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Thursday, February 28, 2013

“A Memory of Light” by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (Reviewed by Sabine Gueneret)

Order “A Memory of LightHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Listen To An Excerpt HERE

INTRODUCTION: And here we are at last . . . the final book in The Wheel of Time series. Many fans have been awaiting this conclusion for the last several years; I for one started reading the series ten years ago and I must say that The Wheel of Time is the ultimate reference for me when it comes to speaking about fantasy. It is the work that drove me to the genre and to this day I have not found another fantasy series that can compete with it, even if A Song of Ice & Fire comes somewhat close.

After a long wait of over two years (the previous volume, Towers of Midnight, was released in late 2010), A Memory of Light has finally arrived. My expectations were so great that I had to mentally prepare myself to be disappointed—this is somehow paradoxical, I know, but how could this incredible story come to an end? If the book is too vague or leaves things unexplained then it would not be a satisfying conclusion to the series. On the other hand, if too many things are explained, you lose the thrill of anticipation that has always been, for me, the best feature of the series. So it was with a palpable mix of excitement and apprehension that I read the final volume in The Wheel of Time

AUTHOR INFORMATION: As many of you know, Robert Jordan (October 17, 1948–September 16, 2007), the original writer of The Wheel of Time, passed away in 2007. He suffered from cardiac amyloidosis, a very rare disease that took him away only 18 months after being diagnosed. He was also known for being one of the writers of Conan the Barbarian in the 1980s, even though his masterpiece was The Wheel of Time, the first volume of which, The Eye of The World, was published in 1990.

With Jordan suddenly gone, fans of The Wheel of Time shared the same fear—would the dragon ever ride the wings of time again? Were we doomed to never find out whether Rand Al’Thor would succeed in the last battle?

Soon enough though, it was announced that the series would continue on through the use of Robert Jordan’s notes, while written by a successor chosen by Jordan’s widow, Harriet Rigney.

Brandon Sanderson was the chosen one. Best known for his fantasy work in the Mistborn series and The Stormlight Archive, Brandon grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. He currently lives in Utah with his wife and children.

Originally, Sanderson was just supposed to write the last book of the series, but due to the amount of notes gathered by Harriet, it was decided early on to split the final novel into three volumes: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. Once The Gathering Storm was released in 2009, most fans were reassured by Harriet’s choice: The Wheel of Time was in capable hands.

FORMAT/INFO: A Memory of Light is the fourteenth and final volume in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It was published in Hardcover format in both North America and the UK on January 8, 2013 via Tor Books and Orbit Books UK. The US cover art (see above) was provided by Michael Whelan.

OFFICIAL PLOT SYNOPSIS:And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died.” From Charal Drianaan te Calamon, The Cycle of the Dragon

In the Field of Merrilor the rulers of the nations gather to join behind Rand al’Thor, or to stop him from his plan to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison—which may be a sign of his madness, or the last hope of humankind. Egwene, the Amyrlin Seat, leans toward the former.

In Andor, the Trollocs seize Caemlyn.

In the wolf dream, Perrin Aybara battles Slayer.

Approaching Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon plans to visit his wife Tuon, now Fortuona, Empress of the Seanchan.

All humanity is in peril—and the outcome will be decided in Shayol Ghul itself. The Wheel is turning, and the Age is coming to its end. The Last Battle will determine the fate of the world...

For twenty years The Wheel of Time has enthralled more than forty million readers in over thirty-two languages. A Memory of Light brings this majestic fantasy creation to its richly satisfying conclusion.

Working from notes and partials left by Robert Jordan when he died in 2007, and consulting with Jordan’s widow, who edited all of Jordan’s books, established fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has recreated the vision Jordan left behind.

ANALYSIS: In the frantic week spent reading A Memory of Light—and believe me, to carry around such a HUGE book in London public transport is no small commitment (no choice since the ebook version would not be released before April, and I wasn’t going to wait that long)—I didn’t use my critiquing mindset. A state of mind that stayed with me for some time afterwards, as the shock of being finished with The Wheel of Time was just too big. As a result, I’ve decided not to examine A Memory of Light in very much detail since a) I could write for ages, and b), so many people have already analyzed the book in-depth. In short, this is just my two cents on what I thought of the book. It will be up to you to read A Memory of Light yourself and make your own opinion about whether the book was a satisfying conclusion to The Wheel of Time or not.

First off, I thought the plot in A Memory of Light had really good pacing since it didn’t feel like I had just read over 900 pages. In the previous volumes, the story sometimes dragged on and would lose itself in secondary plots. In A Memory of Light however, the plot was more straightforward focusing on The Last Battle and builds up tension all the way to the finale. Along the way, the story completes Robert Jordan’s interesting vision of good and evil, in all of its subtle nuances, which had somehow disappeared in the previous volumes under a pile of more political considerations.

Admittedly, the ending confused me slightly. A lot happened very quickly and I still do not understand the final revelation, which might be because I had forgotten things from the previous books (I only read volumes twelve and thirteen once). Also, not all questions are answered which left me with a bittersweet feeling, but as I explained in the INTRODUCTION, too many answers would not have been satisfying either. As a result, as soon as I finished A Memory of Light, all I wanted to do was start reading the whole series again to fill out the gaps! Nevertheless, many loose ends were tied up, and overall it was a very satisfying conclusion.

In terms of characters, it was a major delight to watch all of the protagonists joining forces for the Last Battle, with a special mention for the Two Rivers folks who played such an important role in the series. These characters have been part of my life for so long now, and are so rich and vivid, that reading about them in A Memory of Light was, in way, like meeting with good old friends. So, it was good to see that each character stayed true to who they are, while providing me with a good laugh from time to time—a thankful occurrence since the atmosphere of the book can definitely be dark.

Lastly, the world-building, which has always been a major feature of The Wheel of Time, is once again spectacular. The only new addition to this already densely detailed setting is the apparition of the Sharan from the Far East. Personally, I wish we could have learned more about the Sharan, but that probably would have required another book!

CONCLUSION: A Memory of Light does its job properly, offering fans of the series many epic moments while staying true to the spirit of The Wheel of Time. Granted, it may not be the perfect ending to Robert Jordan’s magnum opus—can there be a perfect ending to the turning of the Wheel of Time?—but at least it is an ending...
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

“Seraphina” by Rachel Hartman (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “SeraphinaHERE
Watch the Book Trailer HERE

After reading Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (Reviewed HERE), I wanted to revisit Rachel Hartman's debut Seraphina, a YA fantasy that broke some new ground with dragons when it was released in July 2012. You can read more about Rachel Hartman on her website here: Those of us who love fantasy have all read various depictions of dragons, but, like with other fantastical races (when was the last time you read a really innovative elf or werewolf?) I was starting to feel like no one was really innovating with dragons. Then I read Seraphina and got excited about dragons all over again.

Hartman’s world-building doesn’t go into excessive detail, but you still get a sense of a well fleshed-out world, like the foreign dance accorded politeness due to its long history but is still considered scandalous, the individual patron saints, and the excerpts of song lyrics—enough to imply centuries of history, struggles, and unique culture without bogging down the story. Hartman also pays attention to the physiological elements of language and doesn't neglect technological innovations in her fantasy setting.

Dragons and shape-shifting have been done before, but the inner landscape of Seraphina’s mind was fascinating and innovative (I mean “landscape” somewhat literally, but I don’t want to spoil it). Characters’ unique magical talents surprised me every time. I did see the romance coming, but I loved reading its development. I could quibble about how easily Seraphina, the court musician’s new apprentice, becomes a trusted confidante of two royals, but I think the story made it work.

Seraphina is half-dragon, inheriting a combination of utter rationality from her dragon side and inspired recklessness from her human side. I felt Seraphina’s passion for music, and I understood her skill without the character making an issue of it. I loved the discussion of the difference between technically perfect music and music that moves people.

I've read some commentary and critique on Hartman's treatment of being biracial, most recently by Aliette de Boadard HERE and Laura Vivanco's response to her HERE. I would say if you're reading the story only for that reason, you might be disappointed. Hartman's handle of race issues can be argued effectively both ways; all I can say definitively is that during my reading I didn't have any problems with it.

All the characters in Seraphina, not just the half-dragon ones, struggle to balance emotion and rationality. They deal with unintended extreme consequences of good intentions, how people react to deep-seated fear, and the slippery slope of truth and lies, all with surprising bursts of humor. Seraphina doesn’t take herself too seriously—but when she does, the story cuts through her self-pity with sharp insight.

I was riveted from the first page. I'm not sure when the sequel, tentatively titled Dracomachia, is due out, but as far as I'm concerned it can't be soon enough. If you want to try a sample of the world and characters, check out Rachel Hartman’s free prequel short story, “The Audition,” on scribd HERE.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

GUEST POST: Ten Reasons Why We Love The Fantasy Genre by A. E Marling

We have all done it. Stolen into a bookstore’s hoard of stories then scampered off with a freshly purchased fantasy, the treasure held close, to be savored in blissful solitude or amid the buzz of bus rides or as a ward against wasting time in waiting rooms. Yet why do we choose fantasy? Why do we feel that burst of expectation, of hope, when our download completes for our eReader and we can glimpse that first line, that first step into a new fantasy story. If we could chose but one word to describe why we love the fantasy genre, what would it be?

After asking over two hundred people just that question, I swirled the answers in a Wordle caldron, added some eye of newt, mumbled the magic words of my New Year’s resolution, and created a pictorial art. Before viewing it, feel free to pick your own word describing why you love the fantasy genre. You may even add it to the word trove.

The size of words in the collage are proportional to the responses given, and if you can spot Numinous tucked beneath Escape, you’ll see a word that squeaked its way into the top ten.

 #10: many of us would scramble for our dictionary apps after this word enters the conversation, it came to multiple minds when describing fantasy. The word describes the tingling sensation of entering the unknown. A glittering mist of a forbidden valley, a rush down our spine as we enter a crystal cavern. It’s the sense that you’re entering a sacred place, ripe with otherworldly presence and mystery.

But it is more than that. It’s also the uplifting feeling of divine duty when heroes reenter the fray, such as when Aragorn convinces King Theoden to ride out of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers. The belief in a higher purpose and a deep sense of right emboldens us and gives us the strength to continue in the face of however many hardships and orcs.

For those seeking the Numinous, try the Lord of the Rings by You Know Who, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

#9: Let’s face it. Sometimes we want our unicorns and we want them now. You always dreamed of riding a horse that flies? Fantasy has your Pegasus right here. How about pirates battling sea dragons with blunderbuss wands? No problem. Fantasy gives us what we want, and if reality tries to get in the way, we have a Delayed Fireball spell waiting.

Pursuers of Fun may enjoy Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series and its mayhem of fantasy creatures, humor, and colorful characters. I recommend starting with Equal Rites or Guards! Guards! Clearly, the Harry Potter novels also fit in this category as snug as a baby dragon in its egg. And for an Urban Fantasy option with a male lead, try the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

#8: Not only do we delve dragon lairs and fly through clouds in fantasy, but we also get to go on our perilous quest alongside colorful characters. When reading a fantasy novel we can be confident we’ll see amazing places, encounter the spectacular, and battle alongside the stupendous.

If you’re looking for a gritty adventure into lands of gold-dust and vice, try Red Country by Joe Abercrombie. A journey into a forbidden realm populated with cat people? How about Black Sun Rising by C. S. Friedman. For a trek over the glittering sands, try The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones.

#7: Fantasy is storytelling unbound. It’s Freedom from expectation, from the grind of the work-week, from reminders of reality. If I wanted real-life stories I could always read the newspaper. Fantasy unhinges the narrative from worldly references (or at least dilutes them) and allows us to relax and enjoy the tale.

For pure Freedom, I’d recommend the alternate-world novels that take you to the farthest reaches of unknown lands, such as The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin, The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, or Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. Also, Brent Weeks chose Freedom as his word, so I think it right to include his epic fantasy, The Black Prism.

#6-5: A recurring theme is the peeling away of expectation and the dissolving of limits. Fantasy can take you anywhere and on a magic carpet, too, and on that journey you can encounter anything. That freshness, that newness, revitalizes us and makes each new fantasy story exciting and memorable.

For examples of how far fantasy can go, try The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells, where flying shapeshifters delve into a massive sea-monster to retrieve their stolen treasure, and The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett, where the equivalent of Santa Claus is assassinated, and Death has to stand in for the festivities.

#4: Our bubbling anticipation turns into a flash of joy when a fantasy story takes us where we never expected to go, shows us that epic visual that steals our breath. Fantasy is the spoonful of Wonder that helps the reality go down.

Both David Farland and Gail Carriger picked Wonder for their word, so check out his book The Sum of All Men, and her werewolf-infested steampunk, Soulless. And while the door is open to steampunk with fantasy flavors, taste test Hard Magic by Larry Correia.

#3: I’ll admit it if you do, too. I want magical powers. Don’t I deserve them, after all? Fantasy stories give me an opportunity to experience using magic, without the temptation to misuse them. (Which I would, and deliciously so.) What was that old adage? With great power comes great fun.

If Magic is your bubbling cup of magenta tea, then you may enjoy my own novels. Magic beats at the heart of my stories, where I have multiple magic systems, each with their own set of rules and unique ways to craft wonder. For the magic of enchantment, try Brood of Bones or Fox’s Bride. For the forbidden Feasting magic, slip on The Gown of Shadow and Flame.

#2: A fantasy story is a vacation to another world for the price of a sandwich. Sometimes we need a breather from reality, to step back and gain perspective, to better return invigorated and able to cope with hardships. We may have a tough boss, but if Harry Potter could topple dark lords, we could probably get that report in on time after all.

Sometimes all we need is a break of a few hours or a few days. Other times, we need something more akin to a sabbatical, or a home away from home with characters that we come to know as dear friends and cherish. If you need Escape and a lot of it, try The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

#1: I encourage people to touch the sky of human imagination and read fantasy. A wealth of creative thought is what the genre is most known for. Reading fantasy gives us license to imagine things that never were and never could have been, and we revel in their impossibility. It allows us to recapture the imaginative games of play we loved as children, which expand our minds and allow us to develop into well-balanced adults.

Imagination is mankind’s greatest strength. It takes us to the moon. It cures diseases. It lights the first fire. The wondrous must be imagined before it can become. Fantasy novels are both an exhibition of imagination and gymnasiums for imaginative thought.

For a banquet of imagination, I recommend The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. For book size would not kill a small animal if dropped from a three-feet height, try the equally glittering in creativity Monster Blood Tattoo series by DM Cornish. To see other Wordle collages containing these words and more, venture to my website. I feel remiss for not recommending more fantasy novels. Feel free to correct this deficiency in the comments section, pairing suggestions with which word best represents the fantasy novel.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alan wrote his first fantasy novella after his freshman year in high school. In college, he found nothing gave him a greater urge to write than science lectures, and he sat through a lot of ‘em. He has yet to repent his fascination with fantasy and is intrigued by its grip on the human imagination. 

Both ambidextrous and word-voracious, his diet ranges from Arthurian legends to Jane Austen. He denies being a running addict, though he has to shout it over the noise of the treadmill. He dances as directed by demons. And, yes, he partakes in fantasy-related gaming.

His best writing ideas pounce on him when he would rather be sleeping, thanks to insomnia. His current lair is in the shadow of San Francisco, and his thoughts touch ground there between flights.

NOTE: Cover picture is "Arrival at Svetoslav Sanctuary" by Tuomas Korpi.
Monday, February 25, 2013

“Cinder” by Marissa Meyer (Reviewed by Lydia Roberts)

Order “CinderHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Listen To An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Marissa Meyer lives in Tacoma, Washington.  Cinder is her debut novel.  Author information can also be found at

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS:  (This synopsis comes from the book jacket.)  “Even in the future, the story begins with Once Upon a Time…

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Bejing.  A deadly plague ravages the population.  From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move.  No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl…

Sixteen-year-old Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg.  She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past and is reviled by her stepmother.  But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction.  Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.  Because there is something unusual about Cinder, something that others would kill for.”

FORMAT/INFO: Cinder is 387 pages and has thirty-eight chapters.  The narration is third-person and provides Cinder’s perspective primarily, though there are several instances in which we are shown Prince Kai’s viewpoint.  This book offers the beginning of a quartet of books called The Lunar Chronicles.

Cinder was published in hardcover by Feiwel & Friends on January 3, 2012. The UK version was published on January 5, 2012 via Puffin Books.

ANALYSIS: While Cinder reflects its fairy tale origins (deceased father figure, cruel stepmother, an overworked, grimy heroine, and an impending ball with a handsome prince), the book has unexpected layers to its plot and characters. One of the main departures from its roots is the book’s science-fiction slant. Cinder is a cyborg, and references to data input and internal system alerts (such as the blinking orange light that notifies her when someone is lying) are woven fairly seamlessly into the narrative. Other futuristic mainstays—like multi-use androids and hover crafts—make their appearance throughout the book, but the heart of the story rests in its characters.

Cinder is well-known for her skill as a mechanic and despite the prejudice that is shown toward cyborgs, she has a steady business that provides her family’s only income. I use the word family loosely. Her stepmother, Adri, alternately ignores and verbally abuses her, all the while heaping any “fix-it” chores on top of Cinder’s work responsibilities. Only one of her two stepsisters shows her any affection, and Adri limits their interaction. Adri blames Cinder for the death of her husband, Garan, the man who adopted the orphaned cyborg against his wife’s wishes. Not long after traveling abroad to bring Cinder to live with them, Garan became ill with letumosis, a deadly disease that strikes seemingly without rhyme or reason and for which a cure is being desperately sought. Despite her circumstances, Cinder does not wallow in despair. Her relationship with a household droid reveals her optimistic nature, inner strength, and a sarcastic sense of humor, all of which she clearly needs as the story progresses.

Prince Kai enters the story when he brings a droid to Cinder for repair. It’s curious why he would venture from the sanctity of the palace where he has a staff to complete a seemingly simple task, but Cinder accepts his explanation even when her optobionics flash the orange light. Kai is the equivalent of a rock star sensation, but even though Cinder is a bit flustered at his appearance, she does not swoon in his presence as her sisters and many others would have done. Their first meeting sets the stage for others to come. Cinder’s reactions to the prince are every bit as complex as a “normal” teenage girl with a few added bonuses: her ability to blush was one of the human elements she lost in her transition to cyborg; instead she gets system alerts that she is overheating and needs to calm down! She remains true to her blunt, sarcastic nature, all the while falling for him, and Kai becomes more and more drawn to her, even as his responsibility to the crown demands personal sacrifices that could keep them apart.

The world of New Beijing is fraught with tension not only because of the increasing spread of the letumosis plague, but also on account of the impending threat of the Lunars. The Lunars are a race of people from the moon who are rumored to possess the ability to exert mind control. An uneasy peace has been in place for years, but the existence of a Lunar substation in Earth’s orbit and tales of the greedy and violent Queen Levana (who is believed to have murdered her own sister, husband, and niece in her quest for absolute power) keep people on edge. When Prince Kai becomes the emperor after his father succumbs to letumosis, he has to find a way to avoid war with the Lunars and to find a cure for the plague, and Cinder might just hold the key to both.

CONCLUSION: I do not normally tend toward stories featuring androids and aliens, and still Cinder was a compelling read. The beginning is a little slow, but after the first 50 pages, the stakes become a little clearer and that helps the story to pick up in pace. There are a couple of ‘mysteries’ that are pretty clear from the beginning, but the character interactions are interesting enough that it doesn’t matter. The pace slows a bit again toward the end of the book, but that made sense for the way things concluded. In the last two chapters of the book, I did feel like shaking Cinder, though, because she seemed to go a little brain-dead; however, she got it together right at the end.

The next book in the quartet, Scarlet, picks up where Cinder left off, but it has a new protagonist, and its roots originate in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.
Saturday, February 23, 2013

How To Lead A Life Of Crime by Kirsten Miller (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Kirsten Miller has previously held a variety of jobs like dental assistant, publishing copywriter, advertising strategist, etc. before turning into a wordsmith. She was inspired to become a writer from a young age and had read almost all of Stephen King’s by the time she turned twelve. Her favorite Children’s authors are Phillip Pullman, Stephen King, Jonathan Stroud, and Lemony Snicket who have in turn inspired to her to twist her stories towards the darker and weirder side of fiction. She has two previously published series called The Eternal Ones and The Kiki Strikes series.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer.

Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear.

Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?

FORMAT/INFO: How To Lead A Life Of Crime is 358 pages long, divided over thirty-four numbered and titled chapters and an epilogue. Narration is in the first-person via Flick who is the sole narrative voice. This book is a standalone story and is unconnected to the author’s previous works.

February 21, 2013 marked the US Hardback and e-book publication of How To Lead A Life Of Crime via Razorbill books.

ANALYSIS: If you read the blurb to this book by Kirsten Miller, it becomes very hard not to be interested in it. The book beckoned me with oh-so-intriguing premise and so I got my hands on a copy and started reading immediately.

The story begins with a sly and street-smart teenager who is slumming in the seedier parts of New York City trying to toughen himself for a Herculean task that he has to accomplish. He goes by the moniker of Flick and is desperate to emulate his father to turn in to a hardened diamond. He hangs out with a girl named Joi who is a Mary Poppins figure and helps the meek among the runaways. He however leaves her when he gets an opportunity to join the Mandel academy for the gifted; this school is like the Hogwarts for people with nefarious talents with a major Hunger Games-like enforcement. He tries to gauge what the school principal’s angle is, in allowing him to join the academy and why he should strive to graduate. Flick is also wary as his brother Jude who appears to him as Peter Pan doesn’t want him to join but Flick decides to follow the path of moral ambivalence. This step thus allows him to do whatever is necessary to become crude and violent enough to do what he plans.

The next step amidst his plan is to find out the truth about Mandel academy, its alumnae and the path that leads to his final reckoning with his patriarch. Flick however doesn’t know the many pitfalls in passing out of Mandel academy and the many sacrifices he will have to give to steel his resolve. There are many surprises in store for the protagonist and the reader and is the final culmination of the tale that resolves all the mysteries that sprout within.

The best part of the story for me was the plot setting and the blurb, as the reader is introduced to this exciting and dark [YA level] story that showcases a world wherein the nefarious are being trained for the next level. As a reader, this is a tremendously cool setup and full points to the author for coming up with it. The next plus point for the story is its fast pace that constantly sweeps the plot threads in a forward manner and make it exciting all the way to the final twists of the tale. Lastly the author has to be lauded for making this into a standalone story and not dragging it out over several volumes. Amid the era of series, this standalone story makes it a good investment of time for any new or old readers.

Now these were the points that I liked about the story unfortunately my overall experience wasn’t an entirely fun one because of the following factors that depreciated the read. One of the main reasons that I didn’t like about this story was the uneven characterization. Beginning with our main protagonist Flick who is shown to be struggling in the first third then suddenly becomes this uber-cool fantastic student that crushes everyone and is great at everything and then in last third again does a turn-around to become a semi-confused persona. Then there’s Joi who surprisingly turns out to be the best at everything and is the Mary Sue for this story. Following on with this trend there are the antagonists Gwendolyn who’s supposed to be this ultimate badass but comes across as unhinged and weak. The main villain is also a mastermind who gets fooled ridiculously at crucial turns. This was especially disappointing as the villains became caricature-ish and thus the predictability of the story become apparent to the most novice readers.

This is one of the aspects of the YA storyline that I don’t understand exactly. The cool concept which isn’t properly explored perhaps considering the YA nature of the book This was the most frustrating part about this story that while it seemed that the author had this fantastic idea/plot but the execution faltered majorly for the story to fall into the category of “could have been awesome but…” stories. Perhaps I’m not so familiar with YA stories and how they are executed but in this book I was more than waiting to be surprised. However the ending came and my expectations took a downward turn. The climax while not so surprising becomes a bit comical in regards to the solution about the Mandel Academy?

The author does try her best to come up with a twist of sorts in regards to Flick’s revenge plotline and however the overall predictability of the climax makes it a moot point of sorts. In this regard, my opinion of the book is a subjective one and it will be up to the readers to see how they find the story. I think this could have been a fantastic piece but ultimately went sideways for me. Lastly one good thing about the story is that it ends on a poignant note of sorts and perhaps the author can also explore the characters in a future book for those who did enjoy this story and want to know more about the characters and world.

CONCLUSION: A fantastic idea that intrigued me however the book didn’t hold up to the impressive happenings as promised in the blurb. How to Lead A Life Of Crime is a book that will finds its fans and detractors, sadly I find myself leaning towards the latter camp and couldn’t really enjoy the story as it was written.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

“A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent” by Marie Brennan (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady TrentHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

A Natural History of Dragons—released on February 5, 2013 by Tor—is the first of a new series by Marie Brennan. Her previous books include the Doppelganger series beginning with Warrior, and the Elizabethan fantasy Onyx Court series beginning with Midnight Never Come. You can read more about Marie Brennan on her website here: I admit, I've had some trouble getting into her novels before, but this one hooked me right from the get-go.

I think what really got me was the voice: the narrator, Lady Isabella Trent, is an old lady with no fear of censorship; a lady who has become renowned as a dragon naturalist and has decided to write her memoir; a lady who isn't afraid to write anecdotes and opinions that might scandalize others, because the scientist in her believes that an honest, open, and detailed account is of utmost importance. There's a wonderful blend of clinical and emotional observations about her world, her life, and herself.

The story is set mostly in analogs of England and Russia, with references to Italy, Germany, and countries in Africa. It's essentially Victorian, but with dragons. Structurally, the book uses Victorian chapter titles that manage to summarize the events of a chapter without giving very much of import away before you read it.

I loved the inclusion of sketches of dragons and various other places and people of import (so mostly dragons, because they are what is most important to the character), especially with the implication that the narrator has drawn these sketches herself. There weren't all that many, but they were well-placed.

Brennan writes with an academic's understanding of the world of academia, and her background in anthropology served her well not just in world-building, but also in understanding her narrator's interaction with the past and current worlds. She gets away with a lot of exposition by having her older narrator explain how societal standards and her perception of world differ from those of her younger self. The narrator also periodically references written works in other Victorian styles with varying degrees of approval and chagrin (mostly chagrin, even for her own).

While I loved the older Lady Trent's perspective, as she began her story I also immediately identified with her younger self, the little girl collecting bugs, though that will be different for everyone. The common feature, though, is that as a child she had hobbies that were not what society considered normal or recommended, and that is a more universal experience.

As a lady of her time, Lady Trent did not simply resolve as a child that she was going to buck society and become a heroic naturalist no matter what anyone thought. That would have smacked uncomfortably Mary-Sue-like for my taste, but it's nothing so grandiose; she still exists as a lady of her time, but progressively becomes regarded as more the eccentric. She periodically makes references to what she calls her "deranged practicality," which is part of what makes her story a joy to read. She has wild ideas that she then orders and executes with scientific precision.

Descriptions of places come to the reader through the lens of Isabella's detail-oriented mind, cataloging specs and features, which keep us right in the character's POV. The sheer detail also goes a long way for suspension of disbelief, because explaining the physics of how a dragon wing is structured goes a long way towards my ability to believe that it actually can work. She grounds her story firmly in the details, so the fantastical aspects seem utterly natural.

The POV gives Marie Brennan a lot of room for commentary. None of it is overhanded, but all of it was poignant. She manages to cover culture shock, the relative importance of proprieties given time and distance, the notion that scientific understanding changes with time, people who moralize from the comforts of their homes with limited understanding of realities in other places and walks of life, and the revolutionary idea that she could be both feminine and not feeble in the least. All this, and with a sense of humor: she deals with one double standard by commenting that although her editor is exploding, she sees no reason that she should be able to write about animal anatomy but not her own hips or breasts. She notes that despite exoticized stories of "flashing-eyed" women, she never once met anyone who emitted strange lights from her eyes.

I appreciate that Lady Trent gave no pretense of her marriage being a grand passion, and discussing a different kind of love based on mutual respect that grows over time. There's not anything wrong with grand passion in a story, of course; but I do like to see other kinds of romantic subplots from time to time—not only because reading only one kind of love story give people very skewed ideas on what to expect out of life, but I also appreciate the variety.

Of course, I have a few quibbles. I admit that I wasn't excited about the up-tight and strict mother vs. saintly father trope, but at least she qualified it. I also didn't appreciate that the narrative makes it sound like the protagonist is the only woman in the world to be intelligent, let alone to have a scientifically minded brain. With the exception of one maid, all the other women in the story are interested in social standing and talk about nothing of import. Part of that could be a reflection of how the narrator perceived other women in her society, but to me it came across as all the male characters were allowed to have multifaceted beliefs and approaches, but the women seemed to behave as a whole—excepting our narrator.

There were a couple instances of faulty tense, which I'm fairly sure was an intentional choice to not spoil suspense. For instance, "So-and-so is good at tennis," when So-and-so is actually dead before the end of the story. The book is written with the present-tense narrator narrating the affairs of her younger self, so the narrator would of course be aware that So-and-so dies before the end of her story. There were only a couple of misleading present tenses, and in those cases using the past would have given away something critical, which is why I'm convinced they're deliberate. Other than those few, Brennan handled the switching between tenses flawlessly, which is no mean trick. Often times such switching can feel choppy or jarring, but the author blended the narrative seamlessly.

I suppose if you're looking for epic dragon slaying hunts, this book may not be for you (though there is certainly some dragon slaying involved). This isn't an epic take on dragons; it's a memoir of scientific and personal discovery. There's no obvious antagonist to defeat beyond lack of understanding, but what makes A Natural History of Dragons so riveting is Isabella's quest not just to better understand dragons, no matter the cost, but to understand the metaphorical dragon in herself. I found the book completely engrossing, and I can't wait for the next installment.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

GUEST POST: The Reality Of Historical Fantasy by Albert A. Dalia

I characterize my writing as historical fantasy. At first, that might seem paradoxical. How can history and fantasy coexist? Even more paradoxical, at least to me, is how someone who has three graduate degrees in history can be writing fantasy! But then, I do teach two courses in the Boston University Writing Program that deal with writing and with paradox: “Paradox of the Hero/Heroine in East Asian Cinema and Fiction” and “Paradox of the Strange in East Asian Cinema and Fiction.” And these academic writing courses grew out of my fiction writing. Perhaps I should start at the beginning – which for me is a long way back.

The only things I was ever good at in high school were history and fast cars. I chose history to be my path through college and took my fast car with me. However, once I chose Chinese history as my graduate field of study, the car was sold – couldn’t fly it to Honolulu – and I settled down at the University of Hawaii to study Chinese history. History at the graduate level meant learning the language of your field of study - off to Taiwan for four years of language school. I had decided that it was medieval China that most fascinated me – that meant classical Chinese study, an ancient language much more terse and complicated then modern vernacular Chinese. To make things more complicated, I had developed an interest in Chinese Buddhist history, which meant I had to study Buddhist, classical Chinese and eventually Japanese, since at the time they were the best scholars in that esoteric field.

I received my masters in Chinese history and decided to move back to Taiwan. Life, however, had other plans and I did another masters degree, this time under my University of Hawaii’s professor at Yale in East Asian Studies. One thing led to another and I ended up capping my academic study with a doctorate in Chinese history at the University of Hawaii. At that point, I needed some fresh air from almost two decades in those historical archives. I was working in the field of medieval Chinese Buddhist intellectual history and had read so many fascinating stories in those ancient texts that I wanted to tell them in English. The stories couldn’t be told in an academic context because there was neither an audience nor tolerance for such tales. So I decided to write fiction.

The obvious genre would be historical fiction, but my stories involved many fantastic adventures. So I adopted historical fantasy. Yet, and here is another paradox, as a historian I had learned that “fantasy” is a relative term. If a culture believed something to be real, it will act on those beliefs regardless if another cultural viewpoint claims those beliefs to be irrational, unscientific, or otherwise. I realized that by attempting to portray a medieval Chinese viewpoint and worldview, I was actually opening a door to a “real world.” Thus in the “Author’s Statement” to my novels (Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain) I write:

 "The adventure you are about to embark on is based upon a 7th/8th century Chinese understanding of reality. While many of the characters, incidents, and locations in the story appear in Chinese historical records, some are yet to be discovered, and others may never be. It is up to you to decide if any of this matters."

These words were carefully chosen to express my fiction writing approach. My stories are based on “Chinese historical records.” Yet some of the claims in those records, “have yet to be discovered and others may never be.” In the end, it is up to the reader to decide the success of the story – some might clamor for more historical accuracy, while others might deem there be too much and more “fantastic” elements should have been added. In the end, the story should stand on its own without explanations from authors or reviewers – the reader either connects or not with the writer.

The issue of “what is fantasy” is another aspect of my work. I am a genre writer and like most, my genre is a sub-genre nestled within a number of ever-broader genre categories: fiction/historical/fantasy/heroic. But since my space and time zones are medieval China, that heroic genre is known as wuxia – a Chinese term that literally means “martial hero.” It is commonly translated as “martial arts fiction.” However, I translate it as “heroic fiction,” more specifically, “Chinese heroic fiction.” And within that Chinese genre, my more specific genre is wuxia shenguai. The additional term here, shenguai, literarily means “mystical/uncanny”. Some translate it as “supernatural” others as simply “fantasy.” For some, numerous fantastical scenes in Ang Lee’s popular movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are expressions of wuxia shenguai, while a classic Bruce Lee movie would have no shenguai aspect to it.

Yet, my writing is grounded in the history of 7th and 8th century China, where such amazing capabilities were taken as a reality achievable by humans with “special” or “esoteric” training regimes. Daoists believe in the ability of humans to attain immortality and Buddhists preach of mystical powers attainable through various cultivation practices. In my own experience of several decades in the Chinese martial arts community, I’ve heard numerous tales of such feats. Fantasy?

In my Boston University writing courses we consider several interesting viewpoints regarding the nature of fantasy. While many of the sources I use refer to the commonly acknowledge “escapism” aspect of the genre, they also consider a deeper perspective. For example, Susan Napier, a Tuffs University professor of Japanese literature and a foremost expert in Japanese Anime film, points out that the film critic Robin Wood, “in discussing fantasy film has stated that fantasy ‘can be used in two ways, as a means of escaping from contemporary reality or as a means of illuminating it.’” Further, her study of contemporary Japanese literature, The fantastic in modern Japanese literature, is subtitled: The subversion of modernity. When we consider fantasy in my classes, we are looking at its power to “illuminate” the culture that produces it, not as a literature of “escape.”

In a more Western take on fantasy we also read a penetrating analysis of the genre by the SF/Fantasy critic and scholar, Gary K. Wolfe. In Evaporating Genres, he argues that to view fantasy through the criterion of the impossible is to miss its most profound aspect – that, “fantasy not only sustains our interest in the impossible, but finally wins our belief and reveals that the impossible is, after all, the real.” Sounds like an academic’s “slight of hand,” but you’ll have to read his chapter, “The Encounter with Fantasy” to judge for yourself.

These views of fantasy inform my writing in the genre, as I hope to illuminate not only a distant culture’s understanding of life, but also to discover the “reality” of their human experience - an experience that I believe has much to say about our humanity. There is much more about all of this on my website, which has materials relating to my novels – like maps and location diagrams for Listening to Rain, more detail about my background, and articles about the historical and literary traditions that I write about in my fiction. I look forward to your visit to the Dragon Gate Inn.

Official Author Website 
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Listening To Rain 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Albert A. Dalia was born and brought in New York state. Growing up the author loved fast cars and coincidentally discovered Chinese culture. The author graduated from State University of New York majoring in History and Political Science and later studied Classical Chinese and Classical Buddhist Chinese literary languages at the National Taiwan Normal University, Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. Since then he's gotten two Masters and a PhD as well. He has also held a variety of jobs like broadcast journalist, assignment editor; copywriter for an ad agency, editor-in-chief, Associate Professor, Editorial director, etc. He currently lives nearby Boston with his family.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself. Wuxia picture courtesy of The Daily Zombies. To find out more about Albert Dalia and his Wuxia fantasy series "The Adventures of the Shaolin Blade Tanzong", read the sequel to Albert's guest post in the next couple of weeks.


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