Monday, December 17, 2018

Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames)

Kings of the Wyld
The Band series, Book 1
Nicholas Eames
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: "We were giants, once..."
Many years ago, Clay Cooper was part of Saga, perhaps the greatest band of mercenaries ever to walk the realm of Grandual. With the wizard Moog, the knife-wielding rogue Matrick, the deadly warrior Ganelon, and their leader and frontman "Golden" Gabriel (not to mention their booker and an endless stream of ill-fated bards), they carved a swath through the monster-filled Heartwyld forests and a legend that persists to this day. But time marches on, and even legends dim and age. In the years since Saga dissolved, Clay has settled down in a quiet hamlet, building a peaceful life with the woman he loves, content to let his fame fade.
Then Gabriel turns up on his doorstep, and his plans for peaceful retirement end.
It turns out that Gabriel's daughter Rose has been bitten by the mercenary bug - which is how she wound up across the mountains in Castia, a fortress currently besieged by a monstrous horde the likes of which the world has never seen. Most people believe the inhabitants as good as dead already, but Gabriel refuses to give up hope. He plans to get the band back together for one last glorious ride - or one last glorious death.
Clay wants to tell him no. He wants to tell him their fighting days are over, that they're all old men now. But Clay has a daughter of his own, and if it were his girl, he'd face down every demon in hell and every god in the heavens to save her - so how could he refuse when his one-time best friend needs his help to do the same?

REVIEW: To be honest, I almost didn't buy this book. I'm not a huge fan of gore or grimdark, and it looked like this would have both in spades. But I was intrigued by the cover blurb for the sequel, and I never read a series out of order if I can at all help it... and there this title was, in paperback, daring me to give it a try. And so I did - and was immediately pulled in for a wyld (er, wild) ride.
With violence, humor, and shades of both sword and sorcery and rock and roll (the mercenary "band" culture has many trappings of the entertainment world), Clay's tale starts quickly and never lets go. Worldbuilding and character integrity are never sacrificed for the sake of a cheap laugh, and yet laughs there are, and plenty of them - often a grim, gallows humor, but still laughs. It's not just a road trip or eccentric buddy comedy in a fantastic realm, though; there are some truly touching moments and sacrifices along the way, and the bonds of friendship are tested to their limits. The story leans a bit testosterone heavy (understandable, given the genres it's not-so-subtly poking fun at), but in the end I was thoroughly and unexpectedly entertained, enough to grant it the full fifth star of a Great rating.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Jhereg (Stephen Brust) - My Review
Traitor's Blade (Sebastien de Castell) - My Review
Swords Against Deviltry (Fritz Leiber) - My Review

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Wild Book (Juan Villoro)

The Wild Book
Juan Villoro, translated by Lawrence Schimel
Restless Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: It was supposed to be another summer vacation spent playing with his best friends, but when his parents separate, plans change. His kid sister is sent to live with friends and Juan is packed off to the home of Uncle Tito, a man he barely knows. A lifelong recluse with the manners of an animal and almost no people skills, Tito has turned his house into a labyrinthine library - and, somehow, he's convinced that Juan himself has an inborn affinity for books. Indeed, he's certain the boy will help him find an elusive title hiding in his collection, The Wild Book, which has never let itself be read by anyone. At first, he thinks the man's just gone crazy after years with nobody but a part-time housekeeper for company... but soon Juan discovers that books have lives of their own - and some of them are quite dangerous, indeed.

REVIEW: I'm not sure if it's the translation or the basic story, but I couldn't connect with this one despite the promising subject. It seems to be trying too hard to cram Life Lessons down the reader's throat to remember that I need to care about the characters and be interested in unfolding events. Yes, the books move when nobody's looking, and there's a predatory Pirate Book lurking around the edges, but instead of feeling like I was immersed in a grand adventure in an amazing library, mostly I felt like I was, like Juan, stumbling around in cluttered rooms not doing much of anything, hoping that the elusive "wild book" would turn up by chance. Tito's overbearing and more than a little repelling, with a personality more like an oversized grade-schooler than a grown man; Juan comes across as the mature and reasonable one, except when he doesn't. (Character consistency wavers across the board, as the author tends to spell things out rather than let them act and react naturally.) There's a girl across the street who becomes a love interest, but again I wasn't really feeling the relationship, and his observations of her venture into creepy territory. For that matter, there are... I suppose I should say cultural overtones that don't translate particularly well and left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. (Speaking of translation, part of me wonders how much of my reaction was due to the translator's efforts and not the author's; at one point, it refers to spiders as insects, which has to be a translation error unless Villoro thinks middle grade readers don't know spiders are arachnids and not insects, which is information found in basic picture books.) On the plus side, it reads fairly fast, but I've read other, better books about books and the magic of reading.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Storybound (Marissa Burt) - My Review
Inkheart (Cornelia Funke) - My Review
The Book of Story Beginnings (Kristin Kladstrup) - My Review

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Linda Sunshine)

The Art of How to Train Your Dragon 2
Linda Sunshine
Dey Street Books
Nonfiction, Art/Media Reference
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The 2014 animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 brought viewers back to the Viking village of Berk, where former misfit boy Hiccup and his dragon friend Toothless have ended the generations-long conflict between their people... but trouble is on the horizon, as a new threat to dragon and human alike arises. In this book, explore the Viking world and its dragons with behind-the-scenes concept art and production notes.

REVIEW: This movie managed the remarkable feat of taking the high bar set by 2010's How to Train Your Dragon and raising it in most every way, from storyline to animation. (I will concede that I preferred the first film's soundtrack.) With new software and an ambitious vision, the Dreamworks team created a bigger, bolder, more detailed world with even wilder dragons. The text offers notes on story and design decisions that shaped the final movie, including some major last-minute shifts and reworkings that ultimately made for a better film. If you enjoyed the movie, you'll enjoy this collection of art and design images and the smattering of trivia and production insight.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Art of Kubo and the Two Strings (Emily Haynes) - My Review
The Art of How to Train Your Dragon (Tracy Miller-Zarneke) - My Review
How to Train Your Dragon / How to Train Your Dragon 2- Amazon DVD link

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Reason for Dragons (Chris Northrop)

The Reason for Dragons
Chris Northrop, illustrations by Jeff Stokely
Boom Entertainment
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: High school outcast Wendell just can't seem to get the hang of his life, especially since his father died. He can't connect with his mechanic stepdad, his mom's working most the time, and he doesn't last a day without messing something up or being shoved around by bullies... which he figures he probably deserves for being such a loser. On a dare, he goes out the the old, abandoned fairgrounds in the woods - and meets a man claiming to be the last knight of the king's realm. He swears that the fire that destroyed the place years ago wasn't arson, but a dragon that still stalks the forests. Clearly the guy is insane... but if he's crazy, why is Wendell also hearing the strange roars and growls in the deep woods?

REVIEW: The Reason for Dragons is a decent, if not entirely unexpected, coming of age story about a misfit boy finding his courage. Wendell starts out, frankly, as a bit of a whiny jerk, though he naturally has his reasons; everything he tries to do goes wrong, so he not only stops trying, but starts actively resenting anyone who does. His stepdad tries to connect with him via shopwork, but Wendell's all thumbs around tools. The self-styled knight Sir Habersham manages to reach the boy in a way nobody else in his life can, and his quest against the dragon gives Wendell a purpose. It goes without saying that there's more to the story than Habersham being nuts (this is a Fantasy title, after all), though it all feels a trifle too rushed for the impact it was going for. The short stories following the main tale add a little ambiance, though they aren't strictly necessary and feel like padding. Not quite my cup of cocoa, but not a bad story in the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Swordquest: Realworld (Chad Bowers and Chris Sims) - My Review
I Kill Giants (Joe Kelly) - My Review
Crap Kingdom (D. C. Pierson) - My Review

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Wanted: A Western Story Collection (The Western Writers Group)

Wanted: A Western Story Collection
The Western Writers Group
Solstice Publishing
Fiction, Anthology/Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A boy is trapped after encountering an enraged grizzly... a bounty hunter intervenes when a crooked cattleman bullies a family of sheepherders... a retired Pinkerton agent and his daughter run into trouble while buying horses... a pair of ex-outlaws find trouble on the trail while trying to go straight... These and other stories of the Wild West are compiled in this anthology.

REVIEW: It was cheap, and I need to explore outside my usual reading comfort zones/genres every so often, so I gave it a try. Like most anthologies in my experience, the results are mixed. Most of the tales here are part of larger series; the degree to which these adventures stand alone varies greatly by author. Likewise, my reaction - from interested page-turning to eye-rolls and barely-suppressed groans at hackneyed stereotypes - varied greatly by author. Though these are written by modern Western writers, a few felt so stale I'd have pegged them as relics from half a century ago. (I suppose this may be one of the attractions of the genre, but not for me.) I enjoyed two or three of these, actively disliked a couple, and the rest fell into a bland middle that already fades in my memory. It makes a decent sampler if one is looking for a new Western author to follow, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Killing Dirty (Pete Clark) - My Review
Six-Shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
Unwanted: Dead or Alive (Gene Shelton) - My Review