Archive for fantasy

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–Originally posted at blogcritics.org


Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy is filled with gripping plot hooks, inventive and compelling characters, and intriguing conflicts.  The main characters, Stephanie and Skulduggery, make a captivating and often hilarious team.  I was itching for a sequel long before I got to the end of the book.


In modern-day Ireland, Stephanie Edgley’s uncle Gordon has just died.  At the reading of the will, twelve-year-old Stephanie is surprised to inherit nearly the entire estate.  She’s even more surprised to meet a witty detective named Skulduggery Pleasant, who also happens to be a sorcerer and a skeleton.  After surviving a few attempts on her life, Stephanie joins Skulduggery in a quest to solve her uncle’s murder.

Each character has such a unique voice and personality that attribution isn’t even necessary during dialog exchanges.  Stephanie and Skulduggery have a quick and witty rapport and complimenting personalities.  Even uncle Gordon, who is dead from the very first line of the book, has a unique personality.  Through only third party recollections and the words of his last will and testament, Gordon is the coolest uncle ever.

The only flaw I encountered in the novel was the climax of the story.  Stephanie drives the action through the entire story but when we get to the climax, she turns passive and winds up getting rescued.  The protagonist of a story should never be a bystander during the climax, but at that point I was so hooked by the story I didn’t care.  A swat team led by Bruce Willis and Wesley Snipes could have busted through the wall and I probably would have bought it.  Landy answered the story question and wrapped up the current plotline nicely, but left plenty of enticing potential for future stories.  I’m not going to get tired of these characters anytime soon.

Skulduggery Pleasant is a book for anyone who has ever walked through the winding, twisting house of a relative and imagined hidden passages tucked around the corners.  Landy seamlessly weaves magic into the modern world to create a setting and tone that’s a little bit like the Dresden Files for kids.   So far there are four books available in the series, the fifth is slated for September 2010, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a movie soon.

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The Giver by Lois Lowry

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Originally posted at blogcritics.org

The Giver by Lois Lowry was assigned to every other English class in high school except for mine, so it seems, and I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it.  I knew the author’s name and read her Newberry Medal winning novel, Number the Stars many years ago.  I expected a poignant and provocative story, but I was surprised by the intricacies of the story world she created in The Giver.

Also a Newberry Medal winning novel, The Giver introduces the viewers to a seemingly utopian society through the eyes of twelve-year-old Jonas.  Things are orderly and simple.  Each person has a distinct place in society and clear-cut duties.  The rules are simple and everyone obeys.  But Jonas unfolds the community before our eyes, the vision becomes flatter, starker, and dystopian.  When Jonas turns twelve, he gets his assignment.   He is to become the Receiver of Memory.  We learn that all memories of anything OTHER or ELSE belongs solely to the Receiver of Memory.  Now the former Receiver becomes The Giver and starts handing over memories to Jonas, one by one.  Jonas learns of snow and sun and love.  It’s a little bit of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” with “The Matrix” thrown in for good measure.

Lowry paints the outlines of this world by describing the structure, how things work.  But that is only the first half.  Then she fills it in not by showing what is there, but what is not.  The community is vivid in its emptiness, in its lack of things.  And by doing so Lowry points out the most important parts of humanity.  She shows us the things that make life truly meaningful and enjoyable, but she doesn’t beat us over the head with it.

Lowry could have taken the ideas and pushed each to the extreme, beating the readers over the head with her point, but instead she took a much gentler approach.  This isn’t like the third installment of “The Matrix” when Neo gets blinded and dies and you can almost hear the Wachowskis shouting, “Get it?  Because he’s Jesus!” in the background.    I know.  I want to forget that movie too.  But remember “The Matrix”, the original that was so full of nuance and delicious ambiguity?  This is more like that, but without the black leather, dark sunglasses, or the best shot of a helicopter flying into a building ever.   Lowry presents her ideas in a clear and understated way and then steps back and lets them sink in.  This isn’t shock and awe, but the point definitely comes through.  A lesser author could easily have taken the idea to a place of disdainful finger-wagging.  I find myself wishing the ending had been clearer, but that would have destroyed some of the nuance I was just lauding.

The story isn’t full of action or drama, but it doesn’t need it.  It’s a coming of age story that doesn’t just deal with a boy learning who he is, but learning what it means to be human.  For science fiction and fantasy lovers alike, the story world here is nothing to scoff at.  Among fictional visions of the future, The Giver doesn’t usually stand alongside Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, but perhaps it should.  In its own quiet way, The Giver makes a potent statement about the world and all our human flaws and strengths.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

–originally posted at Blogcritics.org

Despite a twelve-year-old protagonist and utilization of many fairy tales, The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly should not be mistaken as a children’s novel.  It’s sort of a coming of age story, but from the angle of an adult looking back at lost innocence rather than the angle of a child looking forward to gained independence and strength.

Set in England at the beginning of World War II, the twelve year old protagonist David has just lost his mother.  His father soon remarries and gives David a half-brother.  David sees these new additions as interlopers and he turns to the stories on his shelves for solace.  The books whisper to him and he occasionally blacks out.  Eventually, he retreats into the world of the stories and his imagination.  For much of the book it isn’t clear whether these happenings are real or imagined.

It’s strange to read about a hero who is so internalized.  David’s path is often dictated by those around him rather than his own actions, and he more often stifles his thoughts than expresses them.  The book can’t quite decide what kind of a book it wants to be—whether it is an internal, psychological, literary sort of novel; or whether it is an action-filled, myth-bending, children’s fantasy novel.  In the end it’s both and neither.   Perhaps Connolly did too good of a job conveying David’s confusion about his state of mind and passed that confusion onto the readers.

Many parts of this novel are brilliant.  The twist of the communist dwarves was unexpected and amusing, but I wish it had integrated better into the story as a whole.  As it was, the tone stood out from the rest of the book.  It was a Tom Bombadil sort of interlude—entertaining, but not absolutely necessary–with tinges of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle and Monty Python’s repressed Dennis.  Connolly did a nice job of putting new twists on old fairy tales and lore.  The more liberties he took with the legends, the more successful he was.  The thing that disappointed me most was that the father’s profession didn’t tie into the rest of the story at all.  But maybe it’s just my interest in that part of history shining through.

The Book of Lost Things wasn’t what I expected when I picked it up, but I enjoyed the surprises.  It breaks the rule that the main character of a novel dictates the age of the readers, and rightfully so.  Anyone who enjoyed the films “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Brothers Grimm” would enjoy this book.  If Connolly can make fairy tales this creepy, I can’t wait to read some of his thrillers.  But I have to say, I’ll never look at Red Riding Hood the same way again.

Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

I had a copy of Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett on my shelf a long time and kept putting off reading it.  I didn’t have a good reason for avoiding it except that the cover says “Terry Pratchett” but has a space ship rather than an ogre or a wizard or Death on it.  Now I can safely say this book is a perfect reason why authors shouldn’t be pigeon-holed.  Pratchett doesn’t just write satirical fantasy for adults featuring bumbling wizards and trolls whose knuckles make bink-bink noises.    He also writes children’s books about video games and aliens, and he pulls it off splendidly.

Set in England during the Gulf War of the early ‘90s, when video games still looked more like games than real life, Johnny Maxwell has a lot on his plate.  His parents might be splitting up, there’s a war on, and most importantly he’s trying to beat a game called “Only You Can Save Mankind.”  But when he’s about to blast the alien spaceship, the aliens surrender to him.  And when Johnny falls asleep at night, he wakes up in the game.  When he dies in the game, he just comes back again.  But the dreams make him wonder, what happens when the aliens die in the game?   This book is only part one of the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.

The story caught my attention immediately; it reminded me of “The Last Starfighter” in a good way.  Johnny’s playing the sort of game I remember from when I was a kid.  I’d play for hours on end and I can’t count the times I continued playing even in my dreams.  Johnny makes a compelling and likeable hero, despite his nerdiness.  As a trademark, Pratchett packs a punch even with the secondary characters.  This book is no exception and David’s friends add surprising depth and realism to the story.  I think I remember these kids from middle school.

I read the entire novel in one sitting and wished I had the remaining two books of the trilogy.  I also had an itch to dig out my Commodore 64 and play some old-school video games.  (And I kinda wish “Only You Can Save Mankind” was a real game.)  This novel reminded me how great Pratchett is at creating distinct and vivid characters in a very efficient way.  He isn’t just fantastically funny; he also tells really well-crafted stories that poke at your emotions and vices in just the right way.   No matter your age, if you like humor, video games, aliens, or geeky characters, you’ll love Only You Can Save Mankind.

–originally published on Blogcritics.org

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2010 by Jessica Lada

I didn’t notice at first that  Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver was the first book of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, but I am thrilled it is.  This is a world I want to spend more time in.  It isn’t a typical fantasy with magic wands and spells.  It’s a spiritual, elemental sort of magic and it’s integrated completely into the story world.  It doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all as you’re reading.  Not only does Pager take you back six thousand years to show you the European forests and technology, but she puts you in the ancient mindset and strips away modern paradigms.

Set in prehistoric forests of Europe, Wolf Brother is the story of twelve-year-old Torak whose father has just been killed by a demon bear.  With the help of his wolf guide, Torak must find the Mountain of the Spirit World and defeat the demon bear before the next full moon.  If he fails, the bear will be invincible and he will kill until the entire forest is destroyed.  Along the way, Torak encounters other tribes, prophecies, and glaciers.

In this day and age it’s tough to forget about technology or imagine what it would be like without it.   But Paver cleverly tricked me into forgetting about cell phones and televisions and for the span of the story I saw the world like Torak did.

Paver splits the book between three viewpoints: Torak, Wolf, and Renn (a girl from the Raven clan).  I’d like to camp with this trio.  Torak is the hero and the dominant point of view.  He has a likeable and compelling mix of determination, fear, and loyalty.  Torak perpetually rides the exciting edge of discovery.  It’s his first time on his own in the forest, so even though he has been taught well, there is a new level of anxiety.  It reminded me of my very first time driving a car solo.  I met my friends at the zoo.  I’d been there hundreds of times before, but riding in the passenger seat is different from actually driving the route yourself.  There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captured perfectly in Torak’s voice. I’d been there hundreds of times before, but driving the route myself was radically different than riding in the passenger seat.  There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captured perfectly in Torak’s voice.

Torak’s sidekick Renn is charming and likeable.  She is feisty, capable, and talented; but also humble and grounded securely by morals.  The use of Wolf’s voice as a character was absolutely brilliant.  His keen mind and observations stripped away all labels.  If you lived without books or school or written language, how would you describe things?  Wolf’s point of view broke the world down to the barest level, observing rivers, snow, fire, humans, and even death by using only concrete ideas rather than abstract concepts.

Occasionally the transitions between viewpoints were rough and had confusing pronouns, but luckily the character voices are distinct enough to sort things out.  I worried that the descriptions of survival (hunting, clothing, making arrowheads, etc.) would become longwinded, but Paver kept the details concise and interesting.  I have to commend her for resisting the temptation of info-dumps, especially after all the research she did.  (According to the book jacket, Paver ate lichens, chewed pine resin, and slept on reindeer skins in the forests of northern Finland during the research process.  That’s what I call dedication.)

I was shocked that this novel functioned on so many levels all at the same time.  Not only was it an exciting young adult fiction, it also touched the root of humanity and what it means to be a part of this blue planet.  I started reading this book on Earth Day (by mere coincidence) and it turned out to be surprisingly apropos.  Beneath the adventure and coming-of-age, it was a story about harmony with the world around us and harmony with each other.

If you enjoy Tamora Pierce, Brian Jacques, or even Jack London, Wolf Brother and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness are right up your alley.  It is more than just a fantasy novel or a coming of age story.  The real magic in this story doesn’t come from potions or artifacts but from the world around us.

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Brandon Sanderson goes beyond the horn-rimmed glasses into the heart of evil and shows of his storytelling chops while he’s at it.

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson is a new twist on the young adult fantasy genre. Instead of integrating magical elements into a modern story world, the book is written to inform us that our modern world (and even our history) is an illusion that librarians WANT us to believe. It’s written as a first-person autobiographical account, supposedly disguised as a fictional novel by Brandon Sanderson so that the librarians don’t notice and ban it from the shelves. At first I thought the gimmick was cheesy, but it definitely grew on me. The first-person writer bit is risky and could have flopped badly, but Sanderson nails it with his voice, characters, and setting.

According to Alcatraz Smedry, the Librarians want to rewrite history and the world according to their own design. So nearly everything we know in the “Hushlands” has been manufactured by them. Alcatraz, thirteen-year-old hero and self proclaimed not-very-good person, has lived in a series of foster homes. He has a Talent (with a capital T) for breaking things, so he doesn’t stay in one place for very long. When it comes time to claim his inheritance, the librarians beat it to him. Now, along with Grandpa Smedry, cousins Sing and Quentin, and a snarky teenage she-knight, Alcatraz must break into the Librarian’ stronghold: the downtown library. Alcatraz has to master his occulator lenses (each set does a different magic-ish thing) on the fly and rescue his inheritance from the evil Librarians.

At first, Sanderson’s writing seems sporadic and random—like it was written by a thirteen year old boy. But his technique is a little bit of genius, and as a fellow writer I had to pause to admire it. He’ll finish off a chapter with a massive cliffhanger and then completely stop the story to talk about how bad it is for a writer to leave his readers hanging like that. But he does it anyway, because he isn’t a very good writer. Yeah right. Just like Alcatraz isn’t a very good person. He’s only the hero of the story, after all, and Sanderson is just the author of a completely enthralling novel. The random things eventually click and the frayed edges come together to complete the tapestry.

In addition to the Alcatraz series, Sanderson also has the Mistborn trilogy (described on his website as “a hybrid fantasy, heist story, kung fu epic”), several standalone books, and he has also been chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time (after Jordan’s death in 2007).

If the Weasley clan is your favorite part of the Harry Potter series, you need to pick up Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Its dominant asset is humor, but Sanderson never shortchange the conflict, action, or tension. Three books are already out, and there are two more in the works. By the looks of it, Sanderson’s imagination isn’t going to run out of quirky ideas anytime soon.

–originally published on blogcritics.org

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull Leaves No Fantasy Stone Unturned

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2010 by Jessica Lada

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull is a young adult fantasy novel about every child’s dream and nightmare at the same time.   Siblings Kendra and Seth get dropped off at their grandfather’s house while their parents go on a 17-day cruise and they discover he’s the caretaker of Fablehaven, a mystical land hidden in the forest beyond his yard.  It’s a wildlife preserve for the magical creatures, good and evil, to protect them from extinction.

Brandon Mull’s bestselling series is up to four books and the fifth, Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison, comes out March 23rd, 2010.  The first book in the series establishes the storyline for the whole set.  Fablehaven is one of the last strongholds for magic in the world and it’s being threatened by the Society of the Evening Star.

Kendra and Seth are fascinated by their Grandpa’s house and spend their days exploring within the bounds of Grandpa’s rules.  Unfortunately, the fascination lasted longer for the kids than it did for me.   The book was easy to put down during the first seventy-some pages and I kept wondering when the cool stuff was going to happen.  Luckily, Mull amps up the story just in time to salvage the novel and the rest of the story keeps good pace.  The thing that saved the story through the slow start was a nasty witch named Muriel tied up in the woods by a frayed rope.  She gnaws at a knot in the rope and as soon as she appears, I knew she had to get loose at some point in the story.  It creatsa lot of suspense and anticipation, especially with mischievous rule-breaker Seth running around.

The big theme of the novel is that you reap what you sow.  Kendra is the good girl and her brother Seth is the well-intentioned rascal.  Seth and Kendra are nice foils for the moral lesson–sort of a fantasy version of “Goofus and Gallant”–but at times it seemed like everything wrapped up too tidily for them.

But despite a few flaws (and a slightly off-putting scene involving a giant cow named Viola and her giant udders) Mull created a truly creepy antagonist in Muriel.  The story world and the series concept are engaging and vivid, but it isn’t a knockoff of its predecessors.  There’s a lot of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling inspiration showing through in Fablehaven, and that’s definitely not a bad thing.  This is a great series for anyone who likes fantasy where the magical realm overlaps with the modern world.  I’ll be excited to see how the series wraps up in the final book this March.

–originally posted on http://blogcritics.org/