Friday, June 28, 2013

The Gray Wolf Throne

The Gray Wolf Throne
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+

In The Demon King, the author of the "Heir Chronicles" introduced a marvelous fantasy country in which the powers and interests of three groups—the noble families of the lowland Valefolk, the craftsmen and warriors of the upland Clans, and the Council of Wizards descended from a race of foreign invaders—are held in a delicate balance by the line of Gray Wolf queens. We also learned about the Nǽming: a magic-reinforced covenant that prevents the wizards from taking control of the government. Then, in The Exiled Queen, we followed princess-heir Raisa to the military academy in Oden's Ford, fleeing from a forced marriage to the High Wizard's son Micah. Her story became increasingly tangled with that of Han Alister, a former street-gang leader who was now being sponsored by the Clanfolk to attend the college of wizardry. Now, in the third book of the "Seven Realms" quartet, these young people move closer to their intermingled destinies, in a complex world held together by tangled agendas and conflicting motives.

Raisa has escaped from attempts to assassinate her, abduct her, and force her into a strategic marriage. Fleeing homeward from Oden's Ford, she fears she may be too late to prevent her royal mother from disinheriting her and naming her younger sister heir to the throne. But after barely surviving several more attempts on her life, Raisa learns that the Queen wasn't so lucky. Now she has until the Queen's funeral to show herself in the presence of all her political enemies, or she will lose her place in the succession. But this means facing unbelievable danger, protected only by a cadet who has suddenly become her Guard Captain, and by two young wizards practicing forbidden arts. After running that gauntlet, she merely has to stay alive until the coronation, in spite of incessant plots against her life, a wearing series of parties alternating with meetings with her advisers (most of whom feel threatened by her), the distraction of a series of wizard murders in the city, and the looming threat of a neighboring kingdom that may come out of its own civil war with enough clout to force Raisa into an uncomfortable corner.

But all that is nothing compared to Raisa's sense that she is losing her freedom—freedom to act and speak as she pleases; freedom to choose man she will marry. The guiding spirits of the previous queens of her line tell her that when the time comes to make that choice, she must choose love. But her survival as Queen, the survival of her line, and the survival of the Fells as a nation, seem to demand other choices: A highland buck who will never be faithful to her. A magnetic young wizard who has already come too close to forcing her hand. A ruthless king with a talent for murdering members of his own family. Anyone other than Han Alister, who commands her heart. Neither of them would survive long if their secret love were known; it threatens virtually every interest in the Queendom, and beyond. And even Raisa does not know that Han's bloodline flows direct from the Demon King himself, who made the Nǽming necessary when he broke the world.

Paced sometimes thrillingly fast, sometimes deliberate in its savoring of Raisa and Han's predicament, this book weaves its many-hued texture towards a chilling climax on the night of the new Queen's coronation. This sets the stage nicely for Book Four: The Crimson Crown. It's not perfect, to be sure. There are moments when you might be struck by the unlikelihood of everyone at the highest level of a nation's government being either teenagers or the parents of said teenagers—or of the things that concern teenagers being so vitally important to the fate of the world. On the other hand, when you feel the frustration of Raisa's position so strongly that you sometimes pause to rehearse the speech you would have made—when, for example, you want her to accuse the person across the table from her of making multiple murder-attempts on her royal person, but she has to pretend that it didn't even happen—why, you've made it across the "suspension of disbelief" threshold, after all. Across, beyond, and into new-broken ground: that's where the magic happens in Cinda Chima's masterpiece world of high fantasy. Come, and be astounded.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group

The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group
by Catherine Jinks
Recommended Ages: 13+

Thirteen-year-old Toby Vandevelde falls asleep in bed one full-moonlit night, and wakes up the next day in an MRI machine. Nobody, least of all Toby himself, can explain how or why he turned up naked in the dingo pen at a suburban Sydney zoo. His mother suspects epilepsy, until a pediatrician rules that out. The only explanation anybody has to offer is one that Toby's mum considers crazy. Toby doesn't quite believe it either... but he's afraid it might be true. He's afraid Father Ramon and his intense young friend Reuben might not be lying—or raving—when they warn Toby that he is a werewolf.

Reuben says he's a werewolf too, and he and the priest can help Toby deal with his condition. Toby does not yet know how much experience Father Ramon has with caring for those most vulnerable of all God's creatures, the undead. He doesn't know what you and I know: that this is a sequel to a hilarious and hair-raising book called The Reformed Vampire Support Group. So you get to enjoy Toby's surprise as he finds out that vampires, werewolves, and zombies(!) are real(!!). Not cool, not powerful, not sparkly-cute, not sexy (with a few exceptions). Vampires, for example, are immortal but not invincible; mostly, being one is like having to live forever with a digestive disorder, only some vampires are more dangerous to mortals than others. Werewolves, on the other hand, have to lock themselves up one night a month to avoid hurting their nearest and dearest, if they have any after the stigma of being a monster; they are also at risk of being kidnapped and forced to kill or be killed in a big-business blood-sport. As for zombies... we find out where they come from in this book. Don't let me spoil it for you.

Young Toby's journey of self-discovery is a humorous upside-downifying of the late teen and tween undead craze, bringing to the genre a sensibility more of Woody Allen than of Anne Rice. There's a touch of hopeless romance in it, a streak of macabre slapstick, and a peculiar strain of the horror bug in which the most dreaded events play out under the harsh glare of daylight in the wide-open Outback. The bad guys are bad, but some of the good guys are almost worse. Be that as it may, you can't keep a good werewolf down (well, mostly). By the end, Toby is mouthing such group-therapeutic slogans as, "There's an 'I can' in 'lycanthropy.'" You've laughed. You've cringed. You've fallen in love (again, maybe) with a cast of characters so down to earth that they're downright subterranean. A new species of lunatic has joined the asylum; the crusade to end the werewolf-fighting industry seems to be only beginning; and hopes for a third book in the series are high. More books should end with such a satisfying feeling!

Speaking of "more books," Catherine Jinks is also the author of the "Evil Genius" trilogy; a four-part series of medieval adventures featuring a knight named Pagan; a four-book series about a juvenile ghost-hunter named Allie; a new series about monster-hunters starting with How to Catch a Bogle; and numerous other interesting titles, listed here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Parable of the Antifreeze

To what shall I compare this generation?

Verily, it is like a dog that has caught the delicious scent of a puddle of spilled antifreeze. The dog's owner knows that his pet, if given its way, would joyfully lick up that puddle—and would then die a painful and gruesome death. But the owner also knows that if he restrains his dog, it will strain and chafe against its leash, resentful of being denied its heart's desire. Which would be the more loving thing to do?

Let him who has floppy ears, perk them up.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Empire of Gut and Bone

The Empire of Gut and Bone
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In The Game of Sunken Places, best friends Brian and Gregory learned that the destiny of Earth is tied up in a game played by two humans in every generation, representing two pointy-eared races with very different ideas about what to do with the planet. The elfin Norumbegans would peacefully coexist with mankind; the alien Thusser intend to invade, conquer, and replace us. And though Brian won the game on behalf of the Norumbegans, The Suburb Beyond the Stars found the Thusser invading anyway, beginning with a nightmarish subdivision where time moves too fast, where the houses absorb the families that live in them, and where a zombie realtor dreams of settlers from another dimension turning prefabricated homes into vile nests of horror. And now, in Book 3 of the Norumbegan Quartet, Brian, Gregory, and a clockwork troll named Kalgrash travel to the new homeworld of the fey Norumbegans, seeking their help to save Earth.

Instead of a nice, straightforward planet, however, the boys find themselves somewhere in the innards of a world-sized creature—the Great Body, as its inhabitants call it. They don't know much about their host, not even whether it is still alive. They farm its liver, they mine its intestines, they travel by submarines through its arteries, and they quarry building materials out of the tough tissues of its twelve-chambered heart. By itself, this much would be weird and whimsical, maybe a little gross, but not really appalling. The trouble is that Norumbegan society has fallen apart.

For starters, the automatons who have long done their menial work, have rebelled and set up a society of their own. As a result, the Norumbegans live in filth and squalor, made worse by their habitual idleness and frivolity. Plus, they refuse to negotiate with their servants, or even to acknowledge that they have broken free. Given the chance, they do not hesitate to take advantage of their power to compel the wind-up people (whom they don't consider people) to obey them, to be polite to them, and even to be in awe of them. But even when confronted with an automaton army poised to bombard their palaces into rubble, the popular Norumbegan impulse is to plan a tea dance. And these are the people Brian and Gregory need to come to Earth's rescue.

The boys' negotiations with the Imperial Court form the framework of this book. But as a framework to rest the fate of our world on, it's not very encouraging. Brian, especially, struggles to make his plea heard over the bluff pageantry of the decadent Court, the hubbub of a series of assassinations, an attempt to frame his friend Kalgrash, warning shots of the automaton army, a high-level election campaign, and several attempts on his own life. Gregory, meanwhile, seems to be growing farther away from him, partly due to his attraction to a high-born girl and partly through their differences in character. Also, it doesn't help that the Norumbegans are insufferable snobs who practice a delicately balanced mixture of courtesy and rudeness among themselves, but who feel no qualms against being openly cruel to those they consider beneath them—such as the two "human cubs" and their mechanical friend. Danger, mystery, palace intrigue, betrayal, suspected espionage, and the distant rumble of the Thusser invasion only add to Brian's burden of loneliness, hurt feelings, and desperation to save his home world.

If I've said this before about this series of books, it's only because it remains consistently true: M. T. Anderson here proves himself a master mixer of a cocktail of emotions, images, and ideas like nothing you'll have tasted before. The Norumbegans speak and act in strange juxtapositions: ancient fashions and archaic terms running hard against modern things and everyday lingo; violence and macabre thrills dovetailing with friendly bickering and lighthearted whimsy; the alien, inhuman ways of the fair folk meeting machine men in a world beyond alien, all light years away from where you would expect to find them even in the final days of their decline; and here and there, startling glimpses of such mundane things as newspapers, telephones, and the emotions of a chubby, bespectacled teenager with the weight of a world on his shoulders. It's a unique mixture, and a superb one. And if my description doesn't convince you, here's a small taste:
They wore black top hats, veils, black dresses, dark swallowtailed coats, and their faces were marked with face paint in signs of mourning (two blue stripes streaking from the eyes to symbolize tears; a line of white dots across the forehead to suggest vision into another world; or a fat red bar across the neck to indicate death). Drones in black robes passed through the crowd, passing out deep glasses of the Wine of Weeping and little sandwiches made of the Bread of Suffering, ham, cheese, and Dijon mustard.
The fourth and concluding book of this series is titled The Chamber in the Sky.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ptolemy's Gate

Ptolemy's Gate
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book 3 of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a seventeen-year-old magician named Nathaniel, though he calls himself John Mandrake, has clawed his way nearly to the top of a world of (sometimes literally) backstabbing ambition. It's an alternate-history version of present-day Britain, where magicians are the ruling class and the non-magical "commoners" toil in conditions not far above slavery. It's a government founded on the summoning of imps, djinn, foliots, afrits, and marids, who are then employed as soldiers, spies, and assassins. It's a crumbling empire, threatened by rebellion from its colonies in the East and (more particularly) the West, by the increasing magical resilience of its underclass, and by a growing and all-pervading fug of discontent. And now, with its treasury and manpower drained by a military quagmire in America—with a prime minister too timid of potential rivals to allow anyone to use such powerful talismans as Gladstone's Staff to end the conflict—with a coterie of sycophants and self-seekers sitting at the highest table of government—and with unidentified traitors still at large after two previous attempts on the government, brooding on who-knows-what third and decisive plot—the British Empire is just about poised to fall. It is at that moment that Nathaniel finds himself sitting at that same, high table, in charge of pro-government propaganda and well in the favor of the Prime Minister.

But... Bartimaeus, the djinni who does most of Nathaniel's dirty work, knows his true name. By revealing it to one of the young magician's rivals, he could render his master powerless. Partly out of fear of that—but only partly—Nathaniel prefers to keep Bartimaeus close. So close, in fact, that the poor djinni hasn't had enough time in the Other Place to replenish his fading essence. As Bartimaeus grows weaker, the danger to the government nears the boiling point. Only then, when the djinni's essence is about ready to give out, does a long-shot lead (and his master's orders) put him on the trail of the mastermind behind the affairs of The Amulet of Samarkand and The Golem's Eye. After a chase with enemy demons nearly finishes Bartimaeus off, his master shows unexpected kindness and restraint by dismissing him to the Other Place to recuperate, rather than interrogating him to death like most magicians would. And so, by the time the bad guys' dastardly plot breaks upon the government, John Mandrake has been sidelined and Bartimaeus is in his debt.

Meanwhile... Young, magic-resilient commoner named Kitty Jones, believed dead since the previous installment, is actually living under a new identity (two, actually). In her career as Clara, she waits tables at a pub where commoners gather to plan rebellion against the state. As Lizzie, she brews tea and carries books for an eccentric old magician named Button, who is independent-minded enough to try teaching her a bit of magic. Ever since she encountered Bartimaeus, she has been obsessed with the idea of summoning him, of trying to learn the secret of Ptolemy's Gate. From the clues she has picked up over the years, Kitty has grown increasingly sure that Ptolemy—a late Egyptian sorcerer who had a special relationship with Bartimaeus—figured out how to reverse the summoning ritual, traveling himself in spirit to the world of the djinn. Kitty believes that if magicians would only go to the Other Place, they might bond with djinn and learn to work with them as equals, rather than as masters and very unwilling slaves. And while Nathaniel dreams of using Gladstone's Staff to save the country, Kitty thinks the future runs through Ptolemy's Gate.

In the end, both youngsters' theories prove true. But this only happens after a terrible betrayal is sprung, after an invasion from the Other Place takes possession of the highest levels of the British government, after a ravening horde of demons in human shape is unleashed on London in a rampage of death and destruction—when, by chance, the two would-be enemies are caught up together as an unlikely duo, and joined by a djinn named (guess who!) in an even less likely trio. To save London, and perhaps all of Europe, both Kitty and Nathaniel must risk awful sacrifices, and must lay themselves bare to the whimsy of a djinni who—for all his sardonic charm and adorable cowardice—is really quite dangerous. The only thing that makes it possible is their budding love for each other (the girl and the boy, I mean), and the possibilities represented by the djinni's love for one young master, two thousand years dead.

The world Kitty and Nathaniel live in is not a nice place. Crying out for an Occult Content Advisory, it is everything the magical world of Harry Potter isn't—though both worlds have their unsavory side, to say the least. Part modern-day rehash of the Fall of the Roman Empire (and any number of other empires), part Totalitarian nightmare, part snakepit of black magic with all the dangers thereunto appertaining, it's a dangerous enough world even before the demons break loose upon it. And the saving of that world will force both of them to dare unimaginably dangerous things, face scenes of terror and violence and thrilling action, and pay a price that finally—in a perfectly-timed revelation on the last page—made me cry. If my previous reviews have led you to think this is easily done, let me correct that impression. I find a book that elicits both laughter and tears to be a very rare pleasure, almost inseparable from my admiration for an author who Does It Right. Besides this trilogy and a prequel titled The Ring of Solomon, other things Jonathan Stroud has (most likely) done right include a travel guide to Ancient Rome, several picturebooks, and such standalone novels as The Last Siege and Heroes of the Valley.

Cold Days

Cold Days
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 14 of "The Dresden Files" follows up on Chicago-based wizard/detective Harry Dresden's apparent death in Changes and post-death experiences in Ghost Story. If you haven't read those books yet, I've already spoiled that much; to say anything about this book, I'll have to spoil a lot more. It's too late to pull out now, so here goes: Dresden lives! Can I avoid spoilers by not telling you how he manages this? No, I can't. So I might as well also spill the fact that he has been summoned back to life by Mab—the Queen of Air and Darkness—the head of the Winter Court of Faerie—the middle in age and power of three ageless, powerful female aspects (kitten, cougar, and crone) who hold power over all that is dark, cold, and hungry. You see, Harry had set up his own assassination in an attempt to duck out of his commitment to become Mab's new mortal champion, the Winter Knight. Only, it didn't take. And now he has until sunrise the morning after Halloween to carry out Mab's first assignment: a hit contract against Maeve, the homicidally frisky Winter Lady—Mab's own daughter and heir.

This is going to be tough. First off, immortals (funnily enough) aren't so easy to kill. Second off, Harry must also juggle his duty as warden of Demonreach, a powerful nexus of evil energy off the shores of Lake Michigan, which someone or something is planning to blow up—Demonreach, Chicago, the Great Lakes region, boom! Third off, invaders from outside our universe—beings so hostile and alien that they make the vilest monsters from the Nevernever seem like the middle-class family next door, by comparison—are gunning for Dresden, and they have planted a mindworm in someone, or any number of someones. Dresden doesn't know whether it's Mab who's insane and needs to be taken down, or whom among his circle of allies, frenemies, neutral parties, and cordial enemies he can trust. He might be infected himself, and never know it. It's enough to make a wizard uneasy. Especially a wizard who has just returned to the world of the living, and doesn't have any of his old standbys standing by—staff, blasting rod, shield bracelet, spell-impregnated leather duster—nada.

So Dresden begins his first day amongst the living by breaking and entering the home of one of his closest friends, abducting Bob the Skull (sort of a spiritual research assistant), and reconnecting with his sometime apprenctice Molly, who remains an outlaw wizard on the run from the White Council. Speaking of White, this leads him to a reunion with his half-brother Thomas, the White Court vampire, and others among his antemortem associates, one by one. He can't gather his reinforcements too quickly, since the enemy immediately starts taking shots at him—including a blitzkrieg by bitty faeries armed with nails, an Outsider attack on the Accorded Neutral Ground of Mac's tavern, and an ambush by the folk of his own Winter Court during a conference supposedly protected by safe conduct. Even with his own band of faerie warriors, a network of tough and resourceful friends, the mantle of the Winter Knight, and his perquisites as warden of Demonreach, it is all Dresden can do to stay ahead of the incessant attempts on his life. And all the while he knows that before Halloween night is out, he must learn the truth, make his decision, and do or die. Or perhaps both.

More than ever—and that's hugely saying something—Harry Dresden finds himself at the center of a kaleidoscope, a cornucopia, a cyclone of things magical and whimsical and terrifying. The folks he encounters, and the cultural phenomena he riffs on, range from Star Trek and Star Wars gags coming hard on each other's heels to brushes with angels, vampires, werewolves, goblins, a Redcap, a Norse god, witches, aliens, the genius loci of a demon prison, a monster made out of the bones of slaughtered animals, an anthropomorphic cat, the butt-kicking avatar of Santa Claus, and all six Faerie Queens. Guns, swords, spells, the bite of a super-intelligent dog, and strategic pizza delivery become weapons in the hand of one hero who can barely hold in check the villain inside himself. From a motorcycle race with the Erlking's wild hunt to an amphibious battle against beings that want to destroy the world, an often overpowered, outmaneuvered, mentally and physically battered Harry leapfrogs his way to a final round against the real culprit... a round that, once again, will leave the playing-field changed for good.

After reading twenty of his books (counting the six Codex Alera novels), I can truthfully say that Jim Butcher never disappoints. To be sure, each of his books does run along similar lines as far as their overall plot goes. But with each book—especially these last few in the Dresden Files—come big changes that propel the hero into new territory, and his adventures to a higher level. From the relatively simple, original concept of a hardboiled wizard detective to the universe's best hope, Harry has grown and his world with him—in cosmic power, in human vulnerability, in multi-layered complexity, in the diversity of its cast of characters, and in the chances that may befall them. Even while the roll-call of people and beings Harry can call friend (or enemy) grows past the point where the average reader can keep track of them all, the very pointed reality that any of these recurring characters could be killed off at any time keeps the danger real, and the narrating wizard's inward and outward patter of referential humor shines as an encouraging gleam in the increasingly threatening night that looms over Harry's Chicago. Long story short, my mouth waters for the December 2013 release of the next Dresden Files book, Skin Game—and the at least three further books author Butcher reportedly has planned for the series.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In the Company of Ogres

In the Company of Ogres
by A. Lee Martinez
Recommended Ages: 14+

Never Dead Ned lives a life of quiet mediocrity, crunching numbers in the accounting department of a mercenary army called Brute's Legion. His only talent is dying, which he has done hundreds of times and in nearly as many ways. And, of course, there is the bit where he keeps coming back to life. It's not strictly true that he's never dead; he just never stays dead for long. He doesn't know why he keeps coming back from the grave. He has learned to live with little fear of death, but little relish for life either—and even less self-respect. He just wishes it would end.

And then Ned gets promoted to commander of the Ogre Company. It's not a promotion he would have sought, by any means. Ogre Company is the rawest, most undisciplined unit in Brute's Legion, and it chews up commanders as fast as they can be assigned. Ned's only qualification for the job is his knack for resurrection. Even so, nothing prepares him for the series of freakish, fatal accidents in store for him, beginning the moment he sets foot in the Copper Citadel. And that's before the three highest-ranking officers under him vote on whether to assassinate him, like all the others before him; before two deadly females become romantic rivals over him; and before everything bad that can happen in a military unit manned by humans, elves, goblins, orcs, ogres, dragons, and trolls, happens.

While Ned works hard at staying alive more than half of the time, he meets a crazy combination of fantasy characters: an Amazon who wants a man in her life; a siren who wants to be loved for something other than her singing voice; a two-headed ogre named Lewis and Martin; an orc who looks like a goblin; goblins who specialize in shape-changing and roc-riding; a blind seer who can hear the future; a treefolk who considers "ent" a demeaning label; and a wizard who is allergic to magic, yet who is so mad for revenge that he is willing to risk being transformed into a platypus.

All that is very well, and fun in a violent, darkly humorous way. And Never Dead Ned soon starts to show tentative signs of not being a completely useless loser, or at least knowing that he is one and being willing to change. But only when the goddess who has been keeping Ned never dead sacrifices herself to save him, does he himself realize what a complete disaster he could be. For now, suddenly, Ned has a reason to fear death. In fact, if he dies, the whole universe could be destroyed. And that, friends, is when a demon styling himself the Emperor of Ten Thousand Hells swoops down on the Copper Citadel and snatches Ned out of its midst.

Inevitably, this leads to a battle in which gazillions of creatures perish, good and bad; a cosmic confrontation on which the fate of the universe depends; and a test of what is truly in Ned's heart, and the hearts of the ogres, orcs, goblins, elves, trolls, and others who care the most about him. By this point you might be one of them (choose your own species). At the very least, you will have enjoyed yet another hilarious, sexy, apocalyptic fantasy by the author of Gil's All-Fright Diner, Monster, and Chasing the Moon. Other books by A. Lee Martinez that I hope to read soon include A Nameless Witch and The Automatic Detective.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Suburb Beyond the Stars

The Suburb Beyond the Stars
by M. T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 12+

Several years ago, during a visit to New York City's Books of Wonder, I picked up a copy of The Game of Sunken Places, by this author I had never heard of, and thought it was great. And though I've read a number of his other books, it was only quite recently that I found out that the above title is only the first book in the "Norumbegan Quartet." This second book in the series did not prove very easy to come by. Barnes and Noble will let you order it, but won't carry it on their shelves. I poked around the online catalog of my city's public library system and found exactly one copy of it, residing in the branch just down the street from where I live, its last-known status "on the shelf." So I put in a request for it, and nothing happened. I went to the branch in person and searched the shelves. Though I found a copy of the third book in the series (The Empire of Gut and Bone), I could not find this book. I alerted the library staff, and they did as thorough a search for it as is consistent with Public Library staff culture, but it never turned up. Recalling my brief experience as a library circulation tech, I applied the principle: "If it isn't where it's supposed to be, it's lost forever." So, thanks to me, the City of Saint Louis now lists this book as M.I.A. And thanks to this book, I now have a card for the Municipal Library Consortium and the power to request books from any of three library systems in the city and county of St. Louis. And, incidentally, I checked out this book (the Municipal Library's copy, that is). I read it in one day. And now I can't wait to read Book 3.

It's been a few years since my trip to New York, and so also since I read The Game of Sunken Places. If you haven't read that book, do so before reading any further. Even if you have, like me, you may need a refresher. In the first book of the series, best friends Gregory and Brian got caught up in a weird sort of game with monsters and magical creatures and spooky, gothic-novel atmospherics, amid the woods of the present-day Vermont mountains. Eventually they realized that they were actually playing against each other, as representatives of two magical races: the Norumbegans, whose elven empire had long coexisted with mankind, but who now lived in another dimension for the sake of peace; and the Thusser, beings of an unimaginably alien nature, who fought to control and colonize our world. The game, to be played once every generation by two young humans representing the parties in the conflict, is meant to settle which of the two races will finally win the right to live on Earth.

Brian, representing the Norumbegans, won the latest round. He has already begun to design the next round of the game, which he envisions as a hardboiled detective story combined with supernatural beings. But then he finds himself being followed by a menacing, red-faced figure—attacked and almost killed by a monster in Boston's underground railway—nearly stabbed by an automaton that was supposed to serve as part of his game design. Brian and Gregory hasten to Vermont to find out why they have lost touch with Gregory's cousin Prudence, who knows all about the game, and the dwarf engineer Wee Sniggleping, who has been building Brian's designs. But where the forested mountain used to be, they find a rapidly growing residential subdivision. The suburb that nightmares are made of.

When you visit Rumbling Elk Haven, you will be chilled by the horror that lurks beneath the manicured lawns and behind the cul-de-sac house-fronts. It is a suburb where confused adults pull out of their driveway every morning and drive out to a vacant field, where they lie in the mud and hallucinate about being at work all day; where children ride their tricycles in endless circles, even while crying from exhaustion; where time speeds up and slows down in a confusing manner; where newspaper articles, brochures, and websites change continually while you read them; where an unknown force is tampering with people's ability to remember a time before the neighborhood existed; and where, at the center of development, there lies a whirlpool of space-time leading to a terrible alien world. A world that is poised to invade ours, if it is not already too late to prevent it. And there's no one left to prevent it but stocky, brainy Brian, his goofy friend Gregory, and a clockwork troll in medieval armor. Which is to say, it's all on Brian.

You simply have to read this book. Otherwise, without giving up atrocious spoilers, I just don't know how to convey to you just how frightening, weird, and disturbing are the menaces that menace Brian, his friends, and the whole human race in this book. Or how movingly the bond between these friends overcomes the serious differences between them. Or how much fun it can be to try to visualize something so indescribable that it can only be suggested, when you're in the hands of an author who is as good at suggesting indescribable things as M. T. Anderson. To give you even a faint idea would take so many words of description that, as quickly as this book can be read, you would be just as far ahead to request it from your local library system, or via Inter-Library Loan, or to order it online and read it for yourself. That's what I plan to do with the remaining two books in the quartet. Let's see if we can't, together, move this book and its companions from the "never checked out" to the "always on request" category in our libraries' statistical metrics. They deserve it, and you'll enjoy it.

M. T. Anderson is also the author of the "Pals in Peril" adventures (five books at this writing), the two "Octavian Nothing" novels, and such tempting stand-alone titles as Burger Wuss, Thirsty, and Feed. Book 4 of the Norumbegan Quartet, by the way, is The Chamber in the Sky.

The Golden Ocean

The Golden Ocean
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Ages: 13+

The main characters in this book are two Irish youths who grew up together: parson's son Peter Palafox, now a midshipman on H.M.S. Centurion; and his servant Sean O'Mara, who starts out as a lowly fo'c'sle hand and works his way up to bosun's mate. To be sure, they are fictional characters, and their adventure on the high seas reads somewhat like a very promising preview of the later Aubrey-Maturin novels. But the adventure itself is torn straight out of history. The Centurion really existed, as did her commander, Commodore George Anson; and their 1740–44 circumnavigation of the world, complete with all the main incidents described in this novel, actually happened. Even the journal Peter kept, on the recommendation of Mr. Walter the ship's chaplain, is based somewhat on the real Richard Walter's journal, which became a very popular book in its day. And in spite of the long dashes that frequently interrupt the characters' speeches (showing that the censor's objection to swear words was then still stronger than O'Brian's authority as a great novelist), this retelling of the adventure makes one feel closely, personally, thrillingly involved.

We first meet Peter on his way to catch a transport to his first commission as a junior naval officer. He is soon joined by his feisty friend Sean, and then by a fellow midshipman named FitzGerald, who proves to have no future in sea service. Ill-equipped and ignorant of the ways of warship, and singled out for extra hazing as a member of the despised Irish race, Peter has tough obstacles to overcome on his way to becoming a promising young officer. And that's besides a tropical fever in the Atlantic tropics, a bout of scurvy in the Pacific ditto, a disastrous ordeal rounding the Horn of South America, and shipwreck on the isle of Tinian. Meanwhile, the Centurions raid a Peruvian port, blockade a Mexican one, pursue a Spanish galleon loaded with gold, weather storms and plagues and anxious pauses and, finally, one climactic yardarm-to-yardarm battle with a better-armed and -manned enemy ship.

Peter is a lovely protagonist and sometime (through his journal) narrator. His speeches have an Irish lilt that reminds me fondly of Stephen Maturin, especially in his conversations with Sean. His experiences are laced with passages of anxiety, confusion, grief, excitement, and laughter that unfailingly rub off on the reader. And when, for example, he takes a heavily pregnant wild sow by the tail—and, the more fool, lets go—the result is a flash-forward of O'Brian's mature genius wedded to youthful high spirits:
But as Peter let the tail slip through his hand the sow whipped round with astonishing agility, and foaming with rage she rushed upon her pursuers. The tide changed on the instant, and now, scouring the grassy plain with feet that twinkled in the sun, Keppel headed the urgent rout. Immediately behind him came Bailey, whose laboured gasps persuaded Keppel that the sow was on his back: then came a mixed flight of midshipmen, running with the utmost perseverance, then the dogs, mute with alarm, and then the gravid, persecuting sow, with glaring, crimson eyes, skimming over the flowery turf, the embodiment of pallid fury.
I can't remember the last time I read anything that was at once so funny and so beautiful. If anyone else can, I would be glad to hear about it. In the meantime, I am eager to begin reading this book's sequel, a novel concerning the fate of one of the ships that was separated from Anson's squadron while rounding the Horn—a novel whose main characters are an even more exact early model of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin—a novel titled The Unknown Shore.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Hymn for Patience

hou holy Christ, my soul's own Liege—
My Hiding-Place, my Mercy-Seat—
Who once for all, in public view,
In thorn and nail and rattling breath,
By lowering sky and sundered tomb,
Was Victor crowned in hard-fought fight;

Within my darkness shine Thy light!
To fallen passions give no room;
The foe within me put to death;
And grant that I to Thee may hew,
As in the battle's fiercest heat,
So also in the long cold siege.

The pain that bites with sharpest fang
Thou knowest how to soothe, to heal;
Teach me as well the slow dull ache
To bear, and find Thee by me still.
Loosed from entangling sins each day,
Thus shall I know full joy indeed.

Unto that end, Lord Jesus, feed
My trusting soul, my doubting clay;
According to Thy word and will
Let me of Thy life's blood partake,
And through Thy body—no less real—
Absorb the peace the angels sang.

Love Among the Chickens

Love Among the Chickens
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

You may already have met Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge: a big, loud, swaggering adventurer whose taste in clothing is as doubtful as his respect for other people's property rights. Always "borrowing" his friends' money, often spending it on get-rich-quick schemes that are not quite foolproof enough, and involving his innocent chums in legal trouble and other disasters, Ukridge is the kind of nuisance that you never wish would go away—because wherever he is, something funny is bound to happen.

In this book, his chronicler is a struggling novelist named Jeremy Garnet. "Garny, old horse" (as Ukridge calls him) willingly submits to being dragged along to Dorsetshire on an experiment in chicken farming, Ukridge style. Naturally, anything that could go wrong, does. While Ukridge and his longsuffering wife fend off creditors by every means short of paying them, Jerry falls in love with the daughter of a prickly Irish professor named Derrick. But it's difficult to woo Phyllis when her father has taken offense at Ukridge's tactlessness and declines to be on speaking terms with either of the friends.

Spurred on by jealousy of a rival wooer, Jerry conceives a desperate plan. He bribes the waterman who rows the professor's fishing boat to upset the old fellow, then swims to the rescue and becomes Professor Derrick's hero. This works beautifully for a while—until the waterman exposes the plan, and our hero is more deeply "in the soup" than ever. His only hope of gaining the Professor's consent to marry Phyllis depends on the outcome of a round of golf, just as the trouble at the chicken farm comes down (more or less) to a contest of bare-knuckle boxing between the hired man and a mob of debt collectors. And of course, if Ukridge can be counted on for anything, it's to come through with another outrageous scheme.

This hilarious novel of romance, sporting life, social and financial mischief, and poultry farming features the title character of the short-story collection Ukridge. It was first published in 1906 (UK) and 1909 (US). It was, however, the revised and improved edition of 1921 that I heard on a 4-CD audio-book narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil. A lighter touch on the heart-strings, and a more hilarious flow of wit and absurdity, could hardly be found together under one title.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ten Whines Against Weekly Communion

I am currently blessed to attend a church that celebrates the Lord's Supper every Sunday, plus some religious holidays. Several other congregations I have belonged to and/or served also celebrated the Eucharist weekly, at least at one of multiple Sunday services. My last LCMS church, while it did not have weekly Communion on the Lord's Day, had a Wednesday evening parlor service with the Sacrament every week except during Advent and Lent. Nevertheless it seems I have very often been in a position to hear these Top Ten Whines against the proposal that the congregation move from having Communion two or three times a month to every-Sunday Communion. And I kid you not. I have heard all of these whines pulled out, in person.

WHINE #1. "It will make Communion less special." Answer: Say that to someone who has experienced weekly Communion and then has to visit another church on "Non-Communion Sunday." Their hunger and thirst for the Lord's Supper puts the lie to this objection.

WHINE #2. "It will be too expensive." Answer: Maybe we should revisit our spending priorities. Most families in the congregation could well afford to commit to a higher standard of stewardship. But you should bite your tongue off before you compare the value of Christ's body and blood to any other treasure.

WHINE #3. "It will be too much work for the elders & altar guild." Answer: This could be an excellent opportunity to invite new people to join the Board and the Guild. Don't just give up before you've even tried to find the resources (human and otherwise) to make it doable.

WHINE #4. "It will make the service longer." Answer: We're quibbling over the sacrifice of a handful of minutes on top of the hour, +/- a quarter of an hour, most regular worshipers spend in God's presence each week. And this isn't time idly wasted. This is time devoted to one of God's most powerful means of reaching His children.

WHINE #5. "What if I don't want to take Communion every Sunday?" Answer: If you don't feel remorse for any sins or need for the grace of God, then by all means, abstain from the Sacrament. But that's a pretty mean reason for refusing to make the Sacrament available to someone who does need it, any given Sunday.

WHINE #6. "We'll never be able to invite our non-Lutheran friends to visit this church without getting into a fight about closed communion." Answer: If your friends and loved ones cannot be reasoned with on this delicate subject, then declare it a closed subject and refuse to argue about it. Meantime, the value of their feeling comfortably at home in our worship hour is probably overrated. Why not let the discomfort and strangeness of what they experience here work on them for a change?

WHINE #7. "We're going to miss saying the Apostles' Creed during the worship hour." Answer: On the other hand, once you stop going back and forth between Communion (Nicene) and Non-Communion (Apostles') Sundays, there won't be so much stumbling over the differences between the two Creeds. And if you really miss the Apostles' Creed, you can relieve your sorrow by attending the opening of Sunday School or learning to follow Luther's instructions for daily prayer (cf. the Small Catechism).

WHINE #8. "Are you trying to convert us into Catholics?" Answer: Pull the other one. It would be thrilling just to see you act like a Christian.

WHINE #9. "When I was growing up, four times a year was good enough." Answer: That was either because of a necessity that no longer exists, or because of imperfect knowledge that has been corrected since then. Some of us grew up before polio vaccines came along, and most folks got by well enough; and yet, everyone has been better off since we started taking polio vaccines.

WHINE #10. "You can't resist changing things, Pastor, so you obviously have no respect for our traditions." Answer: I have no respect for this objection, but that's not the same thing. If there are good reasons to make the change, and no good reasons not to, the last resort is to plead, "You just don't respect our customs." But really, how sacrosanct are these customs? I've heard this whine from a congregation that had existed less than 10 years. I've heard this whine from people who had let a whole series of previous pastors lead them farther and farther from historic Lutheran teaching and practice. I've heard this whine from people who, out of the other side of their mouth, were pressuring their congregation to switch to "contemporary" or "blended" worship. Whine #10 is basically unanswerable because it's irrational, dishonest, and/or a baited trap, loaded to spring against any possible answer. And so the best answer is to shrug this one off and move forward.

The fact that I have heard each and every one of these whines entertained, many times over, is a consequence of a fundamental mistake. The question of whether or not the congregation should move toward weekly Communion should never have been raised for discussion. The result is only and always an endless, unresolved, and increasingly contentious debate. And because the objections are irrational, they cannot be reasoned away. Rather than arguing pointlessly about the feasibility of instituting weekly Communion, why not just do it and take your lumps?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Great Expectations

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Ages: 13+

There was a time in the British Commonwealth when crimes that would formerly have been punished by death were commuted to a sentence of "transportation." This is to say, the convicted criminals were packed into prison-ships and banished to Australia, to become forced colonists. There they led such a hard life that only the toughest succeeded—but even the most successful colonials would have gone home to England, if they could have. And that's why the second half of their punishment was an automatic sentence of death if they ever came back.

It is at this time in history, in a village close to the marshes along a stretch of the Thames River where the prison-ships anchored, narrator "Pip" cites his earliest memories. He begins his adventures while still a small orphan boy, terrorized by the older sister who has "brought him up by hand," and comforted only by the affection of an earthy, humble brother-in-law, a blacksmith named Joe. One day young Pip falls into the clutches of an escaped convict hiding in the marshes. Trembling under the convict's threats, the boy steals food from his sister and a file from Joe's forge and brings them to the manacled escapee. And though his conscience torments him, and he fears being found out as a thief and accomplice to a fleeing criminal (at least, until the convict is recaptured), Pip does not realize until years later how much this encounter will shape his life.

Meanwhile, an eccentric but rich lady named Miss Havisham sends for Pip, requiring him to play with her adopted daughter Estella. Pip is at once struck by Estella's cold beauty and upper-class pride. Once it becomes clear that Estella will always be the love of Pip's life—and an unrequited love at that—Miss Havisham pays him off by buying him an apprenticeship to good, honest Joe. But by this time, the seeds of discontent have been planted: discontent with the life of a village blacksmith. Pip now dreams of being a gentleman. He swears that he can never love any woman but Estella—even though she makes him miserable. With his ambitions set higher than his place in life, he does injustice to his true friends and passes on a good, caring girl's offer of love. And when a London lawyer announces that Pip has been named as the heir of a mysterious person of property—that the lad has what one may call "great expectations"—Pip abandons his home place and people in pursuit of his selfish dream.

During his years of education and young manhood, Pip does little credit to the honest, sensible folk who brought him up. He racks up big debts. He leads his best friend, schoolmaster's son Herbert Pocket, into wasteful habits. He falls among ill company, such as the thuggish Bentley Drummle. And he lets the unspoken assumption that Miss Havisham is his patron lead him to the assumption that he is intended for Estella. After having committed his heart and his credit in the most reckless way possible, he finds out that his "great expectations" are actually founded on—well, not wanting to spoil it for you, I'll only say that it isn't Miss Havisham. Rather, it's somebody whose presence in England puts him in jeopardy of death, for the reasons stated above. And that means young Pip must face the fact that he has, all along, been entirely and hideously wrong.

Pip's narrative of his "great expectations" is not the steadily-upward, through-adversity-to-greatness, coming-of-age-novel-hero's expected path. It is, in fact, a guilty confession by a young man who misjudged everyone, especially himself. And only when adversity has crushed his ambitions, ruined his fortunes, and brought him back to his humble beginnings, does he begin to go the right way. Not the way of effortless leisure and luxury in which the characters in novels at that time were expected to live, move, and exist; but the way of hard, honest work for a modest living, a disappointing outcome for most of his boyish dreams, and at best an ambiguous ending to his lifelong romance with Estella. It's a thought-provoking story in which money—not just the lack of money or the need for money—is the cause of all problems; in which a man's life (not to say his character) proves to be better after he has lost it all; and in which the most surprising plot contrivance is the lack of any plot contrivances, allowing the ending to embody the natural outcome—for the most part—of what has gone before. Happy, sad, or mixed, it is an ending that will touch and move you, if anything can.

The thirteenth of Charles Dickens' fourteen novels was first published in weekly installments in 1860-61, in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, then as a three-volume book later in 1861. Since then it has become one of Dickens' most loved and well-known works, frequently filmed and dramatized, and esteemed among the highest achievements of English literature. And yet it took me some ten years to get around to reading it, after a tear-bespattered copy of A Tale of Two Cities ignited my enthusiasm for the novels of Dickens. At this writing, only one Dickens novel remains that I have not read. It is strange that I should have left this one almost for last. I cannot explain why I hesitated. Perhaps I was turned off by a bad movie adaptation. Perhaps there was something in the dust-cover synopsis that left me cold. Or perhaps I instinctively wanted to save the best for last (or next-to-last). Although I have found delight in nearly all of the Dickens novels I have read in the past ten years, this is the only one that has risen to the same height of near-perfection and concentrated, high-powered genius as A Tale of Two Cities.

I am indebted to audio-book reader Simon Prebble, not only for contributing his expressive and versatile voice to the characters and narrator of Great Expectations, and so helping me overcome my shyness of this masterpiece, but also for concluding with a vocal footnote in which he explained why Dickens changed the ending of the novel during the proofs stage of its publication, and then actually read the original ending. If this novel has one major flaw, it is the revised ending in which, abruptly and out of continuity with the character of what has gone before, Pip and Estella end up together. Only one thing is needed to make this one of the Perfect Novels: imagining that it ends as Dickens originally wrote it.