Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hidden Gems 4: Melanie Rawn

There is a tendency to portray the eighties and early nineties as a bleak time for the fantasy. It has been said that there was no variety, that there were simply rehashes of Tolkienesque or Jordanesque fantasy and that worst of all fantasy authors of the period were accused of producing works that didn’t make the reader think. All of that is of course absolute rubbish.

Queue the latest addition to the hidden gems of fantasy Melanie Rawn. Rawn is best known for her two trilogies set in the same world Dragon Prince and Dragon Star. Rawn was able to produce an interesting cast of characters whose motivations were often complex. Pol and Andry were perfect examples of characters who were shades of grey. What’s more she took a rather novel approach and followed the characters over several decades and showed the reader as they grew up, developed, grew old and eventually died. In short she made characters who mattered to the readers, I can remember feeling absolutely frustrated with Sioned near the end of the last book to the point where I wanted to scream at her. Now that’s writing. Rawn also spent a great deal of time focussing on romances between the characters and there is certainly a greater emphasis on this than in most fantasy. As always with Rawn they are masterfully developed. Politics was also a subject which received a great deal of attention.

Besides the two trilogies already mentioned two books in the planned exiles trilogy have been released.The quality is right up there with her previous work but be warned it has been twelve years since the second book was released and the as of this point there are no definite plans to write the third. She also collaborated with Kate Elliot and Jennifer Roberson on the Golden Key. Currently Rawn is working on an urban fantasy/paranormal romance series titled spellbinder of which two have been released.

I can’t recommended Rawn enough so if you’re stuck for something to read give her a try. I know you will thank me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

The Wizard of Earthsea was the class reader in my English class when I was fourteen. The class never did get to the end of it but I made sure I did and consider it the first fantasy novel I ever read. I recently read it again more than ten years later and was surprised at the things I remembered, those which I didn’t and the things I thought were in there and never turned up.

The wizard of earthsea is about a boy named Ged who is taught rudimentary magic by his aunt the local witch. After he uses his powers to save the village from a horde of barbarians he is taken under the wing of a wandering wizard. Ged chafes under the wizard’s tutelage, wanting to learn ‘real’ magic rather than the patience his master is trying to teach him. Egged on by a playmate Ged unwittingly almost unleashes a shadow creature which his master arrives just in time to stop. His master offers Ged a choice; either remain as his apprentice or travel to a wizards school and learn magic there. Ged chooses the latter and quickly excels there. However he gets into a heated rivalry with another student and in effort to prove his superiority unleashes another shadow creature when he tries to summon a dead spirit. Ged has to find a way to deal with the creature which will hunt him forever and try to steal his body, powers and soul.

Initially I found the language a bit simplistic (which explains why it is often shelved in the children's section) but combined with a prose reminiscent of classic mythology the two combine rather well. Earthsea is a wonderfully realized and original land made up of island chains in a massive ocean and world building is certainly one of Le Guin’s strengths and one in which she should be considered a pioneer.

All in all The Wizard of Earthsea is a classic which I think everyone should get around to reading at some point. 8/10.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review: Harmony by C.F. Bentley

I consider myself pretty well-read when it comes to fantasy. The same, however, cannot be said when it comes to science fiction. In fact I would go as far as to say I haven’t read one sci-fi book in my adult life. That is until recently. I was lucky enough to win a copy of Engima by C.F. Bentley the sequel to Harmony so I thought I’d give Harmony a go.

Sissy is a member of the worker caste on the planet Harmony. When a massive earthquake strikes the capital she is able to calm the planet and prevent further damage. That leads to the high priest Gregor taking an active interest in her and when it is revealed that she has all seven caste marks as well as the ability of prophecy she is made high priestess. Major Jake Hannigan of the Confederated Star System Fleet is a man with nothing to lose. His entire family was wiped out in a maril, avian-like aliens, attack. The war between the two species is getting set to hot up but with dwindling supplies of badger metal, something only produced on the reclusive planet of harmony, both sides are hesitant to make the next move. When the opportunity arises to take part in a spy mission attempting to retrieve the formula of badger metal Jake takes it. Needles to say the two protagonists’ paths soon cross and Sissy comes to learn that a few truths she had taken for granted might not be so true after all.

The story is told through the eyes of three characters; Sissy, Jake and Guilliam a high ranking temple official. The biggest strength of the novel is the two main protagonists who are interesting and well realized and really steal the show. I found the beginning to be quite slow and throughout the novel had a minor issue on pacing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Also I found the first scene with Sissy, predominately with her thinking, strange when it is revealed later how she talks. These could have been better integrated.

Aside from a few minor issues I did enjoy my first foray into sci-fi. The first book does a good job in setting the scene and I look forward to reading how the story progresses from here. 7/10

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hidden Gems 3: Russell Kirkpatrick

One of the eternal questions for those involved in the publishing industry is how effective is cover art in selling books? Which styles work and which simply don’t? On the subject of the first I would have to say they do, well because cover art has drawn me to certain books. I remember clearly when I had just started uni and I was wandering around whitcoulls between lectures. A rather simple cover caught my eye; a spoked wheel with a snake entwined around it. There were nine books with the same cover all in different colours, for some reason this intrigued me and took the first one sat down and started reading it. Within a few pages I was hooked. I came back a few days later and bought the book. Within a few months I owned the entire series. That is incidentally the story of how I was hooked on the wheel of time and in a real sense what really won me over to the fantasy genre (although I had read several fantasy books by then). That is not the only time a cover has drawn me into a book. The cover art on Russell Kirkpatrick’s Across the Face of the World is a thing of beauty. Unlike those from the wheel of time it is anything but simple. A cascading waterfall surrounded by a forest dwarf a bridge across a canyon with tiny figures standing at the edge. It literally screams epic to any would-be passerby and inspires the urge to open the book. Of course once it is open it is now the authors turn to try and keep that attention through an engaging story and well written prose. On that note it is time to get into the reasons I consider Russell Kirkpatrick to be a hidden gem in the fantasy genre.

On the surface Kirkpatrick’s debut fantasy trilogy resembles just one more of the legion of quest fantasy epics inspired by Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Two brothers; Leith and Hal, are forced to leave their small village on the edge of civilization with a small company to rescue their parents who have been kidnapped by an agent of the despot known as the undying man. Along the way they learn that the undying man is massing his armies for a massive campaign of conquest. They also learn of a mythical object that may or may not exist that could have the power to stop him. So far so typical. But it was the characters that certainly set this trilogy apart. They were so different with their insecurities and the unexpected paths they took in their development. Throw in some interesting plot twists and unique perspective on landscape (Kirkpatrick is also a mapmaker/geography lecturer at the university of Waikato) and were left with something that really stood out. I remember enjoying the first books thoroughly but being slightly disappointed with the third which I felt drew things out too much. His second trilogy Husk built on these strengths. The first in the series Path of Revenge really blew me away at the time I read it. It was just so different. Gone was the quest fantasy formant instead jumping around a few storylines which were only loosely connected together by a central string (which would be focused on more in later volumes). His characterization had also improved to the point, where I can safely say they were one of the most unique and interesting set of characters ever assembled. Sadly the second book Dark Heart, while still good, went off the boil a bit. I have yet to read the concluding volume, Beyond the Wall of Time but I have high hopes that things will get back on track.

Kirkpatrick’s first trilogy has been available in Australia and New Zealand for years but has only recently been published in the U.S. and U.K. Apparently the first volume has sold well in the States and I have high hopes for Path of Revenge which, in my opinion, is by far his best book.