Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

This series by Tad Williams is one of my all time favorite fantasy reads. It was among the first books that made me fall in love with the genre, and one of only a handful I’ve read more than once. I read this series again now for both the 2019 Popsugar and ATY Reading Challenges. I also wanted to reread this series to refresh myself on the world of Osten Ard so that I could dive into the new series by Tad Williams, also set in this same world.

This series opens with The Dragonbone Chair. The story begins as the High King, Prester John, is about to die. He has reached the end of a long life after establishing his rule over much of Osten Ard. John’s two sons, Elias and Josua, along with representatives of all the regions under his rule, have been called back to the Hayholt, the home of the High King. Elias is eldest and heir to their father’s throne. It becomes quickly apparent that there is some deep unpleasantness between the two brothers.

The main character of the story, however, is Simon, a scullion boy who is far happier climbing about on the rooftops and listening to old Doctor Morgenes stories than he is performing his assigned tasks. Simon goes from boyish dreams of knighthood and glory to the harsh realities of civil war. He ends up fleeing for his life from the only home he’s ever known to join Prince Josua, who, though he never wanted the throne, is compelled to stand against his brother when under the influence of a power-hungry magician, King Elias releases a long-dormant evil.

Stone of Farewell picks up where the first ends. Prince Josua has been dealt a cruel blow, and most of his allies are separated, scattered across the world of Osten Ard. They flee toward a place of safety, a rallying point from which Josua can renew his fight against the dark forces his brother has unleashed on the world.

The final volume in the series, To Green Angel Tower, eventually brings all the action back to where the story first began – the Hayholt castle in Erchester. Here, the final battle will be won or lost. The mystery of the three swords is revealed at last. And surprising revelations come to light.

Tad Williams writes huge novels. Some might consider them too big, too wordy. But I feel that he has an incredible gift for evocative imagery that brings his stories to life. Here is one moment that caught my attention as I was reading through book two. Simon has been caught up along with some of this friends in a fight for his life. This passage follows his being struck nearly senseless and cast to the ground:

[Simon] was staring at a round stone, just a hand’s breadth beyond his nose. He could not feel his extremities, his body limp as boned fish, nor could he hear any sounds but a faint roaring in his ears and thin squeals that might be voices. The stone lay before him, spherical and solid, unmoving. It was a chunk of gray granite, banded with white, which might have lain in this place since Time itself was young. There was nothing special about it. It was only a piece of the earth’s bones, rough corners smoothed by eons of wind and water.

Simon could not move, but he could see the immobile, magnificently unimportant stone. He lay staring at it for a long time, feeling nothing but emptiness where his body had been, until the stone itself began to gleam, throwing back the faintest pink sheen of sunset.
(Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams)

In this passage, Williams shows Simon’s impotence to help even himself, let alone his friends, and I think something of his frustration at that fact comes through as he stares at a simple, unimportant stone. His entire reality has been reduced to this pinpoint focus, and he is powerless to affect anything.

While it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is precisely this style of writing that appeals to me. It is elaborate and detailed, and yes, it piles up into some very large books. But it is also what will keep bringing me back to Tad Williams’s books again and again. If you enjoy epic fantasy set in a richly detailed world and you haven’t yet read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, I highly recommend it.

Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne: A Review

I’ve had several of Jules Verne’s books on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time, and I managed to fit two of them into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge. First, Around the World in Eighty Days for #50, a book that includes a journey, and second, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for #15, a book by an author from a Mediterranean country.

Around the World in Eighty Days begins as a wager. Phileas Fogg and his companions are discussing the advancements in transportation. Fogg proposes it is possible to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. When his friends scoff, Fogg proposes a wager.

A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg solemnly. “I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes, that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less. Do you accept?”

The story that follows is a series of wild adventures as Phileas Fogg travels by ship, train, sled and even elephant across nineteenth century India, China and America. He is pursued as a suspected bank robber, kidnapped by native Americans and sidetracked by a damsel in distress.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. Though really, this is the story of Professor Arronax, a scholar of natural history. A strange creature has been spotted in the oceans around the globe and has been the cause of multiple disasters.

Professor Arronax is among one of several experts in various maritime occupations invited to help hunt down this mysterious menace. In the process of this pursuit, Arronax, along with his body servant and a Canadian whaler, is abducted by the master of the ship he had just previously been hunting – Captain Nemo, of the Nautilaus

Forbidden to ever leave and thus reveal Nemo’s secret, Arronax and his companions are nevertheless treated as honored guests. They embark on an extensive underwater tour of the world. Arronax is at first delighted as he is privileged to see things those in his profession can only dream of seeing from the surface world. Soon, however, it becomes increasingly clear Nemo never intends to release them, and Arronax and the Canadian begin plotting their escape.

Considered to be one of the “fathers of science fiction,” Jules Verne is one of those authors you often encounter on “must read” lists. Both of these novels are among his Extraordinary Voyages series which were apparently very popular at the time of their original publication in the late 1800s. I read these two along with a third – The Mysterious Island – via audiobook. While I enjoyed the first book very much, the second was not as much fun. And the third I found just plain boring. Verne was clearly writing at a different time, and for a different audience. What may have passed for normal then, is a little harder to swallow today. Especially his portrayal of women characters – those that even exist in these stories.

Overall, I still recommend Jules Verne. Though his novels are not all created equal. Of the three I read, there was a huge variation in how much I enjoyed them. Still, it is clear he meticulously researched his subjects that he wrote about.

The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene: A Review

I have been wanting to revisit some of my favorites reads from my childhood, and book one of the classic Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock, fit so nicely into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge, prompt #23, a book inspired by the wedding rhyme #1: something old. It has been a really long time since I read any of the Nancy Drew books, and I’m fairly certain I never actually read all of them. I’m not sure if this was one I ever read.

In this series opener, we meet Nancy Drew, an 18 year old girl with an insatiable curiosity. The only child of a well-to-do, widowed attorney, Nancy is clearly among the privileged class. The story opens with her driving in her brand new convertible – a gift from her father. She is also generous to a fault, with a heart full of compassion for others. She willingly jumps into any situation to help out someone in need, whether that’s saving a child from drowning or finding a missing will, bringing financial freedom to countless downtrodden neighbors.

In this story, that is precisely what Nancy does. She stumbles onto this mystery after witnessing a child falling from a bridge. Nancy meets a family down on their luck trying to do the best they can to care for this child. She learns they had been expecting to inherit from a distant relative, but the will in question has mysteriously disappeared. Nancy’s interest is piqued and she sets about to solve this mystery.

Who doesn’t love Nancy Drew? Okay, I suppose not everyone. Still, these books remain popular among young people, dated though they may be. What’s not to love about a girl who can change a flat tire, fix the outboard motor on a boat and escape a locked closet? Nancy is still a good example of an empowered female character. She is strong-willed, curious and daring, and she has the support of her father through all her wild adventures.

The Nancy Drew stories were definitely written at a different time. They are dated, but still have something to offer. I enjoyed this story despite its age. It brought me back to my childhood, reminding me of where many of my own stories originated.

Space and Beyond, by R. A. Montgomery: A Review

Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge list number 42 is to read a “choose your own adventure” book. I remember reading these as a kid and finding them great fun. I wasn’t too keen on revisiting this “adventure” as an adult, however. My son has a handful of these books on his bookshelf, and they are very short, so I decided I would just borrow one from him. I choose Space and Beyond, by R. M. Montgomery.

I probably should have chosen a more age-appropriate version of this classic children’s book style, but to be honest, I didn’t know such a thing existed until too late. Still, this book was very short, and I read it in a single sitting, even taking the time to visit all of the possible endings.

The main premise around Space and Beyond is that the reader (addressed as “you”) is supposed to choose a “home planet.” Your mother is from one, and your father from another. And so you choose. What follows after is a series of adventures and misadventures across the galaxy. Some adventures end in disaster, or even death. Others leave you stranded, or blissfully content to remain with whatever alien culture has accepted you in.

In none of the endings, however, does the reader end up on either of the planets from the original choice. I honestly don’t remember these books feeling quite so empty. Each story track is so short, there just isn’t a whole lot of substance to any of it.

The Reckoners Series, by Brandon Sanderson: A Review

I have been working my way through Brandon Sanderson’s books since I discovered him while reading The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan. A couple of years ago I learned that he writes more than just long, epic fantasy series. I found Steelheart, book one of The Reckoners series while browsing through the teen section at my library. I absolutely loved it. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally managed to finish the series.

Books two and three both fit into the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge. I read Firefight for prompt #4, a book I think should be turned into a movie, and Calamity for prompt #18, a book about someone with a superpower.

For David Charleston, the story began ten years ago when Calamity appeared in the sky. At the same time, ordinary people began manifesting extraordinary powers. David witnessed one of these gifted individuals – now called Epics – murder his father. And for ten years, David has been observing, collecting data and plotting revenge.

Then, the Reckoners arrive in his home town, and David contrives a way to contact them with the intention of joining their ranks. The Reckoners are a shadowy group of ordinary humans who study Epics and search out their weakness – every Epic has one – with the intention of assassinating them.

Book one, Steelheart, is all about David’s quest for revenge on the Epic who killed his father – Steelheart, a man who can transform anything inorganic into steel. Oh, and he’s invulnerable.

In book two, Firefight, David and the Reckoners continue their battle against the Epics, taking the fight to the city formerly known as Manhattan. But now David’s quest has shifted from vengeance to something else. As he has pursued his quest, David has learned a great deal about Epics he didn’t know before. And maybe – just maybe – there’s a cure.

The series concludes with book three, Calamity. The more David has learned about the Epics, the more convinced he has become that they can be redeemed. While everything and everyone seems to turn against him, he insists on going up against the most powerful Epic of all.

Whether he is writing epic fantasy sagas or superpowered adventures, Sanderson is a fantastic storyteller. In this series, he writes from David’s perspective, so the reader witnesses everything through his eyes. We learn what David learns, as he learns it, so the action is immediate and close.

I loved these books! There is a short novella, Mitosis, that goes between books one and two, but you can enjoy the series without reading it. I know this, because I did it. I didn’t learn of the novella’s existence until I was already well into book two. Book two does make reference to events that transpire in this in-between time, so I will definitely read it when I can.

Otherland Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

Tad Williams has long been a favorite author of mine. I first fell in love with his books with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, and then moved on to others. I read his Otherland series many years ago when I was still on a student-borrow-books-from-the-library sort of budget. I have finally managed to collect copies of all of these books and decided this was the year I would finally reread them.

It was a huge bonus then, when I was able to fit each of them into prompts for the 2019 Reading Challenge, both the Popsugar and ATY challenges. Book one, City of Golden Shadow, I read for Popsugar’s prompt #8, a book about a hobby (online gaming); book two, River of Blue Fire, for ATY’s prompt #17, a speculative fiction; book three, Mountain of Black Glass, for ATY #19, a book by an author with more than one book on my TBR (I have eleven of his books on my list for this year!); and book four, Sea of Silver Light, for ATY #22, a book from the ATY polarizing/close call list – a book where the protagonist enters another world.

There is a lot going on in this massive series (four books totaling over three thousand pages!) which is really one long story. It follows multiple main characters – a young, professional woman from Africa, an African bushman, a teenage boy with progeria, an aged former test pilot, and many more. Even the “villain” is not so straight forward as all that, but there is layer upon layer of opposition that confronts the main characters.

The story opens with Renie Sulaweyo – an African professor working with virtual reality technology – and her widowed father and younger, dependent brother. Something happens to her brother while he is playing online with friends that puts him into a coma. Trying to help her brother, Renie sets off to figure out what put him into the coma in the first place. Her search leads her to a new form of virtual reality technology that has been secretly developed over the past decade or so. She learns her brother isn’t the only child to be affected in this way. Something sinister is going on and she intends to find out what.

Her path leads her to this new network, known as The Grail Network. But this super secret network is impossible to break into. Until an encounter brings her, along with several others into contact with someone who can get them into the network. Once there, however, they are trapped online and must move forward to find answers in order to make it out again.

This network consists of a huge number of virtual worlds. Anything seems to be possible here, from recreated fictional worlds such as Carroll’s Wonderland to Coleridge’s dream world Kubla Khan. There exists a warped version of Oz, a grotesquely corrupted wild west, an ancient Egypt ruled by the god Osiris, and even a bizarre cartoon world. Williams shows himself a master world builder in this series, as each world is flawlessly detailed, each complete with their own set of rules.

The Otherland series is set in a future world where fully immersive virtual reality gaming and other internet-based activities have been fully realized. Published between 1998 and 2001, the future tech is well imagined, and even by today’s standards feels impressively futuristic, and has stood well against the advances in real world technology. Though I was momentarily dropped out of the “voluntary suspension of disbelief” by the very brief reference to hunting for replacement batteries to power a hand held mobile device.

Otherland, like most of Tad Williams’s books, is massive. It is rich in detail, that for some might slow down the action. For myself, I love it. I can’t help but be fully engaged in the world he has created. His characters are beautifully drawn, and I need to know what happens to them. I will read anything written by Tad Williams, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: A Review

Prompt #41 on the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge is to read a book from the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards. I don’t usually seem to be on the same page as most folks voting on these awards, as the ones I choose never seem to win. However, the voting process for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards involved voting on the “best of all time” books. In this category was The Martian, by Andy Wier. I’ve wanted to read this book since I saw the movie some years back.

In this book, Weir tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Only six days into the mission, severe weather forces the team to abandon the planet. In the process, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. It turns out, he did not die. And thus begins his harrowing tale of survival.

The story is told primarily through mission logs that Watney continues to keep, perhaps mostly from force of habit and training. As a character, Mark Watney is fantastic. His sense of humor carries him through his ordeal.

Weir includes a lot of plausible sounding science. I don’t know how much of it is accurate, but it feels accurate, giving weight to the story and the mortal peril Watney is in at all times. The potentially dry sciencey bits are well tempered with real suspense and of course, the humor.

This is one of those rare occurrences where the book and the movie are equally entertaining. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, you will probably enjoy the book as well. And same goes the other way around. Quite simply, this is a great book.

Warcross, by Marie Lu: A Review

I had been looking forward to reading Warcross, by Marie Lu for some time. So when I came across the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #39, a book revolving around a puzzle or game, I was excited to finally make reading it a priority. From the Goodreads blurb:

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. … Hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. … Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action.

Warcross tells the story of Emika Chen, a down-on-her-luck hacker and bounty hunter living in Manhattan. Her rent is due and her last bounty got scooped by another hunter, so Emika finds herself taking desperate and risky action to avoid being thrown out on the streets. Expecting to get arrested for her trespass, Emika is stunned to receive a call from the game’s creator instead – with a job offer.

Emika ends up transported to Tokyo where she is inserted into the Championships as a player. She’s there to uncover a security problem, but finds something much more sinister instead.

The game descriptions are phenomenal and the action is fast-paced and fun. While I enjoyed this book, and will read the sequel eventually, it was a bit predictable. It wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: A Review

The 2019 ATY Reading Challenge prompt #48 is to read a finalist or winner from the National Book Awards from any year. I chose to read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.

I was intrigued by the premise of this post-apocalyptic novel. It follows a troupe of nomadic players twenty years after a massive flu pandemic decimates the population of the planet. For the past two years, this group of actors and musicians have traveled a circuit around the Great Lakes. This year, however, brings some disturbing changes.

The book opens in “present day” during a production of King Lear. The lead, a famous Hollywood actor, dies suddenly onstage. In the audience is a former paparazzi who is now an EMT. Recognizing the actor’s symptoms, he jumps on stage and attempts to save his life.

The story line goes back and forth in time from Year One to Year Twenty, and sometimes flashes back to before the event. Mandel weaves together a beautiful tapestry of seemingly unrelated lives, highlighting the moments where these lives intersect. It is a wonderfully drawn picture of humanity, and how we interact with one another in the face of both ordinary and devastating events.

I chose the audio version of this book, narrated by Kirsten Potter. It is very well done. I highly recommend this book.

Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French: A Review

When I saw ATY’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #30, a book featuring an elderly character, I instantly thought of Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French. I’ve had this book in my e-library since shortly after it was released, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to read it. This book, second in the series The Investigative Paranormal Society, features a group of men in their 60s who help people in their community with ghostly or demonic problems.

In this book, the members of the Investigative Paranormal Society are approached by a land developer who is interested in acquiring a certain property in order to build a casino. The property has a long history of disaster and misfortune, and there are rumors of paranormal activity. At the same time, one of their members is dealing with a personal crisis from his past that impacts his effectiveness as part of the team.

The characters is this story have depth and history. They feel like real people. I couldn’t help but get caught up with them in their investigations, especially as things took a dangerous turn. The suspense in this book is great.

I read the first book, Maledicus, some time back and though that book wasn’t quite all I’d hoped for, I was intrigued by French’s idea of a group of retired gentlemen who fought ghosts. I knew I would check out the next book, and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed book two very much. I’m looking forward to the next installment of the Investigative Paranormal Society.