Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Review: So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

This book starts off with a wonderful conceit:  a young girl, who seems to somewhat of a loner, ducks into the local library to escape notice of a bully.  There among the shelves, she lovingly touches the spines of dozens of books which she’s already read until she spies one that she’s never seen before.  The title reads, “So You Want to be a Wizard,” seemingly one of the myriad career books for kids.  Intrigued, she takes it home and finds that the volume is absolutely serious.  She can become a wizard, if she’s willing to pay the price.

She soon discovers that there is a whole unseen universe, where the trees recount their ancient battles with evil, where wizards protect the fabric of reality, and where young wizard apprentices must prove their mettle in service of good…. or possibly perish in the attempt.

Together with Kit, a neighbor boy who has also just recently taken the wizard’s oath, Nita must save the universe from being unmade.

I found the first scenes totally charming, since I can easily remember knowing each book on the library shelves and voraciously reading each one, sometimes one or two a day.  And, the author suggests that if you haven’t yet seen this book in your library, then you just may not be suited to wield the power.

The book is set near and in New York City and, frankly, it was shocking to see a reference to the Twin Towers.

One of the most interesting characters is that of “Fred”, a bright speck of light who is “accidentally” (there are no accidents) brought to earth via one of Kit and Nina’s first spells.  It turns out that Fred is actually a white hole whose mass is temporary stored elsewhere.  Fred provides many of the diversions by emitting large objects, mini-explosions, and light, but also supplies much of the humor due to his unfamiliarity with Earth (“….Schenectady.”  “Is that another world?”  “Nearly.”)  and also references to his elemental parts (“My gnaester will never be the same.” — after emitting some particularly large objects).

A jarring incident occurs early in the book as the two kids visit the local wizard advisories.  One of the advisories has a familiar, an exotic bird, who can foretell the future but seems very reluctant to do so.  To “encourage” the bird to speak, the advisory clenches his fit and punches the bird, and then threatens to do so again later if he doesn’t behalf.  This sounds both cruel and completely out of character for wizards who are protecting life.  I just don’t get it.

For me, the book had a few other inelegant parts, particularly as the three pass into another universe to find a book which names all things, and it doesn’t seem as fully realized as others I’ve read.  But, it was still enjoyable nonetheless.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished February 11, 2011)


Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, & Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr


Drowned Wednesday by Garth Nix

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The third installment of The Keys to the Kingdom series, Drowned Wednesday, sweeps both Arthur Penhaligon and his newly met friend Leaf into the Border Sea of the House via a huge wave of water.  There, Leaf must become a ship’s boy and Arthur must find the third part of the Will and collect the third key from Drowned Wednesday, who has become a leviathan due to the vice of gluttony.

Drowned Wednesday has invited Arthur into the Border Sea, telling him that if he can release the Will, she’ll turn over the key.  The problem is that no one really knows where it is.

Arthur and Leaf are assisted in their quest by Raised Rats, who are sentient, intelligent rats who were brought into the House by the Piper (cf. Pied Piper of Hamelin) along with human children from the Secondary Realms like Earth.  These Raised Rats are information gatherers and have communication devices throughout the House.  And, it is they who believe they know where the Will is, and might be persuaded to help if Arthur will answer a few of their questions.

Like the other books, Nix adds interesting color through the denizens and creatures of the House.  Doctor Scamandros, a House sorcerer whose final examination papers were lost before the results were known, is one of the only sorcerers on the Border Sea.  Tattoos across his face change and move with his emotions and moods, changing from storm-tossed sailing vessels to calm seas.

I found that I liked this book a bit less than the previous ones as it didn’t seem to delve deeply enough into the mysteries of the House.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 11, 2010)

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Grim Tuesday by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Garth Nix continues his series, The Keys to the Kingdom, with Grim Tuesday, a direct sequel to Mister Monday (see my comments here).

Only a few hours after returning from the House and obtaining a cure for the sleepy plague which was spreading through his home town, Arthur Penhaligon, the Rightful Heir, must return to the House to wrest the second key from the next Trustee, Grim Tuesday.

Unlike the first domain of the bureaucracy, the Far Reaches is made up of indentured miners and craftsman.  Nothing is a mined substance which can be crafted into all sorts of useful items for the House, from Metal Commissionaires to teapots; but, Nothing is also a corrosive substance into which the entire House could fall and be destroyed.  Greedy and acquisitive Grim Tuesday is a master craftsman but sadly lacks a creative spark in himself; instead he can only copy works (beautiful though they may be) from the Secondary Realms, such as Earth.

Arthur becomes an indentured servant and is forced to walk a long road to the Pit.  His faithful companion, Suzy Turquoise Blue from his first adventure, helps him to reach Tuesday’s treasure tower, where priceless gems and works of art are housed.  From there, Arthur must find and free the second part of the Will of the Architect and take Tuesday’s key.

One character that I particularly enjoyed was the Mariner, who appears to be vaguely based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Although constrained by his word to obey Grim Tuesday, he appears very noble and is a refreshing straight talker.

It was also somewhat novel to have Arthur’s sojourns in the house directly impact his life back home, rather than have every change reverted back to normal (a la Narnia’s wardrobe):  in the first novel, the First Key partially heals one of his lungs from asthma and in this book, his leg remains broken.

I liked the book slightly less than the first one, but I continue to be impressed by Nix’s consistency and the progression through the days, the seven deadly sins (this book covers Greed), and virtues (the Will is shown as prudent).

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4  out of 5 stars (finished December 6, 2010)

Mister Monday by Garth Nix

December 15, 2010 2 comments

Mister Monday is the first book in Garth Nix’s The Keys to the Kingdom series for young adults (see the bottom of this post for a list of the other books in the series).  I’ve read the novel several times and now that the final book has been released, I plan to read through them all to refresh my memory.

The plot:  our Earth (I think anyway that it’s OUR Earth) is one of the chiefest Secondary Realms created by the Architect.  True time runs in the House, almost a universe in itself, which was intended by the Architect to record all that happened in the many Secondary Realms without interfering.  At some time in the past, the Architect disappears, leaving a Will under the control of seven Trustees (of which Mister Monday is one).  At an appointed time, an Heir must be found and the Trustees’ powers must be relinquished.  Instead, the Trustees break up the Will, hide the pieces so that no one can find them, ignore its tenets, retain control of their domains in the House, and begin to effect the Secondary Realms (each of the Days agree to divide the worlds — Mister Monday of the Lower House, for example, is permitted can reach out on any Monday).

The first piece of the Will is sentient and after thousands of years manages to escape.  Its first task is to name an Heir to find the remaining pieces and wrest the Keys from the Trustees.  The person it selects is Arthur Penhaligon, a junior high-aged boy from our world (again, I think).

Arthur must quickly figure out what is happening, enter the House, and save his family from the Sleepy Plague, a virus spread by contamination of some of the denizens of the House sent by Monday.  And, incidentally, the only way to do so is to follow the Will’s direction.

The book is very well written and seems to be very consistent in its ideas.  Each Trustee supervises a part of the house with a specific purpose — Monday is in charge of the Lower House, largely concerned with bureaucracy, contracts, and files.  Each Trustee has also fallen into one of the Seven Deadly Sins — Monday’s vice is sloth, which has essentially caused the Lower House to back up with paperwork.  There are key servants for each of the Days:  a Dawn, Noon, and Dusk.

Interesting characters abound including the Old One, a Prometheus of sorts who is imprisoned in the lower coal mines for an undisclosed sin against the Architect.

With its conceit of a House at the center of the universe it reminds me a bit of The High House by James Stoddard (which I recommend highly).

The one quibble I have is that the main character, who is very likable, is almost too competent and clever.  I wish that he had a few more flaws, rather than merely physical ones (asthma) which he cannot help.

The books in the series:

  1. Mister Monday
  2. Grim Tuesday
  3. Drowned Wednesday
  4. Sir Thursday
  5. Lady Friday
  6. Superior Saturday
  7. Lord Sunday

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished December 2, 2010)

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I finished the final book of the Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages, before the Thanksgiving holiday and it was a fitting end to the plot line.

In this final volume, Brandon Sanderson ties up all of the remaining loose ends and, in the last 75 pages hurtles into into the conclusion — it certainly did not suffer from the middle-book-of-the-trilogy syndrome that I felt the second book did.  I particularly enjoyed the brief commentaries at the end of each chapter which were refreshingly to the point, although they did rather obviously reveal at least one survivor of the battles.

I am constantly amazed at how well authors are able to foreshadow or hint at a broader, deeper story later.  Minor details in the first two novels are seamlessly revealed to be more meaningful than previously thought (the character of Zane, the swirling of the mists, and one other object that I won’t spoil here).

The character of Spook is also much fleshed out in this book.  I found his sullen, taciturn nature intriguing in the first two books and it was nice to see him come into his own, even if ultimately misguided.  (As a side note, I listened to all of the books via audio.  In the first two books, the voice used for Spook seemed very sullen.  I was a little surprised to hear the narrator use a light southern accent to represent the character’s street background which I think he was using earlier, too. It was just that his sentences were so short and withdrawn, it wasn’t detectable to me.)

The main adversaries of Ruin and Preservation, who fight through their human (and otherwise) intermediaries, were fascinating.  I was reminded of the dualistic gods of gnosticism which are constantly at war.  One of light, one of darkness.  One of the spirit, the other of the material world.  One of life, the other of destruction.

At its conclusion, my immediate thought was similar to that of Mozart in the movie Amadeus:

No, no! One hears such sounds, and what can one say but… “Salieri.”

However, unlike Mozart, there is no criticism.  The feeling I had at the end of the book was similar to that I felt at the end of Sanderson’s novel, Elantris, which I very much enjoyed.

5 out of 5 stars (finished November 15, 2010)

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The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The Well of Ascension is the middle book of the Mistborn trilogy and as such it doesn’t have the same bright newness of the first book nor the satisfying denouement of the final one.

After taking down the Final Empire, Kelsier’s crew must now find a way to rule, tediously organizing a government and gathering resources to support the people. Vin becomes essentially the Mistborn successor to “The Survivor” and Elend accepts the mantle of benevolent philosopher king.

(For another book that wryly describes what happens after the Dark Lord is defeated, I highly recommend Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward.  It’s very definitely a memorable book.)

Much of the novel focuses on the political maneuvering to retain the crown while multiple armies march on the capital. A rogue, insane Mistborn alternately attempts to suborn Vin, kill her, and attract her romantically; at the same time, she attempt to discover which of the crew has been replaced by a kandra, a shapeshifting race with unknown goals.

Like the previous book, each chapter is headed by short texts from some larger document which continues to reveal the backstory of the Lord Ruler.  It’s enjoyable to try to draw conclusions about his motives.

As always, the magic system is fantastic.  Sanderson expands it with previously unknown metals and alloys and further illumines the talents of feruchemy.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (mostly because it is a second book and is slower at times — October 19th, 2010)

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Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

What are some of the key characteristics I look for in a fantasy novel? Well, a complex but consistent magic system, unique and complete worldbuilding, compelling characters, an unpredictable plot, and an author’s ability to reserve some secrets for later (or never). The first book in the Mistborn series, The Final Empire, has all of that.

First off, the magical system(s). Sanderson creates a pair of interrelated, but separate, magic systems based on the user’s use of metals. Differing metals cause differing outcomes, and specific alloys of these metals change the talent. While an increase in strength or senses might not be that unexpected, the author’s creativity in the talents of pushing or pulling metals was. Instead of an all-awesome telekinetic power like the Jedi in the Star Wars saga, the talents are much more constrained by physical laws. For example, one can push against a metal object, but one’s own weight and leverage is taken into account. One can pull a metal toward oneself or push it away, but it must follow a straight line trajectory; one cannot cause objects to hover in the air or spin around a target.  Using thrown coin bits and metal latchings on buildings to basically Spiderman yourself through a city was fascinating.

Another part of the system is that the citizens of the Final Empire either have no talents, have a talent with a single metal (a Misting), or have access to all talents (a Mistborn). While the Mistborn, for the most part, occupy a privileged class in the society, they aren’t necessarily more powerful or skilled in each individual talent. Those Mistings, for example, who can only “soothe” or “riot” people’s emotions can often achieve much greater subtlety in the art — to better effect and with less metal resources required.

And that’s just the first system. The second allows a person to store attributes (such as eyesight, strength, or memory) in metals to effect some of the same results.

Why is this cool? It’s logical — I suppose ironic for magic — and it obeys natural laws. It also categorizes the metals, something that a more scientific analysis might do:

  • pushing vs pulling
  • physical, mental, temporal, and enhancement effects
  • internal vs external effects

While reading the novel, I was instantly drawn to the “heist movie” aspects like Ocean’s Eleven, where a charismatic individual gathers a group of specialists to build and execute a complicated plan to steal the treasure. Kelsier builds a crew of Mistings with the goals of taking down the oppressive government and to steal the Lord Ruler’s rare metal stash. Not surprisingly, elaborate plots within plots are required to build a secret army, infiltrate the nobility, and set the noble families into chaos.

As one might expect, with so many moving parts, political machinations, and organizations with competing plans, there are multiple setbacks. Sanderson gives hints of other characters and other undercurrents of society which, undoubtedly, he’ll build upon in later books — for example, what is the purpose of the Steel Ministry, the Obligators, and the Inquisitors? What are the secrets of the persecuted Terris people and their strange version of metal magic? What happened 1000 years ago to create the Final Empire? And what is the Darkness which led to volcanic ash falling continuously from the sky, the disappearance of all green plants and flowers, and stars being obscured from view?

Other series which resemble this book in tone are the heist novels in the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies) and the dark, underworld novels of the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks (The Way of Shadows is the first novel, and the only one I’ve read so far).

I highly recommend Brandon Sanderson’s website. On it, he has essays on the creative process, shows status reports on all of his works in progress (including the completion of The Wheel of Time), and annotations on each chapter of completed novels.

The story continues with The Well of Ascension and concludes with The Hero of Ages.  I also recommend Sanderson’s stand alone fantasy novel, Elantris.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished September 30, 2010)

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