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

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Saga, Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Saga, Volume 1
The Saga series, Issues 1 - 6
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrations by Fiona Staples
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION:The planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath, have been at war for so many generations that the entire galaxy has become embroiled, alien species forced to pick a side in a conflict seemingly without beginning and apparently without end. Captive soldier Marco and prison guard Alara could not hope to change that - but when they fell in love, they became outcasts and fugitives, hunted by both sides. When Alara gives birth to a daughter, their crimes are expounded exponentially: voluntarily breeding with the enemy is seen as betrayal and perversion of the worst kind. Everyone from the worst bounty hunters to a robotic prince is on their trail. But the new parents aren't about to give up on their little girl Hazel, or each other, without a fight... even if they're fighting the entire galaxy.

REVIEW: I'll admit to being a bit wary of hyped graphic novel series after being so disappointed by The Sandman, but another night of iffy sleep (and a Hoopla account on my tablet) prompted me to try this one. I was very pleasantly surprised. Though full of action and violence, Saga doesn't sacrifice humor or character development, with some great dialog and moments where no words are needed at all. For all the stuff being introduced, though, it was fairly easy to follow the storyline and keep track of the players. Saga establishes a wild galaxy of both magic and technology, of strange wonders and dark depravity, a galaxy that has been at war with itself for so long that nobody can even consider peace, prejudices against the other side deeply ingrained even on worlds and in species who have nothing to do with Landfall or Wreath (who have fallen into relative peace after outsourcing their endless war offworld.) The artwork is clear and imaginative. This is one graphic novel series that - thus far, at least - lives up to its hype.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Autumnlands, Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (Kurt Busiek) - My Review
Descender: Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (Jeff Lemire) - My Review
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening (Marjorie Liu) - My Review

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

An Accident of Stars (Foz Meadows)

An Accident of Stars
The Manifold Worlds series, Book 1
Foz Meadows
Angry Robot
Fiction, Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Saffron didn't mean to fall through a portal after school, but then who does? She just wanted to talk to the strange woman she'd met on the high school campus earlier - the first person to ever take the time to listen to her, and to stop the class jerk from harassing her. Now she's a stranger in a very, very strange land, where people are more likely to ride furry, two-legged beasts called roas than horses, where the sun is too big and too white, where there are two moons in the night sky, and where magic is real. The older woman, Gwen, is a worldwalker, originally from Earth but now a traveler to many of the manifold worlds. She didn't mean to take on a young charge, especially not at a time or in a world like this; Kena stands on the brink of a bloody war, with a tyrant leader and his zealot, heretic queen ready to topple generations of peace. Now that the teenager is here, though, Gwen can't shirk her responsibility to a fellow worldwalker. Saffron quickly becomes entangled in the thick of things, caught up in a story that, unlike stories of Narnia or Wonderland, may not have a happy ending for the girl from Earth.

REVIEW: Few things put me off a story like heavy-handed messages and incompetent, whiny characters. An Accident of Stars wallops me with both almost right out of the gate, and never entirely lets up.
Saffron is a girl many readers can relate to, the awkward teen in class who is picked on incessantly (with less than no assistance from adults)... but she handles herself so awkwardly and incompetently, making such childishly impulsive decisions, that I soon lost whatever sympathy I may have initially had. She flails, she panics, she freezes, she stumbles, all at the least opportune moments - but often only for a moment, and not in the sense that she pulls herself together. Once, she even stops in the middle of what she's doing, screams at the top of her lungs in a full-blown panic as the enormity of being trapped on a hostile and magical world sets in (an understandable reaction, though it could've used a bit more setup), stomps and demands to go home like a little kid - then a second later she's over it, and everyone forgets it, and it's never mentioned again (a far less understandable reaction.) Nor is she the only character prone to weird mood swings... and inexplicably coddled by those surrounding her, though she'd seem to be a survival liability. I'm not sure there was a character I actually liked in the whole book, to be honest.
Meanwhile, Messages about sexism and prejudice clog the plotline, characters often descending into mouthpieces to remind me that sexism is bad, that prejudice is bad, that zealotry is dangerous... Again and again and again, the story grinds to a halt as people wend through long internal monologues meant to enlighten me, the reader, who had evidently forgotten the last time - a mere few pages before, in some instances - the author addressed the same issues... issues that often have little if anything to do with the current plot predicament. Though things happen almost from the start, the frequent brake-slamming for these messages (and the often-exaggerated nature of the characters, all the better to preach with) made it difficult me to immerse in the story, which involves tangles of politics and family lines and rivalries and gods and nationalities and a veritable forest of nigh-impenetrable names: names of people, names of gods, names of magic disciplines, names of this and that and the other.
Add to all that formatting issues that often had me confused about who was talking or whether I'd jumped to a new scene or even if what I was reading was dialog or not (I spotted multiple instances of missing quotation marks), and by the end it was all I could do to convince myself to keep turning pages... and then the ending is merely an unsatisfactory pause on a longer arc. These problems cost the book a solid half-mark in the ratings, as they significantly impacted readability.
An Accident of Stars does have some nice ideas, with some interesting potential in the politics and the matriarchal world, but I couldn't enjoy it through the iffy characters, the tangential messages, and the just plain inexcusably poor formatting.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Empress of Forever (Max Gladstone) - My Review
The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay) - My Review
The War of the Flowers (Tad Williams) - My Review