Sunday, May 30, 2004

Review: "Troll Fell" by Katherine Langrish

Katherine Langrish's "Troll Fell" ($15.99, HarperCollins) starts the way so many books geared for children begin - with the death of a parent and adoption by cruel relatives.

In this case, Peer Ulfsson is snatched away while his father's funeral pyre is literally still burning by his two brutish uncles, Grim and Baldur Grimsson. He's taken to their mill near Troll Fell - the same mill his father ran away from as a young man - and put to work. Peer's uncles smack him around, make him do all the work, feed him very little and entertain themselves by threatening to have their monstrous dog, the appropriately named Grendel, eat Peer's dog Loki.

The only thing that brightens Peer's time at the mill is stolen moments with Hilde, the girl who lives up the hill. But he has to be careful. His uncles and Hilde's family have a bitter rivalry, and if he gets caught talking to her, there's sure to be swift and terrible punishment.

The uncles have other plans for Peer as well. The trolls in Troll Fell are planning a big wedding, and the Gaffer has offered the Grimsson brothers some of his famed troll treasure in return for a human servant that his daughter can present as a gift to her husband-to-be. When the troll ceremony becomes a double wedding and the Gaffer makes another demand of the Grimssons, things get really interesting.

Langrish's book probably won't have the crossover appeal for kids and parents that other series, like "Harry Potter," have. The story is a bit too cut and dried, and perhaps a bit predictable for adults, though there are a few interesting twists. Then again, it's not intended for adults. For the younger crowd, it's probably just what they're looking for.

The action begins with the opening sequence and doesn't stop until the end. Wonderful and strange creatures fill the book - wicked Granny Green-Teeth who lives at the bottom of the mill pond, trolls of all shapes and sizes and the Nis, which reminds me a lot of Dobby the house elf.

Though Langrish makes clever use of Norse mythology in the story, as you can tell by the names, the tale is not dependent on it in any way.

Langrish's debut novel is a simple tale, but it's still a lot of fun. "Troll Fell" is also a great way to keep young readers occupied until the next installment of a certain wizard's tale arrives.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Review: "The Dragon Quintet"

When you mention fantasy, one of the first images that pops into people's minds is probably the dragon. There's no other single element that better represents the genre. Unfortunately, there's also no element that has become quite as cliché.

For that reason, in recent years, the population of dragons has been steadily declining in the various worlds of fantasy. These days, if there's mention of a dragon, it's often a whispered legend of great creatures that died out long ago. That's bad news for us fans of the dragon.

But there's good news, too. "The Dragon Quintet," ($24.95, Tor) brings together five of the biggest names in fantasy to weave tales of the great magical beasts. Those tapped to bring dragons back to the worlds of fantasy include Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Moon and Michael Swanwick. Their dragons couldn't be more different, either.

Card is undeniably a master of science fiction, having delivered, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories of the genre, "Ender's Game." But he's also an accomplished fantasist too, as he illustrates in the opening story, "In the Dragon's House." It tells the tale of a young man who has come to live in a very strange house with his great aunt and uncle. Curious about the attic room where no one is allowed to go, he sneaks in to discover that there's another, secret inhabitant of the house. The dragon seems benevolent, but he has his own agenda.

Moon is probably best known for writing military science fiction, about the farthest you can get from dragons in the speculative genres. But she's also no stranger to fantasy. Her dragon in "Judgment" is more along the lines of what has become the norm in fantasy, a nearly all-powerful and all-wise being that has the ability to appear in human form. The story begins when a young man and his future father-in-law find some strange rocks near their village. The rocks turn out to be dragon eggs, each containing thousands of young dragons and a whole lot of trouble.

A master of dark and macabre stories, Lee has regularly used dragons in her stories. In "Love in the Time of Dragons," a knight sets out with a village girl in tow to slay the dragon in the nearby mountains. The surprise is all his, though.

Lackey's Valdemar is one of the most familiar worlds in fantasy, and her story "Joust" was the basis for her 2003 novel of the same name. Lackey's dragons are more companion animals than the typical fantasy dragon. They're highly intelligent, but don't have the magical properties that other writers ascribe to them. In "Joust," a young serf is taken on by a dragon rider to tend his beast, but sees freedom within his grasp when he steals an egg from the clutch of a dragon that has been accidentally bred.

In his classic "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," Swanwick took the conventions of fantasy and turned them on their heads. He does it again in this collection with "King Dragon." If you've read the earlier work of Swanwick, it's no surprise that his dragons are malicious metal monsters, made of both magic and technology. In this story, an injured dragon crawls into a local village after a battle and takes over, setting himself up as king.

These five excellent tales from five of the top writers in the genre show just how diverse these stories and the dragons that populate them can be. They prove that there are still good dragon stories out there.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Review: "The Last Light of the Sun" by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is, at once, the most fascinating writer in fantasy and one of the most frustrating. When he's on, there's no better writer in the genre. When he's not, drying paint can be more exciting.

Thankfully, he hits the mark more often than not. His latest, "The Last Light of the Sun" ($24.95, Roc), may be one of his best. The book takes readers back to the world of Sarantium and Al-Rassan, but focuses on a part of the world that he hasn't explored yet.

Like so much of Kay's work, the world and people are based on cultures and time periods from our own world. His writings are equal parts fantasy, historical fiction and literary fiction.

"The Last Light of the Sun" is based largely on Norse, English and Celtic cultures, and the book shows a great deal of research on Kay's part. Perhaps more familiar to the average fantasy fan than the medieval Italian world Kay chose for his excellent "Tigana," this world is no less fascinating.

The book begins with a series of seemingly random events that offer no clue to where the story will take the reader. But when the large cast of characters begins to come together, the pattern of Kay's well-laid plan becomes clear. Kay takes the seemingly unrelated threads and weaves them into a masterpiece.

Another nice touch in this book is the change in Kay's style. His normally flamboyant and flowing writing style gives way to a shorter, simpler and perhaps even a bit choppy approach. Fans of Kay's usual eloquence may not be sure what to think of it, but I think it's very effective. This is a book dealing with simpler, more barbaric cultures than the sophisticated ones that David Gemmell has worked with in the past, and the writing style reflects that well.

After the disappointing "Sarantine Mosaic," it's nice to see Kay hitting his stride again. "The Last Light of the Sun" probably won't be remembered as Kay's best novel, but it's still an outstanding read. It has a faster pace than his previous work, and it further builds on a world where the cultural interactions are just beginning to emerge. It's easily one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Review: "Seduced by Moonlight" by Laurell K. Hamilton

In "Seduced by Moonlight" ($23.95, Ballantine), Laurell K. Hamilton returns to the tale of Merry Gentry, also known as Princess Meredith NicEssus of the Unseelie Court of the sidhe (pronounced shee for those not up on their Irish folklore.)

Merry, who is half human and therefore mortal, lives in Los Angeles, exiled from her immortal fey relatives by necessity. She has many enemies at court, and the violence of their court isn't safe for someone who can actually die from her wounds.

But she's been given the chance to return home not as a tainted half-human, but as queen of the Unseelie Court. In order to do that, she has to give her people a rare gift - a child. Her aunt, Queen Andais, has decreed that if she can conceive a child before her cruel cousin Cel, she will inherit the throne.

Hamilton's first novel in the Merry Gentry series, "A Kiss of Shadows," was absolutely incredible, a dark and moody work with just a bit of sensuality. The third book, "Seduced by Moonlight," is not her strongest work.

I have to agree with much of the criticism I've seen from other fans. This book is long on sex and a little short on plot development - at least in the early going. In fact, in the first 150 pages or so, it seems at times that the story is just an excuse to get Merry from one sex scene to the next.

That said, the book still isn't too bad. It hits its stride about midway through and gets back to the story at hand. It also features some very interesting developments, both in Merry's character and in the story.

Hamilton's writing is as strong as ever, rife with new wonders and interesting ideas. Characterization has always been a strong point for Hamilton, and her characters in this series truly shine. You won't find an odder cast this side of a Terry Pratchett novel, but you'll also never question for a second that her characters are truly real despite their odd appearances, mannerisms and magic. It's the characters that keep you interested.

Though "Seduced by Moonlight" doesn't advance Merry's story as much as I would like, it still lays some intriguing groundwork for future installments. Here's hoping that Hamilton gets her focus back on the story and doesn't let Merry's story devolve into a string of meaningless sex scenes. She's too good a writer and this is too good a story for that.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Review: "The Burning Land" by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss' "The Arm of the Stone" and "The Garden of the Stone" were two of the finest fantasy novels to come out of the 1990s, and also two of the most overlooked.

Strauss' two tales about a segregated world where magic and technology were at odds with each other took an old idea and gave it a surprisingly original spin, announcing the arrival of a big new talent. Then she seemed to disappear for a while.

Now, almost five years after the publication of "Garden," Strauss returns with her first hardcover (if you don't count the now out-of-print children's books she wrote before "Arm"), "The Burning Land" ($24.95, Avon EOS). I'm happy to report that she hasn't lost anything during the layoff.

In theme, "The Burning Land" will remind readers of her earlier two books - two beliefs at war with each other and the people caught in the middle - but when it comes to offering insight on human nature and emotion, this book is very much superior.

"The Burning Land" tells the story of a land that has survived 75 years of war between the traditional religious leaders, the Aratists, and the atheist Caryaxists. The Aratists have just been returned to power and now seek to bring back the followers of Arata who were exiled.

A young Aratist named Gyalo is chosen to lead an expedition into the Burning Land, the inhospitable sacred resting place of the god Arata, to bring back a group of refugees who are suspected of having survived by breaking their vows to the church and using their Shaper magic to create a home in the unforgiving desert. What Gyalo finds in the city of Refuge in the center of the Burning Land will rock the Aratist faith to its very foundations - if he can make the church's leaders accept its truth and move beyond their own fears.

Like Strauss' "Arm of the Stone," this book starts slowly, with the telling of a traditional tale from her world. Strauss eschews the "rule" that says you have to start your story by putting the reader in the middle of the action, and she gets away with it because of her compelling writing style.

In addition to being an intriguing story, Strauss offers some thought-provoking nuggets about religion, blind faith and the fallibility of the humans who wield the power in most religions. In a lot of ways, it's a very timely story that parallels some current issues in our own world.

"The Burning Land" works well on two levels - as its own story and as an intriguing setup for a future tale. The book leaves many more questions than it answers and makes me look forward to the follow-up.

After reading her first two books, I was disappointed that Strauss didn't ascend to the top ranks of the fantasy field. Maybe this tale will put her there.