Sunday, March 14, 2004

Review: "New Spring" by Robert Jordan

It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest fan of Robert Jordan's last few books. When I read "The Eye of the World" more than a decade ago, it floored me. I proclaimed Jordan the next Tolkien and tried to convince everyone I knew to read his books.

But as the seemingly never-ending Wheel of Time has spun out of control, I've become more and more frustrated with it, so I was understandably reluctant to pick up Jordan's latest, "New Spring" ($22.95, Tor). Its small size (less than 350 pages), the fact that it wasn't a new installment in the Wheel of Time and those fond memories of "Eye of the World" finally convinced me to give it a shot, and I was pleasantly surprised.

"New Spring," which is an extended version of Jordan's novella in the first "Legends" collection, takes readers back before the events of "The Eye of the World." When the book opens, Moiraine Damodred and Siuan Sanche still wear the dress of Accepted, struggling to attain the shawl of Aes Sedai. Lan Mandragoran, the heir to a dead kingdom, is a soldier protecting Tar Valon from an Aiel invasion. He wants nothing to do with Aes Sedai, much less to be bonded to one as a Warder.

The story follows Moiraine and Siuan's ascent to the shawl of Aes Sedai. When they witness a foretelling that the Dragon Reborn, the man who will sunder the world and save it, has been born on the slopes of Dragonmount, they become obsessed with being the ones who find him. But the Tower has other plans. When the Amirlyn, Tamra, dies mysteriously, Moiraine seems to be bound for the throne of Cairhien, to which she has a claim. But rather than make that claim, she flees the Tower to search for the child.

Her search leads her to the Borderlands, where she and Lan meet, and the rest of the story, readers of the Wheel of Time are already familiar with. (Well, most of it. Word is that Jordan plans two more of these prequels.)

"New Spring" is nice for fans of the Wheel of Time, in that it gives them a chance to see a foolish and fun side of Moiraine, one not often seen in the other series. It also provides some background information on several characters that are important to the series.

For those like myself, who have been turned off by the direction the series has taken, it's a chance to remember what you liked about Jordan's work in the first place.

The detail is still perhaps a bit heavy-handed - like the 3-plus page description of Tar Valon as Moiraine and Siuan ride out for the first time as Accepted. But that's always been Jordan's style. Sometimes it works to put the reader closer to the story; others it doesn't.

"New Spring" doesn't have the same sense of adventure that the early Wheel of Time books had, but that's probably because we already know where it's headed. It's a problem shared by any prequel, and one easily overlooked once you get into the story.

Has "New Spring" convinced me to give the next Wheel of Time volume a shot? Probably not. At the pace that story has moved forward in the last several books, I don't think I'll miss much if I wait for the last volume and just see how it all turns out. But I will check out the other two prequel volumes, and I'll look forward to whatever Jordan does once that unwieldy saga is ended.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Review: "Down the Crawfish Hole" by Wes Thomas

It's an old tradition in children's books. Take a familiar, beloved story and alter it to put it in surroundings and add characters that relate to the local region. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Luckily for Wes Thomas, it works in "Down the Crawfish Hole" ($15.95, Pelican Publishing Co.).

In this book for the preschool set, a young boy named Maurice happens across an interesting blue crawfish that claims to be late for a meeting with the Frog Queen. On the way, the crawfish drops his watch. Intrigued, Maurice picks up the watch and follows the crawfish into a crawfish hole, where he arrives in a strange world populated by talking armadillos and opossum, and a friendly Cajun and his alligator buddy. Oh, and of course, the frogs and their queen.

If it all sounds a little familiar, it should. "Down the Crawfish Hole" is simply a Cajun-ized (and abridged) version of Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland."

Since this book was written for preschoolers, it's very short and moves quite quickly. In fact, too quickly for me, from the adult perspective. It was well enough done that I wanted to see it expanded and see how other elements from Carroll's classic would have translated into a Cajun world.

The drawings in the book are lively and should engage children, and the characters are just as colorful as Carroll's, even if they don't get the same face time as the originals.

Of course, when you're dealing with a classic like "Alice in Wonderland," there's really no way you can improve on it. But for a younger set, who perhaps don't have the reading skills to tackle Carroll's story yet, it will certainly get them interested in the book it's based on.