St. Johns, FL, United States | Member Since 2009
The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories about the human colonization of Mars which were previously published in the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. The stories are arranged in chronological order with the dates of the events at the beginning of each story. In the first edition of The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the events took place in a future 1999-2027, but a reprinted 1997 edition pushes all events forward to 2030-2057. Because it’s a story collection, The Martian Chronicles has an episodic feel which has been made more fluid by connecting the stories with short vignettes, similar to the structure of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man.
In the first story, “Rocket Summer,” we visit a small town in Ohio while the first human exploratory spaceship takes off for Mars. Bradbury explains in the introduction to The Martian Chronicles that this small-town mid-America feel was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life which Bradbury admired and hoped to emulate.
The next two stories, “Ylla” and “The Summer Night,” show us what the Martians are like. They’re humanoid in form with brown skin and round yellow eyes. Like humans, they live in houses and towns, eat and drink, sleep, age, read books, study science, desire love, become jealous and irritable, and commit murder. (I find it amusing that the Martians have the same kinds of depressing marriages we see in Bradbury’s stories set on Earth.) But the Martians are telepathic and the humans’ approach is causing them to quote our poetry, sing our songs, and adopt other aspects of human culture without understanding why.
The first spaceship was unsuccessful, so a second expedition was launched a few months later (it seems reasonable for Bradbury to expect that by 1999 we’d be able to get to Mars a lot faster than we actually can). In “The Earth Men” we learn the fate of this crew and we learn that Martians, just like Americans in 1950, have to live with bad psychiatry and insane asylums. Stephen Hoye, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 version of The Martian Chronicles, was particularly brilliant with this story.
Next comes “The Taxpayer” in which an Ohio man is trying to get on the third expedition to Mars (the second one failed). This very short vignette tells us that things are going badly on Earth and that an atomic war is expected in about two years. “The Third Expedition” (originally published in Planet Stories as “Mars is Heaven!”) describes what happens when the third doomed mission lands on Mars. This story doesn’t quite work with the chronology of The Martial Chronicles because it portrays astronauts from 2030 growing up in the small Midwestern towns of early 20th century America. It also ironically highlights the biggest problem with The Martian Chronicles when one of the astronauts asks “Do you think that the civilizations of two planets can progress at the same rate and evolve in the same way?” Clearly the astronaut doesn’t think that’s possible, but in these early stories, Bradbury’s Martian culture is just too much like ours. Even so, “The Third Expedition” is a clever little horror story and one of my favorites in the collection.
“And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is the story of the fourth, finally successful, expedition to Mars. The Martians have mostly died of chickenpox — humans, in our blundering way, have inadvertently killed them off. Most of the men of the expedition don’t care, eager to begin exploration and colonization, but Captain Wilder and an archaeologist named Spender regret that humans have destroyed such a beautiful civilization, like they destroy everything else they touch. There’s a lot of social commentary about 1940s American culture in this story.
The next several stories are about the rapid spread of humanity on Mars. “The Settlers” and “The Shore” describe the type of people who came to Mars from Earth, “The Green Morning” follows a Johnny Appleseed type of character who plants trees to increase oxygen levels, and “The Locusts” and “Interim” describes how men and women made Mars look just like another Earth. In “Night Meeting,” we learn that “even time is crazy up here” when a colonist from Earth meets a Martian who seems to be in a different time-stream. This story also reminds us that civilizations both rise and fall and that perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the future of our own civilization.
I especially liked the next story, “The Fire Balloons,” in which a group of missionaries prepare to bring the Gospel to the Martians. They don’t know what the Martians will look like and must consider how a different culture, and even a different anatomy, might dictate the types of sin a society is prone to. (It seems unlikely that the missionaries don’t know what the Martians look like by now, but we must keep in mind that The Martian Chronicles is a story collection, not a novel with a continuous story.) When the missionaries meet the Martians, they have even more theological questions to deal with. “The Fire Balloons,” has a beautiful ending.
Male explorers and settlers have been the main characters so far but “The Musicians,” a story original to The Martian Chronicles, shows us what boys do for fun on Mars, “The Wilderness” features two women who are getting ready to emigrate from Earth, and “The Old Ones” focuses briefly on the elderly. Those first courageous men won’t be forgotten, though; in “The Naming of Names” we learn that they’ve been immortalized — many places on Mars have been named after them. These human names, and other industrial-sounding names, have replaced the nature-focused names used by the Martians.
In “Usher II” Bradbury returns to one of his favorite pet peeves — book burning. A man who has left Earth to get away from the “moral climate” police is angry that they’ve now shown up on Mars. To get back at them for outlawing Edgar Allen Poe’s work, he uses his fortune to build his own House of Usher and he invites them all to a party. This story is entertaining, but I’m not sure that Bradbury makes his case. After what happens, I think the moral climate police will feel they have even more grounds for banning Poe.
“The Martian” is a terrific horror story which shows us what becomes of one telepathic Martian when humans, full of painful memories and wanting to start over, arrive on his planet. This is one of the best stories in The Martian Chronicles.
The next few stories, “The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” and “The Watchers,” tell of the nuclear war on Earth that was predicted in earlier stories. It can be heard on the radio and seen from Mars and soon the colonists get an urgent message: “Come home.” And so they go back to Earth.
“The Silent Towns” tells the story of Walter and Genevieve, living hundreds of miles apart, who assume they’re the last humans left on Mars. This story is entertaining, but highlights the rampant sexism so often found in the science fiction written for pulp magazines. Where does Walter decide is the most likely place to find a woman? The beauty shop. (Genevieve, what the heck are you doing in a beauty shop on a deserted planet?) Then, after driving for hundreds of miles to find her, Walter rejects and runs away from the last woman on Mars because she’s overweight. Really.
Bradbury is back to doing what he does best with the next two stories. “The Long Years” tells of Hathaway, one of the crew of the Fourth Expedition, who stayed on Mars with his family when the rest of the colonists left. When Captain Wilder, his former commander, returns to Mars after exploring other planets in the solar system, he finds Hathaway and wonders how his wife and kids stayed young while Hathaway kept aging normally.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” returns us to Earth where the atomic war has wiped out most of the people. An automated house (common in Bradbury’s stories) still stands in California, going about its daily routines as if the family who lived there is still alive. This story was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s post-apocalyptic poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in which we see nature taking back the Earth after humanity is destroyed. This imagery in this excellent story is chilling and unforgettable. Unforgettable.
After all of the destruction that humans brought upon themselves (we nearly obliterated the population of two planets), the last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” offers a bit of hope as two families escape the devastated Earth and plan to start over. To ensure that humans don’t make the same mistakes we made before, they burn books, maps, files and anything else that contains the sorts of ideas that may have led to our destruction. (A little ironic, I think. Apparently, Bradbury thought it was noble to burn some of our literature.)
Whenever I read Bradbury, I’m struck by his lofty visions, in the early 20th century, for future technological developments and space exploration. He envisioned a degree of achievement by the 21st century that we’re not even close to yet. However, at the same time, it seems that he didn’t foresee how much American social culture would change even during his lifetime. Thus, in most of his stories set in the future we find the juxtaposition of robots and rockets with the same sexism and racism experienced in 1950. Fortunately, the nuclear world war that he and many SF writers imagined has also not happened. Perhaps we can give Bradbury some of the credit for warning us so vividly.
The Martian Chronicles is some of Ray Bradbury’s most-loved work and foundational reading for science fiction fans. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to try Blackstone Audio’s version.
Leaving behind a world on the brink of destruction, man came to the red planet and found the Martians waiting, dreamlike. Seeking the promise of a new beginning, man brought with him his oldest fears and his deepest desires. Man conquered Mars and in that instant, Mars conquered him. The strange new world with its ancient, dying race and vast, red-gold deserts cast a spell on him, settled into his dreams, and changed him forever. In connected, chronological stories, a true grandmaster enthralls, delights, and challenges us with his vision, starkly and stunningly exposing our strength, our weakness, our folly, and our poignant humanity on a strange and breathtaking world where humanity does not belong.
Originally posted at FanLit.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature. 3.5 stars
Ian McDonald grew up in Belfast, a city known for the turmoil and unrest it has endured because of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Some of McDonald’s novels allegorically explore the causes and results of a divided city. In Sacrifice of Fools, McDonald presents a vivid and lively conflicted Belfast, and then he throws a third element into the mix: aliens.
The Shian are a peaceful alien species who, upon arrival on Earth, are allowed to settle in Belfast in exchange for sharing the secrets of their technological superiority. The Shian are humanoid in appearance, but have enough biological differences that they cannot successfully mate with humans. They also have very different languages, laws, culture, and customs. While their similarities make them attractive to many humans (and weird fetishes evolve), the differences cause misunderstandings and culture clashes.
The Shian Welcome Center is manned by Andy Gillespie, a human (Protestant) ex-con who knows more about the Shian than almost any other human because of something that happened to him while he was in prison. Andy is able to understand much, but not all, of the Shian language, so he can help them transition to life on Earth and to navigate through the oddities of human civilization. Especially Belfast.
When some of the Shian are murdered at the Welcome Center, Andy, who has a felony on his record, is the prime suspect. If Andy doesn’t figure out who the actual culprit is, not only is his personal freedom at stake, but so is the peace of his city and, in fact, the world. As he investigates he is joined by a Shian lawyer and followed by police detective Dunbar, a (Catholic) woman who has her own personal struggles and prejudices to deal with.
Once again Ian McDonald gives us a fascinating what-if scenario set in a familiar city that has become almost unrecognizable due to the influence of advanced technology and, in this case, an influx of aliens. As the humans try to understand their new alien neighbors, the Shian, in turn, try to understand Belfast and the humans who live there. This is not an easy thing to do since even Belfast’s human citizens have trouble understanding and getting along with each other.
Sacrifice of Fools is a murder mystery that has a lot to say about language, dreaming, psychology, eugenics, gender, sexuality and genetics. Children play a major role in the story. They’re not point-of-view characters, but they’re often in the background and the three main characters’ actions are affected by the children they are responsible for. This is perhaps a metaphor that represents the entire story (I need to be vague here so as not to spoil the mystery), but I’m not sure if McDonald actually intended that.
Sacrifice of Fools is often violent, gruesome and ugly. It’s disturbing in so many ways which, of course, is exactly how Ian McDonald wants it to be. I listened to the audio version produced by Audible Studios. It’s narrated by English actor Sean Barrett who sounds (at least to this American) like he was born and raised in Belfast. He’s brilliant. If you’re going to read Sacrifice of Fools, I definitely recommend the audio version.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is a fascinating short novel by Ian McDonald. At the beginning of the story we meet Ethan Ring, who’s feeling conspicuously tall and red-headed as he chants in a Buddhist temple. Ethan and his friend, a famous Japanese manga artist, are on a bicycle pilgrimage in Japan. Neither of them knows what kind of demons the other is struggling with, and neither does the reader at first, but as they journey on, their stories come out and even though each man’s tale is different, they realize that both of them are searching for redemption and peace.
Many stories deal with a hero’s search for redemption, but Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is unique. The setting is a neo-feudal Japan where tech corporations are the fiefdoms and gangs of armed vigilantes threaten citizens’ peace and security. This is jarringly juxtaposed (to excellent effect) with the peaceful contemplativeness of a Buddhist pilgrimage. Like other works of McDonald’s that I’ve read, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone reminded me of William Gibson’s stories. Both writers like to explore the effects of large impersonal mega-corporations and high technology on familiar settings.
Another fascinating juxtaposition stems from the reason that Ethan is seeking redemption. He and one of his college buddies have created something beautiful that has been perverted and made into something horrible. His girlfriend, an artist, warned Ethan of the dangers, but he ignored her. That ended their relationship and it turned out that she was right. Now Ethan suffers from both the loss of that relationship and the guilt he feels about the destruction he has inadvertently caused. While he tries to use his discovery for good, he knows that it has too much potential for evil and, therefore, it’s better for the world if he keeps it secret. This is a difficult moral quandary for Ethan.
I loved the slow discovery, via flashbacks, of Ethan’s powers — how they work and how they were perverted. In my opinion, the publisher’s blurb gives too much away about this and I would have preferred to have known nothing going into the story. However, even if you’ve read the blurb, there’s plenty of mystery left. I’ll just say that it’s a really cool idea.
A major theme in Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is how the mind can be unconsciously manipulated by a symbol (such as a manga hero), art, or even the typography that a message is written in. The novel also explores heroism, idealism, creativity, perception, religiosity, lawlessness, friendship, guilt, and redemption. As always, McDonald’s prose is rich and vibrant and his dialog is excellent.
There’s a lot to get out of this short book and it’s one I’ll likely read again. I listened to Audible Studio’s version which is 4.5 hours long and excellently read by Matt Addis. I highly recommend this version.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
In Winter’s Shadow is the final book in Gillian Bradshaw’s DOWN THE LONG WIND trilogy, an elegantly written historical fantasy about King Arthur that’s inspired by the Welsh legends. While the first two books, Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer, have focused on Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), this last novel is written from Gwynhwyfar’s perspective. You certainly don’t need to read the previous books to fully appreciate In Winter’s Shadow, but if you’re a fan of the time period or the legends, you’ll probably want to read Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer at some point. They are lovely historical stories.
In In Winter’s Shadow, Gwynhwyfar gives us some of the history of the Roman Empire and its relationship to Britain. She tells of how when Rome left, the petty kings of Britain squabbled amongst themselves and were in danger of being overrun by the Saxons until Arthur declared himself emperor and forced them to unite. She also gives some of her own backstory — how she hates women’s work, prefers to study, and was her father’s pet. She spends her days working tirelessly to advance Arthur’s kingdom while he’s away on campaign. She runs her household, manages supplies for Arthur and his soldiers, and extracts taxes from the petty kings and the church. It is hard to deal with a war-torn country, plotting kings, and resentful clergy.
Gwynhwyfar desperately wants a child who will be Arthur’s heir. So far she has miscarried the children she’s conceived. She fears that Arthur will divorce her, but he refuses. She is jealous of Medraut, Arthur’s bastard son whose mother was the evil Morgawse. Medraut’s presence at Camelot reminds Gwynhwyfar of her barrenness. It frustrates her that Arthur has a son out of that hateful relationship with his stepsister, but can’t get one out of love with Gwynhwyfar. Medraut is still disrupting the unity of Arthur’s band and Morgawse haunts Arthur and Gwynhwyfar’s relationship. Thus, Morgawse, even though she’s dead, still threatens to bring Arthur — and all of Britain — down.
All of this is a lot of stress for Gwynhwyfar, which explains why she makes a couple of REALLY BIG mistakes, and why we, the readers, feel empathetic toward her even as we realize she’s being REALLY STUPID. The consequences of Gwynhwyfar’s sins are severe and instead of making Arthur’s reign more secure, she ends up destroying everything.
Though the story is slow and repetitive at first, In Winter’s Shadow eventually takes off and becomes quite compelling. Gwynhwyfar faces several moral dilemmas that are just as relevant today as they were back then. Is murder ever justifiable? What about adultery? When our leaders fail to act, when is it okay to take matters into our own hands?
In Winter’s Shadow is tragic and painful. It’s a disaster story. It’s the story about how well-meaning people can royally screw things up. It’s about the end of personal relationships and the end of an empire. Gillian Bradshaw succeeds in making both seem equally tragic.
Once again, I listened to Nicole Quinn’s narration of the audio version. She has such a beautiful voice and I especially liked her in this book because it’s told from a woman’s perspective.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
In Kingdom of Summer, Gillian Bradshaw’s second novel in her DOWN THE LONG WIND trilogy, Gwalchmai (the Welsh version of Sir Gawain) is traveling Britain in search of Elidan, a noblewoman he fell in love with off screen. He wronged her eight years previously and hasn’t seen her since. (We didn’t see any of this happen in the previous novel, Hawk of May, but he tells us the story near the beginning of Kingdom of Summer.)
During his travels, Gwalchmai stays with the family of the farmer who helped him in the last book. Rhys, one of the farmer’s sons, is fascinated by King Arthur and his band of warriors, so he asks Gwalchmai if he can be his servant. Gwalchmai accepts him and takes Rhys to Camelot before they set out again to be King Arthur’s ambassador to King Maelgwn, who Arthur distrusts.
When they get to Maelgwn’s court they discover that Gwalchmai’s parents, King Lot and the evil Queen Morgawse, and Gwalchmai’s brother Medraut are there trying to stir up dissent against Arthur. Gwalchmai and Rhys try to foil their plans, but Morgawse, full of hate and power, is a formidable and dangerous opponent. Together Gwalchmai and Rhys must use all their wits, and the help of others, just to survive. Gwalchmai learns a lot about himself and his family and, in the end, gets some answers about the woman he loves.
Like Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer is a well told and often beautiful recreation of part of the Arthurian legend. The pace is nice, the prose is lovely, and there are some gorgeous descriptions of Britain (especially the wild uncanny regions of Powys) along with some pretty poetry. The good guys (e.g., Arthur, Gwalchmai, Rhys) are easy to root for and it’s nice to see that Gwalchmai isn’t the perfect servant of “The Light” that he wants to be. He makes big mistakes and, because he does, he’s easier to love. It’s also nice to see Rhys, who was so enamored with Arthur’s warband, realize that there are consequences to killing. He grows up quickly when he has to face some ethical dilemmas. Morgawse is still too-evil-to-believe, but that’s a fairly common interpretation of Arthur’s half-sister.
I can’t understand Bradshaw’s choice to have Gwalchmai tell us the story of his love affair with Elidan. This would have made an emotional and exciting story if we had witnessed it rather than heard about it. As it is, the story is told succinctly and dryly and it seems like so much potential lost. Gwalchmai’s life story should have been stretched to four books instead of three and this love story should have been book two. (Never before have I advocated for lengthening a trilogy!)
Readers who enjoyed Hawk of May are sure to like Kingdom of Summer, too. I’m looking forward to the third book, In Winter’s Shadow. I’m listening to Nicole Quinn’s narration of Sourcebooks’ recent audio version of Bradshaw’s trilogy. I would have preferred a male narrator for these first two books, since they’re written from men’s perspectives, but Quinn has a charming British accent that suits the story well.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Ian McDonald’s The Broken Land (Hearts, Hands and Voices in the UK) is a book I admired more than I loved. It’s an allegorical look at the horrors of civil war caused by religious zeal and division. The story is set in a fictional country that feels like it could be in a future Africa where biotechnology has led to the development of mechanical infrastructure that is part organic and part artificial intelligence. The citizens are divided by their religious affiliation — some are Proclaimers and some are Confessors. All are subject to the Emperor who lives across the river.
Our protagonist is a young woman named Mathembe who, because of her particular convictions, decides not to speak. Mathembe is a confessor, so she is skilled in the manipulation of genetic material to create new life. When members of her family die, their heads are attached to a huge tree where they are eventually absorbed into “the dreaming.” As the story starts, Mathembe’s grandfather has recently died and is in the process of being absorbed into the tree with the other ancestors. But when their village is attacked, Mathembe grabs her grandfather’s head and runs. All of her family members eventually get separated and her brother joins the rebel fighters. The rest of the story follows Mathembe as she tries to find and reunite with her family. She experiences many of the struggles that civilians encounter in war-torn lands — homelessness, hunger, refugee camps, disenfranchisement, and most of all, loneliness.
Ian McDonald uses the plot to thoughtfully explore many issues associated with war, prejudice and oppression, to show us how our differences divide us and cause much human suffering, and to suggest that there is much more that unites us than divides us. His tone is often cynical, but he lightens the mood with quite a bit of humor (much of it centered on the grandfather’s decapitated head) and he succeeds in sending an important message without sounding preachy.
McDonald’s world, with its mix of the familiar and the unknown, is fascinating and intriguing. It reminds me of some of William Gibson’s work (there’s even a woman with razor blade fingernails). But often it’s frustratingly sketchy and surreal (e.g., what, exactly, is a “trux?”) and more than once I felt like I was on an acid trip during a police raid. Though I admired McDonald’s world, I never felt like I fully settled into it; it was always uncomfortably alien. I’d love to spend more time exploring it — I just wish I had been able to in this book. Something else that’s slightly uncomfortable is Mathembe herself. She never talks. It’s easy to feel for her, but it’s hard to get to know her. The heroine’s silence is such an interesting device, but it adds to the distance between story and reader.
McDonald’s style is forceful, gripping, and very often beautiful:
“You are asleep in your bed. No, you think you are asleep in your bed. You are in that half awake, half aware state when even the familiarities of your own room are strange and unfamiliar. Awake or dreaming? You cannot be certain. You had dreamed of a great thrashing blade moving in space, carving slices off the edge of the world as it moves along its orbit; the sound of its thrashing fills the universe, the thrash of destruction, and you rush to the window to look out and see the street full of people running as the great blade comes down out of the sky. All around you is a great beating noise, and you do not know whether it has come from the dream inside your head into the outside or from the outside into your head. The thrashing sound fills your room, fills the air, fills up the spaces in your lungs and between the joints of your bones with its beating beating beating.”
As you can see, the imagery is startling and the prose is delightful, but after several hours of it, it starts to become tiresome and repetitive and eventually starts to feel like a quirk.
This is a good time to mention the audio production that I listened to (Audible Studios). It’s just over 14 hours long and is narrated by Adjoa Andoh, a British actress of Ghanaian descent. She is absolutely brilliant and her voices really add to the African feel of the story. The Broken Land is worth listening to just because she performs it. If you’re going to read The Broken Land, you absolutely want to read this version.
If you’re looking for something totally accessible and light, this isn’t it. But if you’d like to be challenged by Ian McDonald’s surreal visions of the horrors of civil war (something that, as a native of Belfast, he knows something about), try The Broken Land.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Janny Wurts’ The Master of Whitestorm is a stand-alone high fantasy that, like the author’s other work, differentiates itself from other fantasies published in the late 20th century that feature a medieval-style setting. The book has recently been produced in audio format by Audible and is read by British actor Simon Prebble, a highly decorated audiobook narrator and someone whose name I’m always happy to see in the credits. As expected, he does a wonderful job with The Master of Whitestorm and I recommend this audio version to anyone who wants to read or re-read this exciting and emotional story.
The story begins in the slave galley of a ship. Haldeth, whose wife and children were slaughtered by the Murghai, is now chained to the oar of one of their ships. As he slaves for his captors, he observes his benchmate, a man named Korendir who looks fierce but so far has never said a word — he just stoically rows. All the other slaves (and the Murghai) think Korendir is stupid or mute, but it turns out that he has spent his time studying and planning and suddenly, after years of slavery, Korendir announces to Haldeth that he plans to escape their captors. Haldeth reluctantly decides to throw in his lot with the enigmatic man and thus starts a lifelong friendship in which Haldeth will watch Korendir accomplish many other seemingly impossible feats and quests, mostly by outsmarting his opponents.
On the surface, The Master of Whitestorm is an episodic adventure story with a hero who will remind you of Hercules or Odysseus. He fights monsters, saves princesses, breaks curses, resists sirens, builds an invincible castle on a cliff, and outfoxes an elemental spirit. All of these exploits are exciting and there are many delightfully unique elements such as a city where everyone is cursed to be happy. There are some memorable characters such as a dwarf couple who contribute a bit of humor that helps to offset the grimness of the main characters. There is also a sweet romance.
But the story is more than just a series of exploits and quests. More than anything it’s a character study of both Korendir and Haldeth. We follow both characters for many years and it’s slowly revealed that Korendir is not as aloof and stoic as he seems. We learn that his courageous deeds are actually motivated by fear. In contrast, Haldeth, who observes Korendir’s reckless behavior, is also fearful. Both men struggle with the traumas of their past and their fears about an uncertain future. Korendir and Haldeth employ different coping strategies and their outcomes differ significantly.
The Master of Whitestorm is a satisfying self-contained story. Again, I highly recommend the audio version read by Simon Prebble.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Wolfblade is the first book in Jennifer Fallon’s WOLFBLADE trilogy which is a prequel to her DEMON CHILD trilogy which I read several years ago. These are fat epic fantasies with lots of characters that are focused mostly on political drama but also contain plenty of magic and romance.
This story takes place in Hythria, one of the kingdoms in Fallon’s world. Lernen, the current High Prince (a Wolfblade) cares nothing for his country and is not respected by his people because he spends his time in the pursuit of unusually decadent pleasures. All of the nobility agree that Lernen should not be running the country, but they disagree about how they should take care of the problem. Some are content to wait him out, some want to kill him, and some want to take his place. Since Lernen doesn’t seem to be interested in begetting a son, his heir will likely be any future son of his sister Marla Wolfblade, a beautiful teenage girl who Lernen can basically sell off to the highest bidding potential husband. At the beginning of the story Marla is immensely silly. She is more interested in the romantic idea of marrying a handsome warlord than in how her status as mother to the next High Prince gives her (and her husband) political power in Hythria. When Lernen decides to marry her off to the king of the neighboring barbaric country of Fardohnya, Marla is devastated, especially since she thinks she’s in love with the younger son of a Hythrin warlord.
Fortunately for Marla, there are several people in Hythria who don’t want her marrying the Fardohnyan king either, including many of the nobility and the head of the Sorcerer’s Collective. She has another strong ally in a clever dwarf named Elezaar who she has recently purchased from the slave market. Elezaar has his own reasons for keeping Marla happy. Together they will attempt to save Marla from this disaster, but the plan they come up with will have terrible consequences for almost everyone involved. Marla must navigate a political landscape filled with secrets, treachery, sorcery, adultery, kidnappings, and assassinations. By the end of the story many of her family, enemies, and accomplices are dead, some have gotten in way over their heads, and Marla is transformed into a completely different person.
If you love long soap-opera-ish epic fantasies with a medieval setting, lots of characters, many plot twists, complicated political intrigues, and lots of treachery and death, you’ll probably love Wolfblade. In many ways it’s similar to A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, though not as dark and compelling. For the most part I like Fallon’s world, but there are some aspects that I have a hard time believing in. For example, Hythria seems like a typical patriarchy where a woman is valued only for her beauty and the sons she can bear and is expected to remain a virgin until it’s time to be married off to the man of her father’s choosing. Yet just before she’s married, she’s given a court’esa (a purchased male whore) who teaches her all about sex and she’s allowed to have court’esas when she’s married. I find this unlikely in that type of society. I also couldn’t believe that Lernen would be unwilling to spend just a little time trying to get an heir. I mean, for such a decadent guy, how hard would that be? And in a country that has an all-powerful High Prince, would the assassins’ guild really be allowed to keep secrets about who’s trying to kill members of the royal family? Unlikely. This didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story too much, but it kept me from being completely immersed in Fallon’s world.
Readers who are familiar with the DEMON CHILD trilogy will recognize the origin of a couple of the main characters in those books, namely Damin Wolfblade and (I think) R’Shiel. We also get to visit the Harshini Sanctuary in Wolfblade and learn a little more about their lifestyles.
I listened to Wolfblade in audio format. This has recently been produced by Audible, it’s 25.5. hours long, and it’s narrated by Maggie Mash who has a lovely warm British accent and does a terrific job with the character voices and the pace. I will be choosing this format for the sequel, Warrior.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Arkamondos the scribe has just been given a new and unusual commission. He’s been hired by a notorious band of Syldoon soldiers to travel with them and observe and transcribe their adventures. The leader of this motley crew is Captain Killcoin, a brooding authoritarian figure whose weapon of choice is a frightening looking flail that has magical properties. Killcoin is accompanied by a few loyal companions who are just as scary and tough as he is. Arkamondos is intimidated by all of them, and he wonders if he’s made a big mistake, but Killcoin’s insistence that important events are about to occur makes Arkamondos decide that it will be best for his career if he stays… Plus, they’ll probably kill him if he leaves.
So off he goes with Killcoin’s band. They are coarse and vulgar but their dialog is frequently sharp and witty. There is much drinking, cursing, barfing, bleeding, pissing, etc. (Should be appealing to Joe Abercrombie’s fans.) But at the same time, there is something underneath, at least for Captain Killcoin, that suggests a nobility of purpose that he may be purposely repressing for now.
It takes a while for Scourge of the Betrayer to really get going, but once it does the plot becomes quite interesting. Arkamondos witnesses many strange and horrible things — bar fights, long gruesome battles, murders, curses, sickness, healing, treachery, trickery, manipulation, and magical weapons and boundaries. By the end of the story, Arkamondos isn’t much more enlightened about the impending important events than he was at the beginning and neither are we, the readers. Who does Killcoin work for? Why is he so feared? Why does he seem like such a tortured soul? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Why is his band so loyal? What is happening in the realm? It’s obvious that something significant is happening, but what is it?
For a book that provides so little information, it’s surprisingly gripping. I was transfixed on the very first page. My reaction, I think, reflects a weakness for bookish protagonists who find themselves thrown in with warriors. I wasn’t really aware of this little fetish of mine until I read Scourge of the Betrayer, but the contrast between Arkamondos and his new comrades — a rough seemingly uncivilized little group — made me recognize it, and when I stopped to think about this, I realized that I almost always like these sorts of characters. I think it’s because they’re introspective. They think about what they’re seeing and they report it in the first person. They can react emotionally or mentally, and they can judge the actions of others, but they are neutral figures — they are not supposed to influence the action. This allows for some interesting observations, insights, and ethical dillemas. But of course, occasionally Arkamondos does make the decision to act and these are some of the best scenes in the novel. Arkamondos is also engaging when he relates what he sees and experiences to his own life and the low self-esteem he feels because he’s the bastard son of a prostitute. Arkamondos doesn’t learn much about his companions’ plans in Scourge of the Betrayer, but he does learn a lot about himself, about other people, and about companionship, loyalty, and love. I look forward to seeing how he develops in Veil of the Deserters, the second book in BLOODSOUNDER’S ARC.
Scourge of the Betrayer is a promising debut. Jeff Salyard’s has created some unique and likable characters, the writing is strong, and the story, though it takes a while to get going, is exciting and mysterious. I listened to Kris Chung narrate the audio version produced by Audible Studios. This was the first book I’ve heard by Chung (he’s fairly new to the audiobook world, I think) and I was pleased. I will choose this format for the sequel.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Andrew and Rose Vanbergen have recently purchased a California inn which they are fixing up and getting ready for guests. They live in the inn along with aging Aunt Naomi, her numerous cats, and her companion, Mrs. Gummage. The Vanbergens have only one real guest so far — the mysterious Pepto-drinking Mr. Pennyman.
Andrew has grand plans for the inn. Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a slacker and he’s always managing to find excuses for doing anything but the actual work that needs to get done. While his good-natured and industrious wife is cleaning or sewing linens, he’s daydreaming about a gourmet kitchen and purchasing luxury items that aren’t really necessary. (He fancies himself an epicure).
Andrew also tends to have crazy ideas that sometimes border on delusional. Sometimes he acts on these. He knows he’s being silly and that it upsets his wife, so he’s in the habit of being secretive and lying to hide his ridiculous notions and activities. This often gets him in trouble because he ends up lying to cover up his lies. Oh, what a tangled web he weaves! It doesn’t help that his new friend, Pickett, tends to see conspiracies everywhere. When Andrew and Pickett notice Mr. Pennyman’s strange behavior, they decide that Pennyman has some dastardly plan and, in their bumbling way, they start to investigate.
But the truth is even stranger and scarier than Andrew suspects! Mr. Pennyman is at the inn because he’s trying to find the last of Judas Iscariot’s cursed pieces of silver and he knows the last few coins are somewhere on that California coast. If he finds them, the entire Earth is doomed! Inadvertently saving the world will require a series of hilarious misadventures involving a spoon, a carp, smuggled breakfast cereal, a pot of jambalaya, a fake advice column, prank letters, a car chase, several murders, a treasure hunt on the beach, a dangerous Chinese restaurant, and a huge cast of strangely behaving animals.
I loved The Last Coin. More than anything, it reminded me of my favorite British comedy, Fawlty Towers. Andrew is Basil Fawlty, the innkeeper who’s played by John Cleese. If you’ve seen that hilarious show, you know that Mr. Fawlty, who thinks he’s more sophisticated than he really is, just can’t help but hate most of his guests. He’s also nosy, eavesdropping and sneaking around and spying on his guests. He lies to his wife about silly things so she won’t know what he’s up to. Andrew Vanbergen is exactly like that, without the British accent. Some readers will despise Andrew, and I have to admit that he’s a bit overdone in parts (especially in the middle of the book, which drags a bit), but anyone who loves Basil Fawlty is sure to enjoy The Last Coin just for the characters and humor. Add in the cool premise of Judas Iscariot’s cursed silver coins and Blaylock’s delightful prose and you’ve got an extremely entertaining story that’s bizarre, amusing, clever, exciting, and unpredictable.
Christopher Ragland’s narration of Audible’s version was excellent. His voice and tone are perfect and he gets the humor exactly right. I highly recommend The Last Coin on audio. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.
Note: The Last Coin is the first of Blaylock’s books about Christian holy relics, but each book stands alone.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Most readers are probably familiar with Janny Wurts’ epic fantasy series THE WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW or the EMPIRE trilogy she wrote with Raymond E. Feist back in the ‘80s, but Wurts also wrote a few stand-alone fantasies, two of which have just been released in audio format.
Sorcerer’s Legacy, Wurts’ debut novel first published in 1981, is one of these. In some ways it feels like a 1981 high fantasy novel (e.g. the medieval setting) but, in the most important ways, it stands out. The story is about Elienne, the recently widowed and pregnant wife of the ruler of a conquered country. She’s been taken captive and awaits what’s certain to be a nasty fate when a wizard from another country saves her on the condition that she marries his endangered prince. She has no choice but to agree, of course, and off she goes to an unfamiliar land where she is alone and unloved and expected to marry a stranger while she grieves her lost husband. At this new court she discovers not only the political intrigue she expects, but also treachery, violence, torture, child abuse, and black magic. Elienne has no idea who she can trust and her only sure ally is the prince she’s supposed to marry.
How does Sorcerer’s Legacy stand out from so many of the other high fantasy novels published in the early ‘80s? First of all, it’s a stand-alone novel — hooray! (Though many readers will wish it was the first of a series.) It’s also got a terrific heroine. The setting is medieval, but Elienne doesn’t try to unrealistically bust out of her traditional gender role. She’s foul-mouthed, independently-minded, tough and opinionated, but Wurts doesn’t try to convince us that Elienne could whip ten men in a sword fight. Elienne’s feminine traits are actually her greatest strengths — she’s compassionate, protective, and loving.
The story is also fast-paced and the plot is almost completely unpredictable — two qualities that I don’t expect to find in a high fantasy novel written in 1982 but that I have come to expect from Janny Wurts after reading her excellent stand-alone To Ride Hell’s Chasm. Everything does not turn out well in the end — there is much loss and grief — but there is also beauty and hope.
The audio production of Sorcerer’s Legacy, produced by Audible, is wonderful. Narrator Emily Gray has a lovely voice and handles Wurts’ complicated sentences with ease. The book was a delight to listen to. Sorcerer’s Legacy is an impressive debut and the audio version does it justice.
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