Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dragons, Martians & Angels

Dragon Games
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 2 of the Books of Umber came to me, once again, in an "Advance Reviewer Copy." I'm getting my review in just under the wire: the book goes on sale less than 3 weeks from this writing. Nevertheless I want to express my gratitude to Paul and the to publicity department at Simon & Schuster for allowing me an early peek at a book I really enjoyed. I make no secret that the author and publisher did me this favor, so you can take my review for what it's worth. Or you can take my word that I'm not just praising this book so I can get more freebies. Fans of fantasy and adventure will agree that P. W. Catanese has accomplished another feat of story magic.

This particular type of magic will be best known to those who have read Book 1, Happenstance Found. With this series, author Catanese moves beyond his earlier "Further Tales," adventures set in a world where your favorite fairy tales are pages out of history, real events with ongoing effects in the lives of real people. Now, instead of each story taking its departure from a different mother-goose story, the Books of Umber are venturing into riskier, more rewarding territory: original stories taking place in a well-established fantasy world where virtually anything is possible. Themes, details, creatures, and characters from many familiar folk tales are stirred together, along with some less familiar stories and, perhaps, some newly-minted legends that seem right at home in such a world.

At the center of it all is the fascinating figure of Lord Umber: a dreamer, inventor, entrepreneur, and keen observer of magical beasts, who also happens to be a refugee from our modern, technological world -- and a bipolar sufferer, to boot. Using a vast collection of knowledge from our world, Umber labors tirelessly to improve the way of life in the kingdom of Celador. He also hopes, someday, to return to his own world and save millions from an impending disaster. Umber surrounds himself with special people: Sophie, a one-handed archer and artist; Nima, the amphibious skipper of the leviathan-barge Boroon; and Oates, the strong warrior who is cursed with complete honesty. For example, here is an exchange between Oates and an armed guard:
"What are you looking at?" the soldier said to Oates.

"A nasty man with a face like a dog," Oates replied, honest as always.

The soldier's face flushed scarlet. "Who are you calling dog-faced?"

"I don't know; we haven't been introduced," Oates said.
Most fateful of all is the newest member of Umber's entourage. Young Happenstance is a creature known as a meddler. No one knows much about meddlers, where they come from or what they can do. Hap keeps coming out with new and unexpected powers. But his memory only goes back a short time before Umber found him. This book sheds some light on the mystery of Hap's origin - if the tragic tale of a heartbroken young man and the gruesome confession of a senior meddler can be called "light."

While Hap wrestles with these painful discoveries, Umber's quest for knowledge gives him plenty of other things to focus on. Together they encounter sea giants, a boar-man, a flying ship crewed by spider people, and a race of man-eating creatures known ominously as soul-crabs. They visit an island in the center of a ring of fire, inhabited by tiny creatures who live to fulfill their master's every command... and the poor, cursed creature who has the misfortune of being their master. They participate in a chase at sea, an athletic competition, the palace intrigue of two kingdoms. They witness murder, cruelty, desperation, political unrest, and a crisis of royal succession. They concoct close escapes, survive breathtaking dangers, and contrive to get Oates to tell a lie. And all that is besides their daring rescue of a baby dragon and a clutch of dragon eggs, stolen for a brutal king's amusement.

Dragon Games is more than a story about a savage form of entertainment. It is a tale touched by tragedy. People good, bad, and in between come to gruesome ends. One of these deaths will result in deep soul-searching for Hap; others will affect Umber in ways yet to be seen. It reveals the story behind Sophie's missing hand, raises more possibilities of Hap's power to see and touch the lines of people's fate, and further develops the relationships between the characters. And it leaves us with an edgy expectation of things to come. More than ever, after reading this book, you will be determined to follow wherever Umber's adventures lead.

A Wizard of Mars
by Diane Duane
Recommended Ages: 12+

I've been waiting a long time for Book 9 of the "Young Wizards" series. It's coming out at last, slated for release in April 2010. I've been blessed to receive an "Advance Reading Copy" through the kindness of Diane Duane and the Houghton Mifflin people. Woo-hoo! Keep 'em coming, Diane!

It seems like much longer, but in the world of young wizards Kit Rodriguez and Nita Callahan, only a few months have passed since the events of Wizards at War. Senior wizards are still working overtime to restore the equilibrium of the galaxy after its near-miss with extinction. So perhaps it isn't terribly odd that the team searching for signs of life on Mars consists of of mostly teenaged wizards. Besides, no one is more fascinated by the mystery that shrouds the red planet than Kit. He knows the name of every crater by heart. He wonders what happened to the "kernel" (a sort of planetary motherboard) that's been missing from the planet since time immemorial. And he's on fire to find out why, if Mars has never supported life, the fourth planet resonates so deeply in the mankind's racial memory with feelings of tragedy and warlike menace.

And now, behold! An alien artifact turns up on Mars. At first, when a group of wizards is gathered around, it doesn't seem to do anything. But when Kit sneaks back to look at it alone, it opens up and sends out signals triggering a series of perilous tests. While Nita, feeling left behind by her wizarding partner, lags a step behind him, Kit is drawn into an ancient and terrible race's quest for rebirth. A tale of eternally warring clans, (literally) star-crossed lovers, and wizardry turned toward selfish and monstrous ends threatens to obliterate Kit's identity. And Nita may have to choose between losing him and violating the most sacred oath of wizardry.

It really is a pleasure to be back among my "Young Wizards" friends again. Nita's sister Dairine is still obsessed with finding her lost friend Roshaun. Kit's sister Carmela is still showing more and more signs of late-blooming wizardry. The formerly autistic Darryl, the still-Irish Ronan, and a spacefaring whale all make welcome returns, among others. The story has plenty of humor, drama, emotional punch, suspense, and ethical conundrums to keep you eagerly turning the pages.

I must admit, however, that the last couple chapters were a bit of a let-down. Bear in mind that I read an ARC, so this passage may get tightened up before April; but in their pre-publication form, the last chapter-and-a-half were a little too talky and a lot too reliant on grown-up wizards coming to the rescue of the in-over-their-heads kids. It kind of reminded me of the denouement of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which fully one-third of the book consisted of characters explaining stuff that had previously happened. I would like to be able to "see" it happen, in my mind's eye, rather than have it talked into my mind's ear. But apart from the post-mortem, the main body of the story shows the "Young Wizards" in their classic form. Here's to Book 10 coming hard on its heels!

Mercury Falls
by Robert Kroese
Recommended Ages: 15+

I first became a fan of Rob Krose, also known as "Diesel," when he was writing a side-splittingly funny blog called Mattress Police. He was also more or less the landlord of When he took a hiatus from blogging to promote his first novel, it came as a crushing blow to me. I really depended on the laughs his writing gave me. So I took some consolation when Diesel selected me to receive a free copy of his book, contingent on my promise to give it a snappy review.

Well, I haven't been so snappy after all. What can I say? In the months since Mattress Police went quiet, I've been too depressed to read. I'm coming out of it now. And, perhaps coincidentally, Diesel's been blogging again. Do you believe in coincidences? That question comes up several times in his book Mercury Falls, and the answers are never what you would expect. Nothing about it is what you would expect. And now that I have finally obtained the right balance of hormones and brain chemicals to be able to read the book, I can appreciate that it's just as irreverently, quirkily, pop-culture-referentially, snarkily, truthfully, cultural-foible-skeweringly funny as his blog.

Now, if you're a fundamentalist Christian, it's probably time for you to leave the room. If you're a dispensationalist, premillennialist, Zionist, adventist, imminent-Armageddonist, moralist, or the type of person who thinks the Harry Potter books are Satanic, you might want to sit this review out. Also, some people who obsess over Harry Potter, online role-playing games, and anything to do with the Anaheim Angels, had better make sure their sense of humor is engaged before reading this book. It's the kind of humor that, on a good day, is bound to offend 49.8% of the population. It is, in short, a book after my own heart.

The heroine of the story is one Christine Temetri, a former schoolteacher who has built a journalistic career on a series of magazine articles about end-times-predicting cults and sects. Her editor is a right-wing Christian prophet who secretly believes it is his destiny to be the herald of Armageddon. Her first serious news assignment ends when a missile destroys the building where she is interviewing a top Israeli general, whose dying act is to give her a metal briefcase and tell her to take it to Mercury. She thinks he means the planet until she meets a seven-foot-tall, silver-haired cherub named Mercury -- or, at least, a religious wacko who claims to be a cherub. She's not sure the dying general didn't mean the planet, even after a pillar of fire from heaven torches the house she and Mercury have just left.

In Diesel's cosmos, hell is an infernal country club and heaven is a bureaucratic labyrinth going up God-knows-how-many levels. Angels are switching sides all the time, and some of them (like Mercury) hold themselves aloof, "waiting to see how the first-round draft goes." All anyone knows is that, according to the Schedule of Plagues, Announcements, and Miracles (SPAM, don't you know), the Apocalypse is about to begin. A series of bestselling, Satanic children's books has something to do with it. So does a mouth-breathing, cheeseburger-guzzling, 37-year-old dickweed who lives with his mother and happens to be the Antichrist. Everyone seems to want Karl Grissom dead -- you would, too, if you had to spend 15 minutes with him -- except Christine and, maybe, Mercury. But what can one hack journalist who can't keep her mind off the linoleum in her breakfast nook do to stop the Apocalypse, with or without the help of a snowman-building, ping-pong-playing, 1990s-pop-song-crooning angel who likes Earth better than he should? What can they do against Lucifer, a heavenly task force armed with bolts of flame, motorcycle-riding cherub assassins, the four laptop computers of the Apocalypse, and a cache of supernatural WMDs that look like tasteless knick-knacks but could tear the entire Mudane Plane to shreds?

Well, watch them and see. And laugh. Laugh at the so-funny-because-it's-true analysis of the absurdity of predicting the date of the Second Coming. Laugh at the silliness of American cultural Christianity, pointed up as only someone who has been through it can do. Squirm, perhaps, at some of uncomfortably weird theology and cosmology coming from an author who, I must nevertheless believe, is a Christian with his head screwed on right. Snicker while you squirm -- an effect common to so much comedy these days -- because, if you've been reading Mattress Police, you'll recognize many details of Diesel's portrait of heaven and hell as point-by-point allegory of his observations on life in the professional world. TV's sitcom "The Office" is funniest to those who have worked in similar situations. Mercury Falls takes that same deeply funny experience to a trasncendent level.

Before I buy this book for all my fundamentalist Christian friends and relatives (so I can rub their noses in it), and for some of my non-fundamentalist Christian loved ones (so they can laugh along with me), I want to leave you with a quote that, I hope, will give you an idea of the flavor of Diesel's humor and the childlike, angelic charm of his hero.
"No worries," Mercury said. "I think I've figured out a way for everyone to live happily ever after."


"Well, almost everybody. And not so much happy as only mildly disgruntled."

"And the 'ever after' part?"

"Actually," said Mercury thoughtfully, "it's more like 'for the very short term future.' So, to modify my original statement slightly, I've probably found a way to keep almost everyone from becoming more than mildly disgruntled for the very near future."
Many people may never hear about Diesel's hilarious book. Some may be more than mildly disgruntled by it. May you be among those in between, who experience for yourself the spiritually healing power of laughter... even if some of it is at yourself. Don't expect the earnestness of a Left Behind novel, or the chaste pastiness of a church-library-friendly piece of religious fiction. Prepare, instead, for a test of whether an adult fantasy about Armageddon can pull the nose of American Christianity without taking a dump on the faith once delivered. I would like to chat with Diesel sometime about precisely where he is coming from. But where he's going is clear. Based on this first novel, I see a great career in humorist fiction in store for him.

No comments: