Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: "The Scrivener's Tale" by Fiona McIntosh

I'll be the first to admit that "fantasy" is an awfully broad category. But McIntosh's latest novel The Scrivener's Tale truly does fit squarely into the realm of "classic fantasy." Don't immediately start thinking of The Sword of Shannara or the Dragonlance Chronicles, though; this isn't your typical magic-wielding situation. Instead, picture this: Gabriel, a former psychiatrist living in modern-day Paris, agrees to see one last patient as a special favor to a friend. But the patient who appears to be a lost, delusional girl turns out to be a demonic minion who uses the unsuspecting Gabriel to somehow transport both of them to another world. Now Gabriel must hide his consciousness inside his own body while the minion and her demon use it to wreak havoc on the kingdom of Pearlis.

Meanwhile the Brotherhood, an order sworn to protect the royal family of Pearlis, has become aware of the demonic threat. One of their own, Cassien, has been trained from birth to deal with such an eventuality. Now with the help of a young boy and a legendary magic wielder, it's up to Cassien to defend his princess and save Pearlis from the demon's ancient evil.

So, now you see what I mean when I say "classic fantasy." You have a princess in trouble, a handsome and peerless warrior, an unspeakable evil, world-traveling, and magic. But despite the theme, which may seem unoriginal at first glance, this was a genuinely well-written story. It did start out pretty rough, though, writing-wise. It felt like McIntosh was just so excited to get started telling the story that she had some trouble clearly articulating the setup. I had a really difficult time getting my bearings with the initial perspective of the story, and I understand McIntosh's desire as a writer to set up the background of the story from the beginning (especially since there's such a rich back story in this case) but I think this would have been better presented through the process by which the characters learn about their own past. All the prologue did for me was confuse and disorient.

But if I overlook the initial clunky start, the rest of the book was well-done and entertaining. In particular, Gabriel's character and his reaction to world travel and demonic possession were extremely believable. He was a very sympathetic character, and McIntosh did a great job writing the confusion, disbelief, outrage and disorientation that I imagine a situation like this would instill in an ordinary person just trying to go about his life.

One other glaring issue I had with the book didn't have to do with the story itself though; it was the title. Although there is a scrivener's quill involved in the book, and the question of what exactly a scrivener is gets addressed very clearly, there is no scrivener in the story. At the very tail end of the book one character expresses an interest in maybe exploring the possibility of a life as a scrivener, but I didn't feel that this tentative association justified entitling the whole book The Scrivener's Tale.

If you love classic fantasy but want a break from elves and dwarves, or if the theme of travel between worlds piques your interest, I recommend that you pick up a copy of The Scrivener's Tale by Fiona McIntosh. It was released in April and is available now at your local independent bookstore.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: "Doomed" by Chuck Palahniuk

You've probably heard the name Chuck Palahniuk before, either because you've seen the movie "Fight Club" (Palahniuk penned the original novel) or because you've read one of his twelve - yup, you read that right - other amazing and highly acclaimed novels. Doomed will be his next masterpiece, the second installment of his take on Dante Alghieri's Divine Comedy.

Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, the only child of two pop-culture idols, died and made her way through the (really gross) depths of Hell in Damned, the prequel to Doomed. Now, through a freak spiritual accident on Halloween, Madison finds herself trapped in spirit form back on Earth. Through her own meddling, Madison finds to her horror that she's inspired her parents to found a new religion centered on their dead daughter, effectively damning everyone on earth to eternity in Hell. We follow Madison, through her blog posts from beyond the grave, as she explains the events that led up to her death, the subsequent founding of Boorism, and her attempts to herd the Human Race away from damnation.

The sardonic voice of Madison is a perfect vehicle for telling this story of childhood gone horribly (and hilariously) awry. From her parents' private mansions in Milan or Monte Carlo or Mogadishu to her time with her grandparents in "tedious upstate," Palahniuk bounces the reader around while somehow still miraculously managing to keep the story line together and see that it progresses at a reasonable rate. There also appears to be a "voice within a voice" present, as Palahniuk adopts the voice of a character adopting her own voice for her blog. It really is quite the impressive feat, and really shines when Madison dictates conversations that she had. They differ noticeably from her writing voice, in a subtle but distinct manner.

Another writing feature that Palahniuk consistently uses is one that I've taken the liberty of appropriating in the previous paragraph: Referring to a given home by simply giving three possible cities that begin with the same letter really brought home the nature of Madison's parents' rockstar lifestyle. This device (like "Paris or St. Petersburg or Palikir") really emphasizes the fact that they moved around so much to their various properties, place came to really not matter at all. In the midst of all this glamorous jetting around the world, Madison really had no home other than the presence of her parents, which is I think important to notice, especially when it comes to the time that she spent in "tedious upstate."

On something of a tangent, I also want to comment on how good Chuck Palahniuk is to his loyal fans. It was my privilege to work briefly with him when he did an event at the Wild Buffalo in Bellingham, and despite the long line for autographs and a time crunch to clean up after the event, he stayed until everyone had had their books signed. Additionally, he took photos and even stepped outside to say hello to a fan who couldn't get into the 21+ venue. He even signed my copy of Haunted for me:

If you're a fan of beautifully irreverent humor in the form of supernatural adventure, snarky protagonists or horribly unfortunate events that make you groan and giggle at the same time, or if you've read and liked Chuck Palahniuk's off-the-wall sense of irony, plan on buying your copy of Doomed when it's released on October 8th of this year. That gives you plenty of time to read Damned, the first book in this series, which is available at your favorite local bookstore now.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Review: "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson

When a select few humans are suddenly and inexplicably gifted with superpowers, what if they don't become the benevolent protectors we always see in comic books? What if, instead, they became tyrants? Sanderson's latest book addresses just such an eventuality in this superbly written near-future tale of rebellion and revenge. David lives in Newcago, which was Chicago before the arrival of Steelheart, the city's new sovereign "Epic." The day he took over the city, Steelheart also killed David's father and buried all evidence of the incident under tons of steel. But what he doesn't know is that there was one survivor - David - who saw what happened that day and knows it could be the secret to Steelheart's one weakness.

But how is a 19-year-old boy obsessed with collecting information on Epics supposed to take on a man who can fly, control the elements, turn inanimate objects into solid steel, and who is apparently invulnerable? If he has any chance at all to take revenge for his father's death David will need to enlist the help of the Reckoners, a group of ordinary humans out to hold the Epics responsible for their crimes. If David can find a way to join them, he'll still need to convince the Reckoners to take on Steelheart.

While his quest for revenge isn't the most uncommon theme, David's character is both genuine and endearing. I found his problem with metaphors particularly endearing (my favorite one was "like a brick made of porridge") and his interactions with the wildly varied cast of personalities that make up the Reckoners. But this is by no means a purely character-driven novel, although watching David figure out where he fits into the group was a very rewarding read in itself.

The story's rising action is such a thing of beauty, it makes me actually want to cry. I was constantly wondering what would happen next, and that's no easy feat, since over the years as both a reader and writer I've gotten pretty good at predicting plot twists. But Steelheart kept me intrigued from cover to cover, with Sanderson dishing out just the right amounts of new revelations at just the right times to create a compelling story arc that leads seamlessly into an explosive climax. And the falling action afterward is nothing short of flawlessly executed, with the select few strings left hanging designed (successfully, I might add) to keep me biting my fingernails until the next installment is released in 2014. It's a perfect launching point for the next book in the series, particularly when it comes to Doc's and Megan's identities. I would, however, have liked to know more about why using their powers makes Epics react the way they do, and more details about how and when Megan joined the Reckoners.

If you're a superhero enthusiast, of you're into steampunk, cyberpunk, urban fantasy or any kind of Sci Fi, this is your book. Between the brilliant plot twists and the remarkable variety of characters that make up the story, I'm floored in the best of ways. Reserve your copy of Steelheart at your favorite independently owned bookstore and try to contain your excitement until it's released on September 24th of this year.