Archive for November, 2011

Brandon Sanderson Continues Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” Credibly (2-for-1 Review Special)

Robert Jordan’s mammoth Wheel of Time (TM) series already had eleven completed books at the time of Jordan’s passing in 2007.  These eleven books were huge, multi-layered affairs that dealt with just about everything in Jordan’s world, including the White Tower (staffed by women called “Aes Sedai” who wield the One Power, also called “channeling”), the Black Tower (staffed by men who channel; now called “Ashaman” and are respected, but were once viewed as insane if they even tried to wield the One Power), the Seanchan (who believe anyone who channels “must be leashed,” meaning that men and women who can use the One Power are treated as slaves), the Aiel (somewhat monastic desert dwellers who hold to a rigid honor code), and much, much more.  (See the WoT Wikipedia page for more plot summary as to what the whole “Wheel of Time” epic is supposed to be about; see the Dragonmount online community for more specific insights.)

At any rate, the current story, which started eleven books ago, stars three men and five women — the first of the three men is Rand al’Thor, who can channel and is incredibly powerful;  he’s called “the Dragon Reborn (TM)” and many prophecies speak of him, for good or ill.  The second man is Perrin Aybara — he’s a shapechanger.  The third man is Matrim (Mat) Cauthon — he’s an incredibly lucky gambler.  All three men were raised in one little hamlet, Emond’s Field.

Now, the five women are more problematic.  There are two women who also come from Emond’s Field, the first being Nynaeve al’Meara.  She was the town Wisdom, equivalent to a cross between a healer/wise woman and the town’s first speaker, and has an enormous amount of charisma.  She also can channel the One Power, but doesn’t know it at first.  The second woman is Egwene al’Vere, and she, too, is a channeler and eventually rises to become the youngest Amyrlin Seat (head of the White Tower, or head of all the acknowledged channelers of magic in the world) due to her political acumen.

So, as you see, five people came from this one place.  Very unusual, that. 

But it gets even more interesting with the other three women, who are all meant to be Rand’s soulmates (yes, I said “mates,” as in plural).  The first is a young woman named Min Farshaw; she is a psychic and a clairvoyant.  Her visions almost always come true, but they aren’t always comprehensible.  The second is Elayne Trakand, who is both an Aes Sedai (and wields the One Power) and is the Queen of Andor.  The third is Aviendha, a woman of the Aiel who can channel and is called a “Wise One” in their parlance, the equivalent of an Aes Sedai.

Now, with all of these characters, you’d think that Jordan could’ve figured out how to end the WoT epic by the eleventh book.  However, subplots kept getting bigger and bigger, and the 10th and 11th books from my perspective (these being CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT and KNIFE OF DREAMS) didn’t really go anywhere; the first of these two books only spanned one single day.  And while KNIFE OF DREAMS did move around a little bit, it mostly was tying up all the loose ends from previous books, so the main plot was still sitting at the same point it had after book nine, WINTER’S HEART.

So, you have all that?  (Sorry to have to lead with all that prologue, but with a series as huge as this one, there was no other choice.)  Good.

The first of tonight’s two reviews is for THE GATHERING STORM, which was in progress at the time of Jordan’s passing and was completed by author Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson’s prologue clearly states that he knows his writing style isn’t like Jordan’s and he hopes the reader will understand why.  To his credit, Sanderson sticks with the main characters — something I wish Jordan had done more often — and we get to see what’s going on with Rand and Egwene.

First, Rand is trying to unite all the disparate factions he possibly can because he knows Tarmon Gai’don (roughly translated — Armageddon) is coming and the Dark faction, known as the Forsaken, is trying to throw as many monkey wrenches in his path as possible.  But because Rand isn’t necessarily sane all the time, his actions get harder and harder to predict.  He only has one of his three lovers by his side for most of this novel — that being Min — and she’s terrified for him at all times, because she sees his mind slipping away; she doesn’t need her visions to show her anything, though her visions undoubtedly do not help.

But Rand’s real battle is within him due to his unsanity and all of the pressure on him to unite the world behind his banner.  Because Rand isn’t always sane, he’s not always likable, either, and that makes for a tough go if you’re new to this series.  (I don’t know why you’d want to start this series at book twelve, but if for some reason you do, you’re not likely to understand why anyone would follow Rand due to his unsavory behavior and extremely unstable mental aspects.)

Then, there’s Egwene’s struggle.  She’s trying to become the undisputed Amyrlin Seat as the White Tower split into two factions earlier on; one faction followed Elaida a’Roihan and the other one followed Egwene.  But Egwene, despite her power, is young and somewhat untested.  When Elaida’s faction captured Egwene (before this book starts), they vowed to humble her and insisted she start at the novice level, which was patently absurd.  Egwene, though, has a few tricks up her sleeve; one of them is an almost Eastern way of looking at things that seems like contemporary Taoism or Buddhism; she seems to submit, but in submitting, she gains her own way.  And the more she submits, the more she gains her own way.

While there is a resolution at the end of THE GATHERING STORM, it mostly is a respite; there are still problems going on and obviously Rand and Egwene, along with all their allies, have to remain strong or the world will fall before they ever reach Tarmon Gai’don.

As for the way Sanderson completed this book, I give him great credit.  No, his writing style is not like Jordan’s; Jordan was far more descriptive and far wordier, though at his best Jordan told a rip-roaring tale that obviously kept people coming back for more to the tune of eleven books that were all at least 500 pages in length.  But Sanderson kept the plot on track; more to the point, he understood what readers had been frustrated about for years — that the main plotlines hadn’t really advanced and that while all the interesting by-play and subplots were good to read, they left readers (like me) monumentally unfulfilled.

I enjoyed THE GATHERING STORM even though I’d have liked to see a little more balance in how Rand was portrayed.  (Though in a way, if Sanderson had done that, it would’ve cheated the reader.  There was a fine balance here and I think Sanderson toed the line well.)  Because here, Rand is all but insane and he’s tough to root for even though he’s still the last, best hope for the forces of Light against the forces of evil.

Now, onto the thirteenth and latest book to be published, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHTMost of this book was extant only in note form, and whatever Jordan told his wife, editor Harriet MacDougal, before he died.  (Note that this book, and the previous book, are two-thirds of what Jordan had hoped would be one conclusive book called MEMORY OF LIGHT, which is now the name of the fourteeth and presumably final story in the WoT epic that will be coming out sometime in 2012 if all goes well.)

Many different threads are woven together by Sanderson here, and all worked well.  We get to see what happens with Perrin and his shapechanger allies (particularly one he bonded with, Hopper), as he does his best to aid the White Tower.  (That the White Tower doesn’t seem to understand Perrin’s abilities is a curiosity, but I suppose they’ve been too busy over their succession woes with regards to the Amyrlin Seat to pay any attention to anything else.)  We also see Mat Cauthon as he attempts to rescue Moiraine Damodred, who’d been missing from the WoT books since THE FIRES OF HEAVEN (the fifth book in the WoT series), Nynaeve al’Meara’s quest to become a full Aes Sedai (she’d already “been raised” by Egwene when the White Tower was split, but Egwene believed Nynaeve needed to show everyone what she could do; the testing of Nynaeve is extremely harsh and difficult to read as it borders on torture), the Black Tower machinations are discussed (the head of the Tower, a man named Mazrim Taim, seems to be abusing his authority but is doing so in ways no one can deliberately call out), and Rand al’Thor continues to gather allies.

With all that going on, any author would be in danger of losing the plot threads, much less someone like Sanderson who’s been brought in due to Jordan’s death and the large amount of work that remains to be completed.  (The final book is estimated at 300,000 words; the twelfth book had approximately 300,000 also, and the thirteenth had 325,000.)  But Sanderson does well; he holds all of these different threads and understands what’s going on so well that the action is nearly non-stop from beginning to end.

All that being said, my favorite part of TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT had nothing to do with any of those I’ve mentioned; instead, it dealt with Aviendha, and her vision quest** while attempting to become a full-fledged Wise One (which isn’t all about the power, it turns out; there’s a large amount of responsibility, too, which goes along with the whole idea of the Aiel and how rigid they can be due to their desert upbringing and outlook).  She sees her descendants, and sees what happens to the Aiel after Rand is successful in his quest to beat back the darkness in his time; bluntly, the Aiel become scavengers.  And Aviendha feels responsible.

Now, why does she feel responsible?  It’s because Aviendha sees one of her own children causing a huge problem right off the bat that leads to everything else — the debasement of her culture, and then the remnants of the Aiel being hunted to the point of extinction.  She doesn’t know if she can stop this or not, but she vows to do whatever she can to end it.

All of that points out the humanity that Jordan evoked at his best; it’s far from throwaway, even though it may seem unimportant on its face.  But it also points out that the fourteenth book may not be the final one after all — it’s really hard to believe that everything having to do with Aviendha’s descendants is going to be covered during MEMORY OF LIGHT — and that’s why it’s both moving and frustrating, a microcosm of the WoT epic, to be sure.

Final grades:

THE GATHERING STORM — B.  Solid effort; enjoyable, but didn’t move particularly quickly.  And sometimes Egwene’s behavior left me baffled.

TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT — B-plus.  Excellent action-adventure.  Good plot.  Very nice job by Sanderson.

My recommendation?  Well, if you haven’t read the previous eleven novels, please go out and do so before you even try to pick up either one of these books or you will be hopelessly lost.  Any library worth its salt is going to have these books, so I’d advise you to pick up THE EYE OF THE WORLD (the very first book) at the library and then see if you like the writing and the style before you buy any of them.  But you really can’t go wrong with any of the first five books; it’s after that, unfortunately, that the plot slowed way down and the description and the subplots got in the way.

— reviewed by Barb


** For those of you who’ve read the Wheel of Time books, I know this isn’t accurate.  But it’s the closest I can come without another four hundred words of description.  BC

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Mercedes Lackey’s “Beauty and the Werewolf” — Believable Characters Make for Realistic Romance

Mercedes Lackey’s newest entry in her long-running “Tales of the 500 Kingdoms” series is BEAUTY AND THE WEREWOLF.  The 500 Kingdoms series is all about “the Tradition,” always capitalized, and how the stories that constitute the Tradition can either help or hinder any given person.

In this case, the heroine is Isabella (called “Bella”) Beauchamps; she has two step-sisters and a step-mama, and while her father loves her very much, he seems to take a rather hands-off approach to parenting.  This might be because Bella is of legal age — she’s a young adult, maybe nineteen or twenty, and she’s used to running her father’s household as she feels her step-mama can’t be bothered to do anything.

Now, what the Tradition would normally do with someone in Bella’s situation isn’t pretty, which might be why the first time Bella is exposed to any magic, she’s bitten by a werewolf.  However, this turns out to be a blessing in disguise because the werewolf is none other than Duke Sebastian, a young, eligible man who’s also a wizard.  Because Sebastian, while in wolf form, bit Bella, she’s confined along with him at his rather reclusive estate.  And as Sebastian is a magician and a scholar — and isn’t the type to take advantage of the situation, either — this actually works out well.

However, there’s a rogue agent in this romantic fantasy, and that’s Eric, Sebastian’s Gamekeeper.  Eric is one of the old Duke’s by-blows, and while he’s not quite an acknowledged bastard (as if he were, he’d have probably been given some land or a house or something else of his own), everyone knows who Eric’s father was because Eric looks quite a bit like the old Duke.

Yet Bella doesn’t have any idea what Eric’s about; she just knows she doesn’t care for Eric, and researches ways within the Tradition to keep him away from her.  (Eric has an eye for the ladies, isn’t chaste, and is the “love ’em and leave ’em” type, though he doesn’t seem to be overly abusive or violent — just not very discerning.)  And because she, too, has a gift for magic, she’s able to assist Sebastian with his researches — and all that proximity pays big dividends, in the end.

As with any of the other Tales of the 500 Kingdoms (some others include THE FAIRY GODMOTHER, ONE GOOD KNIGHT, and FORTUNE’S FOOL), the romance here is never in doubt.  But watching it develop is part of the fun, as it’s particularly well-drawn here; the romance emerges out of the characterization, a nifty touch that I appreciated.

The only question I had about three-quarters of the way through the book was, “When will Eric’s perfidy finally be exposed?  And why is he so nasty, anyway?”  And while I’m not going to reveal these answers (it just wouldn’t be fair), I will say that I enjoyed the answers when all was finally revealed.

This is a good story with believable, well-drawn characters, and contains a realistic romance.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and believe that if you’re in the mood for a light romance — one that enjoys gently tweaking and twisting traditional fairy tales into something a bit more modern — you’ll enjoy it, too.

Grade: A-.

— reviewed by Barb

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“The Spiritual Brain” — An Engaging, Intelligent and Honest Look at Neuroscience, Materialism, and the Soul

Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s collaborative THE SPIRITUAL BRAIN: A NEUROSCIENTIST’S CASE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF THE SOUL is engaging, intelligent, and honest.  Beauregard is the neuroscientist half of the pair, while O’Leary is a journalist who specializes in the sub-field of Intelligent Design (the thought that the universe is far too rationally-built to have evolved out of random chaos, so there must be a Creator at the heart of it all that we may deduce from the Creator’s works).  Both of them decry what they call “materialist neuroscience,” which as exemplified by Steven Pinker and others, basically says that the differences most people would note between the mind, brain and soul don’t really exist.

Pinker isn’t alone; there are many neuroscientists out there who believe that everything that happens in the human mind can be easily explained by various chemical processes in the brain.  Yet there are so very many things that cannot be explained at all unless there is a Creator at the heart of it, so says Beauregard and O’Leary — and they’re backed up by several past scientists and other allied books like THE TAO OF PHYSICS, which shows that physics has more in common with what Beauregard and O’Leary call RSMEs — Religious, Spiritual, and/or Mystical Experiences — than not.

What Beauregard and O’Leary are most disgusted with can be most easily explained as this: science, itself, has become a religion to many scientists and other observers.  Yet the scientists who profess this religion mostly are blind to it (in the same way the robber barons of the 1890s were blind to their real God being Mammon), and thus they are deaf to anything that doesn’t back up their own point of view — with very few exceptions.

Yet neuroscience — a short answer for the layman being the science of the brain and how it works — doesn’t work well if the only thing it’s about is the neurons themselves and what they’re doing, divorced of the meaning behind whatever allowed human brains to develop in such a way that these particular neurons would work while that other collection of neurons over there might be dysfunctional (or in need of some sort of medication).  There has to be a meaning behind it all, and nonmaterialist neuroscientists like Beauregard believe they’ve found at least a part of it because to a certain degree, RSMEs can now be measured.

That’s right.  The ecstatic religious experiences some nuns, monks, and others have had can indeed be measured — albeit after the fact.  And what those measurements show is that so much of the brain is affected by a RSME that it’s impossible to say there’s an obvious dysfunction there (what the materialist neuroscientists would probably claim), or a delusion (ditto), or anything save a profound, life-changing experience that’s similar to any profound, life-changing experience any person has ever had.  And that any individual person processes his or her RSME differently — that RSMEs are not something that can be “conjured up” by what was once called a “God chip” or anything else, and that they come on their own schedule (or not at all) just goes to show the commonality of a RSME with other human experiences, that also come at their own pace — or not at all.

Beauregard and O’Leary admit where there’s room for doubt and error, which I find refreshing.  (Most scientific books for the laymen do not do this.)  They pointed out something called the “nocebo” effect — that is, something that actually seems to harm people — with regards to an experiment where various people in the hospital with long-term illnesses were told they’d be prayed for.  (Some were told this, while others were just prayed for blindly and were never told.) 

From pages 240 and 241:

Does a patient’s knowledge that he or she is receiving prayer affect the surgical outcome?  (Benson and his colleagues) . . . divided 1,802 heart patients awaiting coronary-artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery at six American medical centers into three groups, as follows:

Group 1 patients were told that they might or might not receive intercessory prayer, but in fact did.

Group 2 patients were told that they might or might not receive intercessory prayer, but in fact did not.

Group 3 patients were told that they would receive intercessory prayer, and in fact did.

The groups chosen by the researchers to do the intercessory prayer were serious about their task.  Two were Roman Catholic religious congregations and one was a Protestant prayer community.  The groups prayed . . . for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”  However, the members of these groups never met anyone that they prayed for.  They were told only the first name and the first initial of the last name.

The results?  After thirty days, all three groups experienced similar mortality . . . by far the highest percentage of postsurgery complications (59 percent as opposed to 51 percent and 52 percent) was recorded among the patients who knew they were being prayed for by the researcher’s prayer group.

As the authors say, intercessory prayer shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed, because the key finding of this particular study was a statistically significant negative effect (otherwise known as a “nocebo effect,” the opposite of a placebo effect) among the patients who knew they were being prayed for.  But as the American Heart Journal said in summarizing this study, “In the history of medicine there has never been a healing remedy that was actually effective without having potential side effects of toxicities.”  Which once again points out that this was a scientific study that attempted to show the value, or in this case the lack thereof, of the power of prayer. 

What you’re probably wondering after all this is, “Does the soul exist?”  The various studies that Beauregard and O’Leary cite, and the various RSMEs that were tracked in a small study of professed Carmelite nuns, strongly suggests that yes, the soul does seem to exist.  And that the mind is different than the brain . . . or at very least, that there’s far more yet to learn about how the brain, mind and soul interconnect as it appears the basis of nonmaterialist neuroscience is doing just that — studying the interconnections as they appear and weighing and measuring them in the same way any other scientist would do.

The main criticism that was leveled at this book was over the whole question of “Intelligent Design,” which at most takes up one chapter of this entire book, than over anything else it discusses, including RSMEs and how they are weighed and measured.  I find such critiques to be spurious, or at best, amounting to “strawmen” arguments.  Because what’s present here in THE SPIRITUAL BRAIN is an honest accounting of what scientist Beauregard and journalist O’Leary have been able to sum up in favor of their position, and what opposes it — and it was written in a lively, engaging and intelligent manner.

In other words, if you’re looking for a good book that may challenge more than a few of your ingrained assumptions, this book is for you.  And if you’re convinced that science (and the scientists who follow it) must all be comprised of promissory materialists . . . well, you’re probably the person most in need of this particular book, where doubt is key and the only things proven are written in black and white.

Grade: A-plus

— reviewed by Barb

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Olivia Drake’s “Scandal of the Year” isn’t Scandalous Enough

Olivia Drake’s new Regency romance, SCANDAL OF THE YEAR, is the third in the “Heiress in London” series and stars Blythe Crompton.  Blythe is an heiress to a major fortune and is described as beautiful (aren’t all Regency heiresses?), spirited, and dutiful.  Blythe is the youngest of three daughters, and has been brought up to believe that marrying a Duke should be her strongest and worthiest ambition.

However, all isn’t as it seems.  Her parents are imposters, and a man named James Ryding is determined to unmask them.  Ryding has been reared as a gentleman, but takes a position as one of the Crompton’s footmen in London in order to find the evidence he needs to unmask Blythe’s parents as the imposters they are so he can inherit everything as he’s the last legitimate heir to the Crompton fortune (so far as he knows).

So the elements of the plot were clear from the beginning.  There’s a “mistaken identity” thing going on.  There are many farcical elements, especially when Blythe asks James to pretend to be a foreign prince in order to divert the Duke of Savoy’s daughter, Davina (who hates Blythe due to her family’s lack of nobility), so Blythe can have a shot at marrying the Duke.  And there are the balls, the musicales, the various flotsam and jetsam expected out of a Regency romance . . . all of that is there and described in vivid detail.

But what’s missing here is some life to the plot.  Blythe was not really drawn well.  She’s shrewd, and wants to be better educated than she is, and she knows deep down in her heart that there must be more to life than marrying a Duke (especially one who’s much older than her like the Duke of Savoy, and deeply in debt due to gambling).  She wears fancy clothes, she’s used to the life of luxury, and it’s hard to empathize with her because while the heart of her life is a lie (her parents really are imposters, which we know from the start so that’s not a spoiler), the fact is, she’s a spoiled English heiress.

James Ryding, on the other hand, is drawn a little better.  His motivations are more about finding out what happened to his cousins, the real George and Edith Crompton, than finding out what happened to his fortune.  His father was a wastrel, and James knows what’s truly important: love, which can’t be bought.  A marriage that’s sound and built on a good foundation.  And taking care of people — doing the little things that count, like making sure Blythe’s toast isn’t cold when it’s delivered to her — is a major part of his make-up.  So of course I believed what he was doing was the right thing even though he did deceive Blythe from the get-go and his plan amounted to a great deal of manipulation and strife.

Still, what James did was for the right reasons, and I could forgive that.  The only question was, would Blythe forgive him, and if she did, what sort of life would they live?  (If you’re expecting an unhappy ending out of a Regency, please don’t.  But I will say Blythe did grow a little bit toward the end of the novel and I was happy to see it.)

SCANDAL OF THE YEAR, put simply, just wasn’t scandalous enough.  This is a love match that doesn’t necessarily look like one, rather than a truly shocking event like what happens during Sherry Thomas’s excellent novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS (set in the 1890s).  (The SBR review for this is available here.)  I expected more out of this plot than I got, and while it was a light, fluffy, breezy read — all good — it didn’t deliver on its initial promise.

Still, if you’re looking for something that’s easy to read and contains a great deal of vividly described imagery about balls, musicales, etc., you could do worse than SCANDAL OF THE YEAR.  But you should check your library first to see if they have a copy rather than going out and buying this . . . otherwise, you’d be better off reading one of Rosemary Edghill’s Regencies if you can find them (check your local library as they’re all out of print — her best was TWO OF A KIND, though TURKISH DELIGHT and THE ILL-BRED BRIDE were also excellent), or Georgette Heyer’s (your library will have these), or a number of other authors.  Because while SCANDAL OF THE YEAR isn’t a bad novel, it also isn’t great.  Ms. Drake can and should do better than this.

Grade: C

— reviewed by Barb

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Kelley Armstrong’s “Spell Bound” — A Quick, Fun Read

Spell BoundKelley Armstrong’s SPELL BOUND is part of her “Women of the Otherworld” urban fantasy series, and stars Savannah Levine.  Savannah is a witch who has demon blood, so she’s grown used to having enormous power; in the previous WAKING THE WITCH, Savannah had offered to give up her power if it would help an innocent young girl be able to live with her grandmother as she ought, because Savannah felt guilty over the part she played in putting the innocent girl’s grandmother behind bars.  Well, something, or someone, heard Savannah, and took her up on this bargain within two chapters.  This is why the vast majority of SPELL BOUND deals with how well — or badly — Savannah deals with people while her powers are gone.

Of course, it gets around the Otherworld rather fast that Savannah’s powers are gone — suspiciously fast.  Savannah has to deal with witch finders and others early on while learning how to work well with others in order to defeat these awful people.  While Savannah has powerful friends, including a vampire, a half-demon or two, a necromancer, and a clairvoyant, Savannah isn’t used to “playing well” with others, as she’s always had more than enough power to take care of herself.  This is a weakness she must overcome in order to stay alive.

Savannah is a tough, strong, smart woman, but somehow, without her powers, she feels inadequate.  That some of the people around her keep telling her to “snap out of it” — these people being a werewolf (Clay), and a half-demon (Adam, her best friend and potential love interest) — doesn’t really help overmuch.  Savannah is only twenty-one, and she’s never faced anything remotely like this before.  This means Savannah’s story is roughly equivalent to the “hero’s journey” being taken into the unknown.  That Savannah is lost without her power (something she’s leaned on her entire life, and allowed to prop up much of her self-esteem and self-worth) just makes the “hero’s journey” all the more fascinating, especially when Savannah’s internal struggle is juxtaposed with the external struggles Savannah’s having in running from the witch finders, etc.

Savannah, while fun, sassy, and interesting, is a heroine with definite flaws; that she can’t easily share the burdens she’s now under is only one of them.  And the various adventures she gets into, and out of, are worth reading about even though half the time I wanted to slap Savannah into the next hemisphere.

There are many questions left at the end of SPELL BOUND, but a few of the dangling plotlines are tied up.  Plus, in this twelfth novel of the “Otherworld” series, many of Ms. Armstrong’s favorite characters from previous novels and stories are present (including Jeremy the werewolf Alpha, Clay’s wife and fellow werewolf, Elena, and many others) and the table is set for a final, tumultuous battle of some sort to start in book thirteen.  All good.

SPELL BOUND is a quick, fun read that delivers a big punch due to the skillful way Ms. Armstrong deals with Savannah’s internal struggles while on the run from various and sundry bad guys.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and believe if you give it a chance, you will, too.

Grade: B-plus

— reviewed by Barb

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Todd J. McCaffrey Writes Pern Competently, but That’s All

Tonight’s review is for three books written in the “Pern” universe created by Anne McCaffrey; her son, Todd J. McCaffrey (born Todd Johnson), has continued to write in this mythos and in at least one case, Anne McCaffrey’s name is still listed as a collaborator on the following books: Dragonheart, Dragongirl, and Dragon’s Time

This series is often called “The Dragonriders of Pern” as every novel features dragons in it one way or another; these novels split the difference between science fiction and fantasy as there’s a solid scientific basis for the dragons based on genetic engineering that’s enlarged the Pernese fire lizard — a being that flies, eats the deadly Thread (a mycorrhizoid spore that’s inimical to life that falls every few hundred years or so from the “Red Star,” actually a rogue planet in Pern’s star system), and can be Impressed (that is, bonded to a human being).  Fire lizards, like their much-larger dragon cousins, can feel emotions and can and do think — but they have very short memories for most things.   Dragons can actually flame the thread out of the sky, the queen dragons with flamethrowers, the rest of them by chewing firestone.

At the start of these novels, it’s now year 508 AF (after the founding of the colony), and Thread is about to start falling from the sky.

Now that I’ve set the world, let’s get to it.

Dragonheart, the twenty-second novel in the Pernese mythos, is about Fiona, the sole remaining daughter of Lord Holder Bemin of Fort Hold.  She’s Bemin’s only heir as a deadly plague killed off all her brothers and sisters.  However, she quickly Impresses queen dragonet Talenth (Lord Holder Bemin is just going to have to make do with someone else); the rest of the story has to do with a terrible illness, unrelated to the plague, that has struck both the fire lizards and the dragons.  Fiona and her growing queen have to come of age amidst immense turmoil and strife; how will she deal with it?  (Obviously I’m not about to give this away.)

This book was weakened, severely, by one thing: the fire lizards were sent away too early in the novel — within the first thirty-five pages, in fact, as it was feared that the dragons would get the illness from them as they are such close genetic “cousins.”  As this is rather large, 500-plus pages book, it seems very odd to send the fire lizards away so quickly.

Worse yet, sending the fire lizards away is framed as a major sacrifice.  While this is true — it’s like sending your pet away, except this pet can think a little bit and let you know what’s going on (unlike a cat or dog); dragons are more intelligent than fire lizards — for any reader, even one that’s familiar to the series, to get used to the fire lizards, then say goodbye to them in the first thirty-five pages was nonsensical, especially as it turned out that the dragons were already infected and the “sacrifice” wasn’t needed.  Worse yet, no one went to get the fire lizards, as they clearly could’ve done one way or another; this did not follow from the narrative at all.

To be blunt: by the time we get to Lessa and F’lar (from the first trilogy, Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon), few people know anything at all about the fire lizards, much less that they can be Impressed by humans.  So all of this smacked of expediency — as in, the authors know that humans lost their knowledge of fire lizards at some point, so why not get rid of them here and save steps? — rather than doing something that would’ve been essential to the plot.

The pluses here?  I liked Fiona.  I liked Talenth.  I liked the people in the Weyrs.  I enjoyed all the dragons, and I understood the problems with the illness that hit the dragons.  And the solution Fiona came up with to help with the dragon illness (which I won’t spoil, except to say it’s not a cure) follows from other books in this mythos; I can’t fault it.

But this was more “paint by numbers” Pern than anything original, I fear.

Grade: C-

Next up is Dragongirl, which is more about Fiona and her gold dragon Talenth.  There’s been a major disaster; Telgar Weyr’s entire complement of dragons has been lost Between (which is a place that has no time and no space and no breath, but dragons and their riders must pass through it to get wherever they go).  Now, Telgar Weyr is unoccupied; Fiona’s queen is the most senior that is not already a senior Weyrwoman (that is, head of the Weyr), so she ends up going to Telgar Weyr to lead it.  The book ends on a major cliffhanger (which again, I won’t spoil), which both helps and hurts the book.

Now, this book also had its problems.  Fiona is a likable character, and I enjoyed seeing how she interacted with various others, including Lorana, a dragonrider who’s lost her queen to the very bad dragon illness.  That illness is still ongoing; Harper Kindan, Lorana, Fiona, and a few others are trying to “race against time” for a cure.

Yet you’d think that there’s no need for them to race anything, as dragons can go Between time as well as space.  So I really didn’t understand this; the whole, “We can’t break time . . . but we can cheat it” tagline, repeated as often as author McCaffrey felt he could get away with it, didn’t help.

Also, there’s a bit too much detail here about the four-fold relationship Weyrleader T’mar, Weyrwoman Fiona, ex-queenrider Lorana and Harper Kindan have — it’s a polygamous relationship, and for the most part I didn’t need to know all the detailing that McCaffrey goes into.

Still, there’s nothing to really fault here; it’s well-written, but it didn’t come to life for me — that’s really my main problem with it.

Grade: C

Finally, there’s Dragon’s Time, where Anne McCaffrey is listed as senior writer, Todd J. McCaffrey as the junior.  This one reads better, but it’s also shorter at just over 300 pages; oddly enough, it features a note to readers from Anne McCaffrey that says she does read and comment on all of Todd’s efforts.

Here, the dragon illness has finally been solved for good and all, but there are still problems because all of the Weyrs are badly undermanned.  Will Lorana, Fiona, and the others be able to fix the newest batch of woe?  Or won’t they?

I enjoyed this last book the most of them, but it still felt incomplete.  As there is another novel forthcoming, Dragonrider, in 2012, perhaps that’s why this one feels like it absolutely could not stand alone.

Grade: B-

My advice is to buy all three of these books in paperback, or better yet, get them from the library.  Because while none are what I’d call horrible, they’re really not outstanding, either.  They’re merely competent.  And while that’s better than nothing, I’d rather read something with a bit of life and light to it than this.

— reviewed by Barb

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Julia Quinn’s “Just Like Heaven” — Solid, Funny, and Smart

Julia Quinn’s newest romance novel JUST LIKE HEAVEN  is a historical romance set in 1824 England — in other words, just after the Regency era ended.   Most of the conventions of traditional Regency romances are followed here even though this technically isn’t a Regency; that means we’re dealing with the aristocracy (the Ton), balls, country estates, and some elements of farce.  But that alone won’t sell a book, so it’s a good thing that JUST LIKE HEAVEN also contains a plausible love story, an unusual plot, and excellent characterization.

Honoria Smythe-Smith is twenty-one and is still looking for a husband.  Her brother, Daniel, had to flee to Italy after a duel gone awry; Daniel’s best friend, Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris, has stepped in as a “surrogate brother” to Honoria and her mother.  Of course these two are going to have a romance; what was unusual here is the nature of the Smythe-Smith amateur musicales.  As the aristocrats of the day used to watch women (sometimes men, too) play music in their homes, having an annual musicale isn’t special; it’s that having one where the musicians are all terrible (and admittedly so) is definitely “out of the common way,” in period jargon.  And it’s the way Marcus comes to view Honoria due to her service as a violinist (a really bad one) in the musicales that makes this book unique.

In a previous Julia Quinn Novel, IT’S IN HIS KISS, the Smythe-Smith clan was introduced, with the lot of them being described as anywhere from awful to abysmal musicians.  But as it’s a family tradition, all the young ladies in the family learn an instrument, preferably a stringed instrument or the piano.  Honoria plays the violin — badly, and she knows it — while her cousin Daisy also plays the violin, but even worse than Honoria.  Cousin Iris plays the cello and is actually quite good, but no one can tell because of how awful the two violinists are, while Cousin Sarah (Honoria’s closest friend) plays the piano competently but no one can tell because once again, the violinists are so dreadful that any music they play sounds like noise that would scare dogs and cats.

In the earlier novel, IT’S IN HIS KISS, it was presumed that the Smythe-Smiths all had tin ears, and that every single last one of them in the current generation was terrible.  But in JUST LIKE HEAVEN, that’s not proven to be the case; Honoria knows she’s bad, and she knows she has no real ability with the violin, but she doesn’t want to disrespect her family.  And she does love music, so she tries her best, puts on a brave face, and knows she’s going to be ridiculed.  (This, by the way, is the obvious farcical element, but it’s handled very well by Ms. Quinn, and there’s some genuine depth here along with the humor.)

As for Marcus, Honoria’s love interest, he’s six years older than Honoria.  He’s known her since she was six years old, and as he was an only child, he was more or less adopted by the whole Smythe-Smith clan.  They’ve always been great friends, and they enjoy each other’s company without artifice or pretense — meaning there’s a good amount of sarcastic banter here, but no real double entendres.  But now that Honoria’s grown up, Marcus realizes that she’s the most interesting woman he’s ever been around; when he falls ill due to misadventure, she rushes to his rescue along with her mother, who’s been dispirited for years due to brother Daniel’s disgrace, and of course the sparks between Marcus and Honoria fly thick and fast even though neither does anything about it due to Marcus’s serious illness.

Once he recovers, Honoria finds out that all along, Marcus was in contact with her brother and that makes Honoria believe that Marcus really isn’t in love with her.  (This is the weakest plot element in the book.)  She removes from Marcus’s country estate and goes back to London with her mother.  The pair have a rapproachment, Marcus comes to see Honoria’s service to her family as oddly heroic despite how awful she is as a violinist, and then the remaining farcical elements of the whole Smythe-Smith musicale ensure a happy ending for all concerned.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was funny, had an unusual amount of music involved (which I thought a clever touch), the witty banter between Marcus and Honoria was great, and the overall feeling that these two could be real people in that time frame shows that Ms. Quinn’s sense of characterization was right on the money.

The weaknesses here are minor, but they bugged me.  First, there are times in the narrative where the dialogue was anachronistic.  For example, the line “It is what it is” is all wrong for post-Regency era England.  They might have said, “It is what is,” but I’m not even sure of that; all I know is that this particular line is flat wrong for the era and it threw me out of the reader’s trance with great force.  And that’s not the only line that threw me out — that’s just the worst of them.

Second, while I liked this romance a lot, I thought there was too much attention spent on Marcus’s illness and Honoria’s nursing of him (along with her mother).   I can see where this couple needed to have an experience like that to get them to admit their feelings for one another, but why render these few days in such exhaustive detail that out of a 374 page book, over 130 pages are devoted to this illness?

And finally, I really didn’t understand why Honoria, who knows she’s an awful musician, felt she should stand up on stage beaming with apparent pride — I can see going up there and gritting her teeth, or going up there and smiling once because she’s happy she’s carrying on the family tradition.  But as a musician, I know that I would never do this if I were unprepared with the music I was about to play (as Honoria most certainly is, because she doesn’t have the skill level to be able to play it competently, or even at all).

All that said, this is a solid, funny, and smart romance that gets most of it right, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Grade: B

— reviewed by Barb


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Spellbound — Good Book To Read This Winter

Warning: this review may contain spoilers for Hard Magic, the first book of this series. Be forewarned that some of the instances talked about (which are linked) may give away much of the first book’s plot.

Spellbound. What is it? Who is it?

Magic is real and Jake Sullivan, a Gravity Spiker, is one of the best at using it.

Thus begins Spellbound: Book Two of the Grimnoir ChroniclesAs a recent member of the Grimnoir Society, Jake has received permission to explore the archives on how the magic which has created many people like him to flourish. Jake, as shown in Hard Magic, has seen the magic for what it truly is and is determined to stop the arrival of an entity known only as the Enemy. Now, using his newfound status as a knight, he is delving through archaic information on more information.

Meanwhile, there is a new threat emerging into the open. Though the Chairman may be dead, he is believed to still be alive in Japan and has been giving orders to the Iron Guard to destroy the Grimnoir. This, naturally, presents a problem, since the Chairman is also giving Jake advice about how to destroy the Enemy.

Also going on at roughly the same time, Faye, a young girl with the extraordinary Traveler magic ability, has been losing her power as of late, which is a surprise to all since she is more connected to the magic than anyone else in the world. Faye, if you recall, is the one who actually killed the Chairman (and dozens of others) during their confrontation back in Hard Magic. Nobody understands why this is and, at the moment, nobody cares, since they are hunting for the powerful being known only as the Spellbound.

The pacing is decent, though the author spends an inordinate amount of time wandering through the central United States (this does enhance the plot, but I missed it at the time because of other revelations), and the action (when it does occur) is strong. Much of the story revolves around the new government entity which is seeking to subjugate and register all Magic users (think Mutant Registration Law from X-Men) and how the Grimnoir Society is seeking to stop them from accomplishing this.

The story is better this time than in the first book, because Larry doesn’t spend much time building up the world this time around, but overall it was not as good as the first novel of the series. It’s still a great read, lots of fun to be had, but overall it lacked something. Thankfully the cover is MUCH better… it doesn’t appear as though the woman is holding a glowing dog turd in her hand, something which caused me to laugh when I saw the cover of Hard Magic.

Overall, I’d rate this as a definite “buy”. I enjoyed the story, the new plot twists and the old characters as they come back to help save the world. I definitely enjoyed the character portrayals, as well as Faye’s “kill ‘em if I have to” attitude which, for a girl who has been through what she has, is easily understandable.

Good book, good fun. Go read it.

-Reviewed by Jason

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