Fantasy

The Lure of the Basilisk

The Lure of the BasiliskThe Lure of the Basilisk by Lawrence Watt-Evans is the first book in The Lords of Dûs series.  It was first published in 1980 – the copy I read is the 1987 edition.  The cover art was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

There is actually quite a lot that is enjoyable about this book.  There are a few minor issues, but it was really nice to read a decent fantasy novel that did not involve elves, was under 10,000,000 pages, and did not describe every blade of grass in the country.  There were a few typos in my edition, which honestly should have been corrected by this printing – nothing major, just “It” instead of “I” and “faithly” instead of “faintly.”

The story begins in a cave with a warrior type character speaking to creepy Wise Women.  The character is imploring the women for information on how to become famous – in essence, for his name to “live forever.”  I did not really take a good attitude toward this character at this point because it seems arrogant and obnoxious and I really felt this was going to demonstrate the standard story of how glory-seeking ruins a warrior. Honestly, his request seems rather absurd, but I decided that I did not have to agree with the desire of the character in order to read the book.

This character is Garth.  He’s an overman – a race of human-like creatures who live in Ordunin – a northern peninsula. The whole novel focuses on Garth and his quest.  We next meet him in Skelleth, a rundown barony where he meets the Forgotten King in a tavern/inn.  This is where the Wise Women told him to begin his quest – he should speak to the Forgotten King and obey him.  Garth is not exactly welcome in Skelleth.  Nevertheless, the Forgotten King is a mysterious old man who hangs out in the tavern.  The Forgotten King tells Garth that he will help Garth attain glorious fame, but first he has a “trial” quest for Garth.  Garth is to travel to Mormoreth and capture the basilisk that dwells in the crypts there.

The cover depicts the scene where Garth arrives outside of Mormoreth on his warbeast (Koros) and is demanding entrance from the ruler of Mormoreth:  Shang.  The warbeast is, like the overmen, a genetically bred animal that is like a panther.  It’s trained to follow basic commands, although it did not even have a name for half of the book.  The relationship between Garth and Koros is actually kind of unique – Garth views the animal in terms of utility and pragmatic ways.  I am used to reading books where there is this overbuilt bond between characters and their animals.

In fact, much of the goodness of the novel is because Garth is actually a fairly unique character.  He shrugs a bit too much.  But he’s nearly seven feet tall, strong as an ox, a skilled warrior, and very durable.  He also doesn’t make the trope-mistakes of most fantasy characters.  It was actually interesting and fun to follow Garth through the castles, crypts, and city streets on his quest. Also, though a fierce fighter, he usually chooses not to give in to bloodshed and he tends toward more honorable actions – even though he confesses many times that he doesn’t quite understand the traditional emotions, values, and actions of humans.

The ending ties a lot together, which makes the novel feel complete.  However, there are a few things that are left open-ended so that the series can continue to the next book.  I enjoyed this book, the writing style is so fluid and comfortable that I was able to read it in about a day and a half.  I admit that four stars is probably a bit of a gift, but I did really enjoy every chapter.

4 stars

The Golden Compass

THe Golden CompassThe 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 Shadow of the Torturer

Shadow of the TorturerThe Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in the four volume Book of the New Sun series. The Shadow of the Torturer was first published in 1980 and was nominated for the Locus Award in that year. This is the first novel that I have read by Gene Wolfe.  The book is told as if it were the reminiscences of Severian, a member of the Torturer’s Guild in the City.

This is a very weird book.  If there is a category called books that are weird (Paul Auster and China Mieville come to mind as weird-book-authors), then this surely fits in that category.  The first scene in the novel, after a bit of meandering by the main character, takes place in a cemetery and involves the desecration of a corpse and a fight with a shovel/ax.  It also introduces us to the character Voldalus, who gives Severian a coin.  This scene seems to be really important, but it’s not easy to grasp what actually occurred there. Suffice to say, this event is a major event for Severian, who often remembers it as a pivotal point in his narrative.

Severian, being a member of a Guild of Torturers, meets one of their “clients.” Client is what the guild calls it’s inmates who are to be held and tortured and/or killed. Clients are sent to the guild by the authorities, presumably for crimes they have committed. The torturer’s guild consists of only two master torturers, many journeymen, and many apprentices. When the novel begins, Severian is only an apprentice. We follow some of the timeline until he is made journeyman.

One of my biggest complaints about the novel is that we are given so little regarding the guild of torturers itself. This is a neat creation, a unique twist on medieval-like fantasy, and yet, we are not provided much information.  The author just does not give us any real glimpses into what the training of torturers is like, what the actual tortures consist of, etc.  It’s not so much that I want to read graphic accounts of torture, but if one sets up such an entity as this guild, I feel it is natural to give us something more to work with.

The Shadow of the Torturer 2Severian is sent away from the guild because he mishandles (let us say) one of the clients. He is assigned to a “village” far outside of the city to be their executioner. He does not make it out of the city, even by the end of the novel. Instead, the storyline gets really weird. There is a duel, there is a botanical garden that is a lot like Alice’s Wonderland, there is a deceitful brother and sister, there is a love interest (who is as batty as all the rest of the characters).  Frankly, the time Severian spends in the bizarre botanical garden takes up most of the book, and there are some really absurd sections in there that are just plain weird.  I actually began to despair – thinking the author had abandoned all of the plotlines he had originally set us upon and had permanently diverted to the world of the gardens. Luckily, we make it back out. For the duel. And then the spontaneous and utterly random theatre act that Severian gets involved in.

Amidst all the weird, there are some interesting ruminations that Severian engages in. One of these is in his position of the writer of his memories. Late in the book there is a really unique passage in which the author, through the pen of his character, compares writing literature to being a torturer/executioner. It’s worth my typing it out here, I think.

Many scores and sometimes many hundreds of persons come to watch an execution, and I have seen balconies torn from their walls by the weight of the watchers, killing more in their single crash that I in my career.  These scores and hundreds may be likened to the readers of a written account.

But there are others besides these spectators who must be satisfied:  the authority in whose name the carnifex acts; those who have given him money so that the condemned may have an easy (or a hard) death; and the carnifex himself.

The spectators will be content if there are no long delays, if the condemned is permitted to speak briefly and does it well, if the upraised blade gleams in the sun for a moment before it descends, thus giving them time to catch breath and nudge one another, and if the head falls with a satisfactory gout of blood.  Similarly you, who will some day delve in Master Ultan’s library, will require of me no long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.

The passage continues – and is worth reading. The comparisons are striking, and perhaps, give me pause in rating this novel. I suppose I wanted to give it two stars, but judging it by the very criteria of Severian in this passage, I was able to give it three.

3 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

Jhereg

JheregJhereg was first published in 1983.  It is the first of a proposed 19-novel Vlad Taltos fantasy series.  It is the first novel that I have read by Steven Brust and also the first I have read in the Vlad Taltos series.  The cover art for this novel was done by Stephen Hickman. Strangely, I have three copies of this novel, all different printings.  I have no idea why this is. I think I need to eBay some….

Overall, I wanted to be blown away by this book’s awesomeness.  After all, the majority of readers give it five stars and high praise. But I find that my feelings are related to how I felt about Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic.  Both books start a large series of novels in a particular world devised by the authors.  Both books, I feel, are praised by readers who adore the entire series. Taken by themselves, and without regard for the other novels, these first books are only three star novels. Do not get me wrong, I adore Discworld (and have given novels in that series five stars), but the first book? Not great. Same with Jhereg, it’s good and it’s likely that the other novels are quite good, but by itself it’s just good. Three stars.

One of the reasons that I give this book three stars (and not more) is that I felt the reader could have had a little more assassinating and a little less dialogue about “politics.”  Well, it’s not politics at all, really, but I am unsure what to call it. I guess:  the relationships between the various Houses. And frankly, I am still quite a bit confused about the variety and style of each of the houses, anyway. I get it – but it’s unsatisfying. The name of the main character is Vlad Taltos – which is a very cool name. And the first couple chapters are very good introductions to Vlad. It shows him using witchcraft and daggers and summoning his own pet (familiar) dragon (jhereg).  So, I did have high hopes.

The setup of the story is decent, a sufficiently powerful bad guy, called The Demon, hires Vlad for a very specific and intense job for which the compensation is too much for Vlad to turn down. However, the story gets a little sidetracked here and there.  The reader is forced to do a lot of work piecing together some of the considerations that Jhereg has on how to complete his “work.”  But for an assassin-mobster, he does not really do much killing. Instead, we are told a lot about how he prepares to do a “job.”  While that’s all well and good, I feel that maybe a little less politics and a little more assassinating would have been good for the story.

The job gets completed and the reader is happy for Jhereg and his band of friends. However, I guess it was not a triumphant victory, but more of an “okay, good job, whatever.”  Also, the last chapters, which introduce Rocza, are too soon. If you have a plan of 19+ books, I do not feel we needed this Rocza character right away. Or, maybe, the character did not have to be who they are in this novel – save it for later.

Look, “people” live for thousands of years. Death is not necessarily final – because revivification is commonplace. There are a bunch of “Houses” somehow related to the Empire. If you can muddle through that stuff, this is a quick read with some originality.

3 stars

Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd Sisters cover

I finished reading Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. Its the sixth novel in the Discworld series and it was released in 1988.

“King Verence I of Lancre is murdered by his cousin, Duke Felmet, after his ambitious wife persuades him to do so. The King’s crown and child are given by an escaping servant to the three witches. The witches hand the child to a troupe of travelling actors, and hide the crown in the props-box. Eventually, the three witches on a lonely heath decide to right the wrongs of the bloodied Lancre kingdom.”

In this novel, we spend a great deal of time with Granny Esmerelda Weatherwax – one of my absolute favorite characters in all of fantasy. I love Granny’s down-to-earth zany stubbornness.  With reluctance, Granny has joined a coven with Nanny Ogg and Margrat Garlick.  The king of Lancre has just been killed by his cousin Duke Felmet.  Of course, Death makes an appearance and Verence is not one to simply accept his new status as ghost.  In fact, Verence is hopping mad at Felmet. Verence’s son is deposited into the care of the coven.  They do the only sensible thing:  they give the child to a traveling troupe of bards and actors.

Wyrd Sisters is has several major themes running through the storyline.  The first is about witches:  what is it that witches do and how do they do it?  The individuals of the coven each seem to have entirely different views on this matter, and their conflicting opinions is the source of much fun for the reader.  Of course, I side with Granny Weatherwax because (not only do I adore her name) but I think she is positively riotous.

Another theme Pratchett satirizes is Shakespearean theatre. It will probably be lost on those readers who are not entirely up on their Shakespeare, but if you took a class in college – you’re more than prepared.  The Tempest, Macbeth, and Hamlet.  But there’s snippets of more modern elements like Laurel & Hardy.   Also, the traveling troupe ends up in Ankh-Morpork (who doesn’t?) and they decide to cease traveling and take up residence there. They begin to build a theatre (a la Shakespeare’s Globe) named The Dysc.  The writer for the troupe is a dwarf named Hwal and there are some really hysterical lines parodying As You Like It’s   “All the world’s a stage…..”

Hwal isn’t the only character utilizing Shakespeare; The Fool of the Lancre castle also runs through a number of Shakespearean lines (e.g. Sonnet #18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)

I love that there is so much in the Discworld novels. So much…. stuff. Satires, parodies, Easter eggs, etc. Its all so much fun and wit. I love this about the Discworld series and I seriously distrust those people who do not like the Discworld novels.   If you cannot appreciate the wit in these novels then clearly you are not to be trusted, I am pretty sure Granny Weatherwax would agree with me on this.

Unfortunately, there is one section of this novel which really did not work so well.  Granny comes up with a plan for the witches to enact that will somehow age the deceased king’s son so that he may return from Ankh-Morpork to Lancre and take the throne from the murderous Duke.  Maybe I was tired when I read this part, but I frankly have no idea what Granny did. Something about flying around the Disc and 15 years.   Granted, there are some funny moments, but I don’t really get how this worked. Needless to say, soon after they complete this plan, the child (now young man) is en route to Lancre with Hwal and some of the actors.

I love Granny so I want to give this book 4 stars simply because she’s a main character. However, I am not all that excited about regicide and theatre troupes, plus the section with the 15 years plan was sketchy. However, the three stars I am giving this book should be seen as three gold stars and not just any old stars.

3 stars

Arrow’s Flight

Arrows FlightQuite awhile ago I read the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s “Heralds of Valdemar” series.  I just finished the second book in the series, “Arrow’s Flight.”  It was originally published in 1987.

About the book:

Talia could scarcely believe that she had finally earned the rank of full Herald. Yet though this seemed like the fulfillment of all her dreams, it also meant she would face trials far greater than those she had previously survived. For now Talia must ride forth to patrol the kingdom of Valdemar, dispensing Herald’s justice throughout the land.

But in this realm beset by dangerous unrest, enforcing her rulings, would require all the courage and skill Talia could command- for if she misused her own special powers, both she and Valdemar would pay the price!

One of the main reasons I was reading this book is that it is easy to read while you are reading other books.  This book (and series) require little or no brain function in order to read and follow the story.  This is both a good and bad thing.  Its a great thing when you are just trying to read to fall asleep and you have had a hectic day and feel a bit restless or stressed.  It’s not a good thing because most of us like books that engage our minds.

The storyline continues from the first book in the series.  The two characters in this book, Talia and Kris are both Heralds of the Queen. If you wanted to read about the other characters found in the first book of the series, prepare for disappointment.  Overall, this wasn’t a very good book.  I really, really, really hate the thing with Talia and Rolan (her horse Companion) which allows them to empathically share stuff.  Its annoying at best, and pervy at worse. Really? There are some things that are so dumb that it hurts, and this connection between Rolan and Talia is one of them.

Nothing happens in the book. Talia and Kris ride around on their “circuit” wherein they visit villages and rule on court cases. They share news, organize folks, and then ride off.  The “big thing” in the book is when they get snowed in at a waystation. Big bad storm. Cold. Windy. Blah.  There is a short (couple of pages) where these two Heralds come upon a village being sieged by raiders.  Its pretty clear here that Mercedes Lackey is not comfortable writing combat.  The “fight” is really silly as this young girl on a horse puts arrows into the necks of a bunch of raiders. Wooo.

Kris and Talia really whine their way through the circuit. They are like little babies instead of special forces. They are undisciplined and overly emotive. They stress and whine about everything.  They apparently do hard work (shoveling snow), but then its three days of wailing about the hard work that they did.

I’ll probably read the third book, if only just to finish the series.  And, well, its utterly mindless and perfect for turning the brain off for sleeping.

2 stars