Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shadowmarch (Tad Williams)

(The Shadowmarch series, Book 1)
Tad Williams
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Long eons ago, the Qar - mysterious races of shadow and mist and elder magicks - ruled the lands, until mortal men drove them to the distant north, beyond the Shadowline that now marks the edge of their domain. The ancient castle of Southmarch stands nearest this line, the seat of the Eddon family and the most powerful of northern kingdoms. Over the centuries, tales of the Qar faded to legend, especially in the realms further south, who cannot feel the northern darkness breathing over their shoulders. With their brief lives and short sight, men forget the old days and the ancient hatred between mortal and immortal, human and faerie... but the Qar remember, and even today their undying anger burns hot and bright as ever. Soon, they shall stir from their northern fastnesses, carrying that flame to burn all that lies before them.
Prince-Regent Kendrick and his younger siblings, the twins Briony and Barrick, sit upon an increasingly unstable throne in Southmarch Castle. Their father, King Olin, was kidnapped by the bandit-king of the southern city of Heirosol; his ransom demands have put even more stress upon a political situation ripe for disaster, with northern nobles already vying for the crown if the young regent should make a single misstep. Rumors tell of the spreading grasp of the Autarch, the cruel god-king of the ancient city of Xis, reaching ever closer to Southmarch. Princess Briony can only watch with despair as Kendrick attempts to shoulder their father's reputation and responsibilities, while her twin brother Barrick slides deeper into his dark moods and darker dreams. When Kendrick is murdered in his own bedchamber during a visit from one of Heirosol's envoys, it first seems a simple political assassination, meant to cleave the already fractured Eddon family, but soon it proves much more than that. The Shadowline begins to move. Qar walk openly on mortal lands. And ancient forces, long forgotten by mortals, begin to stir, forces that could destroy not only Southmarch but the fragile world of all men.

REVIEW: I first encountered Tad Williams through Tailchaser's Song, and his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy has long been my favorite high fantasy trilogy. But, as some of his more recent works have left me cold, I was reluctant to pick up Shadowmarch until I found it deeply discounted. Some of the old Williams magic returns, as he weaves a tale in a fascinatingly layered and magical world, with distinctive characters telling their own bits of the greater story. It starts out slowly, and even when things pick up there are several meandering stretches as Williams indulges in "sight-seeing" side-trips around the edges of the plot, but I've come to expect that from high fantasy. One of the more annoying point-of-view characters nearly cost it a half point, as did one of the more out-of-the-blue revelations. For the most part, though, it held my interest, and even if this new world didn't "click" for me like Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn's Osten Ard, I've missed having a nice, thick fantasy series to lose myself in. I'll have to track down the second book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Folktale Cat (Frank de Caro, editor)

The Folktale Cat
Frank de Caro, editor
Barnes & Noble Books
Nonfiction, Cats/Folklore
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since the earliest tales were told, cats have featured in many popular stories from around the world in a variety of roles. The editor compiles several tales, from fanciful fairy tales of transformed princesses to dark legends of demon cats.

REVIEW: A discounted wonder, I read it mostly as research for a story I'm trying to finish. The tales included are similar to those in other cat folklore anthologies, with only a few new-to-me tales. The afterword's brief annotations on the stories offered little in the way of spectacular insights, though the editor does at least credit where each tale came from (at least, the version included; almost every one has numerous variants.) It was reasonably adequate, from both a reader-interest standpoint and a research standpoint, but I was hoping for a little better.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March Site Update, Reviews Archived

The previous five reviews are now archived at the Brightdreamer Books website.  I also rotated the site's Random Recommendation page. (The Random Recommendations on the sidebar of this blog, just below Currently Reading, have also been rotated, but I change them out on a random basis.)


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions (Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum)

Frequently Asked Questions
(An Unshelved collection)
Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum
Overdue Media
Fiction, Comics
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: The staff of the Malville Public Library deals with all manner of peculiar patrons and their perplexing problems. In a special section at the back, a variety of books are plugged in comic strip format.

REVIEW: I actually got this book for free through work. (I work for a library system that somehow scored donated copies - something to do with technically being the highest circulating library system in the nation, as I understood it. I stopped listening after "free book.") The authors/artists are librarians, and I suspect that more of these strips are based loosely on life than one might suspect. (I wouldn't know; my job is blissfully free of interaction with the general public.) You don't need to work at a library to laugh at these, though; a passing acquaintance with humanity should be enough. This is not the first Unshelved collection printed, but there are no major story arcs to catch up on. A one-page primer at the front of the book explains the characters, if you're worried about coming in on the middle. The artwork is simple, but it does the job. I've always liked their weekly book strips, and though some of the summaries are too vague to pique my interest, I respect the spoiler-free format. In any event, after a not-good week, I enjoyed a chance to laugh, and that's about all I ask out of a comic collection.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Voices of Dragons (Carrie Vaughn)

Voices of Dragons
Carrie Vaughn
Harper Teen
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Kay knew she was pushing the rules when she went rock climbing alone so close to the border, but she didn't really expect much trouble. After all, dragons rarely ventured within sight of the human lands, and though the military patrolled to keep thrill-seekers away, she had grown up in these woods and knew where the gaps in security were. And it wasn't like she was actually going to cross the creek that marked the boundary. She just wanted to get away from the pressures of being a teen, not to mention being the daughter of the town sheriff and probably the only junior in high school not to have a boyfriend.
When she takes an unanticipated tumble, Kay finds herself on the wrong side of the border - rescued by a dragon. Artegal is just as curious about humans as Kay is about dragons. Though neither species have talked to each other in sixty years, ever since the boundaries between human lands and the dragon domains were set, Kay and Artegal strike up a tenuous friendship. But humans haven't forgotten the terror that dwells in the north, the horrors of the dragons' re-emergence after World War II, the fiery battles and the instinctive fear of the giant beasts. All too soon, decades of stalemate and tension erupt into violence, and Kay and Artegal find themselves caught in the middle. Can a teen girl and a young dragon stop a genocidal war, or is the hatred too strong on both sides?

REVIEW: A fairly fast read, this story feels a bit obvious from the start. Vaughn's tale is set in a modern-day world where dragons are real. Once in a while, the integration feels unnatural, even forced. Vaughn's dragons are disturbingly vague. Through the entire book, we readers learn next to nothing of their species and culture; the dracophile in me kept asking for more. The speed with which Kay and Artegal bond also feels forced, especially as much of their early friendship is glossed over in page count; they don't seem to have that much in common, really, until Kay figures out how to rig a flying harness from her rock climbing gear. Some moral ambiguity comes into play as the re-ignited violence claims loved ones of both Kay and Artegal, as Kay reconciles her feelings of interspecies friendship with horror at what dragons are capable of, but for the most part the "good" characters are reasonable and the "bad" ones are prideful hotheads, making the battle lines pretty clear. We readers don't see Artegal's struggles, so we have little idea of what the dragon goes through, but Kay endures all manner of problems, from family tragedies and threatened friendships to manipulation by the military. She has a believably hard time, trying to reconcile the fear of her loved ones with her belief in Artegal. Without dealing in spoilers, I can't get too specific, but the ending feels unsatisfactory, a trailing thread that ought to be tied up, or at least lead into another story.
In the end, I could only work up enough interest to add an extra half-mark to an Okay rating. Better fleshing-out of the dragons and the integrated world, plus a more conclusive ending, would've probably bumped it up a notch, but I've definitely read worse.