Book Review: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

emperor_of_nihon-jaFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 435

Reading Time: about 8 hours

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the 10th and final book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. I was slightly disappointed in the previous book, so I had debated about whether to spring for the final installment. Though it has numerous problems, The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is another solid entry in the series, and while Flanagan plays it safe, he also manages to entertain in this concluding volume. Minor spoilers to follow.

The previous entry, Halt’s Peril, wrapped up a two story arc, so this book takes on a completely new storyline. Horace, hero of Arulan, journeys to the land of Nihon-Ja to study different fighting techniques, and forms a strong bond with the emperor of the country, Shigeru. Unfortunately, in Shigeru’s attempts to enable and inspire the lower-class peasants of his country, he alienates some of the upper class Senshi warriors, including a clan leader that wants to seize power. Horace gets caught up in the ensuing civil war, and finds himself and Shigeru on the run, where they take shelter with the peasants.

Meanwhile, Halt, Will, and Alice are on a similar mission in Toscana, where they are observing formational fighting styles while negotiating a treaty. When Princess Cassandra, also known as Lady Evalyn, brings news of Horace’s plight, the group sets forth to rescue him. From there the story turns into sailing, marching, and battle tactics, with a side quest featuring Alyss and Evalyn, all leading to a final battle between the Emperor’s supporters and those of the would-be-usurper, Arisaka.

In many ways the story is very polished, and reminds me very much of the eighth book, The Kings of Clonmel. The difference this time is in the details. Flanagan shows well-researched knowledge about innovative sailing techniques, weapon creation, and battle formations and tactics. It’s all carefully explained, and although it is in simple terms, it appears logical to me (as a non-expert). Flanagan’s setting of land based on feudal Japan has the potential to be different and exciting, a departure from the typical medieval Europe setting, and in some ways Flanagan succeeds. His exploration of the difference between the lower peasant class and the upper Samurai-type class rings with authenticity. Also, the status of the Emperor and how he rules these classes seems feasible. In addition, the setting receives careful attention to detail, as Flanagan takes time to describe the food, clothing, bathing, speech patterns, and fighting styles of this land. The descriptions are brief and lack detail; however, the focus of the series has never been so much on detail as it has on action and logical reasoning, so in this respect Flanagan remains consistent. Unlike the previous story, it never seems like this tale spins its wheels going nowhere – there is always some kind of engaging action transpiring.

As in previous stories, there seems to be a lot of bickering among characters, and the forced humor that has been a staple of the series continues here. There are also many, many flaws, and while I’ll not pick the book apart completely, there are some aspects of the story that defy belief. First, if you’re going to set your story in feudal Japan, with Japanese customs, culture, and even Japanese words, why not just call it Japan?! Also, some of the main characters sail halfway around the world to reach Horace, and do it faster than Arisaka’s men who are in the same country! Then there’s the fact that Alyss and Evalyn are bickering over Will through almost the whole book, when that storyline was resolved 4 books ago. Communication should be a problem in a foreign country, but everyone pretty much speaks Arulan’s common tongue. Evalyn, the crown princess and heir to the throne of Arulan, is allowed to sail across the world to rescue her boyfriend, without any escort except for Skandian sailors…these inconsistencies (and more) plague the story and it loses much credibility. The careful attention to detail that Flanagan uses to describe the culture and fighting scenes is sadly lacking in the plot itself…in the past, when Flanagan sets up his plot, he takes painstaking detail to show the logic behind his story. That feature is lacking here. Also, the ending wraps up abruptly and is a curious way to end a series, especially one that has spanned 10 books.

Despite the story’s numerous flaws, it’s still an enjoyable read, but it’s so predictable that some readers will be put off. I’m not completely sad that the series is ending, as I think this series has run its course and it’s clear that Flanagan wanted to move on to other projects. Though problematic and unspectacular, this is nevertheless another solid entry. Recommended for those who enjoy YA series, have read the previous books, enjoy a feudal Japan setting, and can accept predictability while being willing to overlook plot issues.

Something Has Awoken…

I’ve been working on writing a novel since I was in my teens, and I’ve always been my worst critic. Early on, I rejected my writings as simplistic; I knew I didn’t have the life experience necessary to make the reader believe that I knew what I was writing about. As I grew older, and I saw foreign lands and cultures, experienced depression, love, heartache, and success, I continued to learn and expand my knowledge. My writing had improved,, but my imagination seemed to have deserted me. It seemed like every time I put pen to page, so to speak, I was writing a story that was derivative of something else I had read or watched. I could not even finish more than half a dozen paragraphs before giving up. I grew increasingly frustrated and tried different methods – outlines, brainstorming, critiques from friends, software – but in the end I succumbed to defeat, admitting I did not have what it takes to be a novelist.

Last night that all changed. While I sat reading The Gathering Storm, I had paused for a moment to consider the difference in writing styles between Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I was attempting to determine what I was reading – was it Sanderson in Jordan’s voice, Jordan himself, or pure Sanderson? As I sat there, my mind lost in thought, I was hit with a bolt from the blue. It’s never happened to me before, and what came to me at that moment was not inspired by anything in Jordan or Sanderson’s prose – not derivative as it had been in the past. Rather, it was my mind adrift in abstract thought, that led me down a path that I had never traveled before.

The result was the perfect opening line for my story. Well, not totally  perfect, as I went back and rewrote it later, but as Jordan would say, “it was a beginning.” From that opening line, a story began to loosely form in my mind. Within that story, a few twists and turns presented themselves and I vowed I would make sure the reader did not see them coming. I sat down and typed that opening line, and then the words began to flow.

Three hours later, I had finished the first chapter. Reluctantly I headed for bed, but I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t ideas that kept me awake, but more excitement over the fact that I had accomplished something almost without trying, that had previously been such a struggle. Maintaining that momentum will be difficult, and that first chapter will need quite a bit of editing, but I’ve overcome the biggest hurdle so far. I’ve left Bag End, so to speak. Now we’ll see if I can make it to the Buckleberry Ferry…

Book Review: Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

7121713Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 366 (not including a 5 page preview of Bloodfire Quest)

Reading Time: about 7 hours

Wards of Faerie is the first book in The Dark Legacy of Shannara series. After the debacle of The Legends of Shannara series, I vowed that unless things changed, I was done with Shannara. Inspired by Aidan’s review over at A Dribble of Ink, I decided to give Wards of Faerie a shot. The good news is that Wards of Faerie is an entertaining story, with a few minor flaws. Minor spoilers to follow.

First, let me say I was puzzled not to find a map at the front of the book, a staple of nearly all Shannara books. I was having trouble remembering where places were located and had to refer to a map in another book. About halfway through the book, I turned to the back to view the nice double-page color insert painted by Todd Lockwood, which reminded me of earlier days when Hildebrandt paintings where found in The Sword of Shannara. Only when I had unfolded the artwork did I observe the full color map on the backside of the insert. Oh well…

The story has thankfully moved back to the “current timeline”, set after the events of The High Druid of Shannara series. From that previous story, only one familiar face remains: Khyber Elessedil, the young girl in the previous entry who is now Ard Rhys of the Druids. Thanks to the Druid Sleep, she has outlived all of her contemporaries from the last series. However, while she is one of the main characters of the story, the focus this time around is on two related descendants of the Elessedil family tree, Aphenglow and Arlingfant. Aphenglow is also a Druid, but because Druids aren’t trusted by anyone, she is an outcast to her people. Her recovery of a diary detailing the missing elfstones (not the blue or black ones, but others) sets the story in motion. For a good synopsis of the story, check out this post by SFRevu.

Brooks is a polarizing figure in literature, and a study in contrasts. Either you love the consistency and familiarity of Elessedils, Ohmsfords, Leahs, the Ellcrys, the Forbidding, demons, magic quests, talismans, and Druids; or, you find it repetitious. Either you find Brooks’s prose accessible and fast-paced; or, you find it simplistic and shallow. I can understand both sides, but maybe the strangest aspect is I can see both sides at the same time, while I’m reading. There were times when I would find his phrasing clumsy, find plot devices forced, and the story predictable and all-too-familiar; yet I would also admit to being engaged in the story, and grateful for not being bogged down in the details, allowing for a past-paced read. This is Brooks’s gift and also his curse, which will keep long-time readers satisfied, but drive away potential new readers.

I was very intrigued about the plot centering around a mystery and a quest for adventure. However, by the end of the book we are back in save-the-world mode. This once again leads to one of my long-standing criticisms of Brooks’s work: what makes the world worth saving? We know that the heroes are good people, but what about the people of the land? They remain nameless, faceless, and utterly obscure. Those that we do get glimpses of in Arborlon, the Federation, and Varfleet, seem petty and self-serving. Brooks must rely on the strength of rooting for his heroes to carry the story; fortunately, he has proven adept in this over the years, and this story is no different. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing new in this story. Everything from the politicians of the Federation, the Elven Council, the attack on Paranor, the quest for magic, the Ellcrys, the Wishsong, and the heroes themselves – it’s all been done before. Brooks’s stories have shined when he has introduced new elements – The Word and The Void, Shadowen, the Isle Witch, the Wishsong and the Ildatch – these new ideas breathed life into those stories and felt fresh. There’s none of that here so far.

There are also many questions raised that are unanswered, and some plot devices feel forced. Brooks even asks some of those questions himself in the story. How does someone immediately know that Aphenglow has found something important? Why do they try to kill her? We can only hope that the next two books provide answers to these questions – otherwise it leaves gaping plot holes that you can drive a truck through. At one point in the story, Bombax is kidnapped. How did Stoon know that Bombax would travel to Varfleet, and then be able to react so quickly, when there is no way communication could travel to Stoon that fast? Since this plot thread only exists to explain how Paranor could fall from within, it feels wrong. The romance between Aphenglow and Bombax also feels unbelievable. While this first book is a setup book meant to develop the characters – and for the most part does a decent job – not enough time is spent on minor characters like Bombax to understand why Aphenglow is attracted to him, at times in an almost fanatical way (yet their separation is largely met with mild acceptance by Aphenglow). In fact, when it comes to character development, the entire Druid Council feels woefully underdeveloped. I do applaud the fact that an aged Khyber Elessedil is the character in charge, instead of simply being a mentor or villain, which Brooks is wont to do with his older characters. We do still have young protagonists in Aphenglow, Arlingfant, and the Ohmsford twins, which are essential to the Shannara formula.

The ending is a cliffhanger – just when it feels like the story is picking up steam, it’s over all too quickly. Due to the fact that much of the book was spent setting up the story and developing the main characters, I would expect the sequels to be of a faster pace and focused more on the plot, which will likely consist of two separate quests. At the end of the book is a 5 page preview of Bloodfire Quest, book 2 in the series. The good news is that releases are planned in six month intervals instead of a year, which means by summer of next year this series will be resolved. It makes me wonder if this series (or at least Wards of Faerie) wasn’t already near completion when he decided to write and release The Legends of Shannara instead.

Although it seems I’m rather critical of the book, I was still entertained, and didn’t want to put it down, and it is far superior to The Legends of Shannara. While enjoyment requires acceptance of repetition, unanswered questions, and forced plot devices, it’s rather easy to set all of that aside and just get lost in the story. If you’re a Brooks fan – and by that I mean you’ve enjoyed later entries such as The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara or The High Druid of Shannara series – I think you’ll enjoy this. If you stopped reading Brooks long ago and want to jump back in, I’d recommend The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series first. If you are a new reader looking for a place to start, I would start at The Sword of Shannara and work your way forward to this point. I would only recommend the prequels (The Word and the Void, The Legends of Shannara) to hardcore fans.

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne-of-the-Crescent-Moon-CoverFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  288

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

For a quick recap of the plot, see Neth Space’s review here. Neth does a really good job in summarizing the plot, something I don’t feel the need to do here. Instead, I’ll focus on the positive and negative impressions resulting from my reading experience.

One thing I admire about this book is the choice to center the story around an older man, Adoulla. It certainly is refreshing to pick up a book and not read another coming of age story. This continues with Ahmed’s choice to provide two supporting characters that are also older. For me, this was the highlight of the book, and what gives it the most depth. These people have seen much and fought much. They are tired, poor, ready to retire, and questioning whether their accomplishments, their life, has made a difference. Because, you see, that’s what life is about, isn’t it? What kind of impact or contribution have you made to society? Have you made a difference? Did you make the right choices? What is your legacy? Will you be remembered (in a positive way) when you are gone? It’s the reason some authors write books, maybe even why some of us blog: to exert an influence on the world, to make a difference, to leave a legacy. Ahmed is to be commended for such an approach. Yes, there are a couple of young characters, but in reality 3 of the 5 main characters are older and express these sentiments.

Another positive is the culture and setting. Much like Howard Andrew Jones and The Desert of Souls, Ahmed’s environment and the city of Dhamsawaat are fully realized and believable. The culture Ahmed has created, from religious connotations, economics, class status, and leisure are extremely well done. It truly feels like we have been immersed in a real place, where every socio-economic aspect rings with authenticity. I enjoyed the fact that the story did not take place in a “medieval Europe” setting. Ahmed is very descriptive of the environment, and earns high marks from me for it.

As for the villains, Ahmed has done a great job on the ghuls (in their various aspects) and the manjackal is also well done. However, the main villain, the man behind all of the problems, is really nothing special. Other than the ability to create ghuls, his power is nothing more than illusion. I found this to be a little underwhelming, especially at the finale.

Unfortunately for me, I had some glaring issues with this book. My main problem is the writing style. Despite claims on the cover of the book that describe it as well-written, I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with Ahmed’s descriptive abilities; rather, I found the book to have a poor, choppy flow, at times even clumsy, causing the story to suffer severely from uneven pacing. This is especially noticeable when we get glimpses into what the characters are thinking and feeling. In addition, the author over-relies on the use of exclamation marks…they’re everywhere. I don’t think you can go two pages without finding one, and at times I think I counted nine or ten of them on a page. That probably doesn’t bother most people, but it became extremely annoying to me.

Finally, the love interest between Raseed and Zamia feels unnatural and forced, as if it were tacked on. Other than a physical attraction and an admiration for their combat skills, I could not see what drew them to love each other, even consider marriage…Ahmed did not do a good enough job in justifying their feelings for each other.

As I stated in my review of Tin Swift, I was reading that book at work, while I read Throne of the Crescent Moon at home. Though I started Throne of the Crescent Moon first, and it is shorter in length, I finished Tin Swift first because I was so much more entertained by it, the pages just flew by and I couldn’t put it down. Whenever I was reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, I kept thinking “I’d rather be reading Tin Swift.” I’m not making a direct comparison between the books; rather, it’s more of an indictment on the struggles I had to get through to finish Throne of the Crescent Moon…this was a book that I could and did put down. Sometimes, I would only read a page or two before closing it, and that really shouldn’t be the case, because I love Swords-and-Sorcery.

In conclusion, the story wasn’t terrible – in fact, it has many positive aspects. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as other readers did. Because of this, I will neither recommend nor discourage others from reading it. However, at this time I’m leaning towards avoiding the sequel.

Book Review: Tin Swift by Devon Monk

Tin SwiftFormat: Oversized Paperback, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  369

Reading Time: about 6 hours

After reading and reviewing the first book in The Age of Steam series, Dead Iron, I had enjoyed it enough to spring for the sequel, Tin Swift (check out the review of Dead Iron here). Was it a good decision? Read more to find out (caution: minor spoilers ahead)…

Our story picks up some way past where Dead Iron ended. Cedar Hunt and his brother Wil, along with the Madder brothers, Mae Lindson, and Rose Small, have left Oregon and are headed east in a covered wagon. They have two goals: to find the pieces of the mysterious weapon “The Holder”, and to return Mae to the witch coven before their summoning spell causes her to lose her mind. Both Cedar and Wil still bear their curse, with Wil trapped as a wolf except under a new moon, and Cedar is still a werewolf under a full moon. Things get off to a bad start right away when Cedar kills a man without even realizing it. It seems the beast within can sometimes take over his mind, even without Cedar changing into wolf form. The situation goes from bad to worse when the group stumbles into a trap set by the Strange, and Rose is injured by a piece of the holder. Separated from the Madders, with Rose’s wound getting worse and Mae’s sanity slipping, Cedar finds it increasingly difficult to keep them alive. And a whole new cast of characters are introduced, that both help and hinder the situation.

Mae’s magic seems to be growing stronger and is more prominently featured, but the story really takes a big leap forward into a more steampunk feel with addition of airships. Made of various metals and used to harvest the mysterious substance known as Glim from the sky, the ships are similar to dirigibles  but are steam-powered. There are a few ship-to-ship battles that are described quite well. The title of the story is derived from one such ship made out of tin, called the Swift. The Swift is piloted by Captain Hink, a pirate-like scoundrel who is more than he seems, with a significant backstory that is essential to the plot. His crew is not explored with as much depth, although one crew member is related to Gregor, the blacksmith in the first book. Most of the story is told from Cedar’s point of view, and we also have Captain Hink’s view, as well as his adversary, General Alabaster Saint.

Though it is still a character-driven story, much of the development of characters was covered in the first book. This allows Monk to move the story along at a brisk pace. The action sequences are plentiful, and suspense abounds throughout the story. I still have a problem with a couple action scenes where so much is happening, it’s hard to form a clearly detailed picture. Also, after Cedar’s initial blackout where the beast takes over his mind, it never happens again in the story, making it a highly suspect plot device. And some characters still seem to be impossible to kill, removing some of the tension. I was also able to predict some of the plot threads a little more than I was able to in the first book.

These problems are, however, insignificant to the enjoyment of the story, as Tin Swift is an excellent book – in fact, it’s one of the best I’ve read this year. Monk’s prose is still wonderful to read, the plot makes sense, and the pacing is far better than Dead Iron. The good guys are easy to like and the villains are easy to root against. This is one of those books that I hated to have to put down, which is pretty rare for me lately. I was reading this book at work, and Throne of the Crescent Moon at home, and while it’s not fair to compare the two, since they are different genres and styles, Tin Swift was the book I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. I’ll be eagerly anticipating the release of the next book in the series. Highly recommended to fans of steampunk, westerns, werewolves, and serial fantasy.

Dealing With Grief

There’s an old saying that time heals all wounds. It’s a lie. Don’t believe it. What time does is make the pain bearable. However, the wounds never completely heal – the scars remain.

Over a year after the passing of my dog Bear, I still miss him. My heart still hurts from time to time. I didn’t think that pain would strike me again so soon. I was wrong.

This past weekend I lost my little Pomeranian, Pixie. She was one of the best things in my life, but now she’s gone and the pain is at times unbearable. For those who don’t have children, often times pets become one’s children. I fed her, gave her a home, played with her, held her, bathed her, brushed her, trimmed her nails, took her to the doctor, bought her toys, Christmas presents, and snacks, and corrected bad behavior. In my eyes, she was my child.

Twelve years ago, my roommate had lost his Pomeranian, and after bearing that grief for several months, we decided that in order for him to heal, it was time for him to find a new puppy. After spying an ad in the local paper, we drove over two hours to Olympia to meet with a breeder. She had two pups left, sisters from the same litter, and they were adorable. Pure-bred and the offspring of show dogs, they were perfect. The only problem was in choosing one and leaving the other behind.

I had never owned my own dog (Bear arrived the following year)…I had always owned cats. But I chose at that moment to become a dog owner. And it was a wonderful choice. Pixie lived up to her name in every way. Full of energy, personality, and adorably cute, she was the perfect dog for me. She would hide under blankets, earning the nickname “mole”. She could jump into my arms from the floor, amazing for a little six pound dog. She loved chasing rabbits and deer. The cat, Attila, was her mortal enemy, always trying to steal her food…she was a picky eater, but just the mere mention of the cat’s name could get her to eat. She also loved to sit in the grass while I worked in the garden, and she loved watching TV. But most of all, I would constantly hold her, and she would sit in my lap for hours, building a bond so strong that when I walked in the room, she only had eyes for me. We were the greatest companions, inseparable.

When she passed this weekend, it was a blow I have still not completely recovered from. I’ve lost my only child. My only consolation is that I know in my heart that some day, we will be inseparable once more. For now, I must go on without her, but despite the pain, I don’t regret having her for a second. I think the following Peanuts image, sent to me by my Mom, sums up my relationship with Pixie really well: