Sunday, January 15, 2017

Queen of Sorcery

Queen of Sorcery
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 2 of the five-book "Belgariad" series, 15-year-old Garion remains on the move with an ethnically mixed group on a quest to save their world. Zedar, a traitor to the immortal sorcerers who have watched over the west during the thousands of years since the gods withdrew, has stolen a certain stone and intends to use it to revive Torak, the god of chaos and evil. Harrassed by priests of Torak, in the disguise of traders and diplomats from the eastern Angarak nations, the Nadraks, Murgos, and Thulls, and hampered on their way by plots and conflicts the Angaraks have conjured with their mind-corrupting gold, Garion's party struggles to catch up with Zedar. They include representatives of all the western realms the group has passed through so far. While Garion struggles to understand and accept who he really is and what he is capable of, he and his friends experience the varying climates, geography, and culture of each country in turn, a feat of fantasy world-building notable in its breadth of scope and variety of detail.

Each country in Garion's world has its special charms and dangers, just as each member of his party has good qualities and character flaws. For the most part, their shared quest holds the friction within the group down to a cheerful banter, with only a few outbursts of real conflict, soon healed over by forgiveness. Around them, however, they witness gruesome murders, savage battles, horrible treatment of lower-class people, assassination plots, moral and political corruption, and doomed romances. Arendia, where the group finds itself as this book begins, is divided by a thousand-year-old ethnic grudge, and further threatened by a too-delicate sense of honor. Tolnedra faces a succession crisis as a line of emperors that has stood for millennia comes to an end, and a headstrong princess runs away from her responsibility to offer her hand in marriage to a Rivan king who may never return. In the forest of the Dryads, Garion comes face to face with an enemy who has been tracking him all his life - and with a power within him that he doesn't want to accept. And finally, in the stifling jungle country of Nyissa, the heavily drugged populace serves a queen who is both the priestess and the betrothed bride of a serpent-god, and she recognizes what Garion is becoming and makes her move before he knows how to use his power.

In this installment, Garion learns his true name, which finally makes sense of the over-arching title of the series. But there is still much he doesn't know about his true identity and his destiny. The fact that an attentive reader can probably guess things about the main character before he grasps them himself, lends an oddly picaresque touch to this adventure, along with powerful magic, shocking violence, intrigues within intrigues, and an engrossing complexity of landscapes, cultures, and politics. Besides all that, it has a touch of sweet romance, a goodly helping of humor, and some convincingly human emotions, especially within the confused brain of its young protagonist. And who would be less confused, with a dry voice residing in his head, piping up with advice from time to time? And that's beside mental messages from Garion's Aunt Pol and Grandfather Wolf, and the sinister grip of Asharak, a.k.a. Chamdar, on his mind. Though not everything Garion says and does is to his credit, credit we give him because he is growing, learning, and becoming something whose importance we can yet only guess. For its characters, for its dialogue, and for its overall richness of conception, I am sure to use any opportunity to read the rest of this series.

This sequel to Pawn of Prophecy is followed by Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanters' End Game. Eddings (1931-2009) also wrote the five-book sequel series "The Malloreon" (Guardians of the West, etc.), among other companion novels, and several other fantasy novels and series, sometimes co-authored by his wife Leigh Eddings.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Darkness at Sethanon

A Darkness of Sethanon
by Raymond E. Feist
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the conclusion of the Riftwar trilogy - which, by the way, the author specifically calls the third book in a three-book series in his foreword, in spite of many publishers splitting Magician in two - Prince Arutha, younger brother of the King, finally faces his doom either to stop the Enemy of all Midkemia (to say nothing of other worlds) or to die trying. Meantime, two young men, who not many years ago were kitchen boys in the same castle Arutha grew up in, reach the fullness of their powers: one as a magician, and the other as something for which I have no word, sharing a mind and a body with a being older and more terrible than the gods themselves.

Pug, sometimes called Milamber, and Tomas, who sort of is the last of the Valheru known as Ashen-Shugar, travel on a quest of literally epic scope; and I use the word literally literally. Riding a dragon, they comb through several worlds, visit the world of the dead, consult a mad oracle, pass through the void between universes, and experience the entire history of the cosmos, first on fast rewind, then on fast forward. This, and finding an immortal magician with the knowledge of who or what the Enemy really is, prepares them to come to Arutha's aid with just a ghost of a chance of stopping an invasion that means death for every living thing on Midkemia, and little short of it for every other world in the multiverse. The history they witness, including the memories of both Macros the Black and Ashen-Shugar, rivals Tolkien's The Silmarillion in vastness of conception.

But while they swing on a star at the spacy, science-fictiony fringe of the fantasy genre, Arutha and his party must fight their way through the horsey, swordy, goblins-vs.-dwarvesy heart of it. While a lot hangs on whatever Pug and Tomas find out in their trek across the universe, the blood and guts of the affair center on one brooding prince, his minstrel brother-in-law, a teenaged reformed thief, a not entirely reformed pirate, and a handful of other rugged, rough-and-tumble types. It's a nice outdoor excursion, livened up by colossal amounts of death and destruction. And, forgive me if this blows the surprise, their adventure is only briefly set back by a successful assassination attempt right at the beginning of the book. It takes more than a knife in the heart to stop a good hero, and Arutha is a good hero - good enough to continue to be a hero while leading a retreat for most of the book; good enough not to be upstaged by more flamboyant characters, which is to say, everybody else in a given scene; good enough to choose one of his family's worst enemies as his second-in-command; good enough to make a virtually unstoppable villain falter in his tracks just by proving to be alive. But in their final confrontation, will good enough be good enough? Don't be surprised, really, if the answer isn't exactly, "Hell, yes!" The expected is never what you get with this author, or in this world.

While the original Riftwar saga ends here, it is only the beginning of a long list of spinoff series, including the Empire trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts), the two "Krondor's Sons" books, the Serpentwar quartet, the Riftwar Legacy series (a trilogy of novels, concluded by a novella in lieu of two canceled novels), the "Legends of the Riftwar" trilogy (each co-authored by a different guy), the "Conclave of Shadows" trilogy, the Darkwar trilogy, the two-book Demonwar series, and the Chaoswar trilogy. Whew! I'm going to have to think about whether I want to spend my next two-and-a-half lifetimes reading this whole saga. I am completely satisfied with the series so far, however - an immersive, genre-stretching, exciting, humorous, romantic drama staged against a titanic backdrop of both history and geography. I would have been surprised had there not been more stories to come out of this world, or rather, this infinite series of nesting-doll worlds. So long as the quality stays up at or near this level, I'll be happy to read them.

Monday, January 9, 2017

207. Assumption Hymn

I think the idea for this hymn has been percolating in my brain since I heard a funeral sermon last November that riffed on some of these ideas. The "assumption" it is based on is the christological principle that any part of human nature God the Son did not assume in His incarnation, He could not have redeemed; and also, that Christ (God and Man in one person) remains undivided from the moment of His incarnation to eternity. When I wrote this hymn, I had no particular tune in mind, and I'm not sure one even exists (yet) that will fit its meter. When I find one, or compose one, I'll let you know.

Dear Christ, in touching aught of ours
You sanctify and bless it;
Despite its brokenness, it
Drinks wholeness from Your powers.

In You God breathed, a human soul,
Below the angels living,
Our earth-born spirits giving
A yet more lofty role.

Since You assumed our flesh and bone,
Our very skin esteeming
A temple worth redeeming,
Our eyes will view Your throne.

From birth You did not shrink, nor death,
Nor toil however lowly;
In You we may count holy
Our first and final breath.

By hunger, weakness, grief, and woe
With us Your whole life joining,
An image You were coining
Whereby we grace might know.

From cross, from spear, from shuttered crypt
You blazed forth in perfection;
So we, in resurrection,
Shall see death's pinions clipped.

To God's right hand, in public show,
You mightily ascended,
Though still in You is blended
All that we are below.

As You before the throne appeal,
All grace by right demanding,
There we as well are standing,
Our union firm and real.

Whatever, Christ, you once assumed
When You on earth alighted,
With You remains united,
Has but in glory bloomed.

Therefore, Redeemer, one with men,
We will rejoice to savor
Our Father's peace and favor,
'Til You raise us again.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Close to the Broken Hearted

Close to the Broken Hearted
by Michael Hiebert
Recommended Ages: 15+

In the second "Alvin, Alabama" mystery, Leah Teal's dual careers as a police detective and a single mom collide once again. On one hand, she uses her detective skills to check the background of family on her late husband Billy's side, whom she never knew existed until a woman claiming to be Billy's sister shows up in town. On the other hand, daughter Carry, 15, and son Abe, 12, are in the car with her during her climactic race to the scene where a fragile young woman and her three-month-old baby are at the mercy of an ax-wielding psychopath. But that's at the end of the story. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

In the first case, the main thing standing between Leah and clarity is her own grief over Billy's death 10 years earlier in a car accident. It isn't so much that she has gotten stuck between the denial and anger stages of grief, as that she has put off the whole process by packing away every picture of her dead husband, and refusing even to confront his memory. Meanwhile, Abe is so desperate to know more about the father he doesn't remember, he carries in his wallet a photo of Billy that he stole from a box in his mother's bedroom closet. His questions about the grandparents and aunt he never knew he had become so persistent that Leah would have good reason to worry about Abe taking matters into his own hands. After all, Abe is also staking out his - and her - lead suspect in the other case, the one that ends with an ax-wielding psychopath battering down another single mom's front door.

I mentioned Sylvie Carson is fragile. You would be, too, if you lived every day with the memory of seeing your baby brother blown to smithereens in front of you when you were five years old. The man responsible for doing it, a sometime preacher with a hair-trigger temper and designs on the Carson family farm, has just gotten out of prison and moved back to Alvin. The timing coincides perfectly with a series of incidents in which it seems someone is trying to drive Sylvie crazy - ranging from rearranging the junk in her back yard to killing her cat with rat poison. No one else on the Alvin police force takes Sylvie's constant alarms seriously. But something about Preacher Eli's show of repentance smells off to Leah, and as she digs deeper, she begins to doubt the findings of the original investigations of the deaths of both Sylvie's parents - one a suicide, the other a murder for which a man went to the electric chair. But the truth is... Well, you didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?

Like the previous installment in this series, Dream with Little Angels, this book is a more or less equal mixture of crime thriller and family drama, told partly in Abe's precocious, picaresque first-person voice, and partly in third-person narrative that mostly follows Leah's movements, and sometimes Sylvie's. It is a mystery in which an obvious suspect obscures a slightly less obvious suspect only for a while; but even after whodunit becomes completely clear, the thrills and chills have only just begun. Style-wise, the book is written with attractive clarity and economical lyricism, with a mild tendency to let grammatically iffy southernisms slip in even in the third-person passages.

Apparently, the ruse works, because in spite of being written by a present-day Canadian author, the book fills the senses with a vivid impression of its 1988, southern-U.S. setting. Not that I've spent much time in Alabama, to judge. But I've read books written by residents of my own county in Missouri whose characters sounded less convincingly like they belonged here, and whose scenery did not come to life in the imagination in as much detail. Even though Alvin isn't a real place on the map of Alabama, it lives in the hearts and minds of anyone who has read Hiebert's work. That work, by the way, includes two more Alvin, Ala. sequels - A Thorn Among the Lilies and Sticks and Stones - the serialized thriller Rose Garden Arena Incident, the stand-alone novels Dolls and Darkstone, and the short story collection Sometimes the Angels Weep.

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens
by Henry Clark
Recommended Ages: 11+

Time trombone. Did you read those two words? I repeat: Time trombone. Let them sink in. This should save me the trouble of spinning the pointer on my not-very-handy Wheel of Adjectives, so I can decide whether zany, goofy, loopy, kooky, off-the-wall, or madcap best describes this adventure from the author of (deep breath) What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World. Yes, friends, this is a book in which time travel is made possible by a brass musical instrument with a valve slider. Depending on what six notes you toot on it, and what place and time you are thinking about, and which people within earshot have psychic powers, you and those people could end up anywhere, anytime in history. Blow one note a bit flat, and you could go 5,000 years off course. Change something and you could come back to a seriously messed-up future. Travel with best friends Ambrose and Tom, present-day middle-school kids from Freedom Falls, Ohio, and carnival-schooled Romani girl Frankie, and you could get mixed up in an adventure that will tickle, tease, teach, and touch the heart.

Ambrose is worried that his father, an English teacher at the local school, may lose his job because of his alternative lifestyle as a "transtemporal" or "cross-time dresser," showing up every day in a different historical costume, ranging from a Roman legionnaire to Mark Twain. Tom, a Chinese-American boy whose mom is pushing him to become an all-American surgeon or a stockbroker, would really rather be an all-Chinese archaeologist. And Frankie, who believes she is destined to be the steward of her clan's prized time-trombone (known as the Shagbolt), just wants their help retrieving the artifact from its hiding place inside their school, plus maybe a valuable first-edition book that she lost while borrowing it from her dad.

But one mishap follows another, and together with a friendly Gigantopithecus, the kids find themselves in 1852, on the run from slave-catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Act, and with the lives of a growing number of people depending on their actions. Somehow, everything they do contaminates history and makes things worse. Soon all their hopes of making it back to the future they remember depend on Tom's knack for deciphering Morse Code messages hidden in ancient Chinese I Ching hexagrams, Frankie's toughness and bravura Shagbolt-playing, Mr. Ganto's willingness to play the long-suffering but super-strong sidekick, and Ambrose's sheer daring, quick thinking, and willingness to broaden his mind.

This book is packed with pop-culture and literary gags, corny humor, suspense, excitement, weird magic, witty dialogue, thought-provoking history lessons, and conscience-pricking meditations on right and wrong. It explores such wide-flung regions as the freedom to be different, the evils of slavery and intolerance, and the human mind's tendency to recognize patterns - not to mention time paradoxes, destiny, civil liberties, and the strange ups and downs of the fortunes of books such as Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin. It isn't the sequel one might hope for to its author's previous book featuring the alternate world of Indorsia, though it makes a winking reference to it.
But winking aside, it's a seriously fun book that will keep bright, curious young eyes glued to its pages.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Elusive Elixir

The Elusive Elixir
by Gigi Pandian
Recommended Ages: 15+

Zoe Faust looks like any other 20-something Vegan antique dealer and organic herbalist. In spite of her prematurely white hair, she fits right in with the Portland, Oregon tea-room crowd. But actually, she is an alchemist who, except for her hair, has not aged since the 1700s, when she found the elixir of life. She returns to Paris, the scene of a World War II-era heartache, in search of a dark alchemical secret that may help save her best friend, a living gargoyle named Dorian, from reverting to lifeless stone. But against all odds, she is recognized by a woman who was a child when they last met in 1942, and who refuses to buy Zoe's story that she simply looks like, and is named after, her grandmother.

Forced to flee back to Portland ahead of a possible police investigation of a 75-year-old murder she knew nothing about until now, Zoe thinks it's going to be hard to face Dorian after failing to find his cure. But there are much bigger problems awaiting her back at home. Her friend Ivan, dying of cancer, now knows alchemy exists and has become obsessed with finding the elixir of life. Her relationship with Max, a detective who only believes in what can be rationally explained, may not survive him finding out alchemy is real. Fourteen-year-old Brixton, who is in on her secret, stumbles upon a murder that seems somehow to be connected with alchemy - or, worse, to "backward alchemy," a perverted shortcut to transformation that relies on sacrifice to achieve its goals. A figure from Zoe's past, long believed dead, resurfaces but cannot be trusted. And it seems someone is trying to steal a powerful, dark book from Zoe's workshop, one that may contain the secret to saving Dorian. The mysteries and menaces surrounding Zoe, Dorian, and the book build to a climax that threatens the life of one person she cares about and the soul of another.

This third book in the "Accidental Alchemist" series is a finely-seasoned mystery thriller, with a dash of sexy romance, a pinch of macabre occultism, a heaping spoonful of authentic history (including Zoe's personal connection to good old Nicholas Flamel), and a generous splash of humor. Its quirky, endearing characters include one stone chimera who enjoys gourmet cooking, another who drinks a lot and quotes French poetry, and a heroine based on the author's own experiences as a breast cancer survivor who swears by her organic Vegan lifestyle. It also has an inventive take on the secrets of alchemy, including a completely original "backward" version that will give many readers the heebie-jeebies.

Previous books in this series are The Accidental Alchemist and The Masquerading Magician. Pandian, a San Francisco Bay area author, has also written the four "Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries" and many short stories. This latest book is due to be released Jan. 8, 2017. My review is based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rogue Knight

Rogue Knight
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this second book of the "Five Kingdoms" series, Cole Randolph - a boy from Mesa, Arizona who was among a group of kids abducted and sold into slavery in an alien world called the Outskirts - has escaped from his death-defying duties with the Sky Raiders and gone on the run with an odd assortment of friends. One of them is an insectoid boy named Twitch who is looking for a champion to save his village from a petty tyrant. Another is a princess, one of five daughters of the realm's High Shaper, who faked his daughters' deaths and stole their powers, freezing their ability to age.

Joined by other members of the resistance, these youths flee from the kingdom of Sambria, where enchanted artifacts like Cole's jumping sword work, and cross the border into Elloweer, where enchanters create fantastic illusions and sometimes, if they're very powerful, change living things. The group's goal, besides avoiding capture by relentless slavers, legionnaires, and enforcers, is mostly to save Mira's royal sister Honor, who according to the stars (don't ask) is somewhere in Elloweer, and may be in danger. In addition, Cole is on a personal mission to free his enslaved Mesa friends and, if possible, take them back home.

The path to these goals proves to be anything but straightforward. The young folks find Elloweer being disrupted by not one but two mysterious powers, each of which seems to be using a shaping ability stolen from someone else to attack the Ellowine way of life. One is a monster whose name, the kids learn, is Morgassa, and who empties entire villages by converting everyone in them into her mindless drones. The other is an armored champion calling himself the Rogue Knight, who has been taking over Ellowine politics in the kingdom's time-honored way - by beating each town's champion in a duel, one town at a time - and who has taken to robbing travelers as a way of pressuring the capital city's champion into accepting his challenge.

Between these forces and the High King's abuses - which include the forbidden shapecraft, tampering with the fabric of magic itself - there soon won't be anywhere safe for Cole and his friends in Elloweer - especially after they snatch his slave-marked friend Dalton out of a heavily guarded compound and spring the most secret prisoner from the most highly guarded prison in the land. To find where to turn next, they must first visit one of the most terrifying beings in all the Five Kingdoms, win a contest of wits against a caged demon, beard the Ellowine Grand Shaper in her den, and confront both the Rogue Knight and Morgassa. Plus, Cole must personally figure out how to command his unique shaping ability in time to save everybody from doom.

This sequel to Sky Raiders introduces a surprise crossover character, or at least crossover species, from Brandon Mull's "Beyonders" series, tying the two entirely separate sagas together in at least some kind of multiverse. Torivors were depicted as terrifying, living shadows in "Beyonders," but only gave a vague hint of their true nature, which is here explored in more fascinating detail. This series also abounds in its variety of imaginative forms of magic, using those introduced in this book to thrilling effect. Mull truly has a great imagination, demonstrated before not only in "Beyonders" but also the "Fablehaven" series, and this book shows his ability to invent novel magical creatures and surprising twists on familiar concepts is far from exhausted. Above all, once he gets his story rolling, he knows how to make these inventions and twists tell for gripping dramatic effect.

My only quibbles about this book are that, after setting the series aside for about 2.5 years, it took me a while to recover my feel for the story and the world in which it takes place. For once, I find myself complaining about a follow-up book getting underway without a ton of re-exposition to bring lapsed readers back up to speed. I know, it's a lame thing to complain about, but when there are a lot of speaking characters right at the beginning of a book, it's nice to be given at least a sketch of each character to hold in one's mind. It took me a few chapters to really get a feel for who Twitch, Jace, Mira, and Joe were. Their background gradually came back to me. It may be a strength as well as a weakness, but at least it's interesting to note, this is one of those books that errs on the side of assuming you recently read the one before it.

The ones after it, meanwhile, are Crystal Keepers, Death Weavers, and a yet-to-be-announced fifth title. Meanwhile, Mull is also planning to release Dragonwatch, the beginning of a "Fablehaven" sequel series, in March 2017.