Tag Archives: fantasy

Review: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book a long, long while ago, and it was time to read it again. But this time, I’ve seen and loved the films, and that has undoubtedly affected my reading.

If anything, it enhanced it. I swear I could hear the theme music playing as I read, could hear that tremble in Gandalf’s voice when he talks about Moria. The movies aren’t an exact copy of the book, so both seem fresh, but the movie is so respectfully done that I found it enhanced my reading of the book.

And this book. This book. Wow. I found myself kind of indifferent to The Hobbit upon a reread, but this one is an international treasure for a reason. The descriptions are powerful and vivid, and I frequently felt I was on the journey with Frodo and the Fellowship as I stepped out each morning for a daily walk. Where The Hobbit fumbles a bit, The Fellowship of the Ring soars. It touches upon something truly magical and makes you want nothing more than to dive down further into it, to meet Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and Legolas and precious Samwise.

Few books can transport you like The Fellowship can. I’m grateful I found it just as enchanting on a reread as it has always been.

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Review: Uprooted

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know that I’ve ever boomeranged so intensely about a book. When I started reading, I would have easily given it a 5-star rating. At the end, I wanted to give it a 2. So I’m compromising and giving it a 3.
“Uprooted” is an incredible idea for anyone who likes dark fairy tales—or, you know, the originals. At the beginning, at least, it’s a Eastern European-flavored “Brothers Grimm” (yes, that wonderful/terrible movie!). And it’s rhapsodic! It’s so great! We follow the main character, (who I called “Agnes” in my head because I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it), a peasant girl without much in her favor, as she is swept up by a stern and mysterious wizard to live for a term of 10 years in his brooding and chilly tower. He is known as “the Dragon,” and the story opens with a clever play on the “dragon abducting virgins” trope. In fact, that’s what I loved about the beginning: it is SO clever, and has such beautiful writing, and is so unexpected in so many ways. Things in the evil Wood were literally downright terrifying in ways you never see in modern fairytales anymore; Novik really knew how to make them scary!

And I was so completely on board—yes, this! Give me more of this! It’s so wonderful!

And then I started to get annoyed. And then really really pissed off.

The following airing of the grievances will be spoilery. Stop now if you’re thinking of reading it and want to be surprised.

It’s not too surprising that Agnes discovers she has magical abilities: she’s the heroine, it happens! But when the story went from “she has magic and it’s really really hard” to “she has magic and also she’s the best in the whole wide world,” I had a problem.

The story takes place over 1 year, and she’s like 16 or 18. She definitively begins the story as a confused young teen girl, all gawky knees and teen confusion and angst. But by the end, she seems… 25? 30? Very knowing and self-confident and instinctively talented at magic. But is there a logical progression between these two points? Hell no. Just 2/3 of the way through the book, Agnes just completely changes personalities. And because she’s the best most magicalist and youngest and suddenly confidentest and whatever, she comes across as a ridiculous Mary Sue character. There’s an early struggle, then other totally unrelated stuff happens, and suddenly she’s the best. Gag me.

Then there’s the forced and utterly unnecessary romance. It feels like someone late in the process said “you know what this book needs? Someone needs to have some sex!” But that is exactly what I found charming about the early part of the book—she had this really interesting (and frankly, rare) teacher-student relationship with the Dragon. It was perfect just as it was, as a deep if perhaps confusing connection. But then they have sex for no good reason…and it is totally inconsequential to the plot. I don’t know why I had to read it! Why did it matter? I don’t care! Plus it is totally creepy that he’s several hundred years old and she is, don’t forget, 16. This weirdness is even mentioned, and Agnes just laughs it off! No, address it! It’s weird! How is it not weird? Give me a reason, make it mean something, don’t just shoehorn a romantic subplot in there because it’s a woman-led story!

Then there’s the whole thing with the royal family. Just everything in that section…I don’t care. You know why? A bunch of characters are introduced and then murdered in very quick succession, and I am never given a chance to understand why they are important. And the Wood was already mysterious and dangerous as it was. Decamping the storyline to another city (and separating the Dragon and Agnes) just felt entirely unnecessary. And I really truly just don’t care what is happening to the royals. That could have been a sequel, but it felt crammed into this novel and for no good reason. It would have been better without it.

And the last thing that annoyed me was purely in the writing: characters seeming to think things to themselves but other characters answering as if they’d been speaking, and characters having multiple names, not always with the new name explained or even introduced in a logical way. The first issue made it seem like characters were reading minds, and that was just weird and unnecessary, and the second issue made it seem like there were a lot more characters than there really were, and then I had to go back and reread to figure stuff out.

I don’t know what to make of this book. I LOVED the first half. It was amazing. I loved the characters, I loved the ideas, I was afraid of the scary things, the writing was beautiful. The end was pretty okay, I guess, even if I disagree with a few nits. But from midway to nearly the end? Throw that right out. Rubbish.

Read at your own risk.

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Review: Ink and Bone

Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is shocking that an author has not previously written about the critical importance and value of books and libraries and made it the turning point of a novel. Thank goodness Rachel Caine did–this book is a joy!
It occupies an alternate history where the Library of Alexandria never burned but instead became the most powerful organization in the world, a storehouse of all knowledge. Even the printing press is not invented, replaced instead by the steampunkish magic of the Oculists, which allows the library total control of ALL reading material. Knowledge is power, literally, and those who hold the power of the library will go to great lengths to keep it.
I literally couldn’t put this book down. It reminds me, for a bit, of the spellbinding adrenaline I got from the Harry Potter series. But it’s also a completely different book, more brutal with readers’ feelings from the get-go. There are so many twists here and you’ll never see them coming.
Caine should be particularly proud of herself for writing a fiction novel that embraces diversity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Muslim character in a novel before; it was refreshing and interesting. Because of the conceit that the Library is everywhere, the characters could also be from everywhere, and Caine gave them a richness comparable to attending a world market.
This book was so much fun that I’m sad I’m done with it. I put off this review because I wanted to stay in that world longer, even just in my head! But now it’s time to buy the sequel…

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DIY Enchanted Forest Hallway

I looked at my hallway right around the new year and I says to myself: Self, that hallway really ought to be an enchanted forest! And so it shall be.

It’s a long, z-shaped hallway, with a narrow little bit that is just a connector between the front and back of the house. Because of the shape of the hallway, there are two long straight halls that stared at a blank wall. I read somewhere that putting a pattern on the wall you walk toward made a long hallway feel less … eternal, and that’s originally where I got the idea for the forest. Because I wanted an indoor forest with magical birds. Because who doesn’t?

I used this post as inspiration and as a starting point, but I wanted a) a light background with dark trees and b) some depth, so I added another layer of trees.

1) First, tape off the stuff that you don’t want painted. This lamp is going away eventually, but I needed it for now…especially because I haven’t bought its replacement yet.

enchanted forest1        enchanted forest 2

2) Paint your base coat. I picked my colors by going to Lowes and grabbing four colors in the same spectrum, a light bluish-gray/white, a light grey, a dark grey, and a so-dark-almost-black. But do better than us, and do the math. We’ve got tons of extra paint.

You can kinda tell that the wall color is different. Kinda. Trust me, it is; it went from peachy-beige to bluish-grey.

enchanted forest 3         enchanted forest 4

3) Tape some trees. I got some hefty use out of my blue tape over the next few days. At first I was following my inspiration post pretty closely, but then it became clear blue tape does not want to stick to heavily textured walls. So I did my best. I agree with her recommendation to flare the trunks of the trees out a little, but don’t go too crazy; you’re looking at the middle of the trees here, not the base or the canopy. Oh, and remember, this is the farther-away layer of trees, so don’t fill in all your gaps yet; you’ve got another layer on top of this, too.

For the branches, I taped kinda free-form. I overlapped the tape with the trunk, then cut away the parts I didn’t want. Remember that a branch must always be narrower than the trunk it branches off of, and branches get thinner the farther out they go.

enchanted forest 7 enchanted forest 6 enchanted forest 5

4) Cut out anything you don’t want. Like I said, I cut out the parts of branches that needed to connect to the tree. I started to follow the original poster’s suggestion of x-acto knifing the trees, but it was quickly clear that I was cutting the wall, not making much difference in the tree, and overall wasting my time. I’d skip that step. If you’ve got textured walls like I do, it really, really won’t matter anyway. Plus you can always touch it up later.

5) Paint! Fill in the trees with your lighter grey color. It took me two coats.

enchanted forest 9       enchanted forest 8

6) Peel off the tape and admire your handiwork for a moment. Look at the nice trees you have!

7) Tape more trees. By now, you’re a total pro at this. Remember, these trees are closer to the viewer, so they may be just a scootch bigger. Or not. Whatever, it’s your enchanted forest. Make your own rules.

enchanted forest 13       enchanted forest 12

8) Cut out the unnecessary bits and paint some more! You’re so good at this by now! Wow!

Remember, trees aren’t uniform, so let them flow, overlap, do what feels right. You’re using the darker paint for this section of “closer” trees, and you’re adding to the illusion by painting them overtop the lighter-colored trees.

It’s starting to look like a proper forest!

enchanted forest 15       enchanted forest 14

9) Get some bird templates. Now if I’d not been doing this on a whim, I might have planned ahead, but no, I didn’t, so I had to run out at this point and go looking for some nice bird templates. And then it turns out that there weren’t any flying bird templates, which is stupid, so you ask your husband nicely and he makes you one. Which is pretty sweet.

enchanted forest 16

10) Tape bird templates to the wall and paint! I made my enchanted birds gold, but pick whatever color you like. I discovered gold paint from the home improvement stores is stupid expensive. So forget it. Just go buy some cheap acrylic paint from the craft store. It’s like $2.

If you have flying and sitting birds, make sure you mix it up so the birds are kinda tastefully spread out. Or don’t, make a flock, that’s cool too! It’s your enchanted forest, after all!

enchanted forest 19       Enchanted forest 18

This…took a lot of coats of paint. Some as much as four. Just tape it, paint it, then come back an hour later and paint it again. I painted it in between loads of laundry.

enchanted forest 20      enchanted forest 17

11) Add bark details. Take a small paintbrush and your dark paint and add some swirls, swoops and swishes to your dark tree trunk. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll probably want some on your lighter trees, too. I mixed some of the dark tree color with the light tree color and wham: instant medium grey. Paint that on your lighter trees, and you’ve got a pretty nice forest.

enchanted forest 22       enchanted forest 21

12) Touch up and clean up. I didn’t like the pointyness of some of my branches, or the rough spots where the tape got weird, so I went in with pretty much all the paint colors and a small brush and freehanded details until they looked acceptable. But maybe you followed this guide flawlessly and did it perfectly the first time—awesome! Next up, take off the tape. It can be a little finicky, but peel firmly and steadily and you should be okay.

Then, enjoy your forest!

enchanted forest 24

I intend to buy a old-timey outdoor-lamp-lookin’ lamp for the fixture, and then I’ll paint in a light pole so  it’ll look a little Narnia-ish, but overall, I’m pretty happy with my enchanted forest. It’s definitely not in every house! 😉enchanted forest 23

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Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve found your next read, that is, if you like captivating, unique, funny, and intense stories, and also talking cats. And if you don’t like those things, I recommend “Hop on Pop” as an alternative, because seriously, who doesn’t like talking cats?

Seriously, this book might be the best fantasy/steampunk/pirate story since Firefly went off the air. And it’s definitely better than sliced bread.

Let me back up: what’s it about? The Aeronaut’s Windlass takes place in a world in which all of humanity lives in giant, heaven-scraping Spires, and where the earth below is dangerous and possibly toxic (sort of an inverse of the Wool Omnibus). As such, commerce takes place in the sky, via huge airships. Our story follows Captain Grimm, of the slightly piratanical Predator, as well as the aristocratic Gwen, the “warriorborn” Benedict, the addled and mystical Folly and Master Ferus, and the hardy Bridget and her prince-of-cats companion Rowl. Basically, this odd collection of characters is pressed into service to protect the Spire from an unknown Enemy and try to prevent all-out war.

Because Captain Grimm is the one on the cover, most people may want to see this as his story–and believe me, he is wonderful, even if nearly a straight-up transference of Firefly‘s Captain Mal–but each character truly has an arc of their own, and no one is much of a supporting character. Yes, even the cat, who is both different from every literary depiction of a cat I’ve ever read and exactly like my own beasties.

Author Jim Butcher is already known for his writing skill and his vibrant characters, but I don’t know that he’s ever had so much fun. You can feel his grin through the book, and I occasionally wanted to nudge him in the ribs–“I see what you did there!” He’s just having a blast, and it’s infectious.

But that’s not to say the book is all happiness. Though I often had to stop to read a line aloud to my husband to share the laugh, I also told him that if a certain character died–or if all of them died–I wasn’t going to forgive him. It’s that intense and the stakes are that impossibly high.

What I really liked, though, was that no one was unnecessary. Even characters lacking in obviously beneficial skills discovered in themselves the ability to do something that proved critical to the mission as a whole. And I just wanted to give each of them a hug afterward.

I can’t wait for more of this series, and odds are pretty solid that I’ll reread it again soon just to get back into this fantastic fantastical world.

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Review: Pyramids

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Djelibeybi, not much has changed…in thousands of years. But all it takes is one king with wild ideas about such nonsense as “indoor plumbing” and “mattresses”–and one seriously large pyramid–for the kingdom to get forced into the modern day.
This story jumps around a bit, but generally follows Teppic, the prince of Djelibeybi (which is totally-not-Egypt). What with the kingdom being rather in debt, someone has to earn a living, so he goes of to Ankh-Morpork to learn an honest living as an assassin. Meanwhile, his father has a bit of an existential crisis about being the god-king responsible for sunrises…without knowing how he does it every day. His realization that gravity does indeed apply to him sets Teppic on a path back home to discover his own godhood and to begin the wrestling of his country into time with the rest of the world. There is then a lot of quantum mechanics and fooling around with far-too-large pyramidal magics, and then there’s a mess that not even Dios, high priest for as long as anyone can remember, knows how to handle.
This story was a lot of fun, as all Pratchett books are, but it didn’t quite captivate me as some of his others. It was a good time filler but nothing exemplary. It jumped between main characters more often, or rather, seemed to, and so it was a little hard to follow at first. Of course, everything came together and made perfect sense in the end, right down to the silly naming of the two royal embalmers. Pratchett, as always, had a plan.

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Review: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King #1-4)The Once and Future King by T.H. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh. It pains me to mark one of the literary classics two stars, but I also have to admit to myself that I started reading this book in January and now it’s September and I haven’t finished it and really have no intention of ever actually getting around to doing so.

There are 639 pages in my book. I made it only 245 pages into it. It felt like much much more. (The typeface is tiny, I swear!) I stopped partway through “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” but did make it all the way through “The Sword in the Stone.”

Let’s just assess real quick: the cover of my book includes a quote from none other than Ursula K. LeGuin about how much she loves it. The subtitle of the book is “The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.” With that in mind, imagine my shock when I discovered the slapstick-heavy Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is actually completely accurate to the book.

This book–or at least the parts I managed to get through–is just ridiculously silly! It’s also very dense. And randomly episodic. And I just couldn’t bring myself to care about King Arthur among all the nonsense. I still feel that I really ought to just buckle down and finish the damn book so I can say I did, but then I’d be sucking 80% of the joy of reading right out of my life and I still wouldn’t finish it until at least next June.

So, adieu Merlin. Maybe some other time.

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The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

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Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

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Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This classic fantasy novel, written in 1967 by one of the world’s top sci-fi/fantasy authors… just didn’t grab me. It’s well-composed, with a nicely fleshed-out world and an interesting power structure for the wizards and some cultural details, but the story of the Sparrowhawk’s beginnings left me wondering, “so why should I care?”
I think I’m ruined for this book by the Harry Potter era. It’s just hard to get attached to a boy wizard in this style, after I’ve gotten accustomed to the very feelings, friendships, and trials of a different, more relatable wizard. The whole “true name” thing may have been a cool storytelling concept, but it just serves as one more layer between the reader and the character–what’s his name again? (The main character has no less than three different names throughout the book!). It’s also told in a rather detached third-person; we only vaguely get a sense of Sparrowhawk/Ged’s feelings at any given time, and we are invited not to feel with him but to watch as he fumbles around. Throw in the jumpy time setting (following not a calendar but whenever the action seems likely to hit) and you’ve got a story I just never felt comfortable in.
I finished the book for the lessons of the craft I could learn, not from any deep affinity for it. In fact, I found the author’s afterward far, far more compelling and approachable than the rest of the story–I’d have rated THAT 5-stars!
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just that this book had its heyday in a different time, in a very different genre fiction landscape. It’s certainly not LeGuin’s fault; she’s a beautiful, if impassive, author who has my utmost respect. But I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series.

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