Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler – Alexey Pehov; TOR

Shadow Prowler is the first book in the Chronicles of Siala series by Russian author Alexey Pehov.  It was originally written, in Russian, in 2002, but published by TOR in 2010 under English translation by Andrew Bromfield.  I bought my copy new – paperback – with the cover art by Kekai Kotaki.  It was a random book purchase – I saw it on the shelf and since this is “read Russians” year for me (sort of), I took it to the checkout.

This novel is at once a very good novel and a very bad novel. At 557 pages, it definitely qualifies as a typical epic fantasy novel. Ultimately, this is what is both good and bad about the novel:  typical epic fantasy.  Pehov nails each and every trope, cliché, and imitation found in epic fantasy novels.  So, in some sense, the originality is lacking. Because if you have read the Dragonlance Chronicles series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, and anything by Tolkien, this will seem obvious and derivative. That’s bad, right? Or maybe not. But it could be.

The main character, Harold, is a master thief and is coerced through fate and scheming to embark on a quest that he’d rather not embark on. He’s presented as some sort of honorable thief. An anti-hero hero archetype.  The real reason he gets caught up in all of the trouble is based on some sort of honor code to the god of thieves regarding commissions. That’s a dubious reason to risk life and limb, right? Or is it? Not that this is new or original to any fantasy novel in history.  In fact, I can name at least two recent novels that share some of this archetype:  The Lies of Locke Lamora and Mistborn.   Thief, antihero. Been there, done that?

There are orcs and elves and demons.  And goblins. And dwarves. And gnomes. Yep – the whole gamut of races that one would find in World of Warcraft and EverQuest.  There are magicians and there are also shamen.  And priests.  So do you see how this book really takes the cake at stuffing the usual suspects into the “typical epic fantasy”?  This is a good thing. No, wait, it’s a bad thing. Or what is it?

Most of the characters act and speak precisely how one expects them to. The grizzled magician, the mentor of the main character, the band of rogues that join the quest, the elven royalty, the bad-guys, the tavern keeper:  they are stereotypical and obvious.  Only the main character has any depth, and honestly, he’s somewhat sarcastic and witty on a mild level. The only other character is a goblin who is the king’s jester and who is spunky and obnoxious.  Everyone else is carbon copy fantasy stock character. Which is a bad thing, right? No, no. It’s a good thing. Things do as they be.

The thing is – as derivative and obvious as this novel is (and it is, folks) – it’s also fun and interesting. As discerning, literary readers we can critique it to death regarding all of it’s obvious flaws. However, at the end of the day, I’d be lying to you if I said I did not enjoy it.  In fact, there are parts that were actually really (dare I say it?) gripping and interesting. Overall, this is a very fun novel. And I read novels to have fun and be entertained. For example, the part where the main character goes to the Forbidden Area of the city dabbles in ghostly Lovecraftian-scary stuff. (There are phantoms and zombies!!!!!)  And, honestly, this was a thrilling part of the novel – I could have read just a whole novel of the main character’s exploits in this scenario.  There are several “flashback”/hallucinations that take place that fill in background. And these were fun. I usually dread flashbacks because they tend to bore me. But, I cannot lie, these were actually kind of fun to read. And they did serve the purpose of filling in background. Late in the book, there is a death of a character and I have to admit, I was saddened by it. Silly ridiculous flat character died – but I sure did feel the tug on my Grinch-heart!

Another horrible thing (no! it’s not horrible at all. Yes it is. NO!) is that the storyline is spread out.  Some fantasy novels introduce characters, setup quest, go on quest. This one takes a multitude of “sections” that would be perfect for TV series.  We do not immediately jump out on the quest and head toward the main goal. Instead, the main character has a bunch of challenges and proximate goals to overcome before we even set out on the main storyline quest.  In fact, and here’s the kicker, by the end of the novel – our noble heroes haven’t even made it where they are going to accomplish the big goal! So if you really want to know – you gotta buy book two (and probably book three).  Not that the time in between was wasted or uninteresting, but it was surprising that the author did this. I mean, gutsy move, dude. And I am certain this turned off a lot of readers.

Speaking of which, Justin (on Goodreads and the blogger of Staffer’s Book Review) wrote this “Review” after giving this book one star. I agree with most of his complaints about the novel. Go ahead and read his commentary – because he’s correct and I think potential readers should read a variety of opinions.  But, and I daresay Justin might agree with me, it was a giggling-ly entertaining puff to read. And if I was so entertained, how can I give the novel one star?  I totally should not like this book as much as I did. And I should also not eat french fries, Taco Bell, or so much pizza………

So what should I rate this book? I am giving it four stars. It is stuffed with the obvious and is extremely derivative. But it’s still so much fun, I just kept turning the pages and I knew it was pulpy and stereotypical – but I was having fun reading it.  So, I totally agree with every one of the criticisms levied against this novel. But I still had a great time reading it. Shame on me: I enjoyed a silly “typical epic fantasy” novel.  And I went and bought book two. Russians gotta do what Russians gotta do….

4 stars

Renegade

Renegade - J. A. Souders; TOR

Renegade – J. A. Souders; TOR

I was sent an uncorrected advance reading copy by TOR of Renegade by J. (Jessica) A. Souders.  It’s to be published November/December 2012 in the USA.  It is a young adult science fiction/fantasy novel that is the debut of the author.

I do not know who the cover artist is.  The cover is not something that normally would have me pick up the book. Nevertheless, the back of the book blurb was interesting enough.  I do not read a whole lot of young adult fiction.  I don’t ever know how to rate young adult fiction. I suspect this one is pretty good. I do think there was a bit too much romance/sex. It’s kind of icky to read about teenagers and their hots for one another…. Overall, though, I think while not a completely original scenario, it’s solid and interesting for a young adult novel.  It was a one-night read that didn’t require too much effort from me.  Also, I believe this may be something of a series.  Ultimately, one is not overly compelled to read the next in the series.  Not because this novel was ungood (yeah, I went Orwell on you there), but because the story does not end on a cliffhanger. There are some relatively vague questions about the world, but I am fine with this as a standalone – or as expanded into a series.

The dystopia is a fairly standard theme here, nevertheless it is still interesting. It reminded me, in some of the setting, of Atlantis and Namor and Imperius Rex. Anything that does that is a good thing. I also thought the mind-conditioning, amnesia, and brainwashing were written really well. So, good setting and good plot device.

The bad:  there were some chapters toward the end of the novel that seemed a little circular. The characters are being hunted, they are lost, etc. I feel like they were really going in circles. Not terrible, but something else needed to happen there.

The villain, Mother, was sufficiently creepy and deranged. “My life is just about perfect.”  Again, while somewhat predictable, she was unrelenting throughout and was not wishy-washy. I really do not like villains who vacillate or who are weak.  If you’re gonna be a baddie, be bad to the bone!  Of course, though the villain was obvious, the reader understands the loyalty the main character, Evelyn Winters, still has toward her.  In fact, one can almost sympathize with the reasons, if not the method, for the pseudo-utopia underwater that Mother controls.

I appreciate the mix of tech and non-tech in this one. There is a really subtle balance between science and simplicity that I was surprised to find in a young adult novel.  I do not know how many young adults will actually pick up on this, but I found it to be a good thing. Overall, there was nothing surprising to the plot.  I think the author has some good ideas and is a decent writer.  I don’t think she’s ever shot a handgun or done any hand-to-hand combat, but I do not think this lack of realism in the novel damaged it in any way.  I admit that I am not a big young adult fiction reader so my rating is not expert-level, but I am giving it three stars – it probably deserves three and a half, to be honest.  Three stars is not a bad rating – it’s a solid novel and given that it’s the author’s first, I expect much more goodness from Souders.

3 stars

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence; ACE

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence was first published in 2011. It’s book one of The Broken Empire; I actually don’t know (yet) how long the series is. I would assume a trilogy, but then A Wheel of Time reminds me that some series can go on forever.  I feel like there has been a pile of new fantasy novels/series that have been released in the last two or three years. I have been in the middle of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007) for about a year and a half. I’m also stalled out in Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (2008).  However, I did finish Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man (2009) and I absolutely loved that one.   The point is, I feel like I buy and am interested in reading a lot more fantasy novels than I actually sit down and read.

Part of the allure of this novel was that it was “short.” 319 pages is something a bit rare in the fantasy novel world. But look, it works; because I finished the thing in two weeks and am writing a review of it now!  The cover helped, too, because this piece by Jason Chan looks interesting. It’s not too busy and it works well for the story.

From the back cover:

When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic.

The back cover blurb gives a sense of a young kid on a revenge mission. He seems ambitious and intense.  Also, there is not a heavy emphasis on magic or the traditional fantasy elements.  This sets the novel a bit apart from some of the more overtly magic-driven, demon-involved epic fantasy novels.

It’s told from the perspective of the main character, Jorg.  We meet him on the road with his band of brigands and rabble as they are burning a village. And right away the reader discovers that this kid is mean as spit.  I lost track of just how old he was, but from 12-15 years old, he really does wreck havoc on the land. Seems really unlikely, right? How does a young teenager garner the loyalty of thugs, soldiers, and criminals?  How does he have such great strategy, luck, and skill?  Well, he is definitely a unique character – even if these obvious questions run through the reader’s mind while going through the book.  And the author gives us hints and options for how Jorg operates and why throughout.  At the end the question is almost answered. It’s better to say that an answer is provided, but the answer is only a sufficient cause and not the sole cause.

The author writes very well.  This is not high literary stuff, though.  Direct sentences, never any purple prose, no overworking of anything.  The writing style suits the ruthless and direct manner of the main character perfectly. However, it can be a turn off for any readers who enjoy descriptive paragraphs, developed settings, and poetic renderings.  The writing style is crisp and clean and means business. There are plenty of killings and pillagings in the novel – and you read about them hard and fast just like they happen.  Because I think the best part of the author’s main concept for the novel is the de-pretty-ifying of epic fantasy and medieval combat. (Crossbows are cool!)  If you want to read about glorious battles and the conflicted hearts of heroes there are dozens of other novels that can provide that. Here, the author (by way of Jorg) keeps it real.  Jorg does not mince words, he doesn’t second guess, and he does not fall prey to all of those annoying flaws in characters like:  didn’t completely kill the bad guy or is indecisive and lost. Jorg handles his business – and it’s rarely pretty.

Although the impetus for the character is the deaths of his mother and brother followed by the cavalier attitude of his father (the king), the reader will not be swept up into any moping overemotive wallowing by Jorg.  There’s no demand placed on the reader for sympathy/empathy.  Simply, Jorg is a mean little snake and he is not asking for any pity or compassion – because he sure won’t show any, either. All of this is. . . .  “refreshing” . . . in a fantasy novel. I suppose refreshing is a bit of an odd word choice to describe this ruthless little kid, but this novel is refreshing because it never ever gets bogged down in emotive turmoil and meandering indecisive characters. Jorg, for better or worse, makes things happen. He will always think it’s better to act than to do nothing – even if the act is extreme.

There is some language in the novel that some sensitive readers may not approve of. Not cussing or gory graphic words, but the characters are somewhat sacrilegious and blasphemous. Readers who dislike this should take note before buying, because I can see where some people would not like this aspect.  But a cool thing about what the author is doing is that the world of Jorg is like ours – like an alternate reality. For example, there is The Church with a Pope (who is female). Jorg, as a youth, studied the philosophers (to include Plato, Plutarch, Russell, Nietzsche, etc.) And it’s really surprising and odd when you find that the author has worked in real elements of the real world into his fantasy novel.  Especially for me, a philosopher, to read about a character who references philosophers. It’s cool and I am actually surprised at how well it works and that it has not been done more in other books. Thumbs up, Mark Lawrence!  Overall, I can see this book being either two stars or four stars depending on your views toward the writing and the language. I am giving it four stars for uniqueness, surprising-ness, and brevity. Book two is available currently in hardback . . . .

4 stars

H. P. Lovecraft – Part One

I finally got around, prior to Thanksgiving, to picking up a Complete Fiction Works of H. P. Lovecraft.  And I am slowly working my way through the book.  The book comes in at around 1100 pages, so after reading to page 222, I decided I had better break the review(s) up into parts.  I don’t want to review in detail each and every piece in the book, but I think that there’s a lot that can be said and it needs to be partitioned like this.

cat hpl

My cat reading HPL

So far I have read (and the rating I gave each work):

  • The Tomb – 4
  • The Call of Cthulhu – 5
  • Dagon – 3
  • The White Ship -4
  • The Doom that Came to Sarnath – 3
  • The Statement of Randolph Carter – 3
  • The Terrible Old Man – 4
  • The Tree -2
  • The Cats of Ulthar – 4
  • The Temple – 3
  • Celephais – 2
  • From Beyond – 2
  • Nyarlathotep – 3
  • The Picture in the House – 3
  • The Nameless City – 3
  • Polaris – 3
  • The Quest of Iranon – 4
  • The Moon-Bog – 3
  • The Outsider – 5
  • The Other Gods – 3
  • The Music of Erich Zann – 4
  • Hypnos – 3
  • What the Moon Brings – 1
  • Azathoth – 1
  • The Hound – 2

That equals 25 pieces from the book.  I skipped a few that I just was not interested in and did not have any desire to read whatsoever. I am not thrilled about skipping, but I just didn’t want to read some of the pieces – for whatever reason. Now, before reading any of these I was only familiar with H. P. Lovecraft in a very basic sense. I don’t really think I had read anything by him before, but this isn’t really something I would bet on. I’ve read a lot and who knows what I read in school?  Further, I haven’t read any secondary texts on HPL; so any conclusions or discoveries I came to were my own and not something I was looking for because I read it first in a critical analysis.

After reading a few of the stories, the themes that HPL works with become rather obvious.  Dreams and sleep, the dead and tombs, water and sky (derivatively, fish and birds), and sound.  You would have to be a blind nincompoop not to figure out that HPL wrote much of his work from his dreams and that he is terrified of water – particularly large bodies of water.  Knowing just this much, it should be easy to see the challenge in putting HPL’s works into a specific genre.  I don’t really think it qualifies as science fiction (under my as-yet-unwritten definition).  It probably does qualify as fantasy, but perhaps it does have elements of horror.  The reason I placed fantasy ahead of horror is because the stories are not gore and vampires and such.  The whole edge of HPL’s “horror” is the concept of the unknown. And this is usually beyond reality – therefore, fantasy.  The term “weird” has been bandied around and I suppose that works as well as anything I could come up with.  All of this is to say that none of these works fit perfectly into some genre and anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, or “weird” tales would enjoy some of HPL.

When I got the book, I could not help myself – I opened directly to The Call of Cthulhu and read it through – and loved it, naturally. And I came to the text without any preconceived notions or biases. I just read and enjoyed. However, enough has been said about that text the world over, so I do not really want to focus on it.  I want to actually select (of those 25 works) the ones I think that strong readers should read. In other words, the must-read HPL list that those who do not wish to read the whole of 1100 pages can look for and read. The second text I read was The Tomb – after I read it all I could say was “wow”.  I do not recommend The Tomb for everybody.  It is truly twisted and horror and scary. So, if you are really more into the fantasy and less into the horror – skip The Tomb. I still have lingering creepies from it. . . .

The key texts, I feel, are Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris.  If you need to get the basics of HPL, these three works should be read because I think they contain in an obvious way the method HPL uses when dealing with his preferred concepts/topics.  Dagon is short but I think it is the genesis of the Cthulhu concept.  Like many of HPL’s works, the story is really a written narration in the first person of an adventure/experience. The story is “hastily scrawled pages” written under “appreciable mental strain.”  And this is all in the first paragraph.  Generally, this gets to be a familiar paradigm within HPL.

The second paragraph directly presents one of the main themes in HPL:  “It was in one of the most open and least frequented parts of the broad Pacific. . . ”   Immediately, we are thrown into the story that the narrator is writing.  That’s actually one of the nice things about HPL; he does not waste time with telling us how we got wherever or showing us each little step.  Paragraph four starts: “The change happened whilst I slept.”   And this phrase (or something like it) frequently appears in HPL stories.  It presents the method by which HPL’s stories access the fantasy/weird concepts.  HPL often mentions some “change” or catalyst and it is frequently connected to sleep and/or dreams.

Anyway, the story itself is not really scary or horrific – especially not in 2012.  But it was written in 1917 and we knew a little less science back then. Now we have Wikipedia and I daresay humans have cataloged the globe.  In 1917, the unknown of the ocean was probably a fascinating and terrifying thing.  Anyway, the “thing” that happens to the narrator is not exactly horrific. A sea-creature rises to the surface and, basically, hugs and howls at an altar/statue. It’s kind of funny, actually. But the horror of the story is not the point – it’s that the reader can feel/touch/empathize with the narrator’s feeling of horror.  It’s not so much that readers should judge whether or not the scene was horrific in an attempt to validate the narrator’s madness, but rather the reader can understand the ordeal that the narrator is explaining.

Polaris is another key text of HPL’s.  There are three main themes that make this story important. HPL’s narrator accesses another reality – very much akin to something PKD would have done/written.  The narrator enters into the alternate reality via sleep/dreams, as one expects.  However, this little story is neat because after reading it, one can really see how the blurring of the line of demarcation between reality and supra-reality drives the story.  And this is the “weird” part of the work, which is done really well in Polaris.  Another theme HPL uses here is that of the sky. The title is, obviously, of the star Polaris. But throughout the text are peppered names of constellations etc. that demonstrates HPL’s interest in astronomy.

The last theme in Polaris is that of a frustrated, impotent helplessness.  This occurs in several ways, one of which is the narrator unable to accomplish his tasks in his dream and experiencing shame and sorrow for his inability to function as a watchman in his social group.  The second is that of the star Polaris itself, which the narrator tells us has been struggling to convey a message, but yet is only able to know that it had a message and nothing more.  This weird anthropomorphization of the star is trippy and the fact that the star struggles to give a message is a truly weird and paradigm-shifting concept.  Ultimately, the narrator (and therefore the reader) are left questioning – which is the dream world and which is the “real” world; very much like some of the efforts of PKD.  And once again, the horror is not graphic or ghastly, but it’s in the very unknown and weirdness that the narrator’s feelings of horror are presented.  This is actually a really good story- judging it on a conceptual scheme.

The last text that I want to mention briefly is The White Ship. Finally, we are given a story in which the main character (narrator) has a name:  Basil Elton.  He is the keeper of a lighthouse like his father and grandfather before him.  Straightaway in paragraph one HPL is telling us about majestic seas.  There are “far shores” and “deep waters of the sea” in the following paragraphs.  And at this point the reader should be familiar with HPL’s method.  Weird stuff happens under, at, on, near the sea.  Anyway, when there is a full moon, the White Ship glides up near the lighthouse. And it does this for a long time, until one night Basil notices there is a bearded and robed man on the deck of the ship.  And thus begins the weird. . . .

Basil walks out to the ship from the lighthouse via a bridge of moonbeams (who didn’t think of Thor and the Rainbow Bridge at this?).  The man welcomes him and they set sail. The ship goes to a variety of different places and the robed man is Basil’s guide (Cp. Virgil in Dante).  I think this story is HPL’s attempt at world-building; that is, cartography in a fantasy realm.  The story gets a little dull, but the descriptions and imagery are worth reading. Sometimes it seems a bit overwritten, but if you actually try to picture what HPL is describing, it’s quite vivid and a worthwhile read. I would love for some enterprising fantasy author (e.g. Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson) to flesh out and develop this world. It’s interesting and has a lot of potential. I want to spend more time exploring and so forth.

Anyway, the ending is another appearance of the familiar dream theme that HPL uses.  Basil says: “…I went within the tower, I saw on the wall a calendar which still remained as when I had left it at the hour I sailed away.”  In other words, all these marvelous places the ship went and all the time Basil spent exploring was outside of time or he was dreaming – or both.  HPL’s usage of the dream/reality concept is really prevalent in the stories I read and I think by reading Dagon, The White Ship, and Polaris one can really get a grip on the tools HPL uses and how to navigate his writing.

Now, you may have noticed that I chose to comment on the texts that I felt were important key works and not on the ones that I liked the best.  The Terrible Old Man, The Cats of Ulthar, and The Quest of Iranon are actually my favorites in this batch of 25 stories.  I felt they were unique and heartfelt and resonated more with me than some of the other stories.  However, I recognize this is personal preference.  I still think these are great stories – but I think students of HPL need to be familiar with the stories I talked about, readers who want a good story should read both the three I mentioned and my favorites.

3 stars (the average for these 25 works)

The Black Company

The Black Company

The Black Company by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s The Black Company was first published in 1984.  It is the first in the series of books about the “Black Company.” The cover art was done by Keith Berdak and was taken from a description within the text.  The art is also some of the coolest, most gripping art of the 1980’s novels. Let’s face it; how do you see this cover in 1984 and pass it by?

The Black Company is a very odd and difficult read.  For the first 150 pages of the novel, I was generously going to give it no more than three-stars as a rating, and I spent the whole time marveling at the fact that so many readers have given it four or five-star ratings. This novel is the epitome of “character-driven” and “no detail.”  In fact, the plot itself is a bit challenging to discern until the reader is somewhere over page 220.

The difference, I think, between this character-driven novel and others, is that The Black Company is almost episodic in its structure and the characters do not really develop or change or move the storyline forward. Things happen to the characters.  The characters are perpetually caught in the current of the river that is the plot – but, that very same river is unnamed and unfamiliar to the reader, too.  The first 100 pages are easy to breeze through – except I found them aggravating and frustrating because I had no idea what was happening. Literally, no idea because it all seemed completely disconnected, random, and confused.

Yes, for the most part of this novel, the novel itself seems confused.  Not that it is confusing, but that it itself is confused. Disjointed and disconnected.  Okay, we all like mysterious plotlines once in awhile, but in the first 200 pages it definitely seems like there are some really basic, necessary points that the author has left out.  It’s like he is writing a story without writing a story at all. It does seem mad and confused.

Which is why if you are going to tackle reading this one – you have to force yourself to remain calm and keep reading.  At least until page 200.  Everything after page 200 (a mere 114 pages more) makes everything before it more sensible, reasonable, and palatable.  But can readers push themselves to read nearly 200 pages of randomized confused – HEY, I think the author LEFT SOME STUFF OUT – sort of reading?

This novel is told in the first person by the main character, Croaker.  He is a veteran medic and soldier in the mercenary troops of the Black Company.  Croaker also has the additional duty of being the Company’s Annalist.  This means he is their historian – so he is frequently called upon to witness and record events, battles, moments within the Company.  However, the novel itself is not the annals that Croaker writes.  It’s more like his in media res commentary of life within the Company – which is always punctuated by the antics of the other soldiers, the battles the Company is dispatched to fight, and the incidents that happen to the Company.

It needs to be mentioned, unlike most military/fantasy military novels, we are never ever given descriptions of anything.  I mean, you won’t learn what their uniforms look like or what gear they carry.  Readers do not discover what sorts of weapons are used or which character is most proficient in particular arms.  The end fifty pages of the novel actually depict a location under siege, which is done very well and the author deserves praise for this intense writing.  However, nowhere in the novel are there lines like: “… and then he punched him, while swooping his sword arm; but his opponent ducked and thrust his dagger forward. The clang of the dagger on his shield distracted him, so that he failed to counter with a blow from his war-anvil.”   This is decidedly not the standard “military-fantasy” that can be seen in sections of Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson novels.

And there are wizards and magic carpets and people get killed, brought back from the dead – trained as zombie-wizards and get to be patrons of battalions. Yes. Indeed.

So, I am giving this novel four stars because it started off as in media res randomized nothing and then got me addicted.  And it aggravated me and was confusing.  And then all of a sudden, I really was interested in what was happening and how the characters fared – although I really wasn’t entirely sure how the story had gotten to where it had. And after finishing it, I really miss the characters and the story and, though I have no solid idea about the setting whatsoever, I really want to read the next in the series. This writing style is very odd and unique.  The whole thing – whatever it may be – thoroughly grew on me, so to speak, by the end of the novel.  And now, I totally understand why so many readers rated it so highly.  Getting readers past those first 150 pages before they give up is gonna be tough!

4 stars

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman; Del Rey

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was published in 1995.  In the UK the novel is titled Northern Lights, but The Golden Compass is the USA title. It is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  In 2007, a major film was released starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, et al.   The edition of the novel that I read is the Del Rey 1997 edition.

In my edition, the famous author Terry Brooks (Cp. The Shannara series) wrote a short one-page introduction.  I was rather unenthused about reading the novel, but after Brooks’ introduction, I was drawn into reading it.  I do not always read introductions, but I have to say that Brooks’ intro was so encouraging that I plowed right into the book.

I have said this so often during the past year that I am beginning to sound like the oft-mentioned broken record, but here it is again.  You are going to love The Golden Compass.  It is a claim you have heard about other books, and it hasn’t always turned out to be true.  So why should you believe it this time? What makes this such a great book? Let me give you some reasons.

The novel is divided into three main parts with a total of 23 chapters.  The parts are locations wherein the story mainly takes place.

  • Oxford
  • Bolvangar
  • Svalbard

The novel is written with a mellow tone and style that definitely makes it seem like it is fit for young adult audiences.  However, I really do not think this is a book for children or for young adults. I do feel it is a book for adults. My big worry that I was reading some lame children’s book was set aside.  However, the main character of the book is a young girl.  Lyra Belacqua is a twelve-year old orphan of sorts living at Jordan College as something of a ward, but more like a pest.  Her whole life changes because of her penchant for mischief and curiosity; she sneaks into the Retiring Room at the College wherein the masters and scholars are about to receive an important guest:  Lord Asriel.

The story takes place in a parallel universe to ours, in which exists the Magisterium, a body of the Church in that world which guards against heresy.  The neat gimmick of the novel is that human souls exist externally in the form of a “dæmon,” an animal which constantly accompanies his master.  Due to some of these considerations and some other elements, the Church and many Christian organizations decried this novel (and film) calling it atheistic or subversive.  For example, the name of Lord Asriel is probably a reference to Azrael, a name of the Angel of Death in mythology.  However Asriel is also an anagram for “Israel.”  In this manner one can interpret the novel as a criticism against the Church and/or the Magisterium.  After having read the novel, I feel to do this is a bit absurd.  This novel is pure fiction – a fantasy novel.  It does not purport to be anything else.  While some of the terminology or concepts might seem to be allusions to real world organizations and beliefs, ultimately, it is our own perspectives seeing tilting at windmills.  The associations between the items in the book and the supposedly connected items in the real are tenuous and vague.  I sincerely doubt this book was supposed to represent a great treatise against any religion and I doubt it will affect anyone’s faith in any way whatsoever.

I was really surprised to see many of the steampunk elements in the novel. At first, I expected some sort of Hogwarts/Roke Island sort of story.  And, of course, I expected the main character to be entirely too headstrong and foolish.  Also, I was unsure what to make of the dæmons.  In chapter 4, Lyra is enticed by Mrs. Coulter to go to London.  Mrs. Coulter is one of those immediately dislikeable characters that somehow we all know in real life.  She’s conniving and manipulative, but shines in her role as socialite and gadfly.  Of course, as a reader I was drawn into the story at this point, really not liking what Mrs. Coulter was trying to turn Lyra into.  After this section of the book, I realized that Lyra was not going to be the bratty, dim-witted child that I thought I would have to suffer.  Instead, Lyra develops into a really well-balanced, courageous, and reasonable creature.  And maybe that’s actually the biggest fantasy in the book – it is probably impossible for any twelve-year old to be so reasonable.

As the story progresses, more elements of steampunk occur.  There are a number of noble-souled individuals who help Lyra along, but she is often left to her own devices relying on her own wits to problem solve.  I really like the characters of the bears and the witches. (I did mention this is fantasy, right?)  Bears who talk, run kingdoms, build armor, and who have a deep code of honor are really neat things to read about.  And I admit, I got attached to the character Iorek Byrnison, an exiled bear.  I think the book had a great balance of steampunk, fantasy, realism, and science in it.  Around halfway, I was thinking I might be giving the book four stars.  However, after finishing it, I realize I would be withholding a star for no real good reason.  Compared to the other books I have read and rated, I think this deserves the five stars – even if it is not a story that would interest every reader.

5 stars

 

The Warded Man

The Warded Man

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett; Del Rey

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett was released in 2008 in the UK under the title The Painted Man.  At this time, I believe it is the first in what is going to be a five-book series.  It’s Brett’s first published novel. The edition I read is the Del Rey 2009 paperback shown in the picture.  The cover to this edition was illustrated by Larry Rostant.  For whatever it’s worth, I think this is a very cool cover because it not only looks good, but it does precisely what a cover should, viz. make you want to read the book!

My edition was 453 pages and is divided into four sections.  Frankly, the sections are somewhat unnecessary, but it makes the reader feel good when they reach a new one.  The point of view of the narrative changes every so often – if there is a rigid pattern, I confess that I missed it. Unlike many books that utilize this technique, it seemed very natural and seamless in this novel. Sometimes this technique can be jarring or interrupting.

I am giving this novel high marks for a whole lot of reasons. It is well written and does not make any of the mistakes that other fantasy novels make, nor does it fall into any of those annoying patterns so well known in this genre. In general, I think it is probably only a four star novel, but I am so very impressed with the novel and author, I have to boost it to five stars. The cover is great – and the title is great.

When I first started reading the novel I was rather skeptical and critical.  I felt the author was going to tell us a very rudimentary fantasy story.  I judged too soon.  I was skeptical about reaction to the corelings – it just seemed contrary to every aspect of human ingenuity and creativity that after hundreds of years humans would board themselves up at night from the corelings.  And then, the fact that story opens out in little village hamlets in the typical rustic and rural setting so common in fantasy novels made me feel like this was just going to be another one of those fantasy novels.  So, a young kid from the farm becomes unlikely hero and goes on quest. You know, the storyline of most fantasy novels.   But that’s not what happened here, per se.  I read onward and followed the characters to the cities, through their apprenticeships, carefully watching their development.

The characters in this novel are all likeable and, to me, they seem realistic. By this I mean, they are not whiny brats, nor are they just awesome amazing heroes. They develop and learn from their experiences.  The author does this so well, it’s very impressive.  Unlike many other novels in the genre, the reader does not get dragged through every day of the lives of the characters. Nor is every little scene filled with metaphors, descriptives, and unending tedium.  Everything that happens to the characters is not drawn out into fifteen chapters. The reactions of the characters are reasonable and probable.  The characters are all different, but do share the elements that make them important to a fantasy epic. I did not hate any of the characters in the book – even the bad guys. This is an important point because there are many deaths in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by my next statement, but I will try:  their deaths seem natural.

Some books/movies just kill a character suddenly in order to create interest or shock the reader. (Think of the many deaths of heroes in comic books.)  Usually, deaths in books are long drawn out attempts to prey on the reader’s sympathies.  Sometimes they are sudden and rather jarring, making the reader wonder if the death was really meaningful or reasonable with regard to the storyline.  In The Warded Man, several characters die – but it never seems forced or random.  And while the reader has built up some sympathy, the deaths seem well-placed in the storyline and not just for the sake of killing characters. Also, it keeps the novel from having a ridiculously overpopulated character list for the reader to juggle.

The three main characters, Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, are fun and likeable. They make their mistakes, but show independence and they tend to not make the same dumb mistakes over and over.  Leesha is the main female character and she’s really a good character because she seemed the most realistic of all the characters.  It was obvious the author wanted Leesha to be strong-willed and heroic, but unlike many novels, the author was able to develop the character with tact.  Sometimes character development is just too heavy-handed and overbearing.  Leesha is an example of how a female heroine should be written.

But Arlen is my favorite. I want to be Arlen. Well, no not really.  But I think he’s a very cool character.  In his timeline he has willful moments, naive moments, and finally he is struggling with his idealistic feelings while living in the harsh reality that he understands. He has a shaved head! This is cool – because in all the fantasy epics I read, the male characters run around with long, flowing locks. Arlen also makes wise choices. He learns from his mistakes and grows as a character. One of the mistakes in fantasy novels is that the characters continually make the same mistakes, chapter after chapter, book after book.

Finally, what is known as “world-building.” Some readers seem puzzled as to if the world is an alternate version of our world. I did not really wonder this or puzzle over it. It is a world, with some similarities to ours. The author does an excellent job of world-building. Without pages and pages of exposition, the author lays out the map of the world nicely.  Hamlets, cities, deserts, and mountains are all present, but I did not have to read endless prose about what it all looks like. I guess one would say the reader is immersed in the world and is shown, not told.  This is how to build a world.

5 stars

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