Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Streams of Sliver / R.A Salvatore

2.5 stars out of 5
"Yer eyes'll shine when ye see the rivers runnin' silver in Mithril Hall!"

Bruenor the dwarf, Wulfgar the barbarian, Regis the halfling, and Drizzt the dark elf fight monsters and magic on their way to Mithril Hall, centuries-old birthplace of Bruenor and his dwarven ancestors.

Faced with racism, Drizzt contemplates returning to the lightless underworld city and murderous lifestyle he abandoned. Wulfgar begins to overcome his tribes's aversion for magic. And Regis runs from a deadly assassin, who, allied with evil wizards, is bent on the companions' destruction. all fo Bruenor's dreams, and the survival of his party, hinge upon the actions of one brave young woman.

 Reading this series is more fun that doing housework. So that’s what I’ve been doing—reading this book, and not doing housework (which actually needs to be done quite badly at the moment).

Now, I never played Dungeons & Dragons, so I don’t really understand how these Forgotten Realms books fit into that whole scene, but I did obsessively read and re-read Tolkien as a teen (and I still re-read him on occasion, when I need comfort). So it’s pretty difficult for me to overlook how much of this whole plot is lifted directly from The Hobbit and LOTR. Specifically, Thorin Oakenshield Bruenor Battlehammer and the Mines of Moria Mithril Hall. I would have felt better about it had Salvatore tried to change things up a bit, but by and large he used many, many of Tolkien’s details. It had been done before (The Sword of Shannara anyone?), but I still find it strange that an editor would let it pass.

I get the impression that Salvatore was one of the first writers to cash in on the cultural phenomenon of D&D and fantasy literature. It seems that publishers in the 1980s figured out that these fantasy quest tales would sell, whether they were well written or not, and flooded the market with a ton of such material. Perhaps Salvatore was one of the better ones? Is that why he made it on the NPR’s list of notable science fiction & fantasy? I note on Wikipedia that there is a listing of D&D writers—of the 60ish listed, I recognize only 5 names (and only Salvatore for the D&D writing). His writing is very florid and everything, even eating, is very dramatic.

If you enjoy these books, read them. Far be it from me to discourage your enjoyment. But if you, like me, find them a bit lackluster, let me make some recommendations: if you really enjoy Bruenor the dwarf or Regis the halfling, read Tolkien (if you haven’t already). If Wulfgar the barbarian is your favourite character, try Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books. If you enjoy the magic and the adventure, look for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. All three of these authors can really write—the plots flow, there are shades of gray in their heroes and villains, and their vocabulary is excellent, and they write beautifully.

Since I’m certainly at risk here of sounding like a cranky old woman, let me also note that I think these books would be excellent for young readers—the violence isn’t excessive or described in too much detail, the romance is very chaste, good & evil are very obvious, and the vocabulary shouldn’t be too taxing. (But do try to encourage them to read the good stuff like the books listed above once you have them hooked on reading—you’re never too young to read the good writing).

This is book number 235 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Taltos / Steven Brust

3.5 stars out of 5
Journey to the land of the dead. All expenses paid!

Not my idea of an ideal vacation, but this was work. After all, even an assassin has to earn a living.

The trouble is, everyone knows that a living human cannot walk the Paths of the Dead, and return, alive, to the land of men.

But being an Easterner is not exactly like being human, by Dragaeran standards anyway. Thus, the rule doesn't apply to me... I hope.

Another prequel, as we learn both how Vlad came to the be ruthless assassin that he is and how he got involved in/survived one of his old war stories. Brust must not have figured out yet how to move on after book 3, in which Vlad and his wife, Cawti, find themselves in conflict over a resistance movement.

A return to the past gives us the old Vladimir, who is cheerfully amoral and who only experiences twinges of conscience from time to time. The wise-cracking Loiosh (his familiar, a flying lizard) provides some comic relief, as do Vlad’s wry comments. I am sure that Brust must have been familiar with Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series—he created another charismatic criminal in Vlad, though maybe not quite so conscience-free as Slippery Jim DiGriz. Giving Vlad magical talents was an inspired addition.

Because there are two stories involved, there is a fair bit of shifting back and forth between the two. This can be a bit confusing until you get into the rhythm of it. Once you are aware of what to expect, things go smoothly.

Series like this one foreshadow the snarky, smart-cracking main characters that I currently enjoy in urban fantasy. Vlad’s weakness (teleportation makes him nauseous) humanizes him a bit. He also builds a group of people around himself—perhaps not friends, but at least co-operative allies. Those are perhaps some of the reasons why Vlad’s stories appeal to me as much as they do.  I can see Vlad as the predecessor of characters like Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files) and Atticus O'Sullivan (The Iron Druid).

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood

4.5 stars out of 5
Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and will be the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing and her sense of humour. I also really enjoy Shakespeare’s works—in fact, I’m working on a project of seeing all 37 of his plays performed. So this modern retelling of The Tempest was right up my alley.

Felix (Atwood’s Propero) is reduced from the avant-garde theatre director of the Makeshiweg Festival to an older guy living in a hovel in the countryside. Maybe not quite as dramatic as being a deposed Duke, but these changes never feel good. Felix takes a number of years to come to terms with the loss of the job that he had derived most of his identity from, tacked on to earlier tragedies which deprived him of his wife and daughter, Miranda. Eventually, we see him take his talents to a correctional facility to teach literacy and theatre arts to prisoners. [Atwood seems to be using some of her research from The Heart Goes Last and using a prison setting again]. Felix is surprised to find that he enjoys the work and that the inmates seem to benefit from it too.

And then the opportunity for revenge presents itself! As I knew it had to, to mirror the original work. I also was aware that The Tempest isn’t the most logical or sensible of plot lines—there’s a lot of magic and mayhem. The revenge plot in Atwood’s version is also highly unlikely—that’s the main reason for my deduction of half a star from my rating, but I’m dithering about whether that’s even fair, given the unlikelihood of the events in the original. But somehow, Atwood makes it work quite well, getting everyone appropriately punished, restored, and/or married, just as Shakespeare did.

Bonus points for Felix only allowing his students to swear in Shakespearean form—they must scour the play for the swear words and use only those while in the class space! [I notice that Atwood lists a Shakespearean insult generator as a source in her bibliography]. And for all the ways that Felix makes The Tempest more palatable to the men with useful reinterpretations.

For those who are interested in seeing the prison system from the inside, I would recommend Stephen Reid’s brutally beautiful memoir A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, which was also in Atwood’s bibliography.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

One Wild Bird at a Time / Bernd Heinrich

3 out of 5 stars
In his modern classics One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich has written memorably about his relationships with wild ravens and a great horned owl.   In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next?   Heinrich “looks closely, with his trademark ‘hands-and-knees science’ at its most engaging, [delivering] what can only be called psychological marvels of knowing” (Boston Globe).   An eminent biologist shares the joys of bird-watching and how observing the anomalous behaviors of individual birds has guided his research.

If you are a back yard bird watcher who keeps a nature journal, you might well take inspiration from Bernd Heinrich. He takes it a step further than most of us would, I suspect, because of his background as a biology professor. For instance, I don’t know how many people would be willing to thaw, count, and examine grouse scat in order to prove a theory!

The writing certainly reminded me that the author has an academic background. It is not as stiff as a professional paper, but neither is it as conversational as I would prefer for such a work. Having said that, it is inspirational in the level of observation and effort that Heinrich was willing to put into his record. A birder doesn’t have to travel to the far-flung places on the map in order to have a satisfactory birding life—looking deep into the world just outside the window has its rewards. His illustrations are admirable (much superior to anything in my field notebook) although certainly not up to field guide quality, encouraging to those of us who will never be professional artists.

I would imagine that this book would have a limited audience of those who are devoted birders or nature enthusiasts, but I think such people would find it a worthwhile read. Definitely an stimulus to me to spend more time in the outdoors and in the environments right around my own city and to take more time to watch each bird and its behaviour.

A Court of Thorns and Roses / Sarah J. Maas

3.5 out of 5 stars
When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she's been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

This story is an interesting mash-up of a couple older stories—there are elements of Beauty & the Beast plus the old Tam Lin fairy tale. Please don’t go into this expecting anything too complex! I read it while stranded at home with a throat infection and it was the perfect antidote, easy to follow (or swallow?).

The first part of the tale, Feyre’s abduction & captivity in fairy lands, is very much a Beauty & the Beast tale, as she gets to know Tamlin and realizes that he is not the brute that she has anticipated. Once that is achieved, she is ready to take on the semi-impossible tasks that are set for her by the Queen, as in the old Tam Lin story. Feyre is very much a Mary Sue character, the strong one who has taken care of her mortal family, taught herself to hunt and to paint. That she could immediately paint well enough to impress the magically talented fae was pretty difficult to believe.

I did find that the heroine, Feyre, changed rather easily, suddenly, and conveniently. I enjoyed the tale despite that, but then I have a definite soft spot for the world of Fairy. Just once, however, I would like it if the big bad enemy could be a Fairy King instead of an evil Fairy Queen.

I’m surprised at the maturity of the themes explored in a young adult novel—it had been my impression that they didn’t usually explore sexuality explicitly, which Roses & Thorns definitely does. I am also left wondering at the ending and where there is left for the author to go with this tale. But, there seem to be 6 books planned in the series, so I will check out A Court of Mist and Fury in the near future to see what Tamlin and Feyre get up to next.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Magic Shifts / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
After breaking from life with the Pack, mercenary Kate Daniels and her mate—former Beast Lord Curran Lennart—are adjusting to a very different pace. While they’re thrilled to escape all the infighting, Curran misses the constant challenges of leading the shapeshifters.

So when the Pack offers him its stake in the Mercenary Guild, Curran seizes the opportunity—too bad the Guild wants nothing to do with him and Kate. Luckily, as a veteran merc, Kate can take over any of the Guild’s unfinished jobs in order to bring in money and build their reputation. But what Kate and Curran don’t realize is that the odd jobs they’ve been working are all connected.

An ancient enemy has arisen, and Kate and Curran are the only ones who can stop it—before it takes their city apart piece by piece…

Another enjoyable installment in the Kate Daniels series and I am now caught up to the latest volume that my library has. Magic Binds is still ‘on order’ and I’m tenth in line for when it arrives & gets processed. Yay!

I’m enjoying the new mythologies being used, in line with Kate’s discovery of her Middle Eastern heritage and how the authors are incorporating creatures from previous books (ghouls) into their new framework.

In many ways, this story should have been over in the last book, but after that Star Wars-esque “I am your father” moment in Magic Breaks, how could we not want to know how Kate’s relationship with her god-like father would go? Just like all the rest of us, she gets occasionally cornered into doing things that she doesn’t actually want to do (dinner at Applebee’s, anyone?) and despite her protests, there is father-like interference.

I enjoyed the running gag through the book of random people telling Kate how obnoxious the Beast Lord is, always when she had Curran in tow. The humour in the series is one of the huge pluses for me. I also enjoyed seeing an equal relationship between Kate & Curran and getting a glimpse into what is happening in the Pack that they have left behind. Most entertaining!

I am almost sorry to be caught up on this series—I’m going to be waiting impatiently for the as-yet-untitled number 10 sometime in 2017.

The Player of Games / Iain M. Banks

4 out of 5 stars
The Culture--a humanoid/machine symbiotic society--has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel & incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.

First, let me say how much I want to live in The Culture! Where even some of the machine drones go bird watching! I really enjoyed Consider Phelbas earlier this year and I liked The Player of Games even more.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh (Gurgeh to most people) is well known in The Culture for his game playing abilities—there isn’t a game of strategy that he doesn’t excel at and he’s spent his life either playing the games or writing about them (and other game players). This is totally foreign to me, as I avoid almost all games as often as I can—I don’t find them fun, I find them boring. Why would I spend my valuable time on something that produces no real effect in my world? That’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about The Culture—people have unlimited time for anything that catches their fancy.

The interesting thing about the beginning of the book is that Gurgeh has started to share my boredom with the game playing scene. His ennui is palpable during the first pages, as he realizes that he’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt. This is how he gets tempted to try the official game of the Empire of Azad, a non-Culture society, a game with real-life consequences because the winner becomes Emperor. Gurgeh re-discovers his enthusiasm as he wades into the fray—adrenaline & testosterone seem to be the spices that wake him up from his torpor. But is the famous game player being played?

A teensy bit predictable, but a very enjoyable journey to get to that ending. Banks tends to wrap things up more neatly that I care for—I prefer a more ambiguous ending—but as I say, the drama on the journey makes up for that. I look forward to Use of Weapons sometime in 2017!

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Eyes of the Dragon / Stephen King

3 out of 5 stars
Once upon a time - there was terror and dragons and princes... evil wizards and dark dungeons... and an enchanted castle and a terrible secret. With this enthralling masterpiece of magical evil and daring adventure, Stephen King takes you in his icy grip and leads you into the most shivery and irresistible kingdom of wickedness... The Eyes of the Dragon.

 This seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate—how strange to find myself right in the middle! I’ve never been one of King’s Constant Readers and have only read a few of his books over the last number of years. This one is written very much in the form of a fairy tale and is dedicated to his daughter, who may have heard the first versions of it as bedtime material? I was disappointed that the dragon of the title was only a mounted head on the wall—live dragons are much more entertaining.

King recycles some material here—anyone who has read The Stand will recognize the villain, Flagg. There is also some overlap with the Dark Tower series.

I found The Stand to be a very black & white tale, with very little nuance. The Eyes of the Dragon takes that to a whole new level, despite the fact that King tries very hard to convince us that Thomas isn’t as bad as he seems. However, that is the nature of fairy tales, so it fits in this case.

I chose to read TEotD because it was on the NPR’s list of Science Fiction & Fantasy finalists back in 2011 (they were asking people of vote on the top titles in the field). Other children’s books were omitted from the list (e.g. Harry Potter) so I’m not sure how this one squeaked through to be included.

It is the 232nd book that I have read from this NPR list.