Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review - His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik

I think that most of the fantasy I’ve been reading lately has been taking itself quite seriously. Lots of death, sex, political intrigue, and bleak futures. The first book in Novik’s Temeraire series is exactly what I needed: a fresh take on a well-worn fantasy trope that doesn’t need high-minded literary aspirations due to it being so fun to read. Not to say that it isn’t literary either; His Majesty’s Dragon is a pretty great work of fantasy fiction.

This first book introduces the reader to William Lawrence, a sea captain in the Royal Navy. The books take place in an alternate version of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, where dragons not only exist but are fairly common, and a key element of most nations’ military forces. After a quick battle with a weakened French ship, Lawrence recovers a prize of great value: a dragon egg, ready to hatch. The intelligent animal unexpectedly picks Lawrence to bond with; duty compels Lawrence to leave his beloved ship and become an aviator, simply for the sake of putting another British dragon in the skies. However, his initial reluctance to leave his sheltered life as an officer and gentleman to become a social pariah (as most aviators usually are in this England) quickly fades, as he begins to form his own bond with the unique black dragon, who he has named Temeraire after the famous Royal ship of the line. Lawrence and Temeraire’s training progresses quickly due to the dragon’s extraordinary intelligence and unique flying abilities, but a clever plan by Napoleon to invade England forces them into action, and unveils some startling truths about what Temeraire is and where he came from.

The entire book rests on the relationship between Lawrence and Temeraire, and it does so comfortably. Both are excellent, sympathetic characters. Lawrence’s stilted manners and fish-out-of-water naiveté contrasts perfectly with Temeraire’s wide-eyed innocence and occasional childish enthusiasm, making them an easy pair to like and root for. Admittedly, though, their relationship does take some getting used to. Between the histrionics each goes into at any perceived threat towards the other and Lawrence’s baffling tendency to refer to Temeraire as “my dear,” there are some initial overtones of gay man-dragon love. But as the book progresses, Novik does a fantastic job of defining the strong, unique relationships between the captains and their sentient dragons. I perceived it as a mix of the feelings a person would have towards a child and a particularly loved pet. In any event, once the initial “wtf?” feeling wears off, it is written well enough to make some of the scenes between the dragons and their respective people heart-wrenching, if occasionally too sentimental.

As with any good alternate history that takes place in wartime, the battles are the highlights of this book. Novik eschews the “dragon-rider” approach, and instead puts forth the notion that dragons can support actual crews of various sizes, who operate much like naval crews of the time would. Thus, each battle scene mixes the tense, orderly progression of a naval clash with the chaos of aerial warfare. Also, we’re talking about dragons that can do cool dragon things like spit acid and claw things apart. It really doesn’t get much cooler than that.

The story is probably the weakest element of the book, in that it’s understated and doesn’t take a whole lot of surprising turns. This book has a distinct “introductory” feel, meaning that the establishment of the characters takes precedence over the actual plot. This doesn’t actually cause any problems for the majority of the book, since the world and characters are so interesting that the story shines in a bit of their reflected light. However, the ending retains that simplicity; once the final twist is revealed, everything resolves itself with simplicity that strains credulity. Considering the buildup to the climactic scenes, I simply don’t buy how things turned out.

The ending was almost unsatisfying enough for me to knock a point off, but I had so much fun reading this book that I decided to let it go. This is good, solid fantasy. I’ve never been a dragon guy; I’ll admit to never having read a Pern book despite being a longtime sci-fi and fantasy reader. So, I can’t really speak to how His Majesty’s Dragon holds up to other books in the dragon genre, assuming that there is such a thing as a “dragon genre.” But I can overwhelmingly recommend this book for fantasy readers, alternate history readers, and those with a penchant for wartime or historical fiction that don’t mind some flights of fancy. I’ve already bought the next two; I’m sold.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Kill Shakespeare Vol. 1, by Conor McCreery, Andy Belanger, and Anthony Del Col

I heard about this graphic novel on NPR, which made my responsible adult side feel better about reading graphic novels, and my inner child feel better about listening to NPR. Being what I’d call a casual fan of Shakespeare, it sounded like something that would be right up my alley. After reading through the first volume, I can say that I like it, but it’s not as good as I was hoping it would be.

The story picks up somewhere around the third act of Hamlet, with the Danish prince sailing off into exile rather than being sung to his rest by flights of angels. After being haunted by some familiar witches, he is cast overboard and finds himself on a strange, faraway shore, where he is greeted by everyone’s favorite gruff king with a withered hand. Richard III proclaims Hamlet to be the “Shadow King,” a figure spoken of in legend that is destined to kill a mysterious demigod known as “Shakespeare” and claim the power of his magical quill. Richard promises to bring Hamlet’s father back to him if he fulfills his destiny, but Hamlet eventually finds himself lost and alone in the countryside. A loose band of commoners opposed to Richard’s tyranny (including Falstaff, Othello, and Juliet) try to persuade Hamlet to join them, as Richard conspires with the seductive Lady Macbeth to bring the Shadow King back into his grasp.

So, the riot of Shakespeare characters assuming new personas and taking sides is enough by itself to make this volume worth checking out. I suppose that you could find yourself annoyed by the liberties taken with the Bard’s stories if you were a diehard Shakespeare nut, but I thought the reimagined relationships and alliances were deliciously fun to read. Furthermore, the proper Shakespearean tone has been set; gratuitous violence, sexual innuendo, and bad puns are all firmly in evidence.

Once the initial awesome factor wore off, though, a few things began to bother me. The story moves so quickly that there isn’t a whole lot of time to take anything in. There is a lot of reliance on the numerous cameos to move the story along (I'm not even sure why the scene with Puck was even remotely necessary), and so the plot feels a little clunky and contrived. Not to the point of being bad, but there’s definitely a “serial” feel to the volume.

The biggest problem I had, though, is with the artwork. I don’t usually get hung up on art, being the forgiving guy that I am. But honestly, I had trouble trying to puzzle out exactly what was going on at some points. The flow of the panels will often change unexpectedly, without any particular narrative reason or clearly defined map of the proceedings, forcing me to occasionally reread a few panels after getting lost. Also, abrupt shifts in setting are frequent in each chapter (especially after Hamlet takes up with the Prodigals and the narrative splits off into two branches), making it occasionally hard to figure out what’s happening even when the panel flow stays consistent. Finally, and maybe this is just me: there’s something off about the faces. The expressions are not quite real. The characters are gorgeous, and standard dialogue looks just fine, but every single reaction shot looks waaaaay overdone. As in, giant eyes, gaping mouth, parody-of-an-actual-facial-expression overdone. I feel like I’m being a touch unfair, here, because the art is very good from a technical standpoint; Belanger is no slouch. But something about the expressions just didn’t resonate for me. The characters came off as a little cartoonish, somehow. That normally wouldn’t bother me, but in this instance it just contrasted too much with the Shakespearean motif.

So, chalk this one up as a solid "acceptable," for me. Maybe not fantastic, but still pretty good.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review - Zombies vs. Unicorns, ed. by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Zombies or unicorns: which is superior?!

It’s the…

…the eternal question… ?

The title and premise of the collection was enough to attract my interest. Of course, zombies are better. I mean, seriously, unicorns? Does that even need to be explained? I had to get more on the particulars of that debate. Also, I was goaded into action after reading about somebody somewhere that tried to get this book off of a library shelf, because it allegedly features a gay zombie and unicorn bestiality. Awesome, right? Turns out, there is indeed a gay zombie (who stars in one of the best stories in the collection), and unicorn-boning is marginally more creepy than zombie-boning, which if not technically present is at least heavily implied. With that established, I can wholeheartedly vouch for this entire collection. Even the unicorn-boning.

The collection is edited by two YA authors, Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. The stories are introduced with their respective commentaries on the debate, with Black establishing herself as a unicorn enthusiast contrasted to Larbalestier’s steadfast support for the undead. Each has enlisted a team of like-minded YA authors to support their cause, which include rock stars like Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld, Meg Cabot, and Libba Bray, among others. Each team’s stories are then presented in alternating order, with little icons at the top to denote their respective content/allegiances. Furthermore, the editors preface each story with a mix of folkloric background and hilarious snarking at each other.

So, obviously, zombies win, but the unicorn stories are fantastic. Between zombies being the paranormal flavor of the week and the existence of an exhaustive back-catalog of zombie fare, the edgy takes on unicorns were fresh and interesting by comparison. In fact, my favorite story in the collection was Kathleen Duey’s tale of an amoral beast searching for release from its instincts.

Generally speaking, though, the zombie stories are just as original and interesting. Libba Bray’s entry, the final story in the collection, is fantastic enough to demand its own full-length novel. And while I may have my issues with Carrie Ryan’s sulky, mascara-running zombie poutfests, she’s in fantastic form here. Maybe it has something to do with time of exposure, for me; what came off as unnecessary angst in her otherwise great novels seemed to enhance the grim, bittersweet mood in her short story.

The collection has the same peaks and valleys in consistency that all short-story compilations have to deal with, but while there were one or two stories here that didn’t really do anything for me, there’s nothing that I would categorize as weak or not pulling its weight, even when comparing to the ones I liked. Both teams perform admirably, and are likely to make unexpected fans of readers that venture in with their preconceived notions firmly entrenched. Furthermore, this is definitely a book that is meant for older teens, as it deals with some pretty mature themes. By extension, it’s a perfect choice for adult readers who enjoy plot-centric teen lit, if the cast of contributing authors isn’t enough to convince you.

It must be said that, as a thirty-year-old man, carrying around a book called Zombies vs. Unicorns isn’t something I’d normally be proud of, and the instinct to proclaim its virtues would usually be curbed in place of quietly admitting it as a guilty pleasure. Further, it must be said that this isn’t anything that’s going to blow a reader’s mind. But this collection is too much fun. I couldn’t even bring myself to search for nits to pick like I usually do, because I was too busy enjoying tales about killer unicorns and the zombie apocalypse. I guess I could complain about this weird obsession that paranormal and urban fantasy authors have with interspecies romance, but honestly, that’s barely even surprising at this point. This collection is obviously not for readers who take themselves or their books too seriously, but I’d recommend it to anybody who likes zombies, teen lit, fantasy, or just has a taste for something offbeat. It’s hilarious and genuinely creepy by turns, and it's crewed by a seriously talented group of authors.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Teen Booklist - Mysteries

I spent May getting ready for Summer Reading, and was out of bright ideas for teen displays, so I settled on a time-tested genre display. I've never been much of a mystery reader, but inheriting a mystery book club has expanded my horizons a bit, and this list reflects that. I tried to include a little from different mystery subtypes: whodunits, thrillers, paranormal mysteries, fiction with mystery overtones, and of course, the ever-popular "problem novels" that happen to include a mystery as a central plot point.