Oathbreakers, by Mercedes Lackey


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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Evil had cast its shadow over the kingdom of Rethwellan. When Idra, leader of the Sunhawks mercenaries, failed to return from a journey to her home, Tarma and Kethry, warrior and mage, set out in search of their vanished leader.

Thoughts: Remembering my thoughts on Oathbound, the previous novel in the Vows and Honor trilogy, I admit I had some trepidation about this one. Fortunately, I ended up pleasantly surprised. Where the first book of the trilogy was obviously originally a collection of short stories strung together by only a light touch of editing, this book was one long story, complete and full, and therefore much more entertaining and devoid of the problems that I found in Oathbound.

Tarma and Kethry became much more interesting to me in this novel than they were in the previous, and I suspect no small part of that was due to the first book’s sloppy editing. More of their story was revealed and explained in a way that made me want to keep reading instead of frustrating me with tantalyzing hints about a previously-published short story that I didn’t get a chance to see.

I was particularly amused by Tarma’s frustration at Leslac, especially the section that detailed him stating that he would be the man to cure her of her celibacy. Speaking as someone who identifies as asexual (though, I’ll grant you, my asexuality isn’t because of any religious devotion or calling, as Tarma’s is), the “you just need to find the right person” attitude is a very common and annoying reaction that a lot of people have, and I was thrilled to see Tarma be so incensed at Leslac’s presumption.

On the down side, some of the plot elements were not particularly surprising when they were presented. Idra’s fate, I think, is one that I saw coming a mile off.

It also seems that this book was written when Lackey didn’t know where to place it on the Valdemar timeline, because there were another boatload of inconsistancies with the rest of the series. Kethry’s use of magic within Valdemar’s borders, and the matter of who’s ruling Rethwellan clash with facts stated in later Valdemar novels. It’s disappointing when my favourite author can’t keep her own timeline straight, and when inconsistancies have become par for the course, even so early on in the series. I’m not holding those against this particular novel, though; merely against the series as a whole. On its own, or even within its own trilogy, I don’t think I encountered any contradictions. In a wider context, however…

But that won’t stop me from doing what I’ve been doing for years: reading the Valdemar novels and loving them anyway!

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle

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Publication date – 1968

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Last Unicorn is one of the great fantasy novels of the 20th Century. Since its publication in 1968 it has never been out of print, with 6 million-plus copies sold around the world, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. The animated movie, version released in 1982, has been seen by hundreds of millions of people, and after 25 years is still showing regularly on cable and satellite.

Thoughts: Much like with my review of The Thief Lord, I had first been introduced to this story through the film version, and fell in love with it. I have had a copy of this book kicking around for years before I ever got around to reading it in full, though I had a few false false starts.

From beginning to end, though, this was a wonderful book, and unlike a good deal of book-to-movie adaptations, I felt myself being flashed back to the animated classic more than once, which was so like the book upon which it was based that if lifted most of its dialogue directly from the text itself. The story was compelling, deep in all the right places and yet still magical and fantastical enough on the surface that I didn’t close it feeling like I needed a degree in philosophy to get full enjoyment out of it.

I particularly enjoyed the way Beagle didn’t bog the work down with needless description. It was a relatively short book, telling the events of the story and nothing else, not bothering with paragraphs devoted to how the weather was or how the townspeople smelled. That isn’t to say, however, that you don’t feel immersed in the story. Rather, it means that the author knew what he wanted to say and said it, without feeling the need to say anything extra and risk padding the book with details that make you lose sight of the main purpose of the story. It’s meant to be written like a fairy tale, to capture you and make you flow with the characters on their quest. Perhaps to read the story, but not necessarily become so much a part of it that you feel you’re there.

I’m not sure I’m explaining that very well, and I’m sure I’m making it sound like the book wasn’t very good with its descriptions. I think perhaps it might be better to say that intent matters. I don’t think beagle intended this as a book that you fall into so much as a book that makes you feel like you’re reading a wonderful book.

Ultimately, this was a great read. The characters were wonderfully flawed and believable, the humour was subtle and well-done, and in its more philosophical moments, it had good messages to convey about love, existance, meaning, and why and how things are what they are. It’s the kind of book than can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, though I think children might be apt to miss some of the book’s more subtle humour. Still, well worth picking up!

The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke


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Published by Chicken House Publishing

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Prosper and Bo are orphans on the run from their cruel aunt and uncle. The brothers decide to hide out in Venice, where they meet a mysterious character who calls himself the “Thief Lord.” Brilliant and charismatic, the Thief Lord leads a ring of street children who dabble in petty crimes. Prosper and Bo relish being part of this colorful new family. But the Thief Lord has secrets of his own. And soon the boys are thrust into circumstances that will lead them, and readers, to a fantastic, spellbinding conclusion.

Thoughts: I first watched the movie, and after finding out that it was based on a book, I knew I had to get my hands on it. And I wasn’t disappointed; the movie stuck remarkably close to the book, so if you’re reading the book after you see the film, you’ll enjoy one as much as the other.

If there’s one place that fantastical YA and children’s stories tend to fail, it’s in their characterization of adults. Cornelia Funke’s novel does not suffer from this: adults gripe and grumble about things, feed their pets, smoke, handle guns, and actually act very much like adults instead of just obstacles in a kid’s path or else a convenience means to a kid’s end. Or like overgrown kids.

Except for Barbarossa. He’s definitely an overgrown kid, and that’s his character, so the author can’t be faulted on that.

The diversity of characters and the way Funke can portray complex emotional reactions and situations without going overboard in the prose is also something to be commended. The languaged used is simple, direct, and clear, and yes, it is a translation from another language into English, but I’m working under the assumption that it’s a good translation and therefore carries the feel of the original work.

The story is well-told, and you don’t even know that there’s a touch of fantasy about the book until near the very end, which works very well at adding to the credibility of the whole story. There’s magic, it’s real, it touches them for a brief moment and then is gone, but leaves a profound effect on all of the characters.

If you enjoy well-told YA/children’s stories, and/or you enjoyed watching the film based on the book, then you’ll love The Thief Lord. Don’t miss your chance to give it a try!

Bardic Voices: the Lark and the Wren, by Mercedes Lackey


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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Possessing the potential to be the greatest bard her world has ever seen, young Rune rashly brags about her abilities and must prove herself by meeting the Ghost of Skull Hill, who forces her to fiddle an entire night.

Thoughts: This book reads like it was originally a collection of related short stories put together into one longer books, much like Oathbound felt to me, only in this case Lackey managed to avoid the problems that Oathbound faced. The transitions from section to section are smooth, little to no repetition, and by the end it felt very much like I had been with the main character on one long adventure, the ending of which really couldn’t be foretold at the beginning.

However, this book was not without its flaws. Some things were only briefly touched on that could have been easily expanded into something much more exciting and interesting (Gwyna’s time as a caged bird springs instantly to mind), while others sometimes felt a little drawn out. The pacing was okay, but not great, and could have easily been improved. Some of the romance felt rather contrived, too (Gwyna and Sional fall madly in love and yet there’s precious little interaction between them), though the main romance between Rune and Talaysen was rather sweet. Talaysen’s constant attempts to convince Rune not to like them were amusing at times.

As one of Lackey’s earlier books, this one stands out as having good potential for an interesting series. It’s the only one of the series that I’ve read so far, though, and so I can’t say whether the potential is followed through on or just left alone. Time will tell.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

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Published by Puffin/Penguin
Publication date – April 1, 1984

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Shy, awkward Bastian is amazed to discover that he has become a character in the mysterious book he is reading and that he has an important mission to fulfill.

Thoughts: Translated by Ralph Manheim, this classic of children’s fantasy literature could not go unread on my bookshelves any longer. It is, in many ways, the high point of fairy tale fantasy with a reader avatar, containing both the story of Atreyu, the hero of the Fantastica as he tries to save the Childlike Empress from death, and Bastian, reader of Atreyu’s story and eventual reshaper of Fantastica. It’s a book that speaks to the heart of every avid reader, and to everyone who’s ever longer for even a moment within their favourite fantasy world, or indeed anyone who’s merely longed to bring about good change within this world.

Aside from placing a heavy emphasis on the powers of imagination, creativity, and love, The Neverending Story is rife with allegory. From the world beginning in darkness until Bastian essentially says, “Let there be light,” to the concept of the Childlike Empress having enormous power but choosing to do nothing with it and yet always being a part of everything, it’s easy to see Christian religious comparisons being drawn all over the place. But here’s the thing: it’s done well. It’s done subtly, and you’re not beating your head off a wall every time you see a new one. Which is, to be blunt about it, better than some books I could name that try to throw in religious allegory.

The message that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is one of the less cubtle messages of the story, especially in the last half. Bastian gets the power of AURYN and wishes, and in creating a new world, he loses bits of himself, all his memories of who he was before wishes he didn’t even know he wasn’t satisfied with changed him into something else. He reshaped himself, and an entire world, and by the end Fantastica has pulled a “be careful what you wish for” trick on him because the decisions he made in kindness and mercy turn out to have monumentally screwed some things up. Finding a balance between the status quo and change is never easy, but that’s exactly why having the power to do anything you wish is dangerous, especially when you lose all of what you were before.

I wasn’t very fond of Bastian, though. As a character, he was very flat. The only time he seemed to have personality at all was when he went mad with power, and even then the personality was stereotyped. He had no depth to him, but not even in the way where he’s meant to be an everyman, the kind of blank slate that everyone can, in some way, relate to. Even babies have more personality than this guy showed. I don’t know if that was the fault of the translation, the original author, or even if he was supposed to be this way, but he fell flat. I enjoyed reading about Falkor more, since he at least had definable, and less mercurial, personality traits.

But still, in spite of its faults, this was a book not to be passed over. I think just about everybody has seen the movie, but the book, as happens in most cases, far surpasses it. Pick this one up if you haven’t already, and treat yourself to a classic that won’t be dying for many years yet!

Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey


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Pubplished by Tor

Thoughts: Mercedes Lackey admitted to writing the Diana Tregarde books because paranormal investigations were big at the time and she had no problem with making a little cash by playing the fads. I’m glad that she did, because although the series isn’t fantastic, it’s still very entertaining to read through. In this one, Diana is called upon to help with a police investigation of a serial murder, and ends up getting tangled up in the middle of a plot to resurrect ancient Aztec gods into modern-day (or relatively modern, at least) Dallas.

I admit, it’s a little disconcerting to read Burning Water and seeing the remarkably un-PC language used throughout. References to “Indians”, “krauts”, and “gypsies” are littered through the pages, terms which people don’t tend to use anymore unless they want to get glared at on the street and called ignorant. Sometimes I had to make myself take a step back and remember that this was all written before PC language was really coming into its heyday, and such terms, while not perfectly acceptable, were still in more common use, and so in context, it’s not that unusual to see them mentioned.

That being said, the attitude towards paganism as a relgion as expressed in the novel is rather ahead of its time, given that even today, 20 years later, some people still don’t have that level of understanding when it comes to non-Abrahamic religions. The idea that there’s no one true way seems to be a common theme in Lackey’s work, though, and so it was no surprise to see it echoed here.

The writing style is still very early-Lackey, lacking some of the polish she attained with more practice, though it still shows a lot of promise of what’s to come, all the good bits that I like about her writing. True to style, too, it’s a rather large amount of build-up, finding the pieces of the puzzle, and a then a relatively short period of high-action tense conclusion at the end.

Burning Water‘s ending was interesting because although there was a conclusion to the immediate problem, it was still remarkably open-ended and unfinished. The immediate resurrection plot ends, but the god is not destroyed, not even really defeated or even daunted, and the reader is left with a slight feeling of incompletion. Which, I have no doubt, was the entire point. The battle was won, but the war goes on, and when one is dealing with things on a scale as grand as gods, you often can’t expect much better at the end.

Definitely a book worth reading if you’re into Lackey’s work or you enjoy a good paranormal investigation that doesn’t get bogged down in being overly dark and gritty.

Made in America, by Bill Bryson

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 1, 1996

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In Made in America, Bryson de-mythologizes his native land, explaining how a dusty hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say ‘lootenant’ and ‘Toosday’, how Americans were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up, as well as exposing the true origins of the G-string, the original $64,000 question, and Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame

Thoughts: It isn’t that often that you can say, “I enjoy history, linguistics, and trivia,” and have all your interests addressed and satisfied in the same book. Billy Bryson manages this in Made in America, which is, true to its subtitle, an informal history of the English language in the United States.

Bryson’s engaging style and unfailing humour shine in this book. He breaks down his research into different categories rather than just starting at America’s earliest point in history and jumping around from there. Thus, each chapter is fairly well self-contained, and it’s easy to look up a fact or idea just from the chapter categories rather than trying to remember where in America’s history something occurred.

I say “fairly well” self-contained because there are a few problems with this system, most notably in the inconsistancy Bryson has in bringing up facts that he already mentioned in previous chapters. He does his best to make sure that the earlier chapter gets the detailed explanation, and the problem doesn’t lie so much in no explanation at all but rather in getting the explanation repeated.

Still, as this doesn’t happen incredibly often, it’s easy to overlook so that the rest of the book can be enjoyed without problem.

With great style and wit, Bryson accomplishes what so many teachers cannot – he makes history, and language, intensely interesting. This is one book that comes with a high recommendation from me. It’s not for everyone, but anyone with an interest in history or linguistics will find something to appreciate. In this book, you’ll learn things that you weren’t even aware that you didn’t know.

Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 15, 1994

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The direct sequel to the classic Ender’s Game from Orson Scott Card, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards. In the aftermath of his terrible war, Ender Wiggin disappeared, and a powerful voice arose: the Speaker for the Dead, who told the true story of the Bugger War. Now, long years later, a second alien race has been discovered by Portuguese colonists on the planet Lusitania. But again the aliens’ ways are strange and frightening… again, humans die. And it is only the Speaker for the Dead, who is also Ender Wiggin the Xenocide, who has the courage to confront the mystery … and the truth. Orson Scott Card infuses this tale with intellect by casting his characters in social, religious and cultural contexts.

Thoughts: Some argue that this book was superior in all ways to Ender’s Game. I agree that the story was wonderful, detailed, mysterious, and well-researched, and overall I’d say it was a very powerful novel. Stylistically, this one’s superior.

I still enjoyed reading Ender’s Game more, though.

Don’t get me wrong. Speaker for the Dead is a wonderful novel, and I’m glad to have read it. The book before it just appealed to my interests more. That being said, though, it’s interesting to see just how Ender grew up, how he became a different person and yet still showed signs of the killer-child he used to be.

I’m still a sucker for cultural relativism, though, and this book had that in spades. What might be appalling to us is perfectly normal, even respected within other cultures, and learning to see past ourselves is very often the key to solving the mystery and understanding others. The way Card handled the killings of the humans by the piggies was wonderful to read, and trying to solve it kept me amused through the book. (“Is this why they did it? Or maybe because of this?”)

I applaud the man for the research that he put into the writing of this novel, in linguistics and anthropology and biology. The little details made everything so believable, so realistic, that when his smooth writing style drew me in, I forgot everything around me.

——————————

If anything about this bothered me, it was from an outside perspective, where I kept thinking to myself, “Good lord, you missed the point of your own novel.” Orson Scott Card’s views on homosexuality are… ignorant, to say the least. I recall him saying on his blog that if gay marriage was legalized in the United States, he’d storm the White House himself, because homosexuals are just plain wrong and should fix their sorry selves.

And so I couldn’t help but look at everything he says in Speaker for the Dead, about the varying degrees of humanity in creatures that aren’t biologically human, about how just because something seems alien doesn’t mean it’s bad, about how we should understand things from the perspective of the other side before we make our judgments… And I felt sad and disgusted. Whether he had a change of heart between writing the admirable sentiments expressed in the novel and between ranting about the evil gay dangers of the world, or whether he didn’t believe a word of those admirable sentiments when he wrote them, in the end, comparing the two things, he just made himself seem like a prat.

As I said in my review for Ender’s Game, I like the man’s work, but I don’t like the man personally. Too much that he says rubs me raw, and this was certainly one of them.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 28, 1994

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.

Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.

Thoughts: This isn’t the first time I’ve read this novel, but I’m engrossed and impressed by it every time I do. The subject matter covers the human condition, the ethics of war, what it means to be sentient, and what it means to be a child or an adult, touches on what people are willing to do when ther are (or at least feel they are) backed into a corner, and it does it all in a spectacularly entertaining way.

I have to admit, as much as I don’t like the author as a person, the man sure can tell a good story!

Though the book is called Ender’s Game, the story does not just follow Ender, but also gives us a glimpse into the lives of his siblings, at first deemed failures according to the purpose that somebody else gave them, but who find their own feet and end up changing the world in their own way, but a no less profound way than Ender himself did. Their stories are separate from Ender’s and yet are still tied up in the events of his life, playing their parts.

I hear a lot of people dislike the use of the term ‘buggers’ for the alien race in the novel, saying that it’s too reminiscent of, well, our use of the word ‘bugger’ for someone who engages in sodomy. I’ve heard people say that it’s a childish use of the word and inappropriate to what’s going on. Frankly, I think it serves its purpose well there. Name one society in human history that has not tried to denegrate their enemies, given them cruel and childish epithets in an attempt to raise local moral and to inspire a feeling of confidence in “our side.” Ender himself thinks early on in the book that the buggers probably have their own pejorative terms for humans. It’s the way we work. It’s not pretty, it’s not kind, but it’s one of the ways we band together in times of crisis. The use of the word ‘bugger’ doesn’t seem out of place at all, and I think a lot of these people have to remember that just because we have the same word, it doesn’t mean that the words have the same meaning.

The book isn’t perfect, though. No book is. Sometimes I wonder if Orson Scott Card wrote about child geniuses partly because they create interest and partly because he simply didn’t know how to write interesting “normal” children. Having genius children sound like adults is a good way to write intelligent conversation between characters without having to suffer the accusation that you can’t write realistic children. I’ve seen a few people fall into this trap. Card avoids some of this by having the children still give out fairly childish insults, like “fart-eater,” but some of the feeling of avoiding writing real kids by writing genius “adult-sounding” kids is still there.

Still, I wouldn’t pass up reading this for anything. It’s a wonderful book, exploring many aspects of the philosophy of humanity and war while not bogging down the story in meaningless speculative conversations. Highly recommended novel. If you haven’t read it yet, you ought to read it soon.

Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan


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Summary: Elsha is one of the Quelled: a branded people, doomed always to mine coal to warm the ruling class, the Chosen.

But Elsha has strange visions that set her apart– and a strong spirit that condemns her to death. Her life is saved when she is called to be Handmaiden to the Firelord, the most powerful being on the planet.

Elsha is the first of her kind ever to be so honored– and both the Chosen and her felow Quelled are stunned. But the powers and visions grow ever stronger, even in the face of extreme prejudice.

Yet Elsha must learn the hard way that you can’t play with fire without getting burned.

Thoughts: The Quelled race, forced into slavery generations ago, spend their time mining for coal in order to keep the Chosen race warm when the world is ravaged by a seemingly never-ending winter. The irony is that the more coal is burned, the more smoke is released into the air, forming clouds that block out the sun and prevent heat and light from coming through, and so more coal must be mined by the Quelled so that humanity can survive. The Chosen view the Quelled as less than animal, having no language, no emotion, no intelligence, and so God Himself has designated them as slaves to the master race of the world. Elsha of the Quelled knows this all to be false, and against all odds and opposition, vows to change the lives on the Quelled, and thus the very foundations of society.

Most YA novels with a strong environmental message are set in the modern world, or slightly in the future, so at least the world is as we can recognize. Sherryl Jordan’s world is not, instead being set in a place that’s alien enough to be fantastical while still being familiar enough to hit close to him. She tells the story of cyclical pain and consequence, how once things are set in motion it can be hard, if not impossible, to change things.

And yet through the whole book is the message of hope, that if one puts for the effort and actually works for the change they want, then something can be accomplished. We can’t all be as lucky as Elsha, to be chosen as an assistant to somebody in power, but we can make the changes we want to see in other ways.

There is, also, an expected message about prejudice in the novel. The Chosen hate the Quelled, viewing them as unclean abominations, and affront to God. Elsha’s new position, something unheard of, causes not only local strife in the towns she passes through but eventually leads to civil war. People don’t change easily, and even the people who side with Elsha acknowledge that and try to convince her not to be so radical in her beliefs. But more and more we see the futility of prejudice, how it stems from ignorance, and how with work from everybody, it can be overcome.

This review makes Winter of Fire seem really heavy-handed in its messages, but it really isn’t. It’s a well-woven story that incorporates these elements, and they are major themes in the book, but the message isn’t hammered home until you’re tired of hearing. They’re properly incorporated, woven in and around the story rather than cutting a clear path through it, becoming a part of the story instead of standing out as the wagging finger and disapproving glare. Jordan has a gift for this that other authors could do well to emulate.