I just read: Dawn of Wonder

As I am currently attempting to write a fantasy series, I’m want to read as many types of fantasy as I can. Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw was free through Amazon Prime Reading, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did!

As with any epic fantasy book, this one is going to draw comparisons to Song of Ice and Fire. It definitely has the same, ‘nooks and crannies,’ ‘no particular hurry’ feel to it that you find in George R.R. Martin’s books. And just like the Game of Thrones books, you might get hypnotized by a passage about arrow-fletching, snap to attention, and then suddenly realize that the entire status-quo of the story has changed, and you didn’t even notice. Dawn of Wonder goes through several ‘phases’ in the narrative, and that adds to the epic feel, and keeps the plot moving steadily downstream along, even if some passages diverge into the occasional tributary or lagoon.

Unlike ASOIAF, the 3rd-person narration follows one character through the book’s 800 pages. Aedan is an incredibly smart, brave boy. Poor but with a bright future. HIs one weakness is that he suffers from a severe case of PTSD, brought on my childhood abuse from his father. Can’t say that I’ve ever read a fantasy book that explores PTSD in a medieval setting, but it works pretty well here. And Renshaw does a great job of showing how his protagonist can be exceptionally brave while still suffering from a sudden PTSD-induced panic attack, if the situation hits him just right.

As I mentioned, the story travels through several ‘phases’ as we watch Aedan come of age. We see his pastoral childhood, which ends with a tragic loss. A fugitive period with his family. Then Aedan’s enrollment in a rigorous military academy. This to me was really where the book found its voice, its purpose and differentiated itself from other epic fantasies I have read. Renshaw obviously knows a lot about medieval techniques of warfare. At the same time, Aedan befriends a ragtag cast of recruits, and shows off some really cool out-of-the-box innovations, that add color to his training. This part of the book is sort of a medieval Ender’s Game.

Not only that, but Renshaw even inserts a depressingly realistic portrayal of middle-school romance. This is just another way that the book shows itself to be grounded in interesting ways.

So what is the Dawn of Wonders, you ask? Eventually, Aedan’s brilliance and his brash curiosity get him caught up in palace intrigue. (Yes, this is another phase of the book.) Aedan finds himself pulled into a mission to a mysterious castle—and, yes indeed, this is where the book goes supernatural. Aedan and his adult allies face a unique threat, but to me the fanatical conflict isn’t quite as interesting as Aedan’s drama back at school.

All the plot points and intrigues are not entirely wrapped up by the time Aedan’s mission ends. And the last fifty pages or so are dedicated to gearing up to the next mission that will consume Book 2 in the series. So if you hate cliffhangers, be warned. For me, I kind of like unresolved endings (after all, all of G.R.R. Martin’s book end that way), and I’ll be on the look out for when Renshaw’s sequel hits the electronic shelves!

I just read: The Steel Seraglio

steel_seraglio   ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey (a dad, mom, and daughter team), is a wonderful epic story about women changing the world from unlikely origins—a medieval Arabian harem.

Considering its setting, it’s not surprising that the story works in elements of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with storytelling as a strong theme. But the first section of the book is more of a twist on the myth of ‘Lysistrata.’ In ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece go on a sex strike to force their men from going to war. In ‘The Steel Seraglio,’ the protagonists go the opposite way, overindulging the bellicose Sultan (with sex, flattery,  white lies, and any other feminine wile they can muster) to soothe him into not pursuing wars. As a result, the seraglio (another word for  stealthily presides over the most prosperous and enlightened sultanate in the land.

Unfortunately, this ‘Pax Romantica’ is finally shattered by a truly frightening villain in Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim is a religious extremist who believes all of Earthly existence should be a grinding, joyless slog to achieve perfection in the afterlife. He’s also got a unique origin story and a truly creepy secret totem that he keeps with him.

The protagonists are a savage exile, surrounded by men who see them as objects of gratification or political pawns to be slaughtered. But they work their way through each hardship with wisdom and cunning. These courtesans aren’t just sexpots playing dumb; they’re savvy, talented women.

65_edc02steelseraglioremnimitmalaviaAll except one among them, who wields a sharp knife better than a sharp wit. I won’t give that woman’s name, because it would spoil her sudden introduction to the story. But let’s just say she is the land’s only professional female assassin, and she finds herself throwing in with the Seraglio. Soon she is recruited as the group’s reluctant (and refreshingly gruff) tactician. There are other standouts: the wise and aging matriarch, the snobbish and brilliant diplomat, and the librarian who was granted powers to see the future.

Lastly, there’s the slain Sultan’s last living heir, Jamal. Jamal starts the book as a young, inconsequential prince—far back in the line of succession—so he is both spoiled and essentially ignored. When the Seraglio helps him survive the slaughter of all his brothers and half-brothers, a new world of possibilities opens up for Jamal in exile. But will he choose to follow those possibilities toward good, or toward evil? Jamal has the the strongest character arc in the book. He’s written as a character who is hard to like, but easy to empathize with.

Steel Seraglio also features evocative illustrations by Nimit Malavia.

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Series Condition: The Spire

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.24 AMI’ve been trying more fantasy genre comics lately, including this 8 issue limited series, The Spire, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu, which I plan to review later. The two series have some similarities with topical parables to issues of today, including cultural melding and intolerance.

In ‘The Spire,’ the world is separated into two basic races, humans and the ‘sculpted’ (sometimes called ‘skewed’ or just ‘freaks’).  There are several types of sculpted, each mutated with extreme appearances and abilities. All of the sculpted are able to live in the outside world, which is a toxic desert wilderness. Because of the harsh environment, a good deal of the human population are squeezed in a towering city of stacked ghettos that gives new definition to the term ‘vertical growth.’

The Spire
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Jeff Stokely
Colorist: Andre May
Publisher: Boom!
2015-2016
8 issues (A completed limited series)

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.44.43 AMIn this city, the titular Spire, humans and sculpted live almost literally on top of each other. The mix of weird ‘ethnicities’ will seem familiar to anyone who’s read  China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (and if you’re haven’t, you should check them out!), but Spurrier makes his world unique, with medieval/feudal politics and parables to today’s political climate–all knitted together in a nifty detective story.

The series’ protagonist is a sculpted woman named Sha who is the city’s chief of police. Sha is trying to stop a masked killer. Of course, the killer’s victims are far from random, and Sha eventually realizes that the killings are connected somehow to incident that befell the Queen-mother thirty years ago, while she was pregnant. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) Sha has a gap in her memory that has erased everything in her memory that is older than thirty years. Also, (coincidentally?!) Sha is in a clandestine relationship with one of the Queen-mother’s daughters.

IScreen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.57 AMt’s a compelling and intricate mystery. I was able to figure out some parts, and I was pleasantly surprised by others.

The other distinctive aspect of this series is the art. The art here is very cartoony in places, it reminds me of loose, doodle style you might see in a comic strip in a local alternative newspaper. The art adds some levity to the story, here and there, and it is definitely not a conventional match for a fantasy series. But it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The coloring is undeniably beautiful, though. Andre May uses a palette from the back row of the crayon box. Ultramarine, salmon, orchid, turquoise, pea green, and ‘off key’ pastels that add an otherworldly feel.

As I said, it you like comics and Mieville novels–or the Gentlemen Bastards books–then I think this series could be worth a try.Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.40.49 AM

Game of Thrones: Learning to Hope

(Spoiler alert, level yellow! If you haven’t seen it Season 6 of Game of Thrones, the ramblings below may be mildly spoilerish.)

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All around me, people are rejoicing. On Twitter feeds, and at Monday lunch-breaks… “Go Starks!” “Yay Khaleesi!” “GoT #woohoo!”

If there’s one exclamation I never thought I would associate with Game of Thrones, ‘Woo-hoo’ might be it. What sound would I most associate with GoT? Probably a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth. You see, up until this season, my first purview into the doings on Westerns came directly through George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ novels.

For me and millions of other fans, those five novels—those roughly 6,000 pages—have been an exercise in train-wreck spectacle and exquisitely postponed gratification. In all of those 6,000 pages, there’s been what?—maybe three pump-your-fist moments?

But now book fans have ran out of SOIAF books to read, just as producers of the HBO series have run out of plots to follow. Has the TV show faltered, now that the show-runners have to continue the stories on their own? No. If anything TV show has tightened up, quickened its pace, and embraced a fresh, new action-oriented tone. GoT’s Season 6 has shed off some meandering and unsatisfying plot-lines like a working-girl shedding clothes in Littlefinger’s brothel. And the show-runners are killing off the series’ most despised, and most plotting-obstructing characters. Troublesome characters are dropping like… like… well, like good guys in the first five seasons of the show.

Every Sunday night I’ve been watching these new episodes with my arms crossed and a Scroogish scowl on my face. Beside me, my wife hoots and cheers. She loves this new turn in tone. My general reaction has been ‘Everything is too easy.’

Before this season, I enjoyed the HBO adaption mostly because it reminded me of other HBO classics. The Sopranos and The Wire were byzantine pot-boilers—slow-moving and meticulous. They were absolutely brilliant shows with plenty of ‘water cooler moments’ between them, but I don’t think anyone would ever call them ‘crowd-pleasers.’ So I was disgruntled that the GoT TV show had transitioned so unabashedly into crowd-pleasing mode.

Then came the Battle of the Bastards. Good grief. Has there ever been a better-directed, better-directed 60 minutes on television? Forget Emmys. That episode deserves Oscars! Then that episode was followed up by the equally excellent season finale, and I realized: Why am I not opening my heart to this new way of (literally) enjoying these great characters and the thrilling world they live in? Our heroes are actually accomplishing things. They are actually on the move. And everything is spinning up to a huge 3-or 4 front climactic confrontation of Near-Evil vs. Pure-Evil. That’s thorny enough for me. Grab the popcorn, I’m there. And then there’s always the promise that ASOIAF Book 6 book will be here (eventually) to reward the most patient and masochistic fans of the books.

My only hope is the show-runners won’t forget that the Red Wedding is still the series’ most memorable, most quintessential moment. The ‘Game’ can’t end satisfactorily, unless it breaks our hearts, at least a few more times. Here’s hoping they kill off one or two of the characters we all love. And I hope they do it in the most unexpected, most unwarranted way possible.

(And, whomever it is, I hope they keep it permanent this time).

Another one of my GoT articles: Best Actor in a Suppurating Role

 

I Just Read: Kushiel’s Dart

kushiels dartThe word ‘phallus.’ Tramp stamps. These are examples of things that people try to use to be sexy, but that just don’t hit the ‘marque.’

Ah-ha! That last bit there was a little “Kushiel’s Dart” pun. You see, in author Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy world, marques are that elaborate, large tattoos that concubines get on their backs to track their progress in the spiritual sex-trade. The story follows one such concubine, who has been blessed by her freaky-deaky deities to be the freaky-deakiest of S&M subs. Sounds like we’re headed for a sword-and-sorcery version of 50 Shades of Grey, right? ‘Christian gets even MORE Medieval.’ Well, for 200 pages you’d be kind of right.

Then the story swerves into court intrigues and international politics, and our horny heroine becomes more of a Renaissance-era CIA officer. She’s gathering intel, delivering messages, and forging alliances. There are still sex scenes, if you can call them that. Most of them briefly mentioned transactions, or they’re out-and-out rapes.

Hmm. How to describe this book. I guess I’d say it’s not for everyone. If you’re a fan of “Lord of the Rings” style treks and sieges, 600 pages of this book will disappoint you. If you’re hoping for an erotic thriller, a different 600 pages of the book will disappoint you. And yet, the book still held my interest. I kept reading through it, all 900 pages.

I guess I was intrigued by the role the heroine plays as the fantasy version of Mata Hari. She doesn’t carry a sword; she doesn’t know any magic spells. Just her wits and her feminine wiles. And I liked the religion that Carey creates, which is based on angels and disciples of a vaguely Christian faith. And I think of all the fantasy books I’ve read, this one probably comes closest to Game of Thrones, in that it weaves together a dozen intricate plots, and warring factions. Most of the characters are morally ambiguous characters. No one’s purely evil, and there’s only a handful of characters purely good. So that’s a great thing that the book has going for it. It looks like one of the ‘Kushiel’ sequels explores a Persian or Turkish setting, so I may check that out as well.

I Just Read: The Desert of Souls

desert of soulsOver the last few months, I’ve been in the mood for some fantasy stories that involve sand, sultans, and scimitars. Unfortunately those seem to be hard to come by, and the few ‘Persianish/Arabianish’ novels I have read haven’t quite scratched that itch. In my opinion, most modern desert fantasy novels spend far too much time inside city walls, in bazaars or back alleys. It’s like playing the first Assassin’s Creed, which, in my book, is not a good thing. The only good bazaar scene I can think of was Conan punching a camel. Sorry, PETA.

I want a novel where the heroes have to do each of the following, at least once:
• Stagger across a seemingly endless desert
• Steal an artifact from some creepy tomb or temple
• Sneak into a harem, or take part in some inappropriate flirting that could lead to a beheading
• Spend a few tense moments with an ancient monster that might decide to eat them, or might just ask them a few riddles

Howard Andrew Jones’ book checks off at least most of these items. The Desert of Souls follows two adventurers, a warrior and a scholar, and Jones intriguingly plays with the expectations baked into these two roles. You’d expect the scholar to be the narrator, right? And he’s documenting the resourcefulness, bravery, and righteousness of the warrior. No. Reverse that. From the outset, Jones establishes that the scholar is more accomplished, more destined to become legendary. The warrior, on the other hand, may be more skilled with his pen than with his sword. There is also a smart, strong-willed female character in the story, but it would have been nice to see her do more, or to see her ‘break type’ in the way the scholar and the warrior do.

All in all, The Desert of Souls kept me entertained, and the two main characters felt real and I liked their interactions. The story lumbered a bit on its way to the climax. As a reader, I hate scenes where the protagonist(s) know something to be true, but no one believes them. I guess most horror, fantasy, and sci-fi stories have to include an “It’s true!” “No you’re crazy!” conversation at some point, because they put their main characters into highly unlikely (or downright ridiculous) situations. When I have to write a scene like that, I try to keep it as short as possible, or add something unexpected. Otherwise I imagine the reader wanting to skip ahead. Anyway, everyone knows that the “No you’re crazy!” person is probably going to end up being killed by the thing he’s been so vehemently denying.

Still, I look forward to reading the second book of the series, and to seeing what happens next.

I Just Read: The Magician’s Land

The Magician's LandWait. Is that “The Magician Lands” or “The Magician’s Lands?” Ah, the perils of adding an S (possessive or pluralizing) to a word in of your title. You risk turning your book into the literary equivalent of Kroger/Kroger’s or Longhorn/Longhorns. Mothers Day/Mother’s Day. Daylight Saving/Savings. I could go on and on. But seriously, the title of Lev Grossman’s third Magicians novel makes good sense about halfway through the story. Yes, there is literally a ‘Magician’s Land.’ And it’s not the land you’d think it is.

Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, has obviously evolved as a character (and matured into a man) as the series has progressed. He’s no longer a binge-drinking dill-hole, and he’s not quite as self-centered and self-delusional as he once was. Quentin’s character arc perfectly reflects the author’s focus on two themes: The idea of a boy awkwardly maturing to manhood, and the conflict of fantasy vs. reality.

Throughout the Magicians trilogy, Quentin has phased through these dichotomies like a trauma victim passing through the stages of grief. Quentin’s stages of development have gone something like this:
1) Wishful thinking
2) Wish fulfillment
3) Disillusionment with said wishes
4) A renewed appreciation in the ‘mundane’
5) Nostalgia for his days of childish wishing

I can’t remember reading a series of genre books that are so dedicated to their themes—to fleshing them out, to adding nuance to the ideas and to progressing them. Just for fun, pretend that you’re back in your high school Literature class and see how many references you find to these two variations of Grossman’s overarching theme:
– Separation from father figures (and deity figures)
– The transforming/transporting power of literature (both the reading and the writing of it)

Another aspect of Grossman’s writing that really stands out is his ability to write a truly memorable villain. Grossman introduces his worst monsters with scenes that make you feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare, moving in slow-motion. These scenes are like David Lynch creepy, and I can’t think of any horror writer that can match them.

Unfortunately, the third book’s creepiest character is not the Big Bad. And the conflict at the heart of the book’s fantasy-world storyline is as weak as day-old Coor’s Light. Even during the strum-und-drang finale, the main characters don’t have much to do. But along the way there are plenty of great scenes and character moments. Grossman does open the door (literally) to more adventures in the future, so this is one grown man who’s childishly wishing that this trilogy has a fourth installment.

In the meantime, at least we have a potential TV series to look forward to.