Tag Archives: fantasy

Beyond The Giver: A Four- Book Review

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, did a lot of great stuff with our class. He made everything creative. We had to research endangered animals and lay out plans for a zoo exhibit for them. We wrote short stories based on Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. For math, we had to create word problems, and I made a running series about a farmer named Bob Joe Billy Bob who was constantly calculating the square footage of his eggplant patch.

He also read us Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This novel introduced me to dystopian fiction, and to the concept of subversion. Imaginatively and emotionally, it gripped me. Lowry is already one of America’s most revered writers of young adult fiction (her World War II-era novel Number the Stars also won the Newberry), and deservedly so. Her writing hits that rare mark: aimed at young teens, but equally engaging for adults to read. Since I remember the book so fondly, and since I spend 10 or 12 months per year teaching teens, and because I have to teach the book next school year, I reread it this summer.

[Here’s Lois Lowry talking about The Giver.]

A young man named Jonas lives in The Community, where there is no color, no sensation, no inequality, no death. Children are assigned families at birth, maximum two per family. Sexual feeling is suppressed with a pill. When they turn twelve, they undergo The Ceremony of Twelve, marking passage into adulthood. They are assigned jobs based upon their skills and personalities. If a spouse is selected for them, they wed. When citizens grow too old, they are Released. There is no notion of life outside The Community.


Dystopias make Santa Claus sad

But when Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a position that has been held by the same man for decades. Through his interactions with his mentor, he discovers color, feeling, and love, but also pain, suffering, and death. The novel encourages hope in a bleak, bleak world. What I didn’t know after reading The Giver was that it was only the first in a series of four books! (I didn’t know because the second book, Gathering Blue, came out in 2000, by which time I was in 11th grade).  Gathering Blue doesn’t take place in The Community, and Jonas is nowhere to be seen. Kira is an orphan with a crippled leg. She is to be killed, but she convinces the elders of her village to let her prove her worth. They give her the task of mending the robes for the singer of the Ruin Song, the village’s most sacred rite. In this task, she makes several friends and allies, including Thomas, a carver, Jo, the future singer, and Matt, a thief and scavenger. Matt really is the most memorable character in the book, outshining the strong-silent-type Kira.

[A The Giver film? Dude, this is good news!]

Pick flowers, not your nose

While the story is not as immediately grabbing as The Giver, in some ways it is a richer and more vibrant tale. The book has a flavor of Ursula K. LeGuin. The connection with The Giver is thematic. In both books, the questions about our how our livelihoods, our desires, our character, and our society all clash and connect.

In the next book, Messenger, Jonas’ and Kira’s worlds unite.

 Messenger follows Matt as a young teen (now Matty). His life in the Village had been idyllic, now that he’s straightened up and abandoned his grubby, thieving ways. But things in The Village ain’t so great any more. Refugees are bringing poverty and discontent and irritating technology with them. So what does the Village vote to do? Close the borders! Matty takes it upon himself to spread word about the closing and to find Kira to return with him (spoiler alert: she isn’t killed at the end of Gathering Blue). He ends up learning a lot about himself in the process.

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? Does anyone even HAVE a Buddy List anymore?

My reaction to Messenger was mixed. A bit of ax-grinding got in the way of a good story. For example, the Village has been introduced to Gaming Machines, a fancy new tech that is takes up everyone’s time and creativity. Lowry seems to be taking out some frustration (however well deserved) Playstation and XBox. And the scorn for isolationism (again, however well deserved) rings too obviously as a comment on American politics. I found these thematic intrusions a little irritating. And yet, in some ways Messenger is a more finely crafted and poignant novel than the first two. The connections between Jonas’s Community and Kira’s Village are also made clearer.

The fourth novel, Son, is the longest at almost 400 pages. But it has a lot to tie up. Without spoiling too much, the events of The Giver are told through the eyes of Claire, a Birthmother. It’s a fairly lightweight career: make three babies, then retire (essentially), but it isn’t held in much respect, either. When Claire gives birth, she is vaguely informed that something went wrong, she would bear no more children, and she was being reassigned. As per Community rules, she isn’t allowed to see her Product, but through a little snooping and some coincidence, she finds her son. This is the first half of the novel. When he is taken from The Community, however, she embarks on a voyage to recover him.

Fortunate or otherwise

I always held The Giver in extremely high regard, but Son tops it. Jonas is special, a Chosen One archetype. But Claire is average, maybe below average. Life in The Giver is bleak but the story content doesn’t get really grim until the end. In Son, Lowry tackles prickly topics early on. In the first two chapters, a teenage girl is forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination, and then her child is taken from her. Tough stuff. Son expands on the creative world of The Giver, too. The plot of The Giver is actually pretty static, but Son has an active plot with a determined protagonist. And perhaps what makes Son most gripping is the conflict. The conflict of The Giver is intellectual, the desire to bring sensation and memory to the community. The conflict of Son is visceral, though: a young mother is on a quest to recover her child. Perhaps my status as a “new dad” makes this element more poignant for me. But having finished Son, I now feel like Lowry’s cycle introduced me to a world, expanded it, complicated it, then brought it back together with ten times the force. So if you enjoyed The Giver, (and I’ve never met someone who read it that hasn’t), then I highly encourage you to seek out the other novels.

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An Unexpected Blog Post

My first blog post here was back in August, about the announcement that The Hobbit was being made into not two, but three films.
Well, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has now been out for nearly a month. Most of us who have hoped to see it have seen it. What did we see?
Ian McKellan is Gandalf again, and his portrayal of Gandalf is a touch lighter, more playful than in the first films. The two principal character newcomers—Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, are both very believable. Armitage’s proud portrayal of Thorin was compelling, as well. Thorin is proud and prickly, but sympathetic, and Armitage evokes all those feelings. When I heard Freeman would be Bilbo, my first thought was “My God, he already LOOKS like a hobbit. Just give him prosthetic feet and a wool coat and I’ll believe it!” And sure enough–.
The scene stealer (as usual) was Andy Serkis. His Gollum performance is right on par with what he did before, perhaps even better. The Smeagol/Gollum split is distinct, both facially and vocally, and he uses it to great comic/horrific effect. Though Gollum isn’t on screen long in the film, his presence dominates my memory of the film.
All the other goodies are abundant, as well. Lush New Zealand landscapes, sweeping musical score (including some refreshing updates on old themes) from Howard Shore, and seamless visual effects. There’s so much to love about the film.
And that’s also the chief complaint against the film, that there’s just so much. The Hobbit, the novel, is a story for children, told in 300 pages with a single narrative. It’s an epic, but a small, focused one. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is a three-volume, multiple narrative, sprawling epic across Middle Earth. Sure, it took Peter Jackson three films to tell the story, but it took Tolkien three books to tell it, as well. The Hobbit should be small; The Lord of the Rings should be big.
But this film feels as big as the LotR films, or at least it’s stretching on its tippy-toes to be so. And here is where the film feels tedious. There are scenes when old characters are introduced that interrupt the narrative flow, such as an unnecessary stop in Rivendell to see Elrond and Galadriel and bicker with Saruman. There are scenes where new characters are introduced (Radagast the Brown) who only seem to bog the story down with additional back story and information, and distract from the quest.
“But wait!” you protest. “Be patient! Jackson is surely setting up developments for the next two films!”
I agree! But there’s just…so…much.
I don’t blame Jackson entirely, though. He’s kind of been pushed into this. The first three films set the bar very high for Quality (which he could have matched with The Hobbit) and for Size (which he couldn’t). If he’d made a single-film version of The Hobbit, even it were great, people would leave feeling unsatisfied. So his choices were to leave the audience feeling hungry or leave them feeling overstuffed.
No, I don’t fault Jackson for cramming The Hobbit with unnecessary stuff. My only objection to his direction was his tendency to blur the line between the heroic and the ridiculous. In the heroic mode, seemingly average, normal individuals take on tasks bigger than themselves and rise to the challenge. Bilbo represents this. However, there are moments in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I found myself doubting the plausibility of the characters’ actions. This was most pointed in the Goblin caves. The dwarves, who had been set up as a group of ragtag refugees, definitely NOT warriors, slay dozens upon dozens of useless goblins. Sometimes, to make things efficient, they simply take ladders and other parts of their environment to sweep the foes into the pit. I’m not looking for Black Hawk Down here, but battle scenes should leave me pumped up and breathless, not scoffing.
That said, go see it. You probably have already. Just be sure to stock up on popcorn and patience before you go in.

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Hark! The Clockwork Angels Sing!

Clockwork Angels is the sort of project I admire and envy. I’ve often dreamt of a project bridging music and narrative. Well, 2012 saw the collaboration of the prog-rock band Rush and speculative author Kevin J. Anderson. Neil Peart had wanted to work with Anderson for decades, and it was on this project that everything finally clicked (as noted in the novel’s endnotes). Both the novel and album  tell the same story, but through different media. So let’s look at each.

First of all, I should mention this is my first encounter with Anderson. I know he is an extraordinarily prolific author, but he’s one that just slipped through the cracks for me. I will say this for the novel: the story was stronger than the writing. Clockwork Angels is a hero’s journey story, the tale of young Owen Hardy. His life is quiet, safe, and pretty much mapped out from birth. The Watchmaker, a sort of benevolent dictator, has established The Stability that keeps everything safe and predictable. Of course, Owen finds himself dissatisfied, and soon falls in with circus carnies who embrace a wilder sort of life. Owen’s path crosses with The Anarchist, the Watchmaker’s nemesis, whose sole goal is to disrupt the Stability. Throughout the course of the novel, Owen bounces from one adventure to the next, being used as a pawn by both sides, until he is finally able to create– or realize his power to create– his own destiny. As a heroic adventure, and as a philosophical exploration, it is wholly successful.

That being said, the prose is rather…prosaic. Not every author needs to be Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon, but Anderson’s prose is littered with over-explanation and telling rather than showing. A typical passage might run like this:

At the man’s refusal, Owen hung his head and sighed. He was very disappointed that the man rejected his offer.

The second sentence is unnecessary, as if readers need an explanation for every gesture (we don’t).

I don’t wish to imply that the novel was boring or unpleasant to read. It was quite a fun adventure. I was just a little disappointed that the grandeur of Rush’s album and music was lost in such unadorned prose.

Another shortcoming of the novel is that the story is driven by Idea. Specifically, the battle between Order and Chaos, and Owen must find his own way between the two. As such, it’s a novel of Ideas and Philosophy, rather than Character or Story. The characters’ depth really ends at their roles as symbols rather than as people. Owen is the only character to acquire much depth, but again, it is a depth of symbolism rather than of psychology or emotion.

One of the most pleasurable parts of reading the novel was detecting the Rush references that Anderson sprinkled throughout the story. He drops names of songs and albums all over the place, and this makes the novel more than a standalone book; it makes it a gift to the readers and fans. I was going to make a list of all the references I found, but in the endnotes, Peart suggests that some sort of contest for readers may lie in the future. And far be it from me to give anyone a leg up on that opportunity…

As I stated before, Clockwork Angels is Rush’s first concept album. And it’s a challenging listen. The music continues in the direction it has followed in the past decade– harder rock sound, darker lyrics, and more focused lyrics. By “challenging,” I mean there is no apparent single that standouts. No “Tom Sawyer,” no “Subdivisions,” nothing I’d expect on the radio. Instead, the quality is spread throughout the album.

There are some albums that have immediate impact on the listener. Some need two or three listens to get into. Clockwork Angels required eight or ten. But now, I can’t get it out of me. Reading novel greatly increases appreciation for the songs. The driving, pulsing rhythm of “Caravan,” the angry, big guitar swagger of “BU2B.” On the other hand, the album also carries melodic, gentler tracks like “The Wreckers” that ache with regret and bitterness. The knockout track here is “The Garden,” the closer, which provides us with complete catharsis and retrospect.

Musically, another shift listeners might notice is in Geddy Lee’s voice. No doubt, his voice is distinctive– high, chirpy, and to some, grating. Well, whether the result of stylistic choice or of age, his voice has come down out of the stratosphere (without losing its power). If you want to give CA a try but can’t bear to listen to an hour of Lee singing, give it a try. His voice is lower but no weaker, and more nuanced than in the past.

This may get me drawn and quartered by Rush fans, but I’ve found a number of Rush song’s lyrically disappointing. When Peart has an axe to grind, his songs come off more like essays, and frankly, I don’t listen to music to be taught or lectured. I listen to them to experience story or emotion. Thus, songs like “Freewill” or “Nobody’s Hero” don’t do much for me. They lack the grace or imagery that I want to see in song lyrics. I don’t think all Rush lyrics are like this. “2112” is pure story (saturated though it is in philosophy), and “Subdivisions” has  a big axe to grind, but is delivered with striking imagery. Even Snakes and Arrows, which is loaded with anger at social injustice, is written with nuance and style.

So we come to CA, and of course as a concept album, it’s all about story. Yet, as mentioned above, the story is largely Idea driven, Extreme Order vs. Extreme Chaos. And that’s what makes this album so remarkable to me, that it is so philosophical, and yet has a nuance and grace that it might not have been written twenty or thirty years ago.

And that’s why I declare this album an utter success. It’s not an easy listen, it’s not something you can pop in and be amazed by the radio-friendly tracks, but give it several listens, and you may find it to be some of Rush’s most potent and gracefully executed music they have ever written.

So in recap: The novel: great story, hampered by mediocre prose. The album: not Rush’s most accessible work, but some of their best.

Side note: This story could make a fantastic film. The story is there, and the imagery potential (think of all those clocks and gears and steamships…) is boundless. You hear that, studios? Get on it, already…

UPDATE: A draft of this blog post was written before the EXCELLENT news that Rush was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. Congratulations to the R&R Hall of Fame for finally getting it right!

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Fantasy Metal Surprise

There’s rain on the mountain
A white frost on the moors
It’s an epoch of eternity
Waters touch the holy shore
It’s a land of mystery
The world of unseen eyes
You can feel the shadow of a princess
She waits for you inside

The guardians of God play the pawns
Beg for mercy – hail the queen
Princess of the Dawn

In the war of the dragons
Young blood ran its course
They fell to his blade
The knight Iron Horse
A forgotten priest
Disappearing in the haze
A chamber of vestal virgins
Twilight is her slave

The Wizard of Oz moved the pawns
Life for satan – dust to dust
Princess of the Dawn

On the day of the testament
The seventh moon was raging fire
Heaven cried for the sacrifice
The midnight sun was rising higher
The Beauty and the Beast
Lies in her royal crypt
Her kiss is bitter sweet
Death upon her lips

The Holy Grail held the pawns
Kings and bishops bow to grace
Princess of the Dawn
The guardians of God play the pawns
Beg for mercy – hail the queen
Princess of the Dawn

A new day dawns for heaven and earth
A first sunbeam is killing the night
Once upon a time for ever more
The gloom with the spirit of that Lady in White
Princess – Princess – Princess of the Dawn
Princess – Princess – Princess of the Dawn
Princess – Princess – Princess of the Dawn
Princess – Princess – Princess of the Dawn

As a poem of the fantastic, I think it’s…well, fantastic! Terrific imagery, a sense of mystery, and repeated motifs.

This “poem” is the lyrics to the song “Princess of the Dawn,” by the German metal band Accept. I just saw Accept in concert last night (with fellow German metal band Kreator– I am still in pain) and was struck by the imaginative lyrics beneath all those churning guitars and leather pants.

Fantasy metal is a whole subgenre of metal (one which I’m sure I’ll be exploring a lot) but Accept is generally not known for it. They’re more known for their thrasher tracks, like “Restless and Wild,” and fist-pumping, S&M suggestive tracks like “Balls to the Wall,” “London Leatherboys,” and the funny/nasty “Dogs on Leads.” But “Princess of the Dawn” is certainly a foray into the speculative.

It’s not a perfect song. The mention of the Wizard of Oz is unexpected– and to me, intrusive. Also, there’s no clear narrative thread, though I could see the potential for one. Instead, it’s more a random collection of fantasy images. But how can you not love “white frost on the moors” and “the world of unseen eyes”?

Give the song a listen. The lead singer, Udo, has a voice that isn’t easy to warm up to. Imagine if Brian Johnson (AC/DC), was a cat getting his tail stepped on. Still, it has a great main riff, with some awesome breaks in there.


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Solomon Kane–Coming to a Theater Near You?

Solomon Kane (2012)

When I heard there was a film version being made of Robert E. Howard’s “Solomon Kane” stories, I was ecstatic! I went back and reread some of the tales, relishing Howard’s rich language and riveting storytelling. Solomon Kane, one of Howard’s best characters, was a Puritan holy warrior, devoted to rooting out and destroying the evil forces that lurked just yonder in the dark forest. Throughout the course of his tales, his deeds cause readers to question whether he is a shining force or light or a lunatic with a gun and a cross. And when I heard the talented cast included James Purefoy, Max von Sydow, and Pete Postlethwaite (sniff…we miss you) — sold!

This was 2009.

The film did its thing in Europe, met with modest reviews and sales, and was soon forgotten, by myself as well. It became one of those “whatever-happened-with-that?” things.

But good news!

I learned from Black Gate recently that Solomon Kane will be released in the U.S. next month. Spread the word, dust off your cutlass, blunderbuss, and crucifix, and prepare! Even if it’s terrible (which most critics and viewers are saying it isn’t), it should be a great time.

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The Ho33it?

Hello World!

Without any ado, this is my new blog about anything fantasy related. Myth, Fantasy and sci-fi classic texts, book reviews, movie reviews, gaming, various conjurations of the mind, literary stuff, and some writing-related matters– blogging can be a journey that takes you there and back again…

So while the news is fresh (ish), let’s talk about Peter Jackson’s pair of upcoming Hobbit films Hobbit trilogy.


Despite the fact that The Hobbit is less than 1/4 the size (by page count) of the Lord of the Rings (300 to 1300), it will receive the same number of films (3). So where does the material come from? According to Jackson:

We recognized that the richness of the story of The Hobbit, as well as some of the related material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, gave rise to a simple question: do we tell more of the tale? And the answer from our perspective as filmmakers and fans was an unreserved ‘yes.’

As a LoTR fan, I simply love the idea of more, more, more! But as a fan of things being done artfully and gracefully, I can’t help but wonder if Jackson is going to lose all but the most devoted fans by stretching this story beyond its natural size.

Now, as someone who seeks to make a living off my creative endeavors, I certainly understand the impulse. The three LoTR films made piles of money, and the Hobbit ones should be no different. And I bear no malice against those who make piles of money creating something meaningful, beautiful, and entertaining (yes, I placed a lot of conditions on that). But is this a story that *needs* to be told? I’ve always felt that in the greatest stories, there’s an urgency that if the story isn’t told, and told properly, the storyteller would simply explode, or else wither up and die.

Any thoughts? Does more Hobbit make you merrier? Or is PJ going to milk the franchise into embarrassment?

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Adam Knight

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