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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

“Mortal Coils” by Eric Nylund (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Eric Nylund is a New York Times bestselling author of several novels including three books based in the Halo videogame universe and the World Fantasy-nominated “Dry Water”. Eric is also a creative writer and story consultant for Microsoft Game Studios and has helped shape the intellectual property for some of the world's best videogame developers including Bioware (Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic), Ensemble Studios (Age of Empires), and Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal). In comics, he co-wrote the “Battlestar Galactica: The Cylon War” mini-series—a prequel to the hit television show, first issue out January 2009—while the “Halo: Genesis” graphic novel will be published in the spring of 2009, and will appear in the Limited Collector's Edition of Halo Wars. Eric also has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in chemistry, and is a graduate of the 1994 Clarion West Writer’s Workshop.

ABOUT MORTAL COILS: Nestled in a small town between San Francisco and the heart of the California wine country, a set of twins—Fiona and Eliot Post—live a life of mundane obscurity under the oppressive rule of their grandmother, which includes being home schooled, forced to work at a local pizzeria, and following ‘Grandmother’s 106 Rules’. On the eve of their fifteenth birthday, however, everything changes…

It turns out that Fiona and Eliot are much more than ordinary teenagers. They are the result of a single mistake: An immortal goddess and a fallen angel falling in love. To protect them from their dangerous heritage, their grandmother—Audrey Post—valiantly kept the twins hidden and camouflaged from the entities that have sought them over the years, transforming the divine into the dull.

But now they have been found—not only by their maternal relatives, but also by their paternal ancestors. For millennia, the Immortals and the Infernals have abided by a strict law that they may not meddle in each others' affairs. The twins represent a new balance of power, however, and can potentially open a door into the unknown. If they tip one way, they can be a great boon for the Immortals. If they tip the other way, they will be a powerful asset to the Infernals.

Each family is determined to gain control of Fiona and Eliot. But in order to establish the twins' proper place and rightful allegiance, each family devises tests to determine which side the twins favor. The Immortals create three heroic trials inspired by urban legends, taking them into deeper and more dangerous pockets of mythology incarnate in the modern world. The Infernals fashion three diabolical temptations for the twins, each one an attempt to forever isolate brother from sister.

The time has come for Fiona and Eliot to be judged, and it is a matter of life—and death—that they band together and learn to use their fledgling powers. For family allegiances are constantly shifting and the twins' actions could ultimately cause a war of apocalyptic proportions…

CLASSIFICATION:Mortal Coils” is a classic tale of good vs. evil centered around young protagonists who are much more than they seem—a concept commonly found in many epic fantasies. Except “Mortal Coils” is no simple epic fantasy novel as it takes place in contemporary times on Earth and draws heavily from recognizable mythology including Greek, Norse, and Biblical. The overall result is a fantasy novel that is both like and unlike anything I’ve read before with the closest comparison I could think of being Mark J. Ferrari’sThe Book of Joby”. And like “The Book of Joby”, “Mortal Coils” is a highly accessible fantasy that possesses Harry Potter-like appeal for both adults and younger readers…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 608 pages divided over eight Sections and eighty-two titled chapters. Narration is in the third person, mainly via the two protagonists Fiona and Eliot Post, but there are several other POVs including their grandmother Audrey, the driver Robert, Louis and characters from both the Immortals and Infernals families—Sealiah, Uncle Henry, Beal, etc. “Mortal Coils” is the launch of a five-book series, so Fiona & Eliot’s adventure is far from over, but this novel offers satisfying closure while also introducing a couple of interesting developments to be explored in the next volume. February 3, 2009 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “Mortal Coils” via
Tor Books.

ANALYSIS: Eric Nylund’sMortal Coils” was one of several titles that immediately grabbed my attention when I first browsed through
Tor Books’ Winter 2009 Catalog. Aside from the short description and synopsis though, I really had no idea what to expect from “Mortal Coils”—especially since I’ve never read anything by the author—so I was quite surprised by all that the book had to offer…

For starters, the writing—which includes prose, characterization, plotting, pacing and research—is just superb. Basically, Eric really knows what he's doing as a writer, which is obvious from the very first page, and is a major reason why “Mortal Coils” is such an impressive book.

Beginning with the prose, Eric's writing style is efficient and accessible—characterized by a detailed eye for description and exceptional dialogue—and reminded me some of Mark J. Ferrari, although the writing is not quite as witty.

Characterization meanwhile, is outstanding particularly of the twins. Fiona & Eliot are the heart and soul of the book and Eric appropriately spends the most time on them, establishing their personalities—both are incredibly book-smart (like walking encyclopedias), but are shy and naïve of the world around them—their fears and desires; and unique traits like the vocabulary insult game they always play or the rules they've been ingrained to follow since they were little children:

Rule 55: No books, comics, films, or other media of the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres—especially, but not limited to, the occult or pseudosciences (alchemy, spirituality, numerology, etc.) or any ancient or urban mythology.

Rule 34: No music, including the playing of any instruments (actual or improvised), singing, humming, electronically or by any means producing or reproducing a rhythmic melodic form.

In short, Fiona and Eliot, despite their unusual upbringing, feel like real people and are characters that readers can really bond with. The supporting cast on the other hand, doesn't possess the same kind of depth and complexity as the twins, but the Infernals (Beelzebub, Lilith, Mephistopheles, Abbadon, etc.) and Immortals (Hermes, Gilgamesh, Ares, the Sisters of Fate, etc.) are certainly attention-grabbing with the former deliciously larger-than-life—they have titles like Master of the Endless Abyssal Seas, Handmaiden of Armageddon, and the King of the Blasted Lands—while the latter are flawed and mysterious. Then there's the Driver Robert Farmington and Julie Marks who are both a bit flat as characters despite playing important roles in the novel, but hopefully they'll be better developed in the sequels.

Story-wise, “Mortal Coils” features a plot that is at once delightfully complex—full of Machiavellian scheming and engrossing mysteries—and comfortably familiar including coming-of-age themes, budding romances, and heroic adventures. Some of the mysteries and subplots like the identity of the twins' parents, Julie Marks' decision and Louis' plotting are easy to figure out ahead of time, but for the most part Eric does a good job of mixing things up and keeping the reader engaged. The pacing is particularly impressive, as the book never feels rushed or too long despite clocking in at over 600 pages.

Where “Mortal Coils” really separates itself from other fantasy novels though, is the imaginative manner in which Eric uses mythology from all cultures and ages including Greek, Norse, Biblical, European fairy tales, the legend of King Arthur, Shakespeare, and so on. For instance, Ares is not depicted simply as a Greek god, but as an Immortal who draws from different myths like the Red Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Charioteer, Lancelot, and the King of the Sacred Grove. The same can also be said for Lucifer (the Morning Star, the Prince of Darkness), Hermes (Big Bad Wolf, Loki Sly Boots) and any of the other Infernals or Immortals in the book. It's not just the characters that are inspired by mythology either. Magic—such as Eliot's gift for playing the violin, Fiona's ability to cut through anything, divining the future, Golden Apples, the fifth element, etc.—comes from the same sources, while Eric also utilizes urban legends (alligator in the sewer), Faustian deals and conspiracy theories (Area 51). And that's just scratching the surface. In fact, the book even uses footnotes from texts like “Gods of the First and Twenty-first Century”, “Mythica Improbiba”, and “Golden's Guide to Extraordinary Books” to help the reader out:

2. The fire-bringer legend is ubiquitous in many cultures, in which heroes/gods endure trials or engineer trickery to bring the gift of fire to humanity. Many of these heroes are revered, but many others are punished. In Greek mythology, Prometheus for his crime was chained to a rock and every day an eagle would rip out his liver, which regrew overnight, which was to repeat throughout eternity. It is considered an apocryphal lesson to teach primitive man not to meddle with the gods. Yet without the gift of fire, where would mankind be? Many anthropologists wonder if this tale is not actually a propaganda piece, martyring those who have defied the gods. Gods of the First and Twenty-first Century, Volume 4: Core Myths (Part 1), 8th ed. (Zypheron Press Ltd.).

Overall, “Mortal Coils” is an incredibly ambitious novel that required a ton of work and research, and is all the more impressive because the book is also brilliantly written and narrated, features a memorable cast of characters, and is greatly rewarding. Even more impressive is the fact that "Mortal Coils" is only the first book in a projected five-volume series, which makes me simply marvel at the scope of what Eric Nylund is trying—successfully I hope—to accomplish.

CONCLUSION: Eric Nylund is currently best known for his
Halo novels and his work with videogames, but I have a feeling that when all is said and done, this epic five-volume series started by “Mortal Coils” will be remembered as the author's magnum opus. Just a magnificent blend of magic, myth, dysfunctional families, imagination and storytelling, “Mortal Coils” is a future classic…

16 comments:

Cheryl said...

I am waiting with baited breath for this to be released. I didn't like the name so much,but something made me read the review and it sounds like a great book.

Robert said...

It's a fabulous book Cheryl :) I think it will be one of the best novels I read all year...

cecilia said...

Wow! What a review - I haven't heard of this book, but I am going to hunt this down when it's released. It sounds amazing!

Jeremy said...

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, and I enjoyed the book immensely. I think it's one of the author's very best works and I'm looking forward to continuing the series next year.

Liviu said...

More than 10 years ago I read Mr. Nylund Game of Universes which is a sf novel thematically similar with Mortal Coils, though less ambitious and lighter in tone, but it still made a lasting impression on me, so when Mr. Nylund returned to original fiction, I was eager to try the book and I agree with Robert review that Mortal Coils is superb.

And it flows so well that despite its length, it's a fast read, the pages turn by themselves.

prof-brotherton said...

I read an ARC, too, and was very impressed as well. This is Harry Potter meets American Gods, with some strengths over both of those impressive titles. I think it's his best work to date.

Jeff C said...

nice review, Robert. I don't normally like fantasy novels that mix old fantasy with current times, but after reading your thoughts, I might have to give this one a shot.

Calibandar said...

Looks like a cracker. I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon.

Robert said...

Wow! Between what Jeremy, Liviu, and Mike have stated, I really need to read Eric's other books :D But I have to finish this series first...

Thanks Jeff! I think this book is totally worth checking out :)

Calibander, I'm interested to see what you end up thinking of Mortal Coils...

Robert said...

Btw, I'm starting a giveaway for THREE SIGNED COPIES of "Mortal Coils" on Tuesday. So if you think the book sounds interesting, then here's your chance to win a copy :D

Laura said...

Just finished Mortal Coils. It is intelligent and witty and never felt that it lagged. I hope the next volume will be out soon.

Laura

sebastian said...

this book is amazing. superb character development. excellent plot. the thing i am not understanding is why the reference books used for the footnotes do not exist. there are no legends of a post family. del sombra, california does not exist, nor do the oakwood apartments or any other referenced places proximal to del sombra. pardon me if this be simply my own naivety and he deliberately puts the notes there to complete a piece of 100 percent fiction. i would be led to believe that's what it was, had it not been for the editor's note in the beginning. however, i recently saw a movie in which it opened stating it was based on true events. a women from another country came to the united states in search of a hidden stash of money in said film, and died in the search. soon after, the director released a statment regarding the legitimacy of the film. it was entirely fake. assuming people can lie to the public in the media this way, i do not see why eric nylund and his editor can not do so as well. i do not mean disrespect at all. he is one of the best authors i have ever read. this post is entirely of curiosity. or stupidity. if anyone can clear this up for me that would be much appreciated. thanks.

Jam said...

Followed the trail here from Epic Rat. Like she said, Awesome Review. I'm checking it out then. thanks.

Annonymous said...

I'm reading it now looking fwd to a movie or maybe saga. I just want to find the book based references that Eric uses to review.

fadedchill said...

I'm currently reading this book and i can't help but to feel transfixed on this "Mythica Improbiba" book.

where could i find a copy in English?

James Valentine said...

Oh my goodness, I have been searching for this book for years now. I accidentally stumbled across it in a library one day just perusing for something new to read. Totally unsure of how many books i picked up, read a few pages from and put away. This book however, I completely forgot i was in a library for over four hours. The only reason i snapped back to reality was because the librarian tapped me on the shoulder to tell me they were closing! VERY good book!!

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