Archive for December, 2011


The Last Battle

No, this isn’t the Narnia book, despite my last post. I’m talking about Chris Bunch’s novel, though I could understand the confusion. Both are the final volumes of a series and both are about battles that are . . .last? But seriously, they have little in common.

I had strong feelings about this novel as I read it that were turned upside after the final page. It turns out that Bunch wrote this at the end of his life and passed away a year before its publication in 2006. It greatly affected how I interpreted the final line of the series. I won’t spoil it, but I will say our hero’s final wish may have mirrored the author’s after a lifetime of writing fantasy series and for television.

Again, I dislike beginning a series anywhere other than the beginning, but I found it in a bargain bin at Books-a-Million for 75% off, so I said, eh, why not? Getting a cheap book from a series that I had no prior plans to read was worth starting late. My copy is the trade paperback that I so love; as I learned last week, that’s the term for larger format paperbacks. If I can ever get published I’d love to have my work printed this way. It’s so much easier to hold and see the text.

Nice cover art. And since you’re wondering, yes, that’s part of why I picked it up.

The story features Hal, the dragon master, and his dragon, Storm. Hal’s grown bored with life with the wars over and begins looking for his own action. Eventually a nightmare leads him to a distant land covered in demons who are taking the form of dragons. It doesn’t help that they’re killing real dragons.

The dragons in these books are intelligent, but not quite on our level. They seem more like a border collie or parrot upstairs. There’s no talking sadly, though even without being on the level of a human, Storm has plenty of personality. The other real dragons aren’t seen enough to get to know, but I’m sure they’re just lovely (and bitey.)

I get the feeling that most of the character development was done in the first two books. Understandable, and part of why I dislike starting late. Here the action takes off and then ends three hundred pages later without much growth or background for the characters. Hal does reevaluate what he wants in life, and at the end he does change (considering Bunch may be speaking through him, it was rather sad.) It’d be nice to see how he and the others initially developed though.

My initial criticism of the book was that the paragraphs were so short. I remember pages where they were single sentences and at times only a few words. I’m not saying I need an author to go on and on and on, but it takes simplicity to an extreme. That can work well for an affect at times, but while reading I felt Bunch had nothing to say and was hurrying to the end. I began to wonder if a picky editor did this, but after reading of his passing, I also wondered if he truly was trying to get it finished quickly. I have to let it slide here.

Bunch was retired military and reviews of this series have mentioned that he used historical battle strategies throughout. The three kingdoms also represent England, France, and Germany. That may be of interest to history buffs, though I admittedly don’t remember too much of my war history. Now I wish I did. The faux dragon battles at the end were rather enjoyable.

The Last Battle was forgettable from a story standpoint, but remember from the shock after the book had ended. It’d certainly be best to begin this series from the beginning. I think I would have gotten more out of the characters if I knew them better. I might read the first two sometime. We’ll see.

For now I wish everyone a happy new year. I look forward to new adventures and bringing my experiences to everyone. I’ll be sure to get to some movies this coming year too.

Cheers!

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

C.S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe has been part of my life for over twenty years. My sister, of all people, handed the book to me at yet another long out of business book store. She insisted it was really good and even then I liked stories with magic in them (I blame video games and Disney) so I took her up on it. It cost my parents a mere $2.95. I still have it, as well as the other six. The price aside, you can tell my edition is old since it’s still book 1. Now days, the old book 6, The Magician’s Nephew, comes first. This is likely due to wanting the timeline to go in order since TMN is when Aslan created Narnia.

My Collier Books edition has a lovely cover by Roger Hane. It’s an image that’s been part of my visual memory since I first saw it.

Up through about third grade, my father would often read me bed time stories. The Narnia books became part of that tradition. I never actually read any of them when I was a child, but do remember them all thanks to him. It wasn’t until last week when I actually read the whole book myself. It’s easily something that could be done in a day if one had nothing else to do, but it feels good to have actually done it after all these years.

My third grade teacher was a big fan of the Narnia series as well. She was talking to me once and somehow it got out that I was familiar, and next thing I know she’s offering the class extra credit for reading any of them. We watched both the old animated movie of TLTW&TW and the made for TV movie that I think was done by the BBC, but I can’t say for sure. They did the next two books as well, but I don’t think it ever went past that.

I’ve not seen the newer movie, but maybe I shall just to see what they did with the material.

After reading as an adult, I do consider the possibility that Lucy and her siblings have wonderful imaginations and this is an escapist fantasy. They seem rather glum having been sent away from their family for schooling, and people are coming in and out of this home they’re in all day that they don’t care for. I’m probably wrong that Narnia only exists in their heads, but it’s fun to think about anyway. The situation certainly isn’t as terrible and nightmarish as something like Pan’s Labyrinth. I don’t remember enough of the series to say if there are ever any mixings of Narnia and the real world.

C.S. Lewis writes this book as a storyteller. There are several interjections as though speaking to an audience. One can easily see him reading from his favorite chair while surrounded by a group of children. It’s charming. Lewis had a real love for stories and children and it shows. While it was written for children (even says so inside) it’s still easily enjoyable by an adult. Like any good writer for a younger audience, Lewis doesn’t talk down to his readers and has good messages beneath the action. There’s depth to his work that resonates years later.

 

Dragon Keeper

Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper is a long trek to no where.  However to be fair, it’s a gorgeous, immersive one with strong characters, even if I do get a sense that the author has a thing against men. Sadly, despite the title and cover, the dragons are only a small part of the immediate action.

Since there’s no where else to stick it in this blog, here’s the book, complete with its raised text:

The publisher only want you to think the above scene happens.

When I bought this I thought I was buying the sequel, though I didn’t know the sequel was a sequel. I saw the hard back hogging shelf space at Barnes and Noble and after tip toeing around the glowing review fragments, I was intrigued by the similarities to my own work. For some reason dragons are hatching sick and deformed, a shell of their former selves, and since their presence around men is such a pain (they do complain constantly and aren’t afraid to eat people,) a plan is devised to move them from where they’ve been stuck for too long. Those enslaved to, I mean put in charge of moving them, are humans born with reptilian mutations, like scales and claws. Some are worse than others. Usually these people are disposed of at birth as no one wants them around trying to pollute humanity by breeding with those who are normal. So what better plan than to send both them and dragons far away? Maybe the dragons will even eat them.

I read the prologue before I even bought the book. Hobb has an artful handle on our language. It’s not in a “look at how clever I am” way, but she knows the right words to use to get subtle changes in emotion from the reader. She draws you into every scene and environment. As an example, it’s the difference between a “sizzling steak” and a “cooking steak.” The former you can really feel. That’s something I strive to do with my serious work.

The dragons in this book begin life as sea serpents. Eventually they have to cocoon themselves to develop into true dragons, but this is where their development goes wrong. Why is a mystery. They’re further angry because their queen, who promised to return to help them, is missing. They’re intelligent and can speak, though don’t really care to talk to humans. An aspect of their lives that at first horrified me, then intrigued me with its possibilities, is that they gain the memories of other dragons by eating each other. Not alive, thankfully, but anytime one of them perishes there’s a rush to feast on the flesh. Any one dragon could have memories of many others. It’s nearly a collective consciousness. I want to see if anything useful comes from it in the sequel.

As interesting as I found the dragons, unfortunately if one is opening this book looking for great percentage of dragon material, they’ll be let down. There’s that fantastic opening scene, then we get a few sparse bits in the middle, then the last fifth of the book pulls them into the active plot. It’s about five hundred pages of others talking about dragons, but keeping them in the background. The bits we get serve to show how unpleasant they are to each other, and in the end how little most humans think of them.

The good news is Hobb does character very well, so even the humans are fun to read. I could have enjoyed the book even if we never saw the dragons. Most of the story focuses on two female leads. There’s Alise, who’s dreamed her whole life about studying dragons. Her only opportunity to do this comes from marrying a wealthy trader named Hest, who turns out to be a frighteningly dickish antagonist, and of course doesn’t react too well to being reminded that he has to let his wife run off to chase childish fantasies without having given him an heir yet. Their sex is terrible. He really knows how to pull the victim card when accused of being a terrible mate too. His servant for a while is Alise’s only friend, and I did like him for most of the book, but he ends up being a bit of a heartless wimp when his affections are on the line. The other female is Thymara, one of the mutated humans. Her mother likes to pretend she doesn’t exist. Her father is dealing with regrets at saving her. So, to solve their problems, she gets sent off on this mission to move the dragons. She meets other mutants (while the reader is still waiting on dragons) and I did like most of these new characters, including one who’s plenty creepy in his desire to be with Thymara and drive a wedge between her and her friend, Tats. So, another male who appears to exist to use women. Really, does Robin Hobb hate men?

I’m not complaining as much as it may sound. I’m simply amused at what seems to be a trend. Hobb does take the more realistic approach where all characters have their good and bad sides. They’re deep and well written, and thankfully we don’t have to suffer through any internal monologue where someone’s talking about how evil they are and what evil things they’re going to do. I’ve had enough of that for the year. The dragons seem like dragons too, not men in dragon suits. They’re fascinating (even with their unpleasantness) and I hope in the next book we get more of them. They are in a terrible situation: deformed, dying, living in their own filth, and suffering with memories of a better life lost long in the past. It’s no wonder they come off the way they do.

If I had one issue with the book (other than wanting more dragons) it’s that it just stops, and right after a long, drawn out scene that was painful to watch. I was almost ill afterward. It’s like someone just cut the book in half. Oh wait, that is what happened. The book was originally twice as long, but it was cut into two novels instead. So, the sequel is really just the rest of this. It would have been a 1,000 page novel otherwise. I’ve never seen a book simply stop like this one. Sometimes an ending will be abrupt, but this is like bungee jumping and your chord was too long.

Dragons of Winter Night

You can tell my copy of this book is old because even the Canadian price is several dollars less than a new paperback today. I bought it in 7th grade during the winter, and at a now out of business Waldenbooks that turned into a TGI Fridays. It’s probably a Starbucks now. Haven’t been in that area in years. The old Waldenbooks was a shallow bookstore, but the shelves were high. It was one of those places where you couldn’t even see what was up top (and that’s saying a lot since I’m almost six and a half feet.) They had those rolling ladders that went along the shelves and the register was a kiosk in the middle of the store. There was no coffee shop or membership card, and certainly no Kindle and its kin. They just had books and magazines.

I mentioned in a previous entry that I’m a sucker for cover art, and that’s the whole reason I bought this one, other than looking for a dragon story. If anything picking the book up again reminded me of Larry Elmore’s art. He does such amazing fantasy work, in particular his dragons, and he’s the only reason I became interested in drawing them myself. It was the closest thing to being high a twelve year old kid could legally experience. From browsing Amazon, the new editions are done by someone else, but my cover looks like this:

Just with text.

That dragon is bad ass. I can’t say so much for his ambiguously gendered friends, but he’s awesome. It’s funny how the dragon’s gender is easier to guess than the humanoid characters. It’s got to be a he. Right? I also can’t count how many times I’ve seen that same dragon copied by artists on the internet trying to draw one.

I don’t remember why this was, but that year I slept in my parents’ room. We had an extra guest bed with a brass railing. It was like that bed from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it didn’t take me to a magic cartoon land. I remember having the book there and reading bits of it. There was a convenient set of shelves built into the wall right next to it so I could leave my things there, and this included all of my Nintendo Powers. I was admittedly a bad reader then. It wasn’t a comprehension issue. It was simply that I skimmed and skipped freely, looking for the “good” parts in most anything I read. Up until my teenage years, there was little I actually read all the way through. Some books I skipped huge sections. This is probably why I didn’t remember a thing about Dragons of Winter Night (aka DOWN) other than some of the prechapter drawings.

I learned this time that the plot involves a mixed group of your typical fantasy races like elves and dwarfs looking for this magic dragon orb that’ll give them the power to control the dragons that are being used to take over the land of Krynn. I understand the books are based on the Dungeons and Dragons games that I never played–it seemed all the kids doing this were smoking pot–but even then it sure feels like I’m reading someone’s extended roleplaying session. In particular a group of teenagers who think they’re more clever than they really are. The authors Weis and Hickman have their moments, but overall the writing’s about the quality you’d get from a decent high school writer. I tried writing a book in my late teens. This only sounds marginally better. Judging from the professional and fan reviews over at Amazon, I must have read a different book.

To be fair, I’m sure I would have better understood the characters and their motivations if I had read the previous book. This is part two of three. But even then I never felt fully into any of the protagonists. For the most part they lacked depth, and there are so many characters who end up scattered in so many places it’s difficult for a newcomer to keep track of who’s who. I did like Tanis, the half human, half elf, and what he had to deal with from both sides because of this, along with his perceived history with one of the dragon lords, Kitiara. She (guessing that’s her on the cover) was far and away the strongest character in the book, but she was only there for a few brief moments. More like her and it could have been much better. There was just so little development for anyone I was supposed to care about. It felt like the characters were there to be game pieces and just move along to their goal.

That’s a shame because I would have liked to know more about them. This extends to dragons. We see early on that they’re intelligent. They can talk. They have their own thoughts. But do we ever learn anything about any of them? No, other than they’re apparently deserving to be wiped out completely. It began with promise as we see one of the blue dragons, Skie, showing us how he sees the world, but after that one scene he never says another thing. We don’t even see him again until nearly 400 pages later, and at that point the book’s over. I really wanted to know more about at least him, dangit. At least Kitiara treats him well. It makes me wonder what about them is supposed to be so evil. Yes, they’ve burned down cities, but in war these things happen. I’m supposed to hate these characters, but I felt rather sorry for them, especially two dragons who were horrifically slayed near the end. At least one of the protagonists was as repulsed as I felt, though it seemed like a chance for a forced bit of morality. It didn’t feel that natural, especially with someone’s actions in the following scene.

Kitiara was too fair (hell, she gave someone back her weapon who was wanting to kill her) to really come off as evil. The dragons did nothing to seem evil. Any negative act was caused by someone else’s direction. You can’t have empathy for each other and be evil. So, I have a hard time buying that they are, despite what I’m told. I have to wonder if there’s intentional vagueness about it, despite that being a modern trend (this book’s from the 80s,) or if it’s just a failure on the authors’ part. I honestly feel confused and let down.

Despite disappointments, and that I can’t really recommend it unless you loved the first book, I am happy I finally finished DOWN. It was a change of pace to read a more traditional fantasy. I’m almost wanting to read the next book to see how the characters I did like develop. Maybe some other day though since I’m not counting on it.

Did I mention it had awesome cover art?

 

Dragon’s Ring

David Freer’s Dragon’s Ring is one of those books that makes me thankful for the internet. Otherwise I never would have heard of it. One day I was looking around for dragon centric books and saw it deep in the list. I’d never heard of the author and never seen the book at any stores. It took several before I managed to find it once I actually looked. Books a Million had it. I hope they don’t pull a Borders on me.

I admit I’m a sucker for cool cover art, and Dragon’s Ring has it.

This makes Chuck Norris feel like a pansy.

And a note to authors: If your book has a cool cover, I’m probably going to buy it. I’m also proud to say that after reading, the spine is still in mint condition. Other than the cover, I was intrigued by the plot synopsis. Fionn, a black dragon, tries to destroy the world and manipulates the only magic using human, who conveniently doesn’t know she has any powers, to do so.  What results is a quest to find (i.e. steal) these magic artifacts that’ll give him the power he needs to do so. The girl, Meb, whom Fionn he calls “Scrap,” is taken along for the ride on an adventure that is full of Alice in Wonderland logic, where strange things happen and all of the characters around her treat it so matter-of-factly that it’s both bizarre and comical; there were ample chuckle worthy lines, often as a result of Meb’s fish out of water situation.  Fionn is a naughty little ruffian too, unafraid to do what he needs to get his way, even smack around the other dragons. You never feel he’s going to fail easily, and that’s fun.

But if he’s trying to destroy the world, how could we ever root for him? you ask. Oh, he has a reason, but I won’t spoil it.

The story and its characters develop well. Watching how Fionn and Meb begin to grow together is rewarding. It’s always good to see a character who can kick so much tail end up being vulnerable in other ways. There’s a point where Fionn almost has to admit he likes Meb, but fears ruining everything if he tells her what’s really going on. She doesn’t even know he’s a dragon, much less what he’s trying to do. Fionn switches in and out of a human form, and ordinarily this would have ruined the book for me, but it’s handled well here. We still get him as a dragon often and the scene when Meb finally sees him like this has great impact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The story is original, the characters are memorable, and it’s just a load of fun, not to mention funny without feeling forced. It does end without ending (you’ll see what I mean) but that left a smile on my face because that means there will likely be more. Unfortunately there’s no sequel yet since this book is quite new–the paperback came out this year–but I’m keeping my eyes open for it if it ever happens.

Not bad for a sci-fi author.