YOFR : Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

(Last week I fell behind, and missed posting this on Friday. And then things got even busier. But I’m back on track now, so this week, you get two blog posts!)


This month my Year of Fun Reading Challenge required me to read a book recommended by someone with great taste.

I don’t know about you, but I have a book guru in my life. Someone who I look to for book recommendations, because I know she shares the same love of reading and appreciation of a good book that I do. And we also are similar in that we read widely in book genres. She might have a few more romance-y type books than I do, and I might stray a little further down the science fiction/fantasy path than she will, but generally we both like to read widely, and have pretty high standards when it comes to quality of writing and plot development.

So when I was looking for a book to fulfill this challenge, I decided to read a book that my book guru recommended, that being Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011). This book has been out for a few years, and has been getting rave reviews from day one.  However, I was a little leery of it because it features a teen mastermind who basically saves the world, and I don’t particularly like Young Adult fiction, nor storylines about teen geniuses that save the world (Wesley Crusher anyone? Ugh.)*.

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So I had been avoiding this book, until my book guru told me she had read it and enjoyed it, and recommended that I give it a go.

What makes a good book, anyway? For me it’s a mix of great characters, a compelling story and high quality of writing. You can play around on the sliding scale of good to bad on any one of these qualities but essentially I need a book to have some of all of them for me to truly enjoy it.

Ready Player One hits the mark on all of them, I am thankful to say. My book guru was right. I did enjoy it!

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There are a lot of dystopian future novels out there, and Ready Player One fits firmly in that camp. A lot of those YA dystopian novels also feature some kind of love triangle (i.e. Hunger Games). Although there is a romance in this book, it’s not a love triangle, thankfully.

The story is set in a near-future America (2044), where due to global warming, an energy crisis, and economic collapse,  life is pretty dire indeed. The only relief from the bleakness of life is the virtual reality platform called OASIS where players can immerse themselves in another world (or worlds, technically) using specialized goggles, haptic gloves (to feel things) and body suits.

On his death, James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, reveals that he has hidden a very special Easter egg inside of OASIS, which, if found, will enable the winner to inherit his  fortune and ownership of OASIS. An Easter egg, if you don’t know, is a special hidden bonus in video games that gamers can find, which may or may not have anything to do with the game itself.  This sets off a global egg hunt (inside the virtual realities of OASIS), but the clues are so tricky enthusiasm wanes quickly and eventually, five years after the announcement, no one has deciphered the first clue and the only ones left searching for the egg are the die-hard dedicated gamers.

The protagonist, Wade Watts, who has given his avatar in the game the name of Parzival, is a young teen who lives in the “stacks”, basically a trailer home in which the trailers are stacked on top of each other. He is your typical geek, who spends far more time in the virtual world of OASIS than in the real world. He spends most of his time trying to figure out the first clue to the first stage of the hunt and in a eureka moment figures out that the first clue will lead him to a place on the virtual planet that his (virtual) school is on.

When he finds it, the announcement goes out on the game scoreboard, and the interest in the hunt is revived world-wide, as people realize that the announcement of the Easter egg was not just a joke that the OASIS founder, James Halliday, had perpetuated on the world. Parzival is immediately famous, and the eyes of the world are on him as he begins to work out the next clue.

Wade (Parzival) has two good friends in OASIS: Art3mis (a girl he has a crush on), and Aesch (pronounced like the letter “h”). Wade has never met these people in real life, he only knows them through their avatars in OASIS. He helps both of them get the first clue as well, and the three of them begin the task of trying to figure out the rest of the clues and get the prize. They, along with a couple of others from japan (Daito and Shoto) become the top five “gunters” (egg-hunters).

Complicating the search is the main antagonist, Nolan Sorrento, the head of Innovative Online Services (IOI), the worldwide Internet provider, who wants to find the egg in order to gain control of OASIS and monetize it. The IOI players are well-funded and have all the resources that the gunters could only dream of.

This is a well-written novel, with likeable, realistic characters. The plot is exciting and interesting. It was a great deal of fun to be immersed in this Easter egg hunt along with Parzival. Sorrento and IOI are ruthless, even resorting to murder to advance their progress in the game. OASIS itself is a fascinating place, with lots of worlds to explore and puzzles to solve.

The plot builds to a satisfying and exciting climax, allowing our hero to grow along the way and face down his nemesis in a way that fits seamlessly into the plot.

The best part of Ready Player One, however, is the fact that the whole novel is immersed in the pop culture of the 1980s. Halliday, the creator of OASIS, was a 1980s aficionado, so the clues to the hunt and the various puzzles and challenges the gunters have to solve, are all related to the 1980s somehow, including games of PacMan, nods to Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and movies such as Blade Runner and War Games, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail (yessssss!).

I graduated high school in 1980, so all of these references made the book that much more fun. I suspect they are part of the reason why this book has become so popular. It has even caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film adaptation of the novel is coming out in 2018. Which is fantastic. This is one of those books that is just begging to be made into a movie, and to have Spielberg at the helm is perfect for it.

Ready Player One is a good book, meeting or exceeding all of my requirements for book excellence.

Thanks, Book Guru. I owe you one!

My rating: 5 stars. Loved it.


*Fun Fact: Will Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is the narrator for the audiobook of Ready Player One.

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Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

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To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

YOFR: Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

This month’s category for the Year of Fun Reading Challenge was to read a book you don’t want to admit you’re dying to read. I was a bit stumped by that one, so I decided to tackle a different challenge off of the Reading for Growth list: a book that has more than 600 pages. The Way of Kings (published in 2010), by Brandon Sanderson, certainly fits that bill, with 1584 pages!

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I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time, so this gave me a good reason to dive in. I hoped that I would have more reading time to get this done, especially during my vacation. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we spent a lot of time walking around Montreal and Old Quebec City and visiting with friends in Ontario and I had hardly any time to read.  I had only made it to about half way through by three days before this review was to go live. Yikes!

So…I had to give up my end-of-month deadline and give myself some grace. Sorry I didn’t have anything up on the blog last week, things got a bit hectic and I just ran out of time.

Anyhow, September is here (!) and it’s a new start. Onward and upward! I’ve powered through and got the book done.

For those of you who don’t know, Brandon Sanderson is a mega-best seller fantasy author, who was picked by Robert Jordan’s widow and editor to finish the Wheel of Time series that was incomplete because of Jordan’s death. They picked him because they were very impressed with his first novel, Elantris, also an epic fantasy. Sanderson is a prolific writer, known for his long epic fantasy books,  but also writes shorter fantasy novels and novellas.

I have never read any of his books, but I really wanted to, as he writes the kinds of books I enjoy. He also is one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast, which has been really good for me as a writer.

An epic fantasy (some use the term “high fantasy” interchangeably)  is generally a fantasy book set in a world not our own, with a hero  who usually begins the story young and matures throughout the novel; has some kind of magical power or extraordinary ability;  has a mentor/teacher; and is fighting against some powerful “dark lord” or force. This is a swords and sorcery type book, often with a vaguely medieval-ish setting. Very much a traditional type of fantasy novel. Think Lord of the Rings and you are on target.

I love big books with a long, drawn-out story line. And Sanderson certainly delivers that in this book. This is a sprawling epic focussed on Kaladin, a young man from a backwater town who becomes a surgeon and then a warrior, a bit of a reluctant hero but a hero all the same.

I will admit, however, that I struggled at the beginning of this book. It’s been a long time since I read an epic fantasy, because I just don’t have as much time to read as I used to. And I found the beginning difficult to get into. It’s confusing because there are many point of view characters, and chapters that switch back and forth between characters, settings, and timelines. It’s hard to keep up. The chapters are all headed by seemingly random quotes from books that one supposes are part of the culture Sanderson is building for us, along with notes that comment on the quotes. But I couldn’t figure out what they had to do with anything or how it was supposed to enhance the story.

So until I got a handle on who was who and what they were doing, the story line was very disconnected and distracting for me, and I honestly had to plow through about a third of the book before I began to really get interested in it.

However, once I finally began to see how the characters were related to one another and to settle into the world that Sanderson built for us, the book started to take off for me.

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One of the cool drawings included in the book. One of the drawbacks of reading it on my Kindle was that I had a hard time seeing the details in these drawings, and the map was also too small to make out details. But a small price to pay for not having to lug a huge book around! Illustrations in the book, as well as the cover, are done by the talented Michael Whelan.

I had heard that one of the strengths of a Sanderson novel is the world-building, and I certainly saw that here. His world of Roshar is a detailed one, including many cultures and people-groups, all with varied religions and appearance. The world is scoured by highstorms, which shape the landscape and the flora and fauna that populate it, as well as the architecture and culture of the people who live there. The magic system is based on “stormlight”, a force that infuses gemstones during a highstorm. This stormlight can power mundane objects such as lights or more dramatic objects such as the Shardplate that only a few high-ranking soldiers wear, which make them much stronger and more agile than other men, along with the Shardblades that kill with merely a touch.

Kaladin begins the novel as a young darkeyed son of a small village’s surgeon, and through the course of the book we see him mature, eventually going against his father’s wishes and becoming a spearman in the army of a lighteyed noble (the lighteyes are the upper class of nobility), whom he had idolized as being honourable but in reality turns out far from it. He joins the army to protect his younger brother, who is soon killed through a callous decision of the lighteyed commander, and Kaladin finds himself becoming more and more disillusioned by the lighteyes who pretend to be honourable but in reality are not.

Kaladin eventually finds himself in the lowest of the low positions in the army, that of a bridgeman, who along with a crew of about thirty others are responsible for carrying and setting the heavy bridges that the armies cross over between high plateaus on the Shattered Plains, where a long, pointless war has been raging for over a decade.

Dalinar Kholin is a lighteyed commander who seeks to be the honourable man the ancient book, called The Way of Kings, encourages them to be, but faces betrayal both within and without, for he begins to have disturbing visions during every highstorm that puzzle him, causing him to question his sanity.

On a different continent, a young woman named Shallan is plotting to steal a device called a Soulcaster which enables the wearer to transform and shape objects, such as to cut stone in order to build a fortress or even to change rocks into food. Shallan needs the device to help her family restore their lost wealth, which her now dead father had mismanaged.

Sanderson’s characters are interesting. He resists the temptation to people his book with stock fantasy characters with one-dimensional personalities (although there is a little of that here and there. With so many characters it’s hard to avoid that all together). His main characters feel like real people, and he explores themes of power and honour, religion and faith, with more depth than I was expecting, which made the book all the more satisfying.

The Way of Kings consists of  one prelude, one prologue, 75 chapters, an epilogue and nine interludes (you see what I mean about finding it hard to get into?). The three characters above had the most space in the book, but there are three more main viewpoint characters and nine minor viewpoint characters who also get some of their story included.

So a lot going on in the book, suffice to say!

I enjoyed Way of Kings, once I got into it, but that initial part was pretty daunting to tell you the truth. I’m not sure that I would have kept going except for the fact that I knew I was going to be writing this review. However, I am glad I did. The story was a good one, and it reminded me why I enjoy epic fantasy. There’s something about getting totally immersed in a world and taking a long time to get to know the characters and watch them grow that is satisfying to me.

The Way of Kings  is the first of ten books in the Stormlight Archive series (!). Only one other has been released,  Words of Radiance, in 2014. Oathbringer, the third book, is to be released in November of 2017. I liked Kings well enough that I would definitely like to read the others. But seeing as they all clock in at over 1000 pages, I’ll have to pick my reading time carefully.

I often find that authors who try to write that many books in one series can get bogged down, with the latter books not being nearly as good as the first two or three (Game of Thrones, anyone….?) So it remains to be seen if Sanderson can buck that trend.

Maybe over Christmas I can read the second one? We’ll see…


My rating: 4 stars out of 5. Just because the beginning was a bit painful. But worth it to keep going!

 

YOFR: A Book of Any Genre That Addresses Current Events

This month I got more bang for my buck by choosing one book that would actually fit on both of the lists on the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. This month on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge (YOFR) I was supposed to read a book of any genre that addresses current events. But the book I chose, Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby, also would fit under the Reading for Growth Challenge, under this month’s category of a Genre I Usually Avoid, as it is science fiction. Although I can enjoy SF at times, it’s not one of my go-to genres.

However, Company Town is pretty soft science fiction, which is the way I like my SF, generally. So it’s not too far outside of my comfort zone.

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I picked this book for a number of reasons. First of all, in my quest to try to read more Canadian spec-fic authors (sparked by my verrry slow Book Bingo challenge from last year), this one, shortlisted for CBC’s 2017 Canada Reads competition, fit that bill. Secondly, it’s speculative fiction. Thirdly, it addresses current events.

Sort of. Company Town is set in the near future, in a town located off the east coast of Canada called New Arcadia which has been completely bought out and taken over by an oil company, whose rigs provide the main source of wealth in the town. In fact, the rig pretty much IS the town. The protagonist is Go-Jung Hwa, the only person in New Arcadia who does not have any bio-engineered enhancements, and that makes her difficult for others with enhancements to see. This, along with her expertise in self-defence, comes in handy in her job as a security guard, and she is hired to protect the son of the multi-billionaire owner of the oil company that owns the town.

This was all I knew about the book before I read it. I don’t like to know too much about a book going in, which sometimes is not the best strategy. You can see that from how often I have been surprised by a book being YA when I wasn’t expecting it. This one, thankfully, is not.

I picked it because I thought it was going to explore the oil industry, and where it might be going in the future.  I live in Alberta, where the oil industry is one of our major sources of income, and where there is considerable debate about its merits. I thought this book might address that in an interesting, fictional way.

Well, not so much. The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of the oil industry or our reliance on fossil fuels (which I admit I was rather glad about) but it does address other current issues such as the place of technology in our lives and where it might be leading us. That threw me for a loop, but once I realized it wasn’t really about the oil industry at all I readjusted and quit trying to find that thread in it. The casual acceptance of the bio-enhancements portrayed in the book was certainly food for thought, and frighteningly very plausible.

The book also speaks to the power of big corporations and their hold on ordinary people. The portrayal of both the oil company which holds all the purse strings in the town and is playing fast and loose with the truth of what it is actually developing under the water and the invasiveness of the bio-enhancements which people add to themselves to “keep up with the Jones'” has a lot to say about the power of greed, unbridled capitalism, and the effects of those on ordinary people who just want a job to go to and to be successful in their lives.

The book doesn’t hit you over the head with these themes, though, which I appreciate. It is basically set up as a murder mystery, with Hwa trying to solve some unsettling murders which all seem to be related to a threat faced by her teenaged charge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Ashby is a strong writer technically, and she had an interesting idea. I loved the Canadian setting, and the near-future, gritty,  cyber-punky feel to the book. I liked the main character for the most part. Even though she would definitely fall under the category of “warrior-chick” which I get so tired of, Ashby fleshed her out enough that she is interesting and relatable.

However I did struggle reading it at times. It always takes awhile to settle into the world of any fantasy or science fiction book, so I tried to ignore my niggling questions and confusion I felt at the beginning. But those questions kept popping up, and kept not being resolved, and it started to bug me the further into the book I got. The worst was the questions that surrounded Hwa. You learn early on that she has a “stain” on her face, and for some reason this makes her unsuitable for enhancements. I assume the author meant a port wine stain but wasn’t sure why this made her unsuitable, which wasn’t revealed until later when you realize her mother thought her ugly and unworthy of the expense of enhancement.

But along with the stain she has some kind of mysterious medical condition which causes seizures, and it seemed to be related to the stain on her face, or was it? Do port wine stains cause seizures? I didn’t think so but maybe they do? Or maybe this was unrelated to the stain but the way it was written made me think it was…and so you see I keep being confused about this point which kept throwing me out of the book.

The setting, the oil rig/town with the various towers was a bit unclear to me too. I had a hard time getting settled into the landscape of the book. Maybe it was just me.

I found the plot confusing at times, too. It’s basically a sci-fi murder mystery, which is fine. But there is also some romance thrown in, which is also fine, but her love interest, Daniel, seems a little too good to be true and their relationship is not really believable at times.

I think that qualifier, “at times” sums up the problems I was having with this book. It was uneven. Maybe trying to do too much? Some places the book snaps along, at others it meanders, trying to find its way. And at times Ashby resorts to stock characters to prop up plot failings, and it doesn’t work.

All these problems come into stark relief at the climax of the book, unfortunately.  I looked at the Goodreads reviews I saw others struggled with the ending too. I’m not exactly sure I understand the explanation of it all, to tell you the truth. It all felt a bit forced and out of left field.

So while I really wanted to love this book, I came away unsatisfied. It has potential, but I wish it had just a little more cohesion and a better ending.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Stellar idea and good writing, but plot needs work.

 

Year of Fun Reading: A Book About Books or Reading

June marks halfway through the year (!) and so I’m also halfway through my Year of Fun Reading Challenge. This month I was to read “a book about books or reading.” So in keeping with my take on this challenge, which is, as much as possible, to read books in each category that are speculative fiction, this month I read Ink and Bone: The Great Library #1, by Rachel Caine.

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One of the great sorrows in the world is that the great library compiled in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in 3 BC by Ptolemy I, the successor of Alexander the Great, was destroyed by fire either in 48 AD by Julius Caesar or sometime in the third century AD  by the Roman Emperor Aurelian. The remaining books (in the form of scrolls, of course) were moved to a secondary site called the Serapeum (a temple) that was destroyed either in the fourth century or the seventh century, depending on what narrative you believe. But no matter when it happened, at some point all the accumulated wisdom from centuries past that had been collected in the Great Library was lost, except for copies that had survived in other places. There is great speculation about what could have been housed there in its vast collection (some say up to half a million scrolls!) but no one knows for sure, as the index of the scrolls stored there was also destroyed along with the library.

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One artist’s conception of what the Great Library might have looked like. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo. It attracted the great teachers of the classic era, such as Euclid and Archimedes. Image from crystalinks.com

When I heard that the premise of Ink and Bone was of an alternate history where the Great Library had not been destroyed, I was immediately excited to read this book. It’s about books, and reading, so how could I go wrong?

The story opens in a sort of steam-punky London. The main character, seventeen-year-old Jess Brightwell, comes from a family of book smugglers, which steal originals of books and sell them to the highest bidders. This is necessary because the Great Library of Alexandria has grown to be the repository of all books, and ownership of original books is only possible for the very wealthy and privileged few.  Alchemy allows the Great Library to deliver copies of books to anyone, but not every book.

This is a fun take on the real history of the Library. It is said that as soon as any ship docked in Alexandria, they were searched, and any scrolls found on them were taken to the Great Library, where copies were made. The copies were delivered back to the ships and the Library kept the originals.

The books in this story are not papyri, but instead what is called “blanks”, which are very like an e-book. No one has the original paper books or parchment scrolls, except for the Library.

Jess is sent by his father as a sort of spy to the training school for students who wish to be employees of the Great Library. The Library is the enemy of the book smugglers, and so he wants his son to find out all he can about how the Library works and the various raids that might be coming up against book smugglers. Jess manages to pass the entrance exam and is sent to Alexandria, Egypt, the site of the Great Library, to begin his training. His fellow students come from around the world, and they all are in competition for the six spots that are open to them. They have to go through various tests set out for them their exacting teacher and mentor, Wolfe, in order to keep advancing towards their goal.

This is a YA novel (drat, I wish I had known that before I started it!) and there are several elements in it familiar to others. You have students in a school (Harry Potter), competition against each other to gain what they desire (Hunger Games) and a slightly dystopian setting (like so very many of the YA speculative fiction novels these days).

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But although in general I am not a big fan of YA fiction, I will say I did enjoy this book for the most part. Jess is an interesting character, and although there is a romance in the book it’s not quite as annoying as I find many of the love story elements of other YA books which have a female protagonist. In fact it was refreshing to have a male protagonist for a change!

There are definite twists and turns to the plot, which kept it interesting, and the interaction between the students and seeing them come together into a united group by the end was enjoyable to read.

But what I like most about this book is the setting. The whole concept of the survival of the Great Library and translating that into a more modern-day setting was intriguing. The big questions that book asks about censorship, and the power of knowledge, and the value of free access to knowledge as opposed to only knowing what “they” want you to know, added some thought-provoking elements to an otherwise standard YA novel.

There are other books in this series, but I’m not sure I will read them (YA is just not my thing, as I explained here.) But this one was a fun ride with deeper themes than most, all about the importance of books and the lengths taken to preserve them.  I give kudos to the author for indulging my fantasy of having access to the Great Library of Alexandria, but seeing as the Library in the book is a sinister entity, perhaps the lesson is that getting what you want is not always a good thing!

My rating: Three stars

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book I’ve Already Read

I hummed and hawed about this month’s book for my 2017 Reading Challenge. I couldn’t think of the right book. So many choices, after all. I chose and read one book, but it just wasn’t right, somehow. Then, eureka! I suddenly remembered a book I had downloaded on my Kindle sometime last year, a book I very much wanted to read again.

I discovered The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wanegrin, Jr. soon after it was published in 1978, in the midst of when I was happily reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Lord of the Rings, and was hungry for other books of the same quality. The story intrigued me and I saw it had received a National Book Award, so I figured the writing had to be pretty good.

And if you have followed my series last year, you will know that I am a sucker for books about animals, and seeing as this book featured Chauntecleer the Rooster and various other animals, it was a no-brainer for me to give it a try. And I was very glad I did, for this became one of my favourite books.

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The setting for the book is Earth, but not exactly the Earth we know. The story takes place at a time when the animals can all speak and understand speech, and when the earth is fixed in place, with the sun revolving around it. The animals all live on the surface of the Earth, but unbeknownst to them, a monstrous evil is imprisoned at the heart of the Earth, the great serpent Wyrm, who writhes and roars in utter hatred of both the animals and God, who imprisoned him there (“Sum Wyrm! Sub terra!“).

The animals, however, live an ordered peaceful life in the Coop, deaf to Wrym’s rage. Chauntecleer, as roosters do, crows, but his are no ordinary crows. He has crows for times of celebration and grief, for joy and dance, for alarm and victory. But his best crows are the Crows Canonical. Seven times a day, at dawn, 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, 6 PM, dusk, and bedtime, Chauntecleer marks the passing of time with his crows, giving the animals safety and structure in the midst of their days.

When Chauntecleer crowed his canonical crows, the day wore the right kind of clothes; his hens lived and scratched in peace, happy with what was, and unafraid of what was to be; even wrong things were made right, and the grey things explained. 

Along with Chauntecleer and the Hens, other animals live in the Coop and its nearby lands, among them Mundo Cani Dog, whose mournful cry “Marooned!” gives you a hint as to his Eeyore-type personality,  John Wesley Weasel, whose weasel-y tendencies are softened under the influence of the Crows Canonical, and Wee Widow Mouse, who is loved by John Wesley.

But a disturbance comes to the Coop, a hint of the evil to follow. Ebenezer Rat sneaks into the Coop and steals (and eats) some eggs. And to the east of Chauntecleer’s Coop, across the river, an old rooster listens to the smooth voice in his dreams that promises him glory and births a terrible creature, Cockatrice, who is half Rooster and half snake, and who soon usurps and kills his father and rules in his place through blood and fear.

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The cockatrice is a mythical creature, often used in heraldry. Image from Wikicommons. 

The stage is set for the confrontation between
Chauntecleer and the great Wyrm, who sends Cockatrice and the unnatural rooster’s offspring (the deadly basilisks), to fight against the Keeper in the hopes of getting free.

This book is an animal fable, but it is not a children’s story. There is horror and grief here, and terrible consequences for choices made. Chauntecleer is not a perfect hero by any means, and in fact his jealousy and pride prove to make him unequal for the final task, when it comes. But the Dun Cow, the mysterious being who brings peace and hope to those in greatest need, has chosen another animal who can take up the challenge, if his courage does not wane…

This is a morality tale, like Aesop’s Fables, but not quite as simple as those. And although it has been compared to Animal Farm, the author, in the epilogue, cautions the reader against reading the story as strictly an allegory.

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Interestingly, the name “Book of the Dun Cow”, comes from the oldest collection of Celtic mythology in Ireland, Lebor na hUidre  (The Book of the Dun Cow), from the 12th century. It is so named because of a legend that it was made from the hide of a dun (dull, greyish brown) cow. Image from  brewminate.com

I’m glad he gave us that warning. There’s more to this story than trying to make it fit some pre-conceived “meaning” or allegory.  But there is deep and rich meaning to found in it, all the same.  These animals, of course, are not just animals, they are you and I, whose pride and bitter anger can birth a terrible evil, and whose jealousy and bitter disappointment can make us turn away from those who love us most. And who sometimes are tasked with impossible jobs in the midst of unimaginable sorrow.

I loved The Book of the Dun Cow when I read it first, and I loved it again, all these years later. The book feels a bit unfinished, but that’s because there is a sequel, Lamentations, which I am eager, now, to revisit as well. And I discovered, to my delight, that Wanegrin finished his trilogy in 2003, with Peace at the Last.

More re-reading to come, and the discovery of a new book. This month was a definite winner for me.

My rating: Five stars. 


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

April: A Book Set Somewhere I’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

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