Friday, February 24, 2012

Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies

Allegory is a powerful storytelling tool, as author David Clement-Davies proves with this formidable fable of hierarchy, warfare, and religious faith, conveyed through the backdrop of the animal kingdom. A skillful blend of history, mythology, and a travel writer’s observations of nature, Fire Bringer is a wonderfully compelling anthropomorphic fantasy that should appeal to fans of authors such as Richard Adams and Philip Pullman.

Set in ancient Scotland during the throes of Norse invasion, a red deer named Rannoch is born the night his father, the Lord of the Herd, is murdered, and bears a white spot on his brow in the shape of an oaken leaf; a mark which, according to a prophecy, identifies him as savior and liberator of his herd. When the tyrannical Lord Sgorr’s reign of terror intensifies, Rannoch flees the herd and begins a treacherous odyssey that pits him against all his natural predators, while he grapples with his faith in the deer god Herne. Gifted with visions of the future, and the ability to speak to other animal species, Rannoch also embarks on a spiritual journey proves to be as enthralling as his struggle for survival and mission to restore the natural order; all of which build and culminate into a resonant finale.

Far from depicting the generic good versus evil dichotomy, Fire Bringer does not shy away from moral ambiguity. For instance, the villainous Sgorr remains sympathetic throughout the novel, as he is driven to violence by exile and persecution. Adding to the story’s complexity is Rannoch’s internal struggle as he transgresses the line between predator and prey, befriending human beings and even a wolf during his travels.

Clement-Davies is a skilled wordsmith who favors lush descriptions and yet is never excessive. He conjures vivid images of the natural world and its beauty and peril, and unflinchingly portrays both its triumphs and tragedies; meaning there’s no shortage of blood and gore, and readers should brace themselves for the deaths of characters they grow attached to, especially during the final battle scene where the aforementioned prophecy comes full circle.

Fire Bringer should appeal to a variety range of audiences, such as fantasy lovers, fans of historical fiction, and those who enjoy a good war epic. Needless to say it satisfies on many different levels and, as Clement-Davies’ first novel, surely helps him succeed at making a name for himself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Tattooed Girl by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg

Love it or hate it, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series has a ubiquitous presence not only in pop culture but also in political theory, feminist theory and Swedish tourism, as illustrated by The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time. Complied by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and Larsson’s friend and colleague John-Henri Holmberg, this ought to be required reading for fans of the series, as it not only provides trivia behind the publication and translation of the three novels; it also explores in depth the social and political context in which they were written.

Made up of essays and critical evaluations, the book is divided into four parts: “The Man Who Conquered the World,” about Larsson himself; “The Climate is Cold, the Nights are Long, the Liquor is Hard and the Curtains are Drawn,” which is about the history of Scandinavian crime noir and its integration into Western markets; “How Stig Became Stieg: An Intimate Portrait,” which details significant events of Larsson’s life, including his changing his name; and “The Millennium Files,” which summarizes various themes and motifs within the series and concludes the book with a timeline of Larsson’s life and career. The many contributing authors are journalists, feminists, book critics, editors, interviewers, and close friends of Larsson, covering a wide range of contextual material within scholarly and philosophical treatises.

Several essays reveal Larsson’s lifelong love of science fiction, and one provides summaries of his earlier writings: short stories published in sci-fi magazines long before the Millennium trilogy came into being. Many essays contain polarizing views, such as those providing both praise and criticism for the feminist sensibilities of Larsson’s work. One essayist analyzes the translated versions from Swedish to English, which leave out key passages and thereby shortchange a large part of the fan base. Still others assess the portrayal of the infamous Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptations, and contemplate what her popularity among readers bodes for a future of strong female characters.

Larsson himself is consistently portrayed as a deeply committed and socially conscious journalist dedicated to exposing corruption and fighting injustice at the risk of his life, as he was often a target of Neo-Nazis and other extremist groups. Firsthand accounts of his vivacious personality and passion for social justice reveal the elements of his belief system and political leanings that were integrated into his written work.

In short, fans of Lisbeth Salander should not miss this one, for they have only skimmed the surface of an endlessly multifaceted series that is both aesthetically and socially relevant. Also recommended is the fan blog based on the book, which provides the latest information on the upcoming films, and other such updates:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cell by Stephen King

I admit to not being a Stephen King fan, and Cell did little to change that. Any premise that involves cell phones turning people into zombies involves some risk to pull off. What could have been a biting, darkly humorous satire on society’s fixation with technology instead turns into typical zombie fare and general absurdity, though fans of King and of horror novels in general shouldn’t be disappointed.

The novel starts off with a bang in Boston, where Clayton Riddell, an artist and soon-to-be graphic novelist—and obvious mouthpiece for King’s disdain for cell phones—is waiting in line at an ice cream truck suddenly the woman standing in line before him, having been talking on her phone a second earlier, lunges at a teenage girl and rips her throat out with her teeth. Not far from this incident, a man in a business suit bites a Labrador retriever’s ear off. Clayton evades the sudden uprising of “phone-crazies” by taking cover in a nearby library, where he teams up with a man named Tom and a teenage girl, Alice, who accompany him on a dangerous odyssey to Maine to locate his ex-wife and son. During their journey they come to realize that a brain-altering phone signal known as the Pulse is responsible for morphing the population into flesh-eating, telekinetic zombies.

Needless to say King wastes no time in getting to the zombie action, which will have young fans itching to go battle zombies in their video games. Though the over-the-top nature of it all veers towards satire at times, Cell never quite decides what it wants to be: a parody with social commentary, a survival drama or a generic zombie thriller. Equally inconsistent are the characters, which are thinly drawn and lack depth beyond the archetypes of the Everyman, the Token Gay Guy and the Precocious Teen.

To his credit, King does have a knack for readability, and Cell’s 384 pages zip by pretty quickly. I would recommend this for a light read, mainly for the good use of suspense and the enjoyable action sequences involving a good bout of blood and gore. Even so, be warned that the ending has drawn much criticism for being a deus ex machina, therefore is anticlimactic and thoroughly unsatisfying.

Overall Cell is not my idea of a good time, though I’m sure many readers will find it fun and entertaining. I know zombies are all the rage now (though I still struggle to understand why), and I imagine this book would make a good blockbuster film; perhaps directed by ever-indulgent Michael Bay, who is currently involved in a film by the name of Robots vs. Zombies.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Such is the enduring power of fairy tales that they can be retold time and again and still retain their quality. An example is Grimm’s fairy tale “Six Swans”—the story of young girl who breaks a curse inflicted on her brothers—which has been redone in various languages and by writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang. With Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier takes readers on a thrilling magical odyssey with a fresh and captivating spin on the classic tale, set in ninth-century Ireland in the midst of land feuds between the Irish and the British.

Sorcha, a preteen girl in the novel’s beginning, lives with her six older brothers in the land of Sevenwaters, where they are at harmony with nature, practicing pagan rituals and maintaining a belief in the mythical Fair Folk. Their serene life is upset by the return of their father, Lord Colum, whose new wife, the seductive sorceress Lady Oonagh, turns his sons into swans. Sorcha flees into the wilderness and, guided by the Fair Folk, begins the arduous process of sewing six shirts out of nettle plants to turn her brothers back into humans, all while maintaining a vow of silence. During this time she is taken hostage by a British lord—Hugh of Harrowfield, also known as Red—and finds herself an unwanted foreigner in enemy territory; a situation complicated by her falling in love with Red.

Although Marillier herself has confirmed that the novel offers more by way of fantasy than historical accuracy, the cultural elements of ninth-century Britain and Ireland, such as the customs of hierarchy, patriarchy and laws of primogeniture, nonetheless have their place. This provides an authentic quality to the novel’s setting, as do the elements of Celtic paganism and the early risings of Christianity in Ireland.

Though Sorcha remains an absorbing narrator throughout the novel, at times the pacing drags and may test readers’ patience. Marillier proves to be fond of lush descriptions of the natural world, and indulges in details such as the names of flowers and trees and the shifting colors of the sky from dawn till dusk; sometimes excessively so. Though the novel ultimately delivers—maintaining strong dramatic tension and culminating in a satisfying climax—readers shouldn’t expect to get swept up in the action within the first couple chapters, which are more devoted to developing characters and fleshing out the setting.

Marillier has crafted a sound and solid story out of the basics provided by the original tale. The good news for fans is that this is just the first in the Sevenwaters series, which currently includes four other books; all of which have a tough act to follow.