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April 26, 2017

Book Review: Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children


Cover Library of Lost Souls.jpegThe Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs, the third and final book in his "Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children" series, has just been released in paper back by Penguin Random House. Like the previous two books Riggs has created a beautiful combination of text and antique photographs that will not only delight readers but stretch their imaginations.

The story picks up from the cliff hanger conclusion of the second book, Hollow City, where the series' main character Jacob Portman has just realized he can control Peculiar's deadliest enemies, Hollowgasts, or Hollows for short. Up to this point Jacob was the only Peculiar alive who could even see these monsters who were once Peculiars and love suck the souls of their former brethren. Now he has just somehow prevented one of them from killing him and his two companions, Emma Bloom, who can create fire with her hands and Addison MacHenry, a talking dog with the ability to track lost Peculiar children and their caretakers known as ymbrynes.

The three are going to need every bit of their abilities if they are going to rescue not only their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine, and their Peculiar friends, but other ymbryne and Peculiar children as well. For Wights, Hollows who have eaten enough Peculiar souls to regain a human form, under the leadership of the diabolical Caul have kidnapped both children and their caretakers from the safe haven of their loops (short periods of time which have been frozen by ymbryne's to safeguard their children) for some nefarious purpose.

Using Addison's amazing abilities the three track their friends to a loop created out of the worst 19th century London England slum you can imagine. Actually Devil's Acre is probably worse than anything you can imagine. It's only fitting the only way to reach the loop is by a ferry boat piloted by a Peculiar named Sharon - a play on Charon, the ferryman from Greek legend responsible for transporting souls across the river Styx to the underworld realm of Hades.
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Pestilential and rotting, Devil's Acre, is filled with all kinds of different horrors. Riggs has obviously allowed himself to be influenced by The Inferno, the great Renaissance poet Dante Alighier's masterwork describing the nine circles of Hell, in his depiction of the layout and evils to be found in this desolate place. Aided by the reluctantly conscripted Sharon the three make their way through the loop only to find their hardest task still remains, freeing their friends.

Riggs has done a remarkable job of combining action, atmosphere, and character development to ensure the story moves at a pace that will keep even the most attention deficit deprived mind interested. However, he also allows enough breathing space so characters and situations can be fully appreciated. Although the story is told in first person from Jacob's perspective we're still able to understand and appreciate those around him through their conversations with him.

Riggs also allows time for Emma and Jacob to try and figure out their budding romance. While filled with the typical doubts that beset any sixteen year old about becoming involved with a girl, Jacob also has to deal with fact that because she'd lived in a loop her whole life, Emma may look his age but is a hundred years old. Riggs does a fine job of giving them little moments within the action where they take a second for themselves without allowing it to become the central focus of the story.

Library of Souls is a book obviously written for a young adult audience but there's no reason it can't be enjoyed by an adult. Its as well written and thoughtful as any so-called adult fantasy, with far less pretentious extraneous baggage. While the use of the antique photos scattered through-out the book does bring up a certain chicken and the egg query, which influenced which - the photos or the story? - they add a wonderful visual element to the story. It's fun to compare ones own imaginings of a person or setting to the picture describing their reality.

All in all this is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful series. Read it for the simple pleasure of enjoying a gracefully imagined and elegantly executed story.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children)

July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series


The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker, published by The Overlook Press July 5 2016, is the third book of the author's "Aspect-Emperor" series. It sets the stage for the conclusion of events he first began depicting in "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy - the world of The Three Seas verging of the precipice of the Second Apocalypse.
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The first series depicted the rise of Anasurimbor Kellus to the position of Aspect Emperor and the first stages of his conquest of The Three Seas. We learned of the world's history and the various players who would shape the course of events for the decades to come. Most importantly we came to understand the history of the name Anasurimbor, and how, according to the teachings of The Mandate School of sorcery (or schoolmen as they are known in this world) it was steeped in dread and wonder. For it had been foretold the name was a harbinger of the Second Apocalypse and the rise of the Mandate's ancient enemy The Consult.

In the first two books of the "Aspect-Emperor" series, The Judging Eye and The White Luck Warrior we witnessed the beginnings of the Kellus' war on The Consult in an attempt to prevent their domination of man. With an army composed of hundreds of thousands he sets out to conquer Golgotterath, the home of The Consult. To accomplish this they must travel beyond the known lands through territory controlled by Sranc - semi-human creations of The Consult who feed on human flesh.

In The Great Ordeal we not only find Kellus' army dealing with the constant grind of fighting a running battle against the Sranc and a lack of supplies, we see how his enemies in the heart of his empire are trying to take advantage of his absence by attacking the capital of his empire. This book also continues the quest of his first teacher, Drusas Achamian - a former Mandate schoolman - to discredit the emperor by discovering his true origins. Accompanying Achamian is Kellus' step-daughter, Mimara, who is equally determined to bring Kellus to heel for her own reasons.

Finally Bakker also takes into the heart of ancient history - the kingdom of the Nomen. They are the world's original inhabitants who after thousands of years of life have slipped into a type of madness. In order to win their allegiance against The Consult Kellus sent them one of his daughters, one of his sons, and the king of one of the realms he conquered as hostages.
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Bakker does a magnificent job of maintaining all four story lines. He transports us from the horrors of the battle field to the intrigues of the palace in capital city of Kellus' empire with ease. He has the uncanny ability to set a scene with such minimal effort there is nothing jarring about these transitions. Whether we're travelling through desolate wilderness with Achamian and Mimara or descending into the pits delved by the Nomen in their mountain home, we are instantly acclimatized to the location and what's taking place.

Bakker's use of language is equally as stunning as his storytelling ability. While he sometimes describes horrors that could push one to the limits of their sanity, he does so in a manner which gives them the power of myth. We feel like we've walked into one of the great sagas of our world's history and are witnessing the deeds and thoughts of people almost beyond our ken.

However, he also has the knack of bringing us up close and personal with each of his characters. The result is we witness and experience events through the eyes of men and women who are every bit as real as we are. We share their innermost thoughts and feelings - including their hopes and fears - to such an extent we can almost believe what they describe is taking place.

He has created a world of magic, wonder, and horror; yet one that is also all too familiar. For it is dominated by religious wars, political and personal ambitions, and the cruelties, personal and otherwise, humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Even the rhetoric spoken by Kellus and other leaders contains eerie echoes of words we have heard, and continue to hear, in our own world.

This series explores human behaviour in ways few epic fantasies have dared in the past. Not only do we witness the depths of depravity which we are capable of stooping to, we hear the words and thoughts granting permission for these acts. While each of the lead characters do anguish over their decisions, they all, in the end, acquiesce to the notion of the ends justifying the means. At the end of the day we have a hard time distinguishing who, if anyone, is a hero.

In The Great Ordeal Bakker has continued to expand upon what he first started six books ago. In the process he's brought to life characters who are both human and compelling, created a world that for all its differences bears a remarkable resemblance to our own, and a sprawling epic tale of the grandest type. Bakker's work carries on the epic story telling tradition established with Homer and the tales of Rama from the Indian sub-continent. Amazingly he is not out of place in this illustrious company.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series)

April 28, 2016

Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
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As is his wont Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he's focused on what we'd know as the region from Venice to Istanbul - with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions - during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they're described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay's previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)

While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay's focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere. From the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It's these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.

Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships travelling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren't supposed to be fighters she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions; Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.

When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif's desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family's representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife travelling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor's wife as a way to enter Seressa's rival as a spy.

When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. The first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
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What's wonderful about Kay's books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character's story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point. Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.

Kay's books are a delight to read because he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you've read over 400 pages without even noticing.

Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif's court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it's his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.

Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created - including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it - makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you'll want to read it again and again.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Children of Earth and Sky - Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay)

January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar


The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar from Soft Skull Press is the third in his series of books featuring Kalix MacRinnalch, the youngest child of the ruling werewolf clan of Great Britain. As she's about to turn 18 Kalix finds herself still an outlaw (she killed her father the Thane) and living in London far removed from the ancestral home in Scotland.
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However, her living situation has improved somewhat since we first met her back in The Lonely Werewolf Girl. She's sharing an apartment with two humans, Daniel and Moonglow, and a Hiyasta fire elemental, Agrivex (known as Vex). While she's still suffering from panic attacks, an eating disorder, and a tendency towards self -harm - she's addicted to laudanum and cuts herself when her anxiety is at its most severe - life is still better. Her family is no longer actively having her hunted down and returned to Scotland (dead or alive) for her crimes and she has friends who care for her.

While things might be looking a little more positive for our werewolf heroine, plans afoot that could see her once more thrust into a horrible maelstrom. For the Avenaris Guild, werewolf hunters, are gearing up to see if they can finally destroy their historic enemies the MacRinnalch clan once and for all. Not only have they recruited new hunters from all over Europe they have found themselves a powerful alley in the person of Empress Kabachetka, the ruler of the Hainusta fire element dimension.

Kabachetka has long begrudged being outshone in the fashion world by Malveria, Queen of the Hiyastas and Vex's aunt. As Malveria's cloths are designed by Kalix's eldest sister Thrix, Kabachetka sees an alliance with the Avenaris Guild against the MacRinnalchs as the perfect opportunity to not only gain revenge but clear the field of all competitors for being the best dressed fire elemental in all dimensions.

If this all sounds rather confusing, and a little bit convoluted, well I've only revealed the tip of the iceberg. For as well as those named above the pages of The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf are peopled with the same host of characters who appeared in the previous two books; including Kalix's extended Werewolf family and the clans associated with them, other magical/mythical beings, and even a cameo appearance by Joan Jett. (Kalix is a big fan of Jett's first group The Runaways.)

However, Millar does a wonderful job of ensuring all the different threads in this story are woven together seamlessly. While he writes chapters that are sometimes merely short bursts of description or brief encounters between one or two characters, each helps to complete our picture of what's happening in the story. We watch as the story builds to its climax - the battle between the werewolves of the MacRicnnalch clan and Avenaris Guild - while coming to appreciate each character more and more.

At the same time, Millar continues to do a wonderful job of describing and detailing the effects of anxiety and panic disorder. It doesn't matter that Kalix is a werewolf. When we step inside her mind and listen to her thoughts we gain a deeper understanding of the fears people suffering from this condition experience. Even the simplest matters can become extremely complicated. What's especially wonderful about Kalix's character is how straightforward her thought processes and reactions are. These are thoughts any of us could have; that any of us could experience.

Of course not all of us our werewolves who were born in their wolf shape on a full moon - which we're given to understand is so rare an occurrence Kalix was the first - who during battle becomes a beserker who feels no pain and will let nothing stop her from ripping an enemy's throat out. It seems like a good way to vent.

There is nothing cute or romantic about the werewolves in this book. In their human forms they have all the same weaknesses and foibles other people have while being fearsome warriors who rip the throats out of their enemies without a second thought. That they design haute couture, use computers (difficult to type when you're in your werewolf shape) donate to art galleries, and play in rock and roll bands might bring them into the 21st century, but they won't back down when challenged.

The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf can be read as a stand alone book, but I'd recommend reading both The Lonely Werewolf Girl and Curse of the Wolf Girl first. Not only will you appreciate this book more for having done so, but they are well worth reading on their own merits.

Millar has a marvellously quirky style of writing that might take a bit getting used to, but once you get into the flow of the book you will find yourself swept along for the ride. There aren't too many authors out there who could have handled the demands of creating such a complex collection of characters and plots and made it so easy to follow without being simplistic. A great book and a fun read for anyone sick and tired of paranormal romance novels.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar)

December 5, 2015

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel - Ms. Marvel Vol.1 No Normal, Ms. Marvel Vol.2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed


Ms Marvel No Normal.jpgA couple of years ago Marvel Comics began the process of rebooting some of its original characters in non traditional ways. It was a way of making their universe a more accurate representation of the real world. Gay characters rub shoulders with new imaginings of traditional characters - a female Thor and a African American Captain America. However, one of the most interesting new interpretations has been how they've taken the character of Ms. Marvel and brought her into the 21st Century.

For those who missed Kamala Khan in her individual comic appearances as the new Ms. Marvel, Marvel has done you the sweet of repackaging them in four volumes: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1:No Normal, Ms. Marval Vol.2: Generation Why, Ms. Marvel Vol.3: Crushed and the soon to be released Ms. Marvel Vol.4: Last Days.

Kamala is the child of immigrants from Pakistan who settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. A typical sixteen year old girl is most ways - loves online RPGs and writes Avenger's fan sites - she also has to deal with the culture clashes most children of immigrants will find familiar. The overprotective parents, the older sibling who knows better and a high school community who think she's "interesting". Sure some of the restrictions placed on her are specific to her being Muslim, but in reality, she could just as easily be Sikh, Chinese or Indian.
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Of course it helps the comic that the head writer is G.Willow Wilson who came to the series with an already impressive resume. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen was winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel as well as having worked on various other comic titles before tackling Ms. Marvel. Having lived and worked in Egypt as a journalist in her twenties she also has a much clearer idea of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world than most Western writers.

The first three volumes collect not only the titles from Ms. Marvel's own book, but also titles from other books - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - she has made guest appearances in. While this sometimes is confusing for purposes of continuity, it also gives us the chance to see the character both in and out of the context of her own world and how she fits into the Marvel universe as a whole.

However, what really makes these comics work is how much Kamala's struggles coming to terms with her new superpower mirrors the struggles she has in finding her place in her community at large. For she wasn't born with her superpowers. After sneaking out to go to a party she's exposed to a mysterious mist which not only induces strange visions - the original Ms. Marvel and some of the Avengers appear to her speaking Urdu - it transforms her into Ms. Marvel.
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While she's always thought this is who she wanted to be, she quickly discovers being someone different doesn't solve her problems. She's not only still Kamala with all of the same difficulties fitting into both school and her parent's world, she now has the added problem of finding her way as a super being. The whole comic is a beautiful conversation on a young woman's struggle for identity which people of all backgrounds will be able to empathize with.

However, the comic doesn't just deal with immigrant life and teenage identity problems, its also got all you typical comic book action. Bringing both to life through short bursts of dialogue and illustrations is no easy task, but the writers and artists on this title do a splendid job. Not only do they bring their message across without being preachy, they also keep the action hopping and have created some exciting story lines for their readers. There's also some special guests along the way if you needed anything else to pique your interest.

Kamala Khan has now outgrown her formative years as a superhero, in current issues of her book she's joined The Avengers. For those who missed her beginnings and her early struggles these three collections are must reads before setting out to find out how she's able to balance being part of a super team and the rest of her life. It was hard enough saving Jersey City, but what if she has to go save the world?

(Article originally published at Blogcrtics.org as Comic Book Review - Ms. Marvel: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 No Normal, Ms Marvel Vol. 2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed)

April 29, 2014

Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte


What if? Two of the most important words in any fiction writer's arsenal, take on special meaning to those who posit realities alternate to the ones we experience in their work. While some would regulate works of fantasy to a lower tier of literature than what they refer to as serious fiction, some of the world's greatest writers have taken us into alternate histories and realities. From the works of Shakespeare (what would you call The Tempest or Midsummer's Night Dream if not fantasy) to the work of the late great South American magic realists Jorge Louis Borge and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fantasy when properly executed can be every bit as creative and literate as any other writing.

Which isn't to say there isn't a great deal of dreck being published under the fantasy label. Like all the romance novels being passed off as fantasy because the authors have thrown in a vampire or a werewolf as the dark brooding hero in place of the man with the mysterious past. Thankfully there are enough authors working at the other end of the spectrum to offset the piles of crap being dumped on us by publishers. Some of the better ones can be found penning the books which can be found slotted under the sub-category of either world building or alternative histories. While you can still find escapist fodder among these, the book equivalent of a Home Box Office mini-series, others are intricate and sophisticated works which not only bring a particular era of human history to life but also postulate fascinating ways in which a particular civilization could have evolved differently under the right circumstances.

Sculptor and author Aidan Harte's Irenicon, published by Quercus Books, is a particularly fascinating example of this style. The first book in his The Wave Trilogy, introduces us to a world based on Italy and Europe in the early days of the Renaissance, but with some key cultural and scientific differences. Unlike our world the son of God did not survive to be crucified and his mother Mary was tasked with the job of spreading the word of the new religion. While the new creed has still managed to become dominant across Europe, over the course of the book we gradually begin to understand how this difference has impacted on the philosophical underpinnings of this world.
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Much like our world at this time, the majority of this Europe is made up of independent city states. However, looming over them all as a constant threat is the Concordian Empire. Having conquered or subjugated most of the city states they are now bleeding them dry through annual tribute payments. The Empire's rulers are past masters of the divide and conquer mentality and have successfully managed to quell any potential resistance to their rule by turning their fiercest opponents against each other. No better example of this can be found in the city state which was their biggest obstacle to rule, Rasenna.

The Empire split the city in two by unleashing The Wave. They had learned how to harness and control water through a combination of science and technology and force it to obey their commands. They literally sent a wave through the middle of Rasenna which created a river dividing the town in half. The physical division successfully broke whatever unity existed in the city and set the various districts and their controlling families into conflict with each other in an effort to control the remains of the city. Similar to the Contrade (or districts) of renaissance Siena, each family and their followers guard their borders jealously. Occasional raids across the river via ropes and roof tops result in casualties on all sides and ensure the rivalry between the districts never abates.

Sofia Scaligeri, while residing and fighting with one of the main families embroiled in the conflicts, is also the heir to the title of Contessa of Rasenna. While the city's equivalent of a general assembly or town council continues to meet, factionalism has rendered it useless. So even if Scaligeri comes into her title she can't see much hope in bringing her people together under one banner. However aid comes to her from two very unlikely sources, The Empire itself and the aging Mother Superior of the local equivalent of a convent. The Empire has sent one of its infamous engineers, the same group of men who utilized the Wave technology to split the city, in order to build a bridge spanning the river.
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They need a bridge in order to facilitate the movement their armies in an attempt to consolidate their power in the region. However, the building of the bridge is also seen by some in Rasenna as an opportunity to reunite the two halves of the city. While some see it as a threat to their power base, the Mother Superior, who belongs to no faction, understands this could be the chance for the city to recover itself. However in order to do so they will need a leader who will be able to counter the Empire's technological control of water. For the nuns are the diametrical opposites of the engineers, they don't seek to dominate the natural forces of the world, instead they teach a practice of working with an element's innate power to give one strength.

What elevates Irenicon above the usual run of the mill fantasy read is Harte's ability to bring his vision of an alternate history to life. Instead of bogging the story down with explanations and descriptions of the world he's created he allows us the opportunity to gradually become immersed in its realities through his characters and the plot. While this might require some patience on the part of readers as we try and piece together the conflicting philosophies underpinning the various factions motivations and actions, the technique also allows readers to become completely immersed in the world.

Somehow Harte manages to combine a series of intricate plots lines, intriguing characters and the creation of his version of renaissance Europe without ever becoming confusing. At the same time he doesn't insult a reader's intelligence by spelling anything out for us. While there's always an element of escapism inherent to any work of fantasy, Harte proves the genre can be as thought provoking and intelligence as any other work of fiction. Anyone with a fascination of European history, in particular the Italian renaissance, will take great pleasure in his attention to detail involving all aspects of his creation. From its religion, its nascent technology and all the way through to its social structure, he has created a world that could have easily stepped out of any history book, but which is infinitely more interesting.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte)

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)

November 5, 2013

Book Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation by Tim Manley


"Curiouser and curiouser" was Alice's commentary on the world she found down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol's Alice In Wonderland. While the land she found herself in was populated by hookah smoking caterpillars, pocket watch bearing white rabbits, vanishing talking cats and other strange and somewhat scary beings, it probably wasn't half so strange as the rabbit hole of social networks we currently live in.

There is no mythical or fantastic country I can think of stranger than the lands of a thousand unknown "Friends" which is Facebook or the 140 characters of sometimes meaningless chatter constituting Twitter. Mobile phones and tablets are the looking glasses of today. Faces glued to screens, oblivious to the world around them, people enter into a cyber world as unreal and made up as any created by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. All of which makes a new book by Tim Manley, Alice In tumblr-Land (and Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation), published by Penguin Canada a pleasure to read on many levels.

Snow White, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and the rest of the fairy tale/folk hero gang, live in the world of social media. Chicken Little feeds her paranoia by Googling illnesses, Snow has fantasies about Ryan Gosling while perusing online photos and Beauty worries what her chic friends will think of Beast. Cinderella divorced the Prince (he wasn't gay, just kind of a prick) and moved back in with her stepmother, vowing never to wear glass slippers ever again - it's Crocs all the way for this modern girl while Arthur and Lancelot have jobs in the sharp end of the service industry and are typical twenty-something slackers.
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Manley, the creator of the blog, Fairy Tales For Twenty-somethings, has put the book together along the lines of blog posts or daily status updates on a social media site. Instead of chapters telling each character's story, each page contains a small blurb and an illustration (all illustrations by the author) of what at first appears to be meaningless pieces of information. All right, it's sort of cute Snow White has the hots for Gosling. (He's not related to the Ugly Duckling is he?) Or, how after pulling the sword from the stone, before becoming king, Arthur takes off on a road trip which includes stops at Burning Man and learning how to make a guitar out of cigar box on the streets of New Orleans.

But like status updates they are merely moments without context or substance. You don't learn anything about a person, or a character, from these types of truncated thoughts. Thankfully Manley understands this, and doesn't just leave it at that. For he uses these blurbs to gradually tell us each person's story. As we continue to read he keeps circling back to his characters gradually revealing more and more about each one.

As the book unfolds you start to see the imaginative and mischievous ways Manley has brought these classic figures into the modern world. He's taken elements of each story and combined these with a character's most distinctive traits to create thoroughly modern versions of the folk/fairy tale. Poor Robin Hood is having a hard time spreading his message of social equality. The whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing just doesn't seem to be working. Changing the world is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Sure it was working on a local level, but what about nationally and globally? Going on the Sheriff's day time talk show wasn't any help - as a firm proponent of trickle down economics he and Robin had a hard time finding anything they could talk about except their mutual liking of ice cream.

As if things weren't bad enough Robin found he was having a hard time opening up about what was on his mind to those closest to him. He was even reticent around his oldest friend Little John. Is this what aging does to you, you slowly just stop talking about things he wondered? However, not to worry. Robin eventually figures things out and develops a whole social media campaign to get his message to the world.

While some people might have problems with some of the choices Manley makes in bringing his characters into the 21st century; Arthur gay, Rapunzel giving up on guys and taking up with a hot girl friend and Mulan having a sex change - she'd always been happier being one of the guys; you never have the impression he's made any of his decisions casually or simply to shock. In fact there's something quite realistic about the way he describes what happens to each of them. Sure it's done with humour, but the process each character goes through is as honest as anything you'll read anywhere else.
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Originally fairy tales and similar stories were written as a means of teaching a moral lesson or something simiilar about the world we live in. Over the years, and thanks to the sentimentality of a certain entertainment conglomerate based out of Florida and California, the lessons have either been diluted or lost. Not only has Manley updated the stories and the characters, he has also restored their original purpose. I don't mean he has made them into modern day morality tales, but he uses them to help us see what's happening in the world around us just a little more clearly.

While it might be funny to think of Sleeping Beauty as suffering from depression, Chicken Little from panic disorder and anxiety and The Ugly Duckling using her superior intellect to cover up her insecurity about her appearance, Manley's descriptions of their conditions gradually becomes uncomfortably accurate. In fact the more we read about each of them, the more poignant their stories become. However, like all good fairy tales, each of their stories has a happy ending. Chicken Little goes into therapy to deal with issues from her childhood and starts hot yoga classes, Sleeping Beauty met up with her old buddy the Prince for coffee and he listened and understood why she was sad which made her feel better, while The Ugly Duckling saw some pictures from her high school reunion posted on Facebook and realized, while she might not be beautiful, she looked right.

As we read about each of the characters we begin to think of them less in terms of who they were originally and more as people dealing with life as we know it. While Manley's illustrations remind us of their fairy tale origins through his use of familiar distinguishing characteristics, his writing turns them into something quite different. They are more than just cute cartoons or figures from stories in our past, they are characters whose concerns and problems are ones we understand. Of course humour is a big part of the book, but underneath the laughter is an insightful mind who understands the foibles and frailties of being human with compassion and empathy.

Social media is a fact of life whether we like it or not. Marshall McLuhan said the media is the message. Through their choice of media some people attempt to send a message or even comment on the media itself. Manley, while maybe poking fun at people's obsessions with social networks and the Internet, embraces the form required for its utilization and gives us an indication of its potential as a means of real communication while neither condeming nor advocating its usage. In his stories the Internet is an accepted part of life just as it is for all of us.

Alice In tumblr-Land (And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation) is a humorous and intelligent look at life in the 21st century as seen through the eyes of familiar figures from the fairy tales of our childhood. While its sub-title implies the book is geared towards a specific generation the content and humour will appeal to almost anyone. Not only is it a lot of fun to read, it is also thought provoking and smart. Like the fairy tale books of our childhoods Manley's illustrations complement the writing and play an integral part in their telling. Unlike those books however, these stories are firmly based in our current reality and the happy endings aren't dependant on anyone being rescued by a handsome prince.

Article originally published at the Empty Mirror as Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation)

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.)

September 19, 2012

Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One Of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson


To be honest I've never been much for prequels. Even the name given these titles of books or movies which tell the story of what came before bothers me. It's just a little too cute tying together previous and sequel into one word which actually means nothing at all. Aside from my abhorrence for all things cute, prequels are usually just blatant attempts to cash in on a title's original success. Nine times out of ten they nowhere near as good as the original and usually they turn out to be a waste of money. However, there are exceptions to any rule and Forge Of Darkness, the first book in Steven Erikson's new The Kharkanas Trilogy, published by Random House Canada, detailing events taking place prior to those depicted in his The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is one of those rarities.

Forge Of Darkness tells the story of the Tiste Andii, the mysterious dark skinned immortal race who seemed almost godlike in their powers when compared to the mortals of the previous series. Here, at some time in the distant past, long before the creation of the mortal realms, we are introduced to the Tiste in their realm of Kuruld Galaim. Mother Dark rules over them in her citadel in Kharkanas, but the realm is seriously divided. The noble families of the vie for political and social power with each other and conspire against Mother Dark's chosen Consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus. Considered an upstart of no real noble lineage, the majority of the nobility feel him unsuitable for the position of lover to their. However they dare not move openly against him for not only don't they know the extent of his power, he also has the support of Mother Dark's chosen sons, three brothers; Anomander, Andarist and Silchas Ruin of the Purake family.
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While the nobles make noises a more tangible threat is shaping up in the form of disbanded soldiers who served in the wars defending Kuruld Galaim against threats from beyond its borders. Fuelled by the resentment of a few officers, who feel they were never properly recognized for their contributions, bands of soldiers have started reforming in secret. Claiming to be protecting Mother Dark they start killing those they call the Deniers, ones who they accuse of refusing to worship her and what she represents. The only trouble is she doesn't know what they are doing in her name. Soon their killings become indiscriminate as they attack both noble houses and other legions who fought in the wars. In reality their ambition is to see themselves elevated to nobility and the former leader of their forces, Vartha Ursander, wedded to Mother Dark, whether he, or she, wants to or not.

Those who have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence will start to recognize the history being described from hints and clues dropped during that series. This is the beginning of the schism that would eventually see the Tiste divided into three: Tiste Andii, children of dark; Tiste Liossan, children of light and Tiste E'dur children of shadow. Although that's jumping ahead of the story told in this book as it only sets the stage for the first division between light and dark. Along the way readers will meet characters whom they first met at various points in the original series and learn something about their history and origins.

We also learn more about some of the peoples who are were known as the elder races, the ones who were around before mortals. As well as races with the familiar names of Jaghut and Forkul Assail, we are introduced to an even older race called the Azathanai. Known as renowned masons and able to work incredible magic with earth and stone, they are also builders of another sort as we're soon to find out. For among their number are other character names from the earlier series, the most important of which is K'rull - who created the warrens which are the repository of the magic humans draw on for sorcery and healing. There are also specific Azathanai who are given responsibility for shepherding each of the other races, acting as protectors, gift givers and the instigators of change.

What separated Erikson's work in the past from others was not only the detail he would bring to his world building, but the humanity he brought to his characters. Whether or not the characters in question are technically human doesn't really matter, they are created in an manner so we can identify with them emotionally and intellectually. None of this has changed in his latest creation. However, in some ways this book has depths to it that previous works lacked, and lends it a weightiness some might find disconcerting at first. For it raises issues about faith, belief and religion that one wouldn't normally expect to find in a fantasy book. Or at least the level of discussion rises to a level one doesn't normally find in works of fiction.

While some might question the appropriateness of having such a discussion in a fantasy novel, the story of the Tiste and their schism is all about questions of faith and belief. In order to create the level of verisimilitude required to make their world and its reality believable there needs to be a philosophical underpinning to all that happens. Otherwise it's just a series of actions carried out for no reason. That may be sufficient for an action adventure story, but not if you're looking at telling the story of the growth and evolution of a people and a world. We're not talking about a simplistic fantasy story here after all, this is a world as complex and unsettled as our own.
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What's even more impressive is the manner in which Erikson is able to incorporate this discussion seamlessly into the natural flow of the book and make it a natural extension of the action. Characters, whether attempting to justify their actions or questioning the actions of others, put forward arguments and counter arguments without it ever impeding on the actual narrative. It's not like they stop in the middle of a battle to engage in a philosophical debate or anything like that. To be honest I'm not even sure how he managed it, but as you reach the end of the book you'll realize he's managed to create the variety of philosophies needed for a schism of the size he's portraying to occur.

Trying to capture a moment of crises in amber is almost impossible as there is never only one reason or event that pushes things past a point of no return. It not only takes a wide array of people acting in a various different ways and a variety of events all just happening to occur in the right sequence to precipitate a seemingly singular and momentous occurrence. Our own world's history is rife with examples of how a series of apparently unconnected events led to a calamity. There might have been one amongst them that is most remembered now because it was the one that proved the tipping point, but if it had occurred in isolation, it wouldn't have had the same impact.

What Erikson has done with Forge Of Darkness is very carefully show how events and actions, from the trivial to the major, all play a role in contributing to a society's descent into chaos. Those who had grown accustomed to the humour salted through the previous series may find the harshness and bleakness a bit unexpected, but there's nothing much funny about a world tearing itself apart. In the Malazan Book of the Fallen we were introduced to the three races of Tiste. We knew at one time they had all been one people; this is the story of how the schism began with the birth of the first two; Dark and Light. I'm sure as the trilogy continues so will the story and out of Darkness and Light will be born the third people Shadow. In The Malazan Book of the Fallen we heard various myths on how the three people of the Tiste came to be, this is that history brought to life.

This is fantasy on a level that few have ever attempted and fewer still would have the ability to carry off. Erikson is one of the few who can. It might be not be to the taste of those who only want sword and sorcery in their fantasy, but anyone looking for something a little more intellectually taxing and fulfilling will love it. Erikson should be made a genre onto himself, because nobody else is quite like him or equal to his abilities.

(Article first published as Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One of The Kharkanas Triologyby Steven Erikson 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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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 23, 2011

INHERITANCE - BOOK FOUR OF The Inheritance Cycle, Release Date Announced

Finally, it's just been announced that the long awaited concluding chapter to Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, INHERITANCE will be published in November of 2011. According to a release sent out by Barnes and Noble today, the fourth book in Paolini's young adult fantasy series is scheduled to be released at some point in November of this year, just in time for Christmas shopping.
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For those who have been paying any sort of attention for the past two years, you'll know that I have something of a vested interest in this news as I was commissioned to write a book predicting how Paolini would wrap up the series. What Will Happen In Eragon lV? was published by Ulysses Press in October of 2009 and while those who have read it have given it fairly positive reviews (Those who purchased it thinking they were buying the fourth book were understandably disappointed but I still don't think that gives them the right to give the book one star ratings at Amazon.com - when the only person they have to blame for not paying attention is themselves) sales slowed to a trickle when it became obvious the concluding book wasn't being published any time soon.

Now three years after the release of book three, Brisingr, book four will finally hit the shelves, and hopefully in the interim - there are still seven months to go before Paolini's book comes out folks - people might decide the quickest and easiest way to remind themselves of what went on in the first three books would be to pick up a copy of What Will Happen In Eragon lV? Well I can hope can't I? Hey I've got a wife, three cats, and credit cards to support - I need all the help I cant get here.

Anyway, this is good news for fans of Paolini's books, and good news for Paolini himself. I have to confess I was little worried about him having hit a wall, and so I'm very glad for his sake that he was able to finish the book. I hope that he is satisfied with what he did, and I would also like to say, that no matter what, he should be very proud of his accomplishment. After all he started this project when he was fifteen and has shown the perseverance to stick with it and finish it off even under what must have been considerable pressure. Well done

Oh, for those keeping score - Inheritance wasn't even on my short list for possible titles. That's one wrong - but who knows how many right. You'll have to read both my book and Christopher's to find out.

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 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 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.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie 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.)

October 15, 2010

Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer

Once upon a time we were all very young. We used to be able to escape into magical worlds occupied by daring princes who would overcome huge odds to rescue beautiful princesses and ugly trolls and witches who would grind our bones to flour for their bread as soon as look at us. Forests were primordial places filled with dangerous wolves set on eating our grandparents, brave dwarves who protected beautiful virgins from evil step-mothers. and mysterious animals who could grant wishes both perilous and glorious. A person could obtain riches instantly and have all their dreams come true or find that no matter how wealthy they became happiness continued to escape them. It was a simple world of good against evil where the righteous always triumphed and villainy was always be vanquished in the end.

Unfortunately as we grew older the real world of half-truths, shades of grey that clouded moral issues, and winners who weren't always the good guy asserted itself. We lost our belief in fairy god-mothers who could wave a magic wand and make things better and discovered there wasn't a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of every rainbow. The witches that lurked in the heart of the forest sending delightful chills up our spine turned into the anxiety of the job interview that has to go well and worries about the price of food. In the face of such pragmatic considerations what place is there in our lives for magic? We no longer dream of fairies or dragons, instead we dream of new cars and houses in a safe neighbourhood. While we still might divide the world into good and evil we do so to justify our actions instead of as a impartial judgement of behaviour.
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However, somewhere inside of each us still lurks the heart that was stirred by tales of magic and a part of each of us, no matter how small it might be, still yearns to be dazzled by fairy lights. When we turn on the television, go to the movies, theatre, ballet and opera, or pick up a book, some small piece of us is remembering the thrill we felt as we followed a hero down a dark path in a forest and are hoping for that spirit to be recaptured. Too often we come away disappointed for one reason or another as there are too few stories out there that can capture our imaginations in quite the way the tales of our youth did. When one does come along we latch onto it like a life preserver and it sells in the millions. How else can you explain the phenomenal success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the ongoing fascination with J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings?

Understanding our need for magic, and trying to fulfill it, has been the focus of Kate Bernheimer's literary career. As well as founding the Fairy Tale Review, a literary magazine devoted to modern fairy tales, she has edited anthologies devoted to the retelling of fairy tales, lectured on their validity as literature and done everything in her power to keep them alive. Her latest attempt to help us remember that imaginations are a treasure, My Mother She Killed Me ; My Father He Ate Me, published by Penguin Canada, gathers together stories and authors from around the globe. Each author, whether from Vietnam, Russia, England, Japan, United States and elsewhere was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale or myth that inspired them.

While each of the stories are fascinating in some ways the paragraphs the authors wrote explaining why they had chosen a particular story, or perhaps, why that story had chosen them, are equally insightful. I was amazed at how many of them admitted the story they had chosen in some way impacted all their work, not just this piece specifically commissioned for the book. Think about that for a second - these people of all ages and backgrounds, have carried around one story in their hearts and it has fed their creativity since they were children. If that isn't enough right there to convince you magic still exists in the world nothing will.

The more then thirty stories gathered together between the covers of this book aren't filled with the characters you remember from the fairy tales of your childhood. Some of them may have the occasional king or princess in them, but the majority are about mother's and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters and other characters we're all familiar with from our everyday life. Occasionally a mysterious figure like a mermaid will poke her tail fin into the narrative or we'll venture into a realm that bears little resemblance to the street we walk down on our way to work, but most of the time we're surrounded by the everyday. So what makes them fairy tales if there is no princess in the tower waiting to be rescued or pile of gold waiting to be found?
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Fairy tales brought magic into our lives in all its obvious guises. A good number of the stories in My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me find the elements of fairy tales being played out around us. The child who imagines a mysterious stranger who has a wonderful surprise for her to escape from her fear of disappointing her mother's obsession with cost and status; the middle aged mother and wife who feels unappreciated by her husband and daughter only to find out, magically, how much they love her; the husband and wife who drift apart but then discover their true love for each other before its too late and the insecure lovers who allow their anxieties to ruin their relationship but ultimately discover themselves as individuals and renew their chance at love. There's a type of magic that permeates each of these stories; the magic of being alive that so many of us have forgotten about or have never learned to recognize or acknowledge.

As children fairy tales stirred our imaginations and let us travel beyond the boundaries of the known world. However as our world began to grow around us we began to lose sight of them until we no longer believed. Collections like My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me allow us to realize they haven't disappeared, we just no longer recognize magic when we see it. We don't have to mount white chargers or slay dragons to combat evil or break spells to woo our prince or princess anymore, but there's no denying the magic in discovering love or righting a wrong no matter how trivial. Pots of gold may not glitter the way they did when we were younger, but there are still rewards beyond our imagining awaiting us out in the world - we only have to open our eyes to see them.

(Article first published as Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2010

Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar

Now a days you can't open the the TV listings, entertainment pages or go into a book store without coming across a reference to either werewolves or vampires. However, unlike the good old days when they were considered straight ahead creatures of evil who would as soon rip out your throat or drink your blood as look at you, they've been turned into tragic romantic heroes (or heroines) becoming the favoured subject matter of something called paranormal romance - enough to make Bram Stoker rise from the dead and drive a stake in anybody's heart. I can only guess this latest twist on the bad boy theme - kind of makes you miss the love and leave him cad or even the brooding dark haired guy with the mysterious past of the old days - will continue to rake in millions for publishers across North America as the way the number of titles falling into this category continue to proliferate suggests the public's appetite for this schlock isn't going to wane anytime soon.

Unfortunately with the market being swamped with dreck interesting titles run the risk of being lost in the shuffle. One of the best of the lot was Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl. In it we were introduced to Kalix, a teenage werewolf who not only suffered from anxiety but was also saddled with an eating disorder and a nasty addiction to the opium derivative laudanum. The youngest daughter of the ruling clan of Scottish werewolves, Kalix was forced into exile in London for savaging her brutal father, the Thane. His death set off a brutal war of succession which split the clan in half and literally set brother against brother. Although Kalix really couldn't have cared less who became the new thane, she, the humans she befriended (Moonglow and Daniel) and their friend Vex, a fire elemental from another dimension, were all caught up in the resulting battle and barely survived.
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Along with her fashion designing sister Thrix, punk rock cousins Beauty and Delicious, Vex's adopted aunt Queen Malvaria and other assorted members of the werewolf clan, Kalix now returns in Millar's latest book Curse Of The Wolf Girl published in North America by Underland Press. With her brother Marcus enthroned as new Thane of the clan there are hopes that things can return to normal for everybody. While for most of them that means returning to the business of living peacefully in their private estates in Scotland, Kalix and a few others are firmly settled in London and have no desire to return home. As a result of her misspent early years Kalix didn't have the educational opportunities others in the clan were given and has reached the age of seventeen a functional illiterate. So, when the book opens we find her and Vex preparing to begin their first days at remedial collage where they will join with others hoping to learn basic literacy and math skills.

Unfortunately there are those unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie (or werewolves either for that matter). Underneath the calm exterior there is simmering resentment among some of those who backed Marcus's brother Sarapen as Thane and who wish to seek revenge of Kalix for having killed him in the final battle. Even while they plot to try and hunt her down, the guild of werewolf hunters have been quietly rebuilding their depleted ranks (they suffered horrible losses during the war of succession when they got in the crossfire so to speak) with dedicated hunters from Eastern Europe wishing to capitalize on the free market. They are hopeful that the combination of new members and modern surveillance technology will give them enough of an advantage they'll be able to exact revenge for their previous losses. Finally, a Princess of a rival fire elemental dimension who has long been jealous of Queen Malvaria's fashion triumphs because of her friendship with the werewolf designer Thrix, forms a secret alliance with a traitor in her rival's court that could not only see Malvaria overthrown, but the death of a great many werewolves.

What separated Millar's first book from so many other "werewolf" books, was how easy it was for the reader to take for granted his characters were werewolves. Sure Kalix was a ferocious warrior who had no qualms about ripping the throat out of any werewolf hunter or enemy werewolf she encountered, (she was born during a full moon as a werewolf and is able to change whether the moon is shining or not and has a battle madness that gives her a strength and speed far surpassing beings twice her size) but she's also a scared and confused teenager who was badly scarred by an abusive father. In Curse Of The Wolf Girl the characters continue to be interesting not only because of what they are, but who they are, and Martin has taken great care to continue their development in a very real way. In fact once you're able to suspend your disbelief about werewolves, fairies and elementals existing, everything about them and the world surrounding them is so believable you'll have no problem accepting their reality.
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It doesn't hurt that Millar has a wonderful sense of the absurd that injects necessary doses of humour into the proceedings. The fashion industry bears the brunt of most of his comedy - for all the right reasons - through Queen Malvaria's obsessions with clothes and accessories, especially handbags and shoes. However, he also turns his sharp eye on popular music, comics, and a variety of other popular culture affectations. Yet, unlike others, there's nothing mean or nasty about Millar's humour. Its the type of affectionate teasing you'd expect from someone who admires something but whose also well aware of the ridiculous lengths people will go to when something becomes an obsession - from collecting comics to yearning for the perfect shade of lipstick.

If you're not used to Millar's style of writing, short chapters that switch back and forth between his various characters and plot lines, you might find it a little difficult to settle into the rhythm of the story at first. However, once you are accustomed to how he works you'll soon begin to appreciate it for the ease with which it allows you to assimilate the information necessary for following the various plot lines and keeping all the characters, and how they relate to each other, straight in your head. Bouncing between the mortal realm, two separate fire elemental kingdoms, the world of the fairies and the home of the Scottish werewolves while keeping track of a multitude of characters is no easy task, but Millar has done it with an ease that borders on magical. (Perhaps he had some assistance from some of his friends from the other dimensions who appear on these pages - his familiarity with what goes on in some of them seems a little too complete for him not to have made the occasional visit there) While you'll have an easier time of it if you've already read The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own.

In Curse Of The Wolf Girl Martin Millar once again proves that he's one of the more innovative and interesting fantasy writers around. He tackles subject matter that has been worked to death recently and makes it seem brand new. While his writing isn't going to appeal to the paranormal romance crowd, and for that we should all be eternally grateful, for the rest of us its a breath of fresh air in a genre that's become increasingly stale. If we're really lucky Kalix and her friends might supplant a certain whinny teenager and her un-dead heart throbs on movie screens. However, even if that doesn't occur at least you know you can run to the books for safety, and Millar has left open the potential for a third. If you like your humour with a bite and your paranormal grounded in reality, than look no further, Martin Millar's books are just what you've been looking for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

July 21, 2010

Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott

I'm not a fan of horror books, or movies for that manner, along the lines of those written by Steven King. I've never understood how anyone can enjoy having the shit scared out of them or can find blood and gore being splattered all over the screen anything but repulsive. In fact, of the books along those lines that I've attempted to read I've found them to be dangerously perverse, close to pornographic, in the way the authors seem to revel in delving into the potential for sick and twisted behaviour among human beings. There's far more exploitation, instead of exploration, of human psychological deformities in those I've read to give them any redeeming qualities in my eyes.

There's enough genuine horror in the world we live in that I don't need to read the inventions of anyone who takes pleasure in recreating them. According to the best seller lists I realize this reaction puts me in the minority as there seems to be a huge market for these exploitation thrillers. Thankfully that doesn't there's nothing in the genre that's not worth reading and there aren't some gems waiting to be uncovered amidst the dross if you dig around carefully enough. One of those is Rob Scott's 15 Miles being published by Orion Books on August 19th/10.

With its title taken from the old nursery rhyme of the same name; (From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles/From Wibleton to Wobbleton/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles) a plot mixing together elements of police procedurals and thrillers with a dash of the supernatural and macabre thrown in for good measure, on the surface it appears no different from any other book in the genre. However, Scott takes the story to another level in the way he's able to take a set of circumstances that is almost a cliché; an isolated farm house in Virginia complete with two corpses in various stages of decomposition, feral domestic cats, mysteriously dead live stock, and a missing person; and turn them into a means of exploring the effects of deep seated guilt on an individual.
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Officer Samuel "Sailor" Doyle of the Virginia State Police had been desperate for a transfer from the Vice squad to Homicide. Like so many other officers before him exposure to the types of crime you deal with in Vice, child pornography for instance, has had its effect on him. Unfortunately in his case that includes a serious addiction to OxyContin and a heavy dependance on alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the job. With a loving wife and two young kids at home he knows something has to change or he risks ruining the one good thing in his life. However, taking a mistress at the annual CID Christmas party isn't what the doctor ordered, even if she is interning with the MD who serves as the department's crime scene specialist. So when the switch to Homicide comes through he convinces himself it's the first step on his road to recovery.

However just how much further he has to travel down that particular road comes home to him with a resounding thud when the July 4th weekend and a visit from a Presidential hopeful leave the Virginia State Police stretched thin and Doyle has to head up the investigation surrounding two bodies found on an derelict farm. It's his first time flying solo and he's terrified of making the wrong decision, mis-reading the evidence or just fucking up in general. So he's reaching for the OcyContin before he's even on site in the hopes it will give him the confidence he lacks. I'll leave it to your imagination to picture the scene he finds based on what I described in an earlier paragraph, only adding that once he manages to look beyond the rubble he uncovers a secret that might well explain how it came about.

Further complicating matters for Doyle is he begins to suffer from a series of audio hallucinations which take the form of messages from his sister who died years ago. What makes them doubly disconcerting is not only the fact that he's hearing them, but they can happen in the middle of a conversation and they sound like they're coming from the person talking to him. As we move deeper into the novel the story line involving Doyle's sister becomes increasingly important to our understanding of his character and how he's ended up in his current situation. Even more importantly is how Scott utilizes this plot line as the link between the supernatural and the rational. The memory and unconscious mind can play amazing tricks upon individuals, especially when stress, drugs, alcohol and guilt are mixed together in as lethal a cocktail as they are in Doyle. However, as it's only as Doyle starts to remember what happened that this becomes clear, there's plenty of time for his horror and fear over the voices to build to near his breaking point.
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In the midst of all that's happening in his mind, Doyle is also doing his best to solve the mystery surrounding the two dead bodies in the farm house and the absence of their developmentally challenged adult daughter. Scott does an amazing job of not only balancing the plot lines of Doyle's personal life and the case he's investigating, but in establishing how the two become irrevocably linked in his main character's mind. Doyle and his team must look beyond the horror of what they find at the crime scene in order to piece together what's happened in much the same way he has to look beyond the mess he's made of his personal life to see the root cause of his own problems.

While Doyle isn't the most sympathetic of characters to begin with, over the course of the story we find ourselves not only hoping for him to succeed, but winning our grudging respect and actually caring what happens to him. As a result, whether or not he is able to solve the case becomes even more vitally important because of what he has invested in it personally. Somehow, if he's able to find and save the missing daughter he will, in his own mind, be able to redeem himself for the death of his sister. With one blow Scott has not only provided motivation for his main character, he also manages to ramp up the tension over solving the case an extra notch or two. For not only is there a plot twist that makes finding the daughter take on an extra dimension of urgency, the attachment we've formed with Doyle makes us want desperately for him to find a way out of his personal hell.

In his previous works, The Eldarn Sequence, Scott showed his talent for creating believable characters in fantastic circumstances and a flair for multiple plot lines. In 15 Miles he has not only put those talents to excellent use with the creation of Samuel "Sailor" Doyle and his supporting cast and the way events in the book have been interwoven, his sense of pace and his feel for atmosphere make this a thriller of the highest quality. While the tension gradually rises throughout the book, Scott's timing is such that just when you thing it will be too much to bear he eases back ever so slightly, only to take your breath away when he ramps it up to a newer and higher level.

Unlike a roller coaster which has ups and downs, 15 Miles is a constant ascent, with occasional breaks on a plateau to regain your breath before moving on, spotted with occasional doubts about your ability to reach the top. With the macabre elements rooted in reality giving credence to everything that happens no matter how strange or outlandish they maybe, this is as well crafted and intelligent a thriller as you're liable to read this year. If you're like me and have no taste for horror stories, or so-called psychological thrillers, which seem to exploit their circumstances in order for the author to produce some cheap thrills, 15 Miles will go a long way to restoring your faith that there are writers who actually care about what they produce.

(Article first published as Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 4, 2010

Book Review: Dreams Of Sex and Stage Diving By Martin Millar

Years ago I participated in a five day theatre workshop called "Leap In The Dark". While the title suggests those participating would be going into uncharted territory, thinking back on the process, it now seems like the exercise was more training to take a leap than a leap itself. The exercises we were led through were designed to open us up to risk taking so in the future we wouldn't be afraid of taking the leaps in the dark necessary to the creative process. When you decide to make a career in the arts there are no guarantees of success; everything you do is a risk. The more willing you are to throw yourself whole heartily into something without worrying about the consequences the better.

These aren't blind leaps of faith based on some faint hope there will be someone there to catch you when you land. Instead you do it based on the faith you have in your own abilities to do what's necessary in order to complete whatever it is you've set out to do. Personally I always go through a period of agonizing before throwing myself off that precipice, but once I commit there's a great feeling of liberation and freedom, almost like flying, or at least tightrope walking without a net. If you fall you're going to splat resoundingly true enough, but think how wonderful you'll feel when you succeed. The only way you have a chance at making any dreams you might have come true is by taking some sort of risk. You can drift through life feeling mildly frustrated all the time and safe, or take the occasional chance and reach for your dreams.

It was reading the re-release of Martin Millar's Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Soft Skull Press which triggered those thoughts. Originally published in 1995, the book is set in familiar territory for fans of Millar's work, the streets of London England's Brixton. With poverty, homelessness, and unemployment rampant, the fact that the young punks who populate this book have dreams at all is remarkable, no matter how trivial or silly their dreams might appear to us or anyone else. The dream around which this book revolves belongs to one of the most unlikely, and frankly unlovable, heroines your liable to meet. Elfish brings new meaning to the word misanthropic as she stomps her unwashed way through people's lives in her oversized motorcycle boots and bad attitude.
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There's no lie she won't tell and nothing she won't steal in her quest to wrest the use of Queen Mab as a band name away from her ex boyfriend Mo. The two of them had not only been partners but also band mates, and upon the dissolution of their relationship she demanded rights to the name, in spite of the fact that she had no band and what looked like little hope of ever forming one. Prospects are looking particularly bleak when she discovers that Mo's band has a gig scheduled in ten days time. If they perform just once in public using the name she knows her hopes will be dashed. However, she's able to convince Mo to accept a bet which will see her win the band name if she's able to recite a speech from William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet about Queen Mab on stage prior to the gig and then have her band open the show. If she loses the bet Mo gets to do anything he wants with her.

So on top of learning the forty-three lines of the monologue, Elfish also must somehow put together a band within the next ten days as well. For most of us this would be a daunting task, one few of us would even consider taking on. The risk of making an absolute fool of oneself in public over something as apparently trivial as the name of a band just doesn't seem worth it. However Elfish is not like most of us and she's used to plunging headlong into the unknown. For while she may be well known as a self-centred and selfish individual, she's also equally renowned for her capabilities as a stage diver.

Small and wiry she's wonderfully adept at working her way through the throngs of people in front of a stage, eluding whatever security is on hand, climbing on stage and then flinging herself head first into the audience where her fall would be cushioned by those below. Crammed in as they are, most crowds have no way of getting out of a stage diver's way and can only defend themselves by raising their hands in order to fend off flailing boots, elbows, and other assorted body parts that have the potential to cause injury as they plummet earthwards.
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Much like she would dive off a stack of speakers, Elfish dives headlong into her quest to memorize her speech and coerce, bribe, beg, and lie to get people to join her band. Like the audience at a gig those she choses to descend on are defenceless against her onslaught as she preys upon their weaknesses and fears. Whether its the bulimic actress she bullies into helping her learn her lines with false promises of hooking her up with a fundraiser for her theatre company, the homeless guitar player she falsely assures of a place to live, or one of the many other lies she spouts in order to see her dream come true, they all strike a soft spot in her target as surely as a well place boot to the kidney.

Mab is the queen of dreams, and as she might visit us in our sleep to inspire us with thoughts and ideas, so Millar has Elfish visiting upon his cast of characters the inspiration to overcome their apathy and anguish to make their own tentative steps towards fulfilling their dreams. While they all might despise her for the methods she's used against them, without her they would have never done anything to change their circumstances, to take a chance on living again. Fairies aren't the pretty little things that Walt Disney or others would have us believe them to be. They are selfish beings who think of little else but their own pleasure, and often times that pleasure takes the form of poking and prodding humans in uncomfortable ways. Without intending anything of the sort Elfish assumes the role of Queen Mab for all those she comes into contact with, inspiring them to work towards the fulfillment of dreams they had almost lost hope in.

In Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving Martin Millar has brought a fairy to life on the streets of Brixton to remind us that sometimes the path to making our dreams a reality isn't an easy road. The spark required to overcome our fears, to make that leap into the unknown, isn't always the nicest of experiences, but without it where would we be? Millar's abilities as a story teller allow him to weave a modern fairy tale which, in spite of its desolate setting and the depression of its inhabitants, manages to make you believe that dreams can come true, even when the only rainbow in site is caused by an oil slick in a parking lot. Heck, if this bunch of losers can make things work out for themselves, it shouldn't be too hard for us now should it?

(Article first published as Book Review: Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Martin Millar 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 18, 2010

Book Review: The Seven Veils Of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni

There's a tendency among Western people to romanticize that which seems exotic to them. Whether the yogic practices of India, philosophies of the Far East, or the spirituality of Native Americans, it doesn't seem to matter. They imbue them with all sorts of mystical qualities, that may or may not have anything to do with the original practices, and believe they have found the secret to living a better life. Of course they also conveniently ignore the fact that so much of what they think of as answers are practices that have evolved through centuries of living under specific conditions and which might not have any practical application in another environment.

It's only been in the last decade or so the nomadic people of the North Sahara Desert in Africa have come to the attention of people in the West. The Tuareg pre-date the introduction of Islam and speak a Berber language, Tamasheq, related to ancient Egyptian, with an equally ancient alphabet and script known as Tifinagh. Pastoral nomads, primarily herds people who relied on their flocks for survival, they currently are spread out over a territory that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria. Since the early 1960's they have been involved in sporadic uprisings against the various governments in the region in an attempt to preserve the land so integral to grazing their nomadic lifestyle. However, only since former rebels have formed musical groups like Tinariwen, has the world at large taken any notice of their situation or the people themselves.

While the bands might sing about their culture and traditions, they do so in Tamasheq, which means the majority of their audience really aren't hearing what they are singing about or gaining any insights into the world they come from. Anyway, for the most part, the bands are making music for their own people, not for foreign consumption, which means the lyrics are only going to be truly understood by those already steeped in that culture. Therefore, while it's true they are getting out the message to the rest of the world about their struggle to survive, we actually know very little about them - their stories, their cultures or their traditions.
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So when I was contacted by Garnet Publishing asking if I would be interested in reviewing The Seven Veils Of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni, I said yes, in the hopes it would fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the people the work was about. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, but according to the blurb on the back of the book al-Koni is an award winning writer in the Arab world, and has published over fifty novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms, all of which have been inspired by the desert. Therefore, even though he's lived pretty far removed from any desert in Switzerland since 1993, it sounded like he not only could write well, but also wrote specifically about his people.

Well it turned both assumptions were true, as not only is he a wonderful writer (here's as good as time as any for a tip of the hat to William M. Hutchins who somehow translated it from Arabic into English without making it sound "English" or "American") who writes about his people, but he does so with such imagination and infectious joy for his subject, that you can't help being caught up in the story even if you're not quite sure what's going on all the time. The Seth of the title is in fact the ancient Egyptian god who killed his brother Osiris, the god of agriculture, in order to seize his throne and has come down to us through history as a villain. However, Seth also turns out to be the god of the desert and a benevolent champion for desert dwelling types like the Tuareg.

The story takes place in an oases where a permanent settlement of Tuareg has taken root and established a thriving community that includes a busy market place, a fool, a diviner (or prophet), a headman, and a heroic warrior. As an oases they are used to visitors, but not one quite as disconcerting as Isan. First, unlike most he eschews the company of camels and rides in on the back of a female donkey, a jenny. He then refuses any and all offers of hospitality, including a welcoming dinner, and strangest of all he chooses to dwell in a crypt in the graveyard. None of the town's notable are sure what to make of him - save for the Fool who after meeting Isan advices the town's elders to kill him before they have chance to regret not doing so.
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The seven veils of the title refer to the various names or ways in which Seth is referred to, and as the novel progresses, Isan is at various times referred to by each one, though most often as either "the jenny master" or "the strategist". Even more beguiling is his obvious disdain for anyone living in one place. No matter what arguments a person might make against the nomadic life he's always able to turn them around and show what they consider negative aspects of the life are actually necessities for the development of self-awareness. It's while he's having one of these arguments we learn another of his names, Wantahet, a character in Tuareg mythology who promised the people deliverance, but delivered them to the abyss.

So who is Isan, and what is he promising? He claims that hell, the abyss, is a type of deliverance as at times we have to burn the body to root out disease, and it's obvious he considers the settled life wrong. Yet, he's also a master at turning words on their head to the point where he makes his contravention of traditional laws and customs appear like he's complying with them. In Isan al-Koni has created a character who is the epitome of the trickster, and like his brethren and sisters around the world his contrary nature wrecks havoc where ever he travels. Yet, what is the lesson he is teaching - or is there even a lesson at all? Is his purpose to make those he meets question what they have accepted as normal? Is being a nomad really the answer to all questions and the proper way to live - or does he only espouse it because he's the god of the desert and this is all part of a "strategy" in his battle to keep the throne of heaven and his war against Osiris' son Horus?

Although Isan is the main character and we spend a great deal of our time with him, like everybody else who meets him we still can't be sure about his motivations. While in some ways the various characters Isan interacts with are representatives of their title (Fool, Merchant, Warrior, Prophet etc.) and the roles they play in their society, al-Koni ensures they aren't just types. In almost each case we learn more about them, and in fact, in some ways, end up knowing them better than Isan, through the back stories and histories the author has created for them. Therefore we not only see them as personifications of types representing a way of looking at the world or a certain place in society, we also see the real human behind that mask. In their discussions and arguments with Isan he challenges what they stand for and in doing so shows just how arbitrary the laws, the ones that dictate their behaviour and they use to help differentiate between right and wrong, they espouse as sacrosanct really are by using the ones they quote as proof he is wrong, as support for what he advocates.

How would you react if one of your people's traditional gods all of a sudden showed up in your town and began turning you lives upside down by questioning everything you have been using to govern your behaviour? With Isan al-Koni has created a veritable stick to shove into the bee hive of the oases and the results are thoughtful, funny and occasionally tragic. Not only is the story a pleasure to read, it also gives the reader something of an introduction to the life of the Tuareg. It's hard to tell exactly where reality and fantasy separate sometimes, but than again sometimes its in the fantastic we find the most truth. If you've enjoyed the music that comes from this region it might be time for you to look behind those purple robes they wear on stage and get to know the people a little better, and this book provides you with that opportunity.

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.

March 23, 2010

Book Review: Bite Me Christopher Moore

Long before the New Moon saga had created a cult of adolescent girls going all weak kneed over the possibility of receiving a hickey from an un-dead heart throb, Christopher Moore had begun recounting the misadventures of vampires on the West Coast in Blood Sucking Fiends. Set in the far more exotic environs of San Francisco (Washington's overcast and rainy weather may sound like atmosphere to some, but to me it just sounds cold and damp) it, along with its sequel You Suck, recounted the story of how the put upon Jody became a vampire, and how she in turn converted her boy friend, want to be writer Thomas C. Flood.

Having a sensitivity to the UV rays of sunlight that not even the toughest sun-block will cope with, Jody had initially taken advantage of Thomas working the nightshift stocking shelves at a local grocery store and having his days free. This allowed him to run errands for her and take care of all that stuff that can only happen during the sunlight hours. So with Thomas becoming a vampire they find themselves in need of somebody to pick up the slack for them. By the end of You Suck they had settled on a young Goth girl, Abby Normal (Day Slave name Allison) to handle such tedious tasks as finding them accommodation and keeping them under wraps during the day. What they hadn't probably counted on was Abby and her bio-tech boy friend Steve dipping them in bronze while dead to the world in order to make sure they didn't split up and ruin Abby's romantic vision of the two vampires living an eternity of loving bliss with her as their worshipful minion.

Which is where we pick up the story in the third book of Moore's Vampire triptych, Bite Me, hitting the streets March 23rd/10 curtsey of HarperCollins Canada through its William Morrow imprint. In case anybody's missed the first two books, our erstwhile narrator fills us in on the details in her own inimitable style. An extended text message on speed coloured with sexual innuendo and rampant sarcasm through which we get periodic glimpses of the person hiding behind the pounds of make-up, fishnet stockings, and dyed hair. One of the key points of her summation is how a very large, hairless, cat named Chet has become a vampire and has now set out on a rampage through the city.
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Now Steve has been using his science geekdom, to quote Abby, to come up with a way of reversing what happens to a person's blood when they are "turned", or become a vampire. This becomes awfully key when it's discovered that third generation vampires - those turned by a vampire who were turned by the dude who bite Jody - don't have the longest shelf life without some rather intensive blood transfusions from the original dude. Jody will be okay, but anybody she has turned, or anybody turned by ingesting the blood of somebody she's turned, won't be around longer then a month. It means Thomas could go at any time, as could Abby. Oh yes Abby granted herself her fondest wish by ingesting the blood of some rats Steve had turned in order to test his serum.

Of course there's still the rather large matter of Chet as well, and the fact that he's not only drinking his way through the homeless population of San Francisco, but is also turning every stray cat he comes across. Chet seems to have also absorbed quite a few of the attributes of the elder vampire, the same one who turned Jody, and has not only grown in size to about eighty pounds, but has developed the ability to reason and think. He also has learned the very valuable trick of turning to mist - not something most novice vampires are able to do - and somehow or other also passed on this talent to felines he turns. Which means that come sundown that patch of mist drifting towards you down a San Francisco street could very well materialize in front of you as a hundred vampire cats looking to suck you dry.

Thankfully help is sort of on the way in the shape of three vampires who've been travelling the world cleaning up the messes left behind by the elder vampire who turned Jody. Unfortunately their idea of cleaning up also means eliminating any witnesses, which means not only Chet and his brood are in danger, but so are Jody, Thomas, Abby, Steve, and everybody who has had any contact with vampiric activity in San Francisco recently. That includes Thomas' fellow shelve stockers at the grocery store - a group of stoners referred to collectively as the Animals - and the two cops, Rivera and Cavuto who helped take down the original vampire.
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To be honest I worried that Moore was going to this particular vein one time to often writing another sequel to Blood Sucking Fiends as You Suck had already begun showing signs of thinning blood. However he's managed to inject some new life into the series through some ingenious plot twists and the introduction of a couple of new characters. He also, thankfully, splits the narration duties up amongst his characters, for at times I wanted to reach into the pages and grab Abby Normal by her throat to shut her up. If I heard one more conversation recounted as "Like he was then all" and "Like then I was" and "Like 'kay?" there's a good chance I wouldn't have finished the book. Some people might find it endearing or funny, but I thought it was just annoying to a point where it went beyond interesting characterization.

However Moore is a good enough writer that he pushes it to the limit but not further and doesn't allow his book to descend to the depths of being a one note joke. In fact by the end the joking has been relegated to the back burner as there's not only the showdown with the vampire clean-up crew to deal with, decisions have to be reached on everybody's part. Here again Moore shows his skill as an author through his ability to quickly switch tones. One moment we're in the middle of what can best be described as a horror farce and the next a gentle and genuinely touching story about the choices we make and the reasons we make them. Even more impressive is the way he is able to do this so that the transition from one to the other feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Vampires are all the rage right now among the teenage girl set with them swooning over handsome pale skinned heart throbs and dreaming of eternal love. Bite Me provides a nice antidote to the sickeningly sweet world of paranormal romance that's being peddled by the trash merchants these days. Even if slightly over the top at times, Moore is a refreshing dose of the absurd in a world which has started to take itself and fantasy far too seriously.

Book Review: The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar

New York City has long been known for attracting visitors and immigrants from all over the world as well as being a centre for artistic creation. So is it any wonder that artists of all shapes and sizes have shown up there seeking out fame and fortune? However, I doubt that even the creators of the I Love NY campaign (the first people to implement that annoying design of using a heart instead of the word love and who in light of its subsequent ubiquitous usage should have committed ritual suicide ages ago) could have foreseen the folk who flocked to the Big Apple in absurdist fantasy novel The Good Fairies Of New York.

While the book was originally published quite some time ago in England both Soft Skull Press and Tor Books currently have copies of the title on the market, with the latter being a mass market paperback while the former is available in an inexpensive trade paper back format. If it seems like I'm being a little bit biased towards Soft Skull, it's only because they've taken the extraordinary step for an independent publisher of picking up all of Millar's back catalogue, and have been steadily republishing them on a regular basis for the last couple of years. It was largely due to the success of Good Fairies when it was originally published back in 2006 that inspired them to be so unusually generous for a publisher.

I had read (and reviewed) Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl when it was first released, but had missed out on Good Fairies. Having enjoyed others of his recently released backlist (Ruby And The Stone Age Diet and Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation) it became imperative that I read Good Fairies. After all, as Neil Gaiman so accurately puts it in his introduction : "It has a war in it and a most unusual production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream and Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls guitar solos. What more could anyone desire from a book?" What indeed? In fact not only do his guitar solos play a key role in the book, the ghost of Thunders himself wanders through on a quest - he is searching for his lost 1958 Gibson Tiger Top electric guitar which was stolen from him after a gig at CBGBS. According to what he tells fellow former and deceased member of the New York Dolls Billy Murcia, as they are hanging out in Heaven, he had put it down on a bar stool, turned away for a minute and when he looked again it was gone.
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Thunder's quest however, no matter how urgent it might be to him (there's a definite lack of gritty rock and roll in Heaven) is merely a side show to the greater tales at hand - namely the recounting of the exile of two Scottish Thistle fairies, Morag MacPherson and Heather MacKintosh, and how they come to the aid of two of New York City's rather more typical inhabitants. Dinnie MacKintosh and Kerry live across the street from each other, but the gulf that divides their characters is as deep as the Grand Canyon and as wide as the Pacific Ocean. For while Kerry is a graceful beauty full of compassion and love for almost all her fellow human beings, (the sole exception being Cal her ex-boyfriend who dumped her when he found out she had a colostomy bag and completely reneged on his promise to teach her Johnny Thunder's guitar solos from his days with the New York Dolls, thus she is determined to wreck horrible vengeance on him in some form or another) Dinnie is not only the city's worst fiddle player, he's overweight, a slob, a bigot, and generally all around mean person.

So when Heather and Morag flutter through his apartment window stoned and drunk on too many magic mushrooms and too much single malt whisky he's not exactly ecstatic to see them. Nor is he much mollified by Heather's assurances that fairy vomit smells sweet to humans after she spews on his arm and carpet, and begins to heap abuse on their heads and demand they leave, even though both Morag and Heather tell him that humans in Scotland would be thrilled to be visited by fairies. He eventually gets half his wish when the two fairies discover a) that he is a MacKintosh like Heather and b) how bad a fiddle player Dinnie is. All of which leads to Morag making derogatory remarks about MacKintosh fiddle playing in general, and the two fairies having a glorious row ending only when Morag flutters out the window and Heather vowing she can teach even a clod like Dinnie to play better than any MacPherson.

The window Morag flutters into across the street from Dinnie's is of course Kerry's, and they immediately strike up a friendship. Morag vows to not only help Kerry learn all of Johnny Thunders' leads from his days as a New York Doll, but to help her exact vengeance upon the hated Cal by assisting Kerry in winning the East Fourth Street's Community Arts Association Prize. Cal's entry is an amateur production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, while Kerry is attempting to assemble the exceedingly rare and beautiful Celtic Flower Alphabet, in which each of the original symbols of the Celtic alphabet are represented by a different flower.
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What neither human are aware of initially is how the two eighteen inch high fairies came to be in New York City. They'd been chased out of Scotland for desecrating one of the three great Fairy Relics, The MacLeod Banner. Not only had they cut two pieces out of it to use as blankets, adding insult to injury, they subsequently blew their noses in them. While fleeing Scotland they met up with three fairies from Ireland, Maeve, Padraig, and Brannoc who were helping the son and daughter of the King of the Cornish fairies, Tulip and Petal, to escape their father's rule. Somewhere in transit the seven had stumbled upon a field of magic mushrooms, indulged heavily, ended up on a cargo flight to New York City and found themselves hung over and coming too on the back of a transport truck wending through the streets of the city.

While Morag and Heather were settling in with their new human companions the other five exiles were living in the relative serenity of Central Park. While they had managed to make the acquaintance of some friendly squirrels and make friends with local black fairies from Harlem, it was soon revealed that even emigration to the New World wasn't far enough to keep them safe from their father as he decided to send his entire army after them. Meanwhile things aren't going so well for the other exiles as neither of their plans to help their human friends are working out so well. Even Morag's befriending the ghost of Johnny Thunders doesn't alleviate the disaster of having the centrepiece of Kerry's flower alphabet, a rare triple bloomed Welsh poppy, go missing. When Heather manages to piss off both the Italian fairies - she's been robbing the wrong banks - and the Chinese fairies, chaos ensues and leads to the first race riot between fairies in the history of New York City.

Martin Millar has penned a spectacular and gloriously wild ride of a book which manages to be both side splitting and touching at the same time. While it might seem like there are far too many threads of story lines for a reader to ever keep straight, his unique style of writing in short, sharp bursts gives us constant updates as to everyone's condition and the overall picture gradually takes shape in front of us. Like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, as a little more of each segment is revealed, the whole becomes clearer as well. The characters come into focus and the story takes on a life of its own as we delve deeper into their lives. As we are swept up into the current of events we can't help but give whoops of enjoyment as we hit the downward spirals, and think carefully over what is being said during the introspective ascents that precede them.

So wrap your clan kilt around your hips, strap on your claymore, and pick up your fiddle and be prepared for anything in this bizarre mix of traditional Scottish fairies and New York Punk. You might just find your preconceived notions of both stood on their heads and you'll be a lot happier for it. Fantasy writing needs to be shaken out of its stolid reverie and Mllar pushes and pulls it into dancing to something a little more daring than usual and its a lot better for it. You've heard of cyberpunk, well welcome to the world of faepunk, it can get bit wild and weird at times, but its a breath of fresh air that will revive even the most jaded of readers.

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 8, 2009

Book Review: Crack'd Pot Trail By Steven Erikson

In the constant struggle of good against evil there are occasions when those who ally themselves on the side of the angels are forced by circumstances into acts which would see them condemned as evil themselves if it wasn't for the sacred nature of their mission. For those unenlightened enough to hold paragons of virtue to the same standards as the rest of the great unwashed it would in fact appear that occasionally there is no difference to be found between those combating evil and the evil doers themselves. However, to those narrow minded and self-righteous individuals who have made it their goal to scour the world of evil by any means necessary, the ends will always justify the means, no matter how abhorrent those means might seem to the naive and simplistic unable to see the big picture.

The hand that wields the sword of purity can not be swayed by such trivialities as sentiment, nor can it be judged by the same standards to which others are held to. Would you ask the angels to explain themselves as they went about their business? How could anyone expect those blinded by the bright light of goodness to see beyond their own narrow focus to the extent that they be forced to consider the consequences of their actions? Self appointed guardians of morality, especially when heavily armed, need not answer to anyone, not even their own consciences, supported as they are by the certainty of their own superiority to all those surrounding them.
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In fact, would you not say it was a sign of their saintliness, that they will unwaveringly commit atrocities in their quest to combat the forces of evil? Would you have the fortitude, the strength of character, to make the decision to eat your companions in order to ensure the completion of your task? It's not just anybody who can look around themselves and judge others worthy of being the fodder that will keep them strong in pursuit of evil. If you would witness such strength in action, than step onto the Crack'd Pot Trail, Steven Erikson's latest release from England's PS Publishing concerning the travails and travels of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. These two personifications of evil have swept like a scythe threw the known world, leaving behind them piles of bodies and acres of sin. Needless to say they've also managed to outrage the forces of decency and good everywhere they've travelled and now find themselves pursued by those dedicated to the sole task of wiping them from the face of the earth - the Nehemothanai.

Those familiar with any of the previous instalments involving Korbal Broach and Bauchelain will recognize some of the names hot on their tails - Mortal Sword Tulgord Vise from Blood Follows and Well Knight Arpo Relent from The Healthy Dead, and they are joined by the equally redoubtable Steck Marynd and the three Chanter brothers in their quest to exact vengeance on the necromancer duo for their foul deeds against goodness and decency. It's on the pilgrim path, the Crack'd Pot Trial, that we meet up with the heroes and the others making the trek through the harsh wasteland laying between the Gates of Nowhere and the Shrine of the Indifferent God. Aside from the above named there are amongst them are a mysterious noble woman who remains enclosed within her carriage the whole time, her manservant, a rag-tag collection of poets making their way to attend the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days to vie for title of "The Century's Greatest Artist" awarded there each year, and one Sardic Thew who proclaims himself to be host of this erstwhile band of travellers.

According to the narration provided by one Avas Didion Flicker, under normal circumstances the trek across the desolate Great Dry would take twenty-three days and is eased by springs of fresh water and the welcoming camps of those called the Finders. Alas for our poor pilgrims, for the wells are fouled, the springs muddied, and the camps are all deserted this year. So the twenty-third day finds them barely half-way to their destination and their supplies depleted. It's the eldest of the Chanter brothers, the inaptly named Tiny (supposedly the result of his mother's tryst with a bear) who hits upon the solution of ensuring the Nehemothanai are fed by having the poets sing not to be supper. Each day the poets will strive to entertain the rest of the party and the first who fails to amuse will be slaughtered to feed the rest.
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Those horses among the company are needed by our champions in their pursuit of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, and you can't deny nobility their carriage so the noblewoman's mules are sacrosanct, therefore the poets are the only bodies going spare. Besides, as is so aptly pointed out by the Well Knight, poets are known for their licentious behaviour and for inciting subversive thoughts that would not tolerated in a moral society. Anyway, if they aren't capable of entertaining, they serve no useful function and might as well do something of service and keep their companions alive.

Erikson's rather perverse and twisted take on Chaucer's Caterbury Tales differs from the original model in that not everybody is on the tale telling, and rather more is at stake with the tales than just whiling away the hours. In fact as readers we only ever hear two of the tales told in full, for on most occasions the poet who starts doesn't get a chance to finish before one or more critics decides to curtail their performance. The two tales we do here in full are the ones told by our narrator and he uses both to manipulate events on the journey to keep himself alive, proving that words can be as deadly a weapon as anything. However, as the pillars of virtue who made this competition a necessity are shown to exercise authority not because they hold some sort of moral high ground, but because their might makes them right, we can't help but applaud his efforts to stay alive

As is usual with Erikson there is more going on than meets the eye within Crack'd Pot Trail, as there are some carefully hidden agendas being plied beneath the surface. However what makes Erikson such a skilled story teller is his ability to gradually reveal what's going on through his characters and the events. He might supply us with a few diversions like an undead corpse joining the pilgrimage, but he doesn't allow them to confuse the issue or steal too much of our focus so we lose track of the real story. The characters in the story, whether old friends from previous stories or brand new, are sketched in rather broad strokes by our narrator, but we don't require more than those few lines to understand their motivations so it is more than enough.

Crack'd Pot Trail is a great piece of social satire which takes no prisoners. From the pompous poets who proclaim their greatness only to be revealed as thieves who've never written an original thought in their lives, to the warriors against evil who don't have a problem with forcing their companions to compete against each other in order to avoid being eaten. By the end of the story the so called villains of the piece come out looking a lot better than their reputations would have you think when compared with those who hunt them and the reader is left to ponder the exact nature of good and evil.

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 6, 2009

What Will Happen To What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

January 2009 will always be notable for me as the moment when my aspirations of being a published author were finally realized. True it wasn't going to be quite how I imagined it, but my name would be appearing on the cover of a book on bookstores across North America. I had been approached by Ulysses Press and asked if I would be interested in writing What Will Happen In Eragon IV?, a book predicting what would happen in the fourth and final instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle (Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr)

They had had remarkable success with a similar book about J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, and although Paolini has yet to duplicate her popularity, he's been pretty close. Brisingr, book three in the series, sold a half million copies the day it was released in North America, a new record for it's publisher, Random House, for a young adult title. Another reason why Ulysses figured there would be interest in our book, was the fact Paolini had originally intended to only write a trilogy, but half way through the writing of book three a press release was issued announcing that he wasn't going to be able to finish the story properly without creating a fourth book.

The cynical among you might think that this was merely a ploy to try and milk a golden goose by either the publisher or the author, but if you've read the books as closely as I have (and believe me I've read them closely in the past few months) you'll know he really didn't have much choice in the matter. The story had become so large that for him to wrap up all the lose ends he had developed over its course the third book would have needed to be close to 1500 pages in length to cover everything. Even before the third book was published speculation about how the series would conclude was been rife in forums, blogs, and social networking sites, so there's definitely a market for a book on the subject.

My initial contact with Ulysses Press may have been in January, but I wasn't given the go ahead to start writing until the end of February. Initially I had been told that my deadline for submitting a first draft - they asked for a minimum of 50,000 words - was May 1st/09, but by the time I signed the contracts that had been shifted back to April 1st. I ended up handing in 55,000 or so words by the end of March. That very rough draft was sent off to some readers whose comments were passed back to me and I was given an opportunity to make any changes I wanted to the text before it was sent off to the editors. So roughly two weeks later I handed in a second draft - this time closer to 57,000 words and sat back to wait.

Now I've heard plenty from various authors who I've talked to about the challenges a writer faces in getting his or her book published. However I don't think anyone can really appreciate any of them until you've worked through them yourself. Obviously I didn't have to deal with the first hurdle of having to find someone to publish this book, but there were specifics associated with this work that I don't think many other authors have to face. Of course the first thing I discovered is probably something all first time authors experience; handing in the manuscript is only half the battle.

Now in most cases there is the whole editing process where your pearls of wisdom are picked apart and put back together by the editors assigned to your book by the publisher. Now I know editors get bad press, but I have to tell you in this instance these people were saints. You have to remember what I submitted was at best a clean first draft which I had had very little time to check for typos and continuity. So when they sent me back their edited version of the text with changes marked via the word processing software's "show changes", I simply checked the box marked accept changes - and then proceeded to deal with the questions they had on content. However that process was remarkably easy compared to what came next, the lawyers draft.

Obviously I had referred back to the original books on many occasions, and for each reference I had to make sure that the page and book they came from were cited. So in order to ensure that Random House, Paolini's publishers, had no reason to accuse us of any sort of intellectual theft I had to scour the pages ensuring that all references from the books, no matter how oblique, were properly cited. One of the more tedious things that I was forced to do was count the number of words directly quoted from the books. It seems that only a certain percentage of your total word count being quotes is allowable under the fair uses laws of copyright. I had quite the headache after that was all said and done.

Finally it was time for the proofs, normally the last stage before a book goes to press, The author is sent a copy of the book laid out in its final form and told to scour it for any mistakes that might have been missed and take this last chance to request any changes he or she might want. In my case though there was still one more stage for us to got through - due diligence. We had to send off samples of the book to Random House for approval so if they decide to sue us at some point in the future we can stand up in court and say "Hey they had their chance to object before we went to press and they didn't".

I had finished with the proofs back in July/09 and the days gradually ticked by closer to September 1st/09, our publication date. Near mid August I heard from Ulysses' publicist as she was preparing for the book's launch so I assumed everything was still on schedule. I decided that it couldn't hurt to do some local publicity and contacted the branch of Indigo books where I live, Canada's biggest chain of bookstores, to make inquiries about a publicity appearance. I also got in touch with the book's distributor in Canada to see what they would be willing to do to help out with that event. Happily, I've written quite a few reviews for them in the past and they were great, promising not only to ensure the store had enough books on hand for my appearance but to also create posters for the event.

Then, on September 2nd, the day after the book was supposed to have gone on sale in the United States, after I'd already set up a web site for the book and announced its publication, I heard from the publishers that the book was not due back from the printers until September 8th and wouldn't be in book stores until the first week of October. Talk about your false climaxes. Now I have to post an announcement on the web site telling everybody not to bother looking for the book just yet, contact Indigo and let them know we might have to reschedule the event, and be grateful that I hadn't mailed out the press releases that I had planned on to the local media.

It's been a long strange trip this whole experience, one which I'm extremely grateful to have experienced, but I was still looking forward to its conclusion. However at least now there's a definite end in sight, and soon enough I'll be finding out what will happen with What Will Happen In Eragon IV? Yet, until I actually see it siting on a bookshelf in a bookstore with my name along the bottom of the cover I won't truly believe any of it.

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.

April 20, 2009

Book Review: Troll's Eye View Edited By Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

"And they all lived happily ever after..." has been for generations of children the unquestioned ending to all fairy stories. The poor, downtrodden, but good, step-daughter wins out in the end while the evil step-sisters and mother get what's coming to them, or the bewitched princess is rescued from some horrible enchantment by her knight in shinning armour, and they all live happily ever after. Except of course the evil step-sisters, the ogre, the giant, the troll, the dragon, or the witch who had the nerve to try and mess with them.

They either come to a rather sticky end or simply vanish from the story never to be heard from again and nobody gives them a second thought. In the black and white reality of fairy tales there is no room for questioning the why's and wherefores of what makes a person do what they do; they are either evil or good with nothing in between. While this world of absolutes might appeal to some people, haven't you ever secretly hoped that the giant might one day catch that interfering Jack as he's stealing all his possessions? Or that Prince Charming would at least fall off his white horse into a mud puddle so he wasn't so damned pure of heart and innocent of evil influence?

If your mind has ever run in those directions, than you're sure to enjoy the collection of stories gathered together by the editing team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, in their new anthology, Troll's Eye View. Being released on April 21/09 by Penguin Canada, it has some of today's best fantasy writers revisiting those old fairy tales, but this time telling them from the so called villains point of view. Ostensibly written for a younger audience, the book's fly-leaf says for readers ten and up, the stories will delight anyone who has never been quite satisfied with the simplicity of "happily ever after".
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The great thing about a Datlow and Windling anthology is their ability to come up with a theme that is sure to inspire a writer's imagination. While they've a history of putting together collections of revised version of fairy tales and other fantastical stories for both adults and children, Troll's Eye View offered those contributing a chance to turn some old favourites inside out. So we get everything from an updated version of Rapunzel, "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix; hearing the other side of the story, "Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" by Peter S. Beagle; to an examination of the whole step-sibling dynamic in "The Cinderella Game" by Kelly Link.

Some of the stories gathered in this book are based on tales you may not be familiar with, while others nearly everyone has heard of. While a few of the offerings come in the form of poems, which younger readers might initially find a little less approachable than the prose selections, they aren't any more difficult to understand than the other tales recounted in the book. In fact Joseph Stanton's "Puss in Boot, the Sequel" is only ten lines long, and manages to capture everything you need to know about Puss's character to change the ending of the original story completely. While technically it's not a case of the bad guy winning out in the end, let's just say that Puss end's up with more than his share of cream this time round then he did in the original.

While Stanton's poem, and the verse contributions of Wendy Froud and Neil Gaiman are fine, it's still the prose stories that are the true delight of this book. While some of them do what we expect of a story like this and tarnish the image of some past hero or heroine, others have eschewed that approach for something slightly more complex. For instead of merely offering a comedic alternative to the original, they stay true to the "Grimm" details, but show them from a new perspective.
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In particular, Catherynne M. Valente's take on "Hansel & Gretel", "A Delicate Architecture", is especially intriguing in the way it creates a highly imaginative explanation for how the gingerbread house in the middle of the forest came into being in the first place. Valente has created a beautifully haunting tale explaining how the "witch" came to be living in the woods that's as fantastic and magical as any of the classic fairy stories. What's truly wonderful is the way in she's able to make her into a genuinely sympathetic character until we realize which story we've ended up in. For it's not until the last few pages that Valente reveals who the story has been about, and what she's planning on doing.

In their introduction to the book Datlow and Windling say they wanted the writers to examine the villains of the old fairy stories. What's the truth behind the stories of all those evil characters and were the heroes and heroines really as noble as they were originally made out to be? What makes the results so intriguing is the variety of ways in which the authors contributing to this anthology have come up with to answer those questions. However, in spite of their different approaches, one thing all of the authors have in common is their love for the original material and the genre. For no matter how they've chosen to retell their story, they never once lose track of what made them such great stories to begin with.

While it's easy to spoof something in order to make fun of it or run it down, it's infinitely harder to rewrite a story in such a way that it brings new appreciation for the original. Troll's Eye View is not only highly entertaining in its own right, but it also reminds the reader what made fairy tales so wonderful to begin with.

Troll's Eye View can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada

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 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 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 4, 2009

Book Review: Poe Edited By Ellen Datlow - Stories Inspired By Edgar Allan Poe

Anthologies of short stories are usually put together to honour the best of a particular genre for the past year. It's not uncommon therefore in January to see collections titled The Best Fantasy, or The Best Science Fiction being released by various publishers. In those instances the editor's job isn't really that difficult as they simply round up those stories that were either prize winners of runners up from the year in question and republish them with a little blurb on each author.

In recent years a new type of anthology has started to appear, especially in the fantasy genre, where authors are asked by an editor, or editors, to write a story according to a theme. These have included retellings of classic fairy tales, new takes on the hero myth, and other variations on that idea. Since this format has become popular, the name of one editor has become synonymous with the best of these collections. I don't know if Ellen Datlow was the first person to put together one of these anthologies, but her name as editor on one of these collections has become a guarantee that you're going to be reading a great collection of short fiction. It doesn't matter whether you've heard of any of the writers or not, because Datlow knows exactly which authors to approach for the type of story she has in mind for a particular collection and the results are always worth reading.

So when I saw that she was responsible for editing Poe, a collection of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe in honour of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth being published by Simon & Schuster Canada on January 6th/09, I knew that it would be a must read for anyone who liked the late, great master. Yet, even I was surprised at what I found within the pages of this book, as the stories exceeded all of my expectations.
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The guidelines for each author were simple, write a story inspired by any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe in whatever setting you'd like. As one might expect the results range all over the place with some stories being funny, others mysterious, and some downright macabre. Yet what each have in common is that one way or another they have managed to capture the spirit of what made Poe's stories so effective. More than just your common garden horror story, filled with creaking floorboards and knife wielding maniacs (although he had his fair share of them too) Poe was famous for his ability to create atmosphere, and in their own way each tale in this collection rises to that challenge in grand style.

Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain" provides a light touch as the opening story, and is as much an homage to the many cheesy film adaptations of Poe's work as the author himself. Written from the point of view of your almost stereotypical Hollywood agent, he represents a slightly gone to seed chimpanzee whose place in the sun has been taken by Bonzo and Cheetah, who latches onto a new way to grab his ten percent. When a low rent, low budget production company that specializes in three day shoots is looking for a change of pace, he suggests the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the works are in the public domain, our erstwhile hero gets his cut by claiming to be the representative of a group that has registered Poe's name as a trademark and offering to negotiate rights to its use.

Once the company gets rolling producing Poe movies they can't stop. Initially it's because they are successful, but then mysteriously, no matter what movie they set out to make, Vincent Price ends up in the lead role and the plot turns into a variation on The Fall Of The House Of Usher. By turns funny and high camp, the story is a brilliant love letter to the tacky horror movies of the sixties where a heroine's quality was measured by how well she filled a sweater, and Technicolor was an excuse for buckets of blood.
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Laird Barron's contribution, "Strappado", is far more traditional in its approach and leads the reader deep into familiar Poe territory. Our hero is part of a group of drunk, jaded, thrill seekers who come together while slumming with the "natives" in India. European and American jet setters looking for something off the beaten path, they first start in a bar catering to locals instead of staying in a designated tourist spot, then are lured to an underground "art" event. The big appeal is that the artist behind the event isn't even allowed into Great Britain because his work is so controversial. What the group don't know is that they won't be witnessing one of his "events", but are slated to be the next work of art.

Barron has cleverly recreated the feelings of impending doom that Poe was so adept at rousing in his readers. So while the characters in "Strappado", though their arrogance and delusions of importance, willingly go to meet their fates, we see what they are too blind to realize. If you've ever asked yourself how did people go to their deaths so willingly in the concentration camps or in similar situations, this story gives an indication of just how easy it is to lead sheep to the slaughter.

The writer's have covered all the bases with their stories; from the gothic romance of Delia Sherman's "The Red Piano", which reads like a typical Poe story although set in contemporary New York City; offering an explanation for the manor of Poe's early death (he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, stone cold sober, in somebody's else's clothes) in E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch And Portal"; to Melanie Tem's surreal take on "The Raven" - "The Pickers". Part of the fun is trying to guess which story, or aspect of Poe's life, inspired individual author's to write what they did. Unless your a Poe scholar, intimate with all his writings including his essays, there are some that will stump you, however each author has written an afterward that explains their choices, so that mystery will at least be cleared up.

Poe has been credited with writing the first ever mystery story, The Murders In The Rue Morgue, and his stories have been the inspiration for many a horror and dark fantasy writer over the years. The nineteen stories commissioned by Ellen Datlow for the collection Poe are works of mystery and imagination that not only do justice to the author they celebrate, but are fine stories in their own right. Datlow has once again shown an uncanny talent for approaching just the right writers for the task at hand, as not one disappoints.

Poe can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 2, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantress Of Florence By Salman Rushdie

In our chauvinism the West puts Florence, and its renaissance as a place of arts and learning, at the centre of the world when it comes to cultural achievements in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our bias has prevented us from seeing that while supposedly civilized Europe struggled through dark ages of ignorance and plague in the years prior to that enlightenment, empires of sophistication and culture thrived under the rule of Sultans and Caliphs. The Ottoman Empire had stretched into Spain and by the 1500's their cousins had entered Northern India and established the Mogul Empire.

While we might believe that relations between the West and the Muslim world are tense these days, they are positively cordial when compared with the fervour of Christian hatred for the infidel during the renaissance. However, that did not prevent there being interaction between the two worlds and even the Vatican sent representatives to the court of Akabar the Great, the heart of the Mogul empire in North India. Still, there would be no reason to suspect any connection existing between Florence and Akabar's capital of Sikri.

Yet in his elaborate work of historical fantasy, The Enchantress Of Florence, published by Random House Canada, and being released in trade paperback January 6th/09, Salman Rushdie weaves together strands of fiction and history to tell a tale of how these two cities might have been linked. It is the story of three childhood friends from Florence whose love and loyalty stands the test of time and of two great cities equally capable of grandeur and self destruction. Yet, it's also the tale of a remarkable woman's quest to make her own way in a man's world and how the reverberations of her efforts shattered kingdoms, defeated generals, and brought about the ruin of one of the two great cities.
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The court of Akabar the Great is thrown into confusion when a mysterious blond stranger shows up at court. At first he attempts to pass himself off as the ambassador from the English queen Elizabeth, but when that ruse is seen through he finally reveals the truth of the matter. He is none other then Akabar the Great's uncle. At first this news is greeted with the derision that any lie deserves, but being the just ruler he is, Akabar gives the blonde stranger a chance to tell him how it could be possible for a non-believer from Florence to be his relative.

So begins the story of the princess whom history forgot, Lady Black Eyes, Qara Koz. When her elder sister was wed to the Wormwood Khan as the cost of preserving her father's life, Qara Koz was dragged off into exile as her companion at the tender age of eleven. Eight years later when the Shah of Persia, their father's cousin, overthrew the great Khan he offered to send both women back to their home, but surprisingly the young princess refused and elected to stay with their saviour as his wife. It was then that Akabar's grandfather, father to the sisters, caused her to be written out of the annals of the family's history - and Qara Koz was a name never spoken in public again.

In Florence there were three young friends, of whom one was destined to wander long and far before returning home again to die in the streets where he was born. Niccolo Machiavelli (the author of The Prince), Ago Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo whose name now graces our continent), and Antonino Argalia, were inseparable until the age of eleven when Antonino's mother died of plague and his father fell into the depths of depression. The young Argalia took it upon himself to leave Florence to seek his fortune among the mercenary companies fighting the "cursed Turk", although he said to his friends he wouldn't care if he made his fortune fighting for the Ottomans or against them.

Which is how years latter he found himself leading the armies of the Ottoman Empire when they defeated the Shah of Persia, and found himself face to face with the beauty of Lady Black Eyes. She had accompanied her husband the Shah to the battle field, but when he refused to follow her advice and attack the Turks before they were encamped (it wouldn't have been honourable) she turned her back so as not to see the carnage. As a result she did not see her husband flee the battle field and abandon her to his vanquisher, Argalia of the Turks.
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There's a lot to wonder at when reading The Enchantress Of Florence, not the least is the way in which Rushdie makes the seemingly implausible perfectly reasonable, with the remarkable tale of how a Florentine could be the uncle of Akabar, emperor of the Mogul Empire in India. Yet that pales in the face of what I consider his even greater accomplishment - bringing to life the two worlds in which the story takes place. Not only does he render both Florence and Sikri with such accurate brush strokes that we can see them in front of us as if he had painted their pictures, it's the manner in which he describes them that makes them fully alive.

Rushdie has developed a different language for each city, so that each is not only distinguished by their physical characteristics, but by the way they sound to our ear as well. Sikri flows like elegant silk draped over the arm of a beautiful woman, but with an undercurrent of danger that reminds you how quickly a scarf can be twisted to form the garrotte that cuts off a person's life. There is an assurance to her voice that only comes from years of experience and the surety of knowing everyone will listen to you no matter how quiet you whisper.

Florence is brash and bold, with a voice to match as she trumpets forth both her successes and her failures. Yet, in spite of the traces of insecurity that one hears in her proclamations of greatness, you can't help but notice the subtle notes that twist underneath the blare. It is the home of the infamous Medici after all, who smile to your face while plunging a dagger in your back, and whose most famous son became Pope. However, in the end the cities are still only the backdrop for the woman who was the Enchantress of Florence, and the bewitcher of every man, and not a few women, who came in contact with her.

In Lady Black Eyes, the princess whom history forgot, Qara Koz, Rushdie has created one of the most enigmatic and romantic female characters since Sheherazade. For its around that one strand that Rushdie has woven his entire story and creates the elaborate web which eventually snares all his characters and us his readers. For not only is she able to enchant all of Florence by her presence, just by telling her story, the blond stranger claiming kinship with Akabar, brings Sikri to its knees.

The Enchantress Of Florence is a beautiful story that in delineating the differences between renaissance Italy and the Mogul Empire actually brings East and West closer together than anything I've read before. With guest appearances by everyone from Vlad the Impaler to the Medici Pope, Rushdie has created a historical fantasy that's both a pleasure to read and an education in its recreation of two of history's most fascinating cities.

You can purchase a copy of The Enchantress Of Florence in trade paperback format as of January 6th directly from Random House Canada or 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 28, 2008

Book Review: The Tales Of Beedle The Bard By J.K. Rowling

I'm not the easiest person to buy presents for. You can't just pop out and pick me up a CD or a book because chances are if its one I'm inclined to listen to or read I'll have all ready managed to get a copy to review for these pages. Which made it doubly surprising that my wife walked in the door beaming the other day after returning from a trip to Canada's big bookstore chain - a place she normally hates setting foot in for a vast array of justifiable reasons - sure that she had found me something that not only I didn't own, but would give me a lot of pleasure.

My wife's instincts are usually pretty dead on and this was no exception, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard by J.K.Rowling, distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is a delight from start to finish. Its a slim volume reminiscent of the wonderful books of poetry by A.A. Milne that I read as a child in both style and lay out. Elegant hard cover books on whose pages another surprise always awaited in the form of either a new poem or an illustration peeking out form some unexpected corner.

Now like the rest of the non magical world I first heard of Beedle The Bard through Ms. Rowling's other books, specifically the penultimate Harry Potter book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows in which one story in particular played a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the series. (If you think I'm going to tell you which one you're out of luck - if you've read the Potter book you'll all ready know which it is, and if you haven't - well what on earth are you waiting for) The Tales Of Beedle The Bard is set firmly in the same world that Harry Potter occupies. For as Rowling points out in her introduction two characters from the series played a key role in its production. The text is a new translation by Hermione Granger, from the original runes, and the late Albus Dumbledore wrote the extensive annotations that accompany each story.
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You'll notice some obvious differences and similarities between Beedle's tales and the ones told by the non-magical community. The most obvious of the former is of course the fact that magic is taken for granted in the stories, and not something supernatural that the hero or heroine must overcome. Unlike our stories the female characters don't just wait around for someone to come and rescue them as they are every bit as capable as the male characters at getting in and out of scrapes. However, much like many of our stories each of Beedle's tales contains a life lesson for the young witch or wizard reading the tale that stress the importance of personal attributes like tolerance, forbearance, love, and generosity.

As Professor Dumbledore points out in his annotations this left Beedle open to much criticism by both his contemporaries - he's thought to have lived in the 1500's - and modern witches and wizards alike. He not only advocates cordial relationships with Muggles, but that witches and wizards should use their gifts to help their less talented neighbours when ever possible. Needless to say this went down a treat with those who considered non-magical beings their inferiors. In fact Dumbledore recounts a concentrated effort by a certain Lucius Malfoy to have Beedle's book removed from the Hogwarts' library due to its potential for influencing your witches and wizards to sully their bloodlines by intermarrying with Muggles. (see the story "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune").

In some cases Professor Dumbledor's annotations provide the reader with valuable historical detail, one of which is to remind us that the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy wasn't written until 1689. This of course explains why wizards and witches in Beedle's stories have no compunctions about performing magic for, or in front of, their non-magical brethren, and why, in turn, the Muggles take it for granted. It wasn't until the magical community retired from sight that the ability to recognize magic waned. It's unfortunate to note that it was due to an increased level of persecution that forced witches and wizards into this position. We can only hope that someday the Muggle community at large will mature enough to accept "differences" sufficiently that this unfortunate, yet necessary, statute can be lifted.
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In The Tales Of Beedle The Bard J. K. Rowling once again manages to immerse us completely in a world where magic is part of the fabric of existence. While the stories themselves are well written and intelligent and more reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm than the sanitized versions of tales like Cinderella and Snow White that are told today and her illustrations are a delight, half the fun of reading the book comes in Dumbledore's annotations. For as well as being a source of information, they are full of personal anecdotes that remind us of his rather unique character and emphasis many of the lessons he imparted to his students in the Harry Potter books. Two of the best of these accompany "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune" and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart", of which the former, a recounting of the short history of dramatic presentations at Hogwarts, is my personal favourite. Of course it's the anecdotes that go a long way towards helping us believe we are back in the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts with their mention of familiar names and the "sound" of Dumbledore's voice echoing through them.

Lest anyone think this is an attempt by Ms. Rowling to make a little extra cash for herself (as if she needs it) around one sixth of the list price (one pound, sixty-one pence of the six pound ninty-nine pence asking price in England) from each book sold is being donated to The Children's High Level Group (CHLG). This is a charitable organization established to give the over a million institutionalized children a chance at a better life. Many of the children kept in large residential institutions are no orphans as is commonly believed but are those whose parents are unable to care for them because of illness, poverty, or because they are ethnic minorities. The long term goal of CHLG is to ensure the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child across Europe and around the world. All ready four million pounds have been raised for CHLG through sales of Beedle and each copy purchased improves the organization's chance of obtaining their goal.

Aside from the fact that The Tales Of Beedle The Bard are sure to delight all fans, young and old, of the Harry Potter series, buying a copy will make a difference to a child somewhere in the world. Until the repeal of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, that's one of the better bits of magic any of us are going to see in our life times.

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 13, 2008

Book Review: The Graveyard Book By Neil Gaiman Illustrated By Dave McKean

Walking through a graveyard in the middle of the day, nobody is going to be overly disturbed as it's much like wandering through a park. In fact there are some graveyards in the world where thousands of visitors flock each year to wander their confines to search for the celebrities like Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde who are buried there. However, let it be after dark and that very same graveyard is apt to be deserted.

While some might ascribe it to a fear of the supernatural, I think the real reason for people avoiding graveyards at night is because they unite two of mankind's most primal fears: death and the dark. Our fear of the dark is a hangover from the days before we discovered fire and were at the mercy of the many denizens of the night who looked upon us as snack material. While we've devised many belief systems to try and answer the question of what happens to us after we die, there's never been a shred of proof offered that any of them are true. Death, for all the promises of pie in the sky made by so many religions, is the the great unknown, the great darkness that no fire we possess can disperse.

So there aren't that many of us that would think of graveyards as a sanctuary from danger, but in his latest release, The Graveyard Book, from Harper Collins, Neil Gaiman has done just that. Replete with illustrations by his look time collaborator Dave McKean, The Graveyard Book offers a behind the scenes peak at what happens to us after we are laid to rest as it tells the story of the night the inhabitants of one graveyard became involved with the affairs of the living and the events that ensued in the years following.
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The story opens with death, as befits a novel set in a graveyard. Thankfully the deaths are all ready accomplished when we enter the story, for they were the violent deaths a husband, wife, and daughter at the hands of a knife wielding killer. However the killer, a mysterious man named Jack, is still on the prowl for the survivor of the house's inhabitants, a baby boy. Yet when he reaches the top floor nursery where the crib lies waiting, it's only to find it empty and the boy vanished.

Sniffing out his trail, for like all good hunters our man Jack follows his prey more by scent than by sight, he follows it out of the house onto the street which leads up the hill to a graveyard. Although he could swear he smelt the baby's scent leading into the cemetery, once there he loses the trail. In fact, all of a sudden he realizes that he's come in the completely wrong direction and there's no reason for him to be in the graveyard at all. The boy he decides must have gone down the hill, not up, and anyway, who or what would a baby find shelter with in a graveyard. No, somehow or other Jack must have followed the wrong scent, and he heads off into the night.

Of course if Jack had been able to see properly he might have noticed the great amount of consternation that had gripped the graveyard's residents as ghosts from as far back as Roman times debated the practical issues involved with them raising a live child. The real sticking point is how are they to provide for the child - none of them can leave the graveyard in order to gather the food he'll need to survive. It's only Silas, the graveyard's only undead resident, offering his services as guardian to the boy until he's grown, and a timely reminder from the Lady on the Grey, the one all the dead know as it's her and her great horse that wait for us at the end of our days, that the dead should know charity, that finally sway them to offer the little tyke Freedom of the Graveyard.

So it is that Nobody Owens, Bod for short, came to live in the graveyard at the top of the hill. As it was the Mrs. Owens who promised the shades of little Bod's parents that she would protect their son, she and Mr. Owens became his Mother and Father and he took their surname. As for his first name, well as Mrs. Owens put it, "he don't look like nobody but himself", and Silas agreed that's indeed who he looked like and named him appropriately.
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When next we meet young Bod he's five years old and like all young people is full of questions about what he sees around him. Primary among them is why can't he leave the graveyard, and how do I do what he or she just did, and who lives in which plot. The answers he receives from the ghosts are most unsatisfactory, so he turns to the mysterious Silas for answers to his questions in the hopes of receiving a straight answer. So it is that Bod finds out that he is different from the rest of the graveyards inhabitants, and that things like Fading, Dreamwalking and Haunting don't come naturally to him. It's also when he discovers that there is something or someone outside the graveyard who means to do him harm. Any trip he takes outside the graveyard could result in his whereabouts being discovered and his death.

There is something about Neil Gaiman's writing that no matter the subject, and no matter how scary things might be getting, there's the sense that he's not trying to exploit your fears like other writers who deal with the supernatural. There's such a feeling of awe and wonder to his writing that you can't help but feel entranced by all that's going on in the story. That's the case again with The Graveyard Book as we wander around with Bod meeting the various inhabitants of his graveyard home and watching him grow from a young boy to a young adult. In fact it's the human world that's the scariest as the people out there, from teenagers to adults, are decidedly unpredictable and apt to act nastily without any rhyme or reason.

Gaiman's other great gift is his ability to make all of his characters instantly believable no matter who or what they are. From Bod to Silas, and all the inhabitants of the graveyard, each character has such a distinct personality that as readers we are able to see them in our mind's eye almost immediately upon meeting them. While the world they inhabit might be completely alien to us, after all there aren't probably many among his readers who are terribly familiar with life in a graveyard, we quickly accept their reality as normal because they are so real.

While Gaiman doesn't need much assistance in generating atmosphere in his stories, Dave McKean's illustrations add that little extra something that ensures we remember the other worldly quality of the environment the book takes place in. While his drawings aren't necessarily frightening, they do remind us of the differences between Bod and his friends and neighbours by representing their physical differences. For while Bod is always drawn as a relatively solid person, there is something always ethereal about the way the other characters are depicted.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean is a delightful mix of fantasy and mystery that will entertain readers of all ages. Like the best fairy tales there are moments that are scary enough to make us worry about the fate of Nobody Owens, but there are an equal, if not greater number, of magical moments that transport us out of our world and make us forget our mundane reality. What could be better than that.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean can be purchased directly from Harper Collins or your local book seller.

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.

October 30, 2008

Book Review: Eastern Standard TribeBy Cory Doctorow

Over the millennia of our existence humanity has evolved in hundreds, if not thousands of different ways. Some of those evolutions have come about through the natural course of events, while others because of circumstances and conditions. On a social level one of the more interesting changes has been our ways and means of identifying our personal communities. It used to be that our family unit was our first and primary social group. Who we were born to could pretty much determine the course our lives would take. Even when things like family name and its position in society began to lessen in importance blood ties were considered to be ties that would never break.

It has only been in the last half century that any real radical redefining of community has taken place with family surrendering its position of prominence in our social structure. For although it's true that for some family is of primary importance, its no longer necessarily the community that defines us. Instead of us being defined by our communities, we now search out the communities which best fit our definition of ourselves. People may still try to impose physical or genealogical boundaries on a community, but most of require more than that from those we surround ourselves with.

In a family of businessmen and women just how well will the person who has to write, paint, or create music fit in? Who will they have to talk to that will truly understand what motivates them, that can at least understand their experience? Up until ten years ago most people in that situation would have had to leave home and go to some physical destination to find others of the same mindset, but with the rise of the Internet as a means of communication that's all changed. On line communities of like minded people can be formed between people who aren't even on the same continent and may in fact never even meet.
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In his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, available as a free download like all his books, as well as for sale, Cory Doctorow has created a combination of physical and virtual communities based on people's feelings of affinity for behaviour in a particular time zone. These "tribes" exist on line through sophisticated versions of what we would call chat rooms, and no matter where you are in the world you can hook up with your tribe simply by logging on. Of course the time differentials do come into play, for if your job happens to have taken you to Europe and you want to keep in touch with your tribe on the East coast of North America you start to run into problems with sleep deprivation.

Art works as a user-experience consultant, which translates as coming up with ideas and figuring out how to implement them for public consumption or private sales and make loads of money for a corporation. He's also a plant for the Eastern Standard Tribe (EST) working undercover in Greenwich Mean Tribe (GMT) territory in his version of industrial sabotage. Currently he's trying to undermine Deutche/Virgin, a huge entertainment conglomerate, by creating ideas that on the surface look and sound feasible, but somehow upon implementation, they don't work out. Or better yet, they never get past the research and develop stage but still end up costing Deutche/Virgin a bundle.

Art is hooked up with a firm in New Jersey, and he and his buddy Fede, who got him the job in the first place, have been working as a team for a few years now. Fede deals with the organizational nuts and bolts and Art is the idea man. So when Art comes up with an idea that will not only do an end run around Deutche/Virgin, put money in Fede's and Art's pockets, and make their EST employer lots of cash too, its only natural that they'll work on it together. Fede's only reluctance is that he wants to sell the highest bidder and to hell with tribal loyalty, but he lets Art convince him that they owe the folk in New Jersey.

Everything is going great for Art, not only has he come up with a sure fire way to make money and help EST, he's also met a wonderful girl, Linda. Even though she's from Pacific Standard Time (PST) and a little bit crazy, they're hitting it off great. So why does he end up in a sanatorium involuntarily committed by his girlfriend and his best buddy Fede? It turns out that Art attacked Fede and accused him and Linda of stealing his idea and selling it off to another tribe. So he's now locked away and being kept doped up for suffering from severe paranoia. Yet, are you still paranoid if they are really out to get you?

At the beginning of the book we meet Art sitting on the roof of the sanatorium as he's managed to escape the confines of his "room" momentarily. While he's debating with himself on whether it's better to be smart or happy, he recounts the events that led him to this point. All his life he's paid the price for being too inquisitive and demanding answers where others would just merely acquiesce and accept things as they are. It's that type of mind that allows you to see patterns developing which others can't detect, that lets you see, where others wouldn't, that your best friend and girl friend have sold you out.

Cory Doctorow has an amazing affinity and enthusiasm for the potentials in technology and is able to create worlds where many of those possibilities are fulfilled without ever stretching our credibility. All the technology he uses in his books, if not possible yet, seems like it could be possible in the near future. Everything he talks about in his books is, if not yet possible, the next logical step in its evolution. Unlike other writers however, he never forgets that technology without humanity is hollow, a shell without substance. Art loves the fact that he can be with his tribe wherever he is on the planet, but he loves the technology that makes this possible for what it can do, not because its technology.

Art is a creative and intelligent individual who uses technology to help him realize fantastic ideas. Not because it will make him loads of money, but because of the pleasure he gets from their creation, figuring out how to implement them, and the best way others can make use of them. However, that's not the way the world works, including the world occupied by his friends, and he keeps running afoul of it. He's happiest when he's either in full creative mode, or happily chatting away with other members of his tribe about life, the universe, and everything. Sure he's obsessive, but show me one creative person who isn't; show me one artist who doesn't get lost in their work to the extent that they can start a project and completely lose track of time.

In Eastern Standard Tribe Doctorow has not only created a world that is the next logical evolutionary step in on line communities from our current social networks, but a great example of the difficulties faced by anyone who thinks outside the box. Art's creativity and intelligence are his chief assets, but they are also his downfall. While he loves his tribe and the feelings of belonging that it brings him, the reality is that like all other artists he is his own community, because there really isn't anybody who is like minded. That doesn't make him any better or any worse than anybody else, just different, and being different makes you a social misfit no matter how hard you try.

Cory Doctorow has a wonderful knack for bringing people and ideas to life on the page, and Eastern Standard Tribe is no exception. Like anything else I've read by this remarkable writer its entertaining and intelligent, which makes Cory more than little bit different himself.

October 24, 2008

E-Book Review: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom By Cory Doctorow

Science fiction used to be filled with predictions of a future filled with flying cars and lives spent living among the stars. As many of these predictions have failed to come true with the passing of the years writers seem to have become more interested in suggesting ways in which technology will impact on our day to existence or postulating alternate realities. While some writers still turn their eyes towards the stars, a great many have kept their eyes firmly affixed upon our planet and the human condition and society.

In the two books that I've recently read by Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town and Little Brother he has done a wonderful job of depicting our current world and the way in which technology impacts upon it. In both instances the technology depicted in the stories is nothing different than what's available to you and me currently - although he does demonstrate some rather creative ways of putting that technology to work in both instances. However, that wasn't the case in an earlier novel, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, as he gives a glimpse into one possible future. (As with all Cory's novels Down And Out is available as a free download)

Death and money have become things of the past in The Bitchun Society, as have the workplace and work. Instead of individuals accumulating personal wealth in order to obtain status and privileges they amass Whuffie, a complicated scheme that reflects the amount of esteem you are held in by society at large based on what you are doing with your life. Technically you could sit on your ass and watch television all day and drink yourself into a stupor, but because you won't be earning any Whuffie with that type of behaviour you'd soon find yourself hitting the skids as your apartment is reassigned to someone held in a little more esteem.
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But don't worry, all is not lost, if things are really bad you can always revert to a back-up and wipe out everything that has happened between when you last saved your experiences and the present. Your old memories are simply downloaded into a clone and you pick up your life at that point in time and star over again. Of course if things are just too much, and you can't find anything that interests you anymore, there's always the option of deadheading for an extended period of time.

Most people use deadheading as a means of avoiding the tedium of travel - spending the four hours of plane travel in suspended animation instead of staring out the window in boredom - but it can also be used to put yourself to sleep for as long as you want. Having run out of things to do you might decide to deadhead until in the hopes things have changed when you come to. Of course if you ever get to the point where you feel as if you've seen enough you can always decide it's you last day on earth and take the lethal injection that puts you to rest.

Jules has had a moderately successful two or three lives so far; composed a couple of symphonies, written three symphonies, but when he meets up with Dan he's pissing away his accumulated Whuffie. Dan on the other hand has amassed stupendous amounts of Whuffie serving as a missionary to those pockets of humanity who have resisted joining the Bitchun Society. However he's beginning to think that it will be time for him to check out soon - he's seen more and done more than probably most people on earth have and from now on he figures it can only be boring and redundant. When they go their separate ways Dan is off to see if there's anything left to do on earth, and Jules to start over again in his favourite place on earth - Disney World.

It's in Disney World where Doctorow really brings the Bitchun Society into tight focus and we begin to see the flaws in this version of utopia. Disney World has been carved up into little fiefdoms with each area being controlled by the group of people, or ad hoc, who have been able to establish the most Whuffie for making the area exciting and popular. Jules and his new girl friend Lil, who was born and raised in Disney World, belong to the ad-hoc controlling Liberty Square; home to the Hall of Presidents, The Haunted Mansion, and the Liberty Belle riverboat. Not only are the members of an ad hoc responsible for the technical aspects of the rides, but they also are the live staff for the attractions and as such have developed the personalities of Disney employees.

When Dan shows up out of the blue he's spent all his Whuffie and is a wreck - he's not been able to summon the courage up to kill himself. It's Lil who comes up with the idea that he needs to accumulate Whuffie again if he wants to top himself, as it's far better to go out on top than looking like a washed up loser. So Dan ends up joining Jules and Lil in their efforts to stave off the attempts of another ad hoc to take over first the Hall of Presidents attraction and then, the holiest of holies -The Haunted Mansion. We watch as what at first is an honest attempt on Jules' part to preserve the attractions out of affection, becomes a dangerous obsession on his part that results in him not only destroying his relationship with Lil, but in the end losing all his Whuffie and becoming an outcast.

Now Cory Doctorow is no anti technology Luddite, but he's also very much aware of its potential for misuse. The more we learn about the great Bitchun Society and the way that tech is used so that people can slough off lives like a snake does its skin, the more we realize how facile and empty existence has become. There's nothing at stake anymore as the worst thing that can happen is that you simply revert to a back up and eliminate anything that you might have done that impacted upon your status. Why you can even arrange to have someone murdered and then revert to your back-up and honestly have no knowledge of having set the forces in motion that resulted in somebody's death.

With everybody hard wired into the same network, how else can you run a backup of your digital and organic memory if you're not "on line", anyone can access your Whuffie score at anytime just by looking at you and calling up your data. A well orchestrated campaign against an individual can result in their going from having a moderately comfortable life to a complete outcast, shunned by decent society, in as long as it takes for information to travel the net. Not conforming to Bitchum Society norms - like deciding that you'd rather lose the capacity to be on line all the time rather than losing your memories of the last year by reverting to a back up as Jules does - is considered aberrant behaviour that could result in a serious hit to your Whuffie.

The concept of personal self-esteem in a society where you are judged by the popular esteem that you're held in has become irrelevant. What does it matter what you think of yourself when nobody else thinks your fit even to merit being allowed to sit on a park bench or be allowed admission onto the hallowed grounds of Disney World? When an experience no longer has any meaning save for the impact it has on your social status and can be wiped out with a thought, and when there's no risk involved in anything that you do, where's the exhilaration of being alive come from? It's like a society that's been put on anti depressants and has lost some key element of what it means to be fully human.

What makes Doctorow so successful as a writer is how he everything is so believable. We learn about the society through the characters and their actions. Gradually he incorporates us into the world until the point comes where we take it everything just as for granted as his characters do. It's when we've reached that comfort zone that he begins to pull the rug out from under us, and we begin to see the ugly truths behind the idealistic facade.

Doctorow doesn't preach to us, he simply lets us observe the society in action through the eyes of Jules. As his place in Bitchun Society becomes more tenuous we begin to see the hollowness at the core of the whole system. Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom is a well crafted and executed piece of social satire that reminds us that life isn't and shouldn't become a popularity contest. There's lots of great uses for technology, but hard wiring us all into a massive social network so that we can vote on each other's position in society is not a future I'd be interested in partaking in. Although come to think of it, how far from that are we now?

October 23, 2008

Book Review: The Return Of The Crimson Guard Ian C. Esslemont

I've always been fascinated by the stories that define a culture and its people. I'm not talking about the books that they use for worship either, but the stories that have been told from one generation to the next for longer then anyone can remember. Each story tells you a little bit about who a people really are and what they believe in as they are a reflection of how they live their lives on a daily basis. It's probably why I love epic fiction so much, because not only does it tell a whole series of stories, but if its done properly the stories will create a whole new world for you to wander through.

Think of all the great epics throughout history; The Ramayana, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf, not only do they recount the adventures of a hero, or collection of heroes, they allow you to see the world through their eyes. It doesn't matter whether you follow Aeneas on his quest to find a new home for the defeated Trojans or Rama as he attempts to wrest his darling wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana, along the way you meet the gods who rule them, you learn about their social order, and you are introduced to the philosophies and moral codes that they adhere to.

For the authors of these works, even good old anonymous, accomplishing all this wasn't very difficult as they were merely writing down accounts of what they knew to be true, or at least what was accepted wisdom. However, that's not the case for the modern writer who sets out to create an epic from scratch. That author not only has to create a series of plots and stories, he or she has to build the world and belief systems that supply the frame of references for the events that are being depicted. So while there are many novels out there these days that have had the appellant epic tied to their titles, the reality is that very few of them really qualify to be included in that genre.
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One of the best of the modern era's epics has been The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence by Steven Erikson. Meticulous in their detail, not only have the eight books all ready published in the series been remarkably entertaining, they have created a whole new world for the reader to explore and experience. Then two year ago Erikson brought out his secret weapon, a second author who was also writing stories set in the same world to fill in any gaps in the narrative that he may have missed. Ian C. Esslemont's first book, Night Of Knives took us back in time to an incident that had happened before Erikson's recounting had begun. His second instalment, The Return Of The Crimson Guard, first published by PS Publishing of England, and now available through Random House Canada, jumps forward in time to the present day in the heart of the Malzan Empire. Chronologically it picks up the action about a year after the events that were recounted in Erikson's sixth book, The Bonehunters, and the Empire is facing its worst crises since its formation. Lands that were first conquered in the early days of the Empire have risen in revolt against the rule of the current Empress, Laseen, and to make matters worse it appears that most of the dissent is being fermented by people who were once loyal to the Empire.

Unfortunately for Laseen, these men and women were more loyal to her predecessor, the man she assassinated to become Empress. In spite of having successfully rid herself of many of them, she hadn't been chief of the assassins for nothing, enough of "The Old Guard" remain alive that the threat they pose as leaders of the rebel factions is very real. Just to make things even more exciting a company of mercenaries who took an oath to eradicate the Mazalan Empire, The Crimson Guard of the title, have decided the time is ripe for an assault on their enemy. What distinguishes the Guard from other mercenary companies is the fact that 600 of their membership have somehow taken a vow which has made them immortal and almost invincible in battle. After years of individual troops wandering the world on their own, the word has been spread that they are to reform to begin the final assault that will see the destruction of their hated foe.
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However Laseen is not without allies or troops still loyal to the empire and in the heart of the territories under revolt one group is determined to do anything they can to save not only the empire but their own lives as well. Deep within the caverns that run underneath the city of Heng, a city that the rebels must sack if they hope of advancing on the Empire itself, lurks an ancient evil that if released will wreck ruin upon any that it comes in contact with. Releasing it will destroy the rebel forces, but it will also set loose an evil that will continue to attack humans long after the war is over. What lengths would you go to in order to preserve your own life?

What makes Esslemont's story work so well is that he takes these huge sweeping events and has them seen through the eyes of individuals in the field. Some of them are leaders, but others are like Kyle, a lowly conscript in The Crimson Guard, who circumstances thrust into the centre of events whether they want it or not. Kyle stumbles onto the fact that there is a rot within the guard, and he is forced to flee for his life. We spend a good portion of the book with Kyle on his travels to find the founder of the Guard in the hopes that he will be able to stop whatever plans have been fermented by those who are intent on corrupting its original purpose.

It's through characters like Kyle, the people he meets up with, and others in various camps with the different armies, that Esslemont is able to paint a picture of what life in the heart of Malazan Empire is like. While Erikson's books have mainly dealt with events occurring in the furthest reaches of the conquered territories, Esslemont takes us into the corridors of power and behind the scenes to expose some of the secrets in its heart and even more of the corruption that has been festering in its veins. Yet just as we are wondering why anybody would want to defend such corruption, we are back among the soldiers fighting for the empire, and find that they are no different from the ones they are defending their cities from. In fact, if anything, the Malazan soldiers are far easier to like than the ones they are defending against as they don't have any motives beyond survival and defending their homes.

Epic fiction is probably some of the hardest to write as you not only have to write a story that will hold your reader's attention but you have to create the world that the story takes place in. It's like creating an extra character who doesn't do or say anything, but without whom the story is pointless. Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson have done what I would have previously considered impossible, they have created a fictional epic that is on a par with those epics that were created to honour real people and real civilizations. After reading The Return Of The Crimson Guard it's hard to believe that you're reading about events that never actually happened or a society that didn't exist.

Those wishing to purchase a copy of The Return Of The Crimson Guard can either purchase a limited edition (very expensive but looks beautiful) from PS Publishing of England, Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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 10, 2008

Book Review: The Vault Of Deeds By James Barclay

There's nothing quite like a hero is there, those great defenders of virtue and so forth. Steely eyed in battle, firm of sinew, and pure of heart, they've strode through the world's literature before we even had writing. Whether it was Homer spinning his tales around the fire side for his fellow Greeks or Valmiki reciting verse after verse in praise of Rama for future generations of Indians to recite hasn't mattered. Heroes puff up our vision of ourselves as a people as they are the epitomes of all that we hold to be virtuous. In the same token they are useful for propagating a specific way of being and establishing and enforcing the character traits that a society considers attractive.

However where would the hero be without his scribe? Would we have even heard of Achilles and his buddies' attempt to take Troy if it weren't for Homer? When the Vikings used to set out upon their raids into foreign waters they were always accompanied by at least one poet or bard who could recreate the heroic deeds carried out by his countrymen as they raped, pillaged, and looted their way through coastal Europe and the British Isles. What was the good of performing deeds of great valour if they weren't going to be properly appreciated after all? Yet haven't you ever wondered about the relationship between scribe and hero? There's something almost symbiotic about it, as they each depend upon the other for ensuring their places in the annals of history and the pages of literature.

Its this relationship that is deconstructed in The Vault Of Deeds, a new novella by British author James Barclay, just released by the British independent small press PS Publishing. Barclay first made a name for himself through the publication of the six part series, soon to be seven, covering the exploits of the heroic mercenary company known as The Raven. While he never used the flowery prose of the romantic writers from the late 19th centuries, and his heroes were not necessarily men and women a good son or daughter would take home to meet their parents, the member of the Raven did possess heroic characteristics. Brave, resourceful, somewhat noble, and if not always completely pure of heart and innocent of evil influence, at least their intentions were always for the best as they fought both human and inhuman enemies in defence of their homeland and what they believed to be justice.
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So it's only fitting that Barclay has written this farcical satire on the connection between the hero and his scribe, and vice-versa. Something is going terribly wrong in the blessed kingdom of Goedterre. One after another all the great heroes are being defeated in battle by the forces of evil. Helpless scribes are forced to sit idly by while, instead of recording their hero's eloquent words as they vanquish another demon from the pits of hell to the abyss, they watch them cut down in mid sentence. A feeling of unease and disquiet has come over the now unemployed scribes of the best Hero (H.E.R.O. = Hideous Evil Routinely Overcome) school in all the land. Fully forty-seven heroes have suffered consecutive defeats, the worst record since the dark ages.

However of all the currently unemployed scribes only Grincheux is willing to risk his flesh to find out why the best of best are dropping like flies on the fields of battle and the forces of evil are marching virtually unopposed unto their fair land. Unfortunately there is a reason his fellow scribes are hesitant about even beginning to formulate plans for looking into the reason behind all the recent defeats. Any thought that a scribe has that can be construed as pertaining to heroic deeds or adventures is recorded in draft form in the Vault of Deeds in preparation to the scribe adding the finishing touches upon the completion of a campaign. Although scribes are usually considered sacrosanct and are never harmed on the field of battle, accidents have been known to happen. So a process that allows a rough draft that could in theory be finished off by any other scribe was deemed an essential safe guard.

While those in training for heroism are learning essentials like how to swing their battle axe and proper heroic utterance, scribes are taught how to formulate their thoughts to ensure posterity gets the best possible read. As part of that process whenever they begin to think in terms of plot and action, their book in the Vault of Deeds immediately begins to render a draft form for the potential adventure. With the Vault inexplicably off limits to the scribes all of a sudden, there is the real threat that if there is something foul in the state of Goedterre, those behind it can keep an eye on any scribe nosey enough to start poking around simply by seeing what they're writing about.
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Already one of their number's book had been brutally closed by his untimely demise, and everyone else is of the firm mind that heroism is best left to those who went to school to become heroes. The trouble is that recent crop of students at the hero school just aren't what anybody under most circumstances would ever consider hero material. So it comes down to Grincheux and his newly assigned hero(ine), Cassandra the Swiftblade, to take the afternoon before committing to the field of battle to nose around the school to see if they can uncover what's gone wrong. What they discover is even more base a betrayal than either could have believed possible. In the catacombs beneath the school a pit has appeared in which the forces of evil are being taught the secrets of Heroism and how to defeat the champions of good in battle.

While I've always enjoyed Barclay's work prior to this, nothing in any of his earlier works had indicated he had such a flair for the ridiculous. He has done a brilliant job of standing the whole hero genre on its head using elements of farce and satire to make his point. While some of the humour is as broad as a barn door - the extravagant language has to be seen and read to be believed, at other time he hones his wit to a point that cuts deeper than any weapons wielded by fiend and hero alike. Conventions are manipulated as easily as a child's building blocks revealing just how flimsy the whole notion of a hero really is. For what is a hero anyway if not a construct of the writer, and in this world the heroes are trained to spout the words that heroes always declaim so that their scribes can record it as deathless prose.

It is those very conventions that the minions of evil are able to exploit to ensure the speedy dispatch of the forces of good. In their classes the evil ones are taught that heroes talk too much, and that just before they deliver a killing blow they will always, without exception, deliver a speech describing their great victory so the scribe can record it. By shaming defeat and awaiting their moment the villains are bisecting and dissecting heroes during what should be their moment of triumph - cutting their speeches short by abbreviating their stature.

Unlike other writers who might have tried to stretch the joke too thin by writing a full length novel, Barclay has wisely chosen to stick with a novella, and because of that The Vault Of Deeds never becomes tiresome or just silly. (Although there are wonderful moments of rampant silliness) For anybody who has ever struggled through the turgid writings of the 19th century Romantics, or the florid prose of lessor sword and sorcery writers - this will be a balm for any wounds they might have left upon your literary soul. In the past Barclay has proven his mastery of both sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, he can now add comedy to his list of achievements as a writer. After reading Vault Of Deeds you'll never look upon heroic fantasy in quite the same way again.

October 9, 2008

Book Review: Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town By Cory Doctorow

Being different and an outsider is always difficult. Have you ever been the new kid in a school, the one who starts in the middle of a year after everybody knows each other already and have established their relationships? You end up spending a lot of time observing the other kids trying to figure out how and where you can fit in. Sometimes you try too hard and end up looking even more outlandish and fitting in even less than before you started trying to be "one of the gang", and as a result you become even more ostracized.

Of course if there's anything the least bit odd about you, or your brothers and sisters, that makes it even twice as hard. Even if it's only something as seemingly trivial as wearing your hair the wrong way, having the wrong clothes, or eating the wrong food for lunch you're labelled as the dreaded different. Imagine how bad it would be if you had some real difference like a foreign accent or different skin colour. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, no matter that you think you might be succeeding, you'll just never blend, never be able to fit in with anybody who you try to hang out with.

In Cory Doctorow's, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town,(available for free download, like all of his books, by following the link,) when we meet Alan he seems to be just like any upwardly mobile young man. He's just bought an old house and spent a lot of time and energy on renovating it to just the way he likes it. While he may seem a tad obsessive about how he goes about sanding the floors, or taking inordinate amount of pride in the fact that he's give the contractor's discount at the building supply place he purchases his materials at, I've known plenty of people who have similar quirks and idiosyncrasies.
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Even the fact that he's opened and sold off three businesses isn't too odd. Lots of people are entrepreneurs like that, finding their pleasure in developing an idea and once its a successful going concern feel the need to move onto a new project. However the boarders of the picture you've begun to visualize that is Alan become a little blurred when he starts to make references to his parents. At first you figure he could be talking metaphorically - the son of a mountain could just mean his father was huge, a mountain of a man. Even when he say his mother was a washing machine you can still bring your mind to bear on that by telling your self when he says she kept their clothes clean that it's a reference to her nurturing abilities.

It's when you realize that Alan is talking literally, that his father is an actual mountain and his mother is really a washing machine that you begin to understand how different he really is. He's not just some strange backward guy from Northern Ontario, he's strange even for that part of the world. Of course compared to the rest of his family Alan is pretty normal looking and can usually pass for one of us. After all he's not an island like his one brother, three interconnecting parts like one of those Russian dolls which fit one inside the other like his three youngest brothers, clairvoyant like his brother Billy, or worst of all a psychopathic corpse like his brother Dave.

As the eldest child Alan had always been the one to do everything first, and was the one who tried to integrate the rest of the children, when physically possible into society. He was the one who took them to school and made sure they were fed, he was the one who tried to make the abnormal normal. He even had some success with Bill and the trio of Fredrick, George, and Nathan, but he couldn't do anything about Dave - even before he was dead. He would torture animals as a toddler, and when Alan tried him in kindergarten he started to do the same with children. He was a monster.

Yet Alan is the son of the same mountain and the same washing machine that gave birth to Dave, and the other strange progeny. He's only taught himself to be like those he lives around by observing their behaviour and approximating it as best as he can. Yet he's still different, no matter how hard he tries to pass there is something about the way he does things, his means of interacting with others, that no matter what company he keeps he stands out. His new house is in one of the oldest immigrant neighbourhoods in Toronto Ontario, Kensington Market, which has become a mixture of immigrants, punks, and other folk in need of cheap housing.

Even here among the street kids, punks, and immigrants - those who have either chosen to be different or are different because of circumstances - Alan stands out. Only with Kurt, a thirty something punk who dumpster dives for old computer parts in order to fulfill his dream of making all of Toronto a free wireless Internet network, is he able to build something akin to a friendship. The one other person who he begins to become close to, after a while, is Mimi who lives next door - but then again Mimi has wings growing out of her back so knows what it's like to be different. Every so often she gets her boyfriend to saw them off with a hunting knife before they get too big so she can blend in.

In the midst of Alan helping Kurt establish his dream of a wireless Toronto, and feeling like he is doing something normal and even beneficial for his fellow man, his family shows up on his doorstep to bring his world crashing down upon him. Dave has come back from the dead and is killing off his brothers one by one. First Fredrick, George, and Nathan, and then he starts coming for Alan. Confronted by the obvious differences between himself and even those most of society considers different, Alan wonders who and what he is. Hoping for answers he and Mimi flee Toronto and head up north to visit his father but finds that he has cut himself off from being able to communicate with the mountain anymore.

In Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town Cory Doctorow has written a story about learning to accept yourself for who you are inside a strange hybrid of a story. At one moment you feel like you're in a gothic fantasy/horror novel with a depraved child killing innocence. Yet other times it feels like the world of the mountain can't possibly exist, especially with Alan and Kurt talking about the intricacies of establishing their free, wireless network. Yet Alan's reality is he was sired by a mountain and a washing machine gave birth to him, and until he learns to accept that he won't be happy.

Doctorow is very clever in the way he delivers the fairly rudimentary message that is contained in the story of being true to one's own nature and how detrimental trying to blend can be. Alan and Mimi are different and have been told either directly, or through observation of others, that they are abnormal. It's not good to be different, and they both go to great lengths to disguise who they are from others in a bid for acceptance. Yet all that happens is they both end up hurting themselves, and in Mimi's case putting herself at the mercy of another who uses his knowledge of what she is and his power to make her normal, to control her.

What is especially good about this story is how Doctorow manages to make everything so believable. His descriptions of Alan's home life are so matter of fact, and sound so normal and mundane, that neither the fact that his mother is a washing machine or his brother's oddities seem like a big deal. Like the children before Alan takes them to school for the first time and tries to teach them to be normal, we don't know any different, and as far as we know this might just be normal for here. Throughout the whole novel, no matter which reality he is writing about, Doctorow maintains the same tone to his style. We are the ones who pass judgements and make assumptions about the characters and their various degrees of normalcy.

We are what we make of ourselves and what we are born with, and Doctorow has written a moving and sometimes funny, sometimes frightening story, that brings that point home nicely. We may not be all as lucky as Alan in having a place where we know we fit, but like Alan we can all learn to accept ourselves for who we are and find some peace in that.

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.

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 25, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Book Of Leviathan Peter Blevgad

I've always thought comics never get the recognition they deserve. They are either looked down on as being less than the plain written word, as if the inclusion of pictures somehow reduces their value, or they are elevated beyond their worth by those too embarrassed to admit that they enjoy them just for the pleasure they bring. The next time I have to listen to someone talking about the deep psychological and social significance of The X-Men or whichever comic they obsess over, I'll probably gag. Why is it so difficult to admit that you can enjoy comics just for the sake of enjoying a comic?

The majority of comics that you buy either in book form or read in your daily newspaper are simple escapist fun. Whether it's the gentle humour of Charles Schutz's Peanuts gang or the fantasy world of some superhero, the pleasure derived from most comics is immediate and transitory. This is especially true of the daily strips in the paper. You start in the first panel and two or three panels later you're left with a smile on your face or some other similar feeling of contentment. Even the political strips, like Doonesbury or Minimum Security, work along the same basic premise, although they do have more to do with reality than most.

Of course that doesn't mean that all comic strips are created equal or that there aren't some cartoonists whose work takes the medium into places where very few others dare to go. Unfortunately you're not likely to find their work nestled in among the daily funnies offered by your local newspaper as it isn't what most people would want to quickly scan during their morning commute to work. Occasionally one or two of them will make there way into the pages of some speciality magazines, but most of the time you need to wait for a compilation of their work to appear as a book in order to experience them.
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At least that was the case for me when it came to Peter Blegved and his creation Leviathan as I was unfamiliar with it until reading it between the covers of The Book Of Leviathan. Mr. Blegved is a man of many talents, as can be seen by a visit to Amateur Enterprises where some of his other work has been collected. A musician in bands such as Henry Cow and Slapp Happy in the seventies and eighties, he started drawing Leviathan in 1992 and it appeared in the British newspaper Independent on Sundays through to 1998. Now The Overlook Press has gathered together those Sunday oddities into the above book, and will be unleashing it unto an unsuspecting public on July 29th/08.

Like all good comics Leviathan concerns the adventures of a boy, Levi, and his pet. Although in this case the boy is a faceless baby and the pet is a rather insightful and cynical cat, and the adventures tend towards the metaphysical rather than the physical. Although there are occasional references made to Levi's lack of features - meeting a race of people whose head's are noses, Levi's inquiry as to how he smells is answered with "Not very well without a nose" - for the most part it doesn't seem to hinder his ability to experience the world around him. From the trauma of that first separation from the parents - being left at home with the baby sitter for the first time - a trip into hell courtesy of B.L.Z. Bub, Lord of the Fleas, to Levi's valiant attempts to break out of the last panel of the strip to connect directly with his readers, he is able to negotiate most of the obstacles that the world places in his path.

Of course Levi's also slightly better prepared than most of us, as if nature has gifted him with certain abilities in lieu of those he's lost. First there's his inquisitive and inventive mind that allows him to device such things as the atomic formula for the transmutation of base matter into milk, or to imagine the mirror opposite of himself and his stuffed bunny. Of course the anti-bunny might not be to everyone's liking. For according to the strip's guest host for the day, Hegel, the father of dialectical logic, instead of being soft, cuddly, safe, stuffed and inanimate, it would be alive, hard, lethal, and hungry. Sometimes you don't want to open the door when your imagination comes knocking.

Like so many comics a lot of the humour and a great deal of the impact in Leviathan is a result of the illustrations. Blegvad is not only able to do wonderful things with a bare minimum of lines, he can also draw beautifully ornate pieces that are eloquently humorous without ever taking themselves too seriously. Even when he introduces a figure like Hegel, or an iconic image from the art world like Edvard Munch's The Scream, it's with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Sometimes it feels like that by introducing these elements in ridiculous circumstances, he is reminding the reader that they are reading a comic and not to take it too seriously.

Although, I think a man who manages to make some of the worse puns in the world out of eels and cheesy song lyrics - "What's that?" -"When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that's a Moray" - probably doesn't have to worry too much about being taken too seriously. That's not to say there aren't moments in some of the strips which won't make you stop and think. You can't deal in the absurd as much as Peter Blegvad does without opening up one or two cans of worms about human behaviour. However, most of your wondering when it comes to the adventures of Levi and Cat will be about what type of brain could have come up with such absurdities, and not about the state of the world.

While some might wonder at the value of escapism that a comic like Leviathan offers, as it says in the preface to the book, only a jailer would consider the term "escapist" pejorative. Anyway, The Book Of Leviathan isn't what anyone would consider your typical mindless escapism. Absurd, strange, and even a little twisted certainly, but always thoughtful and never simple, one thing is for sure; the adventures of Levi and Cat are never boring.

In Canada The Book Of Leviathan is available either directly from it's distributor Penguin Canada or an online 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 16, 2008

Book Review: The Last Of The Angels Fadhil al-Azzawi

Satire is a delicate matter, or at least it should be. Far too often satire seems to be confused with farce for some reason, which is sort of like confusing a chain saw with the delicate touch of a surgeon's scalpel. It's true that both will cut close to the bone, but while farce will leave a great big gapping hole making it obvious what's going on, satire will barely mark the skin on its way to leaving its barb behind. While farce has nothing to do with reality, satire presents such a mirror image of the topic being skewered that at times it's difficult to tell them apart.

Satire can be funny, but is not necessarily so, it's just as easy to weep as to laugh at the foibles of our society. The good satirist can take an idea that's totally outrageous and make it seem reasonable. The satirist's target are the self-important, the holier than thou, blind obedience, and ignorance posing as wisdom. Is it any wonder that satirists tend not to be popular among those who depend on the manipulation of the masses for their position and that the more autocratic a society the more chance they have of ending up in jail.

Such was the case with Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi who spent three years in jail during the 1970's before being released and leaving Iraq for Germany in 1977 where he still lives today. A poet, novelist, and short story writer, Fadhil's fiction is just now being translated into English. If The Last Of The Angels, being published in Canada on July 22nd/08 by Simon & Schuster Canada is indicative of the overall quality of his work we have a lot to look forward to. (For those who are interested I came across a couple of web sites where some of his poetry has been posted, Contemporary Arab Poetry and Jehat.com, which will give you a good idea of the man's quality as a writer.)
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Before the Americans were sucking the oil from Iraq the British were there. After "liberating" the Arab world from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire in WW 1 they were still holding on to their grip on the oil industry in Iraq in the early 1950's. In The Last Of The Angels the English owned Iraq Oil Company is the biggest employee in the city of Kirkuk and the people of the poverty stricken Chuqor community are especially dependant on the company's largeness for survival. So when Hameed Nylon loses his job as chauffeur (and gained the unfortunate second name as well) for the British boss's wife (his job had to been to drive her to her various assignations with lovers and thinking it only fair he be given a piece of the action, offered her a pair of nylons in exchange for a roll in the hay - hence the firing and the new name) the financial consequences were potentially dire.

After a demonstration protesting his unfair dismissal organized by the women of the community, the English woman was obviously a whore after all, results in the relief of a drought, Hameed's status in the community rises. Given his new stature he decides that he should emulate Chairman Mao and organize a peasants rebellion. Based on readings he knows it has to be a spontaneous expression of outrage by the oppressed against their overlords, and that it has to begin in the countryside, away from the corrupting influence of the city. If there was only some incident around which he could he arrange a spontaneous outburst of outrage.

When the Oil company's plan to build a road through the town's cemetery is announced, it sends the whole community into an uproar. It is decided to send a delegation from the town to appeal to the King to protect the sanctity of the dead. Among those included in the delegation are Hameed and his brother in law Khidir Musa. Khidir had gained notoriety for having gone to Russia in search of his two brothers who had been taken prisoner at the end of WW 1 and not been seen since. Everyone had dismissed Khidr's plan as craziness until one day he and his two brothers landed in Kirkuk in a Zeppelin. Even the King himself came to see the famous brothers, he was so captivated by the story.

So Khidir was an obvious choice to be included in the delegation - if anyone had the King's ear it was him. Unfortunately the King was nothing more than a figure head, and while the delegation was in Baghdad the situation in Kirkuk had exploded. The municipal workers had been told to remove their machines from the site in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, but when they started their engines it looked like they were advancing on the cemetery. The ensuing riot created a martyr out of the least unlikely of candidates, but by the end of the day there were enough witnesses willing to testify that not only was he a hero (he was shot while passed out drunk in a chair in front of his barber shop) that he actually ascended into heaven on the back of Buraq - the horse that had carried the prophet when he ascended into the seven heavens - that there could be no contradicting his status.

That's only the tiniest sample of the flavour that you can expect from Fadhil al-Azzawi's The Last Of The Angels as Iraq descends into the anarchy of revolution and coup after coup. Yet it's not only bitter irony, as amidst the stupidity and mass hysteria described in the pages of the book, moments of sublime beauty are salted like beautiful gems gleaming amongst piles of dung. While he ridicules the blind faith of the zealous and the greed of the ambitious, he also depicts the real beauty of belief, the sanctity of compassion, and the sacredness of genuine sorrow.

Like the best of the South American writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, al-Azzawi has created a world that straddles the real and the magical. It's a world where a young boy can open a box found hidden in a dusty room and find himself in conversation with three angels, and death assumes mortal guise to walk amongst the people of Kirkuk. Don't worry though he's not neglecting his duties, as he carries his ledger with him at all times and is keeping his records as meticulously as ever.

Like a painter balancing the colours on a canvass, Fadhil al-Azzawi's touch is so deft that we move between the mundane and the sublime almost without noticing the transition. Humanity, he seems to be saying, is equally capable of ascending the heights as we are of descending into the foulest pits, and the difference in the path leading to one or the other is so slight as to be almost indistinguishable. The Last Of The Angels is a beautiful book that does the seemingly impossible of holding humans up to ridicule while exalting their potential simultaneously.

You can purchase a copy of The Last Of The Angels directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

July 14, 2008

Book Review: Very Hard Choices Spider Robinson

There are some writers who are as warm and comfortable as a favourite sweater on a raw day in November. You open their books with the same sense of relief that you'd feel when enveloped in the folds of the sweater that's keeping the bite of a fall rain out of your bones. Not only do these writers know how to write well, the way they write convinces you that they believe there is nothing they'd rather be doing than telling you this particular story.

You can tell by the way they write that not only do they believe in everything they have written, every word has come directly from their heart. Yet, in spite of their passionate beliefs, you know that they have an open mind and would be willing to listen to someone with a convincing argument on the other side. They know that opinions should not be shaped by beliefs alone, but need to be substantiated by facts. Otherwise you are left with nothing but a knee jerk, emotional response that borders on the fanatical.

Of course it doesn't hurt if you agree with the opinions that they are expressing in the first place, as admittedly a great deal of the comfort you derive from their writing is seeing the things you believe in articulated rationally. It's one thing to find them on the op-editorial page of a newspaper, but another thing altogether to find them within the pages of a well written novel. They're aren't very many people out there who can write a book and make the story be about moral and political choices without it becoming polemic and tedious, but Spider Robinson is one of them.
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Spider is your atypical aging hippie in some ways; (many years ago he even wrote a story about Paul figuring out a way of bringing John back to life, because the music just hadn't been as good without him) he lives in British Columbia on Canada's west coast and his writing continues to espouse the hope that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. instilled in some members of his generation. Whether the story is set in a bar on a distant planet peopled with beings from all over the galaxy, or in the more familiar territory of present day Earth, his books are populated by people who believe in the potential of a better world.

This continues to hold true for his most recent release, Very Hard Choices, published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Set in contemporary British Columbia the book sets us down into the life of aging hippie and newspaper columnist Russell Walker. After his wife had died from cancer, Russell just wanted to hide out from the world, but events had conspired against him.

A few years back he had discovered that his former University room mate was telepathic. Zandor Zudenigo had literally shown up at his door one day demanding help in ridding the world of a serial killer whose thoughts he had picked up via a chance encounter. With the aid of a Vancouver police officer, Nika Mandic, they managed to capture and kill the serial killer before he could execute his next killing spree, and had hoped to bury the incident as deeply as they had buried the body.

Unfortunately the CIA had invested in Zandor forty years ago, and although he had slipped through their fingers then (at great personal cost as the woman he loved died during their escape) it appears that the agent in charge of that particular program is still after him. Nika had tried to do some discrete checking up on Zandor, and although her query turned up nothing it set off an alarm that alerted the agent that someone was interested in him. He doesn't know where Zandor is, but he does know who was looking for him and who his friends were.

When Nika hurries off to warn Russell that somebody is after them, she unwittingly leads him right to his front door as the agent has placed an electronic tag on her car that allows him to follow her off the mainland onto the island where Russell lives. A bad situation is made even worse by the fact that Russell's estranged son Jesse is visiting for the first time since his mother died. How is Russell going to explain to his son about the whole situation, and how are they going to get a warning to Zandor without leading the agent right to him?

While this sounds like a fairly conventional science fiction/spy novel, Robinson has written something that has quite a bit more meat on the bone than you'd expect. First of all the agent is not a one dimensional bad guy. We spend quite a bit of time with him on his quest to track down Zandor, and the more time we spend inside his mind the less inclined we are to have a knee jerk reaction to him as one of the forces of evil. We begin to wonder why is this guy so intent on tracking Zandor down, and in the end the answer comes as something as a surprise.

The hard choice of the title can be seen superficially as the decision Russell must make about whether or not to protect someone he basically barely knows, after all he's only seen Zandor once since they both graduated from college, and is it worth putting his life and his son's at risk to do so? In another writer's hands that might have been the case, but in this instance the Very Hard Choices of the title refers to the way in which we make our decisions. We can choose to make our decisions based on our personal prejudices and the conventional wisdom of our peers, or we can make them based on what's right for the situation and what the evidence tells us is correct.

It's all very well to believe in something, but if you let that belief blind you to reality and let it dictate decisions than you have abdicated your ability to choose. The hardest choice any of us will ever have to make is the choice to choose freely without prejudice. Very Hard Choices is an intelligent and thought provoking book that will hopefully have you challenging your own assumptions. It is very rare that anybody on either side of the political spectrum has the courage to do that, and whether you agree with Mr. Robinson's politics or not, he is to be admired for having that kind of courage.

I have to admit I was disappointed that a glaring factual error was allowed into print. Near the beginning of the book Robinson mentions the imposition of the War Measures Act in Canada in 1970 by the government in response to kidnappings carried out by the Front de Liberation Quebecois (FLQ). He incorrectly identified James Cross as being the kidnapping victim killed when it was Pierre Laporte, Quebec's Minister of Labour who was murdered. While it doesn't detract from the story, it does weaken the author's credibility somewhat when information that could be verified by a simple Google search is incorrect. A lesson for us all.

Very Hard Choices can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster 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 27, 2008

Book Review: Steps Through The Mist Zoran Zivkovic

Dreams have long proven themselves a source of mystery and intrigue for humans. Everybody from Shamen to psychiatrists have offered people interpretations of dreams in attempts to divine the future, explain the past, or part the veils surrounding the sub-conscience. With objects, people, and events occurring in dreams not always able to be taken at face value, no one is ever able to guarantee that what they "see" in your dream is exact. In the end, a person's own feelings about the dream end up being the most accurate, and any genuine interpretation will act more to guide a person towards their own findings rather than offering predictions.

Of course that's never stopped anyone from claiming that they can predict the future based on what's seen in a person's dreams. Although oracular dreams have a long tradition among many cultures, it's not something that has much credibility in modern times. For while most of us believe that we can control our own destiny, the future remains a mystery that most of us would rather not explore. While some people might want to know the answer to questions like, "Will I be wealthy?", nobody is really that keen on finding out when and where they die.

In Zoran Zivkovic's novella Steps Through The Mist, published in the United States by AIO Publishers the layers of mist that surround time are peeled back by the experiences of five women. With them Mr. Zivkovic asks wonders if our fates are not as random as we think after all. For while they may not governed by some great God who has planned our lives in advance, they could be determined by more than just our choices.
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Five women experience what's it like when the fabric breaks and they either step into, or are offered a glimpse of what it's like, in the mists of time. Both the future and the actions that shape the future exist beyond this veil, and the experience leaves each woman rattled and her sense of self disturbed. When the line between dreams and reality breaks down, how do you judge what to believe and who to trust?

Each year Miss. Emily has set her freshman class of girls the task of writing out their recent dreams as a first assignment. Experience has taught that each year there will be a few girls who will deliberately create outlandish tales to pass off as their dreams as they refuse to take the assignment seriously. This year is no exception, but most disturbing is the girl who comes to their defence and offers proof that they aren't lying by claiming to have dreamt their dreams with them. She can not only recite their dreams, but in order to prove her abilities she also tells Miss Emily her dream. The girl then claims that if she were to leave the classroom it would cease to exist, as it too is somebody else's dream that she is visiting.

When we meet the next young woman, who is being held in a straitjacket in an asylum as she has recently attempted suicide, something about her story sounds familiar. It's one of the dreams that the young woman in the first story claimed to have dreamt with one of her fellow students. This dream had been about a young woman in an asylum who after suffering a head injury discovered she could not only predict the future, but was actually responsible for selecting which of the many possible futures would occur. She doesn't believe that any human should have that power, and wants to commit suicide in the hopes that with her out of the way, chance will again rule everybody's life.

Subsequently we meet each of the remaining dreams that the girl claimed to have been in. A woman on a skiing holiday meets a mysterious man on the ski lift when it breaks down, who tells her he has been sent to observe which run she selects to take back down the mountain. It's of vital importance she select the right one or calamity could occur. Yet he also says that she's not to think about it, because if she does, that will interfere in what's supposed to happen.

The third dream was of a fortune teller, who is confronted by somebody who knows his own future and has merely come to her for confirmation. She of course knows that everything about her art is a fraud, and gently tells him that the short life line on the palm of his hand means absolutely nothing. Needless to say when he's struck by a car outside and killed after leaving her parlour she is taken by complete surprise.

Miss Emily's dream had been of an old woman who takes her broken clock into the watchmakers to be repaired. She needs the comfort of the sound of its ticking in order to sleep at night. The watchmaker is able to repair the ticking mechanism, but the clock will no longer keep time. On her way home she finds herself enclosed by a heavy mist that prevents her from seeing barely a yard in front of her. While she can't see, she can hear, and all around her she hears the sounds of people she has known through-out her life. She eventually hears the sounds of the incident that she now realizes shaped her whole life.

Zoran Zickovic's writing is so straight forward that everything that happens in Steps Through The Mist seems perfectly natural, in spite of the peculiar nature of the events. The characters appear every bit as normal and rational as you and me. Even the medium is just another person trying to make a living and the young woman in the asylum comes across as completely rational. It's the depiction of normalcy, and the way it contrasts with the surreal nature of the events described in the book, that make it so disturbing.

Like all of Zickovic's stories Steps Through The Mist will leave you scratching your head about the nature of dreams, and what effect we may or may not have on our fates. Does it really matter whether we make a concentrated effort to change our futures, or will what come about come about no matter what? Reality is not as far removed from the world of our dreams as we like to think, and the future is always waiting for us no matter what we do.

Zoran Zicovic is a master storyteller and this is yet another example of an artist at the top of his game. With few words, deceptively simple situations, and characters who are drawn from everyday life, he is able to create situations more fantastic than most authors who rely on dragons, castles, and battles. Steps Through The Mist proves once again that reality can be even more fantastic than fantasy if looked at in the right way.

June 26, 2008

Book Review: Seven Touches Of Music Zoran Zivkovic

Sometimes the most disturbing, and most intriguing, stories in the speculative genres are those that take place in seemingly natural circumstances, The streets the characters walk down are nearly identical to the streets you and I walk along on our daily routine. Even most of the things that happen to them are unremarkable as they live out their mundane existence. When something just slightly out of the ordinary is introduced into this environment, it naturally stands out in stark relief to its surroundings.

For audiences raised on the non-stop action of adventure based fantasy and science fiction, the intellectual and psychological intricacies of works by people like Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges or Britain's J. G. Ballard might seem boring and have little or nothing in common with what they are used to reading. Yet if a reader is willing to persevere, and acclimatize themselves to the slower pace, they will find the rewards from this type of work far outweigh the perceived action. For the action doesn't happen where we are used to seeing it, as the majority of it happens inside the heads of the protagonists instead of in a battlefield or the deck of a space cruiser.

One of the past masters of this style of writing is Zoran Zivkovic, and his recently published novella Seven Touches Of Music, available in the United States through AIO Publishers, offers further proof of just how good he is. In it he introduces elements of the bizarre into the mundane with eerie and thought provoking results.
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Music has been thought to be able to work various forms of magic on listeners with its power to inspire powerful emotions, or comfort a troubled heart. Expectant mothers play music to their unborn children in the hopes of influencing their development, and hospitals will play music to coma patients in the hopes that it will provide them comfort on some level, and perhaps even trigger a reaction in the deeper levels of the unconscious mind. In Seven Touches Of Music Zivkovic takes this premise and examines the reactions that of seven people touched by music.

An autistic child hearing a piece of music during an art class mysteriously breaks the pattern of drawing circles that he has been following for months by writing out a sequence of numbers. When the doctor working with him asks a mathematician friend if there is any significance to them, he is told that they are "...one of the fundamental values of nature, the fine-structure constant..." Some how or other a six year old autistic child has written out the decimal that defines life while listening to Chopin. Even more odd, is that no matter how many times the doctor repeats the experiment, the child never deviates from his set pattern again.

Five more seemingly unconnected instances of music impacting on normally staid citizens follow after this opening chapter. A librarian's desk top computer catches fire after it starts playing the music from a dream she had, and mysteriously bringing the dream to life as a video. In the dream a library filled with ancient scrolls containing the wisdom of the world is destroyed. A widower inherits his wife's tom cat and penchant for haunting second hand stores. One day he brings home a music box that he very carefully winds in the hopes that it still plays. Meanwhile the cat has climbs into the box in which the music box was packed. Mysteriously when he comes out he is a she and time has shifted. For when the widower follow his "new cat" into the living room, he sees a younger version of himself, his wife, and children sitting around the dinner table; a scene which persists until the music box runs down.

A staid, middle class matron finds herself having to make an unwanted train trip in the middle of the winter to visit her sick sister. When the train is delayed by the weather the music of a hurdy-gurdy played by an old gypsy gives her visions of the future which show disasters happening to her fellow passengers. A painter paints a series of paintings while listening to a band playing in the park, and when he hangs them on his wall at home they appear to form a pattern, a puzzle that no matter how long he stares at he just can't quite solve.

What is there about the music that is causing these seemingly different people to all connect with something beyond reality and to have visions outside their own time, or glimpses of the pattern that makes up life. Yet if we look closely at these people they do have something in common; in one way or another they are all imprisoned by a routine or a lifestyle that seemingly has cut them off from the outside world. The autistic child lives in his head, the librarian is trapped by the routine of a marriage gone stale, the widower has refused to engage the world for years, the old lady in the waiting room has cut herself off from everyone, and the painter has lived according to a rigid, self-imposed, schedule since his retirement.

In each case the music seeps through their defences and elicits responses that in most instances throw their carefully ordered world into disarray. With the exception of the autistic child, because we can not know how he reacts, each of the other individuals has their view of the world radically altered. Lids that have been jammed onto emotions for years begin to pop their rivets, much to the individual's consternation.

For a novel like Seven Touches Of Music to work we have to believe in the characters and their circumstances sufficiently that the impact the music has on their lives becomes as significant to us as it does to them. Zivkovic has not only made his characters utterly convincing, but his depiction of their lives, and the environment they live in, are detailed in such a manner that we can feel the shock to their systems when they are given their brief glimpses into the unknown.

As he builds the story to it's conclusion, it's in the final two scenarios that Zivkovic starts to tie together the separate threads of his story, each character adds another layer to the mystery of the music and its relationship to the events in the story. In the first story the music is a known quality, a piece that one of the protagonists is familiar with, but from there on in it becomes an unknown agent that is being released on unsuspecting victims. At least, they seem to think of themselves as being victimized, but are they?

Seven Touches Of Music is beautifully written story where on the surface nothing much seems to happen, yet each character in the book travels further than most heroes do on epic quests. The action takes place inside the characters as they come to grips with the new awareness of the world that the music has gifted to them. It's the questions that this book asks not the answers it provides that makes it interesting, and as long as you're willing to take that trip with the characters, it will be one of the most rewarding reads you've had in a long time.

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 19, 2008

Book Review: Outrageous Fortune Tim Scott

There's a type of British comedy that when done well combines all the best attributes of farce, theatre of the absurd, and their own Pantomime tradition. Comedy troupes like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Beyond The Fringe were great examples of how this translated into sketch comedy for television, stage, and film. In fiction the best known example of this style was the late Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series.

While the sketch comedy routines of television and radio didn't need to worry excessively about plot or even a narrative line, and could routinely go off like small bombs of comic excess with no worries about what would come next, Douglas Adams didn't have that luxury. Whether in its first incarnation as a BBC radio show, as a television series, or a sequence of novels, his Hitchhiker's Guide would not have worked without having its various plot lines and sub plots to guide its seemingly unconnected random moments of silliness.

It's a difficult path to navigate, balancing lunacy with the needs of a full length novel, and there aren't many writers who seem capable of carrying it off. One need look no further than Tim Scott's first novel, Outrageous Fortune, published by Random House Canada for proof that merely being funny doesn't make for a good novel. Like Adams, Tim Scott began his career with the BBC, appearing in the sketch comedy show, And Now In Colour under the name of Tim de Jongh, before continuing on to writing and directing successful children's shows.
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Unlike Adams though Scott does not appear to have understood what is necessary to make a good novel. While there is no denying he has a keen sense of the absurd, and even shows some flashes of genuine insight into human nature, his inability to tie together the bits and pieces that he's written into a coherent shape results in a novel that doesn't so much finish but peters out in the end.

Set some time in the future, Outrageous Fortune follows the misadventures of Jonny X as a particularly bad day turns into a particularly bad couple of weeks. After coming home from his job as very successful dream manufacturer he finds that his house has been stolen. Not robbed, but the whole structure had been shrunk down to a hundredth of its size and whisked away to be sold in all probability on the housing black market. Adding insult to injury the thieves had left a business card in place of Jonny's house emblazoned with the words "Don't you hate it when this happens'? and a 1-800 number with final seven digits spelling out AARRGHH.

If that isn't bad enough Jonny has the dim recollection of having a really nasty argument with his girlfriend the night before, but finds that he can't quite bring all the details to mind - in fact can't remember a bloody thing about it. Needless to say that doesn't put him in the most receptive frame of mind when an encyclopedia salesperson descends on him from a helicopter and does her best to convince him that what he needs most of all at this point in his life is a complete set. She's not even phased when he points out to her that he no longer has a house to keep the books in. All things considered it's not surprising that Jonny decides getting a drink takes priority over going into work right at that moment and heads off to his favourite bar.

Now the world has changed quite a bit from the earth you and I are familiar with, especially when it comes to local government and means of transportation. Its in the creation of the new society that Scott shows real imaginative flare, and a highly developed sense of the absurd. While there is still an elected government, they are nothing more than a figure head as all real power now resides in the hands of music companies. Instead of wards or districts as cities are divided up in our time, they are now split into areas defined by musical genres.

Each genre is set up as an independent fiefdom with its own rules and regulations. So those living in Classical music obviously have different values and by-laws to adhere to than those who reside in Punk or Rave. Of course if your tastes change you might find things a little uncomfortable until you're able to arrange a move. Still the system works out quite well, as it does ensure that like minded people do end up living with each other, and you don't run into awkward situations of having neighbours blasting their Christmas novelty singles while you're getting heavily into the latest trance/ambient atmospheric creation.

All ground transportation is now done via motorcycle, and the roads that criss-cross throughout the city are each area's responsibility to maintain. While they are allowed to set their own bylaws in terms of speed and noise, the overall control of the roadways are controlled by a quasi-military force called the Zone Traffic Police. This force not only enforces traffic violations, they also seem to have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate any other matters they feel like. When Jonny runs afoul of them, it allows Scott to create a Kafkesque situation of wrongful accusation that starts out promisingly enough, but unfortunately is allowed to continue until absurdity becomes tedium, and you want the story to move along.

This is pretty much where the book falls flat over and over again as far too many times situations are allowed to drag on far past the point of being humorous. In many ways they are like ill conceived skits in a sketch comedy show where the attempt to turn a joke into a scene falls flat through lack of thinking it through all the way. In fact this is exactly the problem with Outrageous Fortune - it feels like a series of unconnected, somewhat ill conceived skits, that are occasionally funny, but don't seem to go anywhere in the end. Scott does make an effort to tie all the threads together in the final chapters, and although he provides a probable solution given the world he has created, it feels very anti-climatic.

While Tim Scott shows that he has a keen sense of the absurd, and can be very funny at times, Outrageous Fortune lacks the through line required by a novel. Outrageous Fortune offers conclusive proof of that it takes more than a collection of funny bits to make a novel.

For those wishing to pick up a copy of Outrageous Fortune you can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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 12, 2008

Interview: Scott Bakker: Author of Neuropath & The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy

A couple of years ago I stumbled across an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) of a book called The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker in a used book store. I picked it up and was immediately hooked by the author's use of language, and his willingness to go deeper into his character's feelings and motivations than the majority of writer's I'd read, let alone writers of Epic Fantasy. So far there have been two other books in the series called The Prince Of Nothing - The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandth Fold Thought, and the epilogue to part three gave an impression of more to come.

So when I received a letter from Mr. Bakker back in late February, early March, asking if I would like an ARC of his forthcoming book, Neuropath, I assumed it would be somehow associated with the previous three books. When I wrote back that I would be thrilled to receive an ARC I mentioned how much I had appreciated the first three books of the trilogy, and was looking forward to more of the same, he replied with the warning that Neuropath had nothing to do with the previous books, and was in fact somewhat of a major departure from it.

He wasn't kidding about the departure bit, as Neuropath is a very intense crime thriller that explores aspects of human psychology that are very disturbing. Especially in regards to what he postulates is possible with surgery to control human brain functions to eliminate our control over what we believe we are feeling. The ability to surgically alter our synapses so that we will inflict pain on ourselves in the mistaken believe that we are experiencing pleasure has implications that are too frightening to even consider.
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After I had read Neuropath, its release date has been pushed back to nearer the end of June/08, so don't expect a review until probably the third week of this month, I contacted Scott and asked him if he would consider answering a few questions about his work and Neuropath specifically. He very generously agreed, so I sent him off a list of questions by e-mail and the answers you're reading here are verbatim copies of what he wrote in reply. We were both careful to avoid giving away anything that would spoil Neuropath for readers, so you can read the interview safe in the knowledge that it won't give the story away.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time to do this interview, and I hope you find what he has to says about his work as interesting as I did.

I always like to find out why it is people do what they do, so how about you. Where does the creative impulse come from for you, why writing, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

I have no clue. I was the kid who debated the reality of Santa Claus in grade two and three, then the reality of God in grade five and six, then the reality of meaning and morality in grade nine and ten. No joke. I was an irritating, pompous, inquisitive little bugger - and perhaps not surprisingly, I grew up to be an irritating, pompous, opinionated big bugger! Novels just seemed to be the most natural way of expressing those facets of my character.

Writing is one of the few careers where you can get paid for being an asshole. Reviewing is another.

If you didn't answer this already - why fantasy and science fiction?

Because they were what captured my imagination in my youth. I discovered D&D, Penthouse, Black Sabbath, and Mary Jane at the tender age of fourteen - a potent cocktail as I'm sure you know! Our brains don't finish coating neurons in the myelin sheaths that so accelerate signal speed until our mid-twenties. The reason for this, they think, is that the pre-myelinated brain is much more plastic, which is to say, much easier to program. This could be why our youthful hobbies and fascinations leave such an enduring stamp on our adult imaginations.

I'm not sure if I've ever escaped 14. I really need to trade in my wardrobe though. Nothing worse than male camel toe.

Both the Prince Of Nothing trilogy and Neuropath have a lot to do with brain functions - In the former it's the way in which people reason and the latter the technical way that process works. Where did this interest in how and why we think come from?

Well, brains don't come up much at all in The Prince of Nothing. In fact, you won't even find the word 'mind' anywhere in the books. It's all about souls, as it should be, given that the setting is pre-scientific. What both share in common is the question of autonomy, or freedom. The Prince of Nothing explores the relationship between beliefs and manipulation, and the way the "feeling of freedom" seems entirely disconnected from the fact of freedom. I'm actually amazed by the number of people who think the characters that Kellhus manipulates are fools - I always want to pop into the conversation and quiz them on their own beliefs! What makes ideological manipulation so insidious is the way it bypasses our sense of autonomy. It's always the other guy who's 'so obviously' been duped. The fact is we're all manipulated all the time. You. Me. Everybody. Simply by virtue of those beliefs we inherit without question.

Neuropath, on the other hand, primarily explores the relationship between the brain and the question of autonomy.

Do you see any relationship between the methods used by Kellhus in the Prince Of Nothing series and Neil in Neuropath?

There's actually quite a sharp distinction between the two if you think about it. They seem similar insofar as they both defect from conventional morality, but Neil is by far the more radical of the two. There's a 'good' for Kellhus, which is simply what most effectively allows him to achieve his goals. He is the perfect practitioner of 'the end justifies the means' rationality, or what philosophers call instrumental rationality. For Kellhus, the only thing that makes acts good or bad are their consequences. Since we seem to be hardwired, and are definitely socialized, to think that certain acts are good or bad regardless of their consequences, this makes him seem ruthless and unscrupulous in the extreme - nihilistic.

Neil, on the other hand, has done away with good and bad altogether. He literally exists beyond good and evil.

There's quite a difference in style and form between Neuropath and your previous work - from Epic Fantasy to Hard Science. What kind of challenges did that present you with when it came to writing the new work.

Nothing really in particular. I found Neuropath both easier and more difficult to write simply because of my preferences as a writer. There's just something about creating a world whole cloth, as opposed to writing across a world that already exists. I think I'll always be a fantasy writer first and foremost for this reason.

With Neuropath, the challenge I set myself was to create a story that could carry a substantial amount of information without sacrificing narrative momentum, and to write in a style that was as kinetic as an airport thriller without sacrificing the kinds of multiple subtexts I love layering into my prose. A tall order, I know, but then I think I got some kind of aesthetic death-wish thing going. It's a good thing I don't live in a dictatorship.

Electric Shock treatments and aversion therapy have been used as means of behaviour modification in the past on people. What's the relationship between those methods and the ones described in Neuropath if any at all?

In principle, none. All behaviour modification comes down to brain modification, and this can be done using electrical shocks, chemicals, training routines, therapy sessions, magnetic fields, radiation, scalpels, or coat-hangers. But then this is million dollar question, isn't it? What earthly difference should it make, whether we use old-fashioned techniques as opposed to the ones explored in Neuropath?

Think about all the commercials you see. Very few of them provide arguments, which is to say, reasons why it's more rational to sit down with a Whopper than it is a Big Mac. Commercials actually aren't trying to convince you of anything at all. Instead, they're trying to circumvent rational decision making, to condition populations to make them statistically more likely to pick their product. They're literally rewiring your brain, neurologically 'branding' you. And they're enormously successful at it, despite the fact that so many of us like to think ourselves 'immune' to advertising. Since our brain is largely blind to its own processes, we're never actually conscious of what these commercials do to us - they simply seem to fall through us without effect. One after another, an endless train of them. When we do go for a Whopper it's not because anyone forces us to, but because we simply 'feel like it.'

Modern advertising is literally predicated on mass manipulation, on training you the way we train animals, and yet we have no problem whatsoever with this state of affairs. So the problem can't be the fact that we're manipulated, because we are all the time. The problem has to be the way we are manipulated. As it stands, the only manipulations that we don't like are the ones that we can easily see. Who cares if someone's pushing our buttons, so long as we can pretend otherwise?

But if that's our criterion then we're in a whole heap of trouble.

The problem is that our culture spoon feeds us this out-andout magical notion of who and what we are. So when the ad man cries "Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!" in self defence, we're inclined to let him off the hook. Why? because it's an appeal to our magical self-conception. Since ignorance is invisible, we assume that all we can see of ourselves is all that there is - or most of it anyway. Everyone says, "No commercial gets the best of me! I'm a tough-minded, critical adult!" But the truth is, the stuff we can't see composes the better part of us. Which is why the corporations keep ploughing billions into mass associative conditioning, and billions more into what has come to be called "neuro-marketing." The day is fast approaching when they stop training us like animals and start tweaking us like mechanisms.

Education, in North America at least, systematically avoids teaching us anything about our myriad weaknesses and limitations as believers and decision-makers - and the results, I would argue, are nothing short of catastrophic. Take drug addiction, for instance. Simply because of my socio-economic background, I happen to know many people whose lives have been destroyed if not snuffed out altogether by drug addiction. And the common thread between all of them is that they assumed they were in control, from the beginning, and in some cases, all the way to the end, when they became little more than crack or meth or alcohol acquisition mechanisms.

And why shouldn't they assume as much, when that was the magical bullshit that was being drummed into their heads from kindergarten and up? You can't have a healthy respect for your weaknesses if you don't know a lick about them. You can't make informed decisions.

(In case you actually do believe in the magical self, then I invite you to argue with the science, not me. On the technical side, I would suggest Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will, or David Dunning's Self-Insight. There's a small explosion of popular books that deal with our cognitive shortcomings, such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of It's Own, Gary Marcus's Kluge, or Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational.)

How do you see the science described in Neuropath relating to cognitive psychology theories of how the environment we experience as a child shapes our future behaviour? Is it along the lines of recreating the effects of learned behaviour by mucking about with the brain - or is that overly simplistic?

Only in a retail and incidental way. The real link between the cognitive psychology in the book - all the little factoids about how dumb we are - and the consciousness science is the dilemma this puts us into. If even half of what cognitive psychology tells us is true, then we really have no reason to think that any of our philosophical attempts to blunt the obvious implications of the science - that nothing is what we think it is - are anything more than 'comfort reason' - self-preserving rationalizations.

I know it's early yet, but I'm curious as to what people's reactions have been to the claim by one of your characters in Neuropath that humans are nothing more than a series of programable reactions triggered by the stimulation of different parts of the brain? How much basis in fact is there for that claim?

I was immensely pleased to receive an enthusiastic email from Thomas Metzinger, the co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and the author of the landmark Being No One. When I asked him if he would be willing to blurb the book he declined, both because he found the book so disturbing to read, and because he thought I was covering ground that the bulk of humanity was better off not knowing about! I finally convinced him, though, by jumping up and down and going, "Please! Please! Please!"

Nothing else works with philosophers.

On the other hand, I was dismayed to learn that at least one of the "future facts" I pose in Neuropath has come true. Apparently, Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute devised an experiment where he and his colleagues were able to determine, via fMRI scans, what their subject's choices would be seconds before they were conscious of them. Freaks me out just writing about it.

There's going to be people who deny this stuff come hell or high water, just as there's people who can't abide evolution or the heliocentric solar system. Truth be told, I'm one of them. I believe there has to be something to my experience of free will, but all the credible evidence is piling up on the other side, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. All I can do is stomp my foot and say, "No! It just can't be."

Because if it is, then nothing fucking matters.

Maybe I'm slow but I can't seem to understand why anyone would find the contention that stuff doesn't happen for any reason it just happens is anything to get so upset about. Or I have misunderstood the premise of the "Argument" - the great debate between the central characters of Neuropath?

Well, if you're religious you're certainly going to be troubled by it - that is if you don't simply dismiss it. There's actually a running discussion in cognitive science circles about what does or does not trouble different individuals. Some, for instance, really don't care if their will is free or not. Out of the people I know who don't believe there's such a thing as free-will, morality, or meaning, some walk around perpetually bummed, and others just shrug and say, "Pass the joint."

I actually had an e-mail exchange with Richard Morgan on this topic. He says he's okay with the illusoriness of it all, so long as the illusion functions the way he needs it to function. My answer was that this was like having a wife who sleeps around town, but being okay so long as she goes through the spousal motions at home. For me, the first function of this rich, wondrous, experiential life I lead, is that it be true.

Like you, the absence of objective purpose 'out there' doesn't bother me, so long as I can make my life meaningful. It's this latter that's at stake in Neuropath.

Here's the thing. For about five centuries now science has been scrubbing the world clean of anthropomorphisms, the projection of human psychological categories on the natural world. When the crops fail, only fundamentalists shake their fists at the heavens anymore. During this time, the sheer complexity of our brains rendered us immune to this 'disenchantment,' as Weber puts it. We stood apart as the world's only meaningful thing. Humankind, the great meaning maker - just think of how many narratives you've encountered where you find a protagonist struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world, usually via romantic love (a form I play with in both The Prince of Nothing and Neuropath).

Those happy times are gone. The human brain is finally passing into the province of science and its technical capabilities, and guess what? it's disenchanting us as well. The greatest anthropomorphism of all, it turns out, is ourselves. We are the last the ancient delusions, soon to be debunked.

"I think, therefore I am" has morphed into "It thinks, therefore something was."

Some people are probably going to be disturbed by the graphicness of Neuropath, and I was wondering if you could explain why you thought it necessary?

Because it's a psycho-thriller! And because I've been so desensitized by so many B horror flicks that I think I've lost the ability to tell what's graphic and what's not. I felt like I was holding back - being coy even.

What's next from you - are you going to go back to the world of The Prince of Nothing, where you left us sort of hanging with the epilogue, continue on in the vein you started with Neuropath - more hard science, or something new altogether?

The Judging Eye comes out this winter. I'm presently working on the second book of The Aspect-Emperor, which is tentatively titled The White-Luck Warrior. I'm also working on a second crime thriller entitled The Disciple of the Dog. At the rate I'm going I should have both books completed by next spring.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time in his schedule to answer my questions, and I hope what we talked about has intrigued you enough to make you want to pick up a copy of Neuropath when its released in your part of the world. In Canada that will be sometime latter this month - June/08 - and you can check the Penguin Canada web site for the exact release date as I'm sure they'll be letting us all know soon enough when its for sale. If you're in the States, and don't want to pay the shipping costs, it looks like you'll have to wait until winter of 2008 to pick up a copy.

With The Judging Eye, the first part of The Aspect Emperor, a new trilogy picking up the characters from The Prince Of Nothing trilogy twenty years later, due out this winter, and it's sequel scheduled to be finished Spring of 2009 we won't be lacking for new work by Scott Bakker, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is a good thing. No matter what anyone else might think or say, I don't think you can ever have enough of a good thing.

June 4, 2008

Book Review: A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects Catherynne M. Valente

Folk tales and fairy tales can be almost anything we want them to be it seems. In fact one person's folk tale could just as easily be another person's religion. Go to any book store and pick up a copy of what somebody has euphemistically called a collection of folk tales, and odds are good that you'll liable to find yourself in the middle of somebody else's creation story. Yet I doubt that many people reading this right now would ever consider calling The Bible a collection of folk tales.

Yet what are folk tales if not just what they say they are - tales about a folk. The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people and The New Testament the story of Christianity. To Jews and Christians both these books have special significance respectively, but to the rest of the world they have no more intrinsic value than any other tales recounting the exploits of various folk heroes. Job and Jonah are no more or less important than Robin Hood or King Arthur to a Hindu or a Buddhist.

Folk heroes are developed as a means of instructing people in the ways of their civilization. They can either take the form of an idealized role model who exemplifies the attributes that make a person a worthy member of society, or they can be a contrary type character whose behaviour provides a lesson in how not to behave. With that in mind it only stands to reason that periodic attempts are made to update our tales so that they reflect how our attitudes have changed over the years.
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Over the past few years we've seen many fantasy writer experiment with this idea, and quite a few anthologies have been published with that express purpose in mind. One of the newest entries into the field of folk tale revising has been provided by the American poet and author Catherynne M. Valente with her recently published A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects published by Norilana through their Norilana Curiosities imprint.

Now much has been made by so called traditionalists about people revising stories to suit their needs and changing them to something other than what they are supposed to be. The only thing is that some of these "traditional" stories have already undergone any number of revisions over the years that have reflected various changes in doctrine and belief. Many stories that predated Christianity for instance, were altered to reflect the usurping of a matriarchal society by the patriarch.

I know that sounds like tired feminist drivel, but there also happens to be some truth to it, as the Church found it convenient to simply rename many holidays and figures from myth in order to make conversion more palatable to the masses. It only follows that folk tales would have undergone similar conversions. So Ms. Valente's retelling of stories from the perspective of the women involved is nothing more than a continuation of the ongoing process of a story's evolution.

A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects is a collection of poems and short fiction that gathers stories from cultures around the world and adapts them so that the story is not just seen through a woman's eyes, but also reflects her needs and desires as a person. What if Cinderella didn't have any intention of marrying Prince Charming, but only wanted a chance to go to a ball? Was Rapunzel really in need of rescue, and what about all the rest of the fair flowers that we've read about waiting a knight in shining armour or its equivalent? Maybe they didn't really want to be rescued?

The poem "Glass, Blood, and Ash" in this collection tells the Cinderella tale from the perspective of a young woman who doesn't particularly want a Prince Charming. "I never wanted it" she says. "I just wanted to look like you for one night. It should be you hoisted up like a sack of wheat...You will like it - they will put emeralds in your hair and a thin gold crown on your head". Argument after argument she mounts in order to convince her sister that she is the one who should be marrying the Prince and not her - all she has to do is fit in the shoe and the Prince won't know the difference.

Of course how much vengeance might she be enacting with this gift, there is the matter of ensuring the foot fits after all. "The doves, their claws still dusty with kitchen-ash./brought me a knife hammered out of a diamond./It is so thin/that a whisper will shatter it,/but so sharp/that the flesh cleaves/believes itself whole./Give me your toe..." Here dear sister, hold out your foot and I'll whittle it down to size so you fit into the glass slipper - then you can be princess. Isn't that a kind, sisterly, thought. Well of course it is, for as Cinderella says -"Give me your toe./ I'm the gentle one, remember?"

Earlier on in the book is the poem "Rampion", another word for Rapunzel, the name of a type of wildflower, where Ms. Valente gives us her take on that particular story. In this version Rapunzel is a compendium of plants parts and grows accordingly. Her mother is a witch who had no milk to feed her with and so she was raised on vegetables of all kind until she became onto a plant herself. "Can you not love me, liebling,/who nestled you in a tower-/a plant will grow only so great as its pot", says the witch to her foundling who she has raised so big, strong and healthy.

Of course when the hero comes to "rescue" her he saw..."a tower wrapped in vines,/in cornstalks like knotted ropes./You slashed into them,searching for a door,/and I cried out three times. You heard only the sweetness of wind singing through basil and mint./and looked up, starving,/your teeth wet and white." Poor Rapunzel, just another flower to be devoured by a man who sees without understanding. Women throughout history have been taken for delicate flowers and treated accordingly, now here is one who really is, and what happens? - She's devoured.

From Rapunzel and Cinderella to Persephone and Sita, women from all over the world, from reality, myth, and folk tale, are given a voice of their own through the words of Catherynne M. Valente. They may not be the voice that some of you are used to, or some of you even like, but that doesn't make them any less valid than the voices that they have spoken with at any other point in time. Folk tales speak with the voice of the folk who are writing them and as an expression of the community the writer represents. Ms. Valente's early education as a Classicist, and her history of publishing critical analysis of myths are sufficient to give her authority to tackle this project credence, but it's her imagination, and beautiful use of language that make it work.

A Guide To Foktales In Fragile Dialects is a magical journey into the world of folk tales and myth led by a guide with a definite passion for the subject. Each of the pieces makes for thought provoking, and sometimes humorous reading. They're all tales that my kind of folk would tell - how about yours?

June 1, 2008

Book Review: His Dark Materials - Special Omnibus Edition Philip Pullman

According to the Book of "Genesis" it's been all down hill since Eve took a bite out of the apple. From that time forward we humans have supposedly laboured under the curse of that "original sin" with little or no hope of salvation. Christians caught a break though, because they believe a young Rabbi from Nazareth to have been their saviour and if they accept him as such, and live their lives according to whichever sect of Christianity they adhere to, they will obtain salvation after their death and ascend to heaven.

Of course we would have been a lot better off if that silly Eve had never let herself be sweet talked into chomping on that forbidden fruit in the first place. If only she could have resisted temptation, humanity's fall from grace would never have happened in the first place, and the curse of consciousness would never have been released. If we hadn't gained awareness in the first place, we never would have even dreamed of questioning authority, and how much easier a time the church would have in ensuring our salvation.

If they had the opportunity to prevent Eve from succumbing to temptation what do you think the folk running the Roman Catholic Church would do? If it looked like they would be given an opportunity to rid the world of awareness - to somehow reverse the process that was precipitated by biting the apple - would they jump at the opportunity? How much easier it would be to ensure that everybody obeyed God's will, as expressed by the Church, if they could be reverted back to that state of grace - that state of unthinking obedience.
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Pretty heavy subject matter for a series of books supposedly composed for young people don't you think? Yet, that's the basic premise behind the spectacularly successful trilogy His Dark Materials by British author Philip Pullman. Published to coincide with the release of The Golden Compass, the first instalment of the movie adaptation of Pullman's work, Random House Canada recently published an omnibus edition of the trilogy bringing all three titles under one cover for the first time. Included in the publication are new afterwards to each book by the author, that encourage the reader to let their imaginations speculate about characters and places mentioned in the book, beyond the confines of the original story.

On the off chance that someone reading this isn't familiar with the story of Lyra Belacqua and her world, His Dark Materials is composed of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Long ago the witches of the world Lyra inhabits prophesied that a young girl would be born upon who existence as it was known would depend. Her actions would dictate the fate of not only the world in which she lived, but all worlds everywhere.

In Lyra's world each human being coexists with an extension of itself known as a daemon. Taking the form of an animal, these daemons constantly change their forms while their human is a child, only settling on one self after puberty. It's the relationship between these daemons and their people, especially between children and daemons, and how it is connected to the birth of consciousness that the trilogy revolves around.

Lyra becomes the central figure in the war to control the flow of awareness to human beings. The equivalent of scientists in her world have managed to isolate the particle which they believe carries consciousness and self-awareness to sentient beings. While decrying the existence of "Dust", as its called, as a heresy, the Church in Lyra's world is actively working to eliminate its effects upon the world. A branch of the Church has figured out that a child's daemon doesn't settle on a single form because awareness is still developing. The daemon is a manifestation of a person's awareness and once it settles, that means its person has passed from the state of innocence of childhood into the full awareness of adulthood.

Like I said, quite a heavy topic for a work supposedly geared towards a young audience, and one that you'd think would be nearly impossible for an author to make enjoyable to audiences of any age. Sounds dry as, forgive me, dust doesn't it? Yet, Philip Pullman managed to make His Dark Materials an intelligent and exciting fantasy/adventure story that's loved by millions of readers. How he did so was by the simple expedient of keeping in mind what goes into making a great story: memorable characters, exciting action, and a plot that manages to be intricate without ever becoming convoluted.

Lyra is bright, daring, and fiercely independent. Left in the care of the Scholars of her world's Oxford University in England, she's allowed to run wild. She doesn't attend school, and roams the streets of her town getting in and out of scrapes all the time. She has no compunctions about telling lies, especially if it keeps her out of trouble, and is only really scared of one person - the man she knows as her Uncle Asriel.

The two adults who figure most prominently in Lyra's life, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, are both powerful and ambitious people. They also represent the two sides in the fight between the church and science. Mrs. Coulter is in charge of the Church's attempts to isolate "Dust" and successfully remove its influence on people, while Lord Asriel is leading the fight to ensure its continued existence. While neither character is presented in the most sympathetic of lights, they both are far more complex than we originally think. In the end, they are able to set aside their differences to fight for something they both believe in - Lyra.

It's not until the second book, The Subtle Knife that we meet Will, who is the counterpart to Lyra in more than just gender. Roughly the same age, their experiences growing up couldn't be more different. First of all Will is from our world so he doesn't have a daemon companion to act as his confident. Second, unlike Lyra, he has been forced to be responsible from the time he was old enough to understand what that meant. Will's father had vanished in the Arctic leading an expedition when he was newly born, and his mother became emotionally unwell as a result. In order to prevent his mother from being institutionalized, and him being placed in a foster care, Will had to learn how to manage everything a parent normally would.

Each of the children, Lyra and Will, end up with the gift of an object that forces them to learn how to enter a heightened state of awareness. Lyra is gifted with the Golden Compass of the first book's title. The alethiometer is a strange instrument that allows the reader to know the future and find the truth of things through interpreting the symbols around the edges of its dial. Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife that the second book takes it's title from. With it he is able to cut openings in the fabric that separates the worlds and open doors between them. The two children use their gifts to help them overcome the horrible odds they face on their quest to save "Dust", but its the shared gift of heightened awareness needed to work them that matters most in the end.

Philip Pullman says that he drew heavily upon John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost for inspiration for the His Dark Materials trilogy. However, instead of depicting the obtaining of awareness as a fall from grace, or something bad that we need to atone for, he has made it into a goal that we should all be striving to realize. The innocence we shed as we enter adulthood is in reality ignorance and there is nothing blissful about it. Finding one's true place in the universe is not an easy task - just ask Will and Lyra - as it involves sacrifices and a great deal of soul searching, but the end result is worth the struggle.

Pullman takes us on a wild and wooly trip around an imaginary universe with worlds inhabited by talking bears with prehensile thumbs who are fierce warriors, celestial beings like angels, species who've evolved into sentient beings in spite of looking nothing like us, and all sorts of other strange and mysterious creatures and wonderful people. The His Dark Materials trilogy does what all great stories should do; entertain and inform without letting one interfere with the other. This is not an easy read, nor is it as light hearted as the movie version has proven to be so far, yet they are probably the most rewarding and intelligent books of their kind that I've ever read.

This special omnibus edition of His Dark Materials can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or any on line retailer.

May 23, 2008

Book Review: Mind The Gap Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

There are cities in Europe where if you dig down deep enough you find an older version of the city buried beneath the new. Some of them were built on top of the ruins of former Roman cities, while others have literally buried the past under the present. Some of the oldest cities, like London and Rome, are laced beneath the surface with tunnels and catacombs that are the remnants of old sewer systems and temples. Rivers, that once flowed through the centre of town, have over the course of a thousand years gradually wormed their way deep under the skin of the earth to create unseen arteries beneath the feet of today's inhabitants.

Look beneath the surface of any modern city with a subway system and you'll find a second set of tracks, and even some stations, beneath those in everyday use. Some have been designed to be used as training facilities, while others have fallen into disuse from age and safety issues. It's long been supposed that various people wishing to remove themselves from society have made these tunnels into their shelters from the rest of humanity, but they aren't the only ones sheltering beneath our feet.

In the London of Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden's book, Mind The Gap, the living are joined by spirits from the city's past. They aren't ghosts of specific people, instead they are physical manifestations of history; shades and shadows that reflect all who have ever lived within the confines of London's boundaries.
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Jasmine Towne, known to her few friends and her mom as Jazz, discovers the existence of both they physical and spectral beings beneath the city on the day she is forced to flee the over world in fear for her life. It turns out Jazz's mom hadn't just been paranoid when she had instilled in her daughter the idea she should never trust anybody, and that she should always listen to any inner voice that warned her of danger. It's listening to that voice that saves her life the day that her mom was murdered by the mysteries men whom Jazz has called her "Uncles" all her life.

Fleeing from them she dashes into a London subway station - The Underground - and in a desperate attempt to lose her pursuers she jumps on the tracks and dashes into a tunnel. It's here that she stumbles upon the hidden world beneath the city's streets. Among the physical beings she is sheltered by the Fagan like Harry Fowler who provides a home for a flock of teenaged petty thieves and pick-pockets. After telling them her story, she is accepted among them and is delighted to discover that she has an affinity for the "work" they do to survive. She's quickly accepted into the "family", who call themselves the United Kingdom.

But even underground she can't escape the men who killed her mother, and they track her to the United Kingdom's lair, where one of her new friends is killed and Harry is brutally beaten. Jazz only escapes because it seems like the city itself comes to her rescue. Early on Jazz had discovered that she had a certain affinity for the spirits that allowed her not only to see, but to hear them as well. Every so often the built up emotions of all the spirits living underground gather together to form a wind that screams with sound of their anguish. Although horrible because of her friend's murder, it's because of the attack on her and her friends that Jazz finds out the secret about her Uncles, and what was behind the murder of her mother.

Harry, and everybody else in the "United Kingdom, including Jazz, want to exact revenge on those who killed their friend. When they discover that the mayor of London has made promises in the press to clean up "those nest of rats that live beneath the streets of our fair city", Harry concocts a plan to rob people he knows to be friends of the mayor. It's on the second of these jobs that Jazz interrupts Terence as he's robbing the same house. She also discovers a photo of all her Uncles in this house; a photo that was taken by Harry Fowler; a photo in which she recognizes the face of her father staring back at her.

What's the mysterious connection that ties her father, Terence, The Uncles, and Harry all together? If Jazz wants to live she is going to have to find out. The answer, when she finds out, is as amazing as it fantastical, and results in Jazz's whole world being changed. Yet like everything else about this story it makes perfect sense for the world that the authors have created for Jazz's story to take place in. The majority of the people in Mind The Gap, and the majority of the locations for that matter, are the same as they are in our version of the world, yet running like a small stream through it all is a sliver of magic.

Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon have created a world in Mind The Gap where magic is alive and well, but so are cellular phones. It's this mixture that makes the story so effective, for it is far easier for us as readers to suspend our disbelief when there are so many things we can identify with in a story. They act like anchors that help us to hold on when the magic in the story starts to blossom.

Yet what really makes this story work is the wonderful job they have done in creating the characters. We see the world through the eyes of Jazz, and from the moment we enter into her head until we leave her at the end of the story everything she does is perfectly normal within the context that the authors have created for her. From the first moment we meet her Jazz is a completely believable character, and because we believe in her - its easy for us to accept the rest of the characters as well.

Mind The Gap is part fantasy, part mystery, and part suspense story, and the authors have done a great job in balancing the three elements and braiding them together into one exciting read. You can buy a copy of Mind The Gap directly from Random House Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

May 11, 2008

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 7, 2008

Book Review: Binu And The Great Wall Su Tong

There have been many great construction projects through out the history of humanity. While the reasons behind their construction have ranged from vanity, the Pharaohs' construction of Pyramids to honour their own memory; devotion to God, the great Cathedrals raised during the middle ages; to defensive fortifications, The Great Wall of China; one thing they all have had in common is their cost in human lives. Millions of lives were spent in the building of these projects, and each life was somebody's son, brother, husband, or father.

It wasn't unusual for a ruler to conscript people from across his land to spend their lives on these projects without giving any thought as to the affect it would have on the people left behind. In China alone it is thought that as many as three million people have died over the course of constructing and restoring the The Great Wall. There has actually been more then one "Great Wall" as the first was constructed under the China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang circa 200 BC. This first wall was built along the Northern border of China and very little of it remains today.
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As is its wont history recounts the fates of Empires without any mention of the individuals who might be caught up in the events described. What cares history for the plight of a silk worm farmer's wife whose husband is conscripted as slave labour to construct the Great Wall Of China? It's up to the story tellers to try and bring home to us how the sweep of history takes its toll on those caught up in its ebb and flow.

In Binu And The Great Wall, published by Random House Canada, author Su Tong has adapted a story that's been passed down from generation to generation for over two thousand years that tells the story of Binu, whose husband was taken away to work on the Great Wall. In his preface to the book, he tells us that the wonderful thing about myths are they take harsh realities and make them larger then life. This helps to cushion the impact of the experience while still allowing the author to impart its full meaning. (Binu And The Great Wall is one of a series of books retelling the myths of various cultures that have been commissioned from authors around the world by Random House)

In Mr. Tong's version of the story he has created a world that is larger than life where many fanciful things occur. Yet at the same time it is also firmly rooted in the reality of the time period and the situation of his main character Binu. It's his ability to skilfully interweave the mythical and the real that allows the character of Binu to become larger then life for the modern reader without turning her into a melodramatic cliché.

In Peach Village, where Binu was born, it is forbidden to cry and young women are trained from an early age how to avoid having tears appear on their faces. Some learn how to cry in through their ears, with the ears themselves providing an impressive reservoir within which to store their tears. Others are considered lucky because they can cry from their lips resulting in them having beautiful gleaming lips. But Binu never learned any of these means, as her mother died when she was still young. Although she had started to learn how to cry with her hair, she had no control over her tears and wept copiously.

As a result she was alienated from the rest of the village and nobody but the orphan Qiliang would have her in marriage. Yet they are happy together, so when he is torn from her side and taken away to work on the Great Wall on the other side of the Great Swallow Mountain she is devestated. If the people of Peach Village thought that Binu had cried before, they hadn't seen anything yet. It's when she has a vision of her beloved working without a shirt that she makes the fateful decision to set off to find him. She can't bear the thought of him facing winter without a proper coat and resolves that she will travel across the country to make certain he is warm.

Of course everyone thinks she is crazy. She sells everything they own in order to buy a coat and travel. 'You don't even know if he's alive' the other women of the village tell her. 'All of us have lost husbands, sons, or brothers and you don't see us selling everything we own to go off and make sure they have winter coats, do you?' But Binu won't be dissuaded, for without Qiliang she has no life, so what is the point of a life without him?

The world is determined to make her quest as difficult as possible though. When she goes to buy a horse or a donkey to ride to her destination she discovers that all the animals have been commandeered by the army for the war being fought. The only companion, man or beast, she can find for the journey is a blind frog who is the reincarnation of a blind woman who drowned searching for her son. So she sets out to travel the great distance nearly alone and almost immediately is beset with troubles.

Her precious bundle containing the winter coat for Qiliang and her few coins is stolen almost at once, she is sold into bondage to act the role of a thief's widow, and as she nears her destination she is arrested because she is suspected of being an assassin's accomplice. But in the end she does it make it to the Wall. According to the myth of Binu when she arrived at the wall and discovered her husband was dead her grief was so great and her tears so plentiful that the Great Wall broke and the dead awoke in honour of her sorrow.

Su Tong has written a wonderfully, magical and human story. In spite of the fact that Binu And The Great Wall is a tale replete with sorrow, it is an uplifting affirmation of the strength of the human spirit. There are times along the road where she decides to give up and to lay down and die, giving in to despair. Yet life won't let her give up that easily, and there is always something that keeps her going, even if it's only the desire to die with her husband and not alone.

We live in a world where millions of people are torn from their families on a regular basis by war, famine, disease, and economic realities. Refugee camps around the world are filled with families that have been ravaged by grief and the anguish of not knowing whether loved ones still live. Binu And The Great Wall may have first been told over two thousand years ago, but the story is still relevant today. With his retelling Su Tong gives us the means to try and begin to understand that reality. It is a beautiful and magical story cut with the sharp taste of reality; a perfect myth.

Readers in Canada can pick up a copy of Binu And The Great Wall either by ordering it directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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 22, 2008

Book Review: The Hakawati Rabih Alameddine

I've always believed that if you want to understand a people's culture than you need to know the stories they tell. Everything from the tales about the heroes who people their mythology to the stories that form the basis for their belief system will tell you more about how a people define themselves than any fact based history.

In some way stories are the popular history of a culture. They may be dismissed as legend or myth by so-called serious scholars, but if you look closely enough you'll find out that they were all based on fact. Over the years they have all been embellished to some degree or other, but what stories haven't had their lilies gilded to some extent anyway? For the longest time the only records that we had of Troy's existence were from Homer's account of the war, and nobody believed them to be true until Troy was unearthed in the late 19th century. There might not have been the direct involvement of the Gods and Goddesses in the battle as was depicted in Homer's Odyssey, but the fact remained the war between Greece and Troy really occurred.

Although in the greater scheme of things a family's stories may not seem important, they bear the same relationship to a family's history as a culture's stories do its history. Whether you know it or not, all families have stories, even yours, that are as unlikely as any mythology in some ways. You may not think so looking at your parents, but think about where they came from. Look back to your great-grandparent's generation on each side of the family and find out where they were. What are the odds that they would have children who would marry, have children of their own who would meet and marry to finally meet to create you? If that's not the stuff of myth I don't know what is?
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In his newest work, The Hakawati (roughly translated as the story-teller) being released today (April 22/08) by Random House Canada's Knopf imprint, Rabih Alameddine has created a glorious tapestry by interweaving the threads of one family's story with the stories of the Arab world. In doing so not only does he give truth to the cliche fact can be stranger than fiction, he shows how fine a line there really is between myth and history, and how the one gives birth to the other.

While recounting the history, and the rise in fortunes of the al-Kharrat family, through the eyes and memory of their prodigal son, Osama, on his returning to Beirut from Los Angeles for the death of his father, Alameddine regales us with the stories that entranced his characters when they were children. While most of us are probably familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac, (although judging by the way the world acts today it seems like most of us have also forgotten that each of the Big Three: Christian, Jew, and Muslim recognize him) I doubt that many of us know anything about Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes, the true story of Fatima who was lover to a djinn, or Baybars the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders once and for all.

Of course every history has to start somewhere and with the al-Kharrat family, at least on the father's side, it started with Osama's grandfather. The illegitimate son of an English missionary doctor and his Armenian maid he is the Hakawati of the title. At the age of twelve he had to flee the city of Urfa in Turkey where he was born, when, for his part in pigeon war, his life was threatened. His mother had died two weeks after he was born, and the doctor's maids who raised him sent him to Beruit where one of them had a cousin.

At least this is the story that Osama tells us his grandfather told him when he was young. Osama is our Hakawati, regaling us with his memories of his father, mother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and enemies. Stories that he was told by his grandfather, his uncles, and other members of his family of the history of the Arab world make up a goodly portion of his memories. Within those stories, other stories live, and as the book unfolds all the stories take on lives of their own.

As a result, in the course of telling us the history of his family, Osama tells is also telling us the history of the Arab world. Each history starts with the tale of the founder, and parallels the other for the rest of the book. Through war and peace in Lebanon, and the stories of Arab heroes fighting to preserve their freedom in the face of treachery, we learn both the modern legend of the al-Kharrat family and the ancient myths, as the heroes of each tale give birth, survive warfare, and travel the world.

Rabih Alameddine has created a beautiful epic that combines the modern and the ancient world into one extraordinary story. There is an elegance to his story telling that elevates the mundane to the mythical and a straight forwardness that makes the legendary human. By blurring the lines between his "real" world of Osama's family history and the "legendary" world of the Arab heroes, he makes the reader examine the whole concept of story and history and question what is real and what is myth.

At one point young Osama asks his uncle whether a story he is telling him is true or not and is told that he should believe the story but not the storyteller. The story of the horrors suffered by Lebanon during its seemingly endless civil war is true, the number of Lebanese people who were forced into exile is true, but whether or not this story teller is telling the truth doesn't matter. What matters is the essence and the feelings generated by the story and Alameddine has been able to communicate the experience of that country's betrayal and abandonment by both the Arab and the Western world.

In the end what makes this so effective is that we care about the people. Osama and his family could just as easily be any one of our families. They are drawn with love, so that even the character who is like your annoying aunt who tells everybody what to do, makes you smile. The Hakawati is a wonderful story told by a masterful storyteller, which on it's own is sufficient reason for reading it. The fact that it pulls back the blinds a little further on the Arab world and introduces you to some of the beauty and magic that has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years is just an added bonus.

The Hikawati can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from another on line retailer like Amazon Canada.


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