Monday, February 11, 2019

Review Double-Header: Rosemary Sutcliff and Jonathan Stroud

Today we're doing two smaller reviews of recent reads: Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth and Jonathan Stroud's The Hollow Boy (third in the Lockwood and Co. series).


I picked up The Eagle of the Ninth because Megan Whalen Turner has mentioned it multiple times as an influence on the Attolia/Queen's Thief series. Marcus's early injury in the story directly inspired Eugenides's story in The Queen of Attolia, and Turner has even said she wrote Thick as Thieves partially as a reversal of Eagle; rather than the soldier, it is the slave who tells the story. The quest feel of the latter half of Eagle also feels very similar to Turner's The Thief.

But enough about influences. Eagle isn't a seat-of-your-pants thriller or even a typical quest narrative. While the seeds for the quest are planted early, the mission to retrieve the lost eagle isn't even introduced until nearly halfway through the book. Instead, we're treated to Marcus's personal journey from centurion to invalid to new man. Sutcliff takes her time, painting the landscape without overwriting, keeping jargon and cultural references as natural as they would have been to the characters without explaining more than is strictly necessary to her readers.

I was expecting more of a traditional adventure tale, and while that expectation was somewhat disappointed I didn't find myself regretting the time spent with Marcus and Esca, the gladiator Marcus purchases and later frees. Their friendship is one of the best things about this book. The mutual respect they have for one another and the lengths to which that respect (and yes, even brotherly love) takes them to make this story refreshing even if it isn't always the most gripping.

Fans of Megan Whalen Turner, historical novels, or tales of friendship will enjoy this book.



In this third installment in the Lockwood and Co. series, Stroud pushes some of his characters to new breaking points. After the startling revelation at the end of The Whispering Skull, Lucy, George, and Lockwood are continuing to do what they do best: stop hauntings and generally ignore their own feelings. Lucy's Talent for Listening is growing stronger, and it's not just the wisecracking skull she can hear speak anymore. But with Lockwood's distrust of her growing empathy for the ghosts they banish and the introduction of a new team member, Holly Munro, the gap between Lucy and Lockwood seems to be growing wider.

To make matters worse, there's a regular epidemic of hauntings springing up almost overnight in Chelsea, and the top officials in the field can't find a way to stop it. With tensions rising and old enemies reappearing, how much more can Lockwood and Co. take?

The Hollow Boy started out feeling slow to me, despite the tantalizing promise of the final scenes of The Whispering Skull. The central mystery doesn't take center stage as early as I expected and the main questions on my mind (What happened to Lockwood's sister? What's at the heart of the Problem? etc.) weren't developed as much as I'd hoped. Add to that Lucy's continued misinterpretation of her own feelings (she seems convinced she misses a professional closeness to Lockwood, but it's pretty clear she is developing romantic feelings for him) and her failure to think clearly, and I found myself being frustrated a lot here.

But then there's the new twists Stroud weaves into the story. Two antagonists from the previous book make appearances (and threats), setting them up for further development in the final two books. There are hints of a larger conspiracy involving the heads of the two main anti-ghost agencies, Rotwell and Fittes. The mysterious Orpheus Society gets a name and a sprinkling of new information. And, perhaps most importantly, Lucy and Lockwood mature. They're not at the ends of their character arcs, but they both emerge from The Hollow Boy as wiser versions of themselves. Throw in a potentially horrible (though not necessarily truthful) prophecy from a ghost and what is absolutely the creepiest haunting in the series so far, and The Hollow Boy comes to a satisfying end. I can't wait to get the last two books and see how Stroud winds things up.

Recommended for fans of horror, haunted houses, mystery, and likable but flawed protagonists.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Paying Your Debts to Keep the Wolf Away: Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver

A year and a half ago, I read and fell in love with Naomi Novik's Uprooted, a mostly new fairy tale for adults that draws inspiration from Novik's Eastern European heritage and my own favorite fairy tale, "Beauty and the Beast."

Last year, Novik released a sister book, Spinning Silver, and I finally got around to reading it.



Spinning Silver does not take place in the same universe as Uprooted, but it feels very similar (magic systems aside). The narration is nuanced and varied; each of the ultimately six narrators has their own voice and diction (the audiobook is spectacularly performed by Lisa Flanagan).

The story is openly a "Rumpelstiltskin" retelling; Miryem's opening narration brings the story to the forefront and sets it in opposition to her own. The story about the miller's daughter, she tells us, is one that people began to tell to cast the moneylender (a Jew) in a demonic light in order to get out of their debts. Miryem knows the prejudices against her people, and feels them all the more because her father is the local moneylender, and he is too gentle to demand repayment, even in the face of a life-threatening illness besetting his wife.

But Miryem refuses to lose her mother because their neighbors won't pay their debts, so she takes up her father's work. It turns out she's really quite good at it, though her parents caution her about hardening her heart against those she collects from.

Eventually Miryem's success grows to the point that she boasts she can turn silver into gold--and unfortunately for Miryem, the king of the Staryk (a race of icy fey who raid the villages in winter) hears her and seeks her services. If she fails, he will kill her.

Along the way, Miryem's story intertwines with those of Wanda (whose father is in debt to Miryem's family) and Irina (the daughter of a local duke with political aspirations). The Rumpelstiltskin story is reworked multiple times from different angles. Miryem becomes the Rumpelstiltskin character to Wanda's family, but then the miller's daughter when the Staryk overhears her boast. Irina is likened to the miller's daughter who borrows jewels from the moneylender. There are debts and contracts, some paid for good and some for ill, like the Tsar Mirnatius's contract inherited from his mother.

Despite the tension between Jewish and (ostensibly) Christian characters, religion plays a small role in the story. Elements of the Jewish faith become more important to Miryem at times in the story, and a Jewish blessing is found to have power in the right circumstances.

The truly astounding aspect of this book is the level of worldbuilding and interconnectedness Novik achieves with her storytelling. The Staryk are developed from bogeymen to a civilization; rumors become vital to the plot; small acts of kindness are paid forward. The magic is intriguing and all the more precious for its rarity; unlike Uprooted, Spinning Silver doesn't treat us to any wizard schools or fraternities.

At times frightening and philosophical, Spinning Silver is always compelling. It is the story of everyday woman and men caught up in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes mundane and sometimes otherworldly. They are faced with choices that seem small but have far-reaching consequences. It is a story of how one life can affect many, and how many lives together can build or break a community. Though it is not "the" moral of the story, a large part of the book's moral and philosophical view can be summed by this passage from Miryem's parents:

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.”
If you enjoy fairy tales, fleshed-out fantasy, or just strong storytelling, give Spinning Silver a try.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Over Your Dead Body: John Cleaver Fights Monsters and Explores Morality

In the past, I've made no secret of my appreciation for Dan Wells's John Cleaver series of novels. You can read my reviews of books three and four here and here, respectively.




Over Your Dead Body picks up months down the road from The Devil's Only Friend. John and Brooke are on the road and on their own, hiding from both the FBI and the Withered. Using the memories deposited in Brooke's mind by the Withered Nobody and information gathered by FBI agents over the preceding years, they have been tracking down Withered one by one. Now, they're down to only a handful of Withered that Brooke (and her myriad personalities that came with Nobody's memories) can lead them to.

Their path takes some unexpected twists and turns, including the reappearance of a personality John never thought he'd see again: his girlfriend, Marci. Her memories came to Brooke along with all the others Nobody possessed, and the chance to have her in his life again is a temptation John must battle throughout the book.

As usual, the questions of morality surrounding John's mission take a major place in the narrative. The long-reaching effects of hunting down people, even those who are as bent and demonic as the Withered, are weighed against the mission itself. Is it worth saving the world from the control of the Withered if John and Brooke are lost in the process? Is it right for John to want Marci to stay the dominant personality in Brooke's body? Is it always right for them to kill the Withered?

Some of these questions are given answers in the story, and some are left to be meditated on. But the moral questioning is the aspect of these books that makes them hopeful and uplifting when their subject matter could weigh them down.

John's agnosticism is also weighed against the belief (and sometimes simply cultural Christianity) of Marci and some of the other characters. The importance of church and church family are emphasized on multiple occasions. One of the Withered is the leader of a cult and the effects of his leadership and the vacuum after his death are brief but important elements of the story.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of religious and moral questioning centers on the final Withered John faces in the book. Having blended into small town life, Attina has become the barometer of the community. Whatever everyone around her feels, she feels -- and acts on. When John and Brooke come looking for her, they bring the suspicion and darkness that are requisites of their mission with them and unknowingly unleash Attina's nightmarish evil on an otherwise peaceful town. So the question arises whether John is responsible for everything that follows and whether it is right for him to kill Attina when she was able to live peaceably for decades. These are questions that Wells rightfully leaves unanswered, but they haunt John's heart long after the battle is over.

As with the previous books in the series, Over Your Dead Body explores new territory within the world Dan Wells has created, and it does so with care and nerve. Fans of the series won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Wizard of London Breaks New Ground and Cold Hearts

We're back this week with a look at the fourth book in Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series. I've mentioned my love for this series before, but I've never done a full review here. It's time to change that.



Like its predecessors, The Wizard of London retells a classic fairy tale in Lackey's alternate Victorian/Edwardian England. In this case, the tale in question is Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," although the parallels are scanter than previous books in the series.

In another change for the series, The Wizard of London picks up multiple POV storylines. Whereas previous books have focused on the romantic plot interwoven with the main conflict, usually maxing out at three POV characters, Wizard uses five main POVs. While some of Lackey's more direct adaptations would have suffered from the added perspectives, Wizard carries the tale forward better for its multiplied leads. The original story was, after all, quite episodic by nature, following Gerda through lands ruled by each of the four seasons. While the four seasons take less of a role in this tale, the episodic nature of the story remains somewhat.

The main plot of Wizard follows Isabelle Harton, headmistress of a school for the children of British expatriates, and especially those who show a Talent or Gift that lies outside of the series' main magical system of Elemental Mastery. Isabelle has been sent one such child: Sarah Lyon-White, a girl with psychic Talent that is beyond the skill of her Elemental Mage parents to teach. Isabelle gladly brings Sarah into the fold, and soon after Sarah convinces Nan--a street girl with her own Talent--to join the school as well. When these girls are targeted by a sinister assassination attempt, Isabelle must confront her history with the Elemental Mages of London, including the titular Wizard of London, David Alderscroft.

Though Sarah and Nan sometimes seem too mature for their ages, Nan's history on the streets and Sarah's peculiar gifting ease some of the disbelief, as do their moments of childish wonder, mischief, and play. The adults in this book are refreshingly mature, taking stock of themselves, their charges, and their colleagues in order to make wise decisions whenever possible.

One instance in particular, when the girls and Isabelle's husband think of the possible dangers involved in one of Isabelle's stings amidst the false mediums of the city, demonstrates the characters' maturity. Isabelle does not fly into a rage at the suggestion she cannot handle herself. Rather, she listens to the suggestions of those she cares for, and who care for her, and they have a rational discussion about how to keep everyone involved in the sting safe.

While all of the books in this series feature a romantic subplot, Wizard takes a different tack. There is romance to be had, but it is primarily between Isabelle and her husband. There is another romance for Isabelle--in the past, she was all but engaged to David Alderscroft, and his breaking things off with her was the catalyst for her leaving England and meeting her husband. The ache of what might have been between them colors both Isabelle's and David's chapters throughout the book, and serves a key function in driving some of their decisions as well as the larger plot.

As for religion, never a large part of Lackey's novels in this series, the largest impact it has is that Sarah's parents are missionaries as well as Mages, and Isabelle's loyal friends and servants hail from all the religious backgrounds India might offer.

Though perhaps not as skillful as its immediate predecessor, Phoenix and Ashes, The Wizard of London carries on the series into new territory with the development of the Talents like Sarah and Nan and with the introduction of the Fae through Puck/Robin Goodfellow, in what was one of my favorite sections of the novel.

If you've enjoyed previous books in this series or are interested in reading period literature that has a fantastic twist, check out The Wizard of London.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Books and Cookies Tag

I'm picking this tag up from Paper Fury, who picked it up from other blogs.

Chocolate Chip: Classic Book That You Love

Dracula, Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice, The Hunchback of Notre Dame



Thin Mints: A Hyped-Up Book You Want To Read

The Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik



Shortbread: An Author You Can’t Get Enough Of

C. S. Lewis, Jim Butcher, J. R. R. Tolkien, Naomi Novik, Megan Whalen Turner 




Samoas: An Emotional Rollercoaster

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Changes by Jim Butcher, I Don't Want to Kill You by Dan Wells




Oreos: A Book Whose Cover Was Better Than The Story

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman




Gingerbread Cookies: Where The Story Was Better Than Its Cover

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, The Secret of NIMH/Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien (I have the movie tie-in edition and it's not the best cover in the world, even for a movie tie-in edition)



Peanut Butter Cookies: A Book That Wasn’t What You Expected

Several books already mentioned could fall here, but for the sake of variety:

The Raven Boys, Practical Magic, the Hellboy comics




Snickerdoodles: A Book You’ll Never Stop Rereading

The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Queen's Thief series, Harry Potter, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin



Macaron: Sequels You Liked Better Than The First

The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner, The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis, The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey, every Dresden Files book after Fool Moon



Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Obligatory New Year's Goals/Resolutions Post

It's really hard to believe it's been a year since I last made major goals for my creative life. And what a year it's been. I've switched jobs (so has my wife, but through less stressful circumstances), and God has seen us through financial hardships small and large. Lorehaven magazine launched.  My life has been a lot busier and less restful of late due to work being so full the last couple of months. Add on doing Inktober and NaNoWriMo, and holiday travels . . . I'm bushed. But I'm going to try to get back into the habit of blogging and being creative in other ways.

But before I set myself some goals for this year, let's take a look at last year's goals.

Writing:

  • Edit Albion Apparent and get it to the publisher. During the first half of last year, I spent a large portion of my writing time on this. However, I stalled out for several reasons I can't go into. When there's news on this front, I will share it.
  • Finish writing "Paper and (T)horns". This . . . hasn't had any progress made. Still an ongoing goal.
  • Write/edit/complete 1-3 other short works. I wrote two short stories this year and started a few others thanks to a writing group at my local library. One of those stories is even available now in a collection put together by the writing group I've been attending for 3 or 4 years. You can get either Kindle or paperback editions (or both).
  • Finish my Fisher King cycle of Arthurian poems. I didn't finish this, but I did complete a poem-a-day challenge in April, so that's something.

Art:

  • Design 100 Myths. Since this wasn't a "get it done in 1 year" goal, I'm a bit more successful than my writing goals. Last count of Myths drawn is: 36. At this rate, just 2 more years!
  • Try new things. I did try new things, including drawing with thicker lines, and doing more prep sketches and drawings; I even did a scale prep drawing for one of the AprilFae challenges.

Reading:

  • Read 75-100 books. Done and done. Mostly thanks to library books and reading LOTS of graphic novels.
  • Read more than 20% of my bedroom shelf. Ha! I don't think I came close to this, but that's because I didn't keep the shelf stable. It's possible I did better than I realize.
  • Clear out some of the Kindle to-read pile. Nope. Didn't even touch it most of the year.

Blog:

  • More reviews of all kinds. I did mostly reviews in my blog posts last year, so consider this a win.
  • A new series going through rereads (and first reads) of Shakespeare's plays. Didn't get past the first play. I'm so good at this. 10 points to Dumbledore.
  • Finish the Osten Ard and O'Brien read-through series. I finished rereading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn but haven't read The Witchwood Crown yet. Honestly, after finishing To Green Angel Tower I needed a break from epic fantasy and haven't been brave enough to start such a big tome again yet. As for O'Brien, I still have A Report from Group 17 to read and review. It's still on the list.

For this year, I'm going simpler on my goals. Not necessarily easier, but simpler.

2019

  • Write at least 1 novel, plus however many short stories and/or novellas I can. I definitely plan on writing at least one short story this year, for the next Crazy Buffet collection. Beyond that, I'm just teeming with ideas, so I need to get them on paper.
  • Edit at least one novella or novel, new or old. I have comments back on There's No Place Like Home? and Albion Apparent, so it's just a matter of sitting down and doing the work.
  • Read as much as possible. I'm already working on several books, including Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver and Mercedes Lackey's The Wizard of London.
  • Be creative (almost) every day. I acknowledge that there will be days that I don't have the time or energy to work on art or writing or whatever. But my goal is to say that I have kept my creative muscles in tone. I will include blog posts, writing for the above goals, drawing and painting, and any other creative endeavor in this (such as knitting/crocheting).
  • Blog once a week. Even if it's just a "Here's what I'm reading/listening to/experiencing" type post, it'll keep me on here and help me be accountable on my goals.

What about you? What are your goals for the new year?

Monday, October 1, 2018

Rewatching The Village and the Start of Inktober

We're officially into the autumn season and October (and Inktober*) has begun. That means our household is in for our annual spooky/Halloween/autumn movie marathon. One of our favorites to bring out this time of year is M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. It's been at least a year, if not several, since I last watched this one but it still makes me happy as both a consumer and creator of stories. However, it's not perfect, so I want to talk about what I (still) love and what doesn't quite work for me after all these years.


Love: Ivy and Lucius


These two are the heart of this movie (along with Ivy's father), and they are a demonstration of Shyamalan's ability to craft strong characters beset by extraordinary circumstances. Ivy is brave, but still experiences almost crippling fear. Lucius is passionate, but has trouble expressing that passion. Their story unfolds slowly but elegantly, and the climax of emotion and wit that is "the porch scene" will forever be one of my favorite scenes in cinema.



Not So Much: The Final Sequence

Don't get me wrong. I love Ivy's line "There is kindness in your voice. I did not expect that." The way she wins over Kevin and the final scenes in the village are well done and necessary to the story at hand.

But after the reveal of Noah as the Creature, the movie feels a little . . . flat. The emotion of the journey has been played out, and we (like Ivy) are a bit numbed and in shock from the chase through the woods. In hindsight, I think the reveal of Noah should have been held back a few more minutes to add emotional weight to Ivy's success.

Love: The Chase in the Woods

This scene is like a modern take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, with a little color swap for flavor. And it's so well shot that even knowing how it plays out almost beat for beat (years after my last viewing), I still get creeped out by it. It keeps the tension just right and brings back all the right elements from earlier in the movie (Mr. Walker's line about rumors of creatures, the game the boys play on the stump).This is Ivy's final triumph on her hero(ine)'s journey; retrieving the medicine for Lucius is essentially a given at this point (another reason why the following scenes feel a bit tedious).

Love Yet Not So Much: The Quiet

This movie is so quiet that the first time I watched it I missed half of what happened. This isn't a loud movie filled with action sequences and rock music. The score is almost unnoticeable, here to undergird the story rather than lead it. The dialogue is often whispered or spoken in a normal conversational manner so that it's clear no one is trying to be heard in the back of the theater.

This adds to the artistry of the film. It draws you in close to these characters so you can learn about them intimately. But if you aren't prepared for this, you'll lose not only much of the film, but much of the experience of the film as well. It took me a few viewings to appreciate that, but now that I do it's one of my favorite aspects of the film.

Love: An All-Star Cast that Doesn't Act Like It

There are some fairly big/recognizable names in this movie. Bryce Dallas Howard. Joaquin Phoenix. William Hurt. Brendan Gleeson. Cherry Jones. Sigourney Weaver.

Yet most of them aren't in the spotlight for long. None of them are flashy. There's no emphasis on these actors and actresses making an appearance. They're simply the characters, part of the story. It's part of the beauty of this film. It doesn't try to be a Hollywood blockbuster. It simply is itself: a character-driven story with heart and hope. And that, ultimately, is why I love The Village.


*(Yes, I will be doing Inktober again this year. The pictures will eventually make it to my blog, probably in one or two posts. I'll be continuing my 100 Myths series of drawings from earlier this year, so be ready for lots of mythical figures!)

What about you? Do you enjoy The Village? Let me know what you think in the comments!