Wednesday, September 29, 2010

DragonArt Evolution (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer)

DragonArt Evolution
J. "NeonDragon" Peffer
Nonfiction, YA? Art
****+ (Good/Great)

Dragonart Evolution: How to Draw Everything Dragon
DESCRIPTION: Despite being one of the most popular fantasy creatures of all time, no two people seem to agree on just what dragons look like. Are they huge or tiny? Squat and muscular or ethereal and serpentine? Bat wings or feathers? Rough scales or smooth - or no scales at all? Dragons come in an endless variety of sizes, colors, and styles. This drawing book, the third by J. "NeonDragon" Peffer, offers tips for creating all manner of dragons to suit any occasion, including several full-size step-by-step projects to kick-start the imagination.

REVIEW: What can I say? I'm a dracophile at heart. I'm also a half-arsed artist with delusions of eventual competence, hence my oversized art library and undersized used-sketchbook pile. Like Peffer's previous books, this may superficially be a step-by-step drawing book, but it simply bursts at the seams with imagination and inspiration. She repeats a little information from previous books by way of grounding new readers. The vast majority of the images are brand-new, with some wild variations on the basic dragon forms that should stoke the imaginative fires of dragon artists young and old. If you liked Peffer's first two DragonArt books, you ought to love this one... and if you're a would-be dragon artist who hasn't heard of them, you really should give them a try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett)

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents
(A Discworld book)
Terry Pratchet
Fiction, YA Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
DESCRIPTION: Everyone's heard the story of the rat piper. A small helpless town, plagued by rats, is saved by the arrival of a stranger whose music lures the vermin away; once the fee is paid by grateful residents, neither rodent nor man is seen again. If one were to look more closely at the tale, one might wonder just how many rats it takes to constitute a plague, and how convenient it is that a piper arrives so quickly. Look even more closely, and you just might find a clever cat at the heels of the piper... and, if one were very, very clever and very observant, one might even see rats, cat, and piper meet outside of town to divide the money.
Maurice was once an ordinary alley cat, living off the vermin around the rubbish heap outside a wizarding school, until he suddenly found himself empowered with speech and self-awareness. Like any self-respecting cat, Maurice set about using his newly-enhanced brain to fleece dimwitted humans and better his own life. The local rats, too, began developing unusual intelligence thanks to the magically toxic waste. Together with a stupid-faced young boy with a gift for music, they travel from town to town, making a killing with their "plague of rats" con. But lately, the rats have become restless, determined that there must be more to intelligence than this, and they've grown too clever for Maurice's oily tongue to dissuade them. They ride into the small town of Bad Blintz determined that this will be their last con. But things go wrong from the moment they arrive. Bad Blintz, it seems, is already in the grips of a terrible rat plague. Together with the mayor's daughter Malicia, a girl raised on fairy tales who stubbornly believes her own life is a story just waiting to happen, Maurice and his companions stumble upon a secret lurking in the dark places beneath the town - and a terrible danger that might devour Bad Blintz alive.

REVIEW: Technically part of the Discworld series, this book reads fine as a stand-alone novel. Pratchett's trademark humor cleverly masks a tale with some real shadows and bite to it at several turns. Maurice and the rats find themselves struggling with the dilemmas of their new-found sentience, dilemmas which the human characters are no better at dealing with for all that they were born with so-called higher intelligence. The story moves quickly, taking some unexpected twists and turns on its way to a satisfying conclusion. I was in the mood for a fun-hearted fantasy; I got that, and perhaps a little more, here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Site Updated, Reviews Archived

Brightdreamer Books has been updated, and the previous eight reviews have been archived.

I also rotated the Random Recommendations on the site; the current feature has a more seasonal flavor.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Eyewitness Books: Eagle & Birds of Prey (Jemima Parry-Jones)

Eyewitness Books: Eagle & Birds of Prey
Jemima Parry-Jones
Nonfiction, YA Nature/Birds
****+ (Good/Great
Eyewitness: Eagles & Birds of Prey
DESCRIPTION: No bird has been so honored by rulers the world over as the majestic eagle, and few can gaze upon a raptor soaring overhead without feeling a sense of wonder. This book offers an introduction to birds of prey around the world, discussing their unique anatomy, keen senses, flight and hunting methods, and their role in human history.

REVIEW: Like all Eyewitness books (and related knock-offs) I read, I primarily focused on the photographs. They are, after all, the main selling point of the series. Raptors make great reference animals for any number of fantastic creatures, and the many high-quality photographs - covering everything from skeleton to feathers and resting poses to active flight - make this book an excellent inspirational resource. The text is also informative, naturally, and written in a simple, kid-accessible style, describing the often mind-boggling abilities of these remarkable birds. This book makes a fine starting point for exploring the world of raptors.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stowaway (Karen Hesse)

Karen Hesse
Fiction, YA Historical Fiction
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In late August 1768, eleven-year-old Nicholas Young runs away from the butcher to whom he was apprenticed by his uncaring father. He pays off three sailors to help him hide aboard a ship bound far away - where, he doesn't care, so long as he's away from England for a good, long time. The sailors dutifully found the ship with the most remote itinerary they could find. Thus, Nick becomes a stowaway aboard the HMS Endeavor, under the command of Captain Cook. Their mission is to circumnavigate the globe and help chart the vast uncharted reaches of the southern Pacific and Indian oceans. With the ship travels a contingent of educated gentlemen to record new discoveries, of which there will be many in this voyage. For three years, Nick records his adventures in his daily journal, adventures filled with strange sights, rare wonders, conflicts, peril, and death.

REVIEW: According to the author in the post-story notes, there was, as a matter of record, an eleven-year-old boy named Nicholas Young who appears on the Endeavor's roster only after eight months' sailing: he could very well have been a stowaway, as Hesse suggests here, or just an unrecorded boy brought on board by a sailor to help with his mending and other menial tasks, as was not uncommon in those days. Little else is known about him, except that he was educated enough to write and that Young Nick's Head in New Zealand was named thus because he was the first to spot it from the rigging. The rest is sheer speculation on the part of the author. I wished she'd done more speculation and less journaling. The majority of this book is brief, uninformative journal entries, interspersed with Nick's observations of his shipmates. I never got a great sense of Nick as an interesting character with much to contribute aside from being a set of eyes looking over the crew's shoulders. What issues and conflicts he does bring to the table - his resentment over how his father treated him in England, his efforts to teach a sailor friend to read, his long-running rivalry with a cruel midshipman, and his efforts to make himself useful aboard ship - seem to ebb and flow around the edges, with most revelations and resolutions happening in offstage anticlimaxes. Cook's danger-fraught journey and the collection of conflicting personalities and goals aboard ship should have made for more interesting reading, but not here. I have the impression that this is a book teachers make students read in an attempt to personalize one of the landmark journeys of the Age of Discovery... and, like most schoolwork, it will be read dutifully by glaze-eyed kids who still won't make a personal connection to Cook's voyage, and who will promptly forget most of what they read as soon as the test is done.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Prophecy (Elizabeth Haydon)

(The Symphony of Ages series: Rhapsody trilogy, Book 2)
Elizabeth Haydon
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

Prophecy: Child of Earth
DESCRIPTION: The half-Lirin woman Rhapsody and her companions, the brutish giant Grunthor and the former assassin Achmed, are refugees from a land and a time swallowed by centuries. Unfortunately, an ancient evil, the one that destroyed their homeland of Serendair centuries ago, has also come halfway around the world to continue its quest for complete chaos and destruction. As Achmed and Grunthor continue building their Bolg kingdom in the abandoned subterranean city of the late King Gwylliam (once a shining beacon of hope for the displaced - and immortal - first generation Serendair refuguees, but now a curse after his actions destroyed the very land he once united), Rhapsody sets out into the world of Men to follow her own path. Her often-prophetic nightmares warn her that the evil demon plots against a religious leader, but her efforts to save the man are complicated. The demon acts most often through a host, who can be entirely unaware of the dark influence compelling their actions... and thus impossible to track until it is too late. She also keeps crossing paths with the handsome, mysterious man known as Ashe, whose tormented past is as shrouded as his motivations. In a land full of secrets and lies, Ashe could be a powerful ally - or an enemy as terrible as the demon itself.
As Rhapsody pursues the demon's agents and works to thwart its plans, King Achmed and Grunthor discover a long-lost secret beneath the mountains that not even the great architect Gwylliam found... and, with it, more clues to the prophecies that might save the world - or see it consumed in demonic fire.

REVIEW: I have a few books running around that managed to lose themselves after I started reading them; recent reorganization efforts unearthed them, and I've been slowly picking my way through them. This book is one of them, so perhaps my rating should be taken with a slight grain of salt. What I loved about the first book in this series (Rhapsody) was the wonderfully realized world - not just a continent, not just a short span of years, but an entire globe, peopled with disparate cultures and races that merge and break through the centuries - Haydon created. Here, she continues the process, but I found my interest waning as my eyes glazed, with large chunks of information interrupting the flow of the story. Her characters, intriguing in the first volume, start to feel strained as she develops them further. Actually, it was the heroine Rhapsody and her significant friend Ashe who nearly whined me out of finishing the book, going to elaborate, nearly comical lengths to bemoan and bewail their Tragic Pasts and Deep Dark Secrets. Once their relationship kindles (as expected), they bemoan and bewail even in their happiness.
The story, when it moves, does at least move quickly, and when Rhapsody and her friends actually do learn something (instead of dancing around it or taking history lesson breaks), they tend to act on it in a reasonably intelligent manner. Those moments seemed to be a bit thin, given the overall length of the book... and Haydon still has (at least) one more to go to wrap things up. By this point, though, I'm starting to wonder how much of the third book will be world-building and character-whining padding as opposed to actual story. Still some nice ideas in there, and still an impressive world, but I just had to push myself too hard to keep reading to merit a Good rating. I'm not sure I have the reading stamina to wade through much more. (The third volume in the trilogy, Destiny, is sitting in my reading backlog as I type, but I don't expect I'll be getting to it soon.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leviathan (Scott Westerfield)

(The Leviathan trilogy, Book 1)
Scott Westerfield
Simon Pulse
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

Leviathan (Leviathan (Quality))
DESCRIPTION: In 1914, the world's nations stand on the brink of war. Many in Europe are "Clankers", espousing the superiority of gear and metal, with walking machinery and bat-winged aeroplanes. Other nations, such as Britain, Russia, and France, embrace Darwinist ideals, ever since the great naturalist discovered the keys to the "life threads" within all living cells; by rearranging these threads, scientists create fabricated, purpose-built life forms that have replaced virtually all steam engine technology in their lands. Clankers believe that the Darwinist beasties are soulless abominations against God, while Darwinists see Clanker technology as loud, stinking, polluting blights upon the Earth. With such deep ideological schisms piled on top of centuries of political and ethnic rivalries, all-out war is merely waiting for a single spark.
When the Archduke of Austria and his wife are assassinated, that spark flies. Stealing away in the middle of the night with his two most trusted servants aboard an armored Clanker walker, the archduke's fifteen-year-old son Aleksander cannot begin to comprehend how quickly his life has changed. All his life he has felt like a pretender, his mother's commoner blood preventing him from ever inheriting his father's wealth or title; now, as a potential rallying point for his late parents' supporters, he is targeted both by invading Germans and by those Austrians who, like his emperor grandfather, never approved of the archduke's marriage beneath his class.
In Darwinist London, Deryn Sharp has slipped away from her widowed mother, following her brother to the city to complete the midshipman exams for the Air Service. All she has to do is pass a written test - easy enough for a girl practically raised in the air aboard her late Da's balloons - and convince the military brass that she's a Dylan, as women are forbidden from service... a somewhat taller order, but one she's willing to tackle rather than live a dull life of dresses and tea parties. Her first test flight aboard a hydrogen-breather goes awry when a storm blows her far off course. The ship sent to rescue her is none other than the Leviathan, one of the greatest airborne beasties devised, with an entire living ecosystem aboard its vast whale-based body. Before she can be returned to the recruitment station in London, war breaks out, and the Leviathan is diverted for a special mission. With a clever-boots lady scientist on board with a top-secret cargo that must be defended at all costs, "Dylan" quickly discovers that passing as a boy is going to be the least of her troubles.
The paths of Clanker-born Alek and Darwinist-loyal Deryn cross under highly inauspicious circumstances. With the known world plunging into a bloody war and paranoia running high, their struggle to see past their differences and learn to trust one another may mean the difference between life or death for both of them - not to mention their friends, their companions, and the great living airship Leviathan itself.

REVIEW: I picked this up for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm on a bit of a steampunk kick lately. Secondly, I was a fan of the late, lamented sci-fi series Farscape, which featured a species of living spaceships known as leviathans, so naturally the title and the concept leaped out at me. When I got a coupon from Barnes & Noble, I figured I'd give it a try. Westerfield creates a highly detailed world based roughly on the real-world politics of World War I. His Darwinist animals and Clanker machines come to life in one's mind, full of interesting details. The story picks up quickly and keeps going until the very last pages, often at a breakneck pace. With the black-and-white illustrations, I couldn't help thinking of old-school adventure books and those (often-butchered) illustrated adaptations of classics. Characterization mostly takes a back seat to the near-nonstop action and the building of Westerfield's alternate Earth, but I cared enough about the people to keep turning the pages. Of course, being a trilogy, a fair bit is left up in the air at the end. I wound up shaving a half-star for the occasionally annoying slang of Deryn's chapters, and for leaving just a few too many threads unresolved at the ending. (I also thought some of the illustrations were unneccessary... that, and more than once the illustrated Alek looked more like an "Alice" to my eye.) I'll still probably read the second book when it comes out in paperback... if Barnes & Noble remembers to send me another coupon, that is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Goblin Quest (Jim C. Hines)

Goblin Quest
(The Tales of Jig Dragonslayer, Book 1)
Jim C. Hines
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

Goblin Quest
DESCRIPTION: Scrawny, selfish, and craven, tunnel-dwelling goblins are so insignificant a race that not even one of the myriad gods of the realm bothers watching over them. They are picked on and preyed upon by their nastier hobgoblin cousins and by countless parties of treasure-seeking adventurers from the surface world. Any goblin who lives long enough to take a few humans down with them is considered a hero, but of course all heroes get killed just as dead as their less-brave kin, so what good is heroism in the end?
Nearsighted Jig is clever for a goblin, but even among his own people he's considered a cowardly runt. His only friend, Smudge, is his pet fire-spider, who ignites when panicked. When he gets bullied into guard duty, it's just his bad luck that he gets captured by a team of adventurers. The arrogant human prince Barius, his wizard brother Ryslind, their dwarf companion Darnak, and the young elfin thief Riana want to find the Rod of Creation, a legendary artifact of unimaginable power created long ago by a great wizard and hidden in the deepest and most dangerous of tunnels... beyond the lake of poisonous lizard-fish, just past the requisite Necromancer, and in the talons of a foul-tempered dragon, naturally. They force Jig to act as their guide, though he has even less of an idea of where to find the Rod than any of the bickering questors - not that they bother listening to him, of course, as it would be beneath them to listen to a lowly goblin. It isn't long before Jig's bad luck lands them all in trouble... though the biggest threat of all may turn out to be within their own party. Jig may never have wanted to live the life of a brave adventurer, but it looks like he has no choice - at least, not if he wants to survive long enough to go back to his old life as a cowardly runt.

REVIEW: Humorous fantasy books walk an even finer line than straight-up fantasies, for much the same reason that humorous movies walk a finer line than serious ones: you can't laugh at an unfunny joke. A bad serious story, you can roll your eyes at and mock, but a bad funny one deprives you of even that luxury - it just lies there, dead, on the screen or on the page. Thus, it was with some hesitation that I picked up Goblin Quest... but I thought I could use a change of pace, and it was on sale. (And a relative bought it, which always helps.) I was very pleasantly surprised. Goblins, often little more than a mild annoyance to adventurers or an easy level-up opportunity to gamers, get their due with Jig, the unlikely hero who nevertheless decides that traditional heroism is highly overrated, not to mention more than a little suicidal and occasionally outright stupid. During his adventures, he learns to see the weaknesses of his own kind, and while he does grow, he never fully embraces the ideals of the so-called superior races. The questors turn out to be more than cardboard cutout RPG-class characters, each in their own way at least as selfish as goblins in their willingness to sacrifice everything for their own personal gain. The humor isn't heavy-handed slapstick or low-brow body part jokes, playing off the cliches of the genre while still presenting a nice, unpredictable adventure. The ending wraps things up in a way I didn't expect, yet which felt eminently satisfying. I enjoyed reading this one much more than I'd expected; hopefully, I can track down the next book.