Sunday, June 26, 2011

Arty -- Heroes Of The Valley by Jonathan Stroud

I'm a huge fan of Jonathan Stroud. His Bartimaeus Trilogy is spectacular (though I haven't read The Ring of Solomon), and Buried Fire was a pretty fun ride, too. I need to get my hands on his other books. But I digress.

In the Norse-inspired Heroes of the Valley, Halli Sveinsson is a troublemaker. Always has been. He's dwarfishly short, as people are fond of reminding him, stocky, and dark-haired - not at all the handsome offspring his House, the House of Svein, is used to producing. He's a disgrace to Svein, their noble ancestor, one of the twelve heroes of their people's lands. And... well, did I mention he's an incurable troublemaker?

But when one of Halli's tricks, played on the son of the snobby Arbiter of the House of Hakon, snowballs and results in tragedy, Halli is pressed by honor and desire for revenge to leave his home and everything he's known, risking thieves, murderers, lice the size of mice (rhyme), and even Trows, the deadly creatures of legend that the twelve heroes fought long ago.

That's how Heroes of the Valley starts. That's the first ten or so chapters. From there, the whole book reads like a compendium of the exploits of one of the Norse legends by which it was inspired. After trying to get his revenge, Halli moves on to another goal. When that (sort of) fails, he goes on to another. Then it's another attempt at another goal. Which brings you to the fantastic ending (more on that later).

Don't get me wrong - it's not nearly as disjointed as trying to read a book of Greek or Norse myths. Throughout it all, Stroud keeps the main backbone of the whole thing just visible enough to remind the reader what it's all about, while still allowing Halli to have a ton of adventures - sometimes funny, sometimes not so much.

Characters. I love the characters, Halli most of all. Unlike most characters that are written to be tricksters, Halli really tries. He truly means well. He's just not good at being a hero like the mighty (mighty?) Svein - or so he thinks. He's naive and gullible and downright stupid sometimes, but he's also honorable and clever and humble - a true round character, something else at which Stroud excels.

I also liked Aud, Halli's friend from the House of Arne. She's all that a 'plucky heroine' should be - spunky and vivacious, but never stuck-up or critical or I-am-woman-hear-me-roar. She's hilarious. She's Halli's perfect match. I love Jonathan Stroud just for creating Aud.

One more thing and then I'll stop raving: the myths of the twelve heroes. According to legend, the twelve died to create a boundary between their people and the monstrous Trows. No one has ever seen a Trow in ages, but everyone, of course, knows that they're out there beyond the walls. Don't they? Well, Aud doesn't, as Halli finds out - but he's not so sure... I won't spoil anything, but Stroud pulls an awesome move during the last half of the book that I would never have seen coming. Well, maybe in a century, but my point stands. The bottom line is, Stroud did not waste the Trows, as I feared he would.

In conclusion, Heroes Of The Valley is what I've come to expect from Stroud. Exciting, funny, original, maybe even genius. It starts pretty slow, but don't give up. Truly awesome things come to those who wait.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Arty -- Bartlett And The Ice Voyage

The Queen has tasted every fruit that her seven countries have to offer... except for one. The melidrop is the only one that has ever eluded her grasp. The reason for this is because, after one day from being plucked from its root, the melidrop rots - and the queen lives months away from the land where the melidrop grows.

Being a queenly sort of queen, she becomes obsessed with the elusive fruit, going so far as to ban the mention of melidrops, because if she can't enjoy them, nobody can. It's then that they bring in Bartlett - explorer extraordinaire, if the previous expert explorer, Sutton Pufrock, can be believed.

Bartlett isn't actually that impressive. He's a stringy, shabby little man with freckles and wild hair. But he has the necessary attributes for a model explorer - Inventiveness, Perseverance, and Desperation. So off the Queen sends him with his partner, Jacques le Grand, to find a way to transport the tantalizing melidrop to the impatient Queen.

Obviously, this is a book for a slightly younger audience than my usual review. But that's okay, because this was actually an engaging, interesting read. Was it a little heavy-handed, a little too unlikely, a little obvious sometimes? Sure. But was it trite or easy or uninteresting? No way.

The forthright plot makes it easy to get right down to business: finding out a way to transport the melidrop. There are really no subplots at all, unless you count the sections where the Queen and her best counselor are talking about patience. (Even this, by the way, doesn't turn into too much of a sermon, because Hirsch really has a way with subtle but effectual humor, which he uses during these parts.) Though the lack of backstory sometimes annoyed me - Bartlett is a really likable character, and I wanted to know more about him - it's not too much of a problem once you grasp what kind of a book this is. It's not a character growth novel (unless you count the Queen) - it's an adventure novel, pure and simple.

I just mentioned that Bartlett is a great character - he's funny but not a clown, not talkative but not quiet, intelligent and honest. (Actually, he'd be something of a Gary Stu in another book, but since this is a kid's adventure, it's all just fine.) And Jacques le Grand is a perfect foil for him - silent, strong and brawny, but just as adventurous and inventive as Bartlett. The Queen is well-done, and her favorite counsellor (I forget his name) is just awesome. I didn't, however, like Sir Hugh, the quintessential Wily Counsellor Groveling and Weaseling for Power, even though he was half necessary for the Queen's subplot. Gozo - a young boy that Bartlett and Jacques pick up during their search for melidrop transportation - also failed to inspire me. Neither of them had much originality or personality going for them.

Still, two characters can't ruin a thoroughly enjoyable book, and Bartlett And The Ice Voyage was thoroughly enjoyable. Hirsch managed to make a simple adventure tale into one of both exploration and Invention, patience and Desperation, and above all, Perseverance. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a fun afternoon read, who isn't afraid of reading a 'kid's book.' Fans of Verne's Around The World In 80 Days might be more interested - it had the same kind of feel to me, especially toward the end.

A sidenote: Persy is out of the country until July 4th, so you'll have to put up with my reviews for another two weeks. Lucky you!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Persy -- Pastworld by Ian Beck

The year is 2048. The place is London. But unlike the rest of the world, London has not progressed. London, better known as Pastworld, was long ago converted into a theme park where the key word is "authentic". The entire city of London was reverted back to the Victorian era, and is now a place where people from all over the world can come for a vacation of thrills and chills.

Most of the natives of Pastworld know they aren't actually in Victorian London. There are the legal natives who live there all the time. Then there are the illicit beggars, known as the Ragged Men, who aren't supposed to be around but are anyway. And then there's Eve. Eve is a native, supposedly legal, but she doesn't know that she lives in a theme park. She only has a few years worth of memories, and her guardian, the near-blind Jack, hasn't told her much. But as she learns more, she finds that someone is after her, and so in order to protect Jack, she runs away and joins a circus where she discovers her strange ability to dance on a tightrope.

Caleb Brown is a Gawker, a visitor come to enjoy a few weeks in Pastworld. His father is Lucius Brown, one of the imagineers who first created Pastworld. Caleb, though he doesn't want to show it, is thrilled to finally visit the city his father helped make, but the 'vacation' turns into a nightmare when a blind man is killed in front of him and his father is kidnapped by ragged men. Caleb disappears into Pastworld, struggling not only with his conscience, but the basic neccessity of staying alive.

The Fantom is a cold blooded killer who's been missing for years. Gawkers, and even some of the natives, don't believe he really exists, and just think he's a story created to add a hint of danger to the theme park, but he is more than real. And he's returned to Pastworld in search of Eve.

In one sentence, Pastworld is: a very unique book that is both dystopian and steampunk about a killer modeled after Jack the Ripper, a young girl with strange powers, and a few other dudes. And the cover is beautiful. Thank the Lord the book lives up to its cover and description.

So yes, this book actually was surprisingly good. I figured out the mystery of Eve and the Fantom very early on, and I don't know if that's because of a slightly similar plot I've seen or if it's just a transparent plot. But that certainly didn't make me stop reading. It has a great atmosphere and none of the characters are irritating enough to make the book unenjoyable. The basic problem is that it feels like it should be more complicated than it is. It feels like there should be violent plot twists, darker mysteries, and more intensity. Perhaps if this had been geared towards a slightly older audience, it would've been so.

Really, the only thing that bugged me was the punctuation. There were not nearly enough commas in the book, and there were a few random question marks where periods should've been. I was hoping this was just because it was Ian Beck's first novel, but turns out it isn't, so I'm not sure what his problem is. And the ending is a bit...anticlimactic. You know me and endings.

To conclude, Pastworld is a unique novel (set in the future but at the same time set in Victorian London) that, while it isn't going to win any rewards in my log, is definitely worth a look (at least gaze at the cover for a little while).


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Arty - The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I've seen this book in a hundred different bookstores and been mesmerized every time by its cover. Maybe I have a thing for old-fashioned covers, but... isn't it beautiful? There's just something magical about it.

And then there's the old adage, Don't judge a book by its cover.

Arthur de Caldicot is the son of John de Caldicot, lord of a manor near the Welsh border in 12th century England. He's a normal thirteen-year-old, the second-born son, hoping to become a squire soon. His older brother, Serle, is a bully; his friend, Merlin, is as mysterious as old men come (not to mention he can jump 47 feet in a single bound).

Then Merlin gives Arthur a strange stone - an obsidian - that shows him of another Arthur, one from centuries past... the son of King Uther. And Arthur starts to realize that perhaps his humdrum existence isn't all there is to him.

As is obvious, this is a retelling, of sorts, of the King Arthur story. Well, maybe not retelling, as all the classical story has already passed and is accepted as fact; a continuation. And as interesting as it sounds... Crossley-Holland really let his story fall.

Basically - nothing happens. There are 100 chapters in this book, most pleasantly short, but they don't really do anything to advance the plot. It's Arthur, living his life as it happens, and occasionally seeing flashbacks of his past self - the Arthur - in his obsidian. I've heard critical reviews saying that the book is 'melodious,' 'thoughtful,' 'musical;' these, apparently, are synonyms for 'boring,' 'uninspired,' 'lifeless.'

The prose was good, even 'musical' at times. The beginning sentence: "Tumber Hill! It's my clamber-and-tumble-and-beech-and-bramble hill! Sometimes, when I'm standing on the top, I fill my lungs with air and I shout. I shout." It's lilting, compelling, even hypnotizing sometimes, like Old English ballads.

But prose can't save a sagging plotline.

Arthur was a likable enough kid, as was his little sister Sian. And Merlin - well, I haven't met an author yet who can totally ruin Merlin, and Crossley-Holland is no exception. It's not like any reader with half a brain can't guess that 'the hooded man' that Arthur sees in his obsidian is Merlin, but it's still great to see him in his quintessential Totally Awesome Old Wizard role. That never gets old (no pun intended).

The story did pick up a little tiny bit at the end, and if the library has the sequel, I might pick it up... on a slow day. And this is because I'm a King Arthur fan. If you're not a King Arthur fan, then this is definitely not the book for you (and it probably won't be even if you are).

Someone looking for something better would do good to look up the Pendragon Cycle, by Stephen R. Lawhead. Obviously based on Arthurian legend, it goes all the way from Taliesin (an old Celtic bard) to the search for the Holy Grail. I've only read the first book, Taliesin, which was very good, but I've never known Lawhead to disappoint as his series go along.

Another alternative to the Arthur Trilogy would be the Lost Years of Merlin, by T.A. Barron. These, obviously, are about Merlin, not Arthur, and, while they can get extremely cliché and/or cheesy, they're still quite entertaining.