Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold! (Terry Brooks)

Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold!
(The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, Book 1)
Terry Brooks
Del Rey
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Attorney Ben Holiday's life ended two years ago with the sudden death of his wife Annie. Now, he lives as a virtual recluse, increasingly disenchanted with the legal profession and increasingly resistant to the efforts of his last remaining friend to draw him back into the social world. One evening, he finds a chance at salvation in the pages of a high-end catalog's Christmas Wishbook: for a mere million dollars, he can purchase a magic kingdom and rule as King. Dragons, knights, fairies, chivalry... Landover promises all this, and more. It has to be a trick. At the very least, it's a waste of good money. But something about that ad pulls at Ben, and he can't come up with a good reason to walk away. After all, he's been living like a dead man in this world - why not try for something better in another?
Advertizing, Ben quickly discovers, is not always accurate. The magical kingdom of Landover is a fixer-upper if ever there was one. The magic that sustains it has been slowly but surely draining away since the last true King died twenty years ago. The human lords squabble and backstab amongst themselves, a dreadful dragon stalks the skies, and demons roam freely through the land, putting many a would-be ruler to a gruesome death. Even the Paladin, legendary defender of Landover, has seemingly vanished from the world. In fact, the only allies left to the throne are a half-baked wizard who can never seem to find the right spells, a court scribe who was turned into a dog, and a pair of kobolds who don't even speak human tongues. Worse, Ben's fledgling rule is swiftly challenged by the dread demon lord Iron Mark.. a challenge no mortal can hope to survive.
As a lawyer, Ben has faced many difficult trials. Convincing the people of Landover to accept an offworld king - and living long enough to actually rule - will quickly become the trial of his life.

REVIEW: A fun book, it moves decently, if not necessarily at a breakneck pace. Landover has all the trappings of a typical fairy-tale kingdom, and while it may not be startlingly original at least it's nicely described. Likewise, Ben's new advisors lean on fantasy cliches, but have some traces of true and distinctive personalities. More than one plot twist relies on other people knowing things Ben doesn't and choosing not to tell him about it until sufficiently pressed, which grew a bit irritating. The ending leaves plenty of openings for sequels, which evidently comprise the rest of the Landover series. All in all, I enjoyed reading this book, though I can't say I feel a need to read any further.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Learn to Draw Like the Masters: Dragons (Eugene Caine)

Learn to Draw Like the Masters: Dragons
Eugene Caine
Walter Foster Books
Nonfiction, YA? Art
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Throughout history, dragons have been a popular subject for artists around the world. While dragons today are exceptionally rare, many of history's great art masters left behind masterful renderings of their own encounters with the great beasts. Modern dragonologists and artists alike can learn much from their techniques, as the author demonstrates through several studies and exercises.

REVIEW: This is one of the most unusual dragon drawing books I've come across. It stars with the not-entirely-original idea that dragons are real, if remarkably rare and elusive, and that important historical figures were part-time "dragonologists" (a word coined by Dugald A. Steer's incredibly popular Dragonology series, I believe, and now in danger of being overused.) Caine, however, applies this idea to the world of classical art. Using images both authentic and imaginary, he demonstrates various art techniques used by the masters - including Da Vinci, Picasso, Rubens, and Van Gogh - with dragons as a common subject. There's a nice section on dragon anatomy and art media, then step-by-step demonstrations highlighting each artist's particular style. He also describes how to artificially age one's dragon sketches to make them look like old documents, a process I found oddly fascinating. I had a minor quibble with some of his anatomy; for all that he did an excellent job drawing a dragon skeleton (and actually remembering the "elbow" of the wing, which many artists sadly overlook), his main demonstration sketch has an impossible secondary "wrist" in the far forelimb that not only runs counter to general anatomy, but to his own dragon skeletal sketches (and the anatomy of the other forelimb on the same exact dragon drawing.) At least, I can't work out how that joint could possibly flex the ways he shows it and still be based on the same skeleton - it looks distractingly awkward, not to mention painful. That aside, I enjoyed the variety of techniques demonstrated, and I liked how he explained that all art styles have merit, even when drawing dragons. This book should appeal to dragon lovers and aspiring artists alike, teaching art appreciation as well as technique. An enjoyable book all around!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Spindle's End (Robin McKinley)

Spindle's End
Robin McKinley
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In a faraway country where fairies and humans live side by side and the magic's so thick it falls as a chalky dust over the land, a king and a queen give birth to a long-awaited daughter. The princess's naming day is to be quite a spectacle: representatives from every community in the land are invited to officially welcome the babe, and in honor of her twenty-one names, she is to have twenty-one fairy godparents, who are each to bestow a magical gift. But an old rival of the royal family, the dark fairy Pernicia, determines the occasion fit to exact dark revenge. She places a curse upon the girl's head: by her twenty-first birthday, she shall prick her finger upon the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. The king and queen order all spinning wheel spindles to be blunted, but in a land so steeped in magic a curse isn't going to be so easily thwarted.
Katriona hails from a small villiage in the swampy section of the kingdom called the Gig, a place where the magic dust falls a bit thicker and the fairies are a bit more plentiful than the rest of the land. A young fairy whose own powers haven't awakened yet, she was as surprised as anyone to be chosen to travel to the royal naming-day ceremony. Once there, she inadvertently finds herself directly involved the the struggle to save the princess from her cursed fate: Katriona somehow pierces the dark fairy's magical barriers and, with a seemingly meaningless gift of her own, finds herself bound to carry off and hide the royal child. In the Gig, the girl she calls Rosie will have quite an unprincessly upbringing, but - for a time - her obscurity should render her safe. As the days tick closer to her fateful birthday, however, the truth about her heritage and possible fate cannot remain hidden for long, from Rosie or the kingdom... or the ever-waiting, ever-hateful Pernicia.

REVIEW: Obviously a retelling of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, this should've been a Good book. Rosie makes a likeable heroine, her animal friends are decently realized characters and (usually) not just cheap plot tricks, and if Katriona wasn't always the most intelligent guardian... well, nobody's perfect, even in fairy tales. And a land where magic is so thick it dusts the shelves, where outbreaks of "baby magic" among infants mean many children must be temporarily fostered out until they can no longer conjure phantom tigers or turn themselves into animals or plants or something hideously else... how can a setting like that be boring? By spending nearly half the page count on irrelevant tangents, backstories, and sidetracks, evidently. The plot suffers under the extra weight, being little more than a vague, misty path through a great bog. I found myself struggling to push forward until nearly the final fifth of the book. By then, I suppose McKinley had told all the side-tales she'd wanted to tell; the climax moves at a fair clip, and it almost made up for the previous tedium. Almost. In the end, the earlier slog proved too much of an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of the fourth star in the ratings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eccentric Circles (Rebecca Lickiss)

Eccentric Circles
Rebecca Lickiss
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: All her life, Piper Pied Dickerson has wanted to lead a normal life, with normal friends and a normal home. With her eccentric family, though, that's never been possible. It doesn't help that she's still drifting years after college, nursing half-formed hopes of publishing novels. After her great-grandmother dies, Piper unexpectedly inherits her house, a small Victorian cottage in a Colorado suburb. It's full of dust, old furniture, books... and magic, as she learns when she comes down the stairs in the morning to find an elf sitting at the kitchen table. His name is Aelvarim. He hails from the land of Fairy - just through the cottage's back door, if you know how to pass through it right - and he's come to solve Grandma Dickerson's murder: her death, he insists, was no mere accident of old age, but a magically-committed crime. Though Piper can't help but feel attracted to the handsome, likely lunatic man in her kitchen, she wants no part in his delusions... but she may not have a choice. When her great-grandmother died, the world of Fairy began falling apart, with bits and pieces falling into black rifts and nothingness. The rifts will spread to Piper's own world soon, for if the realm of imagination fails, the real world will quickly follow. Like it or not, Piper the would-be writer finds herself cast in a story of her own. Will she become an unlikely hero, or another tragic victim?

REVIEW: A fast read, I found it vaguely enjoyable, yet oddly bland at the same time. Piper takes too long figuring out that Fairy is a real place and Aelvarim is a real elf.  After that she remains wishy-washy on the whole "saving the world" part of her job; she'd much rather drool over the handsome elf, even as she frets and worries over his sanity and whether or not coming from different dimensions would significantly impede romantic relationships. The world of Fairy should've been more captivating, but it feels more like a cul-de-sac than a world. There are only three inhabitants - a dwarf, a wizard, and the elf, plus a handful of generic, pesky fairies - and one little path in an endless, featureless wood. This not only limits the imaginative horizons, but it limits the suspect list in Grandma Dickerson's murder to three on the Fairy side. I'd actually hoped more would come of Piper's large and eccentric family, after the time Lickiss spent establishing them; it would've added a nice twist in the tale if Piper wasn't the first Dickerson relation to stumble across Great-Grandma's back door to another world, especially if one of them was presented as a potential suspect in a magical murder. But, no, mainly her family exists to distract her from the search for clues (and provide people who embarrass her about her new elfish boyfriend.) As for the murder itself, Piper and Aelvarin spend more time looking for clues and not finding them than they do solving anything, and the culprit proved too obvious. The ending wraps up a bit too easily. Overall, it's not a terrible little book, but it missed several opportunities to be a better story than it was.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Brightdreamer Books has just been updated, and the previous two reviews are now archived on its pages.

The design's still rather sparse at the moment - I'm still deciding how fancy I want to get with CSS and other design toys - but the content's been redesigned for easier access (I hope.)


Monday, September 7, 2009

A College of Magics (Caroline Stevermer)

A College of Magics
Caroline Stevermer
Fiction, YA Fantasy
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Faris Nallaneen came to the college of Greenlaw intending to be expelled. After all, she's heir to the dukedom of Galazon - possibly, according to some, the throne of Aravill - and her greedy, scheming Uncle Brinker isn't fooling anyone when he says he sent her to the distant school for her own good: until she reaches the age of majority, he gets to rule in her stead, and the longer she's away the more time he has to plot to make his temporary dukeship permanent. Besides, everyone knows that Greenlaw's chief interest is training witches, and like many Faris doesn't believe in magic as anything other than a mind trick. If she were expelled, she could at least go back home to try to reassert her presence and future claims; if nothing else, it would surely anger Brinker, who must've paid a pretty penny to secure her a spot at such late notice. Surprisingly, the Dean accepts her as a student, but Faris's misgivings compound when she finds that a rival - Menary of Aravill, whose family deposed Faris's late mother and father from the Aravill crown and sent them to die ignobly in seabound exile - is in attendance as well. Whether or not she wanted to learn magic, Greenlaw has its own ways of teaching, ways which even the headstrong dutchess-in-waiting cannot ignore... for if she does, the balance of the whole world may suffer.

REVIEW: I can sum up my problem with this book in four words: I did not care. Why I didn't care, I cannot precisely say.  Partly, it was because, wherever Faris is, her mind (and therefore the narrative) is focused somewhere else. When she's at Greenlaw, she can think of nothing but Galazon, the long-ago exiles of her parents, and the political machinations of her uncle. When she's away from the college, her thoughts keep going back to Greenlaw. It made me feel as though I was always a few steps removed from the plot, as though Stevermer, for whatever reason, didn't have access to the story itself, and had to imply its progress secondhand.  So maybe that's why I couldn't feel a thing for Faris, her British friend Jane, her enemy Menara, or even her Great Destiny and the Fate of the World. It may also have had something to do with the fact that Stevermer only created half of a world - four small duchies, in fact, plus a magic system so Vast and Profound it was impossibly vague to Faris (and therefore, to me as a reader) - and shoehorned them into an otherwise-normal early 20th century Europe. One would think that the simple presence of magic, no matter how elusive, would have some impact on such an alternate world, but if it had an impact we readers weren't advised of it, except in the vague way that "witches" from Greenlaw were accepted into high society whether or not they displayed true talent. Whatever the reason, I found myself filled with a profound apathy about the world, the story, even the magic system. I couldn't bring myself to care much about the climax, let alone the conclusion, which pushes the envelope of credulity in the neatness of its wrap-up. I only bothered finishing this book out of a vague sense of duty, and in a vain attempt to figure out why Stevermer named it after a college which only occupied a third of the total story. In the end, I couldn't even care enough to give it an Okay rating, though I know I've read far worse.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dragon's Keep (Janet Lee Carey)

Dragon's Keep
Janet Lee Carey
Magic Carpet Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Princess Rosalind Pendragon was born to rule Wylde Island, and more. Twenty-one generations ago, the wizard Merlin himself spoke a prophecy of her birth, foretelling great power and glory... but even the stars can be read wrong, it seems. For Rose was born with a hideous disfigurment, a dragon's claw in place of her ring finger. Only her mother, Queen Gweneth, knows the dreadful secret - the girl has worn long gloves her whole life - but if Rose is to ever wed, let alone wear the crown, she must be perfect. As healer after healer fails to dispell the curse, the queen grows more and more desperate to heal her child, to the point of smothering her beneath mountains of expectations and frustrated dreams. Meanwhile, the countryside is plagued by killers and rogues, not to mention black witches and the great, fiery dragons from the isle of Dragon's Keep. Witches, wars, and murders await as Rosalind struggles to find the truth behind Merlin's prophecy and save her home.

REVIEW: Dragon's Keep starts out slow and builds its action in fits and starts. In between, Rosalind's character is fleshed out remarkably well, as is the superstition-riddled world she lives in. Carey's dragon culture - it's no spoiler that dragons come into play as more than incidental marauders - is also nicely dealt with. A certain stubborn obtuseness keeps Rose (and some other key characters) from connecting vital dots until nearly the last minute, but this isn't the first case of Plot-Extending Stupidity I've read, nor is it the worst by far. The whole book has a nicely dark feel to it, in Rose's angst and seemingly futile hopes of fulfilling impossible expectations. Overall, I found it a nice, fairly fast read, a bit different than the average fantasy tale. If there is a sequel - and, naturally, there's every hint of one at the end - I expect I'll give it a try.

First Post in a New Blog

Greetings, and welcome to my new blog!

As the title implies, I'll be posting book reviews (and possibly the occasional DVD or movie review) here. I rate on a 5-star system, with one star being Terrible and five being Excellent. Reviews posted here will eventually be archived on my book review website, which is currently in the process of a major makeover. (The results will be posted before October, I hope...)

So, enough introduction. Let's get this thing posted and start reviewing!