Monday, August 31, 2015

The Chessman

The Chessman
by Dolores Gordon-Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

Being a book reviewer can sometimes be a logistical nightmare. For example, I was asked to review this book through MuggleNet, but I had to sign up for the pre-publication review site NetGalley to get a copy of it. When I did so, I found I hadn't been given permission to download this book and while waiting for the publisher to clear me to read it, I started using the site to review other books. By the time I had a chance to read this book, someone else had already reviewed it for MuggleNet. But I read it anyway, and I enjoyed it, and I am now plugged into a fantastic opportunity to review lots of new books at no charge, proving once again it's an ill wind that blows no good.

This book, scheduled for release in December 2015, is the ninth in the series of Jack Haldean murder mysteries. They are period pieces, set in 1920s England. The hero is a mystery writer who sometimes consults with local police or Scotland yard to solve real-life murders. He has a game leg resulting from his service in World War I, or rather as it was known then, the Great War. And in this book, at least, he is revealed to have a cousin who lives in the quaint village of Croxton Ferriers, where a man's body is found gruesomely murdered, wrapped in a carpet with a bouquet of lilies and stuffed into a cupboard in the vestry of the local church.

The circumstances of the murder suggest two things about the killer: first, that he is a dangerous lunatic; and second, that he is a local bloke who knows his way around the village, and particularly, his way into the normally locked church. Called in by his cousin to aid Inspector Ashley, Jack sniffs out a pool of suspects that narrows rapidly from everyone in town to three or four men - really only two, when it comes to brass tacks - but as bodies continue to drop and suspicion on the likeliest suspects continues to be thwarted by iron-clad alibis, a solution remains elusive.

The killer definitely shows signs of being deranged, sending taunting letters to his victims before their deaths identifying himself as the Chessman and leaving pieces from an expensive chess set at the scene of each crime. Hanging the murders around the neck of the right man is difficult when the identity of a couple of the victims is in question and when the prime suspect's whereabouts at the time of each murder may or may not prove whether he could have done it. Connected with the murders is a set of mining shares that have suddenly become worth a lot of money, the heart of a beautiful but unhappily married woman, the uncontrolled rage of a man maimed in the war, another man's desperation to hide his disgraceful war record, the death of a blackmailer who conspired to steal his own wife's diamonds, the criminal affairs of a chauffeur who happens to be his boss's illegitimate son, and lots of problems with drug addiction.

I thought this was a brilliantly structured whodunit, featuring a series of murders that took on entirely different aspects as the apparent motives changed, and a sleuth who puts himself in terrible danger more than once to solve the crime. Maybe I'm brilliant too, because I actually guessed how it was all going to work out long before it occurred to the sleuths, but my guess wouldn't have been worth anything without the evidence they uncovered. I could definitely see myself going back to the beginning and reading this whole series straight through from book 1, which is A Fete Worse Than Death.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Felicity the Dragon

Felicity the Dragon
by Ruthie Briggs-Greenberg
Recommended Ages: 5+

I read a lot of books aimed at a younger age group, but very seldom do I get down among the very littlest readers or books to be read aloud to even littler kids. This is one of the littlest and lightest books I have read in a long time. But it was also the first book I was allowed to review pre-publication through the NetGalley website. It's also the first time I've successfully downloaded a book into my Kindle for pre-publication review. It feels like I've turned a new page as a book reviewer, only I didn't touch any actual pages. I hope I don't mess this up too badly.

Ruthie Briggs-Greenberg is a painter and sometime book illustrator who both wrote and illustrated this book. Set to be released Sept. 1, 2015, I think this is the first book she authored. In a few rhyming lines decorated with adorable paintings it tells the story of a lonely dragon who doesn't fit in with her kind. One day while watching some children play alongside a castle moat, she sees a boy fall into the water and dives to save him. This act of kindness brings Felicity her first taste of friendship and feelings of belonging.

It is a little, light, gentle story that shows how being nice to others can bring more happiness than being mean. The rhymes aren't perfect and the story isn't a conventional blockbuster, but in its brief and direct way it could become the go-to book for children struggling to fit in, maybe helping steer them away from the path of bullying at an early age.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Woodcutter

The Woodcutter
by Kate Danley
Recommended Ages: 14+

My introduction to the books of Kate Danley happened to be her debut novel, though by the time I found it on a truck stop's audiobook sale shelf she had written several more. I happened to be listening to it at the same time as I was reading Tom Holt's The Outsorcerer's Apprentice, so I will probably always remember both books as part of a weird experience in which fractured fairy tales were coming at me from all directions. While Holt decanted his mixed cocktail of multiple folk tales for comedy into a glass garnished with a twist of contemporary social satire and a salting of science fiction, Danley played her medley of magical stories with a totally straight face. This book is a deadly serious, grown-up take on the land of stories that never for an instant winks at the reader or acknowledges a real world outside its own Grimm reality.

The character of the woodcutter stands at the meeting point of twelve magic kingdoms, the balancing point between humans and the fey, the nexus between dangerous wild magic and the tamer sort that makes dreams come true. He carries an axe that has never tasted the sap of an unwilling tree, and he wields it with all the responsibility of the keeper of the balance between two intersecting worlds that would otherwise tear each other apart. He guards the truce between magic and ordinary life. He polices the succession of princes and princesses to kings and queens, watches over their children and tries to ensure that true love finds a way in at least half the royal matches. And he tries to keep regular folk from being swept up in stories or addicted to fairy dust, either of which could destroy them.

Generation after generation of nameless woodcutters have carried this responsibility. But the woodcutter in this tale faces a threat that could end his line and subvert the benign magic of the true-love kingdoms to a will that only cares about power. There is a creature in his woods that stalks people with magical blue blood - the rightful heirs or destined true loves of the twelve kingdoms - and steals their souls. There is an evil queen at large who wants to control all the kingdoms. There is a villain who is separating pixies from the trees they inhabit, causing the trees of the wood to die and unleashing misery into the world. And there is a vile trade in fairy dust going on that is ruining lives and upsetting the balance of the world.

Armed with three enchanted axes besides the one passed down through the woodcutter's line, he leaves his beloved wife and sets out to right all these wrongs, even if it takes the ultimate sacrifice. Along the way he gets tangled up in darker and deadlier versions than you may know of the stories of Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk and more. He crosses paths with Odin and the Wild Hunt, Titania and Oberon, giants and a river god, Baba Yaga and a bridge troll. If you can name a Grimm fairy tale but don't know how grim it can be, you'll find a surprise in this book.

There were moments when I didn't care for it. At times I found the relentlessness of the drama a bit wearing. I've enjoyed many dark versions of fairy tales, though, and in a final overview this one was uplifting compared to some. It has a certain purity and wholesomeness, a very cleancut worldview and an overall theme of sacrifice and resurrection that might be especially appealing to Christian families. But at the same time it reveals some of the nastier things usually hidden on the underside of folklore, with themes such as addiction, pollution, environmental exploitation, child abuse, prostitution, and the damage that can be done by cynical politicians and their blind followers. To her credit, the author pulls together a variety of stories into a seamless whole and communicates in rich, carefully chosen, sensually persuasive language.

Kate Danley hasn't been publishing long but she already has a list of titles bearing witness to a very productive writer. Besides the stand-alone novel Queen Mab there are also five "Maggie MacKay, Magical Tracker" books, four "O'Hare House" mysteries, and two "Twilight Shifters" books so far. They all seem to inhabit the shadowy side of faerie literature or the realm of ghosts and haunted houses. Based on my impression of this debut book, I am open to giving her work another look.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

130. Sunday After New Year Hymn

There isn't a Sunday between New Year and Epiphany every year - only, in fact, when Christmas Day lands on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Known in some lectionaries as the Second Sunday after Christmas, it has the same Introit as the First. The Gradual is a catena of Psalm 106:47, the second half of Isaiah 63:16, and Psalm 145:21. The Epistle is 1 Peter 4:12-19 and the Gospel is Matthew 2:13-23.
Lord Jesus, when You test us
With fire and fierce ordeal,
Remind us by what anguish
You set on us Your seal!
From infancy You raised Your heel
Against the wily serpent;
Your wounds all ours will heal.

How Bethlehem's environs
With infant blood flowed red,
While Joseph with Your mother
And You to Egypt fled!
Recall the tears their mothers shed,
O Lord, when Your disciples
Through fiery trials are led!

From folk and country driven
At such a tender age,
In foreign parts You sojourned
Till past was Herod's rage.
As we with evil pow'rs engage
Bide with us, Lord, and in us
Our lonely battle wage!

Whatso by faith we suffer
Is fellowship with You.
Wherever we may wander,
You are our Homeland true.
With gifts of grace refresh, renew
Your cross-bought people, Savior,
Till we Your glory view.
The tune I have in mind for this hymn is WOHL DENEN, DIE DA WANDELN by Heinrich Schütz, 1628.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

129. Sunday After Christmas Hymn

Moving along with my "hymns for every Sunday of the church year" project, here's one for the Sunday after Christmas. One of the historic introits for the day comprises verses 5, 2, and 1 (in that order) of Psalm 95; another option replaces verse 5 and 2 with a non-biblical text. The Gradual is Psalm 45 verses 2 and 1 (in that order) followed by Psalm 95:1. The Epistle is Galatians 4:1-7 and the Gospel is Luke 2:33-40. And this time I'm actually going to go with the tune O CHRISTE, MORGENSOONE that I originally mated with my Advent 4 hymn.
Rejoice, O holy city
Built by the Lord's strong hand;
For now, behold! Redemption
Has come into the land,
So longed-for and long planned.

Lo, in the time perfected
God sent His maid-born Son;
Born under Law, that sinners
Might from its curse be won
And as God's heirs be known.

He came, the Child appointed,
A sign to be opposed:
Raised up and cast down many,
Men's secret thoughts exposed,
Yet richer grace disclosed.

For even His pure mother
Would be pierced by the sword
That judges soul and spirit:
The wounding, healing word
Of Christ, our living Lord.

O Lord, sure is Your witness;
Your throne bestrides the earth.
You are from everlasting,
And glory clothes Your girth;
Can we but praise Your birth?

You, who wear strength and vastness,
Became so weak and small!
When all was still at midnight,
You came down, Light of all,
To cries and rags and stall.

You, Lord, for us descended
Our fortunes to reverse:
Gave over realms of blessing,
Was made for us a curse,
Salvation to disburse.

This confidence had Simeon
When to God's house You came,
O Son of God; and Anna
Believed and saw the same.
With them we praise Your name.

For peace and joy unending
We thank Your infant tears,
For bringing us salvation
From all our foes and fears,
And for the faithful seers.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What PC Gets You

Three years ago today, I posted a list of ridiculous words in a Facebook comment congratulating a friend on his new job. For some reason it came back on my newsfeed today and I made myself laugh. Here is a list of words that I thought would sound funny if you changed gender-specific suffixes such as "-man," "-maid" or "-boy" to "-person."
  • alderperson
  • backwoodsperson
  • baseperson
  • bellperson
  • boatperson
  • bogeyperson
  • bondsperson
  • bowperson
  • brakeperson
  • caiperson
  • cattleperson
  • countryperson
  • cowperson
  • craftsperson
  • fireperson
  • fisherperson
  • frontiersperson
  • gamesperson
  • Gerperson
  • guardsperson
  • gunperson
  • handyperson
  • hangperson
  • helmsperson
  • henchperson
  • highwayperson
  • horseperson
  • huperson
  • huntsperson
  • iceperson
  • inhuperson
  • journeyperson
  • merperson
  • middleperson
  • midshipperson
  • milkperson
  • minuteperson
  • nonhuperson
  • oilperson
  • ombudsperson
  • outdoorsperson
  • plowperson
  • postperson
  • rifleperson
  • sandperson
  • seaperson
  • selectperson
  • shaperson
  • showperson
  • snowperson
  • sportsperson
  • statesperson
  • strongperson
  • subhuperson
  • superhuperson
  • switchperson
  • talisperson
  • tradesperson
  • tribesperson
  • watchperson
  • wolfperson
  • woperson
  • woodperson
  • workperson
  • yachtsperson
  • yeoperson

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Outsorcerer's Apprentice

The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
by Tom Holt
Recommended Ages: 14+

Benny Gulbenkian of Orpington, Kent, is a university physics student who, from his Uncle Gordon's affectionate viewpoint, is not just gormless but "a black hole into which gorm falls and is utterly consumed." Yet when he stumbles upon YouSpace - a technology that transforms doughnuts into transdimensional portals - hidden in his uncle's closet, Benny becomes Prince Florizel, the ruler of a fairy-tale kingdom in an entertainment format so immersive that it's actually real.

Somewhere over the doughnut there's a place where knights slay dragons, and woodcutters slay granny-eating wolves, and all the other stock fairy-tale characters live stock fairy-tale lives. But one day a forest maiden named Buttercup awakens to the absurdity of it all. A knight named Turquine gets fed up with dragonslaying. A goblin king realizes after centuries of warfare with the dwarves, something needs to change. The way things have always been done in their world just isn't sustainable - but to realize this, they must begin to think thoughts that should not be thinkable. Somehow their dawning self-awareness is connected with a gormless prince who doesn't really belong. Benny, meanwhile, appreciates too late that in a world that has a taboo against food with holes in it, he has no way to get home.

These and other slightly cracked characters, working from different directions, slowly arrive at a sinister discovery. The mysterious and all-powerful wizard, who has been part of their world for thousands of years, isn't what he seems. More than just another member of the fairy-tale set, the wizard is an outsider with a profit motive for meddling in the affairs of a magic kingdom. He is, in fact, using talking trees, elves, dwarves, knights and woodcutters as cheap labor. It's all about outsorcery: finding fantasy-world solutions to first-world problems. And though Benny just wants to go home, an annoying unicorn somehow convinces him he has a higher duty as the only one who can put things right.

If you're having trouble following all this, you might want to check out some of Tom Holt's previous novels, especially Doughnut and When It's a Jar. I've only read the former and a few other books by Holt, but even allowing for material I may have missed I found this book funny, exciting and brain-stimulating all at once. And I'm starting to suspect this is a pattern in Holt's work. Among science fiction authors who cast hopeless, average people of today's world in great science-fiction and fantasy adventures infused with cutting-edge theories and even sharper humor, there is no one who equals him since the passing of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. It gives me joy to reflect on the long list of his books, because it foretells many hours of richly satisfying reading to come.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

128. Hymn for the 4th Sunday in Advent

The Fourth Sunday in Advent, also known as the last worship service Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers skip before Christmas, is a bit awkward when you're writing a series of hymns for each Sunday of the Church Year - kind of like those Sundays leading up to Pentecost when the Gospel lessons are all subtle variations on the same theme. The problem here is that the Epistle for Advent 4 (Philippians 4:4-7) is mostly a repeat of the Introit for Gaudete (Advent 3), and the Gospel (John 1:19-28) is about John the Baptist again. So the challenge is to avoid being too repetitive. Fortunately there's also the Introit (Isaiah 45:8 and Psalm 19:1) and the Gradual (Psalm 145:18, 21 and Psalm 40:17) to draw upon. The original tune by yours truly is called RORATE.
Drop down, drop down you heavens,
Yea, drop down from on high;
Let righteousness be scattered
As showers from the sky!

Let earth, let earth lie open,
Lie open as a field;
Let it declare God's glory
And our salvation yield!

For there comes One whose sandal
John would not dare untie,
Who bathes us in the Spirit
And flames that purify.

God's Son from heav'n descended,
Took flesh in Mary's womb,
Gave up the ghost to save us
Through fiery trial and tomb.

Washed in His name, yea, buried
In His grave, poor and mean,
We rise with Him united,
Renewed, reborn and clean.

Take cheer therefore in Jesus;
Again I say, take cheer!
Before all men be patient,
Because the Lord is near!

Take cheer, and fret for nothing,
But lean on God in prayer.
He hears your sighs and groaning;
No blessing will He spare.

Now peace that passes knowing
Shall guard your heart and mind,
For in His Son who washed you
A gracious God you find.
Just for historical purposes, the tune that inspired this hymn was O CHRISTE MORGENSTERNE, from a Leipzig hymnal of 1585. I changed my mind about it because my friend Thomas thought the first phrase or two should have a descending melodic shape to tone-paint the text. In dispensing with the tune below, I realized two things. The first was that there was no reason to repeat the last line of each stanza as when I originally wrote it. The other was that I knew of no tune in the 7.6.7.6. meter that had a descending first phrase, so I would have to write one for the purpose. And so it goes.

127. Gaudete Hymn

Gaudete is the mass for the third Sunday in Advent, famously one of the two Sundays of the church year when the liturgical color is "rose," which is to say, let's face it, pink. It takes its Latin name from the beginning of the Introit, "Rejoice in the Lord always..." The historic texts for the day are the Introit from Philippians 4:4-6 and Psalm 85:1, the Epistle from 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 and the Gospel from Matthew 11:2-10. My working tune for this hymn is ES JAMMRE by Jakob Hintze, 1679, taken from a Hirschberg (Silesian) hymnal of 1747 where it was set to the text "Es jammre, wer nicht glaubt, ich will mich stillen."
Lord, we rejoice and sing with jubilation,
For You showed favor to Your captive nation,
Sending the Baptist as herald appointed,
Readying men to receive Your Anointed.

Not in soft words, even less kingly raiment,
John preached repentance and noted the payment
God's Lamb would give, us from sin to deliver,
Pouring forth pardon from out Jordan's river.

Christ is our Passover, John was proclaiming,
In his "Behold the Lamb" our ransom naming.
In John's hard penance and discipline taxing
Waned the old leaven as new bread was waxing.

May we so honor both John and our Savior
That we repent of our sinful behavior,
Finding in Christ all forgiveness and healing
Till He returns, every secret revealing.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

126. Baptismal Birthday Song

Continuing my fit of hymn-writing (also known as a "vacation"), here's another paltry effort to correct the poverty of spiritually rich children's hymns. I wrote an original tune for it titled YEAR OF GRACE, which I don't mind admitting is loosely based on "Happy Birthday to You."
This day, child of God,
We treasure the flood
Of blessings since you were
Washed in His Son’s blood.

Still more you are prized,
Dear (brother/sister) in Christ,
With each year that passes
Since you were baptized.

We share the embrace
Of God’s cleansing grace;
We love you as members
Of one holy race.

Forgiven as one,
We worship the Son
Who life and salvation
For all of us won.

This coming year too,
May both we and you
Hold fast to our Savior
Who made us anew!

125. Hymn for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

Continuing to work ahead on my "hymn for every Sunday of the church year" project... The historic texts for the second Sunday in Advent include the Epistle, Romans 15:4-13; the Gospel, Luke 21:25-36; and the Introit, excerpts from Isaiah 62:11, 30:30 and 30:29 (in that order) and Psalm 80:1, and possibly additional verses of Psalm 80 as needed. I don't always pay attention to the Gradual and Hallelujah Verse, but in this case it's interesting to note they cite parts of Psalm 50:2, 3 and 5 and Luke 21:26-27. My working tune for this hymn is SEI GEGRÜSSET, JESU GÜTIG, sometimes attributed to Melchior Vulpius, from a 1682 Leipzig hymnal where it was paired with a 1666 hymn by Christian Keimann.
Little ones, when signs awaken
Filling men with woe and terror,
Earth perplexed and heaven shaken,
Nations torn by strife and error:
Lift your heads and stand your station!
Christ comes swiftly with salvation.

Lo, the fig tree's leaves unfolding
Signify the summer's nearness;
Even so, these signs beholding,
Recognize the time with clearness!
Heav'n and earth are swiftly passing;
Jesus' word is everlasting.

Be on guard, lest care and pleasure
Weigh you down, your heart entrapping;
Lest you lack the one true treasure
When the sudden day comes snapping!
Watch with Christ, who will stand by you
And all needful strength supply you!

To this end God's word was written,
That with hope and perseverance
You, when all the world is smitten,
May rejoice in Christ's appearance
And, with hearts from every nation,
Overflow with exultation.

God in Christ was reconciling
Fallen man to His pure glory,
On both Jew and Gentile smiling.
Knowing thus His servant story,
Let all nations join to praise Him
And a royal anthem raise Him!

Praise the Lord, whose voice victorious
Carries over every border,
And whose message glad and glorious
Reaches all in God's good order:
Who despite the foe's wild raving
Comes with haste, His children saving.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

124. Hymn for the 1st Sunday in Advent

I know the season of Advent is a good way off, but I'm thinking my collection of original hymns could use one for each Sunday of the church year and Advent seems like a good place to start. (Mind you, I've already done hymns for all the Sundays in Lent and the Easter season.) Advent's an easy season to get through (only four Sundays) and if I write them now, they'll be ready in plenty of time for my friends in hymnody to test-drive them in church later this year.
Wake, Zion! Recognize
Your time is come! Arise,
Your Savior greeting!
Night-time is almost past;
His Day draws near at last;
This age is fleeting.

Wake, children of the light!
Put off the deeds of night,
Strife and debauching!
Leave fleshly lust for dead,
Putting on Christ instead,
Urgently watching!

Thus armored, Lord, we cry;
We lift our souls on high,
Your grace believing.
Let none who seek Your face
Be cast into disgrace;
Comfort our grieving!

Savior of Zion, rise!
Heal our sin-darkened eyes
With light forgiving!
Let us soon hear the voice
Of them who now rejoice,
In Your courts living!

Show us Your way till then,
That we may say Amen,
Your burden taking!
So help us bear Your name
That we may bless the same,
In glory waking!

Hosannah to the Lord,
To the incarnate Word
And to the Spirit!
O Blessed One who came
In God's almighty name,
Save all who fear it!
The Bible texts referenced in this hymn are from the historic propers for the day: Introit, Psalm 25:1-4; Epistle, Romans 13:11-14; and Gospel, Matthew 21:1-9. The tune I have in mind for this hymn is MEIN JESU, DER DU MICH, which traces back to a 1698 Darmstadt hymn-book that paired it with a 1692 text by Joh. Chr. Lange.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Martian

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Recommended Ages: 15+ [Adult Content Advisory]

Ares 3, the third in a series of manned missions to Mars, is supposed to last 31 days. On the sixth day the astronauts are forced by a sandstorm to abort, blasting off for an early return to earth. Thanks to a freak combination of events, botanist and engineer Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead by his crewmates but actually quite alive. Now all he has to do is stay that way in a lifeless, airless desert with supplies to last six crewmen a month and no way to call home even to tell the world he's alive. Best case scenario, a rescue mission starting right away would take more than a year to reach him. Everything is against his survival except his own ingenuity, his will to live and a few million dollars worth of abandoned NASA equipment.

What would you do in Watney's situation? A lot of us would probably give up and wait for death, or maybe even hurry it along. Some of us would be paralyzed with fear. Watney copes with his hopeless situation, the loneliness of his harsh environment and the whisker-thin membrane between life and death with cussed (and frequently cussing) stubbornness, inventiveness and brilliance, lightened by endearingly goofy humor.

Soon enough folks back on Earth are racing to save him. His Ares 3 crewmates, still en route home, are ready to risk everything. The space agencies of more than one country commit enormous resources to his rescue. But ultimately Mark's rescue depends on his own heroic effort and a journey across the surface of Mars, where every moment seems to bring another brush with death.

This book first came to my attention on a list of must-read science fiction novels. I bought it as a gift for my dad, who is much more into sci-fi than I am, and he expressed his enjoyment of it so strongly that I read it after him. According to the author's note at the end of it, the book started out as a serial published on his wesbite and was later packaged as a 99-cent e-book on Amazon. From there to best-seller, soon to be a motion picture starring Matt Damon, is a journey almost as amazing as that of its main character.

This might turn out to be a historically important book, lending insights to the development of manned Mars exploration. But for now it's notable enough for what it is: a smart, exciting piece of entertainment that touches the heart and transports the mind to a strange but real world. It makes us feel just how close and how far away Mars is. And it leaves us with a warm thought about the human family.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Rithmatist

The Rithmatist
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you are a Harry Potter fan, drop everything right now and read this book. End of book review.

Wait, one more thing. Don't wiki this book. Wikipedia quotes exactly one review of it which is not only unflattering, it's downright untrue.

OK, a few more things. The Rithmatist takes place in a worldscape that its author calls "gearpunk." In an alternate-reality America where there's an archipelago instead of a continent, the United Isles of America in the year 1908 has carriages, lamps, and even trains powered not by electricity or steam but by wind-up springs. Even the dollar coins have clockwork in them. Europe has been conquered by the Korean empire. America is, or at least was in fairly recent times, a monarchy. A Christian sect called the Monarchist Church is known for practicing a rite called inception in which some devotees - say, one in a thousand - develops a kind of magical ability called Rithmatics, which allows them to draw chalk lines and figures that come to life and move about in two dimensions.

Eight schools throughout the country teach Rithmatics to children age eight and up. They're sort of like Hogwarts, only these schools teach ordinary students as well. The Rithmatists stay to themselves most of the time, except during spectacular displays of dueling such as the yearly Melees. In exchange for a life pension and special career opportunities, Rithmatists have to spend ten years in an island at the center of the country called Nebrask, where Rithmatic forces fight to contain horrors most people know nothing about. Among them are the wild chalklings, silent two-dimensional creatures that attack and harm not only other chalk figures but human beings as well.

Joel Saxon, age 16, attends the Armedius academy on a scholarship. His mother works at the academy as a cleaning lady, and his late father was a maker of specialty chalks favored by the Rithmatists. Neither of them had Rithmatic powers, and neither does Joel - but all he wants in life is to be a Rithmatist. While his other studies suffer, he obsessively studies every detail of chalk-line defenses and dueling. He is even willing to risk being thrown out of school to learn more, but it is rare for Rithmatists to allow unpowered people to study their secrets.

Joel's chance finally comes when the brilliant but weak-nerved Professor Fitch is forced to take summer tutoring duties. Fitch accepts Joel's help as a research assistant while tutoring a hopelessly inept Rithmatics student named Melody Muns. Somehow, between doing boring research for Fitch and putting up with Melody's annoying personality, Joel finds himself in the thick of an exciting investigation into the disappearances, and possible murders, of a series of young Rithmatists.

That's enough synopsis. If you haven't found the thread by now, go find the book and look for it there. I promise you, as implausible as it sounds - and at the beginning, I found it downright goofy - it quickly becomes a fully convincing, immersive world-building experience. I don't know if it's the characters who feel real and deliver natural sounding dialogue, or if it's the sketches of Rithmatic defenses sandwiched between the chapters, or just the grip of fear and mystery and accelerating action that closes in around you, but by the end of the book you'll know you've found your way into something truly excellent. I can't wait until the promised sequel comes out.

This is the second Brandon Sanderson novel I have come across, following the marvelous Elantris. I want more, but I either have to wait until the local library acts on my buying suggestions or buy them myself. Some of his titles that I am even more excited to open after this include Steelheart and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Plus, if I ever get around to reading Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, I'll be reading more Sanderson titles by the end of it since it was he who wrapped up that fantasy masterpiece after its creator's death. I have a lot of homework to do. But mostly, I want the sequel to this book to come out already!