The Earthsea Cycle is a series that has been with me my whole life. It is, next to Tolkien, one of the richest fantasy worlds I have ever encountered, which, I suppose, speaks more to my lifelong attachment than anything else. However, these books are undoubtedly epic fantasy in the tolkienian tradition.
A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the cycle, is about a boy who goes to wizard school???remember, this is long before harry Potter was ever thought of. Ged, or Sparrowhawk as he is called, arrives at the island of roke ready to learn the art magic. His exceptional skill and excessive pride cause him to release a shadow from Unlife during a test of power against his rival. The shadow attacks Ged, leaving him injured, scarred, and uncertain of his skill. After leaving the school with his staff that marks him as a wizard, Ged at first lives in fear of the Shadow that will find him and consume him if it can, until he chooses to hunt the thing across the archipelago of Earthsea.
leGuin???s Earthsea Cycle can seem unrelentingly serious at times, but these are meditative fantasies that Give you characters you have to deal with. No fast-food fantasy here.
What makes this favourite of mine even better is that it???s read by Rob Inglis, one of my favourite readers. Mr. Inglis also reads The tombs of Atuan and the Farthest Shore, the second and third books in the Earthsea Cycle. Five stars of five for this exceptional book and wonderful reader.
When twelve-year-old Prue McKeel???s baby brother is abducted by crows and taken into the Impassable Wilderness outside Portland, Oregon, an adventure begins that takes Prue and her classmate and sometimes friend Curtis into the forest of Wildwood. Prue and Curtis are separated almost immediately upon entering the wood: Prue meets Richard, the shotgun carrying Post Master General, driving his mail van, while Curtis is abducted by coyote soldiers wearing civil war garb and carrying sabers.
Separately, Prue and Curtis meet a range of humans and talking birds and animals. Divided into factions, the people and creatures of Wildwood work to either befriend or manipulate Prue and Curtis. Prue follows the advice of Owl Rex, the Prince of birds, and seeks out the Mystics, the oddly Zen wise-ones of the forest, who might be able to help Prue find her baby brother Mac. Curtis, however, is taken by the coyote soldiers to the beautiful Alexandra, the Dowager Governess of Wildwood. It is Alexandra who is at the centre of Mac???s abduction and is the reason Prue is able to enter Wildwood in the first place.
Wikipedia compares Meloy???s Wildwood to Tolkien???s Middle-Earth, but don???t pay attention. This is a secondary world fantasy, and it is populated with talking birds and animals, but it???s in no way Tolkienesque. Not even C. S. Lewis uses eighteenth-century style coyote riflemen and cannoneers. The book is a good read and the characters engaging. If anything, it is more like Brian Jacques??? Redwall books than it is like Tolkien or Lewis.
With the narrative evenly divided between Prue and Curtis, the book rolls along, although it takes a while for the true nature of Wildwood and Prue???s presence there to become clear. Like Prue, you have to wait for it, but it is worth the wait. The book does try to be political, epic, and contemporary all at once. It mostly works. If you want something in a similar vein, try The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. These books are perhaps the beginning of something new in American children???s fantasy.
Four stars of five for Meloy???s Wildwood. Four stars as well for Amanda Plummer???s reading of the book. Plummer offers a good performance with a challenging cast of characters, but she has trouble keeping her accents in order. Nonetheless, a good pick for any age.
Although coraline is not one of my favourite Neil Gaiman books, this recording by the author is a must listen. Coraline is Gaiman???s rather dark and edgy reworking of the Alice story. Moving into a new flat with her workaholic parents, coraline discovers a door in the parlour that opens onto a brick wall. While her parents are out one afternoon, Coraline opens the door to find another flat on the other side of the door. The world she discovers is like her own but different in a way that is both dark and disturbing. Button-eyed versions of the people she knows live beyond the door and her other mother and other father care for Coraline in a way that her real parents do not. Unlike Alice who finds herself in a dream-world full of nonsense and silly characters, coraline becomes trapped in a nightmare full of grotesque creatures from which she must escape.
This book is full of disturbing images that is unlike Gaiman???s other works for young people. However, Gaiman himself reads the book, and his clean, measured performance brings it to life in an unforgettable way. I tend not to like audio books read by the author, but this one is the exception. Four stars for the book, and five stars for Gaiman???s narration.
If I was going to make a list of those dystopian books that I most love, then this book would certainly not be one of them. Lauren Oliver???s Delirium might be good teen romance, but it???s pretty thin dystopian fiction. Leana, the book???s seventeen-year-old narrator, will soon experience the treatment to prevent delirium, the disease of love. The reference to Romeo and Juliet suggests very early what this book is about???code for a tragic, teen love story.
Oliver???s future world, set in Portland, Oregon (sound familiar?), is little more than a disguise for a teen romance that looks a lot like Twilight, except perhaps less honest. Stephenie Meyer???s Twilight Saga has vampires and vampire families, but at least it doesn???t try to pass itself off as something it isn???t.
Like Bella Swan, Leana sees herself as average, but she meets a boy who thinks she???s special. In Oliver???s world, love is a disease, and marriage is an arrangement. Weighed down with the tropes of teen-age romance and teen-age angst, all of which appear in the guise of a future world that doesn???t recognize passion, this book pretends to be much more than it can manage. Probably the most honest moment in the book is Leana having to come to terms with the truth about her mother. If this book is really supposed to be dystopian fiction, then it???s simply frustrating; on the other hand, if teen romance is what you want, then read away. Two stars for Delirium, and four stars for Sarah Drew???s narration.
If this book is supposed to be Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games as some commentators suggest, then it never quite succeeds at being either. Lisa McMann???s the Unwanteds is a bazaar blend of fantasy and dystopian writing. The book opens with the Purge, a separation of thirteen-year-olds into wanteds, necessaries, and unwanteds. And yes, it is entirely reminiscent of the reaping that begins The Hunger Games. As Alex leaves behind his twin Aaron, who has been designated a Wanted, he boards an ancient bus with the other Unwanteds to be transported to the Death Camp and thrown into a lake of burning oil. But instead of being cast into the lake, the group of Unwanteds watch a large flying tortoise descend from the sky, and their lives change.
The land of Artime, the magical world, exists parallel to Quill, the dystopian world, and is protected and maintained by Marcus Today, a Dumbledore-like character who has his own office with a magical window on the land of Quill. Alex and his friends spend their time learning magic, which for each is an extension of their natural, creative abilities.
I would never call Alex a new harry Potter, and there???s little besides the opening sequence to suggest this book is anything like The Hunger Games. With the suppression of emotion in Quill, the book is if anything more like Lois Lowry???s The Giver, another dystopian and rather problematic novel for young adults. In The Unwanteds, kids learn defensive magic???those magical talents standing for creativity???while the emotionally suppressed of Quill invade the magical land of artime. Just like The Giver, The Unwanteds moves from dystopia to allegory: the freedom of creativity set against the negativity and oppression of emotional suppression.
The upshot???Ms. McMann, don???t mix your genres, and don???t try creating another Dumbledore, who, by the way, is still very much alive in the hearts of harry Potter fans. Three stars for this one. However, five stars for the audio version of this rather odd and mediocre book. Simon Jones, the fabulous reader of the Bartimaeus series, makes this book worth listening to.
Percy Jackson is finally back, but is it really him? The older, still impulsive and not always street-smart son of Poseidon is back as the son of Neptune. This second in Rick Riordan???s Heroes of Olympus series has Percy, without friends or any memory of his life back in New York, find his way to Camp Jupiter, the Roman demi-god encampment hidden in the hills of Northern California. Yet another Titan army is on the move, this time from Alaska, and Percy and his new friends must of course save both the camp and the world.
This is certainly a welcome addition to Riordan???s new series, but this is also not the Percy Jackson of the Olympians series. Riordan employs the shifting narrative perspective used by George R. R. Martin???s Game of Thrones, which means we never get that much of Percy and we certainly never get inside his head. The new series lacks the straight-forwardness and humour of the Olympian series. These are teen books, and here Riordan is attempting to expand his demi-god universe. However, these teens are superficially self-involved in a way that wouldn???t fool most teen readers, while the complications arising from the roman incarnations of the Greek gods get rather turgid. How seriously can we take Mars, with his militaristic speechifying and his talk of honour that makes him sound like Warf from Star Trek Next Generation?
I???m glad you are writing these books Mr. Riordan, but three stars out of five for you on this one.
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