Monday, September 28, 2009

Hidden Gems 2: Stephen Donaldson

I know what you’re thinking; Stephen Donaldson is a very strange pick for a hidden gem. Everyone has heard about him and knows how influential his Thomas Covenant books have been to the fantasy genre or for that matter modern literature in general. That right there is the problem, everyone has heard of him but too many people haven’t gotten around to reading him yet. Let’s see if we can change that.

Most people know how critical the year 1977 was for the genre. Lord of the Rings had continued to sell well since it’s original publication but although there had a number of important fantasy books released none of them had enjoyed anywhere near that commercial success. 1977 came along and with it the release of Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara and everything changed. There was another important release that year Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Fouls Bane the first book in the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Brooks' work was admittedly heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings (leading to some accusations of outright plagiarism.). Young unsuspecting hero sets off to find magical item that can be used to defeat the Dark Lord who is threatening to destroy/take over the world. There is a mysterious ancient man with long lost magical powers who acts as a guide and a host of typical support characters. This template was to heavily influence the genera for the next twenty years and still does so to this day. Donaldson however did something different.

Thomas Covenant was not your typical fantasy hero. He once had a seemingly idyllic life he was a successful writer, happily married and with a beautiful baby son. All that changed when he caught leprosy. It costs him half of his hand, causes his wife and son to leave him and left him living alone on his property outside of a small town whose people wanted nothing to do with him and treated him as an outcast. As you could imagine he became rather dark and cynical, obsessed with a daily routine that would keep him safe and alive. He couldn’t afford to grow careless it would be the death of him. One day he falls and bumps his head on the living room table and when he wakes up he finds himself in another world known as the land. The land is a mystical place that grants all its denizens the power to feel its life force, Covenant can as well and what’s more he finds he no longer as leprosy. Covenant immediately mistrusts the land, fearing it is a trick of his own troubled mind and will lead him to carelessness and death. In response he dubs himself the unbeliever and sets the tone for the next few novels. The concept of morality is one that is considered in depth, Covenant has to decide if his actions are constrained by morality in the land since it seems to be a product of his troubled mind. Early on he rapes a teenage girl who has been nothing but kind to him when he is overwhelmed by his newly returned sex drive. Guilt over the incident consumes him and eventually he decides whether it was real or not it matters to him. The Lords of the Land believe Covenant is destined to save it from Lord Foul, a malignant entity that exists outside the arch of time and is the embodiment of despair, using the white gold of his wedding band. Since white gold is an element that does not exist in the land naturally it contains magical powers. The problem is Covenant can’t always make it work and each time he does he risks destroying the arch of time and freeing Lord Foul. Lord Foul claims responsibility for bringing Covenant to the Land in order to free him, claiming that whether he wants to or not Covenant’s own disbelief and despair will make him do it eventually.

There has been a lot of praise thrown in the direction of authors like Martin and Erikson for their so called ‘realistic fantasy’, having characters that don’t fit easily into the typical good and evil archetypes. There is a debt these writers owe to Donaldson which I don’t feel the general reading public acknowledges often enough. Donaldson created a morally complex character in a fantasy setting well over thirty years ago and what’s more he cleverly contrasted him with the wholesome inhabitants of the land and the evil Lord Foul. I read the first (which focus on Covenant) and second chronicles (which focuses on Covenant and a new character Linden Avery) when I was 21 and while I enjoyed them I don’t think I fully appreciated them. I Would perhaps recommended them for someone slightly older as when I started reading the Last chronicles (which focuses on Linden Avery) last year I found I appreciated them more than the originals.

Aside from the Thomas Covenant books Donaldson has also written the Gap cycle(a five book space opera), Mordents Need (A two book fantasy series) and The man who detective novels (of which there are four and were originally published under the pseudonym Reed Stephens). Sadly I am forced to admit have yet to read any of these but intend to change that as soon as possible.

If you have been intending to read Stephen Donaldson but for whatever reason haven't gotten around to it; give him a go now you won't be dissapointed.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

The Dresden files are a great between read. They are engrossing, fast and straightforward. Perfect for when you are looking for a bit of entertainment that won’t strain your brain too far. That’s more or less what I was expecting when I picked up the fourth volume, Summer Knight, but boy was I in for surprise. Butcher really brings out his A game here and really blew me away.

Harry Dresden has been in a bit of a slump. He is feeling guilty that his ex-girlfriend has been turned into a semi-vampire and has been spending every waking minute trying to find a cure for her. This means ignoring things like work, paying the rent and basic hygiene. Then, all on the same day, he is attacked by a ghoul and a pair of hitmen and hired (read blackmailed) by the winter queen of the faerie to find out who killed the summer knight and prove her innocence. If that isn’t enough the white council have decided to hand him over to the red court in an effort to bring their war to a close if he fails. In other words Harry has his work cut out for him.

In previous volumes we have only been given glimpses of the structures behind groups like the white council, red court etc. Here Butcher really fleshes out this with a particular focus on the Summer and Winter faiere courts and does it in a really interesting way. There is also more of an epic feel than previous volumes, lending the story a sense of urgency. Before it seemed that if Harry failed the effects would be localized but now it really seems that if he does the whole world would be screwed. Pacing is something Butcher has always done particularly well and he really out does himself this time. Revelations are well timed throughout the story and are clever enough that the reader doesn't see them coming and yet at the same time make perfect sense. Without giving too much away I also thought that Butcher handled death particularly maturely in this one.

Summer knight is a big step forward in the Dresden Files. Lets hope it just a sign of things to come. Onwards and upwards. 8.5/10

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review:Hitman: My Real Life In the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart

Ever since I was a child I have loved pro wrestling. I loved the athleticism, the drama, how two athletes could tell a story in the ring using nothing but their bodies (and the occasional prop). When I was growing up my favorite wrestler was Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart. He was never the biggest or the strongest but that was part of his appeal. He was just a man who wanted to be the best and would give everything he had in the ring each and every night, a man who wanted to succeed not just for himself but for his loyal fans as well. Naturally I’ve wanted to read his autobiography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling for some time. Now that I have I’m glad that I did.

Bret’s autobiography chronicles everything from his early life, his wrestling career and right up to his stroke and his dad’s death. What is blatantly apparent early on is this genuine. Bret wrote the book himself with the aid of a cassette dairy he had kept on the road. No punches are pulled, we get the whole story through Bret’s eyes and he doesn’t sugarcoat it not even when in the instances where it makes him look bad. A word of warning right now if you decide to give this one a go; bad things happen to good people. Wrestling is an industry rife with alcohol and drug problems and like I said before ‘no sugarcoating’.

The only minor blemish to this book is a few minor timeline mistakes which is bound to happen when discussing a lifetime of events. When I say minor that’s exactly what I mean, I’m talking about stuff like mentioning Chyna was Triple H’s ring valet when talking about events in 1995 when Chyna only showed up on WWF TV in 1997. I’m sure she was around the dressing room in 1995 and there was probably no other place to mention it but that might get on a few peoples nerves. These small flaws take nothing away from the story itself, so it really is nitpicking.

Overall this a strong emotional and brutally honest story of one man’s life. Whether you watched him wrestle or not really doesn’t matter, I guarantee you at times you will laugh and at times you will cry and you won’t be able to help being moved by it and that is really all a good story is. 9/10.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review:Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

The third book in the Temeraire series picks up right where the last one left off. A fire leaves the Alliance gutted, leaving Laurence, Temeraire and their crew seemingly stranded in China for a few months longer while repairs are made. That same day they receive urgent orders to hurry to Istanbul and escort three dragon eggs back to Britain that have been purchased from the Turks. With the aid of their guide Tharkay, a half-British, half-Chinese adventurer they set off along the treacherous land route. However things are not as they seem in Istanbul and after a headlong flight the crew find themselves embroiled in the war in Prussia. Napoleon’s forces are aided by the outcast Chinese dragon Lien who is now seeking revenge against Temeraire.

The third book expands on the political aspects of Throne of Jade with Temeraire expanding his ideas on dragon equality with humans. It is certainly interesting to see how dragons from different countries react to his ideas, and Temeraire certainly doesn’t always get the reaction he was hoping for. An interesting addition was a group of feral dragons, who also serve as something of a comic relief though thankfully not one that is over the top. All of the aspects that made the first two books so good are certainly present in this volume. My only major criticism is that the basic structure of the first half of the book is essentially the same as that in the second: Temeraire and crew set off on a harrowing journey to an exotic local, they then arrive and are made ‘guests’ but of course are glorified prisoners. It is a minor blemish and hopefully something that won’t be repeated too often in future installments.

In sum Black Powder War is a welcome addition to the Temeraire series. 8/10.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hidden Gems #1: Elizabeth Haydon

When the idea of doing a hidden gems of fantasy popped into my head I noticed a problem immediately. Well most of the ‘younger’ [read newer ;-)] authors which I would recommend have been receiving such a lot of attention recently that they wouldn’t quite qualify as hidden gems. Still there is a rather simple solution; authors who have been around for a bit.

Today the spotlight is on Elizabeth Haydon, whose debut work Rhapsody was released in 1999. She had a short story included in the Legends Anthology, so she obviously has the respect of her peers. However Haydon is one name you will never see discussed in the main genre blogs and I consider this to be a real shame. Her main body of work, The Symphony of Ages, consists of Rhapsody: Child of Blood, Prophecy: Child of Earth, Destiny: Child of Sky (The three make up the Rhapsody Trilogy), Requiem for the Sun,Elegy for a Lost Star (The middle books) and Assassin King (which is the first part of the war of the known worlds trilogy.) She has also written a young adult series The Lost Journals of Ven Pholypheme which is set on the same world as SOA but hundreds of years earlier. Three of these have been released so far.

The Rhapsody books follow three primary protagonists. Rhapsody, a half human half lirin former prostitute and current namer and musician. Grunthor, a giant half firbolg half Bengard and soldier and Achmed a half dhracian and half firbolg assassin. Grunthor and Achmed inadvertently save Rhapsody from a group of thugs and are forced to take her with them when they travel underground to the world tree Sagia and prevent the F'dor from waking the primal worm. The three emerge centuries later in a new continent to find their own homeland was destroyed by a comet and due to their journey they no longer age. Three set about founding a society of outcasts and have to deal with the descendts of their homeland who have already established kingdoms.

What initially drew me into Rhapsody was an original story and engaging characters. Haydon deliberately set out to write a medley of fantasy, horror, mystery and romance and she blends these all together extremely well. One of the unique characteristics of her prose is the ability to switch from POV (often multiple times) within a paragraph. She does this seamlessly and I have yet to see anyone duplicate this feat. There is also a stronger focus on folklore and music than most fantasy books.

The fate of the remaining two books of the SOA of ages seems to be up in the air. Haydon used to be quite active online, regularly interacting with her fan base and maintaining her own website. The website has been down for months and Haydon remains incognito. The LJOVP has been released regularly with the next one entitled The Tree of Water. So it would seem SOA is on the backburner for awhile.