Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

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Re-reading Gatsby

Sometimes it can be enlightening to revisit a book.  Your tastes and preferences certainly change with more experience.  You can develop more patience for  some aspects of a story or text even as you solidify definite likes and dislikes.

And so every once in awhile I’ll re-read a classic or a favorite from my youth.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby qualifies as the former more than the latter.  I remember plowing through this book in high school, being vaguely impatient with the pacing and more than a little annoyed with the main characters.  Unsympathetic, selfish and rich and not all that interesting.  Even Gatsby himself, man of mystery seemed pretty boring in his single-mindedness…  In truth, I likely scanned the last third of the book in my younger days – just get through it enough to know the material for the test.  And if it seemed more like a history lesson back then than a study of literature, well, that’s education for you. Continue reading

You gotta read this, Dad…

This is what my 2nd grade son told me this past weekend.  He handed me a comic book, a trade paperback we’d actually picked up for the kids 2-3 years earlier.  The book:  Sidekicks by Dan Santat.  The boy must have found it on his shelf somewhere, and he probably checked with his sister to get her opinion.  Then the read, then him placing it in my hands and telling me to get to it.

Considering where he was with his reading this time last year – doing it but having to be prodded and cajoled – we are pretty excited.  For a book family like ours, getting our first you gotta read this is almost like that first music recital or first base hit.

The boy really started enjoying and self-initiating his reading this past fall.  Think it was a mix of maturation and the competition of his school reading log (he always wants to be at the top for minutes read a month).  That and he was just starting to get enough words to make it more fun.  He was into Star Wars and Super Hero reference books.  He recently discovered the Beast Quest books and is onto the second series there.  He even read about Einstein recently for a school bio project. Like his big sister, he will read at bedtime until he gets tired (sometimes too long).

As far as the referral:  Sidekicks features a team of critters who happen to be the pets of aging hero, Captain Amazing.  When the Captain announces he needs to recruit a new sidekick, the pets start competing and training for the job.  Along the way they learn about their strengths and weaknesses, developing into a team.  It’s well written and drawn, with good underlying themes…  and jokes.

The boy is all about the jokes.  As I was reading the book on Sunday, he would come by the couch once in awhile and point to the page and laugh and read along with me.  Oh yeah, Dad, wait til you see what comes next…

Books: The Twilight Herald

In Brief: Tom Lloyd’s second in this series, The Twilight Herald, continues recounting the ascent of Isaak, a former wagon boy,  to Lord of the Farlan and chosen of the gods.  The book strives for a legendary tone, with powerful characters seeking artifacts, weapons, and bold military and strategic victories.

Pros:  Lloyd’s familiarity with many of the conventions of high/epic fantasy (along with, presumably, his editorial background) helps him avoid pitfalls and cliches.  The main characters, including Isaak, are strongly written and fairly approachable (no mean feat since some of them are super-heroic and/or immortal).

Cons:  The pacing seemed uneven at times, with a lot of slow building as the players make their way to Scree and the big showdown.  The insertion of certain bits of background history and prophecy seemed labored, almost ham-fisted at points.  This is a second book, and it has that feel of setting up for the next one.

Review:  The Twilight Herald picks up directly after the first book in Tom Lloyd’s fantasy series, The Strormcaller (reviewed here).  Lord Isaak has only just assumed the mantle of Duke of the Farlan, and he immediately faces a rebellion of some of his own banner men, as well as the political fallout from new alliances and the previous Farlan Lord’s death.  Isaak faces these challenges with measure of clumsy resolve, humility, and raw power.  Understandable, as he’s a young White-Eye still learning about his power and the nature of his bond to Nartis, God of Storms, and patron of the Farlan.

Meanwhile, in the City-State of Scree, Rojak, a mysterious servant of the shadow-god Azaer, has begun putting on very strange plays in the heart of the city.  Scree is on the verge of civil war, with the ruling White Council having been defeated elsewhere in the region, and the regent of Scree has begun employing mercenaries to assist with defenses.  Among these is Zhia Vukotic in disguise.  Zhia is a powerful vampire cursed with a soul and a conscience, who, like Isaak, carries a crystal skull (ancient artifact of power).  Also in Scree, the Abbot of a sacked monastery, who is hiding his own crystal skull from the former monk who burned the monastery and killed many of his brothers.  This rogue monk, we soon learn, serves Rojak now.

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Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

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Books: The Wise Man’s Fear

In Brief:  Patrick Rothfuss returns to the saga of Kvothe (aka The Boss) in this beautifully written book.  It’s Portrait of the Wizard as a Young Man, with Kvothe telling the continuing story of his days at the University, his ongoing love with Denna, and adventures out in the world.

Pros:  Rothfuss can really, really write, and with Kvothe he’s created a wonderfully accessible and fascinating lead character.  This volume of the story features adventures outside the university, to include a trip to faerie and a sort of internship with a quasi-bushido culture.

Cons:  The books is long, long, long, and the pacing drags for at points.  Also, the sense of tragedy within the third-person frame started to feel strained.

Review:   Since this book was published, I’ve been looking forward to diving in.  It had been sitting on my shelf, awaiting the right time in the old reading schedule (it is nearly 1,000 pages after all).  I was pretty certain  The Wise Man’s Fear would deliver, based on how much I enjoyed the first book (The Name of the Wind), as well as the knowledge that Pat Rothfuss was doing it right, taking some time, and getting the second volume out on what we can assume was something close to his timetable. It was worth the wait.

Kvothe is a wonderful character, flawed, self-aware, sensitive yet prone to temper-induced lapses of judgment.  But always, he’s a kind and decent soul at heart – the kind of guy you can root for.  And it just so happens that he’s the most famous magician of his time.  As in volume 1, Kvothe is telling the tale of his youth to the Chronicler, so most of the book is a 1st person recounting of adventures.  The third person frame takes place in a distant future, with Kvothe surviving as a simple innkeeper, seemingly a shadow of his former self.

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Books: Star Wars – Scoundrels

In Brief:  Set right after Episode IV, Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels finds Han Solo and Chewbecca looking to score some bank from a heist of a local crime lord.  Of course it’s more complicated then that, especially when Lando shows up…

Pros:  Zahn’s done his homework on plotting – anything from The Sting to Sneakers to Oceans 11.  He also knows the Star Wars universe well enough to add some easter eggs for the hardcore fans and has a good sense of dialogue for the established characters.

Cons:  Any good heist story involves a lengthy setup and establishment of the rules of the target.  While Zahn does a solid job here, especially with incorporating the tech of the SW universe, this may cause the book to drag for some readers.

Review:  Your devoted Star Wars geek knows of Timothy Zahn, long considered one of the best novelization authors out there.  His Heir to the Empire series, which takes place soon after Episode VI, was good enough to draw me in to several more of Zahn’s books.  With that history, the Scoundrels premise (and cover) grabbed me as soon as I saw it in the store.

Scoundrels has Han and Chewie looking for work in the months after the destruction of the first Death Star.  Han has already lost his reward from the Rebel’s victory at Yavin, and Jabba’s bounty hunters are moving on him again.  An encounter with a young man called Eanjer opens up an opportunity. Continue reading