Shadows of the Dark Crystal – J.M. Lee

shadowsIf books were children, the treatment I’ve given them lately may not land me in jail, but I might get a stern talking-to by Social Services. Oh, the ironies of teaching literature, spending all day long with books and coming home without enough energy to charge a cell phone while it’s still on. If I had book shelves beneath my stairs, I could compare myself to the Dursleys, literally keeping Harry Potter in the pantry all the time. As such, I feel that the last few books I’ve read, I’ve been about as fair and balanced as a rusted-out bathroom scale shoved in a closet in a Fox News studio. Fortunately, I’ve found one I can get through and enjoy without the regret of wasted time and money you get when the high class escort girl you hired isn’t the one from the picture on the website. What’s more, the book stems from the world of the 80-minute Jim Henson production, The Dark Crystal. Managing to make a movie-based book that expands the lore and, what’s more, manages to capture the Jim Henson feel without the muppets, is a task that ranks up there with slaying the Nemean lion, destroying the One Ring, and reading a presidential ballot when you want to vote for the guy who hates words. But somehow, author J.M. Lee managed to bring skeksis back with his book, Shadows of the Dark Crystal.

skeksisThe book serves as a distant prequel to the Dark Crystal film, set way back in a time when gelflings weren’t harder to find than a Mormon strip club. In fact, the skeksis employed them as guards in their palace, and the gelflings served with a sense of pride, patriotism, and Stockholm syndrome that would rival that of even Hispanic and female Trump voters. (Preemptive apology for any political tone in today’s post, but I’m writing less than a week after the election, and we in the U.S. are currently a little worried that our hallowed democracy and electoral college will soon be replaced with “Trial By Stone!”) Naia, a swamp gelfling, receives word that her brother, one of the aforementioned guards self-flagellating themselves in service to Trump’s Satan’s Parakeets, is on trial for treason. The only thing preventing the skeksis from beating him over the head with a lead bucket of propaganda for an hour—mostly to tenderize the meat for later—and using the remaining pulp to thicken their soup is that they can’t find him. But since punishment is always entertaining whether or not there’s a legitimate crime to go with it (as per standard Republican philosophy), the skeksis insist that someone stand trail in his place, and call for a member of his family (dear God, I’m glad Trump can’t read. This book would give him too many ideas.). From there, Naia begins her journey to discover a horrible, dark, and twisted secret that anyone who’s seen the movie kind of already sort of knew.

For starters, she discovers the Crystal is no longer pure and white, but dark and corrupted (which finally breaks the trend of Republican comparisons, as the GOP is somehow all four of those at once). I thought about marking that as a spoiler, but again like the Republicans, anyone who’s paying attention has known that since 1982. Furthermore, the dark secret Naia needs to tell the world is that the skeksis have been eating the gelflings, draining their essence and turning them into empty husks to use as slaves, much like…okay, do I even have to keep saying this? [sigh] Sadly, we’ve been promised that the federal minimum wage is going the way of the gelfling.

Enough political stuff. Let’s return to a cheerier subject: a world ruled by the iron fists of a group of bloated, decomposing lizards with a wardrobe that looks like a drag queen who’s been run through a wood chipper.

Author J.M. Lee does a marvelous job showing us things we’ve known about for 35 years. And while that sounds like my normal humor rhetoric, I’m actually serious. Jim Henson, the Rembrandt of Muppetry, does such an amazing job of creature design and world building that the finer aspects of his own story fly by like a heavy dose of gamma radiation—it may be invisible, but it’s still there, and it affects us deeply, way down inside, in a way that changes us forever. Before reading Shadows of the Dark Crystal, I had always looked at the essence-draining like any other ticking clock in an adventure movie. But the treatment Lee gives it in his book would send chills down Stephen King’s spine (although considering he’s responsible for a book with a climactic showdown with flying clams who devour an airport, that may be a low bar to jump).

Naturally, no book would be fun to write about if it were flawless enough to be the child of Mother Theresa and Jesus. The pacing, especially in the early-middle part of the book, drops with a lot of introspection and a burgeoning love plot with a gelfling singer-songwriter one-hit-wonder that thankfully pays off like a Wells Fargo savings account. Ultimately they don’t shoehorn the romance in, but like the Wells Fargo account, it makes me wonder if there were a better way I could have invested my resources. I mentioned Jim Henson’s world building and creature creation before, which admittedly is responsible for much of the film’s success and everyone’s fascination with mangy vultures dressed like Elton John if he were in the Thriller video. Lee, on the other hand, could start a game of Minecraft with the goal of making a birch tree. Almost none of the creatures he creates are unique or expand the world in any way. Granted, if he had done something stupid like create a race of Big Bird monsters, I’d probably be even angrier, but the reason I read novels like this is because trying to get my fix of an excellent movie that’s only 80 minutes long is like trying to enjoy a box of porn that contains nothing but a DVD with the sex scene from Terminator, a screenshot of Jennifer Connelly from Career Opportunities, and a Medieval manuscript illustrated by a monk who lived in an entirely male community for sixty years.

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And I thought my yearbook photo was bad…

Fortunately, despite the flaws, the novel delivers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m assuming Trump was inaugurated about a week ago, which means I have to find a gelfling before the Great Conjunction or he’ll live forever. In which case, I’m moving to New Zealand.

The Initiate Brother – Sean Russell

the-initiate-brother-duology-the-initiate-brother-gatherer-of-clouds_2895815Generally, I only read fantasy as a way to kill time before they can jack me into the Matrix and send me directly into Middle Earth or Krynn or the Star Wars galaxy. Despite that fact, I’m not actually well-versed in modern fantasy novels or authors. It’s pretty rare that my reading list doesn’t resemble a queue of hipsters leading into a Chipotle, so on those rare occasions when I have nothing specific to read, I like to go to Barnes and Noble and pick up random authors I’ve never heard about. This practice makes me realize that for a culture that teaches us not to judge books by their covers, it’s rather irritating that we’ve set up our system of consumer commerce in a way that requires us to literally judge books by their covers. Which is how I ended up with The Initiate Brother Duology, a book about the size of a toaster that contains The Initiate Brother and its sequel, the Gatherer of Clouds. Today I’ll review the Initiate Brother. Or rather, half of the Initiate Brother.

Set in a world based so heavily on East Asia that the continent could sue for defamation of character, The Initiate Brother follows the story of Shuyun, a novice Botahist monk with the combat prowess of Bruce Lee and the personality of Bella Swan on a heavy dose of Valium. The story opens with a nun approaching the head of Shuyun’s order with an interlibrary loan request for some of their holy texts. The head of the order approves her request with the tiny caveat that the paperwork may take up to seven years to process, mostly because he’s lost the texts and wants the time to find them. So logically, the plot progresses by sending Shuyun to advise the most influential samurai in the empire. And that’s pretty much the end of that. The book takes a sudden shift in chapter three to focus on the political sparring between said samurai—Lord Shonto—and the emperor. The emperor calls Shonto to the palace to honor him with a legendary sword, an internship for his daughter, and a one-way ticket to the far northern wilderness where he’ll most likely wind up as a throw rug for some barbarian’s hut.

Amazon readers apparently love this book and can’t get enough of it. One reviewer called this his desert island read. Another praised it for its avoidance of magic in favor of mysticism, and compared it to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. So I thought I’d be in for sword fights and quests and bandits and exciting things like that. But instead of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the book reads more like Pride and Prejudice and Samurai. Except that sounds exciting, too. Essentially what this book comes down to is a lot of long-winded conversations full of political maneuvering. Except not the interesting kind like in Song of Ice and Fire or The Lion in Winter. More like a passive-aggressive mom arguing with the school board president.

And while the world-building could have saved it, so much time is given to the soap-opera-like interactions between the Shonto and the emperor, author Sean Russel doesn’t have any space left to devote to the world (not even enough to tell us why sometimes Shonto is a name and sometimes its a title). I gather that it’s Asia. Almost not even “like” Asia, but Asia itself. Rather than draw inspiration for portions of a fantasy world, starting with knowledge of a real-life culture and growing fantastical locations and people and customs out of that, he treats Japan like a character from an episode of Dragnet. The Bohatists are Buddhists. The Northern Barbarians are the Mongol hoards. The empire is Japan and the emperor is…well, still the emperor, but at least other people can look at him.

Some stuff happens, to be fair. There’s an altercation between Shuyun and the priest of another order that ends in a stabbing and a poisoning. There’s an assassination attempt, most likely staged. And about halfway through, Shonto finally leaves the capital for the north. I think. I could be wrong about that. Keeping track of every characters’ sinister plot and contrived motivations took a lot of effort, and I understood them about as well as advanced calculus.

Generally speaking, judging a book I’ve only partially read is unfair. But isn’t it also unfair to make readers suffer for hours before something good happens? If you put a bunch of strippers on an island accessible only by a bridge made of razor wire, knowing how many travelers bled out before they made it halfway across might be pretty crucial information. Probably even a deal breaker. You do, after all, have options to get what you want without high levels of prolonged pain.

Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

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In October, we make our best conscious efforts to become monsters and inspire fear and dread in our fellow humans. But now we head toward Thanksgiving, that special time of year when we do all of that naturally and effortlessly. So I thought before some of us sit down with our families and carve a turkey (and the others sit down with the turkey and carve into our families), we should take a look at something fun and lighthearted, like Armageddon. No, not the awful Michael Bay movie that mistakenly compares the ancient and hallowed battlefields at Tel Megiddo in Israel with “Bruce Willis vs Space Rock.” Let’s focus instead on Good Omens, the collaborative effort of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett about the end of the world and the major players to try to avert it.

My first impression of this novel involves not just a few flashbacks to high school trigonometry, as it required epic levels of concentration to follow its many tangents, although to be fair, I felt much more positive about the outcome of Good Omens than high school math. Roughly speaking, the plot begins as a parody of the Gregory Peck film, The Omen, which everyone agrees is a classical masterpiece and forgets is terribly boring and slow-paced. Satan arranges to switch his own son, the antichrist with the child of an important American diplomat in England, so that he may initiate the Final Battle from within the world of politics. However, the Satanic nun in charge of the ol’ switcheroo, in a display of concentration and competence worthy of the McDonald’s cashier who never remembers to take the onions off my order, they accidentally give the harbinger of the world’s destruction over to an accountant with the social charisma of a potted fern. The resulting story focuses on the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who appropriately enough as aspects of God, you never see and who barely do anything to affect the plot and resolve the issues that threaten the world.

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What follows amounts to nothing more than a collection of skits and comedic dialogues, tiny shreds of stories thrown together in the same book. We’re told they’re important and we assume there’s some connection between them all, even though it’s not at all apparent. Ultimately, we have no choice but to trust that it’ll all come together in the end. So yeah…in short, it’s written exactly like the Bible. I read the book because I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work. I see his influence in certain sections, especially the American-Gods-ish portions of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse being called to action. War, re-imagined for modern times, succeeds as a war correspondent by somehow getting to all the good international disputes just before they break out, and Famine has created an empire capitalizing on the weight loss craze by selling unhealthy diet food that kills via malnourishment. I would have enjoyed more of that. And since I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett book before, I’ll just assume all the parts in Good Omens that came off as shallow and inane were written by him.

I’ll describe these tangential stories pretty much the same way I describe congressmen; if you look at them individually, you’re bound to find something amusing, awkward, or just plain funny, but if you try to put them all together and see if they make any progress, you’ll just find yourself confused and frustrated. The book has enough characters to film citizens fleeing from your average Godzilla attack, and as such, their assumed imminent deaths appear to be the only thing they have in common for most of the story. Near the end, there are about two pages (in Gaiman’s typical style) comparing Heaven and Hell to two gangs fighting over which one is the best. The story really comes together there, and by “comes together” I mean all of the characters somehow find themselves in the same place, and it just so happens that they each have some role to play in the apocalypse. Imagine if you went to a frat party and found out that everyone there, say, drove a 2006 Volkswagen Beetle.

Was it worth the read? I certainly could have done worse things with my time. I met a guy once who built working replicas of famous lighthouses in his front yard. I have to say, Good Omens is at least more productive than some weird hobby like that. Personally, I’d probably have read it just for the scenes with the Other Four Horsemen, Hell’s Angels that the original Horsemen picked up in a bar, who jumped at the chance to literally become Hell’s angels, as they chose—and re-chose—names for themselves. But for the most part, the two authors’ styles don’t mesh well. Gaiman is one of my favorites, but he doesn’t quite have the Monty Python aloofness that the book struggled for, and his usual dark tone kind of brought down what Pratchett wanted to accomplish. Two good things in their own right, but not so much when you mix them together. Like dunking Oreos in Tobasco.

The Princess Bride – William Goldman

PrincessCould there ever be a better tale of winning love, fighting evil, pursuing evil and buckling swashes than The Princess Bride? Yeah, probably. But the movie is still a cult favorite today, and since I don’t want people coming after me with candles and ceremonial daggers and other cultish cutlery, I have to find a tactful way of trashing the book. Much like the Elixir of Life, the Loch Ness Monster, flying cars and universal wifi, mentioning in public that a movie might be better than its book runs the risk of having people cart you off to a hospital and giving you a coat with extra-long sleeves. Nevertheless, I’ve read the entire main story, some of the forwards and special messages, and the first few pages of the “sequel chapter,” Buttercup’s Baby, and I’m so underwhelmed with the story that I stopped writing in the middle of this sentence because cleaning up a backpack that my cat peed on sounded more interesting.

The Princess Bride, as a movie, is actually pretty good. I tried to pin down the class of people I remember from high school who would have heated it up and injected the film straight into their veins if they knew how. Of course there were the love-struck girls, the girls for whom torrid love affairs were a constant source of entertainment, the students of unknown sexuality (S.O.U.S.) who liked the idea of pretending to be straight while still dressing like a pirate, the drama students who routinely laugh in the face of copyright infringement by writing illegal stage adaptations, and the hipsters who just appreciate the witty dialogue. In fact, the film is so unobjectionable, that if we could capture its essence and spritz it around Washington D.C., we’d probably put an end to American politics as we know it.

So with such universal acclaim what does the book add to the experience? Short answer: about 400 pages and eight hours. Pretty much everything that happens in the film also happens in the book. Westley works on Buttercup’s farm until he declares his undying love by getting on a ship and sailing a few thousand miles away from her. Prince Humperdinck finds her, promotes her to princess, then plots to have her abducted and murdered because he’d rather start a war with a neighboring country than bang a hot chick every night. Westley returns to chase her abductors, gets captured and killed by Humperdinck. Fezzik and Inigo decide they’re so inept that they need help from a dead man, Miracle Max brings Westley back to life, then he saves the day.

There are cuts that were made for the movie, of course, but you could shave the gristle off of a steak and I’d miss it more. Rather than just Inigo’s back story, Goldman tells us about how Fezzik never wanted to be a wrestler. He repeats ad nauseum how much Humperdinck likes to hunt as though it were a vital piece of propaganda meant to sway the mindless masses. And Fezzik and Inigo have to fight their way through a Zoo of Death to save Westley, which mostly serves as an excuse to exchange a few wisecracks and play out a gag based on Fezzik’s hobby for rhyming.

But the major difference is the author, William Goldman’s biographical information about abridging the book, originally written by S. Morgenstern, that his father read to him as a child and that he wanted to adapt for his son Jason. These sections of the book are personal, sentimental, deeply meaningful, and completely fictional. Morgenstern, a contemporary of George McFly, Beedle the Bard and Kilgore Trout, is only slightly less fictional than the country he hails from. Goldman says he has a son, but in reality only had two daughters, meaning he talks about his children exactly the opposite way as would a disapproving father after his son came out of the closet. He also throws in stories and anecdotes about Hollywood and celebrities he’s met with all the veracity of a supermarket tabloid. The only thing he’s missing is a heavily photoshopped picture of a heroine addict he claims to be Andre the Giant after his stunning plastic surgery meant to fake his own death.

As the story goes, Goldman gave the book to Jason for his birthday, only to realize that his own father had heavily edited the story when reading it. Anyone who’s picked up classic literature will know that any highly respected author includes tangents so far off the main path of the story, they’re discovering new continents. Meanwhile, 21st century readers sit in utter confusion as to why they’re being asked to dwell on the spiritual philosophies inherent in whale lard for 200 pages. Morgenstern, apparently, is no exception, and Goldman constantly interrupts the story to tell us about a large section of text he cut out, and what is being described for how many pages and for what literary, satirical reason.

Now I have a master’s degree in English, I can recognize complex symbolism and metaphor on my first reading, and I pride myself in my skill for answering student questions with intelligent, well-thought out and meaningful arguments that I totally made up on the fly. But I have no fucking idea why Goldman wants us to know so much back story behind the story itself. His quest to eliminate long, irrelevant passages might ring a little more true if he didn’t replace them with even more long, irrelevant passages. Also, being more fictional exposition than fictional narration, it isn’t nearly as entertaining or—dare I say—meaningful as Columbo reading a fairy tale to the kid from the Wonder Years.

The Big Rewind – Libby Cudmore

Big RewindI am beyond thrilled to announce that our own Glam Geek Girl has published her first novel, The Big Rewind! Now, if any of you are even remotely more astute than an average Fox News viewer, you might have already noticed that a) I know the author, b) I didn’t immediately call for her to be boiled alive in a tub of Velveeta and c) I linked to the best place to find the book, and you’ll probably be correct in assuming that the odds of me saying the book is terrible are about the same as C-3PO declaring his undying love for Han Solo in the next Star Wars movie (although considering the quality of The Force Awakens, I suppose that’s not out of the realm of possibility.) That’s what’s called “killing the tension.” As a writer, it makes as much sense to do that as to film Girls Gone Wild at an AARP convention; you might as well not go in if you already know there’s nothing you need to see. But even if you don’t decide to trust a review that I swear isn’t as biased as an autobiography of Kanye West, you should give the book a chance. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you either enjoy pithy quips and witty observations about the world, or you’re a chronic masochist hell-bent on destroying yourself with my lame humor. Either way, consider this quote from the first paragraph of The Big Rewind:

Six months ago a Swiss Colony Christmas catalog had arrived on the first chilly breath of fall, and I devoured it with the intensity of a teenage boy on his first porn site.

All I’m saying is you might like the way Ms. Cudmore writes.

Libby Cudmore

The woman herself is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma, then dipped in chocolate and wrapped in a brightly decorated tinfoil wrapper and put on display on the impulse rack at your local grocery store.

The book opens with a murder—a good move on the part of a mystery novel. The story opens with Jett Bennett, a trendy young woman doing temp work for a private investigator firm and living in a neighborhood with a serious infestation of hipsters. Jett finds a mix tape meant for her friend and neighbor, KitKat, thusly named because someone clearly broke them off a piece…of her head…with a rolling pin, leaving Jett to discover the body. (Cue the waterworks of disingenuous, mourning hipsters all queuing up to claim they loved KitKat before she was cool.) KitKat’s sister humbly requests that Jett solve the murder. It’s kind of like asking your friend who works the information desk at the hospital to look at that thing growing out of your foot; having neither money nor patience to do things properly tends to drive down the qualifications of the professional help you seek. (Or, at least, that’s what Lucy told me when I paid her for psychiatric help.) So Jett dives into the only clue she has, the mix tape, and begins to delve into the sick and twisted mind of a . . . well, not a murderer, but at least someone who would send a bunch of re-recorded songs to someone hoping they can pull out the exact same interpretation of a message probably more easily expressed with a clearly written sentence or two.

I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and I’ve read a fair amount of mystery novels…possibly including the source novel for the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”…and I enjoy the challenge of trying to solve these crimes…which usually hinge on hidden motives, information withheld from the reader, or psychologically unreal characters with contrived, cockamamie ideas that put the “Alien Invasion!” ending of Watchmen to shame. But even though Butcher writes a compelling story, he and other mystery writers will handcuff themselves to the bedposts of their genre hoping for a night of kinky passion before realizing they lost the key. Most mysteries begin with a parade of informants and potential suspects, all floating by the protagonist like little boats of fish at a sushi buffet. The Big Rewind flouts these conventions, though, as Jett’s first steps on the case involve realizing that most people give or receive mix tapes at some points in their lives, and didn’t she have a box full of tapes from old boyfriends that she, herself, was having trouble moving past?

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After a passionate night with Steely Dan, Libby experiences a moment of regret, realizing she only did this to hurt Billy Joel. And then she really enjoyed the fact that she hurt Billy Joel.

What follows is a story reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in which Jett winds up reviewing her past to figure out how best to move forward with her life. By the end of the novel, I felt like I would have been satisfied if they hadn’t even solved the murder, just for the character progress made by the protagonist. They do solve the murder, but it seems to be present not for its own sake—like so many other entitled, self-indulgent mystery bastards—but to show the extreme side of mixing songs for people. (I, too, have received mix tapes that made a rolling pin upside the head seem like the better way to spend an afternoon.) Libby Cudmore clearly understands how to make her genre work for her. Instead of those passive authors who handcuff themselves to the bed and hope for the best, Cudmore dons her best leathers, hog-ties the genre, and whips it into submission until it cries out that it’ll do whatever she wants.

…and Libby, if you’re reading this…yes, I realize how awkward that mental image was.

Okay, so obviously this all smells like a good long belch after a meal of scented candles and Glade Plug-ins, and I can tell you’ll think I’m exaggerating unless I open the window and fan it all outside before the odor forces you into a coma. If I could say anything against The Big Rewind, the early chapters of the book read like Cudmore fit all her favorite songs and pop culture references into a shotgun and pelted her readers in the face, hoping to hit a soft spot. (Which she did, when she mentioned playing through Zelda II: The Adventure of Link) About 90% of the musical buckshot, though, went right past me. However, there’s a rather poignant message near the end of the book that actually requires the reader to feel that way, which makes it all the more meaningful in the long run, after you’ve picked all the references out of the craters on your face. So it makes sense as an artistic choice.

I realize I’ve been discussing this in pretty vague terms, even compared to my usual style, but it’s a freaking mystery! No spoilers! And it’s worth reading. If you do decide to pick up The Big Rewind, please consider buying it new. I know you can get it for a penny on amazon, but here’s a secret: the seller gets the $3.99 shipping charge, but because amazon charges a minimum of $1.60 in sellers fees, plus the starting rate of $2.61 for media mail, that means the big name used book stores who can afford to sell books that cheap are literally paying $0.21 per book to put other book stores out of business! And that’s the one serious thing (other than, “I liked the book”) that I’ve said today. No joke. If you buy it used, you’re supporting used book stores. If you buy it for a penny, you’re actually giving the finger to used book stores. But if you buy it new, you’d be supporting a talented, up-and-coming author who genuinely loves her career as a writer.

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?

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.