Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shadowplay (Tad Williams)

(The Shadowmarch series, Book 2)
Tad Williams
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Dark forces work to reshape the world of the Living. Outside the northern castle of Southmarch, the army of the faerie Qar camps amid the deserted city, their seige halted under an ancient truce... for now. Within the castle walls, the reign of the Eddons is over in all but name; though a baby heir to the kidnapped King Olin lives, the castle is under the harsh stewardship of the ambitious Tolly clan, who already maneuver to make their occupation of the northern throne more permanent. But without an Eddon as king, Southmarch and its people - the humans, the burrowing Funderlings, the seagoing Skimmers, even the secretive Rooftoppers - may be in greater danger than any could possibly imagine... dangers the short-sighted, infighting Tollys cannot possibly foresee, let alone counter.
Olin's elder children, the twins Briony and Barrick, have been torn away from Southmarch by the currents sweeping across the land, thought by many to be dead. Brooding Barrick, plagued by dreams of flame and shadow, travels north beyond the Shadowline into the eternal twilight of the Qar realms, on a mission he himself hardly understands. Briony, meanwhile, having narrowly escaped assassination, travels with the Eddon's former armsmaster Shaso far to the south. She hopes to rally support for her family among the other human kingdoms, perhaps even with the bandit-king of Heirosol (abductor of Olin), but just staying alive beyond the rarified world of castle nobility takes far more effort than she could have anticipated.
As the northlands fall into discord and ruin, the fanatical forces of the god-king Sulepis begin to stir on the southern continent of Xand, ever eager to expand their empire. The divided land lies ripe for invasion... but even the Qar armies and the autarch's invasion fleets may only be a part of a much greater threat to the world, a threat that has the gods themselves stirring in their ancient slumber.

REVIEW: The first volume, Shadowmarch (reviewed previously on this blog, here), while enjoyable, read like many epic fantasies. A troubled royal family, power plays among the nobility, inhuman enemies, ancient buried secrets... A nicely realized world and interesting characters, but still nothing truly distinctive. Shadowplay steps beyond the average fantasy, taking its world in some interesting new directions. As before, Williams tells the tale through numerous narrators, each with a unique voice, place, and perspective on the greater tale. Also as before, a couple of the narrators irritated me more than the others, but even those who seemed superfluous in the first volume find themselves involved in far more than they bargained for in this book. The world itself grows sharper and more fully realized, most especially the interwoven myths and theologies of the various cultures. Williams indulges in more "sightseeing" in this book, one of his trademarks, but enough was happening overall that I didn't mind. I noticed several minor yet annoying editing errors, which came close to costing it a half-star, but by the end I was enjoying the tale too much. Hopefully, I can track down Book 3 soon... though it'll still be a wait before Book 4 is available in paperback.
Dang it...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Abandoned Places (Lesley and Roy Adkins)

Abandoned Places
Lesley and Roy Adkins
Shooting Star Press
Nonfiction, History
*** (Okay)
Abandoned Places

DESCRIPTION: Since the earliest days of civilization, great cities around the world have risen and fallen. Sometimes a single disaster - the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum - wipes them out in a single terrifying blow. Other times, the cause is less swift or certain. The silting of a harbor, the depletion of vital resources, the internal schisms of a weakening empire... even the most powerful city can find itself destroyed, turned obsolete, or rendered uninhabitable and lost to history. The authors examine a variety of abandoned cities from around the world, some from the very dawn of civilization and some from our own recent past.

REVIEW: Yes, it came from Half Price Books. It looked interesting, the sort of book that might inspire a story, so I gave it a try. The first chapter held some promise, showing the subject of abandoned places and ruins in an almost poetic light. Before long, unfortunately, it turned into a textbook, tossing around culture names and historic events with little explanation while glossing over huge chunks of information about the sites discussed. I had flashbacks to school, when history was taught as an endless cycle of "read the chapter, draw the timeline, pass the test, repeat" instead of an active story populated by humans not entirely unlike myself. I even found myself imagining the assignments I'd be given to accompany a book like this.
In its favor, Abandoned Places covers a very broad variety of sites, grouped roughly by the factors which are believed to have led to their downfall (political strife, depletion of local farmland, climate changes, disasters, and so forth.) There are also pictures of nearly every site discussed.
In summary, this makes a decent introduction to the subject of abandoned sites and past civilizations, but it certainly could've been more interesting.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

The Name of the Wind
(The Kingkiller Chronicle, Book 1)
Patrick Rothfuss
Fiction, Fantasy
****+ (Good/Great)

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)
DESCRIPTION: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe Kingkiller. Slayer of demons, seducer of women, master of many a dark and forbidden art, speaker of the ever-changing name of the wind... a man straight out of a storyteller's wildest yarns, the fabulous Taborlin the Great made flesh upon the world.
At least, that's how the fireside tale-tellers speak of him.
After much searching, Devan the Chronicler finally tracks the source of the stories to a humble rural town, where the greatest living legend in the known world hides behind a pseudonym and a bar in a quiet roadside inn. Devan wants to record the true story of Kvothe, from the man's own lips... but he finds far more than he bargained for. It is a tale of pain and loss, of best intentions gone awry. It is the tale of a boy filled with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, who set out in search of the name of the wind and found instead dangers he could never have imagined.
It is also, as Devan learns, a tale whose darkest chapters have yet to be written...

REVIEW: The first in a (probable) trilogy, The Name of the Wind sets itself apart from many epic fantasies by focusing almost exclusively on a single character. Kvothe relates the story of his youth, the passions and pains that started him - if unintentionally - on the road to becoming a living legend. The general thrust of this journey should be familiar to most fantasy readers, but Rothfuss does a good enough job getting into Kvothe's head and world that it still feels original. As a protagonist, Kvothe brings some nicely humanizing flaws to the table, revealing the often less-than-noble mind at work behind his heroism (or the acts that become the basis for his heroic reputation; part of the point of the story is how people tend to read their own intentions into the truth, creating their own legends in the retelling.) The book is more than just an extended flashback, however, as troubles from his past seem to have followed him even to his self-imposed exile, endangering the lives of his new neighbors (not to mention Chronicler himself.) Perhaps it is this - the knowledge that present-day Kvothe still has danger breathing down his neck, as he sits and relates the extended story of his childhood - that made the story seem to bog down more than once. I'm used to fantasy novels indulging in "scenic routes," meandering through trivial matters and sidetracks, but with the greater threats hovering I found myself growing antsy nonetheless. There's also the matter of Kvothe's love interest, a woman of many names, who remains almost maddeningly vague throughout the story.  For a "wild woman" who seems to wander the length and breadth of the world at will, she shows a disconcerting lack of basic street smarts toward the end of the story. For the most part, though, it held my interest. I look forward to reading Book 2, when it drops to a reasonable price (and my reading backlog thins out.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Anatomy of Animals (Ernest E. Thompson)

Anatomy of Animals
Ernest E. Thompson
Bracken Books
Nonfiction, Art
**** (Good)

Anatomy of Animals: Studies in the Forms of Mammals and Birds
DESCRIPTION: Any artist who wishes to accurately portray animals cannot ignore the importance of anatomy studies. Thompson includes anatomy sketches of many exemplar species, plus extensive written notes on proportions, significant veins, hair tracts, and more.

REVIEW: Another budget find from Half Price Books... First published in 1896, Thompson's book claims to be the first "modern" work of animal anatomy geared for artists. Though the writing style reads awkwardly today, it still has much to offer. Many species are covered via black and white image plates, often in numerous dissection views. He also has some good references on bird feather tracts. I wish the plates had been matched up with the text that discussed them, instead of being relegated to the last half of the book. The text also discusses many more animals than the plates cover, often as dry charts of proportions that gave no sense of how the animal actually looked. (The nineteenth-century origins come through strongly here, as not only are several creatures referred to by obsolete or archaic names, but almost all of these proportion charts come from animals shot in the name of science.) Overall, I found it educational, with information I haven't seen covered in my other animal art books.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

August Site Update, Reviews Archived

The previous seven book reviews are now archived at Brightdreamer Books. I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations for a back-to-school theme.


Friday, August 12, 2011

The Art of Lettering with Pen & Brush (Larry Ottino)

The Art of Lettering with Pen & Brush
Larry Ottino
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

The Art of Lettering with Pen & Brush
DESCRIPTION: It's easy to take the letters of the alphabet for granted, a mere means to an end. But, in the right hands, lettering can take on a life of its own, conveying emotion and meaning above and beyond mere words. With several exercises, this book offers an introduction to the world of brush and pen lettering.

REVIEW: Yet another free-to-me book that appealed to my armchair interest in fonts. With warm-up exercises, guide line demonstrations, and many full alphabets to copy and learn from, Ottino shows how to begin learning the art of professional lettering... an art that still has relevance in the digital age. It reads fast, and it's fun. It might even make me pick up a brush and give it a go.

Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb)

Your First Novel
Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing

**** (Good)
Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream
DESCRIPTION: You've always wanted to see your name on the shelves of your favorite bookstore... but a long and bewildering road stretches between your dream and reality. Impossible as it seems, all of your favorite (and not-so-favorite) authors somehow managed to navigate it successfully, so clearly it can be done. But how? How can you turn an idea into a story? What do you do with it when you're done? What happens after you submit your manuscript - and what are the odds you've really written something the rest of the world wants to read, anyway? The co-authors, one a published novelist and one a literary agent, explain the whole process from start to finish.

REVIEW: This book is really two books in one binding. The first, by Whitcomb, focuses on how to craft a successful novel. Much of the advice here, while well written, has been covered in other how-to-write books I've read, though with a few new tips and tricks. The second part, by Rittenberg, picks up where most other writing books end (or at least taper off.) Here is where Your First Novel truly stands out from the pack, delving into the world of agents and publishing houses for a look at what happens to a finished manuscript - and why writers may find themselves working harder than ever even after an editor buys their book. It makes for fascinating, if sometimes daunting (and occasionally tedious), reading. A little less repetition in the first half would've easily bumped it up another half-star.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Savvy (Ingrid Law)

Ingrid Law
Walden Media
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Turning thirteen - leaving childhood behind and taking the first shaky steps toward adulthood - is a big enough milestone. When you have Beaumont blood, like Mibs, it's even bigger. Every Beaumont has a savvy, a special skill, which strikes on their thirteenth birthday. Grandpa can create land, and her late grandmother used to bottle radio broadcasts. Her older brothers Rocket and Fish control electricity and weather respectively. Mom always does everything perfectly. Terrifying as some savvies turn out to be - Rocket can blow a city's entire power grid when he gets upset, and Fish can't be near any water deeper than a bathtub without risking a hurricane - Mibs can't wait to blow out her candles and find her own gift.
Just days before her birthday, a terrible call comes during dinner. A car accident lands her beloved Poppa in critical care in distant Salina. Mom and Rocket rush off to be at his bedside, while the local preacher's busybody wife - blissfully ignorant of savvies - steps in to take care of the younger Beaumonts left behind. Sick with worry, Mibs wakes on her thirteenth birthday determined to get to her father: her savvy, whatever it turns out to be, may be the only thing that can save his life. But her plans go awry from the start, stranding her and a collection of unexpected companions miles away from anywhere, with a wakening savvy she can barely control.

REVIEW: A fast read, Savvy picks up quickly and maintains a decent pace. The Beaumonts reminded me of an exaggerated version of the LaZelles, a gifted family featured in several short stories (and at least one book, which I've yet to read) by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Mibs struggles with the twin problems of her unexpected savvy and growing up during her ill-advised road trip. Her companions do some struggling of their own, as well; each of them, from the rebellious teenaged preacher's daughter Bobbi to the hapless Bible salesman who inadvertently becomes their driver, have their own troubles to overcome, some more easily than others. Most of the characters remain fairly superficial, just deep enough to contain their problems and the means to resolve them. It goes without saying that, eventually, Mibs does make it to Salina... but not, as she'd hoped, the bearer of a miraculous savvy that will make everything better. Aside from that, the rest of the plot wrapped up just a bit too sweet and neat to be believable, fixing problems and shooing extras off to happy endings whether or not they'd worked for them. It almost seemed that Law was overcompensating for the few plot points that didn't wrap up in sparkles and rainbows. The extra dose of sugar cost it a half-star, giving the finale a shallow sheen over an otherwise deep and moving moment. Otherwise, I found it reasonably entertaining, despite the sticky sweetness gumming up the edges.