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October 28, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman


Cover La Belle Sauvage sm.jpg In The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage, published by Penguin/Random House, Philip Pullman takes us back to the universe he first made famous in the "His Dark Materials" series. However, instead of returning to where those books left off, he transports us to eleven years before the events they describe take place.

Eleven year old Malcolm Polstead's parents run an inn called the Trout, located just a few miles away from the collages of Oxford, right on the banks of the Thames River. On the opposite side of the Thames lies the Priory of Godstow, home to a group of nuns. As Malcolm's story progresses both the Thames and the Priory will come to play important roles, but when we initially meet him and his daemon Asta, they are merely carrying out the business of their days as normal.

Malcolm is a curious boy who, in the course of helping out in his parent's inn waiting tables, has learned the invaluable arts of listening and watching. While he attends the local school his chances of a higher education are slim. His best hope is to either take over his parent's business or maybe learn a trade. However, that doesn't stop him from being fascinated by the conversations he overhears while working.

Thus he's picked up a smattering of information on topics most children his age wouldn't even have heard of, and somethings things it's perhaps better he never heard about. For its through serving tables Malcolm is drawn into the complicated and dangerous dealings which make up the majority of the book's adventure.

As in "His Dark Materials" there is an immense struggle underway between malevolent powers within The Church (The Magisterium and the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) to name only two) who want to control what people think and believe and scholars and scientists who want to find out the secrets of the universe so everybody can share in the knowledge.

At the centre of this book is the infant daughter, Lyra, of the great explorer, Lord Asriel, and the mysterious Mrs. Coulter. As those who have read the previous series know there is a prophesy concerning Lyra. Even now when she is less then a year old, The Church is desperate to get its hands on her. They hope if they control the child, they will control the prophesy, or at least to be in a position to eliminate the child if that becomes a necessity.

As if turns out Lyra had been sent to the Priory right across the Thames form Malcolm's parents inn, and he appoints himself her unofficial protector. He can't explain why, but the first time he sees her, he realizes he will do anything he can to keep her safe. Of course to do that will require all his wits, courage, and strength. Along the way he receives help from some unexpected sources and learns more about The Church and the CCD than he'd like.

In some ways La Belle Sauvage follows in the footsteps of British adventure stories such as Arthur Ransoms' Swallows and Amazons or any of Enid Blyton's books. They all feature plucky heroes/heroines on the verge of adulthood who solve mysteries and find themselves in all sorts of trouble. However, unlike its predecessors Pullman's book not only deals with adult themes, and sees the world through the eyes of its adult characters as well as his protagonist Malcolm, he doesn't sentimentalize his child characters and make them out to be something they're not.

In fact, one of the more insidious twists in the story has The Church creating a special league for children who wish to inform on their parents, their teachers, or in fact anyone they believe are acting against Church doctrine. Those children who enrol quickly become enthralled by their own power and start accusing teachers, and anyone else who crosses them, of heresy so they'll be investigated by the CCD. The schools and play yards of Malcolm's childhood quickly become a microcosm of the world around them - nobody is quite sure who they can trust and Malcolm quickly learns to be careful about who he talks to and what he says.

The other thing we quickly learn about people in Malcolm's world is they aren't divided up by good and evil. While some of the adults he meets are definitely good people and some are very bad, quite a number of them have a certain moral ambiguity which makes them seem neither good nor bad. These are people who appear to be on the same side as Malcolm, but neither do they seem to care if others are hurt if it helps them achieve their goals.

It is these layers and textures within the story which separates The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage from other young adult adventure stories. Pullman doesn't condescend to his readership or avoid issues that some might consider "Inappropriate" for children. There are probably those who would consider this an almost subversive book for its respect for those who refuse to stop questioning authority and seek answers based on fact not on what they are told to believe.

However, when it comes right down to it, this is also a wonderful adventure story and another fantastic peek into the world Pullman created in "His Dark Materials". Its almost steampunk version of science and technology mixed in with mythology and fantasy make for a world that is both familiar and exotic. The perfect setting for any adventure.

The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful book which should please any who have read and enjoyed the original series. In fact, the new series promises to be every bit as interesting and exciting as the previous. The characters, the settings, and the storyline are sure to keep readers enthralled, enchanted, and anticipating the next volumes with baited breath.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman)

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)

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)