Dragonlance: War of Souls

Fallen SunBack in sixth grade, I was riding high off of Fantasy. My dad read me the Hobbit in fourth grade, Lord of the Rings in fifth, and in sixth grade I dove back into both books, trying to get that same fix (Dear gods, have you ever noticed how often I talk about drugs in this blog? It’s like Jay and Silent Bob have a wordpress account and a history of being stuffed into lockers.). Anyway, my tolerance was increasing, so I had to up my dose. And lets face it, Lord of the Rings is great and all…but where are the fucking dragons? Smaug was a fricken badass. Where can I get more of the good stuff? Don’t try to slip me Puff. I need the hard core stuff, man! Well, around that time, my parents shuffled me off one evening to a friend’s house while they went off bowling or something, and I uncovered one of the most dramatic and wonderful discoveries of my life (no, it wasn’t pot). My friend showed me her late father’s (we all miss you, Burt!) library. This guy had stuffed so many sci-fi and fantasy novels into this room that they lowered his heating bill. This full grown adult was a huge nerd, operated an arcade, and read stuff that I thought only existed in, well, fantasy. That’s when I realized that grown-ups didn’t have to be boring, and I could enjoy reading about dragons without feeling like I was wasting a life better spent learning how to manage hedge funds. And fortunately, my friend’s mom let me pick out some books to take home with me. I picked out one with a dramatic pose of Merlin on the cover, as well as the novelization of Star Wars (ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, whom I wrote about in May). But like I said…I needed dragons. And fortunately, Burt had me covered there.

I found a book that not only had a dragon on the cover, but in the title and in the name of the series as well. “Dragons of the Autumn Twilight” looked like a good read, and judging by the more than sixty Dragonlance books now sitting on my bookshelf, I chose wisely. Still, apparently Dragonlance gets as much hate with online critics as it did with…well, anyone who saw me reading one of the books in high school. Yes, I know that vitriolic criticism is kind of a prerequisite for Internet comments, but authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote the Chronicles trilogy, followed by the Legends trilogy, and wound up creating a world people wanted so much more of that TSR published nearly 200 other novels set in the same universe. So what if their prose isn’t up to King James Bible standards? Something about their stories is worth reading (I actually have a more academic analysis of their scenarios and an explanation why Raistlin became the poster child for disenfranchised smart kids who resent pep rallies and wouldn’t get within fifty meters of a football without a marching band around, lest it trigger a fatal asthma attack…but you’d have to take my class to study with me. Contact the admissions office in the Tower of High Sorcery, Palanthas.).

Lost StarWeis and Hickman are absolute masters at crafting two things: complex, psychologically real characters with an evil alignment, and interesting scenarios. One of my favorite cliffhanger endings of all time is from one of their “Second Generation” novellas, in which Tanis’ son is invited into the Qualinesti nation and offered the crown, only to find out he’s been set up as a puppet king. Forbidden from entering the elven nation himself, Tanis offers parting advice for how to manipulate the political game to fight for control. Another ending comes at the end of Dragons of Summer Flame, in which the gods of Krynn are forced to abandon their creation, and the mortal world has to learn to live without magic, divine influence, or guidance. I finished both of those books thinking, “I want to read that story!” But on account of not being able to write all 200 books themselves, Weis and Hickman had to abandon their creation to authors who treat it with as much respect and sincerity as someone saying, “I promise I won’t get mad,” “I swear I won’t use your credit card to buy porn,” or “I’ll return the Millennium Falcon without a scratch.”

Jean Rabe’s Fifth Age trilogy understood the “no magic” edict about as well as a comatose, double-amputee diabetic understood “no sugar,” and she must interpret the term “psychological realism” to imply that chance encounters with Cthulu are a reasonable and common occurrence. And veteran Dragonlance writer Douglas Niles thought long and hard about “Gilthas becomes a puppet king and learns to manipulate Qualinesti politics to reclaim power,” and decide it was perfect except for the politics…and the idea of a puppet king…and the Qualinesti setting…and Gilthas. So getting to this weeks topic in a roundabout way, Weis and Hickman’s War of Souls trilogy appears to be an attempt at repairing the damage inflicted and lost opportunities squandered by previous authors.

Vanished MoonSo…the War of Souls begins with Mina, an 18-year-old girl who comes out of storm, prophesying like an Evil Jesus about the One God of Krynn. She makes a few predictions, heals a minotaur’s stump arm, and then proceeds to rise through the ranks of the Dark Knights, waging a stealthy, political conquest of the Silvanesti nation. Meanwhile, Goldmoon wakes up and finds her 18-year-old body restored, while Laurana (who is still about 18 years old in elf years) develops a complex political relationship with the Dark Knight governor of the Qualinesti. And, of course, Tasslehoff makes up for being dead by traveling forward in time, because apparently readers couldn’t possibly grasp the wonders of Krynn unless we see it through the eyes of a child…a child who’s over a hundred years old and has seen absolutely everything that can happen in a world with dozens of sentient races and as many types of magic and unique locales.

As expected from a writing skill honed by decades of experience, the War of Souls plot is actually pretty complex and difficult to summarize here. While most of the action in the first two books occurs in the elven nations, there are over a half dozen factions each vying to accomplish their own goals, including the lord of the dark nights trying to stem the rising popularity of Mina, the Krynn dragons who resent their foreign dragon overlords, the dragon overlords who want to destroy each other for more power, Mina who wants to advance the One God’s agenda, Mina’s knights who don’t give a damn about the god and just want to obey the 18-year-old girl’s every command—you know, like Evil Christians—the Qualinesti who struggle with Dark Knight occupation, the Silvanesti who struggle with their isolationist policies, the wizards who just want magic to come back, the Solamnics who just want to crusade against something evil, and Tasslehoff who finds himself a bit unnerved that everyone keeps saying that Chaos was supposed to kill him.

For a series dedicated to the struggle and balance between good and evil, Weis and Hickman successfully avoid all the ethnic cleansing that naturally sprouts up around authors like Tolkien or Brooks. Dragonlance is as much about good and evil as Taco Bell is about fine Mexican cuisine. Character motivation has always been a source of fascination, and the most fascinating thing about the War of Souls is to see which factions ally with each other for what goals, and which characters betray each other like college students calling “shotgun” on the way to the Waffle House; for example, like how Weis and Hickman throw Rabe and Niles under the bus.

If there’s one thing I could say against the book, it’s that it seems to break sequence with proper escalation. Chronicles told us about a war that prevented an evil goddess from entering the world. In Legends, the main character sought to let that goddess into the world so he could fight her, and whichever one emerged victorious, it would still probably trigger at least some amount of apocalypse. By Dragons of a Summer Flame, they ramped up the stakes to find something that would threaten the gods themselves. So when I picked up the War of Souls, I imagined something so epic it would make the finale of Dragonball Z look like an episode of the Smurfs. Instead, they go back to the god-trying-to-enter-the-world plot.Not that it was a bad plot, it’s just that compared to the material that came before, this felt as exciting as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

And I guess I have to admit, I kind of miss the pacing and adventuring from their earlier novels. You no longer get to explore ancient ruins, lost temples, or travel through time. This is more thoughtful and introspective, and while it’s very good for what it is, it almost feels like the fantastical elements are phoned in. Laurana has her moment in the sun again, which is kind of exciting, but a little less than what the character is capable of. Raistlin makes a cameo appearance, but it feels more like fan service than something that actually drives the plot. But still, I’d recommend it for fans of the series, especially anyone who hated Jean Rabe’s novels and wishes things could just reset back to the way they were before, like a nice, concise cartoon.

Speaking of which…do you think there’s any chance we’ll see “Dragons of a Winter’s Night” after they slaughtered Autumn Twilight with an 80-minute condensation of the novel?

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Stardust – Neil Gaiman (Illustrations by Charles Vess)

stardust

If you asked who I thought the best living fantasy authors are today, I’d have a tough time deciding between George Martin and Neil Gaiman. I’d go with Martin when I’m in the mood for a medieval soap opera, equal parts a history of the War of the Roses, a Martin Scorsese film, and a phone book filled with typos. He writes entertaining material, but sometimes feels a little like reading soft-core porn. Neil Gaiman also displays human sexuality in his work, but at least when I read his books, I have the luxury of not feeling creepy for reading a 15-year-old’s lesbian love scene written by a man in his sixties who looks like Santa in a sailor hat. But if Martin draws from history, Gaiman draws from mythology, giving his works a distinctively more magical feeling to them.

Martin Playboy

Just ho’ ho’ ho’-ing. Sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what kind of package you want him to give you.

Such is the case with Stardust, written to resemble an English/Celtic faerie romance. While modern fairy tales usually revolve around pixie dust and happy thoughts, benevolent, wish-granting godmothers and violent, blood-thirsty giants, traditional faerie myths are much more compact, giving the fae folk both magical skills and an overwhelming desire to skewer your spleen like a cheese cube on a toothpick.  These folk live in faerie (the same way nuns live in nunneries and fish live in fisheries), on the other side of a wall guarded by the Night’s Watch a detail of humans from the village named–in the tradition of the English to boil both their language and their food down to a simple, flavorless, unappealing mass–Wall. In a lengthy prologue, Gaiman explains that faerie is far too dangerous for mortals, so humans are forcibly kept safe on their own side of the wall and discouraged from crossing over to pick fruit or to have faerie anchor babies, the latter of which sounds like an excellent idea to Dunstan Thorne, who crosses the wall at the one time every nine years when it’s permitted to do so, not because it becomes less dangerous, but because there’s money to be made.

Dunstan attends the famous 9-year Wall Market in faerie, and encounters a beautiful young woman selling baubles, chained to her post, a slave who isn’t paid and can’t leave until the moon loses her daughter in the same week when two Mondays come together, which are terms enforced by a centuries-old woman standing guard at the door–pretty much like the standard deal for modern Wal-Mart employees, except without the blue vest. The two of them steal off into an X-rated area of faerie, and months later a basket filled with an anchor baby is left on Dunstan’s doorstop. The majority of the book follows the faerie baby on his quest to discover that teenage love is a beautiful, magical thing akin to getting one’s fingernails ripped out with pliers while jabbing a pencil in one’s eye whilst one is entirely engulfed in flames. Young Tristan offers to cross into faerie to retrieve a falling star as a testament to his love for a girl who clearly would much rather be dating the captain of the football team. Fortunately for Tristan, the fallen star happens to be a beautiful girl. However, as far as anthropomorphic gas balls go, she’s pretty popular, and since faerie is a dangerous place, they find themselves pursued by enough conflict to fill out a 200-page novel filled with elaborate illustrations on every page.

Because of its style, Stardust would be an excellent gateway drug for the fanciful, imaginative adolescent or teenager to make the transition to the hard stuff–Medieval romances written in Middle-English. It has a nice blend of traditional and more modern faerie stories that would appeal to plenty of fantasy readers, and although it does bound into acknowledgement that mammals often enjoy fornication, the material is not so extreme that it would harm any but the most fragile and delicate of readers, the kind who would probably cry outrage at having to read about sextants and sackbuts.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (Star Wars) – Alan Dean Foster

Splinter_of_the_Minds_EyeWho would have ever thought that Star Wars would turn out a failure? Trick question! For starters, anyone who’s lived through the prequels. There are few things that generally can enrage people to the point where their blood pressure is higher than that of a decapitated Anime character. One of these things is mentioning the terms “Republican” or “Democrat” in the presence of the opposite. Otherwise, it’s just the Star Wars prequels. So try to understand when I say I love the prequels almost as much as the classic trilogy. I love them from the pointy little tip of Amidala’s crown to the metal hunk of bounty hunter digesting at the bottom of the sarlacc pit. And I tell you this story because I want you to understand the sheer amount of masochism required that when I find out Lucas had planned a low-budget alternative to the Empire Strikes Back in case a New Hope flopped, my first thought was, “I need to read this!”

Back when George Lucas commissioned Alan Dean Foster to ghost write the novelization to A New Hope, he also suggested a side-project, a plan B, an option to implement if no studio trusted him with so much as a coupon for IHOP, let alone a film budget. So Foster wrote a 200-page novel called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which could be easily adapted to film, allowing Lucas to continue losing fan support even if he couldn’t afford the grandiose spectacle of Melatonin known as pod racing. Foster set his story in a dense jungle filled with mist that reduces visibility to less than the distance across a cheap, pay-by-the-hour film studio, and eliminates as many characters as possible without resorting to wrapping a twist tie around a woolly sock puppet and calling it a wookie.

The story opens with Luke and Leia en route to planet Circarpous when they crash land on Mimban, both planets named after Lucas and Foster spent a half hour staring at a hand of Scrabble tiles until they sounded like real words. From there…well, it’s safe to say “stuff happens.” They wander through the jungle, find a town, get captured by the Empire. There’s something about a magic rock and then suddenly they’re in a cave where they talk an indigenous tribe into getting themselves killed to save the beautiful white people. I don’t really know. This is what happens when plots start to get old; their minds start to go, and suddenly they’re wandering down the street, going into other people’s houses, and eventually you find them stripped naked, trying to stuff their clothes into an ATM and asking people for quarters.

Case in point, Foster’s grasp of these characters seem to indicate he uses 10W-40 motor oil and Astro-glide as a hand lotion. For all his trash talk, Darth Vader might have been blowing off steam playing street hoops, or preparing for his next rap battle. After blowing up the Death Star, Luke must have started injecting testosterone intravenously, as his vaguely whiny personality has subsided out of fear for his nearly constant need to mount Leia. And what Foster has done with the princess is bad enough that the resulting disturbance in the Force would incite feminists everywhere to have an aneurysm. The character who, after coming face-to-face with an inept rescue squad on the Death Star, shot out the grate on a garbage chute and commanded everyone to dive in now can’t go more than two pages without complaining about the mud on her dress, the lack of good makeup on planet Mimban, or the fact that Luke comes up with a half-dozen brilliant plans to save their lives by masquerading her as a servant. In the movie she was Rambo with a laser, and Foster transformed her into Willie Scott from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At one point, Leia actually uses the phrase, “Do you know who I am?” and suddenly the book felt less like a Star Wars novel and more like watching Kermit the Frog carry Miss Piggy through a swamp.

What did I expect, though, when I heard this was supposed to become a low-budget movie? Another trick question: words are cheap. Just because a film has to use a limited number of actors and take place on a single planet doesn’t mean the story itself has to sound like it was pieced together from random pages pulled out of the dumpster behind Stephanie Meyer’s office. The book deserves credit for essentially starting the Star Wars Expanded Universe series, although honestly that’s like crediting whichever Medieval monk penned the first piece of erotica–it was going to happen anyway. The fact that this was the first is more coincidental than influential, but an interesting read for the hardcore Star Wars fan, or nerds like me who are interested in alternative drafts of stories. It had potential to be a fun little side-story to the main series, but then again, I could also say I have the potential to be the first Rock-star Astronaut President of the United States.

The 9/11 Report: The Graphic Adaptation – Sid Jacobson

911I read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy, but sometimes I wonder if all those epic battles, thrilling worlds and imaginative scenarios might just be a little too exciting. Dangerously thought-provoking. So sometimes, to alleviate all the strain that comes from wonder, creativity and awe, I have to dive right into your plain, old-fashioned recreational reading like a lengthy government document. I tell you, there’s nothing like a tedious analysis of our nation’s security capabilities to make me feel relaxed, settle my blood pressure, and make my brain activity flatline, putting me into that near coma-like trance that tells me there’s no longer any danger of any of those deadly, vicarious thrills that so commonly lay up readers in hospital beds, where they have naught to do but read, thus creating an inescapable cycle. Fortunately, for the time-efficient reader who may not have the time to read through 592 pages of tedious analysis, or for those of us who just want to spice up our recommendations for improved national resistance to terror with a few colorful pictures, I can recommend The 9/11 Report: The Graphic…uh…novel?

So not technically a graphic novel, this adaptation of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks’ epic dissertation on the September 11th terrorist attacks challenges everything we’ve ever thought about our ability to use the phrase “epic dissertation.” Produced by Marvel Comics veterans Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon, the book distills information into a 129-page summary that makes it easier to swallow, much in the same way that a can of WD-40 makes it easier to swallow a big chunk of asphalt. It makes a sort of sense, though, that this story would find its way into a comic book, what with the popular culture immortalizing the fire fighters and police officers as godlike super-heroes who can evacuate tall buildings before they’re a simple mound, and the cartoonishly evil scheming on the part of bin Laden and his goons that set up a rather accurate comparison to super-villains (except, well…successful). However, the fact that Jacobson is noted for creating the character Richie Rich, prominent child of wealth hoarders who has a kind, heart of gold, makes me wonder if there wasn’t anyone with a stronger grasp of realism to explain the problems faced by America. You know, like Stephen Colbert.

I joke, but the adaptation is rather artfully done, opening with an timeline of the horrifically unsettling events occurring on all four planes before slipping into the horrifically boring events of the analysis that followed. Not exactly having characters to follow, we learn a lot about individual terrorists, although they mention names as though they were tired of Microsoft Word judging their ability to spell, and so identities are virtually indistinguishable–you know, the way most Americans view anyone from non-English-speaking countries. I went in expecting something ridiculously propaganda-laden, but except for a single panel that depicts George W. Bush as a tall, powerful man with broad shoulders, a pointed jaw, and a sharp, military crew cut, I didn’t feel like any political bias seeped into their interpretation, and I have to say I enjoyed the drawing of Bill Clinton that looked like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but not as much as Karl Rove’s depiction as the love child of Peter Pettigrew and the fat kid from the Goonies…drawn as though he appeared in a Ren and Stimpy cartoon.

Obviously written as a way to introduce–I imagine–high school students to either political science and non-fiction reading, the book has some flaws. As most parts lack plot or even at times any sequence of events, most of the drawings end up being random, unnamed, middle-aged white men, with about 10% of them turning out to look like Bill O’Reilly, standing around staring smugly out of the page as though they’re waiting for the reader to trigger an elaborate prank they set up. Also, while they do a good job of distilling the information into smaller paragraphs and explanations, they often took out text verbatim, without realizing that a subtle depiction of Han Solo in a terrorist lineup doesn’t make the language easier to understand, so the report still comes off as drier than Ann Coulter’s vagina on a Saharan sand dune next to a drawing of a mirage. Still, I’d much rather read 129 pages–which I managed to do in less than a day–than 592, and I think there’s some important stuff in here for both high school students and adults. For example, did you know that the commission recommended America adopt a foreign policy based on empathy, where we pump funding into foreign education and try to assuage some of the things that pissed off terrorists in the first place? Spoiler alert: we didn’t do that.

But really, more government documents need to be written using comic sans.

Ender’s Game – (Mork calling) Orson Scott Card

Ender

The results of a head-on collision between Mega Man and Tron while on the Small World ride at Disney World.

Here’s one that relates to video games! Sort of! For sci-fi nerds like me, no adolescent novel has come close to the acclaim given to Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game. I’d like to think that I would have loved the book had I read it when I was ten. It plays into every young nerd’s fantasies about saving the world from aliens, living in outer space, and playing video games non-stop for six years without getting in trouble. The problem is, I first read this book when I was 32, with an IQ higher than my shoe-size that enables me to read the novel as a juvenile combination of Starship Troopers and Full Metal Jacket, with all the psychological realism of a Stephanie Meyer novel.

Ender’s Game follows the exploits of an average six-year-old boy, who enjoys going to school, playing soldier with his big brother, and psychotically murdering the hell out of other six-year-old boys who defy his will. Fortunately, the government is interested in young boys with an aptitude for ruthless slaughter. Earth has, over the past century or so, repelled a handful of invasions by an alien species known as “buggers.” As Card is an outspoken homophobe, I can only assume that he assigned this name intentionally, as like their Earthling counterparts, the buggers’ very existence makes a lot of Earth men uncomfortable. And like many outspoken homophobes, Earth’s answer for the buggers is to murder them out of existence. So when Ender is caught slaughtering one of his classmates who likewise makes him feel uncomfortable, the International Fleet hails him as a tactical genius.

I’ll repeat that; murdering a six-year-old because he scares you makes you a tactical genius. And Ender is so much a genius, that they want him to command the army as soon as possible. Apparently no one in this world had ever thought that “hurting your enemies” was a particularly effective combat maneuver. It sure explains why my attempts to launch Little Debbie cakes at people and invite them to a rousing game of Magic: The Gathering hasn’t deterred the last few people who tried to mug me. So the I.F. takes Ender up to their orbiting combat school to prepare him for battle.

And then be prepared to read about training. And school. And combat simulations. The book turns into Full Metal Jacket, if you replaced all the social commentary with vague descriptions of schoolwork. Although to be fair, Card does allow Ender to murder someone once or twice (once.) just to spice things up. Of course, far from receiving realistic, believable consequences, Ender is praised for being violent enough to frighten Quentin Tarantino. See, while Card wants to write about a tactical genius, it becomes apparent that he, himself, knows very little about tactics, and so rather than devising clever situations for a witty protagonist to reason his way through, Card just has all the supporting characters repeatedly tell the reader how awesome Ender is, and we’re just supposed to roll over like a dutiful whore and accept whatever nonsense he shoves at us without question.

But aside from rampant homophobia, sexism and anti-semitism, fantasies about being a persecuted Christian, enough brutality to make Mortal Kombat look like Sesame Street, and for some reason a strange obsession with fart jokes, the book presents characters slightly less realistic than a Salvador Dali painting. Ender is a six-year-old who responsibly assumes a full-time training regimen. His sister becomes an Internet phenomenon, influencing public opinion under the pseudonym Demosthenes, while his older brother decides to take over the world with inflammatory youtube comments. Props to Card for predicting social media–even though he did somewhat overestimate the effect of flame wars–but trying to explain your lack of skill to create young characters–characters who have more in common with Tryion Lannister and Thorin Oakenshield than with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley–by saying, “Well, they’re smart” has the same effect as Jeffrey Dahmer telling the judge, “Well, I was hungry”–it makes us want a little more explanation.

The book may have redeeming qualities toward the end, but Card sticks to his convictions the way Bill Clinton recounts his sex life. There’s some literary parsley garnishing the end about understanding an opponent diminishing the desire to kill them. But he also includes a handful of other really interesting ideas that dry up faster than the ink on the page. I ended up losing sympathy for the book when Card suggests that the moral course of action would be establishing an age of neo-colonialism on the homeworlds of our slain victims–it is, after all, what Elton John From Outer Space would want.

However, Ender’s Game is a classic member of the sci-fi cannon, and as such it must appeal to someone. I recommend this book for an audience of psychopaths, homophobes (or, really, anyone who was weirded out by Flash Gordon), or just any young boy with delusions of grandeur.

Sabriel – Garth Nix

“A book! WTF, Jake? How the hell does that relate to retro gaming?” I’ll admit, book reviews fit in with as well with retro gaming as Bernie Sanders fits in with the Wu Tang Clan. But I’ve been asked to write a few book reviews, and since most of them are sci-fi or fantasy, I thought your interests as a gamer might just imply a few things about your reading habits. If not, read on anyway. It should be entertaining, at the very least. And expect a few more of these in the months to come. I’m a little crunched for time, so I thought they’d be a good way to prevent slipping into the every-other-week pattern you may have noticed lately.

Sabriel.jpegIn the past twenty years, the name “Garth Nix” has begun to inspire awe and wonder among Fantasy readers, despite sounding like a Sith Lord who moonlights as a country music singer. Fantasy has, unfortunately, never been known for being an especially progressive genre, what with C.S. Lewis lacing his work with Christian Allegory and Tolkien ethnically cleansing the orcs off the face of Middle-Earth. Kings are good, emperors are bad, and no one has ever innovated a single piece of technology–it’s all just sort of always been there, unchanging, as though crossbows, saddles, and blacksmithing were residue left over from the Big Bang. Most of all, the only people who matter in Fantasy are heroes, powerful, intelligent young men armed only with their father’s sword and the blessings of God who undergo bloody combat to harden themselves in order to face the evil idolatrous sorcerer bent on ruling the world through global slaughter. Sabriel is…not actually any different than that. But the hero is a girl! That ought to count for something.

Nix’s novel begins with Sabriel on a long-term study abroad program in Ancelstierre, a country separated from her native “Old Kingdom” by an ancient wall, which, let’s be honest, does nothing to keep Mexicans from crossing into the Old Kingdom to look for work or White Walkers from coming south to haunt Ancelstierre. But the wall exists to give citizens of Ancelstierre peace of mind because they fear magic and want to deny it’s existence, much like comprehensive sexual education south of the Mason-Dixon line. And also like sex ed in the south, Sabriel’s school will only teach magic with the written request of a parent, and even that is rather discouraged. So our heroine finds herself confused about why her father, Abhorsen, sent her to this strange country for most of her life to receive a magical education. (Perhaps the next book in the series will send her to Texas for a Ph.D. on climate change.) One night, when Abhorsen doesn’t answer her mystical Skype call, she gets worried and heads into the Old Kingdom to search for what she somewhat presumptively assumes will be his bloody, mangled corpse lying in a ditch, bloated with maggots. She soon discovers first, that Abhorsen is a title, meaning she’s the kid with the weird father who insists that his children call him “President Dad,” and second, that upon his death, she will assume the duties of Abhorsen.

The Abhorsen, named for the executioner in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is tasked with going around the Old Kingdom, knocking on graves and checking, “You still dead in there?” Death is depicted in the novel like a Justin Bieber concert or a theater playing an M. Night Shyamalan film, and once the dead realize how boring it is, they just want to step outside into Life for a little fresh air. As part of her inherent magical talent, Sabriel can travel freely between Life and Death as though she’s trying to get St. Peter to fill up her punch card for a free latte.

The unique addition to the standard Hero’s Journey trope, other than a hero who only makes 79% of the average hero’s salary, is the coming-of-age angle. The eighteen-year-old Sabriel leaves school, comes to terms with adopting a new identity, searches for a father she barely knows, discovers romance, and stands up to the pressures of professional responsibility. Just throw in one quirky, best-friend character and you’re one saccharine trope away from giving the reader diabetes. Fortunately, though, Nix’s handling of the situation uses more Splenda than sugar, and the best-friend character follows more of a Sabrina the Teenage Witch path, giving her a feline companion who houses the spirit of a great evil.

The story is entertaining, if not groundbreaking. Nix outlines the skeleton of the Old Kingdom, leaving it a little threadbare, and he leaves his system of “Charter Magic” and “Free Magic” frustratingly underexplained, dangling inferences for us to piece together, like trying to understand the plot of Star Wars by splicing together footage from the film trailers. Still, Sabriel behaves as a realistic and interesting character, and it’s a nice adventure that breaks from the tradition of meat head knight/swordsmen protagonists. Any fans of general Fantasy, especially those with an interest in magic, would enjoy it, but the feminine protagonist could also serve as an entry point for a lot of girls to enter a genre that has, until recent years, been a bit of a sausage fest.