The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series by Greg Keyes

The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone

My guilty literary pleasure is epic fantasy.  The problem is that a lot of the new fantasy being written is not very good.  With the rise in interest in fantasy fueled by recent trends in movies and television I think a lot of the resulting fiction is somewhat rushed and mediocre.  So when I started craving a high fantasy adventure after a year of not reading any, I had almost decided just to re-read an old favorite instead of risking something new and unknown.  Then I got a recommendation for this series (also known as The Briar King series) and I decided to give it a shot.

Overall, I think the series is a success.  It is comprised of four books:  The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight and The Born Queen (and that’s it!  the series is complete!  no waiting around for years for the next book…ahem….George R. R. Martin….).  And since all four books are now available in mass market paperback, the monetary risk is relatively low.

Though it does follow some basic formulas found in epic fantasy, namely main characters gradually discovering and coming to terms with great power and responsibility, an unidentified and seemingly undefeatable evil, political intrigue and quests to save the world, the series has a few traits that help to set it apart.  Keyes builds a complex and rich history and diversity of language that he uses throughout the books.  There are some identifiable traits in the languages used in the different parts of his fictional world that correspond with German, Italian, Latin, Gaelic and Old English — just enough to help the reader keep them separate and to create consistent cultures within the story, both current and historical.  Also, I found the series to be unusually dark and foreboding.  The first book was so creepy, in fact, I had to sleep with the light on for a couple of nights.  Once the evil became a little more concrete it lost some of its scariness.  But perhaps the most unique aspect of the series is the way in which Keyes incorporates a musical element.  There is a composer character introduced in the second book who rediscovers the lost (and outlawed) art of weaving magic into music.  The descriptions of the compositions are very detailed and interesting, and the results of the composer’s work within the story are very exciting.

There is a subtle tie-in to American history that was a little weird at first (sometimes real-world references in fantasy novels can spoil the story) but it is so minor and curious that I didn’t mind it, and it wasn’t until the last book that it was (briefly) explained. 

I’m not going to attempt to write a plot synopsis since it’s far too complex and I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the series has a well-developed, fleshed out storyline.  Even though the first book was slightly predictable and the last book became harried and chaotic, overall the plot and characters were original enough to be successful.  I almost got the sense from the last book that there was a hurry to get it done.  It could’ve easily been made into two books and the plot was turning in on itself so much at the end that sometimes it was hard to keep things straight.

I noticed a few editorial errors, which always bother me.  Specifically, there was a scene in the third book in which every person present was described or in some way accounted for but a page later an additional (previously absent) character pipes in with a comment.  I went back to the beginning of the chapter to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.  It was very distracting and really destroys the flow of a story when something like that isn’t caught.

Despite its flaws, I think the series is worth reading for those fans of epic fantasy.  I enjoyed it and it thoroughly satisfied my cravings for the genre…at least until next year!

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series is available at noteBooks in mass market paperback.  Each book is priced at $7.99.

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Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

artemis fowl

Eoin Colfer’s young adult series starring Irish boy-genius Artemis Fowl is a fantastic summer read.  Actually, the series would make a great read any time of the year, but if you’ve got bored teens or pre-teens at home this summer, these books are sure to keep them entertained, and they’re appealing to both boys and girls.  They’ve been so popular in the store as a matter of fact, that I just had to dig in and see what the buzz was all about.

The first book in the series, titled simply Artemis Fowl introduces young Artemis, who is only twelve, but who is hatching a nefarious plan to extort a large amount of money to fund a search effort for his father.  Artemis senior disappeared in the Arctic during one of his own planned exploits and it is up to Artemis junior to find him and to restore the family’s reputation and fortune.  Artemis’ plan involves stealing an ancient book, which holds the coded secrets to the fairy world and to ransom a fairy for gold.  Denizens of the fairy world live underground, are highly technologically advanced and have managed to keep themselves a secret from humans… at least until Artemis finds out about them. 

Throughout the series Artemis slowly finds himself befriending some of the fairies including Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit, Foaly, a centaur whose technological genius rivals Artemis’ own and Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf with some rather interesting (and disgusting) talents.  Each book presents a new threat against which the heroes must fight in order to save the unsuspecting human world.

The books have a great balance between the high-techno-Mission Impossible-type of spy fun and ancient fairy magic and mythology.  They are immensely humorous and sarcastic but also have a great deal of heart.  The storytelling is fantastic with surprises and twists and each book ties into the previous one seamlessly.  As added fun the author has included secret codes on the covers and along the bottom of the pages of text for readers to crack.

There are currently six books in the series uncluding Artemis Fowl, The Arctic Incident, The Eternity Code, The Opal Deception, The Lost Colony and the newest one which will be available in paperback on August 11, 2009, The Time Paradox.  And even though these books were written for young adults, I really enjoyed them.  They’re quick, funny entertaining reads and I’m keeping my eye out for the rumored feature film that is supposed to be in the works.

The Wicked Years Series by Gregory Maguire

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I took a break from my “required” reading to revisit an old favorite.  Wicked was written fourteen years ago and is a wonderful retelling of the well-known story, The Wizard of Oz with a focus on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West.  The book was so well-received that it was adapted for the stage and is currently being performed on Broadway.  Two sequels to Wicked have been published; Son of a Witch (2005) and A Lion Among Men (2008).  When I realized that a third book had been published just last year I thought it was time to re-read Wicked and see if the sequel novels were up to snuff with the first.

Gregory Maguire’s novels are essentially “fairy tales for adults.”  In Wicked, we follow the life of Elphaba, an unusual green-skinned girl born to a mother who is a rebellious heiress and a father who is a hopeless evangelist.  Amidst developing political tensions and growing anti-Animalism (Animals, as opposed to animals, are intelligent, speaking, self-aware members of society who find themselves increasing in disfavor under the Wizard’s regime), Elphaba attends a University in Oz’s academic center, the city of Shiz.  There, she meets Galinda (later, Glinda) and begins to become aware of the moral corruption surrounding the Wizard and his discriminatory laws.  She decides to take an active, secretive role in usurping the Wizard’s power and in doing so realizes that the difference between good and evil is often not clearly defined.  Surprising events lead up to the climactic confrontation between Dorothy and the Witch, and the reader will find themselves mourning the loss of a misunderstood hero rather than feeling triumphant over the death of a villain.

The two novels that follow in The Wicked Years series lack the charm of the first, since there are far fewer easily recognizable references and parallels to the well-known book by Frank L. Baum and the 1939 movie, but they are still compelling enough on their own.  Son of a Witch is the story of Liir, the boy whose early years were intricately intertwined with the final years of Elphaba.  He may or may not be Elphaba’s son, and he struggles with that knowledge and the responsibility of carrying on her legacy.  The Wizard’s rule has ended rather abruptly and there is a succession of short-term rulers causing increasing political unrest.  Mysterious and violent deaths are occurring and there are rumors that the EC (Emerald City) may be involved in nefarious doings.  As a young man, Liir lies unconscious in bed, being nursed back to health by the novice, Candle, and while asleep he recounts the events leading up to the present since the death of the Witch.  The book is a bit slow overall, but ends in a dramatic cliffhanger.

The third book, A Lion Among Men, is the Cowardly Lion’s story.  It does not further the central story line much at all, except to reveal that war has finally broken out in Oz between the Emerald City and annexed Munchkinland.  The Lion tells his story from his earliest memories as a young Lion up to his adventure with Dorothy and everything that followed.  We also uncover the mysteries behind two other characters that have appeared throughout the series; Yackle and Nor, but the entire book is backtracking, not really pushing the story forward.  The third book is entirely different in tone from the first two.  It was much more poetic in nature.  The book ends with the teaser that the cliffhanger of the second book will be resolved, so it seems that there will be at least one more novel.

At the very least, everyone should read Wicked, and then decide for themselves if they are content leaving it at that, or if they want to leave the familiar parallels behind and push forward into Maguire’s more unfamiliar Oz in the next two books.

Gregory Maguire has written other adult fairy tales including Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), Lost (2001), and Mirror, Mirror (2003).  He’s also written nearly two dozen children’s books.

Wicked and Son of a Witch are available at noteBooks in mass market paperback editions.  A Lion Among Men will be available in trade paperback next month.       

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Inheritance Cycle: Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

Ayup, the Inheritance Trilogy has become the Inheritance Cycle…Christopher Paolini decided to split Brisingr into two separate volumes!  You can see him talk about it here :  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuI3psxQ-cc

Book 3, Brisingr, will be available for purchase on September 20, 2008.  Remarkably, Paolini wrote most of Eragon when he was just fifteen years old.  The book was published when he was only nineteen and the second volume was written and published just a couple years later.  As one might expect, Eragon occasionally belies the author’s youth by utilizing a handful of “high fantasy” cliches.  (Of course, my criticism is served with a heavy dallop of both humility and sheepishness, having yet to write my own multi-volume fantasy epic….)  The story, however, transcends any writing immaturity and by the middle of Eragon, I was hooked.  As a follow-up, Eldest continues the engrossing storyline and Paolini’s writing is as good or better than his fantasy genre’s peers.

The series tells the story of Eragon, a farmer boy who lives with his uncle and cousin outside of the small village Carvahall.  The violent and treacherous King Galbatorix rules the Empire with an oppresive iron fist.  The Varden, a secretive rebel group are gathering strength to make their move against the King.  During this time of political unrest Eragon finds a mysterious stone while hunting in the nearby mountains.  Realizing that it is something special, he takes it home where he quickly realizes the stone is actually a dragon egg as the baby dragon hatches and bonds with Eragon, making him the first new Dragon Rider in many years.  This surprising twist of fate forces Eragon to flee from Carvahall as the King’s agents come looking for him.  Under the tutelage of wise and secretive Brom and the protection of his dragon, Saphira, Eragon soon realizes that he is destined for a path that he never could have imagined, influenced by elves, dwarves, heroes, magic and werecats (had to mention the werecats, they’re my favorite).

The books in the Inheritance Cycle are rich with the history and culture of Paolini’s realm, Alagaesia, but not burdensome, making it a great series for both young readers and veteran fantasy lovers alike.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 5:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray

In the late 1800s, Gemma Doyle is a 16 year old English girl who has lived with her family in India all her life. She longs to go to school near London where she can participate in the glamour and revelry associated with her coming of age in society. Although her parents have always insisted in keeping Gemma away from London culture, a terrible twist of fate finds Gemma enrolled in Spence Acadamy, an English school for girls.

As Gemma settles in and begins making friends, she discovers there is a secret history to Spence involving a mystical and powerful Order of women. Gemma also soon realizes that she has powers of her own which she cannot completely control. Gemma struggles to understand them and to uncover the mysteries of the past involving Spence, the Order and her mother.

The story in the Gemma Doyle trilogy is imaginative and captivating, but what I really enjoyed, and what I feel the real strength of these books are, is the detail in which the author, Libba Bray, illustrates Victorian London society and the role women play within it. The second book especially, which takes place during Christmastime in London, is so rich with Victorian culture that it’s easy to get swept up into the thrill of holiday balls, shopping, teas, hopeful debutantes and courting propriety. Woven throughout is Bray’s macabre mystery, a dollop of romance and a strong feminist message: Gemma struggles with the societal expectation that she fashion herself into a suitable wife as well as the pull of the independent, dangerous nature of the women of the Order.

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy:

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Rebel Angels

The Sweet Far Thing