Posts Tagged Fantasy

Guest Reviewer Noah Hill Reviews “Schooled in Magic” by Christopher Nuttall

Folks, please forgive the rather unenticing title of this review. As I’ve been working hard at turning in my third novel, CHANGING FACES, I haven’t been able to review for a few weeks.

A few months ago, I asked Noah Hill if he’d like to do another review for SBR, and he said, “Sure!” So this is his second review, with more to come in the weeks that follow.

Now, on to the review!

Today I have the pleasure of reviewing the first book in the Schooled in Magic series by Christopher Nuttall. (Also titled Schooled in Magic. — BC)

Schooled in Magic is a familiar story, told in an interesting way. Emily, our unlikely protagonist, is transported to a magical world against her will, where she must learn magic, try to make friends, and fight against the forces of evil. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, no! Not another Harry Potter rip off!” Have faith, and keep reading; I thought the same thing at first.

Overall, I found Schooled in Magic to be quite enjoyable. The characters were fun, the evildoers were properly evil, and there were several twists and turns that left my head spinning. Mr. Nuttall was able to capture the darker side of fantasy, while keeping the story fun and lighthearted. It made me smile, it sent chills down my spine, and it made me laugh, all within the space of a few pages. This ability to rapidly shift mood is something that many authors lack.

The one flaw that I saw in Schooled in Magic was voice, or a lack thereof. There were several places in the book where I thought that voice was missing. More specifically, I felt that our protagonist wasn’t given the voice that she deserves. A part of the problem is that at times I felt as if the author were using Emily’s internal monologue as a vehicle for his own beliefs about our world. I could very well be wrong, but I think that there were times when she was thinking and acting in a way that was very strange for a young girl, without a solid explanation in her character background. Despite this, Schooled in Magic is a story that was able to grip me fairly early and pull me through those spots.

If you love a good fish-out-of-water story, a fun look into another world, and a quick read that pulls you along by your collar, then Schooled in Magic is a good, solid read that you will probably devour in one or two sittings, as I did.

Grade: B-minus

Reviewer’s note: Keep an eye out, as I’ll be reading and reviewing more of this series in the weeks to come!

–reviewed by Noah Hill; posted by Barb Caffrey

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Mercedes Lackey’s Most Recent Herald Spy Novels

Mercedes Lackey has been reviewed many times here at SBR, and for good reason. Her books are the ultimate page-turners; some are better than others, but nearly all of them hold my interest until the final page.

Tonight it’s time to review BASTION, book five in Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles, and the follow-up to that, CLOSER TO HOME, billed as the first in her new Herald Spy series. Both feature Herald-trainee Mags, his love interest Amily (partially disabled — she has a lame leg — and daughter of the King’s Own Herald, Nikolas), and Companions galore, but both stories are markedly different otherwise.

Bastion coverBASTION starts off with Mags, Amily, their best friends Healer Bear and Bard Lena (recently married), Herald Jakyr and various Companions (bonded souls in the form of white horses) trying to figure out what is their next move. Everyone knows that Mags is in trouble (see the reviews for both CHANGES and REDOUBT if you don’t believe me), they know he’s being hunted…and they also know that if Mags himself is unavailable, the hunters will take revenge on his nearest and dearest.

So the decision is made that they will all go to ground in a place that’s easily defensible, or a bastion. Provisions are bought, traveling is done, a few minor skirmishes are encountered, and then, finally, we find out who’s hunting Mags and why.

(No, I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book for that.)

Because I’ve read every book set on the world of Velgarth known to man, I’ve seen most of this before. The only new stuff here is the interplay between Mags and Amily — new lovers, just trying to find their footing with each other — and a rekindling of love between Herald Jakyr and another member of the party.

Mind, I enjoyed those things. I appreciated finding out, finally, about why Mags has been hunted. I also relished the journeys they had to get there, as there were some deft moments of humor that cut the tension nicely. And the fight scenes were clever, the mind-magic was well-done…all good.

But there was something here that didn’t quite meet my expectations, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ms. Lackey has written at least thirty novels in this particular setting — Velgarth — full of Heralds, Companions, derring-do, villainy that must be thwarted, and much more. And amid those thirty novels are some true gems, including her first-ever trilogy, ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL.

I mean, this lady started off with a bang, OK? And over time, she’s had other winners like MAGIC’S PAWN and MAGIC’S PRICE, EXILE’S HONOR, BY THE SWORD, OATHBREAKERS…these are all compelling stories with richness, freshness, compassion, energy, and all of them make you want to read them and re-read them until your eyes get tired. Then re-read them again.

BASTION is not up to that standard, I’m afraid. It’s a decent, hard-working novel with a nice protagonist, a nifty heroine, and a better-than-average antagonist (whose relation to Mags must be read to be believed, but makes sense in context). It made me laugh several times, it made me cry at least once, and I enjoyed it…but I cannot imagine re-reading it.

CLOSER TO HOME is the first book in Lackey’s new Herald Spy series, featuring Mags, now a full Herald, and Amily, who’s still involved with him. Amily has a job of her own now — she’s a scholar, and a good one — and both Mags and Amily are stationed in Haven and are taking their first steps into adulthood, albeit under the guidance of Mags’ mentor and Amily’s father Nikolas, the King’s Own Herald.

Then tragedy strikes, as Nikolas is involved in an accident. The Death Bell rings for him, but Mags remembers some of his lessons from his friend Healer Bear (not otherwise invoked during this novel), and manages to re-start Nikolas’s heart…but before he can do that, Nikolas’s Companion has Chosen Amily to become the next King’s Own Herald. (Don’t worry, though; Nikolas is re-Chosen by a new Companion, Evory.)

All of a sudden, Amily must become the King’s Own. She’s a smart young woman, and took many of the same classes Mags did — including self-defense, equitation, mathematics, and more — but the King is not pleased that Nikolas is no longer the King’s Own. And that creates many new problems, some that are resolved easily…and some that aren’t.

This was a welcome addition to the Valdemar canon, and I appreciated it very much.

However, amid Amily and Mags getting more used to their new roles (hers being very new, while he’s more or less taken up his prior role in recruiting unlikely spies and messengers, albeit with less oversight as Nikolas is recovering from his near-death experience), there’s a blood feud going on between two noble families. And one of the families has a young girl, who’s fallen in love with a slightly older boy…shades of Romeo and Juliet, except of course it can’t be that easy. (Not that Romeo and Juliet had an easy resolution, either, but…as always, I digress.)

For the most part, I enjoyed CLOSER TO HOME quite a bit. It’s a nice start to a new series, a fast, page-turning read with some interesting things going on that I didn’t expect. I didn’t necessarily like all of them (that Romeo and Juliet subplot being a case in point), but I give Ms. Lackey big “props” for doing something new and fresh with her long-running Valdemar series.

Bottom line: While both BASTION and CLOSER TO HOME kept me turning the pages, I was left ever-so-slightly dissatisfied. And while CLOSER TO HOME was by far the better of the two books, it’s still not up there on the “Keeper” shelf with Lackey’s best.

Grades:

BASTION: C-plus

CLOSER TO HOME: B-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Without a Summer” — Another Excellent Alternate Regency, with Magic

Mary Robinette Kowal’s work is no stranger to Shiny Book Review. She writes Jane Austen-inspired Regency novels with a magical kick called glamour, and writes them quite well. Her characters Jane, Lady Vincent, and David, Lord Vincent (called Vincent), are the rarest of the rare in the Regency era — they are both professional glamourists who work best together, showcasing both the perils and the benefits such an arrangement between two working spouses can bring. (Note that books one and two of her Glamourist Histories were reviewed here.)

In book three of her Glamourist Histories, WITHOUT A SUMMER, Jane and her husband, Vincent, are still dealing with the fallout from the events of GLAMOUR IN GLASS. Jane’s actions in breaking her husband out of a French prison via the use of glamour caused her to suffer a miscarriage. She and Vincent are still mourning, but they’ve thrown their pain into new and better works of glamour; that they have the attention of the Prince Regent due to Vincent’s military heroism and their own talents has made Vincent’s estranged father, Lord Verbury, try to horn back into their lives.

Not that he’s likely to do so, as Jane and Vincent distrust Verbury for very good reasons . . . but I digress.

As you might expect if you have any knowledge of history dealing with the early 19th Century, WITHOUT A SUMMER takes place during 1816 — the year Europe and much of the world did not have a summer at all. There was hardship, famine, and many difficulties in our world; in Jane and Vincent’s world, the coldmongers — who have a type of magic that can only make things colder (quite valuable in summer, useless in the winter) — are being blamed for 1816’s terrible and unprecedentedly cold weather, which adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging situation.

Now, why are the coldmongers important? (Aside from their obvious fantasy value, that is.) Well, Jane’s much prettier (but talentless) sister Melody has finally found a good man — Alastar O’Brien, heir to Lord Stratton — but there are three problems with a potential match between them: One, Mr. O’Brien is Irish. Two, Mr. O’Brien is Roman Catholic. And three, Mr. O’Brien is well-known as one of the coldmongers’ strongest partisans . . . so when intrigue relating to the coldmongers causes him and the Vincents to be called into question later on, you can see where Melody’s marital aspirations might be impeded.

The Irish, back in 1816, were not well thought of at all. Even though many Irish lords had roots that dated back to England, and had family in England, that didn’t matter. The Irish were only just becoming a part of what was starting to be known as the United Kingdom, and as such, they were not well understood and prejudice against them was high.

And a big part of that prejudice was because most Irish were Roman Catholic. The Catholic religion was also not understood or appreciated, partly going back to what caused the Anglican church to split off in the first place: Henry VIII’s wish to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon not being granted by Pope Clement VII. (We tend to think of Henry VIII as “divorcing” his wives to remarry, but he actually had annulled many of his wives in order to marry the next.) The Catholic Church did not believe in Henry VIII’s sort of behavior, and as such, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church were at great odds with each other — at least in principle.

So the fact that Jane, who’s a kind-hearted woman, says ridiculously slanted things to Melody at first about her love, Alastar O’Brien, and only later learns how biased and prejudiced these things are is true to the spirit of the times. It shows just how much intolerance there was toward the Irish, even the Irish lords. And it shows just how difficult a “mixed” marriage between a Catholic Irish lordling and an Anglican well-bred miss could be, without preachiness or undue sentimentality.

I enjoyed all of the romantic elements, the historical elements, and especially the fantasy elements of WITHOUT A SUMMER. But the standout moments here were the quietest, and had to do with the ongoing marriage between Jane and Vincent. These two love each other unreservedly, and with an understated but very real passion . . . that they both live and work together and enjoy it thoroughly is both a very modern touch, yet a very traditional one at the same time.

And it’s also very, very hard to pull off, but Ms. Kowal does so with the greatest of aplomb.

Ms. Kowal takes on some huge themes (prejudice, the problems of incorporating technology in a previously agriculturally based society, and needless and unrelenting cruelty coming from people who should love you, but just don’t for whatever reason) along with some more “minor” themes dealing with family relations, the problems a married couple faces when both of them work, and many more. But WITHOUT A SUMMER does not suffer for all of that — instead, it thrives.

Bottom line? Don’t miss WITHOUT A SUMMER, as it mixes the best of romance with the best of alternate history, and comes out a major, major winner.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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The Six-Gun Tarot — An Amazing and Insightful Debut Novel

The Six-Gun TarotVery rarely does a debut novel make a lasting impression upon the reader. Usually, the first novel is the author looking for their voice and haven’t mastered the delicate art of building up the suspense. R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, destroys those preconceived notions.

The book starts with the young Jim Negrey leading his horse Promise across a barren wasteland of desert in 1869. Near death and with little water, Jim is on the run from the law for a terrible crime. However, before the law can hang him, Jim has to survive the desert known as the 40-Mile. His hopes were to find a railroad job in a new city under a new name. But a shadow, something more than a crime he committed, lingers over the boy. Between dangerous animals stalking him and the desert, he is doubtful he will survive.

Before the desert takes him, though, Jim is found by a strange Indian named Mutt and an even stranger man named Clay. The two men hail from the town of Golgotha, which is the closest town to where Jim wants to go. He accepts their ride into town when they are attacked by the coyotes which had been stalking Jim. Clay kills two, though the coyotes seem to be mildly nervous around Mutt. Jim is taken into town and, for the time being, will live another day.

Or perhaps not. As he’s getting off the wagon, Mutt (who is the deputy sheriff in the town) gets a call for help. A deranged and drunken man has taken hostages inside the general store, and Mutt needs to stop him before he hurts anyone. He deputizes Jim, and they prepare to try and figure out how to stop the man from hurting anyone inside. Before they can do anything which might end up with some bodies, though, the town sheriff gets back to town. Jon defuses the situation with Mutt managing to save an innocent woman’s life, and the town settles down. Jim, uncertain what to do next, is officially deputized by Jon and taken to get some food and some rest. For the first time in a long time, Jim feels like he’s somewhere he belongs.

Intertwined in the story about the crazy town of Golgotha is a deeper story about an angel who, while not exactly defying the Host, begins to doubt nonetheless. Because of this, he is tasked to stand guard over the sleeping darkness. Biqa, annoyed and angry, obeys, though it is evident that he is not happy with his punishment. After a time, though, his watch begins to take on a deeper meaning. Biqa begins to understand the little beings who exist around him, and begins to feel for humanity.

This book… wow. Just wow. There is a blend of religion and folklore in the book that drags you in and makes the reader really think without lecturing. The pacing is fantastic (as evidenced by reading it, for the second time, in less that five hours) and the characters are all very well thought-out and believable. The setting of the town itself is magnificent, and seems to be a character all its own, a breath of life in what would normally be merely a static piece of scenery in any other work. The darker undercurrent of the book, which both drives the plot and lends a creepiness factor to some characters, is wonderfully done. The overall story arc is absolutely rock-solid.

This book is a must-buy. I’d give this to someone asking me if I had read anything good and new lately. The author has done a tremendous job, and I for one can’t wait for the next round.

–Reviewed by Jason

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An Interview with Novelist Extraordinaire Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Over the past two years, we at Shiny Book Review have avidly devoured every last one of Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s novels — there are five to date (FIRES OF NUALA, HIDDEN FIRES, FIRE SANCTUARY, NIGHT CALLS, and KINDRED RITES), with a sixth, SPIRAL PATH, currently being polished even as we speak.

There’s a reason for that.

Put simply, anything Ms. Kimbriel writes is worth the price of admission. It doesn’t matter whether she writes fantasy or science fiction; it doesn’t matter whether she’s writing a young adult novel, as in her Night Calls series, or if she’s writing a complex and challenging far-future epic clearly meant for adults, as with her Chronicles of Nuala.

Whatever she writes is excellent in all particulars. Guaranteed.

So, without further ado, please welcome novelist Katharine Eliska Kimbriel!

SBR: You’ve written both fantasy and hard science fiction, and your writing has been well-received in both genres. What, if anything, do you do differently when writing a fantasy story as opposed to a SF story?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: As I mention over in my bio on Book View Cafe, I return to the question of power, and the metaphor is either magic or technology.  Who has it, who doesn’t, do they want it, what will they do with it, how were they affected by it?  It doesn’t matter if I’m writing tech or magic–I want to know how people are changed by their surroundings, events, and the catalyst–magic or tech.  On Nuala, a space-faring group of humans is changed forever by being stranded on a planet where the radiation breakdown is 3x what it is on Earth, with the resultant mutation and sterility factors to overcome.  They could dwindle into death, or they could blaze a new path.  In my fantasy, sometimes the magic solves problems, and sometimes it makes problems–but the people have to deal with it, while still living their lives and interacting with others, both magical and mundane.  I tend not to change a lot, when I create a society–I change a little, making an interesting blend from Earth societies, just to see what will happen.  On Nuala, I used three things, essentially–the increased radiation level, the mutated mineral-leeching microbe, and the mutation that amplified the ability to heal, the so-called King’s touch.

Little changes can multiply into big things!

SBR: How did you come up with your Chronicles of Nuala? (What gave you the initial idea?)

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Two things…I was fascinated by pictures of the huge vegetables growing in the soil around Hiroshima, and the rampant fertility of the soil. I’d also read about wiring a battery to a bone break to speed healing. So I took two questions: 1) What if people could not only survive, but in some weird way, thrive, in a radioactive environment? 2) What if the the concept of laying-on of hands to heal became a reality? Then the story began.

SBR: What was your first story sale? How did that lead into writing novels?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Actually, my first sale was Fire Sanctuary! I sold it to Bluejay Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s, but they never counter-signed the contract (they had no cash flow, and were in trouble) so I’d gotten an agent, who resold the book to Warner/Popular Library/Questar in about a year. Those were the bad old days. We were captive to New York publishing.

SBR: How did you come up with your Night Calls series starring Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson?

Older cover for NIGHT CALLS

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Allie leapt from my subconscious at a statement from the wonderful writer and editor Jane Yolen. She was doing a series of anthologies for Harper & Row, and the first one was to be Werewolves!. A group of us were lunching at World Fantasy Convention, and we were peppering her with questions, testing the start of funny or serious short pieces. I don’t write a lot of short things–they bloom quickly into novels. But I asked her, “Does the werewolf have to be seen?” Jane replied, “The werewolf does not have to be seen, but its presence has to be felt.”

New cover for NIGHT CALLS

I then had two very sharp images come to mind. First, a young girl in clothing that was not modern–either pre- or post modern–gently brushing away snow to find garlic attempting to root under a window, and a young girl with long, blond braids dragging a chair to an interior door to hang up a braid of garlic. In that first version, Allie was post-apocalyptic, but Kim Moran at Amazing Stories convinced me to place her in the past. Allie was born there.

SBR: What sorts of research did you do to add verisimilitude for each series?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: It depended on the story. I researched Antarctica and mineral-leeching microbes for Nuala–also Mirror Matter/antimatter, recessive eye colors, sequoias! For Allie’s world I have an extensive bookshelf of books on herbs, magic, folk tales, fairy stories of Scandinavia, Ireland and the world–colonial life and times. The War of 1812…

SBR: How well did you know Roger Zelasny, and what influence (if any) did he have on your work?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Roger Zelazny came to several Texas conventions when I lived in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.  I thought he was wonderful, and he decided I was pretty interesting, too.  I came up with the book title If at Faust You Don’t Succeed–that was the weekend he was all excited about the book he was writing from the POV of Jack the Ripper’s Dog, one of my favorite of his books, A Night In the Lonesome OctoberWe exchanged letters when his schedule permitted, and had started talking on the phone (we had different networks, which back then was a good thing–we could swap industry gossip!) when he became ill with his cancer.  Only very, very close friends, most of them in New Mexico, knew how ill he was…I was ready to come to Santa Fe at that point, but did not hear back from him.  Then word went out through the fan networks that he had died, and I knew why I had not heard back. Instead of seeing him, I was writing an elegy for Locus and a sympathy note to Jane Lindskold.

I miss him still.  He never got to see Allie, he was too ill to read the story.  Roger taught me to write short stories as if they were the last chapter of a novel–and a lot about writing dialogue.  You can follow his dialog for pages without any qualifiers telling you who is speaking.  That helps me remember to keep speech patterns distinct.

SBR: How is being published by Book View Cafe different from working with your previous publisher(s)? What do you like about this approach, and do you think there will be more consortiums like BVC in the future?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: It is collaborative, because as a coop we do everything, and we help with everything.  We have a huge forum where there are topics for kibbitzing on cover art, layout, back cover blurbs–we have people currently specializing in everything from ebook formatting to keeping the web site going through blogging and copy editing.  There are people shepherding production schedules and volunteers.  I could not have gotten my books up without my fellow authors, due to my health problems back in the early BVC years.  I hope I have been useful to them.  Right now I do everything from woman the events calendar to serve as a member of the board.  And as you know, I mention all the great books we bring out.  It’s a blessing to me that everyone in the coop is good at what they write, whether their work is to my personal tastes or not.  I have no hesitation bringing their books to the attention of my fans, because there’s a chance that some of them may be looking for just that type of book.

I do think the producer cooperative model will be a successful one for writers.  We are inventing a new way to do business, but we are hopeful and making more money each year,  So…forward!

SBR: You’ve recently announced (via Facebook) that the third book in the Night Calls series has been finished. How soon will it be available?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Well, I’m editing. Once I am satisfied with it, Spiral Path will go to at least one Book View Cafe member for a beta read, because it is an original work. (Also to my cover artist, Mitchell Bentley.) It’s at least a four month lag time from that point. I hope at the end of this week to be able to ballpark it, because I want to send out print copies for review to Locus and possibly Rave Reviews. End of summer, if I can get the lead slot at Book View Cafe? This is possibly Allie’s last chance. I have to make some money from the books, because I spent a great deal of money staying alive. I have to make a living and try to replenish the emptied investment account. So…if not Allie, I will have to try writing something else. In fact, I will be starting a new series, a contemporary fantasy, after this, and also, I hope a fourth Allie book, if she’s still telling me her story.

(Interviewer’s aside: Let us sincerely hope so! Allie’s a great character and I want more of her, pronto. End of aside.) 

SBR: Ms. Kimbriel, e-books of all five of your novels are available right now. But what about hard-copy, “dead tree” editions? Are they, too, available now?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Well, all my books exist in paper. I just don’t get any money for sales of the SF, unless you buy them from me at a convention! I’ll do the third Allie in print, but the sales on the SF are not great enough to justify new cover art. So don’t expect the Nuala books in print soon–I need a better paying job first! On the other hand, I have some new copies of Hidden Fires that might interest folk… ;^)

SBR: As an editor, what is your favorite genre to edit? (Or do you like a little bit of everything?) And what is your favorite book that you’ve ever edited, and why?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Actually, I don’t have a favorite right now. I love the variety. I prefer fiction, and really enjoy concept editing. I like helping someone find their own voice and where they want to go, and making it the best book their idea can be. I would have liked being a NY editor, but that didn’t happen.

SBR: Why didn’t it happen?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: Becoming a known concept editor who can make a living at it tends to start with a job (working) for a NY publisher. You had to move to NY in those days, and that was something I would not have dreamed of doing when I was first publishing–my husband had a good job in Texas, and Texas was having its first tech boom at that time. Later I was trying to establish a business that would let me write fiction part time, and I was looking for life balance, so I became a clinical massage therapist. Finally, I became ill, and life has been catch-up ever since. So although I have been told by many writers that I am a good concept editor, and my resume tag line is “Writer, editor, and trainer specializing in retaining the authentic client voice”, becoming a developmental editor at this point is unlikely.

SBR: What do you think is most important when pursuing a career as a writer and editor? Talent? Persistence? Money? Connections? A little of everything? (And does fame, at all, interest you? If it does, how so? And if not, why not?)

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: None of those things hurt. To be a writer, a storyteller, you need stories you are driven to tell (and that may be harder than ever to do, with even more life distractions out there!) persistence, and talent. To be published requires persisting…at the writing, the submissions, or researching how to do it yourself. And then researching how to promote, or not–how to submit the book to a few review sites and let it go, keep writing.

Fame interests me only as a medium to reach more readers with my stories. Money, sadly, would be handy–I spent a fortune staying alive, and I must work now, and need a decent income. If the writing cannot pull its weight, then I have to relegate it to a hobby and return to school or take whatever I can find in the current market. I think Alfreda will outlive me, but who knows what future creators will do with her and her tales. I don’t know about anything else I’ve written or may yet write.

SBR: One, final question: What would you like to say to new authors?

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: If you have a story that keeps you awake at night, then you may just be a storyteller. Figure out how you want to tell it–book, graphic novel, film–and go for it. No other hobby can compete with creating something unique. Don’t let it be the thing you regret most in life; the thing you never tried.

If you have regrets? Don’t let them be your stories.

Again, many thanks to Katharine Eliska Kimbriel for consenting to this wide-ranging interview . . . now, go forth and read her books already!

— interviewed by Barb

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Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Empire” is Haunting, Elegiac, and Riveting

Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE (reviewed in December) started the story of Persephone “Percy” Ayren, a commoner in an alternate world of 1700s nobility. Percy has an unusual ability: She can see the presence of death. And in a world where death is suspended and no one can truly die, her ability is both a blessing and a curse.

During the course of COBWEB BRIDE, Percy met up with a number of interesting and influential people, including the newly-dead Infanta Claere Liguon (sole heir of her realm), the Witch woman Grial, the enigmatic Black Knight Beltain Chidair (son of the infamous Duke “Hoarfrost,” now dead and even more disreputable than he was in life), and many, many others, including Death Himself. All of the living people, though, paled in comparison to Percy due to Percy’s unusual abilities.

When COBWEB BRIDE ended, Percy returned home, revealed herself as Death’s Champion and managed to ease her dying, suffering grandmother — who’d been “living” despite a death rattle for weeks, unable to eat, move, or possibly even think — into a true and peaceful death.

This, of course, is a miracle of epic proportions under the circumstances. And it cannot be hidden for very long, especially as the various countries populating this alternate Earth (including Liguon, Lethe, Styx, Balmoe, Morphaea, and Serenoa, along with our “mundane” countries of France, Spain, and Italy) are at war.

At the start of COBWEB EMPIRE, Percy is dealing with the aftermath of easing her grandmother’s transition into a clean, true death. She’s wondering why she, of all people, has this ability. And she wonders if it makes her more than human, or less?

But she doesn’t have much time to spend on philosophical pursuits, as word spreads rapidly of her abilities, especially after she grants a suffering pig — which had been butchered before anyone figured out death no longer applied and has been in an undead, yet hurting state for weeks — its true death as well.

The village priest is immediately called, and he says it’s a miracle (discreetly pocketing a few coins from Percy’s relieved father on the way out). So Percy continues on her way, as she needs to return the riding animal and cart to its proper owner, Grial the Witch woman.

Of course, there are obstacles aplenty before Percy finds Grial, and one of those obstacles is the nature of these additional lands themselves. They have oddly started to fade, taking people and objects with them. No street or dwelling place is safe, and no one has any idea why it’s happening, either . . . the best guess is that because death itself is suspended, these particular “extra” realms are hurting because magic works there, whereas it doesn’t seem to be able to do so in France, Italy, and Spain.

Once Grial is found, she gives Percy a few hints along with a good meal, introduces her to the Crown Prince and Princess of Lethe, who need Percy’s help in order to allow the Crown Prince’s mother, the Queen, to truly die. And because Percy has a big heart and cannot stand suffering, she does so . . . but that causes even more challenges.

Consider, please, that Kings and Queens, if they have any sense at all, need to understand tactics. Since many of these countries are at war with one another, they need a tactical advantage.

And what could be a greater advantage in a world where no one can die than a woman who actually can send the undead into a true death?

Fortunately, Grial intervenes and sends Percy, along with the Black Knight Beltain Chidair, along their way again. Grial knows that Percy must continue to search for the true Cobweb Bride, as that’s the only way life as everyone knows it will ever return.

Because all of the same problems discussed in COBWEB BRIDE still exist. People cannot grow anything, because the grains will not ripen. You cannot butcher any pigs, cows or other animals, because the meat will not cure. Even milk will not properly curdle, so making cheese and yogurt is out, and aside from water itself, there is nothing that will keep the populace from starvation unless Death gets his Cobweb Bride . . . and that in a hurry.

At any rate, Beltain is a formidable knight, so between his fighting abilities and Percy’s rapidly improving abilities in sending the undead into true death, they are left unmolested (though with more than a few strong scares). But there’s more between them than just the comradeship of the road, as Percy had feelings for him in COBWEB BRIDE, while Beltain at least thought she was interesting and spunky. But the more he sees of her and her abilities, the more protective and loving he becomes.

Mind you, a touch of love was very welcome here amidst all this death. And someone being able to love Percy for herself despite her unusual abilities — or perhaps because of them — was even more welcome.

At any rate, there is yet another factor to consider. Rumalar Avalais, the Sovereign of the Domain (think of her as the equivalent of the Emperor and Empress of Liguon), has decided to take the field of war. And this Sovereign doesn’t seem to be keen on ruling the living . . .

The pluses of COBWEB EMPIRE are many. Ms. Nazarian has an ability to give her characters just the right words to say; her characterization is top-notch, her storytelling is keen, and there’s a feeling despite all the darkness and death that somehow, someway, the world will be righted again.

In other words, COBWEB EMPIRE, far from being a “filler” book as tends to happen in far too many trilogies as of late, has a good story to tell all its own. It comes out of the previous COBWEB BRIDE, deepening and broadening it immensely, then adds complexity upon complexity until there’s yet another major surprise in store at the end.

Bottom line? COBWEB EMPIRE is a worthy sequel to the excellent COBWEB BRIDE that leaves much room for doubt as to what, exactly will happen in the concluding COBWEB FOREST.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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** Note that if all goes well, COBWEB FOREST should be reviewed next weekend. Stay tuned.

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Alethea Kontis’s “Enchanted:” A New Take on an Old Myth

Alethea Kontis’s ENCHANTED is a book about Sunday Woodcutter, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and Rumbold, the Crown Prince of Arilland.  Sunday meets Rumbold after he’s been turned into a frog — a very traditional opening, that — and starts to tell him about her family from the stories she’s written in her notebook.  These are all true stories, true past stories to be exact, and don’t seem all that magical to the reader.  But it’s how Sunday tells the story that counts — she’s straightforward, yet has verve and charm.  This is probably why Rumbold (called “Grumble” as a frog) is completely captivated by Sunday, though the fact that he doesn’t remember being a human being probably also has something to do with it.

At any rate, there’s a major problem standing between Rumbold and Sunday’s love.  It has nothing to do with the fact that Rumbold met Sunday as a frog, nor does it have much to do with the fact that Sunday is a “seventh of a seventh,” meaning she’ll be an extremely powerful magician even if, as of yet, she’s both untrained and unaware of this.  Nope.  It’s that Rumbold’s father did something to Sunday’s elder brother, Jack, years ago, something that angered Sunday’s whole family as Jack’s never been seen since.  Because of this, once Rumbold has regained his humanity and realized Sunday is related to Jack Woodcutter and understands this problem, it seems as if there’s no way in the world these two will ever be able to get together.

Of course, Sunday is blissfully ignorant of most of what’s been going on in the kingdom of Arilland.  She knows her father is a hardworking wood cutter (thus the family name).  She knows her mother is kind, but rarely says anything she doesn’t mean due to her mother’s unusual magic.  Her six sisters all have (or had) various magical talents (one is dead, but the other five remain), though both Sunday and her elder sister Saturday are unaware of what their particular talents are for the majority of ENCHANTED.

As the story moves along, Rumbold realizes that his father, the King, has been held for quite some time under an evil enchantment of his own, one unrelated to Sunday or her immediate family, but that has ramifications for them due to the type of power they all have.  Rumbold vows to find a way to break that power for many reasons, most importantly because as the next King, he can choose his own mate — and we all know he’s going to choose Sunday.

So what happens next?  A grand ball, what else?  (Shades of the traditional Cinderella epics, there.)  This gives Sunday’s sister Friday a chance to show off her big talents — the making of ball gowns and other wearable fabric art — and of course leads to a few more plot complications, all of which you’ll immediately recognize if you’ve ever read any fairy tales whatsoever, but that are told with such charm that you just can’t help but enjoy the story all over again.  (Since this book partly is a romance, well . . . let’s just say that a happy ending is likely and leave it at that.)

The one potential downside here is this: the plot of ENCHANTED is a great deal like Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker series (minus the fact that it’s not set in an alternate America, of course), especially when it comes to the special power of the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter.  (In Card’s series, Alvin Maker is the seventh son of a seventh son, and can do all sorts of interesting things because of that fact.)  ENCHANTED is also highly reminiscent of Patricia C. Wrede’s stories, most particularly the chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, mostly because Sunday is resilient, honest to a fault, and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (much like Daystar, hero of Wrede’s TALKING TO DRAGONS).  So it’s obvious that originality, per se, is not what Kontis was getting at.

However, ENCHANTED is like these other novels in a good way, not a bad one; it’s as if Kontis distilled the essence of what makes both Card’s and Wrede’s books so interesting, and managed to come up with her own spin on the subject.  One that reads as a fairy tale and as a credible fantasy-romance; one that certainly references those writers who’ve come before her and have done so well in the genre; one that kept me reading until the end of ENCHANTED, only to turn back to page one and start the book again.

Bottom line: ENCHANTED is a good novel for anyone who loves fairy tales, fantasy (particularly female-centered fantasy), or romance.  Yes, it’s an homage to Card, Wrede, the late Grandmaster André Norton, and others — but that’s not a bad thing, in context.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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