I've been studying Blaylock's work for four years now, since I first read portions of the omnibus collection of his early steampunk works, "The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives." When I was asked to interview Blaylock at a convention, I thought it best to acquaint myself with his non-steampunk writing as well, and read a few of his urban fantasies. I found that I preferred his later writing, which is to be expected. While I enjoy his early steampunk immensely, it's his modern theodicies like "Last Coin" and "All the Bells on Earth" I found to be more compelling. "The Aylesford Skull" combines the best of Blaylock's urban fantasies' villainous horror with the whimsy and romance of his steampunk world, in a book that is easily one of his best. William Gaminara's narration is superb, and his delineation of voices by accent, pitch, and mannerisms is among the best I've heard. I have no idea what prompted an early reader to give it one star, though I will readily admit that Blaylock may not be to the taste of modern readers used to brainless page turners. If you're looking for thoughtful, whimsical, and sometimes dark prose, Blaylock is your man.
First off, I'd like to amend my star ratings ever so slightly. I would have given both performance and story 3.5, not four. But this should not be seen as an indication that this is a lackluster or milquetoast piece of writing. Ciara Knight's Neumarian Chronicles prequel Weighted, is neither high literature nor the best YA steampunk I have ever read, but neither is it the worst I have read by a long mile. However, I erred on the side of four stars, because unlike most YA steampunk I have read, it is dark and gritty, and will appeal to readers who prefer their black marks on white pages (or audio between the silences) to inhabit the shadows, not the light.
Barring its fast-paced and thrilling conclusion, Weighted could be adapted for small stage theatre, since the majority of the action takes place in a torture chamber on board an airship. A young girl who possesses supernatural powers has been captured by a wicked cyborg nation, and is being slowly converted into her enemy, part by part. This is nothing new, of course: the opposition of tech to magic is common in steampunk fantasy. Likewise, the torture chamber of cyborg transformation is common in general SF. However, we must always remember that for YA readers, such cliches are often new experiences, and many young readers are loathe to read the "classics" their parents did. Consequently, YA readers may find Weighted a challenging and provocative read/listen, since steampunk adventures about princesses and star-crossed love (which is where the series goes from here) do not often begin with torture.
Some listeners will find Kimberly Woods' reading of the text too childlike, but my own experience was that this helped immensely, given that the two key characters were both young teens. Too often, narration is given to voices far too old to convey the innocence of young characters. Given the horror that the heroine must endure, it's even more effective.
Many steampunk books mistakenly promise dark and grit, but deliver "action that often takes place at night and has lots of people who need a bath." Ciara Knight actually delivers on the promise of dark and gritty steampunk, and it was a refreshing change from steampunk's seemingly endless stream of romantic adventure tales.
The bottom line of any review is the question of whether I'm hooked as the reader. I was hooked into this single story within the first few minutes of listening. And given how this prequel leads into the larger story cycle of the Neumarian Chronicles, I'm hooked into the series as well. Or to be more accurate, reviewing this as a 42-year-old-academic recalling what I thrilled to as a young reader, I know that the 14-year-old in me is interested in seeing where this series goes. Weighted is a very promising start to an intriguing and genuinely dark and gritty steampunk world.
Dante's visions during the first part of the comedy often strike me as proto-horror, with other elements anticipating fantasy and science fiction, but I don't think the work needs me to provide a synopsis. Wikipedia can give you that. The trouble with finding a good audiobook of Dante's work is finding one that has a good translation for listening, along with a narrator who doesn't drive you mad. In my experience, classic narrators often strike a really aggrandized, pretentious voice, which they don't need to. And that's why I love this translation by Herbert A. Kennedy, narrated by Grover Gardener. It's a great vernacular translation (Dante was writing in the language of the people) read without lofty tone. I've listened to two other versions of Dante's Inferno, and this unabridged version of the entire Divine Comedy is my favorite.
Both Robert Fagles translation and Ian McKellen's reading are superb. However, at about five hours in, the recording began to exhibit technical glitches related to speed. I re-downloaded the audiobook, but to no avail. No matter how good McKellen is, listening to someone's voice slowed down or sped up is too annoying, especially for a work that already demands so much attention.
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