2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

The Trouble with Tropes

If you are a writer worth your salt, one of the cardinal rules you must follow is to make sure you follow the submission guidelines of the publications in which you hope to be published.

Mainly these are fairly prosaic: guidelines about line spacing, font preferred, word count, type of file to send, etc.

But often I will see other recommendations, not so much about the nuts and bolts but more about the meat and bones of the story. These are equally as important to pay attention to, if you want to give your work any kind of chance at all.

Often these will mention avoiding tropes. Tropes, according to Wikipedia, are “commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative work.”

Every genre has its own tropes. Think of the hardboiled detective in mystery novels, or the swashbuckling hero in romances. Fantasy is no exception. There are many of these tropes, but just to give you an idea, here is some of the advice given to hopeful writers from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly:

Witty banter usually isn’t.

Stories that start in an inn are usually out.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn.

Ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious individual who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire).

Double ditto for stories that start with a group of strangers meeting at an inn and being hired to do a job by a mysterious man who is clearly a sorcerer (or vampire, or sorcerer/vampire) who then turns on the very adventurers he/she/it hired only to be thwarted by the one dwarf in the party.  In fact, toss us a dwarf curveball.  So far we’ve never seen a story with a dwarf character where that character doesn’t kick ass from beginning to end.

We are not all that interested in stories with vampires.  We feel much the same re: zombies.

Neither are we terribly keen on pirates; just remove that word and your odds go up.

There’s more, but you get the drift. (Let us all spare a moment of sympathy for editors everywhere, who have to sort through piles of drivel in order to strike gold, and who,in most cases, are doing this just for the sheer love of stories, with not a coin exchanged in compensation.)

A few of the fantasy tropes are listed here, such as the inn as meeting place, the overuse of sorcerers/vampires/zombies, the hard-as-nails dwarf. Once you start thinking about it,  if you have read any fantasy at all, you will be able to come up with quite a few more. How about:

The orphan whose mysterious past vaults him into the role of hero, sometimes (often) reluctantly. Chosen One, anyone?

The peaceful, nature loving, mysterious elves; the grumpy dwarves; the terrifying orcs/monsters; the wise wizard/mentor. 

The quest for the sacred sword/jewel/manuscript/whatever. 

The evil Empire. 

Fake-medieval Europe/England setting. 

Weird names with apostrophes. Tal’c or Ryl’d or Sh’one or whatever. (I first encountered this in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, and there, the Dragonriders were given a new name that was a shorter form of their original name, as a form of honorific that denoted they had become Dragonriders. Fair enough. But I see this so often now, and often for no reason except that it looks exotic.)

One evil twin, one good twin, separated at birth. 

The school for youngsters where they learn how to use magic.

Villain is hero’s father. 

I could go on, and likely you could think of many more.

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The scantily clad, ferocious warrior-chick is a fantasy trope I’m more than happy to say good-bye to!

It’s a bit terrifying as a writer, to be honest. How do you avoid all these clichés? They are so ingrained in our collective well of story-telling that often you find yourself using them, even though you are trying to be original.

The good news is, you don’t have to, at least, not entirely. It is true that it is easy to fall into the trope-trap, and if your story has too many of these, it is likely not going to be published. However, there are plenty of excellent stories and books being published today in which you can find more than one of these tropes and yet they still feel fresh, exciting, and original.

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“An elf, a wizard, and a giant walked into an inn…” (Horsemen and Travellers Outside an Inn, by Pieter van Os, on Wikicommons. )

Take The Name of the Wind, by Pathrick Rothfuss, for example. That book is full of standard fantasy tropes including the orphaned hero, the school for magic-learning, the vaguely medieval setting. And it even starts in an inn!  But Rothfuss takes these tropes and, through the power of strong storytelling and beautiful prose, creates a compelling and original book.

Of course, George Lucas famously studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and used it as the basis of his Star Wars movie. Which of course became a cultural force to be reckoned with (pun intended!).

So tropes aren’t necessarily bad. Including them in a story isn’t necessarily lazy storytelling. In fact, in some cases such as The Name of the Wind, or Star Wars, readers and movie-goers have rewarded the storytellers who use them in their works.

Why? Perhaps it’s because there is something about the hero’s journey (embodied in many of the tropes) that speaks to us on a deep and subconscious level, something that resonates with the story of the backwater nobody who becomes the hero, the forgotten prince who arrives on the scene to rescue his people, the group of friends who band together and conquer the evil in their world.

The great Christian writer and philosopher, C.S. Lewis,  would explain this resonance by saying that there are deeper truths hinted at by the hero’s journey. In other words, we long to be rescued, and stories allows us to vicariously fulfill that longing, which is why they are told over and over again and continue to be popular. Lewis would say that the  story of the prince who came to rescue his enslaved people is the true story which is the foundation of all the hero stories, and it is the story that is told over and over again in the Bible, culminating in the final telling of the story of the life of Jesus.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. Half the battle is being aware of them, and the other half is using them sparingly and wisely.

So let your wizard wander into an inn. Carefully.

 

Featured image: The Wizard, by Sean McGrath, on Wikicommons

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

I’m not exactly going in order through Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2017 Reading Challenge. Last month I did the first one (a book I read because I liked the cover), but this month I skipped ahead, to the second-last one in the list: a book I was excited to buy or borrow but haven’t read yet. 

This was surprisingly easy, given the backlog of books by my bed and on my Kindle. I decided to read The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. I bought this book last year, when it was available as a Kindle deal – in fact I think I might have got it for free. I’ve heard lots of good things about this 2014 fantasy novel, and I was quite happy to give myself permission to read it, finally!

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Yes, this is also a book I would read because of the cover! 

 

Kelsea Gwynn is a nineteen year old princess whose mother, the former queen of the Tearling, is dead. Kelsea has been living in an isolated forest home, raised by two guardians who have kept her hidden from those who would harm her, in particular, the Red Queen of the rival kingdom of Montmesne, who is a witch who has lived longer than she should and has ruled over Montmesne for over one hundred years.  But her time of isolation is over, and the book opens with the Queen’s Guards coming to escort her to the capital, where she will be crowned as Queen.

Kelsea is not your average fairy-tale princess. She is overweight, and plain. But she has spent a lot of time reading during her time of exile, and she is smart and compassionate. Her journey to the capital is fraught with danger, for her Uncle who is Regent is not exactly thrilled to give up the throne, and the Red Queen wants her out of the way as well.

The young queen must prove herself at every turn, to her hardened guards, her advisers, and most importantly, to herself. She struggles with doing the right thing, because she is often unaware of what that might be, just like in real life. And there is much that is hidden from her, including important details about her mother, whose memory she idolizes. No one knows who her father is, and it is hinted that this is a vital piece of information, especially to the Red Queen.

There is some magic in this book, but not a lot. Kelsea has a blue stone that she wears around her neck, given to her as an infant, which is one of the ways the Guards know that she is, indeed, the princess they seek. This stone gives her prophetic dreams and superhuman strength at times, but Kelsea is unsure how it works.

Most of the book is about Kelsea settling into her role as Queen, and trying to prepare for the war with Montmesne that she knows is coming, due to the fact that her first act as Queen is to stop the shipping of slaves from Tearling to Montmesne.

I enjoyed this book, with some very large reservations:

The setting. As the book begins you assume this is a medieval-type fantasy, set in an alternate world, as the people ride horses and don’t have electricity or any modern conveniences. But soon you find out that this book is set on Earth, in the future, after some kind of disaster that prompted William Tearling to set off in a boat with a bunch of survivors, discovering this heretofore undiscovered continent. Right. In fact this premise was so obviously bad that I kept giving the author the benefit of the doubt, and pretty much convinced myself that the “ship” must have been a spaceship, and that this was a new planet. But alas, nope. Somehow with all our satellites and images of the Earth from space, we have totally missed a continent. Huh? This was more than annoying to me, and every time the Crossing was mentioned, or the fact that they used to have this or that technology, or mentions of Harry Potter (!), it totally threw me out of the story. Which is a bad thing. I just don’t understand why keeping the setting as Earth was necessary to the story, when it would have been much better set on a different world altogether.

The magic system. As I said, there is a little bit of magic in the book, but given that this is supposed to be Earth in the future, well, how? None of that is explained. Kelsea has her stones that give her some powers, and the Red Queen has done some kind of deal with the Devil (or the Dark Thing as it is called in the book) and one supposes that is why she has some magic powers, but it’s all very nebulous.

Bashing of religion. I’ve said this before, but I get tired of books that portray religion and religious people as Bad or Stupid. Here are some quotes from the book:

“(…) If you can tolerate my arguments, you’re free to minister to or convert any other occupant of this Keep, not excepting the pigs and chickens.”

***

“You make sport of my religion, Lady,” (…)

“I make sport of all things inconsistent, Father.”

***

Andalie pursed her lips (…), “I’m not a religious woman, Lady. I’m sorry if it pains you, but I believe in no god, and even less do I believe in any church.”

***

“How do you expect anyone to believe in your God in these times?”

“I believe in my God, Majesty.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

Okay, we get it.  Enough already. Obviously the author has bought into the cultural narrative that religion, and in particular, the Christian religion, is Bad. In particular, the Catholic Church, as this is the only religion that is portrayed. What happened to all the other denominations and all the other faiths isn’t explained. Another problem with setting this book on a futuristic Earth.

What audience is this for, anyway? I thought this book was  an adult fantasy, when I first started reading it.  But given that the main character is nineteen, and the story line seemed to be about her transition from child to adult, I began to think that perhaps this was meant to be a Young Adult book.   However, there are some pretty sexual themes and scenes in this book, and some strong language, mainly in the scenes with the Red Queen, who likes to have sex with her slaves to alleviate her frustration at not being able to find Kelsea, and tortures them as well when they displease her. And she uses them as a sacrifice to the Dark Thing. So a little too intense for Young Adult,  I would say. I found it a bit jarring, as the lack of strong world-building and the focus at times on Kelsea’s appearance and her unrequited attraction to the charming rogue, the Fetch, seemed pretty YA territory to me, which was interspersed with scenes featuring the  sad0-masochistic Red Queen. It seemed like Johansen was trying to write to two different audiences.

The villain. Kelsea has a bit of a set-to with her uncle, but he is quickly dealt with (and left to go high-tailing to the Red Queen, which doesn’t seem like a great idea), but aside from that, the danger comes from the Red Queen, and it’s a very far-off danger. The two don’t even meet in the book, although Kelsea has vague dreams of her (and vice-versa). We see the Red Queen’s obsession with Kelsea, but we are not sure why, other than Kelsea is Queen of a rival kingdom that under the Regent had been subjected to Montmesne. It’s all a little too unfocused and unclear for me, and even though I was interested in Kelsea’s growth as a person and as a Queen, I would have liked to have seen more about this conflict in the book.I suppose the fact that this is the first book in a series has something to do with that. Presumably the conflict between Kelsea and the Red Queen will intensify.  But we still need some conflict in this book, and I don’t see it. The Regent Uncle, although nasty, is taken off the scene early, and the Red Queen is a remote threat. And while we are on the subject of the Red Queen, this is how she is described:

No one knew who she was, or where she had come from, but she had become a powerful monarch, presiding over a long and bloody reign…

Hmm. No one knew who she was or where she had come from? Really. Presumably she had at least come off the ship with the rest, hadn’t she? And for that matter, if there was a previously undiscovered continent on Earth, were there people there, or not? Maybe the Red Queen was the only remaining person of the Lost Tribe on the Lost Continent? Which, for all the problems with that premise, is at least more interesting than the above description.

I have heard this book compared to The Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones. I’m not sure why, to tell you the truth. I didn’t particularly like The Hunger Games, but the story and the world-building was much more compelling than what I found in the  Queen of the Tearling. And while Johansen is a competent writer, she has nowhere near the skill of George R. R. Martin, never mind that the political machinations in Tearling are not nearly as compelling as those in Westeros.

So, I’m a bit conflicted about this one. It held my attention, and I liked the fact that the heroine was not your typical beautiful, svelte princess. I really wanted to love it. But the confusing setting and the lack of real conflict was a big drawback. This is the first book in the series, so perhaps it gets better in subsequent books, now that the scene is set and the characters are in place. Maybe. But I’m not sure I liked this one enough to pick up the next ones.

Emma Watson is set to play Kelsea in the upcoming movie based on the book (unattractive and frumpy she is NOT, but oh well). Maybe the movie will fix some of the obvious plot holes. We can only hope.

My rating: three stars.

Dragons and Wryms and Wyverns….

One of the most enduring creatures of myth, legend, and fantasy is that of the dragon, a great fire-breathing serpent with wings. At least that is how most of us from the Western tradition think of a dragon.

When you look into the history of this legend, though, you will see that stories of these creatures permeate many cultures, and although similar, they are not all the same.

The stories of dragons go back a long time. Satan is described as “a great dragon” in the Biblical book of Revelation, and dragons appear in Greek and Roman legends as well. The word “dragon” comes from the Latin, draco, which comes from the Greek word drakon.

The Hellenistic and Roman dragons are more serpentine than our familiar lizard-like dragons. They often have a poisonous bite, and may or may not have legs, or the capability to breath fire.

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This beautiful Greek dragon mosaic comes from the 3rd century A.D., and was found in southern Italy in an area where there were many Greek settlers. Photo from Wikicommons

The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts of 7th century Britain certainly had their dragon legends, told around the fire on a cold winter’s night, no doubt. A dragon appears in the marvellous poem Beowulf, and it is in fact a dragon that finally kills Beowulf himself. In the poem, a slave steals a jewelled cup from a dragon’s lair, awakening the beast, who goes on a rampage of destruction, prompting Beowulf to gather some men to go kill it.

So the king of the Geats [i.e. Beowulf]
raised his hand and struck hard
at the enamelled scales, but scarcely cut through:
the blade flashed and slashed yet the blow
was far less powerful than the hard-pressed king
had need of at that moment. The mound-keeper
went into a spasm and spouted deadly flames:
when he felt the stroke, battle-fire
billowed and spewed. (2575-2583)

There are many familiar dragon-elements in this story: the treasure, the scales, the breath of fire, and the fact the dragon lives underground, in a mound.

Beowulf is the first mention of a heroic dragon-slayer in English literature, but he is certainly not the last.* In fact, St. George, the patron saint of England, famously slew a dragon to rescue a doomed princess, given as a sacrifice to appease the creature. And this motif appeared many times in the centuries to follow. What would King Arthur’s knights have done with themselves if they hadn’t had lots of princesses to rescue from lots of dragons?

Speaking of Arthurian legend, the dragon on the Welsh flag is said to refer to the legend of Merlin where he saw a vision of a red dragon, representing Britain, fighting a white dragon, which represented the Saxon invaders.

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I happily claim Welsh heritage. This flag was a familiar one in my childhood home, as my mother was born there. Photo from Wikicommons.

Dragons were called wyrm in Saxon legends as well as draco. Wyrm means worm, and it indicates both the earth-dwelling nature and the snake-like appearance of the creature.

Around the seventeenth century another dragon-like creature appeared in legend, that of the wyvern. This is similar to a dragon but with two legs instead of four, and often are portrayed as as smaller and less intelligent than dragons, at least in more modern-day interpretations.

In all of the depictions of dragons in the European continent, they are generally viewed as evil creatures, greedy and bestial. But another important source of dragon legends comes from the Far East. Dragons there are seen as bringing good luck and prosperity. They also can be shape-shifters. They do not have wings, but can fly using magic means. They start out as water-serpents, and eventually change into dragons, with scales. This is just a brief sketch of the typical Eastern dragon – there is lots of information about them if you want to spend a fascinating afternoon searching the web!

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This is the flag of the Qing dynasty (1889-1912), showing a typical Chinese dragon. Photo from Wikicommons. 

Dragons are a staple of fantasy literature. At the beginning, dragons generally were portrayed in stories as evil, mirroring the myths they were based on. Tolkien’s Smaug was a deliberate nod to Beowulf’s dragon, and many others followed suit.

But interestingly enough, dragons have undergone a bit of an evolution in fantasy stories. I believe Anne McCaffrey started this trend in modern times, with her fantastic Dragonriders of Pern series, the first of which, Dragonflight, was published in 1968.. Her Pern dragons were intelligent, sensitive creatures who bonded telepathically with their riders, becoming their constant companions and partners for life. They used their fire-breathing capabilities to flame the deadly Thread which rained down on Pern every few years, causing massive destruction if it wasn’t destroyed before it hit the ground.

 

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This was the first Pern story I read, in the 1980s, and oh, how I love it! The concept of the dragons is fantastic, but not only that, it features a strong female protagonist, which I hadn’t seen much of in fantasy literature up to that point. 

These books are treasures, and if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. Naomi Novik’s popular Temeraire series, beginning with Her Majesty’s Dragon, owes a huge nod to Pern. Novik’s dragons are similar to the Pern dragons, and their riders also share a special bond with them. Novik plays on the differences between European dragons and Asian dragons in her series too, which is fun.

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The Napoleonic Wars with dragons. ‘Nuff said. Read it. 

Thankfully, stories about dragons aren’t going away soon. I often wonder if these stories, which go back so very far in human history, have some basis in reality. Some speculate they stem from snakes that spit poisonous venom, or pterodactyls that survived the dinosaur extinction, or Komodo dragons. I don’t know. These myths are so ancient, I’d like to think they are pointing back to a deeper reality than we can even imagine. Maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll find out that dragons actually existed.**

Wouldn’t that be cool?  (Or hot, I suppose.)


*If you want to see an epic clip of Beowulf fighting the dragon from the 2007 movie Beowulf, click here.

**The cautionary note to that wish is found in the 2002 movie, Reign of Fire.

Featured image by David REVOY, via Wikimedia commons.

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion.

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

 

Year of Important Books: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

So it’s come to this, the end of my Year of Important Books! Although I had a few times this year where I wasn’t exactly sure what book to read in a given month, my last book of the year I had decided right from the beginning. I wanted to end with The Lord of the Rings.

As I started it this month I realized that I would not be able to read all three books in December – there was just too much going on. So I ended up just reading the first of the trilogy.

It might seem strange to you that in this series of re-reading important books of my childhood that I chose this book and not The Hobbit. There is a simple reason for this, and that being that I actually discovered and read LOTR first, and once I read it I went looking for other books by Tolkien and found The Hobbit.

John Ronald Rauel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892, where his father, Arthur, a bank manager in England, had been promoted to the head of the bank in Bloemfontein. He lived in South Africa with his family, which included his younger brother Hilary and his mother Mabel, until he was three, when he and his mother and brother went to England for an extended family visit. While they were there, his father died of rheumatic fever in South Africa and they stayed in England.

At an early age Ronald, as he was known in the family, was interested in languages, reading and writing. He was a keen pupil, from all accounts. His mother converted to Catholicism when Ronald was 8, and he remained a devoted Catholic for all of his life. When Ronald was 12 his mother died at the age of 34 from the complications of diabetes. She had arranged previously that her sons would go live with her close friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, as their guardian, and Tolkien remained grateful to Fr. Francis’ influence on his life ever after, seeing him as the father figure he had missed.

Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, in 1913, and in 1914 when war broke out he did not immediately enlist, to the vast disapproval of his relatives, but instead delayed enlistment as long as he could until 1915 by entering an agreement which allowed him to complete his degree first.

Tolkien did not have a particularly robust constitution, it seems, for he was sickly on and off during his war service and was eventually declared unfit for regular duties and was given garrison duties for the latter part of the war. This likely saved his life, for as he said, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

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J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, in the midst of his war duties, when he was 24. His eyes look a bit haunted, don’t they? Photo from Wikicommons.

After the war Tolkien continue his work in languages, notably Anglo-Saxon, and eventually ended up in Oxford in 1925 as a professor of Anglo-Saxon. It was during this time at Pembroke College in Oxford that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it was complete, nearly a decade after he began it. LOTR was published in 1954, and it has since become of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Fantasy books are standard fare for children’s stories, but LOTR brought fantasy popularity as a  genre for adult books as well. Not that there weren’t adult fantasy books before its publication, but the success of LOTR certainly legitimized the genre and inspired many, many writers to try their hand at it.

I can remember reading LOTR for the first time and falling under its spell from the very beginning. Here was a book that included the fantastical elements I had loved so much in my books as a child, but they were brought in to a complex, grown-up story. And thus began my life-long love of the fantasy genre and inspired my own desire to write my own. LOTR became one of those books that I re-read every couple of years, although I admit that it has been far too long since the last time I picked it up. It was so nice to revisit it again this month.

One thing that struck me anew as I re-read Fellowship was Tolkien’s masterful world-building. There are reams of words written about how he built his Middle -Earth and the extensive time he spent on its history, languages, and culture. I won’t go into all that here, but suffice to say, it works. You know there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this world, and that we are just seeing a small slice that begins in the hobbits’ sheltered Shire and gradually expands as we journey along with Frodo on his quest, and it is a great deal of fun to discover this world along with him.

Tolkien paints a rich an full picture of Middle -Earth, using some lovely lyrical language. For example, as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leave the Old Forest after their sojourn there with Tom Bombadil, they pause for a moment to to get their bearings:

“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.” 

That sentence, all on its own, makes me want to be a better writer.

The story that Tolkien gives us is an adventure tale, with a small and ordinary hobbit from the back waters of the Shire suddenly presented with an onerous task and even worse, the ultimate responsibility to carry it out: to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the heart of Mordor.

One of the beautiful pictures Tolkien paints in this book is the importance of friendship to help us carry our burdens, big and small. Frodo is not alone in his quest. Fellow hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin accompany him from the Shire; Gandalf gives him instruction and help along the way; the mysterious Ranger, Strider, joins their company at the opportune time; and of course once they get to Rivendell the elf lord, Elrond, gives Frodo eight companions to share the journey with him.

Tolkien, himself, had a band of companions which greatly helped him not only in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but who journeyed through life with him as well. The “Inklings”were a band of like-minded friends and writers at Oxford who met regularly to discuss their works-in-progress and to share a pint and great conversation at the Eagle an Child pub in Oxford. C.S. Lewis, a fellow Oxford don, was a member of this group (he famously nicknamed the pub “The Bird and Baby”), as was Charles Williams. The value of this group to both C.S. Lewis and to Tolkien’s writings cannot be underestimated, and its influence upon Tolkien’s view on the importance of having a group of friends behind you in any great venture can only be guessed at.

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The Eagle and Child in Oxford. Wouldn’t you love to have had a chance to overhear some of the conversations that took place here?

Another theme that runs throughout  Fellowship is the idea that small people can do great things too, and in fact may, in the end, be better suited for those great things. Elrond sums this up during the Council when they are deciding what should be done with the One Ring:

“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” 

From all accounts Tolkien came out from his war experiences with a profound appreciation for the men under his command: the ordinary, enlisted men from the agricultural counties of England. It is possibly this real-life experience that brought him the understanding that it is not always “great” men who do the great deeds. But  however he came to see this, it is this portrayal of unsung hereoes like Frodo and especially Sam, that gives The Fellowship of the Rings, and indeed the whole LOTR saga, its heart.

I wish I had the time to read the other two books of the trilogy this month, but I was very glad to at least get the chance to read the first one. It was a fitting end  to my Year of Important Books, for it provided me a bridge from my well-loved childhood classics to the more mature books of adulthood. This book cemented in me my life-long love of fantasy, and showed me that these tales of heroes, dragons,wizards and elves need not stay as nursery stories, but could be told to adults as well. 

Speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin summarized Tolkien’s views on fantasy stories this way:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

I’m sure I speak for many of you when I give my hearty thanks to J. R. R Tolkien, for taking us all with him in his escape to Middle-Earth

Book Bingo: Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers

Quite awhile back I announced I would try to do a Book Bingo this year. I have failed miserably at it so far. And seeing as there are only four months left in the year, I’m under the gun, so to speak (or is that, under the B?).

Just as a quick reminder, I have set myself the challenge of filling in the middle row of the following Bingo card:

 

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It’s not like I haven’t done anything. I have read a short story collection by Canadian Tom Simon.  I will put up my review of that book sometime in the next month or so. Then I got distracted and well, forgot.

But I recently got renewed in my search for books to fill my card, because I read an absolutely spectacular book about by a Canadian author, and I realized it would fit as part of my Book Bingo! The book is Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers, and it was published by ChiZine Publishing in 2012. So, I now have two books that will fit on this card.And they are in the same line, under the “G”.  I’m on a roll!

It’s funny how some books come into your life. Most of the books I have read have been books I have chosen. Some of the rest are gifts, some are recommendations by friends, some are books read for my Book Club. But a few arrive in your life by magical means, maybe as a BookCrossing book, a book left behind on a bus, or won in a door prize.

This is one of these magical books. While I was the When Words Collide festival in Calgary last summer, I visited the book store, of course. I didn’t buy anything, I had too much to read on my plate already, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding one more book to that pile. But as I was going through the room I saw, off to the side, a bunch of books on a table with a sign, “Take one free for an honest review.” I glanced at them but kept on going. No time, and all that.

But I passed that table again and my conscience got the best of me. After all, soon (I hope) I will be entering the Published Authors Club and it will be me looking for reviews on my book on Amazon and other book sites. I am beginning to understand the importance of reviews and so I decided I should do my duty to my fellow authors and so I scanned the books on the table. There were a few books offered, but this one caught my eye. First of all, because it was small, and not too long (240 pages). And I liked the cover. And once I picked it up to read the back cover and reviews, I began to get more interested.

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So, I popped it in my bag and took it home. It sat beside my bed for a few months until last month, when I (sigh) picked it up to read it in order to get it over with and stop my conscience from bothering me.

Well. I devoured this book. Not exactly devoured, I suppose, this book is too thought-provoking and emotional to use that word, but wow. Every ringing review on this book’s cover is true, and then some. I hurried over to Amazon and gladly gave it five stars.

Westlake Soul is the name of the main character of the book, a young man who has been horribly injured in a surfing accident, and is now in a vegetative state. At least that is what it looks like from the outside. He is unresponsive and unable to react to the world at large. But inside his mind, he is absolutely all there, and in fact the accident has given him some “superpowers” in the form of a greatly increased intelligence and the ability to project himself out of his body to anywhere he likes, like a form of astral projection.

Oh, and he can talk with his dog, Hub, which makes this already-marvellous book even that much better. Just for fun, here is the link to the youtube trailer for the book. I don’t like the surfer-dude voice, Westlake is Canadian, after all, but still, you get a small feel for the book. The music definitely fits the melancholy nature of the book and Westlake’s cool vibe, though.

Like all superheroes, Westlake has an arch-nemesis, Dr. Quietus, the embodiment of Death. Westlake has beaten him into a corner for now, but he’s lurking in the background, ready to do his mischief. And soon Westlake realizes that something bad is coming, and he had better be prepared…

This book is a wonderful reflection on big themes of life, death, friendship, family and humanity. Pretty big subjects, but Youers handles them deftly with sparse but lyrical prose. The book is told from Westlake’s point of view which helps to really immerse us into his world.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if Youers wasn’t inspired to write this book by the story of the “Ghost Boy” – the young Australian man who contracted a mysterious disorder which caused him to retreat into a vegetative state, but whose mind slowly returned, and due to his physical limitations could not communicate that to his family. There are similarities here to that heart-wrenching story, and the news of the “ghost boy” was being reported  in the couple of years before Westlake Soul was published.

But no matter how he got the idea, Youers has taken it and given us a beautiful book. It was nominated for a Sunburst Award in 2012 as one of Canada’s best speculative fiction books. I am amazed it didn’t win (if it did, it would have qualified for another square on my bingo card, heh). I’m really surprised I haven’t heard of this author, but like all Canadian authors, I’m sure he struggles to be heard over the  noise from our fellow writers to the south. The good news is he has a new book coming out in June 2017 with a major publisher (St. Thomas Press/Thomas Dunne Books) which I am looking forward to reading. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Forgotten Girl, and it looks really good! Hopefully he will start to get some recognition.

In the meantime, grab a copy of Westlake Soul and a box of kleenex (trust me, you will need it). As Hub would say, Dude, you have to read this book.