Tenacity: thoughts on faith and fiction

I’m a little sorry to be closing this blog, but glad to be able to focus all my posts in one place again. My plan is to move some of the material from this blog (mostly the reviews) over to the newly-renovated one and delete the rest.

If you’re a subscriber to speculative, sporadic… and slightly odd’s posts, thanks for joining me on this short ride and I hope you’ve had fun.

Please come to visit me at Tenacity: thoughts on faith and fiction (formerly God With Us: Finding Joy). If you’re only interested in the speculative and the odd, you may want to skip the devotionals, but there’ll be some speculative reviews and general shenanigans. Who knows? You might see a mystery review or something appealing.

I’m planning a couple of posts on writing, and I’ve got my hands on an advance review copy of Yvonne Anderson’s new science fiction novel, Words in the Wind, #2 in her Gateway to Gannah series.

So, you’re cordially invited to the unveiling of Tenacity (janetsketchley.ca/tenacity-blog/). It’s as easy as following the link, and there’s no need for fancy dress or presents :)

Review: Judgment at Proteus, by Timothy Zahn

Judgment at Proteus cover artJudgment at Proteus, by Timothy Zahn (Tor Books, 2012)

What’s worse than an alien hive-mind entity that plants itself in unsuspecting individuals and wants to rule the galaxy? Try the super-race that designed it and will turn it into a weapon to ensure galactic domination.

Judgment at Proteus is the final instalment in Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. The Quadrail is an interstellar train travelling a light-year a minute to connect far-flung solar systems, and Humans are one of the smaller (and newer) groups of life-forms that use it. But it’s a human, Frank Compton, who has the skill to—possibly—stop the war that most galactic citizens don’t even know is raging.

The aliens and their cultures are intricately developed and very different from us. Perhaps that’s why Frank throws out the occasional reference to old Earth entertainment like Casablanca, to give readers something familiar.

Judgment at Proteus picks up four weeks after the events of The Domino Pattern, where Frank Compton and the Modhri group mind formed a temporary alliance against the Shonkla-raa.

As a finale, this book has to end it all. The stakes are higher than “how will Frank and Bayta get out of this one?” The question is more like “how can there be peace in the galaxy, with so many enemies on the loose?” And what kind of impressive twist ending awaits?

With that in mind, I sat back to read and to enjoy watching a master storyteller at work. Plots, plans, intrigue, chases and twists, Judgment at Proteus has them all and more. And point of view character Frank Compton possesses a dry humour that adds to the fun.

The Quadrail series spans five books that happen over two years. It’s a progressive series where each instalment builds on the last. You can jump on the train with book five and everything you need will be explained as needed, but if you have the time, start with book one, Night Train to Rigel. You’ll be glad you did.

Timothy Zahn is an award-winning author of original science fiction, Star Wars fiction and a couple of Terminator novelizations. He’s known for believable characters, brilliant tactics, and sure-didn’t-see-that-coming twists. And he does it all with minimal profanity and keeps the stories clean. No wonder he’s my favourite living author.

Review: Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

Going Postal cover artGoing Postal, by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Books mass-market paperback, 2005)

Moist von Lipwig (yes, that’s his real name) is a con man forced to go straight. His assignment: revive the 20-year-derelict post office in the city of Ankh-Morpork. In what seems to be typical Discworld fashion, shenanigans ensue.

Mail has been replaced by the clacks (a network of semaphore towers). But the clacks are breaking down, the posted letter is making a nostalgic comeback, and Moist’s instinct for showmanship and for raising the stakes pits him against a master con artist operating on a grand scale.

It’s silliness, absurdity and pure fun. It’s commentary on progress and society. And it’s surprisingly engaging. I really cared about Moist and his oddball team, and kept turning pages to see justice done and arch-con Reacher Gilt (we don’t know if that’s his real name) put in his place.

In spinning the tale, Terry Pratchett uses some delightful and very visual turns of phrase. Here are two of my favourites:

It wasn’t a very loud word, but it had an effect rather like that of a drop of black ink in a glass of clear water. the word spread out in coils and tendrils, getting everywhere. It strangled the noise. (p. 450)

It was raining now, a grey, sooty drizzle that was little more than fog with a slight weight problem.” (p. 461)

Going Postal came highly recommended, and it did not disappoint. It’s only the second Discworld novel I’ve read, and I’m happy to see how much catching up I have to do. There are almost 40 novels, plus other books about Discworld.

The official Terry Pratchett website has plenty of Discworld resources, including an artist’s rendering of what the Disc itself looks like.

[Book from my personal library.]

Review: Mort, by Terry Pratchett

Mort: a  novelMort, by Terry Pratchett (HarperTorch, 2001)

It’s rare to find a book that prompts a snicker on nearly every page. Mort falls delightfully into this category, and I had to restrain myself from interrupting everyone around me to share the best lines.

The title character, Mort, is an awkward teen whose father decides to apprentice him out instead of putting him to work on the family farm. At the apprentice fair, Mort is the last one chosen… by Death.

As one might expect, Death is a bony fellow, although he rides a living horse (named Binky). Mort is relieved to discover he doesn’t have to turn skeletal himself to take the position.

Mort lives with his employer, along with Death’s adopted human daughter and their butler/cook. As Mort takes on more responsibilities, it leaves Death with more time for himself, and his attempts to relax prompt a sort of midlife crisis (if someone who’s not alive can have such a thing).

When Mort tries to save a girl he’s supposed to help die, reality begins to warp. The harder he tries to fix it, the more desperate things get. And Death can’t be found.

Thank you to my friends who’ve been suggesting I read Terry Pratchett. Starting part-way through his Discworld series may not have been the wisest idea, but Mort stands alone quite nicely and I don’t think I lost anything this way.

If you’re not familiar with the Discworld universe, suffice to say the planet isn’t a sphere. It’s flat and highly unusual. Book one is Going Postal, and since one of my friends said it’s her favourite, that’s the one I’ll read next. [Edit: Thanks to Tamara, who commented that Going Postal is not book one although a fine read. For an overview of the Discworld series, see Terry Pratchett’s Discworld at Fabulous Realms.]

The official Terry Pratchett website has plenty of Discworld resources, including an artist’s rendering of what the Disc itself looks like.

[Book from my personal library.]

Review: Airman, by Eoin Colfer

Cover art: AirmanAirman, by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion, 2008)

In 1878, Conor Broekhart was born in a balloon at the Paris World’s Fair. Some said he was destined to fly.

Airman is the story of his early years in the fictional Saltee islands (off Ireland) and his survival of the treachery that thrusts him into a brutal prison. And his obsession with flight, which led to the impossible.

The novel is set in the age of balloons and early gliders, when the imaginations of many inventors looked ahead to heavier-than-air craft.

It’s written like a factual account, with reference to historical figures like Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli. As such, it opens with a somewhat dry prologue to set the scene. If it was my first Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer novel I might have stopped there, but I decided to give chapter 1 a chance. Within two or three pages, I knew I’d be finishing this book.

Airman isn’t as funny as Mr. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books, although it definitely has its moments. It’s meant for young adult readers, but carries enough depth to appeal to adults as well. Certain elements stretch reality a bit, but it’s fiction, after all. Swashbuckling fiction, at that.

I’ve enjoyed the Artemis Fowl series, and am happy to see there’ll be one more adventure: Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, releasing July 2012. He’s also released his first novel for adults, the crime caper Plugged.

[Book from my personal library.]

Review: Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker cover artWarbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books, 2009)

Warbreaker is proof that Brandon Sanderson is one of the best fantasy novelists in the game.

On the surface the story sounds a little like a fairy tale: in a futile attempt to prevent war with a larger nation, a king marries his youngest daughter to its tyrant leader to produce an heir. Then his favourite daughter sneaks into the enemy city to rescue her sister.

Of course there’s much more to it than that. The two countries used to be one, and now each one’s culture defines itself by being “not like them.” The people of Idris dress in brown and make a virtue out of not drawing attention to themselves; the Hallendren are as colourful and ostentatious as can be. In Idris they worship the unseen god, Austre, while the Hallendren have a pantheon of gods-in-the-flesh, ruled by the God King (new husband of the Idrian princess, Siri).

The magic in this world relates to colours and to something called Biochromatic Breath, which can work wonders but comes at a high cost. It’s fantastic and outlandish but it makes sense within the story world, a world that’s so carefully crafted that it’s believably real, with a complex history, mythology and cultures.

One of the viewpoint characters is the god Lightsong, who doesn’t believe in his own divinity. He and two of Princess Vivenna’s contacts, Denth and Tonk Fah, add a lot of humour to the novel. Then there’s the dangerous and mysterious Vasher, with his telepathic black-sheathed sword that likes to kill. And some squirrel shenanigans, but I’ll say no more.

Brandon Sanderson has a way of keeping the nastiest scenes off-camera but yet evoking them well enough that we feel whatever darkness he wants to convey. And there’s nothing gratuitous in the book.

This is one of those satisfying novels where every major plot point took me entirely by surprise, although in hindsight I see all the clues in place. It’s faster-paced than fantasy tends to be, with a rich and fully-developed world.

The Warbreaker project was a bit of an experiment. Brandon Sanderson posted a number of drafts on his website for reader interaction, prior to the final version being released in print. I read one of the final drafts as a free download, but it’s definitely worth the cost of buying a final copy.

Brandon Sanderson may be best known for his Mistborn series and for being the author chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series (which he is doing in a most satisfying way). Visit his website for information and forums on his various books. The Warbreaker Portal includes an introduction, various versions, chapter-by-chapter commentary and deleted scenes.

Review: The Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer cover artThe Last Dragonslayer, by Jasper Fforde (Canadian edition, HarperCollins, 2011)

In a world where magic is real—but heavily regulated and used for such mundane tasks as drain clearing, removal of illegally-parked cars, and pizza delivery—we meet Jennifer Strange, acting manager of Kazam, an agency that hires out wizarding services. She’s non-magical, level-headed, and almost 16 years old.

The novel is set in an alternate version of the UK: the Ununited Kingdoms, to be exact (unUK for short). It’s as off-the-wall-brilliant as you’d expect from Jasper Fforde and made me laugh out loud a few times and chortle several more. Thank you, Mr. Fforde!

As if managing a horde of self-focused, absent-minded and quasi-sane wizards wasn’t enough of a challenge for our young heroine, Big Magic is in the air: once-fading magic powers are on the rise, and it’s somehow linked to the foretold and imminent death of the last dragon.

In all the speculation and excitement about the dragon’s upcoming demise, Jennifer discovers she’s the Last Dragonslayer. Problem is, she’d rather not kill him, despite the crowd waiting to claim his land.

The Last Dragonslayer is a fun, light-hearted read that gets in a few good shots at private and corporate greed, politicians and humanity in general. I’ll leave that analysis to other reviewers so-inclined. It doesn’t come naturally to me and it spoils my fun (and brings back bad memories from grade school).

I’m pleased to see the sequel, Song of the Quarkbeast, has already released in the UK and will be available in Canada in 2012. (The Last Dragonslayer introduces quarkbeasts, which it defines as “nine tenths velociraptor and kitchen blender and one tenth Labrador” p.99) Serious Fforde fans in North America can order copies of the UK release now through our local Amazons, but I think I have enough reading material to last me until the lower-priced Canadian version comes out in May.

Jasper Fforde is the acclaimed author of the Thursday Next series, the Nursery Crimes series, and Shades of Grey. You can find all manner of cool stuff at his website, and you can read a preview of The Last Dragonslayer by clicking the icon below.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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