ages. It's not often that an illustrator manages to put down on paper exactly what I see in my mind's eye when reading an author's description of a character. He also has that rather singular skill of capturing a moment in time that makes it appear the characters are right in the middle of their action, and merely waiting for our backs to be turned so they can get back at it.

They are a perfect augmentation to Gentlemen Of The Road in both their aspect and presentation, and executed with a skill that is very rarely seen anymore. I've always had a love for pen and ink drawings that are able to capture the spirit of a story as well as assist in its telling, and Gianni accomplishes that in a way that few other illustrators seem capable of anymore.

Gentlemen Of The Road is a wonderful book, with great characters, a fun story, and best of all not an insult to anyone's intelligence. Instead of relying on sword and sorcery, slave girls, and demons of the depths to generate a plot, this book is set in our world's real history, and is the better tale for it then so many other so called adventures. It would be nice to think that writers will take a cue from Michael Chabon, and this would herald a trend towards more stories of this kind

Those of you in Canada interested in picking up a copy of the book can either order it from Random House Canada's or through an online retailer like Amazon.ca

October 30, 2007

Book Review: End Of The World Blues Jon Courtneay Grimwood

The trouble with stereotypes is the fact that they all contain an element of truth. So you can't just dismiss them out of hand as being lies, but you have to realize they are generalizations that don't necessarily apply to all the people they refer to. For instance you could say that white people are so lacking in rhythm that they ca barely walk and talk at the same time, and while it will be true in a number of cases there are white people who can keep a beat.

The use of any sweeping generalization, especially a pejorative one like a stereotype, is a sign of intellectual laziness reflecting an unwillingness to make an effort to get to know something or somebody who is different from you. As long as we remain content to live like that, whole cultures will remain closed books to us. The path of ignorance is an inviting temptation that ends up costing us more in the long run then doing the hard work of searching for the truth from the onset.

One of the more difficult societies for outsiders to get a handle on, and not just Westerners but anybody, is Japan's. It is seemingly a country of serious contradictions, being not only home to one of more rigid codes of behaviour complete with hierarchies and rules for the proper means of addressing people, but also Karaoke bars, Magna and Anime, and a penchant for making some the most degrading game shows.

It's also an incredibly insular society where no matter how long you were to live there you would still be considered an outsider if you had not been born on the islands. That's something Kit Nouveau, sometime English language teacher, and full time Irish Bar owner, is only too aware of after living in Tokyo for twelve years. Even if he were to somehow master the intricacies of the language completely, he would never be able to keep track of all the subtleties of body language and behaviour appropriate to the demands of status recognition in a conversation.
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Kit is one of two central characters in Jon Courtenay Grimwood new Science Fiction/Fantasy novel End Of The World Blues published in Canada by Random House Canada through their Bantam Spectra imprint. Lady Neku, central character number two, appears to be just another fifteen-year-old girl dressed in the garb of a Goth girl playacting the role of dangerous assassin. (cos-play is the slang name given the young men and women who indulge in these live role playing games, which usually amount to nothing more than posing and judging each other's efforts at costuming)

But one night when Kit is being mugged, and his assailant turns out to be something more then just a junky in search of the money for his next fix and is about to kill him, Lady Neku swings into deadly action armed with only a knitting needle removed from her hair and a small knife. Somehow or other the needle ends up in the would be mugger's brain via an ear, and the knife in his heart through his ribs.

Kit would spend a lot more time trying to figure out who Lady Neku really is, if the rest of his life didn't start to literally blow up in his face. His bar, with his wife trapped inside, is incinerated. If things weren't crazy enough, the mother of an ex-girlfriend shows up demanding he help try and find her – the only problem is that she vanished from the upper deck of a ferry crossing the English Channel leaving behind only a suicide note and her shoes.

What Lady Neku has to figure out is what to do about her life on earth. As far as we can tell, she is the youngest daughter of an ancient and decadent family that live sometime in the future. But who are they really and where are they since they aren't on planet? How did Lady Neku come to be in possession of the fifteen million dollars that now sits in a locker deep in the bowels of the Tokyo subway system?
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As Kit and Lady Neku travel from Tokyo to London looking for answers, they both realize that they might not even know the right questions to be asking let alone who to be asking them. Do the parents of Kit's ex girlfriend know more then they are letting on about something? Her mom runs one of the biggest criminal gangs in London after all so she knows where a lot of bodies are buried.

From the seedy bars of the sex trade in Tokyo to the boardrooms of the elite corporate gangs, Jon Courtenay Grimwood has Kit and Neku travel through all the levels of Japanese society. Along the way he has written a taut, but very human story, about the uncertainty of life, the vagrancies of memory, and the quiet desperation of people trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.

I think what really impressed me about his writing was the ease he was able to deal with the scenes set in Japan and with the Japanese characters. His knowledge of the culture and the language were obvious, but even more important I think, was how he turned characters who were ready made for stereotyping into real human beings. Nobody behaved in particular way because of what they were, Japanese, English, etc., but because of who they were.

The perspective of Japanese culture and people was still through the eyes of the outsider, the one who will never be accepted as being one of them. But they are the eyes of an informed viewer, so we see more then the usual bowing and protestations of honour that are normally presented as Japanese characteristics. This is one of the few stories I've read by a Western writer that manages to create real characters from a culture that is often poorly represented in ours.

End Of The World Blues is a step above your usual science fiction mystery story, with a plot that has some unexpected twists, well developed characters who hold our attention, and comes with the unexpected bonus of providing an interesting look at life in Japan, a country few of us know very much about. Unexpectedly intelligent and thoughtful, End Of The World Blues travels a lot further then most books of its genre and is more than just another piece of escapist fiction.

Readers in Canada can purchase End Of The World Blues either directly from Random House Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

October 6, 2007

Book Review: Wabi: A Hero's Tale Joseph Bruchac

If you want to know a people, know their stories; I don't know if anyone ever said that to me, or it was just something I came to, but what I do know is that it's a truth that's proven itself to me time and time again. About fifteen years ago, I was interested in finding out more about Native American cultures and people and started to do a lot of reading.

The first thing I realised was there was no such thing as an "Indian Culture" in the way we would define it in terms of our own people. What is true for one Nation is not necessarily true for another, and even within Nations, things can be done differently from one village to another. However, that doesn't stop stories from offering universal insights into how people lived. In spite of language and other cultural differences, people who lived in the North East part of North America shared many life experiences that were expressed through story.

In his wonderful book The Manitou Basil Johnson, an Ojibway from Northern Ontario, gathered together stories about the good and bad spirits that had been told by his people for countless years. The majority of the stories were of the life lesson variety, and were used to instil in young people an understanding of what it took to live a good life, and what it took to survive.

Of course, there were other kinds of stories that Native people told each other. Since we're heading into the time of year when story telling was permitted; the earth is asleep during the winter and there is less chance of being overheard by those who you might want to mention in a story. If you talk about a spirit in a story when the earth is awake, you might as well just invite him back to live with you for eternity.
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Now anybody can tell you a story, but not everybody is a storyteller. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to listen to stories in the middle of winter, I'm going to want to hear somebody who can do a good job of it. Which means we're all in luck because one of the best in the business, Joseph Bruchac has just released Wabi: A Hero's Tale through Penguin Canada.

Joseph Bruchac has been telling stories for years now and has published over one hundred books of story compilations, or as in the case of Wabi, stand alone novellas. His major focus as a storyteller has been on educating his own people, specifically young people, about their cultural heritage and through that instilling a positive message about being native.

In the case of Wabi, the name means brave one, the story concerns being proud of who you are, and maintaining your identity no matter what the circumstances. That our lead character, Wabi, in this story is an owl who is able to understand all the other creatures, and talks to his greatgrand mother in human language, makes the question of identity very important.

Before anybody makes any wild guesses, some evil sorcerer or witch did not turn him into an owl, he was born an owl. Nor was he taught the other creatures' languages by his great-grandmother, he was born with the knowledge. He must have inherited it from someone he thinks, but who? He also wonders why he's so interested in the human village that lies within his hunting range. He figures it can't be normal for an Owl to sit in a tree and eavesdrop on human during the day when he should be sleeping. But he figures since he does have these special gifts that he might as well put them to good use.

He appoints himself guardian of the village and protects it against the evil beings that still roam the earth. For a while, he is contented with that role, until one day he realizes he has fallen in love with one of the young women of the tribe. As long as he's an owl, he knows that he will never be able to be with her, and his daydream of having her join him on his branch is completely unrealistic.

He seeks out his great-grandmother again, and asks her why he is able to understand human speech, and this time she explains all. Her mate had been a man who had turned into an owl, and Wabi's mother had also been a human and had actually only just become an owl a short while before he had been born.

Of course, all this is very fantastical, and the story is a fantasy, but what's wonderful about it is the way Bruchac never once makes a big deal about it. The magic and the real, the fantastic and the ordinary blend to form a very realistic world where it seems perfectly normal for all this to coexist and provide the catalyst for the action of the story. Part of the reason why it all works so smoothly is that Bruchac has a fine ear for descriptive writing.

His descriptions of the various locales that Wabi travels to, from lush forests to desolate wastes serve the reader well in providing us with visual references to place the action in. The good storyteller is able to tell his or her tale through a virtual slide show that is created by their words. Joseph Bruchac is an excellent storyteller and not only is he able to illustrate his locations, but even moments of action come to life in the reader's minds eye.

In theory, Wabi: A Hero's Tale was written for teenagers, but as far as I'm concerned people of all ages will gain from reading this book. Not only will it provide you with a good introduction to the world of Native American mythology and storytelling you might actually learn a little about self-identity on the way. No matter what "body" you're wearing you are who you are and that can never be taken away from you.

Joseph Bruchac's Wabi: A Hero's Tale can be purchased by Canadians directly from Penguin Canada or through an online retailer like Amazon Canada.

August 19, 2007

Book Review: Circle Of The Moon Barbara Hambly

Anytime a change occurs in the social order and a long oppressed group is elevated into a position of equality resentment towards them from those who had previously held sway in society is to be expected. We've seen many examples of that in North American society starting with Black people in the 1950's and 60's, then women in the 1970's, and in the 1990's Homosexuals.

Their move up the ladder of social acceptance from being barely tolerated to legally entrenched equality has been accompanied by loud outcries from a minority who see their absolute control over society vanishing. They can colour it with any words they want; religion, family values, and morality, but the truth is that it's just an excuse to complain about their grip on the reins of power slipping.

These themes were explored by Barbara Hambly in her novel Sister Of The Raven a number of years ago. For years the magic in the kingdom of The Seven Lakes had been in the hands of men. But all of sudden the world shifted and men were no longer able to perform magic and the power began to appear in women.

Society sees women as the equivalent of chattel; something a father can sell off for political expediency or into slavery if they bother her. A woman's place is in the Harem behind partitions and veils where no decent man can be corrupted by them. So, it's not just the Mages themselves unwilling to accept this revolting development, but any man still believing a woman belongs barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (or harem as the case maybe) wasn't that thrilled either.
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Barbara Hambly has finally returned to the fascinating world of The Seven Lakes with the recently published Circle Of The Moon and picked up the story where she left off at the end of Sister Of The Raven. Although the women have come under the protection of King Oryn – his favourite Concubine, Summerchild, (who is also the woman he loves more than anything in the world) was one of the first to discover she had power, they still don't have anywhere near complete acceptance.

They also still haven't figured out how to utilize the full force of the power. Spells that the male Sun Mages had never had any problems implementing seem to be beyond the grasp of the eight women who are known to have power. Unfortunately they don't have the luxury of taking their time in discovering a new source as the country is facing some very real dangers that only magic can protect them from.

Nobody has been able to call the rains with any degree of success for years now. As the men's power waned the rainfall had dropped to dangerously low levels, until now the spring rains are non-existent. Dryness that had started as an inconvenience has turned into a life-threatening drought that threatens the kingdom's existence. But that is only the start of their problems.

With the failure of magic demons and curses that had long been kept in check through wards and spells of containment are beginning to escape and spread their horror throughout the kingdom. Villages are succumbing to a mysterious plague that has seen fits of madness resulting in mass murder and the deaths of entire populations.

When Raeshalddis, one of the first to discover her own powers and the only woman to be trained in the male system of magic, has mysterious dreams of a woman calling for help because something is killing "the children" her first reaction is to believe the two incidences are related. Even stranger when she is called back to her family's compound to investigate magical attempts on her grandfather's life, she discovers traces of magic that she doesn't recognize.
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Somebody else in the Yellow City, capital of the realm, knows how to do magic and has been able to hide it from the eight women. It also seems that this person is able to accomplish magic far in excess of what Raeshalddis and her colleagues can do. As all evidence points to the fact that men are unable to accomplish any magic, they assume this other wizard is a woman, but they won't know until they are able to track her down.

Barbara Hambly does a remarkable job with this book in creating both the world and the characters in order for the circumstances that take place to be believable. Even casual conversation between characters reinforces the atmosphere she has created of a medieval society based on the Muslim Ottoman Empire of our world. Of course this also allows the reader to quickly comprehend the circumstances that the women who have suddenly gained power find themselves in as we all ready are familiar with that type of structure.

One of the elements of Circle Of The Moon that I most appreciated was her ability to allow the actions of her characters to define the world they lived in. Instead of telling us about the nature of society we hear about it in the thoughts of Raeshalddis and her associates and learn even more through their actions and reactions to situations and people. This is a very difficult thing to do without it looking clumsy or contrived, but in the hands of Hambly it comes off beautifully.

Among the women the magic hasn't been selective, so those who have power have come from all classes. Aside from the Kings concubine and Raeshalddis there is another concubine named Moth, a Farmer's daughter named Pebbles, an old peddler/beggar woman named Pomegranate, an ex laundress Cattail, and Red-Silk Women and Foxfire are the mother and daughter respectively of the King's uncle. Of course this makes it all more discomfiting for the men of the upper classes.

In the past they have dealt with men who are near enough to be their equals when they've required the services of a mage. Now they must face the humiliation, in their eyes anyway, of having to ask an ex laundry woman for help. Those little touches are really what make this book so effective at not only describing the difficulties faced by the women, but also in defining the world they all live in.

In Circle Of The Moon Barbara Hambly has created a wonderful adventure/fantasy novel with great characterization and a highly believable world. While it can be read as a stand alone novel I would still suggest reading Sisters Of The Raven first. If for no other reason then for the added enjoyment of reading another book set in the Realm of the Seven Lakes.

Coming back for a second visit was like seeing old friends for the first time in ages, and being reminded of how much you liked them. To me that's a sign of a gifted author.

August 15, 2007

Book Review: Beldan's Fire, Book Three Of The Oran Trilogy Midori Snyder

One of the most important elements of any fantasy novel is the authenticity of the world that the author creates to set the story in. The more the reader can believe in its reality the more they will accept all that happens in the story. Creating a world isn't just a matter of physical description either; it's being able to take a series of elements that together form an entity the reader accepts without question.

Language, culture, belief systems, physical characteristics of people, architecture, history, philosophies, social structures, and even educational systems are all things that no matter how briefly they are mentioned give us clues to the nature of the world a story takes place in. Of course the author doesn't want to spend time lecturing so all this information has to come out naturally in the telling of the story.

Characterization is always one of the key ways of developing a world, because the behaviour of characters, their interaction with others based on their place in the social structure, and their attitudes towards various institutions, tells how the world treats its people. How people view education, how children are treated, the role women play in society, and how a person's status is decided tells you plenty about a world's nature.

Of course in fantasy novels the other key element is the nature or form that the fantastic element in the world takes. Like everything else the reader needs to believe in its reality within the context of the world or the whole story falls apart. Here again the less obvious the author is about introducing it into the story the better. The more she can make it so the reader understands its nature without having been told directly the better.
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In the first two books of her Oran Trilogy, New Moon and Sadar's Keep Midori Snyder established the world her story takes place in through those means. In some ways it has been like watching the development of a Polaroid picture as have come more into focus the more we have read. Through getting to know the characters, the gradual unfolding of Oran's history, and the depictions of the social hierarchy, by the time we have reached the final book of the trilogy, Beldan's Fire we have as clear a picture of the world as the characters do.

Beldan's Fire starts with our focus split between characters and locations scattered across the whole of the island country. The Fire Queen Zorah's power is starting to weaken with her repeated attempts to control the new elemental queens who have come into the world. Each time her grip slips, another little bit of the world disappears as the forces of chaos reclaim the world.

All that can save Oran is if the fourth elemental queen, water, is found and a new Queen's Knot is formed that will shield the world from chaos. But Zorah will do all that she can to prevent this happening because she needs that power to preserve her immortality. Two hundred years ago she killed or incapacitated her three sister queens for just that reason and worked to eliminate all traces of the power in the world save for hers. Any child born with the ability to