Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Review: The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon SandersonThe Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications, 2012)

Shai is a Forger. On her planet, that means a whole lot more than it does on ours. Instead of fabricating a reproduction of an original art piece, these Forgers replicate it through magic.

Forging is convenient. The Imperial Palace is furnished with junk—junk that’s been Forged into beautiful, period pieces. Unfortunately, humans can be Forged too. Thus it’s illegal outside of carefully-controlled use.

Shai is one of the best. Betrayed by an accomplice and sentenced to death, she’s offered one final chance: the impossible task of Forging the Emperor, who has been brain-damaged in an assassination attempt. With half the time she needs, no certainty of success, and the knowledge that her captors will kill her in the end, Shai sets to work—on the Emperor’s soul and on her escape plans.

There’s so much in this short novella. Shai is a person of integrity, an artist and a shrewd observer. Why does she Forge instead of creating original art? The ruling council who control her need the Emperor alive to prevent a power shift and thus maintain their own positions. What might they try for personal gain? And how much forbidden magic will they need to allow?

The ending grows organically from the story, yet I didn’t anticipate it. And the time spent with Shai and her counterpart, Gaotona, feels like time spent with friends. Definitely a satisfying read, and it won the 2013 Hugo Award for best novella. Click here for an excerpt of The Emperor’s Soul.

Brandon Sanderson is perhaps best known for his Mistborn books and as the author chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. You can find him at his website. Writers may be interested in his archived course material at Write About Dragons, and his podcasts at Writing Excuses.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina, by Rachel HartmanSeraphina, by Rachel Hartman (Doubleday, 2012)

What’s a young woman to do when she needs to be anonymous but has a musical gift that won’t stay hidden? Seraphina is an outsider. She doesn’t fit in, and she can’t risk letting anyone close enough to discover her secret. But her new job is to assist the court composer, direct the orchestra in his absence, and teach harpsichord to Princess Glisselda.

The story world has a mediaeval European or British feel, with kingdoms, castles and knights. And dragons who can look like humans. The dragon/human war ended in a truce almost 40 years ago, but there’s still deep distrust between the two sides. As the anniversary celebrations approach, hostilities are increasing.

Seraphina herself is a half-dragon, and that’s the source of her (and her father’s) shame. She looks human, except for a few scaly spots that she keeps hidden. She’s a biological impossibility, and an offense against both laws and morals. But the very things she thinks disqualify her from belonging may be the gifts she brings to keep the peace.

Because she understands both perspectives, she finds herself drawn into preventing a crisis that could plunge the world back into war. This means working closer than she’d like with Princess Glisselda and the handsome Captain of the Guard, Prince Lucian Kiggs. The more Seraphina cares for them both, the harder it is to deceive them about her true nature.

Seraphina is one of those rare books that I wanted to read slowly to make the story last. The characters, setting and plot weave a rich and enjoyable tapestry. They feel real, despite being so clearly not of our world. This is a novel I will read again.

Rachel Hartman has done a beautiful job of letting the characters struggle with issues many of us know intimately: belonging and truth. There’s no sense of a forced agenda or message-driven plot. The characters, especially Seraphina and Kiggs, live their questions in front of us, and we can relate.

There’s much more to the novel than I can describe in a review. If you’re at all fond of fantasy or historical novels and you’re not threatened by a quirky fictional religion, give it a try. And prepare to lose yourself in the pages. It’s a young adult novel by nature of the characters’ ages, but it’s a satisfying read for adults as well, especially those who may struggle with belonging or who love music.

Seraphina is, unbelievably, a debut novel. I’m glad there’ll be a sequel. You can learn more about Rachel Hartman and about Seraphina on her website.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Review: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card

cover art: How to Write Science Fiction and FantasyHow to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card (Writers Digest Books, 1990)

In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy Orson Scott Card doesn’t repeat the writing advice he’s given elsewhere (Characters and Viewpoint from Writers Digest Books). Instead he focuses on the particular attributes needed in the speculative genres.

The book contains five sections: The Infinite Boundary (defining the genres), World Creation, Story Construction, Writing Well, and The Life and Business of Writing.

What makes a good science fiction story? A good fantasy? Mr. Card illustrates the differences and provides an extensive reading list. He says we won’t like everything on the list, but we’ll see the varieties within the genre and we’ll see what works and what’s already been over-done. And analyzing our responses will help us discover the style and approach we want to use in our own fiction.

The book offers solid teaching on the crafting and writing of a speculative story (world, history, characters, etc). Mr. Card advocates a lot of thinking and discovery before writing, which may frighten seat-of-the-pants writers, but we’re not starting from the known setting of planet Earth. Without the depth of history and background, our story world and cultures won’t feel real.

Other than the World Creation section (the largest part), any kind of fiction writer can benefit from the information in this book. The examples are from speculative work but the principles apply across genres.

The author gives tips on how to develop what he calls a “Wise Reader,” someone who can read your manuscript and give his/her reactions. The aim is not to get advice on what to do next, but to hear genuine audience reaction to your plot, characters etc. This will help you find those points in the story that don’t achieve your desired impact or effect.

There have been changes since the book appeared in 1990, in speculative fiction and in the general world of writing and publishing. Writers can find that information elsewhere, and will still find this slim book helpful.

If you’re going to write (or are writing) in the speculative genres, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy is an essential resource. If not, you’re still likely to find something helpful in the second half of the book.

Hatrack River is the official website of  Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Orson Scott Card (or visit the directory of all his sites).

[Review copy from my personal library. Review first appeared in FellowScript, August 2012.]

Review: The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

 

The Alloy of Law: cover art

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2011)

Waxilium Ladrian is a frontier lawman with the Allomantic ability to mentally Push metal (a “coinshot” in the original Mistborn trilogy terminology). He’s also a good man with a gun.

Wax moves into the city of Elendel to manage his late uncle’s estate. It’s a struggle to reinvent himself to be acceptable in social circles … and to attract a wealthy bride to restore his house’s fortunes.

But his friend and former sidekick, Wayne, won’t let him forget his law-enforcement days. There’s a new gang of thieves at work and the local police are out of their league. Wax and Wayne 🙂 are a fun team to watch at work.

If you haven’t read the earlier Mistborn books, you can jump right in here. Much has changed since that trilogy, and anything needed is explained. Those who familiar with the first series will recognize little nods and tributes here and there.

The Alloy of Law takes place 300 years after the events of the original Mistborn series. In the acknowledgements section, the author says he plans to write two more epic trilogies on this planet, Scadrial: one urban and one futuristic, to show how the culture changes over time.

This novel, though, isn’t part of that. It’s shorter, and has a wild west / frontier town feel. It may be my favourite Brandon Sanderson book yet, possibly because it’s a bit faster-paced and still has his trademark threads of humour.

He doesn’t say anything about it being more than a stand-alone title, but the ending sets up enough problems for Wax and Wayne that I certainly hope there’ll be a sequel.

Visit the official Brandon Sanderson website for more about the author and his books, or see The Alloy of Law page for more about this story.

[Review copy borrowed from my son’s bookcase.]

Review: Daughter of Light, by Morgan L. Busse

Daughter of LightDaughter of Light, by Morgan L. Busse (Marcher Lord Press, 2012)

Rowen Mar has always felt like an outsider, and when she develops a mysterious white mark on her palm—and unleashes a frightening power—she’s truly alone. Can she make a new life as bodyguard to Lady Astrea in the White City, or will her secret come out? And does she have a part to play in the war that threatens her new home?

Caleb Tala is an unstoppable assassin whose victims haunt his dreams. Nierne is a young scribe thrust from her secure monastery and charged with a dangerous journey.

With supernatural power, secrets, danger and death, Daughter of Light follows Rowen, Caleb, Nierne and their associates in a lavish-scaled fantasy that is only the beginning of the real battle.

In this book, the armies are human. But just as Rowen discovers herself to be one of the Eldaran, an angelic-type race thought long dead, another forgotten race still lives: the Shadonae. And while the Eldaran serve the Word (God of the story’s world) the Shadonae oppose Him and want to destroy all humans.

The story drew me in, the world-building is detailed, and I liked Rowen, Nierne and their friends. The Word is a clear representation of Jesus, and those who follow Him are realistic in their struggles. There are a few instances of Divine interaction in the plot, and they’re neither gratuitous nor taking over the characters. They’re the logical result of having a God who cares about His people but who gives them free will, and I found they encouraged my faith.

I would like to have seen Nierne’s plot thread taken one more step at the end, but I’ll have to wait for book 2. And there must be a book 2; the Shadonae are rising. Marcher Lord Press doesn’t release a list of new titles too far in advance of publication but that doesn’t mean a sequel isn’t in the works.

You can learn more about author Morgan L. Busse and Daughter of Light at her website, In Darkness there is Light.

[Review copy from my personal library. Amazon links are affiliate links for The Word Guild.]

Review: The Realms Thereunder, by Ross Lawhead

The Realms Thereunder - cover artThe Realms Thereunder, by Ross Lawhead (Thomas Nelson, 2011)

The Realms Thereunder is a fun ride. Eight years ago, 13-year-olds Daniel and Freya discovered an underground world with sleeping knights and dangerous creatures. Today, Daniel lives on the streets of Oxford, England, and Freya is a university student there. And the lines between the visible and hidden world are blurring.

The novel tells both stories, in scenes clearly labelled “eight years before” and “now,” and it held my interest from the very beginning. The plot is complex but understandable, Daniel and Freya are real characters with real issues and neuroses (Daniel’s home life scarred him, and Freya hasn’t recovered from her first experience underground.)

There’s some delightfully understated humour, like Daniel’s reaction to a stone he’s supposed to put in his mouth, and there are mythical and disturbing creatures of all kinds. (Love the conversation about how to dispose of dead trolls in present-day UK.)

Naturally, most people around Daniel and Freya deny the encroaching danger, but there are a few who don’t: Scottish police officer Alex Simpson and the mysterious Oxford-based group, the Society of Concerned Individuals.

The Sleeping Knights (once awake) and their people use archaic names and titles, complete with some ancient letters that I can’t reproduce on this blog. The author is careful to have Daniel or Freya pronounce the key words phonetically the first time so readers can do the same. And there’s a pronunciation key at the back of the book if needed.

I applaud the publisher for allowing at least some of British spellings in the novel (they wimp out on manoeuvred and go for maneuvered). Words like honour, armour, colour, are a subtle way to remind readers that we’re in England. As a Canadian, I hope this is precedent for novels set in Canada.

On the other hand, this intricately-plotted story would have benefited from more careful polishing and copy-editing. We see a horse’s reigns and a creature trying to wretch, and a character exalt at the prospect of adventure, all simple spell-check issues. And there’s text with repeated words or phrases (“find purchase” three times close together) that a quick polish would fix.

These are minor things and hardly worth mention for most readers, but they’re evidence of a disturbing trend as even the big-league publishers find themselves with more work than time to do it.

The Realms Thereunder is Ross Lawhead’s first novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it, quickly passed it on to my son, and am looking forward to the next in the series, The Fearful Gates, available September 2012.

Click to read an excerpt of The Realms Therunder, and you can learn more about Ross Lawhead at his blog.

[Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Thomas Nelson] 

Review: The Kingdom, by Benjamin T. Collier

The Kingdom, by Benjamin T. Collier (Word Alive Press, 2011)

The Kingdom is a short novella, under 100 pages, but it pulls readers into an intriguing fantasy world of kingdoms, knights, princesses and mythical flying beasts.

The story draws on classic fantasy and fairy tale elements such as the princess enduring endless presentations from eligible-but-boring suitors, the corrupt steward ruling in the good king’s absence, the strong hero and his fantastic animal companion (in this case, a dragon-like creature called a wyvern).

One of the twists: the “strong hero” might be considered a villain. And Princess Nevaeh is no damsel in distress. She’s a strong young woman looking for a partner, not a rescuer.

Nevaeh and the villain/hero, Roy, are each looking for someone who’ll love them for who they are—and neither is looking for a person like the other. Behind the romance is another kind of love and trust as Nevaeh waits confidently for her father, the good king, to return as promised, when the rest of the kingdom considers him lost at sea.

Canadian author Benjamin T. Collier writes with vivid description and humour. In contrast with epic fantasy and its multiple plot threads, he keeps a tight focus on Nevaeh’s story. The world he’s envisioned could support a more complex weaving of plots, and if he decides to revisit it in the future there would be plenty to explore.

You can find Benjamin at his blog, and you might want to check out my interview with him.

Friday Friends: Author Benjamin T. Collier

I first met Canadian author Benjamin T. Collier at Write! Canada a few years back. Since we’re both members of The Word Guild, I’ve been able to keep up with his writing progress, and I was glad to hear that his first novella, The Kingdom, released in spring 2011.

Janet: Welcome, Benjamin, and thanks for taking time to join us. Novellas are sort of that middle ground between short stories and novels, correct? The Kingdom is fantasy, something I’m reading more of these days. Would you tell  us a bit about the story?

Benjamin: I’m very happy to chat with you. Thanks for the invite.

Yes, the story was simple enough to fit in under a hundred pages, and I felt that adding more just to make it novel length would’ve only served to bulk it up and slow it down. But it was definitely too long for a two-page short story. I was fortunate to find a publisher that does books of this length.

The story begins with a once-glorious kingdom that now lies in the hands of a corrupt steward. And it is up to Princess Nevaeh to restore the kingdom to glory. It starts off in a very fairytale setting and then quickly heads off in a different direction. I hope to keep the reader on their toes.

Janet: The cover art is beautiful. Where did the story idea come from?

Benjamin: I grew up with movies like Beauty and the Beast and Shrek, films that take the known formula of fairytale stories and turn them on their head in ways that speak to people’s hearts. And although the messages in those stories hit very near to my heart, they all fell short of hitting my soul. The Kingdom was written as my attempt to write a story that spoke what was really on my heart. Though in this case it’s written for mature readers.

Janet: One of the extra challenges to writing fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction is the need to invent new worlds and people. Tell us a bit about that.

Benjamin: I’ve written full length fantasy novels before, and I do enjoy the process of inventing new people and cultures and figuring out how they work. But with The Kingdom being a novella I didn’t have as much time to introduce the reader to the peoples and cultures of Allandor and the surrounding regions, I only had time for the peoples and cultures who were relevant to the story, and other aspects of the world are only mentioned in passing.

I think one of the strengths of fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan is having their characters casually mention this or that person, place, or event, without going into detail over it. It makes the world more intriguing to the reader and gives it a sense of age and history that pulls them in. I hope to emulate that skill.

Janet: Emulating the masters is a good way to go. Do you have a favourite character in the story?

Benjamin: I think I would have to say Ruth, the wyvern. Just because I’m an animal lover. 🙂 I tend to gravitate toward the characters who are most different, even if they’re so different as to be another species.

My second favourite is probably Roy. He’s a particularly fun character to write, whether it’s his dialogue, behaviour, or even the personality that the narrative takes on when it’s from his perspective.

Janet: I’m looking forward to reading about them. What one key thing do you want readers to take away when they’re done?

Benjamin: As with most of my writing, my hope is for people to come away with a different perspective on the way that God works and the love that He has for them.

Janet: Any thoughts of a sequel? What projects do you have on the go now?

Benjamin: I’ve considered a sequel. 🙂 But nothing’s been determined yet. Before The Kingdom I also wrote two sci-fi/fantasy novels that I want to go back to and revise now that my writing craft is more developed. But probably the next thing I’ll work on is updating and editing my autobiography (about my life with autism) and get that ready for publishing.

Janet: You certainly have plenty of project ideas. What got you started writing?

Benjamin: I’ve always been a storyteller, but up until the age of five I was non-verbal, and could only communicate through drawing pictures. I’ve always been a big fan of movies and video games, and as a kid I drew a lot of pictures about various video game and movie characters.

For me, writing creatively started as me jotting down notes and background information about the characters I drew. These eventually turned into full-fledged short stories, until one day I decided to take my latest idea and see if I could actually write it down as a novel. That’s when I realized the career path that God was taking me down.

Janet: That’s an interesting way to get here. What do your family think of your writing?

Benjamin: I think they were surprised at first. Books weren’t my first love. But after years of seriously pursuing this as a career my friends and family have seen over time how different parts of my life and personality all come together in this one journey. Now they’re very excited for me. My mother in particular gets excited every time she sees my name on the book cover.

Janet: It is exciting to see someone discover and pursue what they’re designed for! What do you like best about the writing life?

Benjamin: The hours. 🙂

Writing creatively is something I’ve been able to do for my own enjoyment for years. But if there’s a way that my writing can be shared with others, and that they can be blessed through it as well as I am, then it’s great confirmation that I’m doing what God made me for.

Janet: What do you like least?

Benjamin: Deadlines. I don’t know if it’s an autism thing or just me, but time limits and I don’t get along. I manage my deadlines well enough, but they’re one of the more stressful aspects of the business for me.

Janet: Some people thrive on deadlines, but I agree with you. They’re stressful. Writers are told to read widely and voraciously. I think that’s one of the perks of the deal. What are you reading these days?

Benjamin: I’m almost finished my second read through the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I’m in the appendix right now – which is several chapters in itself). I read it years ago but I was given The Silmarillion for Christmas and I wanted to get the world fresh in my mind before I read it.

Janet: Love Lord of the Rings, although somehow I’ve never read The Silmarillion. Is there a particular song or Scripture verse that’s made a big difference for you?

Benjamin: I think the song that’s meant the most to me over the years has been “Trust Me (This Is Love)” by Amanda Marshall. It’s a song that’s come up often on the radio as I’ve been going through a bad time, and it brings me comfort. 

Janet: Thanks for sharing the song. I hadn’t heard it in a while. The chorus is so encouraging, and isn’t it funny how God will bring a song along just when we need it? What do you like to do to get away from it all?

Benjamin: Video games are my most common pastime. In particular I am attracted to games with deep customization options and tools for creativity. My main game lately has been Little Big Planet 2. Occasionally on my blog I’ll have a post that’s just about what I’ve been up to in that one game alone.

Janet: What’s the most surprising or zany thing you’ve ever done?

Benjamin: That might be the skit that some friends and I did at a youth retreat. They went to a wrestling match and I had a fight with my sweater – which I lost. Later on the sweater tossed me through a door into someone’s house and I started savagely beating it with a random boot prop and got my revenge. I still have that sweater, but it was never the same after that.

Janet: I’m giggling—thanks for that image! Thanks so much for taking time to let us get to know you a bit, Benjamin. May the LORD continue to bless you and make you a blessing to others—in every area of your life.

Readers, you may enjoy a photo of the author at rest. (Scroll down to see the photo caption.)

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I’m hoping to pick up an autographed copy of The Kingdom at Write! Canada. The print book is available through the standard online and retail outlets (may have to be ordered into your local bookstore), and the e-book is available in Kindle format and through Books on Board. Visit Benjamin T. Collier’s blog to learn more about the author and his book.  Chapters.ca Amazon.ca

Review: Unlocked, a novel by Cynthia d’Entremont

Unlocked, by Cynthia d’Entremont (Word Alive Press, 2010)

“What if you lived in a world where killing was a rite of passage?”

Jaron, Devora and Benjamin have survived in Leviathon’s crowded Garbage Heaps for ten years, longing for the day they could leave. But the world outside the cinderblock wall is more dangerous than they know.

Abandoned in the Heaps as five-years, by the time they leave at 15 their innocence and hope are gone. Jaron still clings to memory fragments and his one possession: a key he must keep hidden.

Unlocked follows Jaron and Devora in their separate experiences outside the wall. Leviathon’s secrets run deeper and darker than its citizens know, and what the two teens discover puts them in mortal danger.

This is action-fantasy, as opposed to a slower-paced and longer epic fantasy. It’s a fast read, dark but not overwhelming. I appreciated the author’s light touch with heavy issues; readers know what happens, but the graphic parts occur “off-screen.”

It’s a novel that will appeal to adults as well as to the age 15+ readers at which it’s aimed. There’s Christian allegory for those who want to find it, but the faith element is subtle enough to make the book suitable for Christians and those of other or no faith.

The characters are believable: wounded by their environment but courageous enough to fight for what’s right. The setting, while not our own, has a city and countryside we can relate to. And the societal issues, while overtly different, include some that are very familiar: homelessness, violence and injustice.

Since I finished the novel I’ve been puzzling over the how and why of Devora’s encounter with her enemy. I think I have the “how” settled, and I have some ideas about the “why” but I’m still curious. To say more would be to spoil a key plot point, but it’s something I hope will be explained in the sequel.

Unlocked is the 2009 Word Alive free publishing contest winner in the fiction category and is now available online or through your local bookseller. You can learn more about the novel and about Canadian author Cynthia d’Entremont at her website.

Note: Cynthia is a personal friend. While that predisposed me to see the good things in the novel, it doesn’t account for how strongly the story and characters drew me in or how long I thought about them afterward. I’m now in danger of putting our friendship at risk by repeatedly asking how the sequel is coming along.

[Book source: I bought my own copy of Unlocked at the novel’s launch party.]

Review: The Vanishing Sculptor, by Donita K. Paul

The Vanishing Sculptor, by Donita K. Paul

The Vanishing Sculptor, by Donita K. Paul (WaterBrook Press, 2009)

In the land of Chiril, a young woman named Tipper tries to keep the dwindling family estate together. Her father, famed sculptor Verrin Schope, disappeared a long time ago. Her mother claims he talks to her at night, but Lady Peg is scattered at best. Tipper is reduced to selling household furnishings and her father’s beloved statues to meet expenses. It doesn’t help that Lady Peg will buy back everything she sees in the market because it’s “just what I’ve always wanted.”

Verrin Schope reappears—out of thin air—with two companions who will bring smiles of recognition to readers of the author’s DragonKeeper series: wizard Fenworth and his librarian, Librettowit. Tipper, her trusted guardian Sir Beccaroon (a talking Great Parrot), a struggling artist and four minor dragons join them on a dangerous quest.

It seems three of the statues Tipper sold must be reunited… to save her father’s life and the land itself. The questing party is completed by a dragon keeper and four riding dragons.

The novel isn’t all swashbuckling adventure, although these moments do come in satisfying fashion. As with a true quest, it begins with preparation, travel and searching. In the process, it binds this group of diverse characters into a team.

The Vanishing Sculptor is described as “a fantastic journey of discovery for all ages.” It’s rich in language and setting, yet presented in a straightforward young adult style. Wizard Fenworth’s robes shed small creatures whenever he moves, and there are enough bugs to please the young and young at heart.

The tale is also woven with threads of spirituality, truth and character. It’s not a fast read, but very pleasing.

My 12-year-old son and I both enjoyed it. My only complaint is that I took a liking to Hue, the purple singing dragon. Dragons are never pets, but I’d very much like for him to come live with us. My son says this will not happen.

Perhaps I’ll see Hue in a sequel to The Vanishing Sculptor. Donita K. Paul’s first series, DragonKeeper, spanned five books. You can read the first chapter of The Vanishing Sculptor here.