Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Celebration of Lammas Night

I can't remember exactly why I wanted to read In Celebration of Lammas Night.  But a long time ago I thought it sounded great and ordered it from online.  Then a few weeks ago I decided to finally give it a read.  The idea of this anthology is that Mercedes Lackey wrote a ballad a long time ago about a lady wizard who stays in the house of a male wizard who passed away.  Her presence awakens the spirit of the male wizard, who courts her.  In one of his spell books she discovers a spell to banish him.  But on the next page is an identical spell that has one different word; this second spell will bring him back to life instead.  Both spells must be cast on Lammas night.  And so she must choose.  Lackey's friends loved the ballad, and originally decided to write endings to it (the original song is ambigious).  But then they decided to write full stories instead and collect them into this anthology.  The whole thing sounds rather like Apocalypse Madness, so I was definitely intrigued as I began reading.

Unfortunately, these stories weren't really inspired by the ballad; almost all of them were the ballad in prose form.  They don't really add much to the story except maybe choosing whether to bring him back to life (most of them) or banish him (a few).  It makes the whole anthology a very tedious read.  So tedious that I had to split it up with stories from a different anthology a bit, just to make it through.  The absolute worst one was actually Lackey's own story, because it literally was just a prose version of the ballad, right down to ending without making a choice.  I usually love Lackey's writing, so this was extra disappointing because it was from her. 

I have no intention of going through all of the stories because really, they're basically the same thing.  A few of them made the lady wizard Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest ("Miranda" by Ru Emerson and "Miranda's Tale" by Jason Henderson).  That was interesting the first time, but I was bored of it when it came up again (even though the second story was arguably the better of the two).  A lot of the stories also had unnamed characters, which was rather annoying.  Stories with named characters tended to be better.

The highlights of In Celebration of Lammas Night were "Demonheart" by Mark Shepherd because it was told from the male spirit wizard's perspective (he was a slave to a demon named Demonheart who wanted the two of them to mate so it could claim their child's body).  "Sunflower" by Jody Lynn Nye was interesting because there was no external evil; the lady wizard's choice was completely due to the spirit wizard's character.  "Summer Storms" by Christie Golden was awesome because it didn't end with her making a choice; I wish it had been fleshed out into a full novel.  "The Captive Song" by Josepha Sherman had a very interesting twist to it that I enjoyed (she was courted by both a demon and a wizard and ended up choosing to bring the demon back because he was war weary like she was).  "Midsummer Folly" by Elizabeth Waters was a lot of fun!  A betrothed wandering mage ended up bringing the spirit wizard back for someone else.  What's more, he had lied to the woman who loved him, so she brought him back with the caveat that he needed to treat the other woman right.  "The Mage, The Maiden, and the Hag" by S.M. Stirling and Jan Stirling was easily the best of the lot.  This one had the lady wizard possessed by evil; the evil curses the male wizard to die.  It was so good, that I went and bought S.M. Stirling's short story collection on my Kindle after finishing reading it!  "Circle of Ashes" by Stephanie D Shaver took place in what felt like a very detailed world.  I would love to read a full novel set in this world (unfortunately nothing exists yet). :(  And "Lady of the Rock" by Diana L Paxson was set in our world, which made for a very interesting take on the story.  

While these eight stories were good, the other ten were not that great.  Coupled with that was the fact that even regarding the good stories, I was basically just reading the same story over and over again.  Some versions may have been great, others good, but most were mediocre.  Overall I found this anthology disappointing and didn't really think it was worth reading (although I found out about S.M. Stirling so that was a plus!)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Sun in Glory and Other Tales of Valdemar

I've had Sun in Glory and Other Tales of Valdemar for years. I loved reading Sword of Ice, which was the first collection, so when I saw this one (and pretty much all of the others in this series), I bought it. But then it sat on my shelf for years (this one was published in 2003 - I have probably had it for pretty much that entire time) along with the other ones.

"Errold's Journey" was written by a 10 year old. I thought it was a great story for someone so young. A group of people fleeing a mage war. They journey far away. A mage storm hits them even there. They make an alliance with newly changed cats and found Errold's Grove.

"The Cat Who Came to Dinner" is about a Vkandis Sun-priest named Reulan. When Reulan is sitting down to eat dinner after lighting the Night Candle, he is joined by a large, cream-coloured cat. Very quickly, the cat becomes his companion, accompanying him everywhere. But after it saves Reulan's life, the mtstery deepens: what exactly is this cat? Of course, I'm very familiar with the world of Valdemar, and knew exactly what was going on with the cat. But this was still an excellent story. :)

"Winter Death" was a long story. A bit hard to get into. But once I did, I loved it! It's the story of Kayla, a woman from the North who lost everything. She is Chosen by her Companion (whom she has long known in dreams) to save the Kingdom from a mysterious illness. I actually wish this had been a full novel rather than just a 50ish page story.

"A Herald's Rescue" is about Santar, a young stableboy who works at his father's stables with his six brothers and one sister. A Companion shows up without a rider and drags Santos off to rescue his Herald. Santor wants to wait to get others to help too, but at the Companion's insistence, Santor goes alone. This was a quick read that I really enjoyed.

"In the Eye of the Beholder" is another short one. But it's a really fun story all the same. Marra's village was burned by a lord named Darick. She manages to escape and makes her way through the woods, trying to find some authority to report the atrocity to. But she discovers she's being followed by someone...or some thing. And when that thing saves her from a monster's attack, she decides she has to help it.

"Trance Tower Garrison" is about the northernmost garrison in Valdemar. The garrison is under siege from an unknown army. They've sent people to warn the capital, but after a month has passed it's unlikely anyone got through. Then the night watch sees a white horse circling the garrison. And the defenders decide to fight their way through the invaders in the hopes of uniting the Companion with its Chosen.

I stopped reading this anthology part way through April of 2015. I finally picked it up again yesterday with the intention of reading one story before going to sleep. "Starhaven." "Starhaven" is about the Herald Vess who returns to the destroyed village of Starhaven in the Pelagir Mountains. He's in the area to investigate a healer girl. But something is not right with her gift... This one started off a bit oddly but it was super good! I really should not have waited like a year and a half to read it!

Of course, after finishing "Starhaven" I just kept going. "Rebirth" is about a Herald mage who gives his life for his queen. As he dies he is given a vision of her soul being destroyed and everyone else in Valdemar being enslaved. So he steals some time to return to her and save her once again. "Rebirth" was just okay. I wasn't super enthralled with the afterlife world. But I did feel like I enjoyed the story in the end. That Herald was willing to give everything to save the woman he loved.

"Brock" is the story of a Herald named Jors who meets a Moonling named Brock who thinks he's also a Herald. The townspeople make fun of him, telling him he can't be a Herald for any number of reasons. But as Jors discovers, not all Heralds wear their Whites on the outside and are Chosen by a Companion. "Brock" is an awesome story by Tanya Huff showing how we all need to look passed a person's appearance.

I have to say, I'm pretty sure I read "Brock" before. The ending, where the Companions always seek him out even though he has never been Chosen was so familiar to me! But I'm not at all sure where I would have read it (it was also published in Tanya Huff's short story collection Finding Magic, but I don't recall reading that).

Anyway, "True Colors" is about Rin, an eighteen-year-old conman impersonating a Herald in the north of Valdemar. When he finds a couple of children on the road being chased by brigands, he is given a choice: save himself, or help them. Choosing to help them changes his life forever. "True Colors" is a cute story (and the ending also seemed rather familiar...).

"Touches the Earth" is a quick story about Anya, a Healer in training who hasn't been able to use her Gift to its full potential. When a girl from her village goes missing, Anya and her teacher go to find her. Their journey of course results in Anya finally surrendering herself to her gift.

"Icebreaker" is the story of Elidor, a Journeyman Scribe. After his family perished in a fire he was sent to the Library at Talastyre. Elidor longed to be Chosen by a Companion. But when a Companion comes and gets Elidor to follow him and help save his Chosen, Elidor realizes that maybe a Herald's life isn't for him; maybe he is exactly where he needs to be.

The final story, "Sun in Glory," is by Mercedes Lackey herself. It was the only one I actually read today. "Sun in Glory" is about the Queen's Own Herald, Talia, becoming a Priestess of Vkandis the Sun Lord. Vkandis is the God worshiped in Karse, Valdemar's bitter enemy. But with the crowning of a new Son of the Sun (who happens to be a woman), Karse is trying to root out the corruption in the ranks of its Sun Priests and reforge old alliances (particularly since together, Valdemar and Karse will be able to stand against a grave threat, but separately they will both perish). So the new Sun of the Son sends her close friend to make an offer of peace between them. Vkandis himself suggested that the Queen's Own Herald be made into one of his Priestesses to actually cement this tie between the two nations. "Sun in Glory" was told from Alberich's point of view, which was interesting but particularly apt. Alberich is one of my favourite characters, a Karsite who becomes a Herald of Valdemar after his Companion smuggles himself into Karse, and then gets Alberich out of Karse. So when the Son of the Sun's envoy approaches Alberich, there's a lot more going on since he may finally be able to go home without being killed as a traitor. I have to agree with many of the other reviewers of this book on Goodreads; I wish this story had been longer (it honestly could have been a full novel in its own right).

But like a few of these other stories later in the collection, "Sun in Glory" seemed so familiar.  So now, having finished reading the anthology, I'm wondering if I've read it before?  I honestly don't remember doing so though.  But whatever, I've definitely read it now!

Sun in Glory was an entertaining enough read.  I don't know why exactly I put it down when I did, since the majority of the remaining stories were really, really good.  Some of the stories in this collection aren't amazing (I'm looking at you, "Rebirth") but overall the collection is pretty solid.  It was wonderful to be back in Valdemar after so long (I haven't actually read anything set in Valdemar since before this blog was created in 2008!)  And I was glad to revisit some of my "old friends" like Alberich in "Sun in Glory" at the very end.  :)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Magic Pickle

I saw Magic Pickle at work the other day.  After flipping through it quickly, I had to know what was going on so I took it home and read it.

Weapon Kosher (aka the Magic Pickle) is awakened from cryogenic sleep when his adversaries, the Brotherhood of Evil Produce, have finally surfaced after hiding for over 50 years.  He bursts out of the lab to find himself in the bedroom of Jo Jo Wigman, an elementary school girl.  And so he goes off to stop the evil Brotherhood while fending off Jo Jo's desire to be his sidekick.

I have to admit, as ridiculous as it is, I really liked Magic Pickle.  It's a super short and easy read, but a lot of fun! 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

We're All In This Together

I got a copy of Amy Jones' We're All In This Together from the library recently.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it right now, so I was thinking of sending it back.  But the library has chosen it to be their first One Book: One Community book.  Which means the hold list for the title has been getting bigger by the day.  So in the end I decided to keep it and read it, with the expectation that I may have to pay a bit of late fees because it was bigger than I thought it was and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to finish it before it was due.  But it looks like I will not be paying any late fees because I actually just finished it!  (Apparently I had more reading time than I thought I would).

We're All In This Together is about the Parker family, who are all brought back together when Kate, the matriarch of the family, makes the news by going over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel and surviving somehow but falling into a coma.  Her plunge down the falls was filmed and goes viral online.  Her daughter Finn finds out from the news and comes back to town.  Finn's twin sister, Nicki, doesn't want her back since Finn left and pretty much cut contact with everyone.  Finn and Nicki's adopted brother Shawn is trying to hold the family together while everyone is fighting.  His wife, Katriina, has been slowly falling apart and no one has noticed.  Their dad, Walter, is constantly out on the lake, refusing to deal with things.  And Nicki's eldest daughter, London, is crushing on a marine biologist who has dedicated his life to save sharks; he happens to be in Duluth right now, if someone would just drive London there to meet him?

We're All In This Together is written in multiple viewpoints, which was interesting.  You'd get to see the same thing through different perspectives, showing how people can think drastically different things about the same events.  This was most evident between twin sisters Finn and Nicki, who were identical in looks but totally different people inside.  I tended to really like the chapters written from Shawn, Katriina, and Walter's perspectives, although Kate's chapters were really interesting too thanks to her filling in the blanks to her past that Walter did not know.  There were some weird chapters though that were from secondary characters (Tanya, the girlfriend of Finn's ex-boyfriend Dallas, who happened to father one of Nicki's children; and Anastasia, a mean girl from London's school) who you would never see again.  These chapters filled in a couple of the blanks in the story but in a rather unnecessary way; I felt like the book would have been stronger without them.

I also had some setting issues that reminded me of reading Anna Dressed in Blood, though not as drastically.  Just stupid things (like people driving across town constantly, which most people who live in Thunder Bay DO NOT DO.  Or things like Zellers wasn't always Zellers, it was K-Mart for years before.  Thunder Bay Mall doesn't really have a food court, and it definitely does NOT have a Tim Hortons!)  For some reason, this sort of thing can really knock me out of a story (when the story is set somewhere that I know well and they get the details wrong).  It wasn't too bad (Jones does live here, whereas Kendare Blake does not), but it did make me cringe a few times.

Oh, and I have to mention the movie thing.  Every couple of chapters, the viewpoint character would think "If this were a movie...then this would happen.  But it's not, so it didn't."  I thought it was really weird the first time.  But by about the third time, it was annoying and made me want to skip over it.  If it had been a character quirk it would have been fine.  But almost every character in the book had a "If this were a movie" moment, which made it seem stupid.

Other than those gripes, I was really into the story.  The book is a whopping 417 pages (when I first got it I was dismayed at its size, which is one of the reasons I almost sent it back; I am quite capable of reading such a thing, but I didn't think I would have the time this week); I finished it in two nights.  I loved how the Parker family was a very real sort of family.  Sure they were dysfunctional in their way.  But what family isn't?  I loved most of the characters (I will admit I didn't really like Finn and Nicki, but I'm pretty sure Nicki is meant to be mostly unlikable until the end.  Finn just seemed annoying through most of the book).  And the story, while a bit crazy at times (particularly the end of it), will keep you reading.  I loved the juxtaposition of history in Kate's chapters, how she was able to remember her past so vividly (and share her amazing love story with Lydia with us) before she forgot it in the end.  We're All In This Together's soul is both the triumph of the family and the triumph of the human heart even when memory fades.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

And Then There Were None

My mom discovered Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None on the Wikipedia List of Best Selling Books some time ago.  The book has an estimated $100 million in sales since it was published in 1939.  She found it at a local used book store (the 50th printing), read it, and loved it.  So then she passed the book on to me.  Lately I've been reading magazines and failing to finish some nonfiction; I was in need of a good story.  She assured me it was a good story, so I started it a few days ago.  And wow, she was right!

And Then There Were None tells the story of ten strangers who are invited to an island under rather mysterious circumstances.  There's Mr. Justice Wargrave, the judge who thinks he's visiting an old friend; Vera Claythorne, an ex-governess who believes she's been hired as a secretary for the summer; Captain Philip Lombard, who was hired to help a wealthy client get out of a sticky situation; Emily Brent, who was invited for a vacation; General Macarthur, who believed he was visiting some old friends; Dr. Armstrong, who believed he was coming to see to the wealthy wife's health; Anthony Marston, who thought he was coming to a party; Mr. Blore, a private investigator who believes he is here as security; and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the hired help.  After everyone arrives on the island, they are informed that their host and hostess are delayed; that's when everyone discovers things are a bit off (some people were invited by someone under the name of Owens, but others were not; are they in the right place then?)  And then they start dying.  The first death can be mistaken for a suicide.  By the third one, this is no longer a plausible explanation.  After a thorough search of the island, the guests come to realize two things: there is no one else on the island with them, which means that one of them is the murderer!  And the murderer is killing everyone according to the "Ten Little Indians" poem which is framed in each of their rooms.  No one can trust anyone else.  How will the innocent guests figure out who the culprit is before they're all gone?

This masterfully put-together story is actually the first book of Christie's that I've ever read.  I can easily see why this book is the world's best selling mystery novel.  And if her other mysteries are of a similar caliber, it's no wonder her work is still beloved today.  I highly recommend And Then There Were None; while a little bit dated, it will keep you guessing right to the end as to how the whole plot was pulled off!

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Alchemist

My brother wanted me to read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. He wanted to know what I would think. I confess that I wasn't really interested, but took it at his insistence. Like he said, it's a short book that I'd be able to read through super quickly (totally true - I read the majority of it over the last four hours, which were interrupted several times when my cat wandered into the room wanting to play). My mom was interested in reading it, but she's in the middle of another book, so this was the perfect time to read it before giving it to her. Oh, and I had just gotten a little over 100 pages through Dean Koontz's By the Light of the Moon and decided I was going to stop because it failed to hold my interest. So now was honestly the perfect time to read through The Alchemist before sending it on its way.
The Alchemist is the story of a Shepherd boy who after having the same dream two nights in a row goes in search of his Personal Legend: he must journey to the pyramids of Egypt to find his personal treasure. Along the way he meets many interesting people: a gypsy, a king, a merchant, an Englishman, his soulmate, and the actual alchemist of the title. These people and his journeys, both directly and indirectly, teach him about the universal language and the Soul of the World. It is through these lessons that he will find his Personal Legend and the treasure that awaits him at the end of his journey.
The Alchemist is an interesting read that will (and does) appeal to many people. It's telling you how you too can pursue your dreams, just like the Shepherd boy. Follow the omens (the road map that will point you in the right direction) and the world will conspire to get you there. Your journey will be hard as the world will test you along the way (to make sure you've learned the lessons it has taught you), but getting to the end of your journey will be worth it.
Unfortunately, I found The Alchemist to be a very heavy handed read. It would have been better with more subtlety, leaving both you the reader and the Shepherd boy to discover things along the way. But it tells instead of shows every single step along the way. It's also super repetitive, telling you things over and over again, drilling stuff into your head to make sure you get it. It's a real shame, too. The Alchemist has a good message; I just wish it had been a whole lot less didactic.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Knife Fight and Other Struggles

I bought Knife Fight and Other Struggles last year at Ad Astra after I heard David Nickle read the first half of "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  He didn't finish reading the story and I HAD to know how it ended.  So I bought it and proceeded to leave it on my shelf for a year, untouched.  I don't know why I did that, because I was really excited by that story.  But stay on the shelf it did.  Until a few days ago when I finally decided to pick up the book and finish "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  

Knife Fight has 12 short stories in it.  13 if you count "Orlok," a prelude to Nickle's novel Volk.  Oh yeah, and a really  awesome introduction by Peter Watts.  Most of the stories were written in first person, but you always had an excellent sense of what the narrator was like; Nickle could write as a lovestruck young woman as easily as a jaded old man.  And Nickle's prose was almost hypnotic.  Whatever he was writing about, the stories sucked you in with their details.  This was true even of the stories that I honestly didn't get (and unfortunately there were a few of them).

I'm not going to give detailed thoughts on all the stories like I have been doing lately; instead I'll give a little more detail on my favourites and just mention the rest.

Oh course, starting the list is "The Exorcist: A Love Story."  The beginning of that story is just as good as I remember it being when I heard Nickle reading it a year ago.  It's told from the demon's perspective, who has inhabited a baby boy.  It turns out the demon has a very specific motive in its choice of inhabitants: the baby is the child of the girl the exorcist has had a crush on since high school.  

After (finally!) finishing "The Exorcist: A Love Story," I went back and started from the beginning of the book.  "Looker" was odd.  I honestly didn't get what was going on in "The Radejastians" (although that was the point where I felt like I really should have read the Lovecraft book I have before reading this).  "The Summer Worms" was super creepy (although that may also be because I have seen army worms and the thought of them congregating on a house and cocooning it is really creepy!)  "Basements" was another one that was weird and I didn't really understand it at all.  I liked a lot of the middle of it, but the beginning and end were weird and vague.  Who was the company?  Who or what was Mr. Nu?  These are questions I cannot answer.  "Oops" was a short one that was a bit weird, but okay.  Same with "Black Hen a la Ford."  Oh, and "Orlok."  I didn't really care for it unfortunately.  :(

Now on to the (other) awesome stories!

"Knife Fight" was pure awesome.  A mayor of a city (which may be based off of a rather infamous Toronto mayor) has a Fight Club with knives.  Battles go to the first blood.  Winner takes all.  His advisors and staff are made or broken in the fights (which ends with them losing their jobs - no one dies or anything).  The press gets wind of these fights, and one journalist challenges the mayor.  They end up fighting an epic, multi-week battle with no clear winner or loser.  It's quite the fantastic story.

"Love Means Forever" was a really powerful story.  A woman awakens from cryogenic sleep to find the man she loves no longer loves her.  The medical support staff who remained awake on the ship had gone crazy and ended up removing their feelings (it reminded me of Equilibrium quite a bit).  So she has to decide what she will do: move on, or remain with the man she loves, even knowing he isn't capable of loving her back.  (By the way, there's a scalpel fight in this story.  No details, but it made me laugh that another knife fight definitely happened).

"Wylde's Kingdom" was another really good read.  There's a super storm over the world called Atlantica (think of it like Jupiter's big red spot).  A man named Jerry Wylde has a boat in the middle of it (well, hanging out away from the storm).  He started a TV show with Max (who he insisted on calling Jim), who goes into crazy scenarios and survives (which really means killing a whole bunch of animals).  But Max ran away several years ago and wanted to be left in peace as the world ended.  But such was not to be; Jerry Wylde has tracked him down for a big comeback special - Max versus a whole nest of Kraken!  Max resigns himself to the show.  All seems set for the greatest comeback of all time...until they realize the Kraken are much more organized than they have any right to be.

"The Nothing Book of the Dead" was really interesting.  It was written as notes back and forth between a woman and her grandson.  But then the woman dies...but keeps correcting his grammar and writing him notes...this one was definitely worth the read!

"Drakeela Must Die" was a rather fun story.  There's a vampire in a kindergarten class, and some of his classmates have taken it upon themselves to vanquish him like they've seen it done in the old movies.  

So that, in brief, is Knife Fight.  It's an interesting collection of stories.  Like Peter Watts says, most of them are horror, in the broadest definition possible.  But Nickle is not limited to that genre, capable of writing other things as well ("Love Means Forever" is definitely sci fi, not a typical supernatural horror). There's no hack and slash stuff, which I really liked (I much prefer when things are left up to your imagination anyway, even though that's not really applicable here because there was no gore, implied or otherwise).  I do wish I hadn't put this off for so long.  But I wish even more that I had read some Lovecraft first.  So I'll probably be getting to that Lovecraft book I have sooner rather than later.