23 July 2017

Books: A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (2017)

And we’re back…

Some four months back, I was reading the A Conjuring of Light when my housemate Bill was felled by a stroke. In the midst of that upheaval, with about 200 pages left to read, I returned V.E. Schwab’s book back to the library. And as noted a few postings ago, it’s taken me a while to get back into reading.

But I vowed to myself that I would finish this book. And now I have. I did not restart the book, just picked up from about page 430 where I left off in March. I remembered most of what going on, as the our heroes where beginning their final plans to take on the Shadow King.

“The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise. Kell - once assumed to be the last surviving Antari - begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive? Lila Bard, once a commonplace - but never common - thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible. And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.”

Certainly a satisfying ending, even if Schwarb goes all Game of Thrones with, with the killing of many ancillary characters. Still, a more serious tome yet sprinkled with dark humor. Kell becomes remarkably better character, yet still finds ways to annoy me, while Delilah remains the most three dimensional. And as much as I like Schwab's characterization of Rhy’s and his love for the pirate Captain Aulcard, she made the young prince go through a lot of pain to get the man of his dreams. Love is like this, I guess.

The ending is clever, if not foreshadowed long before. But it can also border on the deus ex machina. But when you create a villain with unstoppable power, the only way to end it seems to pull this overused trope out.

Overall, a good series, and I’m curious if the author will continue with at least some of these characters. Delilah Bard is certainly worth reading more about.

20 July 2017

Books: The Pirate Planet By Douglas Adams and James Goss (2017)

As I noted 2 years ago, when Target Books ended its run of publishing novelizations of Doctor Who serials in 1990, only seven stories remained unwritten in book format. Three of those tales were by the legendary Douglas Adams (who spent a year as script supervisor of the show) and while the writer always planned to eventually get them out in book format, his death in May of 2001 left their fate up in the air. While Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks would see a prose version via through Virgin Books, the publishers who were handing the original Doctor Who novel line in the 1990s and early 2000s, script editor for the show during the last few years the original series aired, Eric Saward’s two serials remain unwritten as novels to this day (Eric Saward asking price to adapt them, along with the always complex licensing issues the BBC has with Dalek creator Terry Nation’s estate seems to be the best reasons why). But with the publication of The Pirate Planet, the three stories the late Douglas Adams wrote now exist in novel format. 

You see, Target Books had a long standing policy that allowed writers of serials to pen novelizations of their stories for around £600. Some writers took it, and others passed, allowing novelist like the prolific Terrance Dicks to do the job. But when Douglas Adams penned The Pirate Planet, the second serial of the sixteenth season of Doctor Who, the Target Books offered him a chance to adapt it. However, he declined (probably rightfully so), saying: “I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author”. Which, of course, translated as: Target Books would fear other authors would demand a higher paycheck for adapting their stories, so The Pirate Planet would remain a “lost” book within their line-up. He would do the same with City of Death and the unfinished and unaired Shada that would be part of season seventeen of the series. 

The Pirate Planet, the first of three tales Douglas Adams penned for the show, was his first official sale for TV, and it came about the same time the BBC was commissioning additional scripts for the audio play version of what would become Adams legacy, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But this story, like many Doctor Who serials, would go through much iteration before being made. 

“Adams brought several ideas to the table. Predominant amongst these was the notion of a planet which is being mined by the Time Lords, who use a giant aggression-sapping machine (disguised as a statue) to pacify the natives. One Time Lord becomes trapped in the statue and absorbs all the aggression, inducing him to turn against his people. He causes the mining devices to hollow out the planet and now plans to make it dematerialize and reform around Gallifrey. Additionally, Adams had conceived a drug addiction allegory, about a company which preys on people who fear death by offering machines which can slow time for them -- but at an exorbitant price. The company goes bankrupt, however, leaving one old lady in need of a source of fantastic energy. Although none of these concepts were viewed as capable of supporting a story by themselves, it was agreed that some combination of them might be more viable. The aggression-draining subplot was dropped (because of perceived similarities to the Season Fifteen serial The Sun Makers), but Adams mixed the remaining elements together to produce a very complicated plot (which may have been titled The Pirates). Nonetheless, (script editor Anthony) Read was sufficiently happy with the result that he commissioned Adams to develop it into a full storyline called The Pirate Planet.

“As Adams refined his ideas for The Pirate Planet, the slow-time subplot became deemphasized. The Time Lords -- who would be appearing in the Season Fifteen finale -- were also excised, including the villain (whom Adams had envisioned as a Time Lord stuck in the slow-time field, in the midst of his last regeneration). At the same time, he came up with idea of the air car; this was a device he could employ to avoid scenes set in corridors, which he detested. Adams also concocted the Polyphase Avitron to make the Captain's scenes more interesting.”

The televised plot became: “The Key to Time tracer points the Doctor and Romana to the cold and boring planet of Calufrax, but when they arrive they find an unusual civilization that lives in perpetual prosperity. A strange band of people with mysterious powers known as the Mentiads (these were changed to the Mourners in the book) are feared by the society, but the Doctor discovers that they are good people but with an unknown purpose. He instead fears the Captain, the planet's leader and benefactor. After meeting the Captain on the bridge he learns that they are actually on a hollowed-out planet named Zanak, which has been materializing around other planets to plunder their resources.”

While James Goss was give much access to the papers of Adams stored at Cambridge for his adaptation of The City Death, there was only limited amount of notes Adams had on it - then again, that serial was never planned as one of his scripts). But fortune favored him for The Pirate Planet, and he found a treasure trove of notes, dialogue and alternate scenes. So instead of basing his novel on the rehearsal script like he did with Death, he was able to adapt The Pirate Planet using Adams first drafts of serial. 

Much like what he did on City of Death, Goss captures the spirit of Douglas Adams' writing in this novelization. While one still wonders what Adams could’ve done with these stories had he lived, this new take on a nearly 40 year-old tale resonates with the original writers ingenious, complex, and overtly sardonic love of science fiction.  

12 July 2017

Books: The Last Days of Jack Sparks By Jason Arnopp (2016)

The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a darkly witty novel that that can be scary, gross, funny and frustrating all the same time. It’s an book to categorize for it has many elements of horror, science fiction, dark humor, and a poke at social media celebrities. 

“In 2014, Jack Sparks - the controversial pop culture journalist - died in mysterious circumstances. To his fans, Jack was a fearless rebel; to his detractors, he was a talentless hack. Either way, his death came as a shock to everyone. It was no secret that Jack had been researching the occult for his new book. He'd already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed in rural Italy. Then there was that video: thirty-six seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account. Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed - until now. This book, compiled from the files found after his death, reveals the chilling details of Jack's final hours.”

The conceit of the book is that Jack writes his book as it goes along, but it’s clear that author Jason Arnopp has created an unreliable narrator here, as the reader is sort drawn into Jack’s world and you are never really sure if any of this is happening (and by the end of the book, for me anyways, this becomes somewhat clear). Also, Jack is a very unlikable character and fairly dense. But like modern young adults, his life’s meaning revolves around his own legend. It’s a world where he’s more obsessed with scoring as many hits as he can on his multiple social media channels. You’ll either find him funny, one who continues to cling to his atheism even when presented with some very obvious supernatural occurrences, or a brilliant journalist who has discovered many people across the globe are colluding together to say the Devil does exist. 

A lot of other stuff happens, with Jack not believing any of it and ends up in California, where he ends up engaging with a group of people who believe they can create and then communicate with a fictionalized ghost through expectations of human will (which the writer based on something called The Philip Experiment that took place in Ontario, Canada in 1972).

It’s very 1970/80s Doctor Who (which the writer does have an association with) set against modern times. The book falters at the end, and I felt cheated a bit, but a strong debut none the less.

09 July 2017

Books: The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams (2017)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series he published between 1988 and 1993. While it was high fantasy in the vein of Lord of the Rings, Williams skill as writer set many other writers penning books in this genre to shame. While I was enjoying Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, and Stephen R. Donaldson during this same period, this series seemed so much different that it has stuck with me these past two and half decades.

The series had everything that I had already read in Brooks and Tolkien, but what set this apart from others was Williams world building skill –and shockingly how good he was at, considering The Dragonbone Chair was only his second novel. Here was a more distinctive, more lived-in universe than either Brooks or Donaldson had created. Osten Ard had a vast landscape, filled with cadre of interesting, realistic characters and Williams tale had depth and breadth to it (and, according to George R. R. Martin, this series inspired him to begin his legendary A Song of Ice and Fire).

But the tale was finished in 1993’s door-stop tome To Green Angel Tower (a book so long that the mass market paperback version of the book had to be split into two, each well over 700 pages long).  But back in 2014, Tad Williams announced he was returning to the world of Osten Ard for a new trilogy. 

But before he would officially return, he further announced two short novels would be published, with the first being The Heart of What Was Lost, which finally saw release this past January (the books missed two release dates over the years since it was first announced; shades of Robert Jordan). A second one is due to be released between books two and three. 

The Heart of What Was Lost serves a great purpose: it’s a reminder for fans of what had happened, and an introduction for those who didn’t read it in the first place. This book, more or less, tells readers what is going on and hints at what is to come. 

“At the end of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Ineluki the Storm King, an undead spirit of horrifying, demonic power, came within moments of stopping Time itself and obliterating humankind. He was defeated by a coalition of mortal men and women joined by his own deathless descendants, the Sithi.

“In the wake of the Storm King’s fall, Ineluki’s loyal minions, the Norns, dark cousins to the Sithi, choose to flee the lands of men and retreat north to Nakkiga, their ancient citadel within the hollow heart of the mountain called Stormspike. But as the defeated Norns make their way to this last haven, the mortal Rimmersman Duke Isgrimnur leads an army in pursuit, determined to end the Norns’ attacks and defeat their ageless Queen Utuk’ku for all time.

“Two southern soldiers, Porto and Endri, joined the mortal army to help achieve this ambitious goal—though as they venture farther and farther into the frozen north, braving the fierce resistance and deadly magics of the retreating Norns, they cannot help but wonder what they are doing so very far from home. Meanwhile, the Norns must now confront the prospect of extinction at the hands of Isgrimnur and his mortal army.

“Viyeki, a leader of the Norns’ military engineers, the Order of Builders, desperately seeks a way to help his people reach their mountain—and then stave off the destruction of their race. For the two armies will finally clash in a battle to be remembered as the Siege of Nakkiga; a battle so strange and deadly, so wracked with dark enchantment, that it threatens to destroy not just one side but quite possibly all.

“Trapped inside the mountain as the mortals batter at Nakkiga’s gates, Viyeki the Builder will discover disturbing secrets about his own people, mysteries both present and past, represented by the priceless gem known as The Heart of What Was Lost.”

While I purchased the book upon its release back in January, I was still playing with the idea of re-reading the original trilogy. After all, now almost 24 years had passed and maybe (despite the many books I have unread) I should take the time to re-familiarize myself with Osten Ard. 

And as January turned to February and that month into March, I was well into re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series when I put them to down to begin reading A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab. I was nearly three-quarters through that book, and was planning to then read The Heart of What Was Lost, when my life turned upside down.

On March 17, three days after his 60th birthday, my roommate and long-time friend of twenty-five years suffered a stroke at work. Complications ensued and six-days later he was gone. Suddenly, everything I knew was thrown to the ground, torn and shredded. I knew I would have to move (could not afford the three-bedroom house on my Goodwill salary) and until I got that settled, reading was not something that consumed me.

As a matter of fact, I seemed to lose my desire to read. Yes, too much was going on to sit in that now quiet house on D Street. I could not sit still, and my thoughts wandered away like puppy at a pet store. In the nearly four months that have passed since Bill’s passing, I’ve not completed a book. I’ve tried, but I just didn’t feel like reading. 

But even as some semblance of normality has returned –a new place, a new roommate, a long commute to work (which is another story) - I could not fully spend much time reading. But I tried and Osten Ard seemed like a good place, as this book was short (just over 200 pages) and even though it took me nearly two-months to read, I’m glad I did.

I will also note that before I left my last place, an ARC of the first book in Tad Williams new series showed up on my front porch. I still don’t remember entering a contest, though obviously I did. It was one of few good happenstance things that have occurred in the last three and half months. 

So back to this book.

In many ways this book serves as an epilogue for To Green Angel Tower and a prequel to The Witchwood Crown.  It’s got enough bite, humor, horror and magic to keep readers wanting more. 

And while that book is not next on my list –I have much to get caught up with- it will be read before the summer has passed into memory (though summers continue here in SoCal, sometimes well into October).