Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Tea Dragon Festival (Katie O'Neill)

The Tea Dragon Festival
The Tea Dragon series, Book 2
Katie O'Neill
Oni Press
Fiction, CH Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A small mountain village prepares for an annual festival to honor its tea dragons: miniature creatures who grow leaves and blossoms on their horns that create memory-infused teas. Young Rinn hopes to become an apprentice chef by the time of the festival, but in the meantime uses a gift for finding mushrooms to help out other villagers... which is why she wandered into the remote clearing with the dilapidated shrine - and a sleeping dragon! Aedhan had been charged with keeping up the shrine and watching over the village, but he fell asleep for eighty years and has been forgotten by all but the oldest. As Rinn tries to help him adapt, the arrival of her bounty hunter uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel - who chase stories of dangerous creatures across the land - hints that there's more to the dragon's unnatural sleep than mere fatigue.

REVIEW: Like the first Tea Dragon book, this prequel is a (very) light fantasy tale that's more about internal conflicts and growing up than it is about adventure or violence. Indeed, it's almost too lightweight at times - at least, for grown-ups. (It also wavers once or twice on a border between including diversity and polishing it like a medal to make sure the reader notices, though maybe it was just the thinness of the tale itself that made it seem this way a few times.) The conflicts are almost entirely internal, as Rinn struggles to improve at cooking - a long process of learning that just cannot be rushed, impatient as she grows with herself - and Aedhan wrestles with shame over his dereliction of duty. Almost everything is resolved through talking, friendship, and epiphanies; the world as a whole seems designed to have no place whatsoever for violence of any kind (save one animal attack), which makes one wonder why bounty hunter Eric bothers carrying a sword at all (or what the point of bounties and monster hunting is in this place.) The tea dragons themselves mostly sit by the sidelines and be cute... which, to be fair, is not entirely unlike what they did in the previous Tea Dragon book, though at least then the dragons themselves - and the lead girl's introduction to them and their fading traditions - formed a significant prong of the story. Here, aside from some minor involvement in the wrap-up, the tea dragons might have been any cute little critters. They don't even seem to act like tea dragons, as one character points out... a question that, once raised, is never really answered and seems forgotten. Once again, it ends with an appendix that talks more about the tea dragons, which is the kind of detail dragon-loving kids (and grown-ups) enjoy.
In any event, looked at from the point of view of the target audience, the art is simple and whimsical, and the story's pleasant, magical, inclusive, and - with the exception of the aforementioned animal attack, which is quick - most decidedly not dangerous. And, of course, there are dragons. It's difficult (though not impossible) to go wrong with dragons.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sun Dragon's Song #1 (Joyce Chng) - My Review
The Tea Dragon Society (Katie O'Neill) - My Review
A Dragon's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder) - My Review

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

June Site Update

I've updated the main Brightdreamer Books site with the month's reviews, archived and cross-linked.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

An Illustrated Guide to Welsh Monsters and Mythical Beasts (C C J Ellis)

An Illustrated Guide to Welsh Monsters and Mythical Beasts
C C J Ellis
C C J Ellis, publisher
Nonfiction, Art/Folklore
****+ (Good/Great)

Author Book Page
DESCRIPTION: Drawing the deep mythic roots of Welsh culture, artist C C J Ellis describes numerous beasts and beings, from dragons to Fair Folk and everything in, around, and between.

REVIEW: In the interest of full disclosure, I follow the artist on Patreon and contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for this book. This review was not specifically requested.
This is, as promised, a beautifully illustrated guide to creatures of Welsh folklore, the traditions that gave rise to King Arthur and which are currently threatened, as so many traditions are threatened, by a world that seems content to blur, twist, and forget its mythic roots. She offers pronunciation guides with the non-phonetic Welsh names and brief descriptions, with a few examples of lore and legend.
Where it lost a half-star (and nearly a full star) was in the editing. Some of the descriptions read awkwardly at the sentence level, and there are some probably unintentional incomplete sentences where a period was used instead of a comma. (There was also at least one homophone error.) In one instance at least the write-up seemed to contradict itself. It was just enough of an issue to distract me, and therefore just enough to merit mention. Overall, though, I'm quite pleased with my purchase. It is slated for wider release and publication come October (as of this review), and is worth investigating for anyone interested in a starter book on uniquely Welsh mythic beasts... or who just enjoys good fantasy art.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fabulous Beasts (Malcolm Ashman) - My Review
Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe (John Howe) - My Review
Dracopedia: The Bestiary (William O'Connor) - My Review

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Story of Owen (E. K. Johnson)

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim
The Story of Owen series, Book 1
E. K. Johnson
Holiday House
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Dragons have plagued humanity since time began; when humans discovered fire, the sweet carbon fumes of smoke drew the beasts like bears to a beehive. For almost as long as there have been dragons attacks, there have risen dragon slayers: those of keen eye and strong arm and swift blade, to cut through the dragon's hearts while spilling as little of the toxic waste inside their corpses as possible. Every town, every village used to have a resident slayer, plus a bard to sing their praises and instruct the populace in how to survive a dragon strike. In modern times, the bards are almost unheard of and the slayers have evolved to the global Oil Watch network, devoted to protecting the carbon-belching oil fields, corporations, and industrial centers of the world...  mostly leaving the rural areas to fend for themselves.
All that changed when the famed Thorksards relocated from Toronto, where their exploits were world famous, to the small Ontario town of Trondheim.
Though only sixteen, Owen Thorksard is already well on his way to following his father Aodhan and aunt Lottie into the family trade of dragon slaying... but he'll never get a decent post in the Oil Watch if he can't pass algebra. Siobhan McQuaid was just the girl who happened to help him find his way to English class on his first day in school - an encounter of happenstance that snowballs into her becoming his tutor and the first official dragon slayer's bard in decades, part of Lottie's efforts to break the corporate grip of the Oil Watch and return dragon slayers and their lore to the people who need them most. But it takes more than a talent for music and storytelling to be a slayer's bard. She'll have to join him for practice, for scouting - even for slaying. And with the dragon population near Trondheim inexplicably spiking, she might have to become more than just a storyteller. She might have to become a hero herself.

REVIEW: This is a different sort of fantasy book, different enough that it took some thinking to determine my reaction. The alternate world personifies climate change and industrial pollution as dragons which are never physically described aside from a few odd details; they're left vague smears in the reader's mind, smoke and flame and poison and glass-shattering shrieks. As a dragon lover, this irritated me - I love seeing new dragons in my mind's eye, so I crave details - but it works for the story, where dragons are the ultimate monster, something that can never be reasoned with or accommodated or tamed or even understood, yet cannot be eradicated and become the acceptable price for modern conveniences like the internal combustion engine and the wealth of oil. The narrator Siobhan sees the world as a symphony, every character and event carrying musical undertones in implied synesthesia. It's really more her story than Owen's, as she stumbles into a destiny that she never would've imagined (and which terrifies her parents), but which she cannot turn away from. Classmates become allies and friends as the town of Trondheim shifts from idolizing its new resident dragon slayer family to becoming participants in their own salvation - another break from Oil Watch practices, part of the politics of dragon slaying that have left so much of Canada and the rest of the world at the mercies of dragon depredation (another metaphor for how the highest price for pollution and climate change is paid by everyone but those who contribute most to it, who have whole governments and armies to defend their interests and profit margins.) Though there are dragon attacks and other developments, in some ways it's a slower and more contemplative story about teenagers growing up and finding a place, about realizing how little of what they've been taught about how the world works is true or set in stone, and about how it's always possible to act and at least try to make the world a better place... even if it requires great sacrifice. The story almost lost a half-star for a meandering buildup and some tangents that didn't seem to pay off by the end, but I ultimately went with a Good rating of four stars; the whole becomes greater than the sum of its occasionally slow and tangled parts.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Last Dragonslayer (Jasper Fforde) - My Review
Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn) - My Review
Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Fantasy World-Building (Mark. A. Nelson)

Fantasy World-Building: A Guide to Developing Mythic Worlds and Legendary Creatures 
Mark A. Nelson
Nonfiction, Art/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Hunters of giant jellyfish, riders of flying bats, a city built on the towering backbones of long-dead behemoths... Artist Mark A. Nelson discusses the process of brainstorming and creating imaginary beasts, beings, and settings, from reference gathering to final rendering.

REVIEW: I've been feeling a creative itch again lately, and this looked like a good book for inspiration. On some levels, it is: Nelson packs the pages with imaginative artwork and sketches. On others, it feels a little lacking in actual instruction, the text being largely questions or rough suggestions of where and how to find inspiration, plus notes on the use of different media and the use of line weight, contrast, composition, and color to further the storytelling of a particular piece or series of panels (in the case of graphic novel illustrations.) I almost got the impression I was already supposed to be familiar with his work from elsewhere, and was missing something. I enjoyed Nelson's imaginative and intricately detailed art, though I have to confess I'd hoped for a little more actual discussion on creating worlds, such as thinking through designs and ecosystems, formulating internally consistent cultures, and so forth. Being an artist, Nelson thinks in sketches and pencils, not so much in words, I suppose. Still, it makes for a visual feast, every image hinting at a greater story to be told, and that is indeed at least part of what I was hoping for when I purchased it.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book (Gary A. Lippincott) - My Review
Animals Real and Imagined (Terryl Whitlatch) - My Review