Monthly Archives: March 2012

Book Review: The Universal Mirror

Title: The Universal Mirror
Author: Gwen Perkins
Grade: B+

Sometimes you really like a concept and an author’s concept and you want to give the work a really glowing review. But there are just a few stumbling blocks that file a bit of its edge off. The Universal Mirror is like that.

On the island of Cercia, the gods are dead, killed by their followers and replaced with the study of magic. Magicians are forbidden to leave their homeland. Laws bind these men that prevent them from casting spells on the living—whether to harm or to heal. Quentin, a young nobleman, challenges these laws out of love for his wife. His best friend, Asahel, defies authority at his side, unaware that the search for this lost magic will bring them both to the edge of reason, threatening their very souls. The Universal Mirror shows how far two men are willing to go for the sake of knowledge and what they will destroy to obtain it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is very well-written book. I recommend it for any fantasy fans out there, especially if you can get it free on Kindle. Perkins creates some really good characters. She’s got a nice world and a unique magic system that includes something lacking in more amateurish fantasy: Limitations. It’s easy to end up with godlike characters in fantasy when there aren’t any natural or societal limitations on the magic. Perkins’ world has a set of rules, called Heresies, that limit how magic is used. It’s just that it’s all a bit shallow. And I really want to see deeper into Cercia.

I was nearly halfway through Mirror before I had the two main characters straightened out. The limitations are there and explored to a degree, but never really explained. The city has periodic bouts of a plague, but for most of the book, it reads like it was a one-time deal. From the descriptions of their friendship, I kept expecting Asahel and Quentin to develop some sort of bromance, if not outright romance.

Perkins does a few things really well, however. Interpersonal interactions (aside from some of the awkwardness between the two protagonists) are handled very nicely. Especially between Quentin and his wife. The rigid structure of society is explored and shown to us in great detail via the vehicle of Asahel’s and Quentin’s friendship.

I enjoyed The Universal Mirror. I’ll probably read it again. It just needed a little more depth to be a great book instead of a good one.


Book Review: Chemical Gardens

Title: Chemical Gardens
Author: Gina Ranalli
Grade: C

Having read House of Fallen Trees, I was curious about some of Gina Ranalli’s other works. She’s usually classified as a “bizarro” author — an odd little subset of horror. After reading Chemical Gardens, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that bizarro probably isn’t for me.

It’s a night like any other for punk rock band Green is the Enemy. Having just completed a gig in their hometown of Seattle, they pile into their van, headed for San Francisco to open for their idols Peroxide and with any luck, get signed to Withering Skin Records. Unfortunately, things don’t go exactly as planned. They travel no more than a few blocks when an 8.5 earthquake strikes the city, tumbling buildings and opening streets, and sending the van crashing down into a huge crevasse. Beneath the city of Seattle is another long buried city, known to locals as The Underground and it is here that the band find themselves, trapped and somehow vastly. changed. Join Ro, Pawn, Dose and Whey as they fight to make it back in time for their gig, encounter strange creatures called Kreepkins, a surfer-dude warlock, a vengeful demon and a Metal Priestess who holds the key to their escape from the bizarre subterranean nightmare that is now their lives.

Based on The Wizard of Oz, this book has a predictable plot. Sort of. There are parallels aplenty, although some of them require a great deal of thought (and I still haven’t figured out the whole traveling-through-a-brain thing). The ending is similar to Oz, but also twisted on its head — just like the rest of Chemical Gardens.

It’s not the predictability that bothers me. Given the nature of the story, that’s unavoidable. The language level’s a bit of a turnoff for me, but I should have expected that knowing the author as I do. Story-wise, the biggest issue for me is the ending. I have to admit there’s closure of a sort, and the denial of expectation is nicely handled. But it felt too abrupt to me. I kept asking, “Really? That’s it? But what about…?”

To be fair, I have to admit I think Rinalli is a seriously messed up woman. And I mean that in the best possible way. She is creative and can obviously come up with stuff that sticks with you. In my case, it’s more of a disturbed factor, but it’s still sticking. It’s highly probable I won’t be reading any more bizarro horror. But if she ever does another, more straightforward horror like House of Fallen Trees, I’ll be all over that.

Everyone is a story

In journalism, one of the first ropes you have to learn is don’t focus on your assignment so much that you miss opportunities for other stories. It’s something each of us learns the hard way at least once. You go to a city council meeting to write about a controversial new development and miss the city manager’s comments that imply a major tax increase is needed in next year’s budget. Or you scribble furiously about building projects in the school district’s bond election and ignore the brief report about a how a teacher’s innovative methods are having incredible results.

My moment came in college at Sam Houston State University. Lech Walesa, a major figure in Poland’s independence from the USSR, received a humanitarian award from the school. All of us in the class were supposed to cover the event, which we dutifully did. And all but one or two completely spaced out on a history professor’s beautiful and heart wrenching story of his family’s flight from Poland.

A closely related principle is that everyone has a story. While I may have missed the first one on a few occasions, this is an area I have always done fairly well with. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten  from an editor was that I could get a story out of anything. While whatever level of writing talent I have may play a role in that, I think a bigger part of it is simply that I’m willing to let people tell their stories and I realize they’re all important in their own ways.

I was reminded of this the other day at a laundromat. Our washing machine suffered a sort of chain-reaction breakdown, and we hadn’t replaced it yet. So I took a couple of loads and my Kindle and figured I’d get a little reading in while the clothes got cleaned.

What I got instead was a conversation with a man passing through Paris, Texas, on a sort of never-ending tour of the country. A retired police officer, he’d been living in New Mexico when he lost just about everything in the housing market crash a few years ago. He bought a Ford cargo van (which looks a lot like the behemoth we purchased for our own extended family), put a few hooks, a mattress and other odds and ends inside, and he’s been traveling ever since. “I like traveling anyway,” he said. “I can live cheap.”

On the road, he’s met people who run laundromats and will talk on and on about high-efficiency vs traditional washing machines. He’s become an expert on the places to eat and avoid on his regular routes (and here I thought all Sonics were pretty much the same). And he swapped a few stories with a part-time journalist/full-time teacher. I don’t know the man’s name, and I doubt he remembered me the next morning. But he’s a face, a real person affected by these widespread economic woes we keep hearing about. He’s a chance intersection of lives that left a lasting impression. And he is a reminder of the truth Samwise Gamgee once observed: We’re all part of a bigger story that our own lives continue to ravel and weave.

As I said, journalism teaches us not to overlook the potential stories out there and to keep in mind that everyone has a story. But observing life through the eyes of a writer tells us that everyone is a story in his own right. We just have to pay attention, even at the laundromat.

Book Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Title: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Author: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll)
Grade: B

OK, I admit this review requires more than a touch of hubris. This story is an icon. It practically defines children’s literature. And, quite frankly, it’s not that great. It’s only because of the work’s iconic status that it even gets a B.

I’d wanted to read Wonderland for some time now. I have used Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There as a year-end closer in my British lit class for a few years now. I originally picked it because Looking Glass doesn’t generally get the same level of attention.

Both books are disjointed to varying degrees, reflecting the dream state they rise from. But Looking Glass is much more solid and has a better flow than Wonderland. It’s rare I’ll consider a sequel better than the original, but that is the case here.

It’s not the episodic plot. It’s the fact that each episode is so disconnected from the others that it feels more like a string of badly connected independent stories with a common, central character. So what should be something like the Worthington Saga comes off more like the movie Cat’s Eye.

Looking Glass, on the other hand, is a bit less ADD. It’s just as episodic, but has its own (warped) logic and an actual plot.

Both books are giants in  the world of children’s literature. And they tend to get all wrapped up together in the various film adaptations. But for my tastes, I’ll take chess over card games any day.

Book Review: Dawn of War (Blood War Trilogy)

Title: Dawn of War (Blood War Trilogy)
Author: Tim Marquitz
Grade: C-

Fantasy covers a broad spectrum. You have high (Wheel of Time) and low (much of Memory, Sorrow & Thorn), lighthearted (The Hobbit), dark (Imajica), sci-fi mixes (Coldfire Trilogy) and so on. Some fantasy is so epic as to define the genre (King Arthur, Lord of the Rings). Some is interesting but doesn’t go anywhere (Dance of the Rings). And some is kind of fun but forgettable — such as Dawn of War.

For hundreds of years, the bestial Grol have clawed at the walls of Lathah without success. Now armed with O’hra, mystical weapons of great power, they have returned, to conquer. Witness to the Grol advance, Arrin can abide his exile no longer. He returns to Lathah, in defiance of death, with hopes to save his beloved princess and the child born of their illicit affair. He finds her unwilling to abandon her people. At her behest, Arrin searches for a sanctuary for them only to be confronted by the Sha’ree, a powerful race long thought gone from the world. Through them, he learns it is not just the Grol that threaten the land. Empowered by a magic never before seen, the savage nations spread chaos and ruin across the realm. With Lathah under siege, and the world on the brink of cataclysmic war, Arrin must strike a deal with the Sha’ree to take the fight to the Grol, or forever lose his one true love: his family.

Marquitz has an interesting premise. He’s got an interesting world with a comatose goddess and twin moons that cause all rivers, lakes, oceans, etc to boil every so often. He’s got some cool magical artifacts and a number of diverse characters. Add it all together and what do you get?

A fairly flat story.

Part of it’s the writing style. Marquitz tries to be a little too flowery at times. Instead of clever, however, it  came across as annoying most of the time. Another problem is the scope. Admittedly, Blood War is a trilogy, which allows for some expansive writing. Memory, Sorrow & Thorn is a good example of how this can work very well. But Dawn of War feels like it lacks focus. It’s broad instead of deep. I think the story could benefit from scaling back. Pick a few of the best nations — human and non-human — and focus on those. Most of the rest are so sketchy and similar as to run together anyway. The same goes for individual characters. This is an approach that worked fairly well for Wizards First Rule.

I picked up Dawn of War free on my Kindle. If the other two came free, I might read those, too.

If I can remember to look.

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