Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Seabird by Sherry Thompson

Fans of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia might have found a new favorite author. Seabird, the debut novel by Sherry Thompson, is reminiscent of Lewis's classic series in terms of the rich fantasy world the author has crafted, the teen protagonist, and the strong religious subtext.

The story centers around Cara Marshall, a teenager who is magically transported to the land of Narenta. Cara, selfish by nature, is told that she has been chosen as a champion who is charged with fighting the evil that threatens the land. Convinced there has been a mistake, and not at all interested in being a hero for these odd strangers, Cara sets off to find her way home. Circumstances and experience eventually take her in a different direction and, aided by a small cast of Narentans and some talking seabirds, Cara takes on the mantle of champion.

The strengths of this story begin with the mystical quality of the world. Narenta is mysterious and inviting, but also threatening and frightening. Thompson paints memorable pictures of many locales. The reader truly feels that he or she has been dropped into the middle of a tangible world. The religious themes are strongly present, but the book is not preachy and it reads like a secular book. Characterization is another strength, with Cara completing a visible character arc- something that is frequently lacking in contemporary fantasy.

Some might find the "black and white" presentation of good versus evil to be a negative. The bad guys are bad because they're bad and the good guys are good because they're good. Readers looking for a George R.R. Martin/Joe Abercrombie type story with all characters being varying shades of gray will find Thompson's traditional approach off-putting, but those who enjoy the CS Lewis type of story will be right at home.

Seabird, the first book of the Narentan Tumults, is a must-read for CS Lewis fans, and promises to be an enjoyable story for those who like traditional fantasy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Naked Empire by Terry Goodkind

Wizard's First Rule was, at one time, one of my favorite fantasy novels. The Sword of Truth series was reasonably entertaining, but lost steam as author Terry Goodkind gravitated twoard philosophy and de-emphasized storytelling. I took a long break after volum seven- The Pillars of Creation, but finally decided to pick up the series again with Naked Empire.

The plot centers around Richard's dual quests to heal himself from poisoning and help a pacifist empire learn to defend itself from the Imperial Order. There are subplots involving Zedd and Adie's defense of the Wizard's Keep, and Emperor Jagang's creation of a soul-stealing creature whom Richard must face down in the end. The story moves along at a reasonable pace, but the overall story arc of the Sword of Truth series barely moves forward in this installment.

The positives are the characters of Zedd and Ann, who are reflective, entertaining, and carry serious depth. Nicholas, the "soul-stealer, is pleasantly evil. Some of the ideas presented are thought-provoking, and Goodkind almost makes it through an entire novel without the requisite "Richard and Kahlan are separated" plotline.

On the negative side of the ledger is the disproportionately high number of pages devoted to Richard making speeches or holding forth on philosophy. The character of Jennsen seems to exist solely for the purpose of asking questions so that Richard will have an excuse to launch into another lengthy explanation. The character of Richard has also become unlikeable. No longer the dedicated woodsman who is trying to deal with a major change in his life, Richard is now an expert in objectionist philosophy. He is always right, and does everything well. He frequently comes across as annoyed with those around him, and condescending in his communication.

Naked Empire is an entertaining read if you can get past all the speeches. Highly recommended for devoted Goodkind fans and Libertarians who enjoy speculative fiction.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Silver Serpent by David Debord

In a land where magic is dying and nations teeter on the verge of war, three young people are preoccupied with their own concerns. Shanis is a tomboy who wants to be a soldier. Hierm is an unappreciated second son who wants to escape his father's expectations. Bookish Oskar wants to see the places he's heard of in stories and read about in books. They all believe their dreams have come true, but they soon learn that a greater evil lurks beyond the mountains, and they find themselves on a quest for the Silver Serpent- a mysterious talisman that can save their land.

There is plenty to like in this story: plot twists abound, the lands and cultures are intriguing, and Debord adds a layer of mystery to the story. The characters are searching for the Silver Serpent, but they don't know what it is what it does, much less where to find it. The sai-kurs, an order of sorcerers/ambassadors operate with their own agenda that is not revealed in this, the first volume of The Absent Gods.

The plot focuses on two competing factions who are on identical quests, yet completely unaware of one another. The best part of this story, though, is the characters. No character is totally good or bad. The characters who annoy you at first tend to grow on you, and the ones that seem great at the outset have their own warts. All of the main characters grow and change over the course of the book. The most memorable is Prince Lerryn, a truly complex "flawed hero."

Debord offers hints of an expansive world replete with a variety of unique cultures and political motivations, but we are introduced to only a small corner of this world. Magic exists, but plays a minimal role, as we are told that magic has been dwindling for some time. Many colorful secondary characters are introduced, but the reader gets the feeling that this first book in the series only scratches the surface of what promises to be an expansive series. Debord has cited Robert Jordan as his biggest influence, which makes one wonder if he will spin his web as wide as Jordan did, as the groundwork appears to have been lain for an epic of great breadth if he chooses to go in that direction.

The negative for many will be the fact that this story is a "quest" story like so many that have come before. The characters begin in the small, rural village and embark upon a journey to find the talisman that will save the world. Of course, the story is unique, but if you don't like the traditional quest story, you'll have a hard time enjoying this book.

The Silver Serpent is a gripping epic fantasy in the tradition of Robert Jordan, Raymond Feist and David Eddings. If you are looking for a fresh, new voice in the traditional form, I highly recommend this first installment of what promises to be a memorable series.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself is Joe Abercrombie's debut novel, and a solid first effort. Reminiscent of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, the book is filled with gritty, believable characters, and a foundation of what promises to be a broad, well-developed plot.

The plot in this installment is pretty basic: the old empire is crumbling, with "barbaric" peoples knocking at the door, but most are unaware of a greater, more sinister threat that looms.

The story is character-driven. Glotka the Inquisitor, a scarred veteran whose injuries and disfigurements make him look like an old man, is a complex character with a sharp, biting intellect. He is the most intriguing of a varied cast of characters. The dialog is particularly well-crafted, and Abercrombie draws the reader in so deeply that you find yourself chuckling or sometimes laughing aloud at the one-liners and the give-and-take between the characters.

The only areas of relative weakness for me were the anachronistic profanities (modern profanity in a fantasy novel tends to jolt me out of the reading experience) and the lack of emphasis on plot. The plotting issue is, of course, a stylistic choice. Fans of Steven Erickson and Scott Lynch will likely enjoy Abercrombie's style, while readers of mainstays like Raymond Feist and David Eddings will find the the plot sorely lacking.

The Blade Itself is an entertaining debut by a talented new author. Pick it up if you are looking for a new fantasy author who is not encumbered by the traditions of the genre.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Stardust is an enchanting tale told in the manner and tradition of the fairy tale. Tristran Thorne, a young man who is unaware of his unusual parentage, lives in the town of Wall, in which there is a carefully guarded gate into the world of faerie. Tristran sets off on a journey into faerie to gain the love of the prettiest girl in wall.

Gaiman's prose is masterful, and the story is told in an engaging manner. Despite his adherence to many traditional forms, such as the rash boast and impossible quest that set the plot in motion, and his use of such beings as witches and unicorns, Stardust is a highly original tale. The world of faerie is filled with interesting creatures and wondrous magic, and despite the frequent light tone, the reader is rarely certain that Tristran will fulfill his quest, or even live for that matter.

The one relative area of weakness is the lack of depth to the story. Of course, the book is not intended to be a deep, complex fantasy tale, but I found myself wanting more. In one section, several perilous encounters are summed up in a single paragraph. I found myself thinking, "I would have like to read about that!"

Overall, Stardust is a light, entertaining story for the fantasy reader looking for variety.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Brandon Sanderson to complete Wheel of Time

-----Press Release----

Tor Books announced today that novelist Brandon Sanderson has been chosen to finish writing the final novel in Robert Jordan's bestselling Wheel of Time fantasy series. Jordan--described by some as Tolkien's heir--died Sept. 16 from a rare blood disease. The new novel, A Memory of Light, will be the 12th and final book in the fantasy series which has sold more than 14 million copies in North America and more than 30 million copies worldwide. The last four books in the series were all #1 New York Times bestsellers.

Harriet Popham Rigney, Jordan's widow and editor, chose Sanderson to complete A Memory of Light--which Jordan worked on almost daily for the last few months of his life--and will edit it. Rigney said some scenes from the book were completed by Jordan before his death, and some exist in draft form. "He left copious notes and hours of audio recordings," she said. He also revealed details about the end of the series to close members of his family.

Sanderson, who acknowledged Jordan as an inspiration to him as a writer, has established a loyal fan base as the author of three fantasy novels: Elantris, Mistborn and The Well of Ascension (Tor), as well as a YA novel, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (Scholastic Press). Sanderson said, "I'm both extremely excited and daunted by this opportunity. There is only one man who could have done this book the way it deserved to be written, and we lost him in September. However, I promise to do my very best to remain true to Mr. Jordan's vision and produce the book we have all been waiting to read."

A Memory of Light is scheduled for publication in fall 2009.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Sorry for the long absence. I'll kick off my return with a review of the biggest fantasy novel of the year, at least in terms of hype if not word count.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows begins just prior to Harry's seventeenth birthday. This is a significant date because in the wizarding world, a seventeen year-old is an adult, which means the protection afforded Harry in the Dursley's home will no longer be effectual. The action begins almost immediately, with well-loved characters dying early on, serving notice to the reader that everyone is in danger.

Harry, Ron and Hermione soon set off in search of the horcruxes of which Harry learned in book six. Along the way they must avoid the Death Eaters who have taken almost total control of the Ministry of Magic. Their search uncovers the story of the Deathly Hallows: a trio of magic items that can make one the master of death. Events lead to the inevitable showdown with Voldemort.

Rowling masterfully interweaves elements of mystery regarding Dumbledore's past, and also finally gives us a peek into Snape's personal history. We finally know for certain whose side he's on and why he is the way he is.

On the negative side of the ledger, the introduction of the concept of the Deathly Hallows so late in the series is, for many readers, too much deus ex machina. Others might argue that the conclusion is too C.S. Lewis for their taste. Personally, I found the story entertaining and satisfying, save the epilogue, which is just... bad.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a worthy conclusion to a wonderful series. Read the book and skip the epilogue.