Sunday, October 30, 2011

2011 World Fantasy Award Nominees

Location: World Fantasy Convention, San Diego, California.

Comments: In 2011, an amazing thing happened at the World Fantasy Awards. A black woman wrote a brilliant fantasy novel and got nominated in the Best Novel category, and then lost the award, beaten out by an equally brilliant fantasy novel written by a different black woman. I'm not going to say that the almost completely pervasive white male author bias of the World Fantasy Awards was washed away by this event - the fact that 2011's results are so notable is convincing evidence that it has not been. But this result shows that after decades of mostly ignoring the non-white and non-male portions of the world the World Fantasy Awards have started to move towards a little more diversity.

Best Novel

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Other Nominees:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Silent Land by Graham Joyce
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Best Novella

The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand (reviewed in Errantry: Strange Stories)

Other Nominees:
Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear
The Broken Man by Michael Byers
The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window by Rachel Swirsky
The Mystery Knight by George R.R. Martin
The Thief of Broken Toys by Tim Lebbon

Best Short Fiction

Fossil-Figures by Joyce Carol Oates

Other Nominees:
Beautiful Men by Christopher Fowler
Booth's Ghost by Karen Joy Fowler
Ponies by Kij Johnson
Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us by Mercurio D. Rivera

Best Anthology

My Mother, She Killed Me, My Father, He Ate Me edited by Kate Bernheimer

Other Nominees:
Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S.T. Joshi
Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas
Stories: All-New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
Swords & Dark Magic edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders
The Way of the Wizard edited by John Joseph Adams

Best Collection

What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler

Other Nominees:
The Ammonite Violin & Others by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Holiday by M. Rickert
Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter
The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer

Lifetime Achievement

Peter S. Beagle
Angélica Gorodischer

Other Nominees:

Best Artist

Kinuko Y. Craft

Other Nominees:
Vincent Chong
Richard A. Kirk
John Picacio
Shaun Tan

Special Award, Professional

Marc Gascoigne

Other Nominees:
John Joseph Adams
Lou Anders
Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi
Stéphane Marsan and Alain Névant

Special Award, Non-Professional

Alisa Krasnostein

Other Nominees:
Stephen Jones, Michael Marshall Smith, and Amanda Foubister
Matthew Kressel
Charles Tan
Lavie Tidhar

Go to previous year's nominees: 2010
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2012

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review - Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: Boskone and the space pirates have a technological edge, but Lensman Kimball Kinnison will do his best to foil their plans.

Kimball Kinnison
Incorruptible and brave
And a sexist jerk

Full review: Although it is the third book in the Lensman series, Galactic Patrol, along with Gray Lensman, forms the heart of the series and revolves around the exploits of Lensman Kimball Kinnison. The stories in this volume were the first parts written as part of the Lensman saga - although portions of Triplanetary were written earlier, they were not originally part of the Lensman story and was only later revised to connect it to the rest of the series. First Lensman was written later to bridge the events in Triplanetary to those in Galactic Patrol.

Kimball Kinnison, the hero of the book, graduates first in his class from the Academy, and is fitted for a Lens - the quasi-living symbol of authority that allows a Lensman to communicate telepathically (among other sundry powers). He is offered a big but dangerous assignment captaining an experimental ship with orders to capture a "pirate" Boskonian ship and extract information concerning a new power source that is allowing the pirates to run roughshod over the hapless patrol. Kimball is successful in capturing a ship, but must flee the converging pirate raiders. Much of the first third of the book is taken up with his efforts to evade his villainous pursuers and return his priceless information to Tellus (as Earth is known to the inhabitants of Civilization). In the process, Kinnison frees a previously unknown enslaved race from their previously unknown masters, making valuable allies. He also destroys several pirate ships, completely frustrates the main villain of the book "Helmuth speaking for Boskone" and deduces the location of one of the pirates' secret bases.

Kinnision, of course, successfully returns to Earth, and is promoted again, to the exalted rank of "Gray Lensman", endowed with virtually unlimited powers. He immediately sets out to infiltrate what he believes to be the main pirate base. Unfortunately, Kinnison is in over his head and the telepathically inclined "Wheelmen" who man the base discover and almost kill him before he can escape. At this point, the 1930s sensibilities of the story kick in, as Kinnision is assigned the pretty but tough nurse Clarissa MacDougall to help him convalesce. He behaves badly, and is rude and condescending to her, but this is, of course, excused with a sort of "boys will be boys" attitude. Kinnison, once recovered, goes to Arisia to learn how better to use his Lens (unknowingly following an earlier trip by Helmuth to the planet, although Helmuth's purpose was to uncover the secret of the Lens for nefarious purposes). Kinnison is the first Lensman to be accepted for further training by the Arisians, and leaves weeks later with numerous additional capabilities.

Kinnison turns these capabilities to infiltrating a Patrol base for practice by controlling the minds of those around him. After he reveals himself to the base commander, he is asked to judge a murder case. At this point, what I consider to be the most disturbing thing about these books comes to the fore: as an incorruptible Lensman, Kinnision reads the minds of the two accused parties, determines which one is guilty, and using his mental powers, kills the culprit. This is accepted by all concerned as reasonable - the apparent incorruptibility of the Lensman is given as the reason for allowing them such summary powers. In effect, the rest of the human race becomes wards of the Lensmen, who are the only parties entrusted with true power. This is a sort of elitism that David Brin was reacting to when he wrote his portion of Star Wars on Trial, and it is just as pernicious in the Lensman books as it is in Star Wars. However, when reading the books one simply has to suspend disbelief and accept the premise of the story that the Lensman are an incorruptible bunch who always have the best interests of humanity in mind.

In the end, the enhanced Kinnison locates the evil Helmuth and arranges to destroy his secret base and kill off the villain with apparent ease – his powers making Helmuth no longer a serious opponent for Kinnision. The only saving grace to this somewhat anticlimactic ending is that Helmuth's defeat is fairly satisfying, and the reader can rest assured in the knowledge that he is not the true power behind Boksone (as evidenced by the three subsequent novels in the series).

Later science fiction is replete with stories that draw upon the Lensman series – in Babylon 5 the organic technology of the Vorlons (standing in for the Arisians) is reminiscent of the quasi-life of the Arisian-made lenses. The shields that form the basis of military technology in the Dune series of books, impenetrable to bullets yet vulnerable to blades, is strikingly similar to the shields found in these books. And the Jedi Knights in the prequels to Star Wars seem to operate in a manner very similar to the unattached, enhanced Kinnision, a parallel I believe that Lucas intended. It is also quite likely (in my mind) that story of the Star Wars prequels, concerning the Jedi fall from grace, was a reaction to the assumed incorruptibility of the Lensmen.

The Lensman series, as the granddaddy of all Space Opera, has proven to be incredibly influential on the field of science fiction, most notably science fiction on the screen (whether television or movies), and as a result, this book is a must read on that basis alone. The fact that the first two-thirds of the book is a series of exciting roller-coaster adventures makes the books that much better.

Previous book in the series: First Lensman
Subsequent book in the series: Gray Lensman

1939 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review - First Lensman by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: The forces of evil are up to no good, but the Arisians give Lenses to superhumanly incorruptible men who lead the fight for good.

Now we are Lensmen
The paragons of virtue
Let's rig elections!

Full review: First Lensman is the second book in the classic Lensman series, picking up more or less where Triplanetary (read review) left off. The story follows the doings of the "First Lensman" Virgil Samms, an incorruptible paragon of bravery and virtue chosen by the Arisians to be the first individual to wear their super-science "Lens".

Virgil Samms has a dream. He wants to establish the Galactic Patrol and protect civilization from the forces of evil. He needs to have a symbol for the incorruptible men he wants to be in his Patrol. Finally, he is guided (by the intuition of one of his trusted subordinates) to Arisia, a heretofore off-limits planet where he is tested by the benevolent and telepathic Arisians who award him a "Lens". Those who wear a Lens, a super-science device that can only be worn by the truly virtuous attuned exclusively to its intended wearer that allows him to communicate telepathically with any being, become the focus of all the remaining stories in the series. Samms is charged with locating all "Lens worthy" individuals and directing them to Arisia to have the boon bestowed upon them. In a bit of sexism that firmly attaches the story to the 1920s, women aren't psychologically able to wear a Lens, but that's okay, because any Lens worthy woman will apparently have such highly developed "women's intuition" that they won't need one.

Once he has a cadre of Lensmen available to defend civilization, Samms uses them to combat drug traffickers. Oddly, despite the various evil designs being plotted against the Earth - including the attempt to politically take over the planet, threaten it with an invading fleet, and assassinate Lensmen - the Lensmen consider the trade in "thionite", a mind altering drug, to be the most pressing problem needing to be addressed. Since they are the good guys, breaking the thionite ring turns out to be the key to handling all the other threats, but it seems odd to be using the sorts of resources the Lensmen have at their disposal to try to break up what amounts to an interstellar coke smuggling operation.

On the way, though, the Lensmen visit alien planets and encounter bizarre life forms (and attempt to recruit representative members of many species as Lensmen), build a massive fleet, and engage in a satisfyingly massive space battle before winning the crucial election that ensures the creation of the Galactic Patrol and the safety of Civilization.

Although the perfection of the Lensmen is annoying at times, and the sexist attitudes of the 1920s crop up here and there (such as the amazingly easy dispatch of a a pair of supposedly dangerous female mercenaries), the story carries the reader through the action at a pace that never lets up. Just as one has to simply accept the benevolence of the Arisians to make the story work, one must also accept the goodness and incorruptibility of the Lensmen as well: Otherwise some of their actions in the crucial North American election look a lot like voter intimidation.

First Lensman kicks the Lensman series in high gear, building the actual Lensman organization that will be the background for all the remaining books, while at the same time delivering an exciting story chock full of exotic aliens, evil villains, and space battles.

Previous book in the series: Triplanetary
Subsequent book in the series: Galactic Patrol

1951 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Review - Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: Arisians and Eddorians are enemies from the beginning of time, and Earth becomes one of their battlefields.

Good and evil fight
What's allotropic iron?
It's okay, friends now!

Full review: Triplanetary is the first book in the classic Lensman series, the Space Opera that to a great extent defined the format. The list of later fiction that owes a debt to the themes and forms of this series is long and impressive: Green Lantern, Babylon 5, Star Trek, and even Star Wars among others owe much to E.E. "Doc" Smith.

Triplanetary starts at the beginning of the universe, and unfortunately starts somewhat slowly. The virtuous and altruistic Arisians and the vile, power-hungry Eddorians, mutually antagonistic alien races, are introduced. The supposedly benevolent Arisians decide (using their advanced powers of precognition) that Earth cannot be protected until the time is right, and allow Atlantis, Rome and finally, the United States, to fall to the forces of the Eddorians. One must simply accept that the Arisians are benevolent given this sort of callousness as they condemn millions of humans to death and suffering.

Finally, humanity develops enough to explore the solar system and form the Triplanetary League. Interplanetary commerce is plagued by pirates (who, unbeknownst to the Patrol, are backed by the Eddorian "Roger"), and the Triplanetary Patrol are in the midst of a large scale engagement with the pirate fleet when the Nevians, a race from an iron poor planet, show up and begin reducing both sides' ships to "allotropic iron", which is what they use to power their interstellar ships.

The hero of the story, a Patrol agent named Costigan, is kidnapped by the Nevians along with his love interest and an old space hand. The Nevians decide that humans are inferior beings, and carve up both fleets, and head for home. Costigan uses his ultra-wave spy ray to figure out a lot of the Nevian technology and sends reports home to Earth scientists. "Roger" flees and starts a new operation on a distant world.

Costigan and his companions stage several escape attempts from their Nevian kidnappers, but are foiled again and again. Human scientists (who, after all, are simply better than the Nevians) figure out Nevian technology, and improve upon it. After much fighting, "Roger" is defeated by a resurgent Patrol armed with both human and Nevian technology, the Nevians acknowledge humans are equals, and peace is negotiated.

In some ways, this is not so much "Book One" as it is "Book Zero" in the series. There are no actual Lensmen in the book, there is no Galactic Patrol, and the "Civilization" consists of humans, and by the end, Nevians. Despite some 1950s sensibilities (most notably with respect to relationships between the sexes), the story (once it gets going) is a fun and fast-paced ride through space battles and intrigue. Although it is probably the weakest of the six books in the series, it is still a very worthy jumping off point for one of the most influential works of science fiction.

Subsequent book in the series: First Lensman

E.E. "Doc" Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A dream world threatens the life of a young woman, the dead talk, travelers enter the dream realm uninvited, and a trapped spirit yearns to break free.

Dreams invade real life
Barbie's asked to save a world
Walk the moon road

Full review: After you create a story in which the disposition of Hell itself is at stake, what do you do to follow it up? Once you have Lucifer hand over the keys to Hell and all the supernatural powers of the universe vie to claim them with the fallout from that struggle washing over to affect the lives of the mundane, one might find it difficult to keep the reader's interest. If you are Neil Gaiman, you write A Game of You, a tale in which you invert everything about Season of Mists and create a story in which the internal struggles in the dreams of a single person become a threat far beyond what one might expect.

The central characters in the story are Barbie, last seen in The Doll's House, but now having shed her shallow and abusive boyfriend; and her neighbor Wanda, a woman who wishes she could actually be a woman but whose biology has betrayed her. Barbie, now living in a run down apartment in New York, is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters: the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove who also live in the building that Barbie and Wanda inhabit, the homeless lady terrified of dogs who lives just outside the building, the cryptic woman Thessaly, and the creepy man who lives on the top floor. In what seems to have been an almost conscious decision to restrict the universe the characters inhabit to a single building.

But those aren't the only characters in the story. On the flip side of sleep, Barbie finds a collection of dream characters: Prinado, Luz, and Wilkinson. But it seems that all is not well in Barbie's dreams, and her dream characters begin to invade mundane reality, in the form of the dog-like Martin Tenbones. And from there, the events in the book begin to spin out of control as Barbie's dream reality begins to affect the mundane reality more and more profoundly. Barbie is drawn into her dream world (when she falls asleep), where a cast of characters that inhabited her childhood dreams look to her to save them from the Cuckoo, while at the same time her friends in the real world deal with the impact the struggle inside Barbie's dreams is having upon their lives. And the struggle inside and outside the dream world turns brutal and bloody quickly.

Effectively, the struggle faced by Barbie is purely internal, but around her the struggle takes place in the real world. The Cuckoo has a real world agent, and Wanda, Foxglove, and Hazel have to deal with him with the assistance of the mysterious Thessaly. After some fairly gruesome and bloody information gathering, Thessaly decides that the women in the group need to go on a rescue mission to assist Barbie via a fairly dangerous path - a choice that results in even more negative real world repercussions. Everyone follows their assigned path to the conclusion of the story, at which point all of the threads reunite, Dream makes his presence felt, and the mystery of the Porpentine and the Cuckoo is finally unraveled.

But one of the themes running through the story is built upon the idea that dreams have very real consequences in reality, and the story doesn't end without punching that point home. And this being a Gaiman penned story, the resolution also weaves in the other thematic element of the story and deals with gender directly - both in the crisis that threatens to tear apart Hazel and Foxglove and Wanda's struggle to assert her own identity to the very end. As one would expect, both of these stories tie thematically to the story of the Cuckoo - a creature struggling to be born and assert its own identity. What at first glance seems to be a collection of disparate elements, in the end turns out to be a tightly interwoven set of powerful themes.

From a certain perspective, A Game of You was set up to be something of a disappointment following directly after Season of Mists. However, despite being more subtle in its telling in some ways, it manages to avoid this fate. By focusing on the consequences of one person's dreams run out of control, Gaiman manages to craft a story that is both substantially different from the previous volume, and yet follows on to it quite perfectly.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

Neil Gaiman     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review - Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville

Short review: A collection of characters mill about and accomplish not much of anything. And the unicorns' enemy is closer than they think.

Whispers in the dark
Quests to find centaurs and Mom
Nothing is resolved

Full review: Dark Whispers is the third book in the four book Unicorn Chronicles series, and as seems to happen to Coville in the third book in four book series, it is something of a let down. This seems similar to the let down that took place in The Search for Snout, the third volume in Coville's four book Alien Adventures series. The book has lots of movement, but it seems strangely disjointed and seems to be little more than filler holding the space between the actual stories contained in Song of the Wanderer and The Last Hunt.

Picking up where Song of the Wanderer left off, Cara and the newly installed unicorn Queen have to deal with the fact that at the end of the last volume Beloved obtained an amulet that will allow her to open a gate from Earth to Luster and invade with her hunters on a mission to eradicate the unicorns. Griswold finds a couple of apparently deleted passages in the Unicorn Chronicles which point towards a possible solution, and another human living in Luster  (in fact, the oldest human living in Luster) cryptically recites an ancient poem and asserts that the centaurs know the rest of the story. This, of course, forms the basis for the main story of the book which sends Cara, Griswold, M'Gama, Lightfoot, Finder, Bella, and the Squijum off to the Valley of the Centaurs to ask the centaur King Chiron to fill them in. As usual, the centaurs apparently hold some animosity towards the unicorns who seem to be unable to get along with any of their neighbors.

Because a quest to get a story from recalcitrant centaurs apparently doesn't provide enough meat for a book, there are a number of other story lines in the book that are more or less connected to Cara's quest. Cara's father Ian is on the hunt for the entrance to the Ruby Prison to find and free Cara's mother. In another story line the delvers are busy trying to fulfill the wishes of their insane king who is under the influence of a mysterious voice. And in a third thread the Dimblethum seems to have issues with the same mysterious voice. Complicating matters is that as the story moves along, Cara's group fragments as well, sending M'Gama off in one direction, Bella and Finder off in another, and Lightfoot in yet another. One of the consequences of having more than a half-dozen adventures all happening simultaneously is that not much happens in any of them, which is the primary problem with the book. Not only that, most of the various story lines don't even really come to a conclusion, simply being put on hold in the middle of the action with their resolution tabled until The Last Hunt.

And it is this lack of resolution that makes this installment of the series seem like little more than filler. Certainly Cara is able to figure some stuff out, but even finding out the answer to the mystery she was assigned to unravel doesn't seem to lead much of any where. Ian's quest leads him on an extensive journey during which he pays a substantial personal cost, and in which he is linked up with some new and interesting companions, but he seems to have had no plan concerning what to do once he reached his goal. Similarly, Cara seems to have had no plan as to what to do once she reached her goal, a condition that seems to afflict several other characters in the book. In fact, the only character who seems at all clear about what they intend to do and how they are going to accomplish it is the villain Beloved, which may explain why the heroes always seem to be flailing about uselessly while the villains seem to get things done.

This is not to say nothing happens in the books: the good guys suffer some notable casualties, information is uncovered that is likely to be of use in later books, and most everyone actually finds what they were looking for. As serendipity seems to be a common element in the stories, the various individuals that the main characters run across in their travels all seem to be more important than they might appear to be at first glace. The unicorns who aren't featured in the story seem to be oddly passive though - as do the rest of the inhabitants of Luster. Once would think that given their common antipathy towards humanity, the dragons, centaurs, and other mythological creatures would be making a common cause to try to repel the pending invasion, but if this has been happening, it goes entirely unmentioned in the book.

While The Unicorn Chronicles as a whole is a fun and interesting series, Dark Whispers is the weakest book of the bunch. While a lot of elements critical to the eventual denouement of the story are introduced and developed in this book, the book on its own is little more than a bridge between other, better books. Dark Whispers begins in the middle of the story, and ends in the middle of the story, and thus would be almost impossible to read on its own. As such, while it is an integral part of The Unicorn Chronicles, it simply does not hold up on its own as anything more than a mediocre book.

Previous book in the series: Song of the Wanderer
Subsequent book in the series: The Last Hunt

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review - Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville

Short review: The message from book one has been delivered. Now Cara has to find the Wanderer and bring her home.

Weary Wanderer
Must be found and returned
By a twelve year old

Full review: Song of the Wanderer is the second book in The Unicorn Chronicles, and picks up shortly after Into the Land of the Unicorns ended. Whereas the first book was mostly a "run from the pursuers and deliver a message" story that mostly focused on giving the broad outlines of the fantasy world of Luster and the ancient conflict between the unicorns and the Hunters, this story begins to fill in the details. The book also deals with the relationships between parents and children - notably between Lightfoot and his father, and Cara and hers, as well as between Cara and her grandmother and Cara's father and Beloved.

At the outset of the book, Cara, the youthful protagonist from the previous installment of the series, is ensconced in Summerhaven at the court of Arabella Skydancer, Queen of the Unicorns resting from her journey across Luster to deliver the message "the Wanderer is Weary". Having delivered her message, Cara has been sitting around waiting to be told what to do next, and the Queen soon fills her in. It seems that "the Wanderer" is none other than Cara's grandmother Ivy Morris, and Cara has to go and get her and bring her back to Luster. There is a scene in which Cara is formally charged with the quest, and some companions are chosen for her - three unicorns: Moonheart, Finder, and Bella. Moonheart, it turns out, is Lightfoot's father, and there is substantial tension between father and son. Bella is the fiercest member of the Queen's guard, and Finder is an explorer. I always find these sorts of scenes in which characters are ceremonially charged with pursuing a "quest" to be kind of silly, and almost always find them horribly pretentious. And the scenes in which Cara and the companions selected for her have the quest to find and return with the Wanderer laid upon them are no exception. In addition, of Cara's traveling companions from the previous volume, only the diminutive Squijum and the tinker Thomas join her for this journey. Lightfoot and the Dimblethum, due to as yet unexplained conflicts with members of the unicorn royal court, are unable to join them.

Cara's task is made both sad and urgent: Arabella Skydancer is waiting for the Wanderer to return so that she can die, and as unicorns "fade away" when they die, the Queen's impending death is fairly readily apparent to anyone who sees her. But before Cara can actually set out to find the Wanderer, she is told that she must first go to see M'Gama the Geomancer and have her determine which magical gate Cara must use to cross over from Luster back to Earth. So the troupe heads out to the Geomancer's house - a person who apparently doesn't much like the unicorns either (one starts to wonder if there is anyone in Luster who doesn't hold some sort of grudge against the unicorns). And in the meantime, the book points out how ragged and dirty Cara has gotten wearing the same clothes for days of cross-country travel, and how matted and ratty her hair has gotten from not being washed or combed in the time. This is kind of interesting, as it is one of the few times in a fantasy "quest" novel that I have seen addressed the gritty and dirty reality of walking all day followed by sleeping on the ground at night for weeks or more.

The group finds M'Gama in short order, and she's a pretty typical fantasy wizard: at turns cryptic and imperious, and at others unexpectedly friendly. M'Gama also has a dwarf bodyguard named Flensa who is gruff but kind of lovable too. As one would expect, M'Gama does her magic stuff and comes up with a path for Cara to take to the proper gate to take her to the Wanderer, and also a time limit she has to get there. But first she has to take a bath, wash and comb her hair, and get some new clothes to replace the jeans and t-shirt she had been wearing since arriving in Luster. She gets fitted out with some typical fantasy travel gear, and handed a sword to go with her new outfit. This strikes me as an odd decision even though there is no question that Cara is going in to danger. But does anyone really think that handing an untrained twelve year-old a sword is a good idea? It seems to me like this weapon would be more dangerous to Cara than to any enemies she might encounter. Because M'Gama is a fantasy wizard, she also gives Cara a green jeweled ring, cryptically telling her she will figure out what it is for later.

But M'Gama is pretty clear on where Cara and her companions need to go - they have to go through a forest that is easy to get lost in, enter the lair of the dragon Ebillan, who doesn't like people, and go through the gate located in a cave in the the back of his cave to get to Earth. And they have a time limit. So after all the personal grooming is done, the crew heads out. Along the way they pick up some additional companions - first they come across a troupe of entertainers, and one turns out to be an elderly tumbler named John and in an example of serendipity, he turns out to be Ivy's former husband, and possibly Cara's grandfather. Later, Lightfoot and the Dimblethum show up, saving the group from an attack by some delvers. Then they run across Grimwold, the Keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles who escorts them part of the way through his underground tunnels and tells them a story about Ivy Morris, which reveals that she has a somewhat unusual background. Grimwold also hands over a gift to Cara for her to trade with Ebillan - a huge red gem the size of a duck egg. And this ball hands Cara a new and unexpected mystery, giving he a vision of a woman in a red tree that she assumes is her mother, a vision that later turns into a nightmare vision of Beloved.

The group gets one last companion along the way when Cara ignores M'Gama's advice in the enchanted forest and leaves the marked path in the middle of the night after being spooked by a vivid nightmare apparently sent by Beloved. She hears a sound in the dark, and naturally investigates where she finds the gryphon Medafil caught in a trap set by hunters. She frees the beast and it offers to help her find her way back to the path in the morning, but first it takes her back to his eyrie where we find out that he also has a history with Ivy Morris. One starts to wonder if there is anyone in Luster who is not on a first name basis with Ivy. Because everyone also seems to hand out gifts to Cara when she stops by, Medafil hands over a size-changing globe that lights up when Cara holds it, and a shell that has the voice of her grandmother singing The Song of the Wanderer magically implanted in it. All of this gift-giving does raise some questions though - Cara acquires pretty much everything she has through the stories as gifts handed to her by people she meets. Luster appears to have no actual functioning economy. Through Cara's travels she has met a record keeper, a tinker who fixes watches, a bunch of acrobats, and a Earth wizard as well as a collection of fantastical beasts such as unicorns, dragons, and griffons. But she has not met any farmers, craftsmen, or anyone else who produces much of anything useful (other than watches, and you can't eat those). One wonders where the food that the acrobats, chronicle keepers, and Cara herself eat comes from. I suppose that in a fairy tale story aimed at young readers, the mechanics of growing food and compensating those who do so is not something that one would expect the narrative to focus on, but given the focus on the details of personal grooming, leaving out where the food comes from seems a little odd.

Despite disliking dragons, Medafil decides to join the eclectic band heading to Ebillan's territory, and before too long Cara is negotiating with the dragon for passage. Ebillan is less than enthused to have three humans, four unicorns, a man-bear hybrid, a squirrel-like thing, and a griffon show up on his doorstep. He is even less enthused when he learns they want to pass through his lair and go through the gate to Earth. Oddly, even though everyone else has handed out gifts to Cara throughout the book, Ebillan demands payment for allowing her to traverse his territory, insisting that she give him something valuable for the privilege. But this makes one wonder: how can these things be valuable if they have been handed out like party favors? What Cara ends up trading has subjective value to her, but is it really valuable to anyone else given that it was just handed off to her in an almost off-hand way earlier in her journeys? To a certain extent, it seems that the items in the story simply exist to provide object lessons for the reader, which is somewhat less than satisfying.

Finally Cara gets to her destination, and in a twist that isn't all that surprising, finds that Beloved got there first with a group of hunters, including Cara's father Ian. In a scene with numerous twists and turns, we learn the truth about Lightfoot and why he is estranged from Moonheart. We also get an interesting twist to the relationship between Ian and Cara, and something of a family reunion when John shows up on the scene too. (Actually, the whole fight is a family reunion, because Cara and all of the Hunters are descended from Beloved, and Cara's unusual heritage ties her to the other participants in the fracas). After the fight with Beloved winds down with (it turns out) something of a Pyrrhic victory, Cara finds that her grandmother is in some sort of deep sleep, whereupon the mysterious green ring M'Gama gave her comes in to play (one other thing about all the gifts handed over the Cara is that they all end up being uniquely useful) and she recovers the Wanderer. In the end, the Wanderer is returned to the Queen who, as predicted, dies shortly thereafter, and a moderately unexpected replacement is put in charge and, as one would expect, things end more or less happily.

Song of the Wanderer is a strong follow-up to Into the Land of the Unicorns that wraps up many of the immediate conflicts while leaving open several others. In doing so, Coville  performs a difficult balancing act of making the story seem complete while also providing enough fodder for future volumes in the series, and in this case, he balances the two goals quite successfully. Despite the heaping helpings of serendipity that are liberally ladled into the story, it retains enough coherence to hold together. With well-integrated themes about the value of friendships and family relationships, the book rises above the typical young adult quest fantasy, and delivers very worthwhile read.

Previous book in the series: Into the Land of the Unicorns
Subsequent book in the series: Dark Whispers

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Follow Friday - You Have to Be Thirty-Five to Be President of the United States

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Confuzzled Books and Life Between Pages.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could have characters from a book meet and form an epic story line with characters from a TV series, which characters would you choose and why?

While one option would be to have the crew of Moya from Farscape meet up with the crew of Gay Deceiver from Heinlein's Number of the Beast, because of, among other things, how well Hilda and Zhaan would get along together, and how John Carter and Deety would react to D'Argo and Aeryn, and the conversations that Zeb and Crichton would have, I can't come up with an epic story line that they would do together. Alternatively, one could have the crew of the Gay Deceiver meet up with the crew of Serenity from Firefly, but I think most of the stories that would flow from that pairing would be somewhat pornographic in nature.

Given that Babylon 5 is my favorite television show of all time, it seems kind of inevitable that my thoughts would turn to Sinclair, Sheridan, Delenn, G'Kar, Marcus, Garibaldi, Lyta, and Ivanova. The only real question is what epic story line one could merge with these characters that would make for a satisfying pairing. Given the clear influence of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series on Babylon 5, it seems only natural that the epic power struggle between the virtuous Arisians and the evil Eddorians would be run parallel to the galaxy-wide fight between the stern and inflexible Vorlons and the chaos-loving Shadows. Teaming Marcus Cole and the Rangers with Kimball Kinnison and the Lensmen seems just as natural.

So, in the epic story line, the Lensmen show up on Babylon 5 and reveal that the Shadows didn't go away, they just went to a nearby galaxy to regroup and prepare to return to impose their ideology upon the younger races - biding their time by working through intermediaries like the Drakh and the Hand. This would lead to an intergalactic conflict in which the Babylon 5 based Interstellar Alliance works with the Lensman corps to oppose the Shadows, who turn out to be backed by the Eddorians. And the Vorlons turn out to be the Arisians in disguise, which means that the story takes a very difficult turn for the Lensman, since the Vorlons, unlike the Arisians, are not "good". So, humanity and its allies among the younger races against both the Eddorian/Shadows and the Arisian/Vorlons. I don't think a story line could get much more epic than that.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Thirty-Four Is a Heptagonal Number
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Thirty-Six Is Six Squared

Follow Friday     Home

2011 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees

Location: CapClave in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Comments: In 2011, CapClave moved from Rockville to Gaithersburg, but the WSFA Small Press Award kept chugging right along, with Carrie Vaughn taking home the honor for her story Amaryllis.

But the real story of the 2011 WSFA Small Press Awards is in the nominee list which was studded with stories by excellent writers such as Sarah Monette, Jack McDevitt, and Catherynne M. Valente, but also contained stories by less established authors such as RJ Astruc. A key component of the WSFA Small Press Awards is that nominees are self-selected, either by the author or by the publication their story appeared in, but the short list is then selected by a jury that evaluates the stories on an anonymous basis. The mix of nominees that appeared on the short list in 2011 demonstrates that the award had evolved into a prestigious enough honor that established authors were willing to submit their work for consideration, and also that less well-known authors were given a fair shake by the process.

WSFA Small Press Award

Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn

Other Nominees:
After the Dragon by Sarah Monette
The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt
The Days of Flaming Motorcycles by Catherynne M. Valente
Enid and the Prince by RJ Astruc
Lord Bai's Discovery by Jean Marie Ward

Go to previous year's nominees: 2010
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2012

Book Award Reviews     Home

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review - Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville

Short review: Cara and her grandmother are chased by a mysterious stranger, and Cara ends up in a magical land where unicorns are real. But this new world is still dangerous.

Leaping to Luster
A magical wonder world
Full of unicorns

Full review: Bruce Coville loves unicorns. I don't think there is any doubt about this. So it should surprise no one that when Coville sat down to write a more or less "serious" fantasy series, unicorns would be prominently featured. I've said before that I don't particularly get the love for unicorns - they are basically just a horse with a horn on its head, some healing powers and a penchant for virgins. However, with Into the Land of the Unicorns Coville seems to have taken the mythology of unicorns and launched a series that does about as much as one could do with it.

The story wastes little time getting started - Cara and her grandmother are out walking one evening when Cara spots a mysterious man following them which leads to a furious chase ending with Cara's grandmother thrusting a mysterious amulet into her hands and instructing her to leap off of the top of a church tower at the twelfth strike of the bell and deliver a message once she got to where she was going. And suddenly Cara finds herself in a strange land being assaulted by a dwarf-like delver who incapacitates her before she is rescued by the half-man half-bear Dimblethum. While recovering from her injuries in Dimblethum's cave, Cara meets the unicorn Lightfoot who heals her and informs her she is in Luster, the land of the unicorns. She also meets the diminutive squirrel-like Squijum, an excitable and like the Dimblethum, also a unique creature.

Or at least the land where the unicorns fled to when they abandoned Earth. Apparently unicorns were being ruthlessly hunted to extinction when they opened gates to this alternate world and withdrew to there. Cara was able to travel between worlds using the amulet her grandmother gave her - one of the "Queen's Amulets", of which there are only five. This, of course, raises the question of what her grandmother was doing with such a valuable object. And when Lightfoot hears the message Cara was instructed to deliver "find the Old One and tell her the Wanderer is weary", he declares that they must visit the Queen of the Unicorns (who he identifies as the "Old One") as quickly as possible. So, with the Dimblethum and Squijum accompanying them, they set out to cross Luster and visit the royal court, although both Lightfoot and the Dimblethum have some reservations about going to the royal court.

Before long this odd group of four come across Thomas, one of the few human inhabitants of Luster. Thomas is a tinker who pulls a big handcart around with him everywhere he goes and turns out to be a little more than one might think at first glance. Thomas spontaneously decides to join the little band, and they head out towards Grimwold's home. Grimwold is the "Keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles" who maintains a repository of all stories involving unicorns and their allies. By having Cara pick up various companions along the way, Coville is able to fill Cara (and thus the reader) in on the basic conflict of the series. In the distant past, unicorns acquired an undeserved reputation as vicious beasts. Through a combinations of misunderstandings, a unicorn is violently interrupted while trying to heal a small girl named "Beloved", and the tip of his horn breaks off in the girl's chest, leaving her in a continuous painful cycle of injury and healing. Prevented from dying by the horn embedded in her flesh, Beloved vows to take revenge upon the unicorns for the wrong she perceives they have done her, and her descendants become the "Hunters", who pursued the unicorns so relentlessly that they fled from Earth to Luster. Cara, with her amulet, represents an avenue into Luster for the Hunters, and so she is pursued.

And the unicorns weren't the only creatures to flee from Earth to Luster. There are a handful of transplanted humans and there are also the delvers and dragons, all of whom originally came from Earth and have little love for humans. We also find out that the delvers have been hunting for Cara to get her amulet, but that some delvers, nonplussed at the idea that humans might try to follow her into Luster are willing to offer mild assistance in her quest to warn the Queen of the imminent danger. After this unexpected assistance, the intrepid band of travelers turn to their next problem, which is that they must also traverse through the territory of Firethroat, one of the seven dragons in Luster.

The plot comes to a head in Firethroat's territory, as the shadowy threat that has been looming over Cara shows itself, and turns out to be somehow both surprising and completely predictable. Some quick thinking manages to turn the tables on her adversary, and some generosity results in a fairly substantial thank you gift. As with most Coville books, the lesson conveyed is that making friends is a good thing, and that being nice results in good things happening. These are fairly simple and straightforward life lessons, but they are packaged quite well here, and flow organically from the story.

Into the Land of the Unicorns is a pretty standard young adult fantasy story featuring mostly pretty standard fantasy elements: unicorns, dragons, goblin-like delvers, magical amulets and gates between worlds, the wise wizardly dwarf Grimwold, and of course, an evil immortal villain. But the story is engaging and Coville throws in just enough curves - such as the Dimblethum and the Squijum - to keep the fantasy elements from being stale. On the whole, this is a decent beginning to what promises to be a good, albeit fairly conventional, fantasy tale.

Subsequent book in the series: Song of the Wanderer

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review - The Measure of the Magic by Terry Brooks

Short review: Lots of people with names that start with "P" mill about to foil the plans of trolls and a demon.

The black staff hunted
The Elfstones pursued as well
A troll army comes

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: I have a large collection of Terry Brooks' Shannara books sitting on my bookshelves. It is one of the more popular fantasy settings around, and one that I have always intended to delve into, but for one reason or another it always got pushed off until later. Consequently, The Measure of the Magic is my first exposure to Brooks' writing, and even though the second book in a prequel series might not have been the best option, it is still a very good post-apocalyptic fantasy story that was interesting, engaging, and filled with fun action.

The story of The Measure of the Magic starts, unsurprisingly for a second book in a series, in media res, with the central character of the previous book dead, one character picking up the pieces after his death, another lost and hunted by trolls, and a third accused of murdering her own father and imprisoned. In a strange editorial decision, all of the main characters (and a couple of the secondary characters) all have names that start with the letter "P": Pan, Prue, Phryne, and so on. as a storytelling matter, this doesn't change the characters, but it does make it easy to confuse who is who at times. This is somewhat beside the point however, as the real main characters in the book are the black staff that Pan inherits, and the Elfstones that are Phyrne's birthright.

The catalyst for the broad sweep of the story is the impending invasion of a valley that has until recently been magically sheltered from the outside world by a unified army of trolls. From the snippets I gathered the previous book in the series (Bearers of the Black Staff) focused on Sider Ament's efforts to rally the inhabitants of the valley to oppose the threat. However, but the beginning of this book, Sider is dead, his staff has been passed on to Pan, Pan's friend Prue is trapped by a band of trolls, and the elven princess Phyrne is imprisoned after being accused of royal patricide. Meanwhile, the various agents of such authority as exist in the valley seem to be only modestly interested in dealing with the troll army, and are more focused on their own internal power struggles, which seems to be somewhat shortsighted.

The story is told with a rotating viewpoint, mostly focusing on Pan, Prue, and Phyrne, but also telling the tale from the perspective of the antagonists and a few bit players. And the primary antagonist is the demon simply known as Ragpicker who influences most of the events in the story. In this he is opposed by the heroes, but also by the mysterious and supernatural King of the Silver River, although their involvement is mostly centered on the story line featuring Pan and Prue. And in this regard, Pan's story line is somewhat less interesting than Phyrne's. While Phyrne's story has plenty of magic, the villainy, and the heroism, is derived from ultimately mundane sources. But Prue is endowed with magical insight by the King of the Silver River, and much of the problems that are caused in Pan's journey are the result of the malevolent influence of the demon. In short, there is a supernatural problem, and while the mundane heroes have to have the courage to face it, they are armed with extra bonuses by a supernatural benefactor. This, to my mind, detracts from the power of the story: having a mystically super powered being swoop in to save the day and cryptically hand out special powers to the heroes essentially says that they could not have opposed the problem on their own, diminishing them.

Further, while most of the characters in the story are interesting, the primary supernatural agents: the demon and the King of the Silver River, are fairly bland and boring. The demon has only one goal, and pretty much no personality other than that. The King of the Silver River's motivations are entirely unclear, and he appears to exist in the story merely to serve as a boon bestowing agent. The mundane villains in the story: the troll prince Arik Siq, the usurper elven Queen Isoeld, and the Seraphic Skeal Elie are all much more interesting characters than the demon because they have complex motivations and goals, and have to actually work to accomplish them in an environment where a misstep on their part would mean disaster for their plans. The demon, in contrast, has but one goal, and really has nothing that can threaten him for much of the book. Consequently, the demon is malevolent, but dull.

But the characters are likable, and the paths of the three main protagonists intertwine through the book - although interestingly all three of them never end up in the same place together. First Prue finds Pan, then Pan finds Phyrne, then Pan finds Prue again. The story sets up a kind of gentle love triangle that is resolved in a somewhat tidy way (although not particularly happily). Interestingly, all three of the main characters wield magical power, but none of them have any understanding of the powers their wield, which makes them seem like passengers along for the ride through much of the story as they simply follow the magical cues they are handed rather than actually formulating plans and taking proactive action. In fact, the only characters that seem to actually take initiative are secondary characters - the waif Xac Wen, the brothers Tasha and Tenerife, and Aislinne. Lacking in special powers they are forced to actually make decisions based upon their known capabilities rather than following the mysterious prodding of magical artifacts or elusive colorful birds. In many ways, these secondary characters seem more real than the main characters because of this.

In any event, all of the interweaving stories wind towards a satisfying, although not entirely pleasant conclusion, with the caveat that although they are related stories, they don't all tie up together. Despite the fact that several of the featured characters seem to simply drift through the story to some degree, the book moves along as a rapid clip and shifts between them often enough to keep the reader engaged. Even though the ultimate villain is boring, the rest of the antagonists are an interesting bunch whose plots make the action interesting. Despite a bit of a deus ex machina element to the resolution of one story line, the book is still a fun read for any fan of fantasy fiction in general, and certainly a must read for any fan of Shannara specifically.

Terry Brooks      Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, October 7, 2011

Follow Friday - Thirty-Four Is a Heptagonal Number

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Jagged Edge Reviews and A Neverending Fantasy.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: If you could pick one character in a book, movie or television show to swap places with, who would it be?

There are a couple candidates. I've always been partial to Gil "the Arm" Hamilton, written by Larry Niven. Having a third telekinetic "arm" would be nice. Plus he lives in an interesting future society. Another Niven character who would be interesting to be would be Beowulf Schaeffer, the freakishly tall albino shapeshifter space pilot who features in a number of his space exploration stories.

But in the end I'd probably pick Lazarus Long from Robert A. Heinlein's novels Methuselah's Children, Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. First off, he's effectively immortal, and surrounded by his long-lived family. Second, he lives in a society that has both achieved routine interstellar travel (and over the course of the stories, time travel), but has also adopted a somewhat relaxed code of sexual mores. Live forever. Travel the galaxy. Have lots of girlfriends who never get jealous of each other. Who wouldn't want that?

Go to previous Follow Friday: Thirty-Three Was Larry Bird's Number

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review - Don't Fry My Veeblax! by Bruce Coville

Short review: Goaded into bringing his shapeshifting pet to school, Pleskit sparks another incident, this time pitting insane women's rights activists against insane animal rights activists.

Shapeshifting Veeblax
Brought to school on a foolish dare
Causes much trouble

Full review: As one might guess from the title of the book, the story of Don't Fry My Veeblax! focuses heavily on Pleskit's pet shapeshifter. The story also features a media frenzy driven by sensationalism and half-truths as well as a collection of vocal activists gone wild. But at its heart the story is about a pair of twelve-year old friends from different planets at the center of yet another interstellar diplomatic incident.

The plot kicks off with a visit to Tim and Pleskit's sixth grade class from local poet Percy Canterfield, who apparently comes every year to teach the kids poetry. he proposes the kids write poems about their pets, and that the kids should all bring their respective pets to school. This proposal leads to one student named Larrabe Hicks announcing that he has the most unusual pet in the class: a woodchuck named Harold. Eventually Pleskit brings up his own pet - the shapeshifting Veeblax, which the strangely popular class jerk Jordan immediately dismisses, announcing to everyone his opinion that Pleskit is just making up stories. This goads Pleskit into vowing to bring the Veeblax to school the next day.

(As an aside, this sequence seems odd. Pleskit is a purple alien with a tentacle like protrusion growing from his head whose language includes burps, farts, and smells. Pleskit is known to be from a distant planet and lives in a flying saucer hanging from a coat hanger. In previous books he has displayed technology that changes people's size, makes them think like monkeys, and transforms them into suggestible zombies. Given this background, exactly what is so unbelievable about a shapeshifting pet that everyone in the class would essentially side with Jordan on this? And why does Jordan continue to be so popular and influential among the other students when it has been shown over and over again that he is an ignorant jackass?)

In any event, Pleskit is determined to bring his Veeblax to school. Unfortunately, his father Meenom proves to be too busy for Pleskit to talk to in order to obtain permission, so Pleskit sneaks the Veeblax out of the alien embassy and takes him to school on the sly. (Another open question is that it seems entirely unclear how obtaining permission would have changed subsequent events. The only way Meenom could have "helped" would have been to simply forbid taking the Veeblax to school, a prohibition Pleskit probably would have ignored anyway). Once at school, the Veeblax proves to be a big hit with the other students, although Larrabe's pet woodchuck Harold seems to be overly interested in the Veeblax chow.

Trouble begins brewing when Pleskit's classmate Misty, desperate to have more attention focused on her, demands that the Veeblax pay attention to her, which it seems disinclined to do. This comes to fruition later during recess when Misty calls to the Veeblax who, in an uncharacteristic action, leaps onto her, wraps its limbs around her, and refuses to stop clinging until Pleskit stuns it with his sphen-gnut-ksher. Though Misty is uninjured, the incident is captured by long range cameras and becomes a media sensation. Misty's interviews with the media become more and more fanciful, progressing to tearful confessions of her fear at being attacked by the vicious alien creature, and opposing camps of protesters appear at the gates of the school. Women's rights activists appear to protest Misty's "sexual harassment" (which seems weird - if a dog jumped up on a girl, would that be sexual harassment too?), while animal rights activists appear to stick up for the Veeblax. One protest sign demands "Fry the Veeblax!", giving the book its name.

As the situation quickly spins into a diplomatic incident, Meenom acquiesces to a request to have the Veeblax taken for study, a prospect that fills Pleskit with dread. Fearing that his Veeblax will be dissected if he is turned over to animal control, Pleskit packs up his pet and runs away from home. Obviously, a purple alien twelve-year old with an orange shapeshifting pet is going to have a hard time hiding out on Earth, so Pleskit heads to his friend Tim's house. With government agents looking for him hot on his heels. After a narrow escape (in a sequence that shows that assuming an alien runaway child would be limited to the abilities a human runaway would have is not particularly smart), Pleskit turns to Percy Canterfield for assistance.

Canterfield, being an open-minded and somewhat rebellious fellow agrees, but Pleskit soon becomes remorseful about endangering him and his daughter with his presence. Soon he is on his own again, and as a result of a series of decisions predictable enough that Tim figures out where he is, Pleskit, with a big assist from Linnsy, meanders his way to the resolution of the mysteries that have arisen in the book. Of course, Tim and Pleskit team up for some zany hijinks  along the way and everything turns out more or less okay in the end, especially for Tim who gets an unexpected bonus.

Don't Fry My Veeblax! is the most Pleskit-centered story in the I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series, but oddly the actual heavy lifting in the plot is done by his human friends. While most of the story revolves around Pelskit's attempts to evade the capture and examination of the Veeblax, it is Linnsy who actually figures out what happened on the playground, and Tim who figures out how to find Pleskit and help him out. While Pleskit is clearly smart, he still exercises poor judgment throughout to the book, leaving his human friends to pull him out of the fire. This is a welcome change of pace from the typical Coville story in which the superiority of alien intelligence is extolled, and helps make this an even better book than Coville's usually quite good offerings.

Subsequent book in the series: I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: Too Many Aliens

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review - Zombies of the Science Fair by Bruce Coville

Short review: Pleskit and Tim need science projects. Pleskit's science project is supposed to make Tim smarter so Tim can do his science project. Instead, Pleskit makes zombies.

To make Tim smarter
Pleskit unlocks potential
Now he's a zombie

Full review: Zombies of the Science Fair, the fifth book in Coville's I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series sees Pleskit and Tim preparing for their upcoming school science fair. The book abandons the third party narration of Peanut Butter Lover Boy and  goes back to the original format of alternating viewpoints, switching between Tim and Pleskit as the narrator in each chapter, and throwing in a chapter narrated by their mutual friend Linnsy too. As with previous installments in the series, the story is full of zany adventure, a dash of moralizing about the value of good friends, and introduces a concept seen in other Coville books - that humans have vast amounts of wasted potential.

Tim and Pleskit view the prospect of completing a science project for the impending fair very differently. Pleskit sees the science fair as a wonderful event - an opportunity to come up with and complete a project that will show off his love of science. Tim also sees this as an opportunity to come up with a project that will show off his love of science, but fears that as with previous years he will (a) put it off to the last minute, and (b) embark on an endeavor so overly complicated that he cannot possibly complete it with his available resources and technical skills. Given this history, it seems natural that Tim would view the prospect of doing a science project with a mixture of joy and trepidation.

Given this set up, it comes as no surprise that one week before the science project is due that Tim has still not managed to even come up with a viable idea. What is surprising is that Pleskit also has not come up with a usable idea. Granted, Pleskit has completed three science projects by that time, but the first proved too technical to be understood by technologically backwards humans, the second involved using agricultural materials forbidden to be revealed to humans, and the third proved too controversial. So when Tim calls Pleskit about his problem getting a science project started, Pleskit has an idea that will help both of them: for Pleskit's science project he will make Tim smarter, and then the new smarter Tim will be able to come up with a project he can complete. Given the history of plans concocted by these two, it should surprise no one that this is a recipe for disaster.

It turns out that humans are actually much smarter than they seem, so all Pleskit has to do to make Tim smarter is to unlock the wasted potential in Tim's brain. The idea that humans have massive untapped potential wasting away in our brains is a theme that has shown up in other Coville books - notably the My Teacher Is an Alien series. Pleskit decides to make a suggestibility potion that will allow him to simply tell Tim to be smarter. And because Tim has untapped intelligence lurking inside his head, this works. Unfortunately, it also has to effect of making Tim subject to almost any command given by the person who administered the potion, a situation that has some fairly obvious potential downsides.

But the potion does have a big upside and Tim is able to make a viable science project. In the meantime, Pleskit comes up with an antidote, just in case. And this turns out to be a good idea because class bully and recurring villain Jordan (who everyone assumes simply had his wealthy father pay for someone to complete his science project) taunts Tim into dosing himself with the potion, leaving him paralyzed and unable to do anything. Even worse, a plot against Pleskit's father's mission comes to fruition during the actual science fair, resulting in everyone in attendance being turned into a suggestible pseudo-zombie (hence the title of the book). As usual, things look dire but quick thinking by Tim and Pleskit plus some heroics by Pleskit's bodyguard McNally wind up saving the day.

Zombies of the Science Fair is a typical Coville book: a nice message about the value of friends and an optimistic take on human nature wrapped up in a silly, funny adventure. Building on previous books in the series, a little more is revealed of the mysterious shadowy conspiracy that seems determined to foil Meenom's mission to Earth and replace him with an agent inimical to Earth's interests. Overall, Coville strikes the right balance between silly preteen antics, moralizing, and interstellar conspiracy, and winds up with a fun and interesting book.

Subsequent book in the series: I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: Don't Fry My Veeblax!

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Follow Friday - Thirty-Three Was Larry Bird's Number

So I'm a little late with this post, but I'm still in the time limit Parajunkee has established for linking to her Follow Friday page, so I'm going to do it anyway. This means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The Bookaholic and Starcrossed.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What book that hasn't been turned into a movie (yet) would you most like to see make it to the big screen, and who would you like cast as your favorite character?

It would probably be impossible to make into a movie, but I would love to see a film adaptation of Gene Wolfe's four part Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch). There's no way it could be done in a single movie - it would probably take at least four movies to make it work - and it is such a strange combination of science fiction and fantasy elements with healthy dollops of religion and philosophy ladled on that it would probably be almost incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't read the books. Even so, I would love to see this film series, although I'd probably be one of a handful of people in the theater.

This leaves the question of who should play Severian, the brooding and unhandsome central character of the story. And he is also the unreliable narrator of the story (another thing that probably makes the books more or less unfilmable). Severian is going to be tough to cast - he has to be strong and imposing, but any of the modern crop of musclebound action heroes that come to my mind would be hilariously miscast in the role. Especially since whoever plays Severian has to essentially carry the entire story, so he has to be someone whose action you won't get tired of watching for ten hours or so. I'm going to go to left field and say I'd like to see Eric Schweig play the role of Severian, based mostly upon his performance as Uncas in the 1992 film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans.

Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Thirty-Four Is a Heptagonal Number

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review - I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: Peanut Butter Lover Boy by Bruce Coville

Short review: Peanut butter affects Pleskit's brain chemistry, but some people don't believe in brain chemistry. So Tim and Pleskit set out to teach them a lesson.

Pleskit goes insane
From eating peanut butter
Grand is a monkey

Full review: The fourth book in Bruce Coville's I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series, Peanut Butter Lover Boy departs from the alternating first person viewpoint format of the previous three books and has a single third person narrator telling the story. This change is announced in the opening pages of the book as part of a letter supposedly written by Pleskit, although there appears to be no particular reason for the change. That aside, the story is a pretty typical Coville tale about the value of friendship packaged with some silly adventure and a message concerning mental illness.

The story itself starts off fairly innocuously with Tim and Pleskit at lunch where they decide to make the common schoolboy trade of their lunch. Tim ends up with an egg-like thing that he is supposed to smash against his hand and lick, while Pleskit gets a peanut butter sandwich. And from there the problems begin, because when Pleskit sees Linnsey walking by, he declares his undying love for her and charges off to kiss her. This causes some consternation and McNally has to restrain Pleskit until he comes back to his senses. After some investigation, Tim and Pleskit figure out that peanut butter causes this reaction in Pleskit. And at this point the message concerning mental illness comes into play.

It turns out that Linnsey's mother Mrs. Vanderhof suffers from a chemical imbalance in her brain, and takes medication to control her condition. And when it is confirmed that Pleskit's behaviour is changed by peanut butter, she gives a basic explanation of brain chemistry and how it is treated. But neither Pleskit's father Meenom or the new school principal Mr. Grand think that brain chemistry has any effect on behavior. Mr. Grand accuses Pleskit of trying to evade responsibility for his actions with a silly made-up story. This brush-off incenses Mrs. Vanderhof, and she and the boys try to figure out how to show that brain chemistry is real.

Into this gap steps Beezle Whompis, Meenom's new assistant, an energy being with a mastery over alien science. After Beezle examines the human brain, he concocts a substance that transforms an ordinary human mind into a monkey-like state. With the assistance of McNally and Mrs. Vanderhof, the boys plan to smuggle the substance in to a PTA meeting and have Tim eat the stuff and show how something you consume can affect your brain. One plot hole here is that this seems like a pretty obviously stupid plan - while we the readers know that the substance actually makes Tim think like a monkey, for all people like Mr. Grand know Tim could just be play acting his monkey behavior. Fortunately, events conspire to make the plan work out much better than that, and all ends well.

Woven through the main story is another more serious story involving exactly what Meenom's purpose on Earth is. When they make their initial lunch exchange, Tim has second thoughts and  tries to get Pleskit to trade back. Pleskit is perturbed by this request, and when Tim presses him regarding why this bothers him so much, Pleskit explains that the basis of alien society is mutually beneficial trades, and trying to back out of a deal is a mark of a barbaric uncivilized society. It turns out that Meenom is attempting to open trade with Earth, and if his mission fails he will be replaced, potentially by an alien representative much less sympathetic to human concerns. Unfortunately, as of the beginning of the book Meenom has yet to find an Earth product that anyone else in the galaxy would value. This conundrum is solved in a modestly unusual manner that dovetails nicely with the main plot of the book.

Peanut Butter Lover Boy is another strong installment in the I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series. It retains all of the silly adventure of the previous books in the series, and adds just enough of a discussion about serious issues like mental illness to convey a moral lesson without being heavy-handed about it. The story also opens up a tiny window on the wider alien society that Meenom and Pleskit represent, and gives the first real indication of what might be at stake for Earth. Overall, this is a book any science-fiction loving kid will probably enjoy reading.

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