Wednesday, December 01, 1999

Review: "Tigana" by Guy Gavriel Kay

"One man sees a riselka,
his life forks there.
Two men see a riselka,
one of them shall die.
Three men see a riselka,
one is blessed, one forks, one shall die."

I found the most striking thing about this book to be, not the richly textured setting, or the intricate plotting, or the superb writing, but instead the simple ending that seemed to open up a whole new vista to be explored.

Guy Gavriel Kay, and this book in particular, have been highly recommended to me by many people for quite some time now. After reading Tigana, I wish I had listened to those people sooner.

This is a remarkable epic of a people whose name has been stripped from them. A conquering sorcerer stripped the name from the land after his son was killed in the province, and now only natives of the province and wizards can hear the name - Tigana. But a group of the people, led by the rightful prince of Tigana, is about to set in motion a chain of events that could bring the name back to the world - or doom it to be lost forever. In the process, they have to throw off the yoke of another conquering sorcerer to free the land.

This book reminded me greatly of Tolkien's sense of epic adventure. Not to say it was a knock-off of Tolkien, quite the contrary. It simply reminded me of his work through the richness of the world and the cultures that Kay presents - the grandeur, if you will. His world, as well as his story, is brilliantly imagined and flawlessly carried out.

This is not a book to be entered into lightly, though, if you don't have a lot of time to read. The chapters are very long, and its hard to find a good place to put it down. It will keep you up past your bedtime for a couple of nights.

Kay is a writer that I'm going to have to spend more time with in the future.

Friday, November 05, 1999

Review: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J.K. Rowling

It's the third year at Hogwarts, but before school starts a prisoner named Sirius Black breaks out of Azkaban prison. Black was convicted of killing 13 people and linked to Voldemort. Now, he's after Harry.

A series of books has rarely captured my attention like this one has. After originally putting Harry Potter down as a passing fad, I'm now an addict.

Once again, Rowling has given us a delightful story with all the twists and turns of the first two. Snape and the Malfoys are particularly malicious in this volume and the new defense against the dark arts teacher, Professor Lupin, is quite a likeable sort for a change. Then there are the Dementors, foul things whose kiss means death.

I continue to be impressed with the way Rowling makes me root for Harry and his friends to win out. She also has a way of making you suspect everyone of being a "bad guy" in disguise. It makes for a wonderful read.

Another winner for Rowling.

Monday, November 01, 1999

Review: "Dawnflight" by Kim Headlee

I’ve always been a fan of the Arthurian legends, and I thought I’d seen them approached in just about every possible way -- That is, until I read Kim Headlee’s "Dawnflight - The Legend of Guinevere."

Headlee takes the legendary characters Arthur, Guinevere, and Merlin, among others, and transforms them into believable historic figures. This book tells the story as it actually could have happened -- not behind the shining, pristine walls of mythical Camelot, but in our own world.

At its heart, "Dawnflight" is a love story, but don’t let that scare you away. This is no sappy, sentimental romance -- quite the opposite. It is actually a gritty tale of war and conquest, and not all of it is between nations.

Gyanhumara is a Pictish cheiftaness who is bound by a treaty to marry a Brytoni lord and ally her conquered tribe to the Roman Empire. She chooses Urien map Dumarec, one of her people’s worst enemies, in hopes of bringing peace. She soon regrets her choice. Some of her misgivings are due to Urien’s nature, but most are because she loves another man. She loves a man she once thought she hated above all others -- the conqueror of her people -- Arthur the Pendragon. That love could mean a civil war between Arthur and his arch-rival, yet unsteady ally, Urien.

Headlee says in the notes following the book that she feels Guinevere has gotten a "bad rap" in other tellings of the tale. Headlee intended to represent Guinevere a woman of "true power," and she has indeed succeeded. Chieftaness Gyanhumara is not a simpering lady of the court, nor a traitorous schemer as Guinevere has been portrayed in other versions. Instead she is a warrior-queen, as strong in will as in body.

She refuses to be subjugated by Urien, who obviously feels that no woman is even close to the equal of a man. Despite her revulsion, though, she still fully intends to honor her agreement to marry him. Her sense of duty to her people won’t allow her to do otherwise.

The events that follow -- as Arthur and Gyanhumara attempt to come together, despite seemingly the whole world being against them -- puts a whole new face on the classic tale of betrayal that leads ultimately to Arthur’s downfall in other adaptations. Definitely food for thought for any fan of the Arthurian legends. This isn’t just another re-telling of those same stories. "Dawnflight" will make you re-think all the tales of Guinevere and Arthur you’ve ever read.

As for the writing itself -- it is superb. Headlee makes you care about her characters, and forget the countless other stories you’ve read about the same characters. She also has a knack for keeping the reader up past bedtime. The first night, I was able to put the book down, but once the action really started, it became tougher. Headlee has a talent for ending every chapter on a note that makes you say "just one more chapter before bed." Then, before you know it, it’s 4 a.m. and you’re beginning the final chapter.

On a personal note, this book came along at just the right time for me. When I started it, I was at a point where I didn’t think fantasy could excite me anymore. Then, I picked it up. It has been quite a while since I devoured a novel the way I went through this one, and even now, I’m planning on giving it a second reading very soon.

In these days when every fantasy has to be at least a trilogy or more likely a watered-down drawn out saga, it’s rare that I look forward to another series of books. In this case, I think “Dawnflight” is just the tip of Excalibur, and there’s a lot more to the tale. I look forward to hearing it, and I hope Kim Headlee will stay with them until they’re done.

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Review: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" by J.K. Rowling

Harry and his friends are back at Hogwarts for their second year. Mysterious voices begin talking to Harry and accidents start befalling some of the students at the school. Harry and his friends turn their eyes on the usual suspects -- Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape. Most of the school on the other hand, suspects Harry -- especially when they learn he can speak Parseltongue, the language of serpents.

After being pleasantly surprised by the first book in this series, I dove right into this volume. Again, I wasn't disappointed. I went cover-to-cover in one sitting and was glad I already had the third book in the series when I finished.

The strength of this book is basically the same as the first -- it's just a great story. It's easy to like Harry and his friends and hope everything turns out all right for them.

Rowling does a great job of putting Harry in exceptionally difficult situations and then brings him out in a fantastic, yet believable way.

Again, though, check your adulthood at the door. If you sit down to these books with the outlook of an adult, you won't enjoy them as much as if you can tap into that kid that's deep down in you.

These are outstanding books. I highly recommend them.

Wednesday, October 20, 1999

Review: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling

I was a little reluctant to pick this book up at first. It was a "children's" book that was wildly popular, and I was having visions of Pokemon, Power Rangers and countless other "wildly popular" children's fads.

Then came a new wrinkle. People began to protest the content of the book, and that convinced me to buy this book just to see what the big deal was. I would like to offer those who protested the books a sincere thanks from the bottom of my heart. Without them, I probably never would have discovered the world of a student wizard named Harry Potter.

It's been a very long time since I've been as excited about a series of books as I am about these "children's" books. I know a lot of naysayers will scoff, just like I did at first, but these are quite simply wonderful books. Rowling is able to do something with these books that far too many "adult" writers can't do. She was able to keep me on the edge of my seat and keep me turning page after page. She builds sympathy and a reader connection with Harry Potter in the first chapter and it only gets deeper through the book and the next two that follow.

You will, however, need one thing to enjoy these books - a childlike sense of wonder. I've always prided myself on being able to tap into that, but if you're stern and serious, you likely won't enjoy this series. Hence, we have people protesting it instead of being happy that their children are reading.

About the protests, all I can say is it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. I didn't find a great deal of violence, and the violence that did occur was mostly "off-screen." As far as the "serious tone of disrespect" goes, the only disrespect I saw was the Dursley's disrespect of Harry. I have a theory about these protesters - I think they saw a little too much of themselves in the Dursleys, and they didn't like what they saw.

Tuesday, October 05, 1999

Review: "Millennium Rising" by Jane Jensen

With the Millennium upon us, everyone seems ready to cash in on the uncertainty looming ahead. Books and movies have already started hitting the market, and I’m sure there will be a deluge of apocalyptic material in the coming months.

Looking around the world, some people are storing food and water and preparing for nothing short of Armageddon. Others think there will be only a few minor problems with computer systems that are a little behind the times, and life won’t change that much. I tend to fall in the second category, so I’ve avoided most of the hype.

That being the case, there was just something about the description of Jane Jensen’s "Millennium Rising" on the Del Rey Web site that made me send off that e-mail to be a reader-reviewer. One powerful paragraph: "Sacred texts around the world warn of the terrifying signs and wonders that will foretell the end of the world. For thousands of years, the prophets have always proved false. Until now..."

Jensen handles the subject of Armageddon well, tying the Book of Revelation and the prophecies of Nostradamus and a handful of other prophets, all into a neat and tidy conspiracy worthy of the greatest paranoid in the world.

The book begins with a Catholic priest, Father Michele Deauchez, and a reporter for the New York Times, Simon Hill, witnessing what appear to be miracles in the small village of Santa Pelagia, Mexico. Shortly after the event, those that were there begin to step forward and proclaim themselves prophets of God. They begin to prophesy Armageddon, and when their prophecies begin to come true, followers flock to them. Deauchez has other ideas about the "miracles," though, and pretty soon, so does Hill as they set out to find the truth.

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I figured out what was going on early in the book. I was afraid that letting the reader in on the truth so early would take a little of the drama and suspense out of the later parts of the novel. Happily, I was mistaken as the latter half of the book pulled me into the story.

Initially, I had a little trouble swallowing this massive conspiracy theory, but by the end it was seeming more and more plausible.

In fact, the only problem I really had with the book was that it seemed to end too soon with too many unanswered questions. Deauchez, Hill and the prophets Lamba Rinpoche and Will Cougar are left in a very precarious position, and the world is still in chaos. I think the aftermath of the events in this book is a story worth telling as well. Perhaps we’ll see another volume in the future.

As for this book, the reader may have to put aside a few misgivings and accept a few things that are hard to swallow in the early-going, but that patience will be rewarded in the latter half of the book. It’s a good read, especially if you have an interest in prophecy, the coming millennium or conspiracy theories.

Friday, August 13, 1999

Review: "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

Ahh, now here's a horror classic.

It's been years since I first read this book, but I was inspired to pick it up again after seeing the recent Hollywood butchery of it.

Unlike Hollywood's version which relied on a huge special effects budget and a storyline that at times had nothing to do with the actual book, the terror in "The Haunting of Hill House," doesn't really come from the ghosts of the house. Instead, Jackson does a great job of building a sense of foreboding through the first half of the book, then she jumps into the tortured mind of Eleanor for the grand finale.

Jackson does a much better job than Hollywood of creating a sense of unease. But what else is new? We all know there's no such thing as a movie adaptation that's faithful to the novel, and most of us have come to expect movies of our favorite books to be bad.

I think another imporant thing to mention is the house itself. Jackson's Hill House is not the lavish, gorgeous mansion of the movie. Instead, it's a more fitting place for the story -- an ugly place with wrong angles and austere furnishings.

If you've never read "The Haunting of Hill House," you need to. I'd have to say that it's one of the defining novels of early horror. If you're expecting a print version of the movie, you'll be sadly disappointed. But, by the same token, if you were disappointed with the film, don't let that turn you off of the book. It's worth the read.

Friday, June 11, 1999

Review: "Elminster in Myth Drannor" by Ed Greenwood

Occasionally, a character or writer I particularly liked during my "shared world" days will draw me back into those books. Such is the case with this one.

This is the second book in what appears to be a series by Ed Greenwood on the life of the mage Elminster. I enjoyed the first book "Elminster: The Making of a Mage", several years ago when it first came out, but this one didn't live up to that promise.

In this book Elminster journeys to the land of the elves, where, being human, he runs into the expected problems as he learns their ways and their magic. The book is entertaining enough, but a bit mediocre. It's not particularly good and not particularly bad, just kind of hanging in limbo.

One of the reasons is that, instead of simply telling the story, Greenwood tries to make the story fit with the rules of AD&D. That just doesn't work. Several times during the story, there were terms and references to the game that seemed out of place, and they took me out of the story itself. I find Elminster a fascinating character, as well as some of the elves he encounters. I think this could have been a much richer book if he had thrown the AD&D manual out the window.

This is good for a quick read when you don't really have time to concentrate on a book, and I'm sure fans of Elminster and Greenwood will love it as well. As I said before, it wasn't that bad, it just wasn't that good either.

Wednesday, May 05, 1999

Review: "Prince of Dogs" by Kate Elliott

The first book of this series, "King's Dragon", was one of the best books I read last year. It was a wonderful start to a promising series.

Prince of Dogs continues that series and does it well, though perhaps not as well as the first book. This book follows Liath, Alain, Sanglant, Fifth Son and all of the characters you came to care about in the first novel as the war with the Eika and the strife within King Henry's own realm continue.

While the backdrops are interesting, they're relatively minor compared to the strife in the lives of each of the characters. Elliot is a master at torturing her characters, which is something I really admire in an author. A writer that can wrench my gut, as Elliot did by throwing Liath back into the clutches of Hugh, is a writer that can keep me reading.

It's not all great, though. At times this book could have benefitted from some editing. This doorstop probably could have been trimmed down to 400-500 pages just by removing padding. At several points during the book, long passages from histories are read, long tales are told by bards, and long philosophical discussions are held. These show the work Elliot has done in crafting her world, which is great, but none of these have any real bearing on the story. Instead, they bogged it down. I have to admit to skimming over most of them after a while and getting on to the story again.

Despite that, this book is still an excellent read. I'm looking forward to the next volume from Elliot.

Thursday, April 01, 1999

Review: "Jingo" by Terry Pratchett

On my list of favorite authors Terry Pratchett ranks high. In fact, I'd say he's not far behind Poe and Tolkien.

That said, I've been a little disappointed in his last two offerings, Maskerade, and now Jingo. While both were very good books, neither has really lived up to my expectations from Pratchett.

In Jingo, a new island rises out of the sea, and both Ankh-Morpork and Al-Khali claim it. War threatens and chaos erupts from all sides. A good story, but I think perhaps the story gets lost occasionally in a more slapstick type of comedy than Pratchett's older work.

That's not to say it wasn't funny. There were moments that had me rolling on the floor. But it's just missing something that his earlier books had.

But, at the end of the day Pterry is still, in my opinion, the funniest writer in the business. I just wish it didn't take so long for us to get his books here in the states.