Book four of the fantasy series about Beetle, Septimus, Princess Jenna and all of the people connected to them. Just as well-written (and funny!) as t...moreBook four of the fantasy series about Beetle, Septimus, Princess Jenna and all of the people connected to them. Just as well-written (and funny!) as the previous books, Queste has a mild draw-back in that, while the story was clearly laid-out books in advance, the Queste of the title still somehow feels tacked-on, because it has never been mentioned before now.
From the previous book, we know that Snorri and Nicko have disappeared in Time, and so the first part of the book involves all the different characters' reactions to their absence. Unlike us, these characters do not know where Snorri and Nicko have gone, and spend a lot of time searching in different directions. Meanwhile, the tragicomic Darke apprentice Merrin tricks Simon into leaving his lair so that Merrin can escape and exact his revenge on Septimus. Septimus is completely unaware of Merrin's antipathy; Merrin has built his envy for Septimus into a twisted, burning hatred that can only be satisfied with the complete ruin of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Apprentice. His plot involves a very complicated spell in multiple parts, which he starts before leaving the lair (with comic results). But once he returns to the Castle, any sense of urgency departs, and Merrin begins looking for a way to settle down. He knows he can't return to the Tower, so he finds work as a scribe at the Manuscriptorium, where he irritates Beetle to no end. Septimus, Jenna and Beetle meet with Marcellus to get documents that Snorri gave to Marcellus hundreds of years earlier. It turns out that there is a legend of a place called "The House of Foryx" (which is akin to saying they lived in Oz or at the top of Jack's Beanstalk: featured in a number of fairy tales, the house is a magical place guarded by the giant foryx monsters), which exists outside of Time. The documents include a very detailed map to the House. Septimus and Jenna are delighted to have the map; Beetle is mostly delighted just to be close to Jenna. Merrin, scurrying back to his hideout, knocks down Jenna in the rain, and then in a fit of pique, he tears the papers (including the map) into dozens of pieces and flees before Beetle can recognize him Beetle takes the disconsolate Jenna deep into the bowels of the Manuscriptorium to visit the reclusive restoration specialist scribe Ephaniah Grebe, who lives in near total seclusion in the deepest cellars of the Manuscriptorium. Many years earlier, Ephaniah was hexed to become a giant rat, but with the help of Morwenna, he managed to regain some human characteristics, even though he still appears as mostly rat. Ephaniah agrees to help restore the water damaged, shredded map. The map is restored except for one missing piece: the very center of the map, containing the actual House of Foryx. They try to find the missing piece to no avail, and in the end resolve to use the map as it is. But Beetle loses his job over taking Jenna into the Manuscriptorium, and so he spends much of the rest of the book torn between delight at the growing friendship with the Princess and depression over his lost position. Merrin happily takes Beetle's vacant position at the Manuscriptorium and so encounters the ghost of Tertius Fume, the first Hermetic Scribe. Tertius sees in Merrin (and his hatred of Septimus) a way of bringing further ruin to the wizards, and so he uses Merrin to enact further revenge of his own. Tertius invokes a Gathering, in which all the ghosts of the previous ExtraOrdinary Wizards meet in the Tower to call for the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice to draw a stone from the Questing Pot. The Queste, we discover, is a terrible thing. The Pot is filled with stones, but several of the stones in the Pot are infused with magical properties as Queste stones, which then compel the Apprentice on a long journey from which none have ever returned. Through complicated machinations involving a Darke servant possessing the bodies of several characters, Septimus is tricked into taking the last Queste stone. The ghost of Alther Mella helps Septimus escape the heavily-armed Queste guards (who are supposed to escort the Apprentice on his/her journey but which instead help him/her "disappear") and Septimus sneaks out of the Castle with Jenna and Beetle, off to follow the restored, incomplete map to the House of Foryx. Ephaniah, goaded into leaving his sub-basement out of concern for Jenna and Beetle - the only people in the Castle to have been friendly to him - emerges and finds the last piece of the map stuck to the bottom of Merrin's boot. Ephaniah follows the kids out of the Castle and across the river to the home of the Wendron Witches. The kids need Morwenna's help to find a hidden and magical Forest Way to reach the House of Foryx, and Morwenna is delighted: she's prepared to keep Jenna in exchange for the information. The older Heap brothers are still living in the forest, bachelors mooching off of the infatuated younger witches. Sam, the youngest of the brothers, still has some vestigial emotional connection with his siblings, and so he helps Jenna, Beetle and Septimus escape the witches and find the Forest Way. Morwenna is furious at this betrayal, and that Ephaniah also escapes from her clutches. The Witches declare a renewed antipathy to all outsiders once more. Ephaniah catches up to the kids just after they narrowly escape death at the hands of ravaging foryx. The map is reunited, but Ephaniah is deliriously sick. They do what they can to lessen his fever and leave him in a tree house (film buffs will recognize this as the "Back to the Future 2 move") while they continue onwards to the House.
Rashly, all three of them break down the door to the House, and so they, too, are stuck and unable to leave with any certainty of returning to a given time. They meet Nicko and Snorri and Hotep-Ra himself. The first ExtraOrdinary Wizard is still alive, having continued his studies of magic outside of Time for the last millennium. His sense of time is shot, though, and he's astonished and dismayed to hear that Septimus is the twenty-first Apprentice to go on the Queste. The Queste was originally Hotep-Ra's own idea, as an honorable mission for randomly selected Apprentices to find him and give him the news on what's been happening in the time stream in general and the Castle and Tower specifically since the last update. On hearing about Tertius, Hotep-Ra reveals that Tertius was his best friend in life, but that Tertius was actually false and had only ingratiated himself into Hotep-Ra's trust in order to betray him with a Darke magic attack on the Tower. Hotep-Ra banished him from the Tower, and Tertius has apparently been planning whatever mischief he could from beyond the grave ever since. This has chiefly involved sabotaging the Queste and subverting the Queste guards to assassinate all the Apprentices.
Septimus works some fancy magic to use Hotep-Ra's door (a double to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard's door in the Tower) to transmit graffiti from one door to the other. Eventually Marcia realizes that Septimus is trying to communicate with her, and she brings Spit Fyre the dragon to the House and they let Beetle, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri and Septimus out of the House into their own Time. They pick up Ephaniah and return to the Castle.
The book is well-written, and this one more than any of the first three strikes me as a response to the Harry Potter books. Like Harry Potter, these books are about a kid who lives much of his childhood with no knowledge of his vast magic potential but who then is elevated into a position of trust and power. Like the Harry Potter books, there is a lot of scary, dark and evil things, as well as more casual supernatural features such as ghosts that the living characters interact with on a regular basis. But there are significant differences in the books that far outweigh any similarities. The setting is very different - the Castle does not in any way resemble any real-world institutions and is not set in our world at all. While the series is named after Septimus, the books are at least as much about all the other characters are they are about the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice: these are ensemble pieces rather than a long story about one character (even if that story arguably was about Snape and not Harry in the end). The characters are all flawed and all have limited points of view. For instance, instead of a cryptically ethereal Dumbledore, you have Marcia Overstrand, a bumbling pile of bombast who works her will on the world by bulling through all obstacles. But the most important difference is that the Angie Sage books are funny; Merrin's hatred would make him a despicable villain in the Harry Potter universe akin to Lucius Malfoy, but in these books he is often more comic than horrific. The scene with him attempting to summon the Thing is classic comedy, as is his primary method of coping with stuff that comes up: ignoring problems until he is forced to run away from them. Each of the characters has its own idiosyncrasies that endear them to me, and the humor of the books is what brings me back again and again more than anything else. High drama has its place, but if J.K. Rowlings books are Sophoclean dramas, Sage's books are comedies from Aristophanes. So if you've been looking for more humor in your young adult fantasy fiction, look no further.(less)
This is one of the better disaster novels I've read in a long time. In fact, it is this novel's resemblance to Robinson Crusoe, the prototype of all d...moreThis is one of the better disaster novels I've read in a long time. In fact, it is this novel's resemblance to Robinson Crusoe, the prototype of all disaster novels, that is the greatest aspect of World War Z. The conceit that sets it apart from other disaster novels like The Stand, Lucifer's Hammer, or The Rift is that this is an oral history compiled after the fact by the survivors. So there is none of the tension of whether the characters will survive - you know because you're reading the story that they did survive - it's simply an engrossing journey finding out how they survived. In essence, World War Z is a collection of short stories - each one detailing a different way that people at first survived and, in some of them, conquered a plague of undead.
The book is set up as a series of interviews conducted by a war correspondent hired by the United Nations to create a comprehensive factual history of "what happened during the war" as told by significant figures in the worldwide conflict. The factual report is not included - the novel is the compilation of notes and interviews the journalist gathered as background material for the report, over the course of the decade after "VA" (Victory America) day. This conceit sets up an interesting situation that is unusual in the apocalyptic genre, because it requires that global infrastructure remain intact. The journalist has to travel all over the world to interview dozens of people in dozens of countries, and that requires that global transportation and all the industries that support that remain largely intact or restored after the war. So in that sense, it is an unusually cheery apocalypse novel, and a stark contrast to things like Y: the Last Man, with which it otherwise has some common elements (astronauts stuck in orbit, for one).
(view spoiler)[The implication is that the zombie apocalypse started as an ancient Chinese curse, uncovered by culturally-insensitive flooding of river valleys that destroyed temples containing Things Best Left Alone. The plague is effectively viral, transmitted into the bloodstream by bites, other punctures, or, most disastrously, through operations. An infected person may have several days without showing signs of infection, during which he can move an interact normally (also potentially infecting others), but then the virus overcomes him, his health quickly deteriorates, and, on death, the body reanimates as a George Romero zombie: a shambling animate corpse that hungers for flesh to devour which can only be stopped by destroying the remnants of the brain.
It is at this point that I should mention that the film of the same name has nothing to do with the novel. That is apparent from the very beginning of the film, in which zombies are shown in the first couple of minutes as exactly opposite of how they are portrayed in the novel. This has no bearing on the novel, but I have to say I was disappointed with the film because it doesn't present ANY of the survivors' stories from the novel. Serves me right - one is always disappointed to see a film AFTER reading the book.
Back to the novel: the communist Chinese government fails to acknowledge the threat when it first appears, and so infected end up being distributed all over the world through air travel and, more damningly, through transport of organs for transplants. Hospitals and clinics all over the world are suddenly sources of outbreaks, and the plague spreads outward from medical facilities all over the planet. Most of the rest of the book involves accounts of the spread of the zombie hordes, as well as measures different countries took to contain and protect uninfected survivors. At least two thirds of the world's population is lost to the zombies before the tide turns and humanity begins exterminating the plague carriers (two hundred million zombies in the United States, with the US as one of the least destroyed nations in the world. Iceland is repeatedly referenced as the most destroyed, with fully 100% loss of human life).
Like most disaster stories, World War Z presents us a pastiche of stories, blending both the sacrificial nobility and horrible savagery of which humanity is capable. People are shown to be clever and stupid, brutal and kind, compassionate and heartless. (hide spoiler)]
While I really liked the conceit, it did limit the book in some respects. Most obviously, the tension of who would survive and who wouldn't is absent. The first-person narrative wears me out a little after three hundred pages; as generally a fan of disaster novels, I like to see some third person narrative so that characters I come to enjoy are seen to interact with each other. But the narrative conceit here doesn't allow for character interaction at all. So stories are vaguely related to one another at best. Finally, the idea that the author was able to travel all over the world to these dozens of countries stretches credulity a great deal, but the idea that he was able to find all these people to get their stories is even less believable!
For the most part, I didn't dwell on these issues. They're all drawbacks to the central conceit of the novel, and that conceit - interviews with survivors - was refreshingly different enough that I could mostly overlook the problems it presented. I really enjoyed this book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A lyrical and poetic look at infant mortality, Skellig is about an English boy who's trying to cope with a lot of stressors: moving to a ramshackle ne...moreA lyrical and poetic look at infant mortality, Skellig is about an English boy who's trying to cope with a lot of stressors: moving to a ramshackle new house, having to travel via bus to school, being displaced from his normal environment, interacting with the strange neighbors, worrying about his infant sister who was born premature and is "failure to thrive," being ignored by his parents who are also worried about the baby, and then finding an otherworldly indigent dying in the shed out back.
The book is written in a very modern style descended from Hemingway that reads like neither a children's or YA book but more like a New York Times adult fiction bestseller. No surprise, then, that Nick Hornby provided a quote praising the book for the cover; it reads like something he'd have written. The language is lovely, and Almond is adept at "showing" rather than telling us what's happening with his characters. It's a good slice-of-life story and the characters are engaging.(less)
How much we enjoy a book has such a big dependence on everything else that's happening to us, including what we've just read before it. Coming off of...moreHow much we enjoy a book has such a big dependence on everything else that's happening to us, including what we've just read before it. Coming off of Daniel Abraham, I realized that I wasn't enjoying this book nearly as much as the previous two "Enchanted Forest Chronicles" books...so I stopped.
I set the book aside for a few days and did other things. Then, when I resumed the book after that break, I enjoyed it so much more. This book was fun enough that I spent time recounting some of the silliness to my son, trying to both demonstrate my enthusiasm for reading and to get an easy laugh.
Now, they refer to this series as "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles," but as the first book is barely about the Enchanted Forest, I prefer to call it something else..."The Pesky Wizard Chronicles," for instance. Certainly those scamps pop up in every one of the books (so far - 1), and here they're up to their old tricks.
One of the things that I like about these books is that each book is told from the point of view of a different character. In the first it was Cimorene's story. The second was Mendanbar's story. While they are in this third book, too, they're supporting characters to the protagonist Morwen. She's the red-headed witch living in the Enchanted Forest with nine talking cats. There's a lot of humor here involving each of the cats and their personalities, but the character who really steals the show for gags is a rabbit named Killer. Killer is a rodent, so he's always hungry. This sets up the inciting incident, in which Killer is monstrously enlarged after eating some clover affected by a wizard's deleterious influence. Throughout the book, Killer undergoes repeated transformations, and continues to get into embarrassing situations because of his unending appetite. Morwen sets out to restore Killer, quickly discovers signs of wizard tampering, and the book quickly turns into a quest to find out what nefarious plans the wizards have hatched this time and put a stop to them.
The book is funny, engaging, and the characters distinct enough for very enjoyable interplay, like characters from Bernard Shaw. The series remains highly recommended from me.
1 - While I think they'll be back again in book four, it's possible that they won't be the villains in the next book, just because (view spoiler)[so many of them get eaten by the dragons in this book (hide spoiler)]...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Excuse me for being crass, but I had to put down my thought as I was a bit over half-way through this book earlier today: "This book kicks all kinds o...moreExcuse me for being crass, but I had to put down my thought as I was a bit over half-way through this book earlier today: "This book kicks all kinds of ass!" Silly, and not very helpful, I know, but it was a very real and very visceral reaction to this very well-crafted story about a far-future human colony whose overseer has maintained peace on a global level for an unimaginably long time. In that respect, at that high a level, you could compare this with John Norman's Gor books, though of course the comparison is ridiculous when you get to any level of detail.
So, what prompted this ebullient, teen-like reaction to this book? Well, simply put, I was terribly impressed with all the craft that went into this. Card has written compelling characters, he's done an amazing bit of world-building, he reveals this world-building in an organic, completely non-didactic way that never feels like explanation, the story is told from the points of view from of multiple characters, and each character has only slightly overlapping, very different motivations and distinct voices, and all this was a very interesting conceit about how people receive and experience spirituality.
Here's the set-up. I'm putting it as a spoiler, because I think if you haven't read it, you might prefer to go into it cold. (view spoiler)[A human colony on a distant world, Harmony, has been overseen by a vast caretaker system of computers for forty million years. Most of the action follows four brothers on Harmony, Elemak, Mebbekew, Issib and Nafai, who are honored sons of two very important people in the society of Basilica, a major city-state. Basilica has maintained a high level of sophistication, peace and society through a matriarchal system where the women control all reproduction and most of the religious observance. Women choose mates through renewable contracts, and they control most resources as a result. The men are relegated to circles outside the upper-class area of the women's district, either in men's districts within the city or ghettos outside the city walls. The men harbor a great deal of both awe and resentment for the women, as they seem to control everything. The protagonists' father, Volemak, is a respected elder of the Wetchik clan of men. He's built up a significant fortune from a long life of leading trade caravans through the desert to other cities. His sons are esteemed in the order of their inheritance, with Elemak the exalted first son who stands to inherit the fortune when his father passes. But then Volemak returns from the desert having had a vision of a column of fire that spoke to him - a message from the Oversoul, the God from the religion which most of the men don't believe. Volemak meets with his advisers and his sons to see what is to be done, and in the end he decides that he must do what the Oversoul has told him to do and proclaim the religion to the men of the city. The sons each have different reactions to this, from disbelief to outright fury that Volemak would throw away their good name with this ridiculous charade. (hide spoiler)]
A lot of people seem to have a negative reaction to Card's work in general and this book specifically because of his Mormon faith, but I've never found it particularly intrusive in any of his writing. Along with that, I have to admit a near-complete ignorance of the actual details of the Mormon faith: I know that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel in prison (was it from another planet? or are angels from other worlds limited to Scientology?) and given a mission, and that he led his followers to Utah by what came to be known as the Mormon Trail, a fork of the Emigrant Trail. Beyond that, I know very little. This book bears a much closer resemblance to the Old Testament, to me, with people getting visions and having to deal with the unbelief of their followers. As such, I found it very compelling. It's well-crafted, masterfully written, character-driven science fiction. I loved it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A Tim Powers novel in a time other than our own. If you know my reaction to Powers' novels, you know that's shorthand for "absolutely great adventure...moreA Tim Powers novel in a time other than our own. If you know my reaction to Powers' novels, you know that's shorthand for "absolutely great adventure story." Like The Drawing of the Dark, The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard, and Dinner at Deviant's Palace, On Stranger Tides picks a setting (this one in the Americas of the early 18th century), applies a bit of the supernatural, and results in a fantastic adventure built around a normal person being swept up by events into a quest much larger than what he originally set out to do.
Although I knew that this book was the inspiration for the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film (it's not even remotely the same, by the way), I was surprised to read somewhere that this book is also considered the source upon which all the "Monkey Island" video games are based. That makes at least as much sense as the Disney film; all three are pirates stories that involve the supernatural and undead.(less)
I read this years ago with a different edition, after a friend expressed consternation that I had only seen the film. The introductions differ, as the...moreI read this years ago with a different edition, after a friend expressed consternation that I had only seen the film. The introductions differ, as the previous edition states that Miyazaki wrote the manga after he made the film, whereas the introduction in the edition I've just read says that he wrote it before the film. A translation difficulty, perhaps? Nausicaa is one of Miyazaki's best films, and an excellent comic.
Whichever came first, Miyazaki loved his characters and setting so much that he had to tell a larger story than in the film. This first volume has only slight differences from what he included in the film. The artwork is well done, and the world is lush with detail. Long after the Seven Days of Fire, the world is still reeling from that cataclysm. Kingdoms struggle to survive, using remnants of ancient technology to assist them in their agrarian societies, while giant malevolent insects and arthropods live in the death forests slowly spreading across the surface of the planet. Nausicaa is the only surviving child of Jhil, King of the Valley of the Wind. The Valley of the Wind is a cleft between two mountain ranges with a prevailing wind from the adjacent ocean that keeps most of the spores from the forest away. The forest and a desert separate the valley of the wind from all other human habitations, so it remains an independent country "on the Periphery."
There are several plotlines introduced in this book. It's a wonderfully Byzantine, complex story, with marvelous characters. I highly recommend it.(less)
After reading this, I'm more impressed than I already was with Miyazaki, and that's saying a lot. I've often vacillated between regret and relief that...moreAfter reading this, I'm more impressed than I already was with Miyazaki, and that's saying a lot. I've often vacillated between regret and relief that I didn't babble and gush with stars in my eyes when I met him at the North American premiere of "Laputa" as a teenager (some years before he sold the English-language rights to Disney). All I did was shake his hand and thank him for his great work. My respect and admiration have only grown since then.
By this volume, the story is far more complicated and involved than what was included in the film, which was released years before the pages included in this book. At this point, the story is split between four groups of characters: Nausicaä, having left the battlefront after arranging the release of Dorok captives back to the Torumekian army; Choruka, the Torumekian priest whose path keeps intersecting Nausicaä's; Kushana, Torumekian princess who is trying to save her troops; and Lord Yupa, the border lands' finest swordsman delving deep into the poison forests to investigate the possibility of another Daikaisho. Each of the four plots is detailed and filled with complicated motivations. Miyazaki definitely understands the benefits of the comics medium in being able to give a lot of information efficiently; writing what happens just in this volume only in prose might fill two or three novels, rather than the mere 134 pages here.
Ultimately, this book is a musing about war and what it means to fight. Each of the four stories represents a different approach and attitude toward combat, and each of them are treated sympathetically. Kushana is the noble leader, determined to do everything she can to deserve the loyalty of "her men." Yupa is the intelligent warrior, who knows that fighting is necessary as a last resort. Choruka is the politician who is coming to recognize that the war and the way it's being waged is not in the best interest of his country. Nausicaä is a pacifist who reveres all life. In that regard, she's admirable, but a little hard to relate to, particularly when (view spoiler)[the Torumekian priest-scientists create a mutation of the miasma (which by now we know is a symbiotic part of a natural healing mechanism to reclaim the planet from the fallout of the Seven Days of Fire) to use as a weapon. This artificial fungus becomes a rapacious, intelligent slime mold like The Blob, and Nausicaä looks kindly even on that, whereas while I was reading this, I was thinking "Burn it! Burn it NOW!" (hide spoiler)] But the book is wonderfully nuanced and engaging, and the end of this volume (just like each one before it) leaves me eager for more.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a lovely story about a motherless Floridan girl who finds community in a new town, and it starts with her taking compassion on a horrible mess...moreThis is a lovely story about a motherless Floridan girl who finds community in a new town, and it starts with her taking compassion on a horrible mess of an enormous mongrel dog. In an effort to spare the dog from some consequence for tearing up a Winn-Dixie supermarket - perhaps being sent to the pound - she improvises a lie that it's her dog, and calls it "Winn Dixie" because it's the first thing that came to her mind. She similarly stumbles into a number of other relationships, generally being compassionate for people who've been ostracized, marginalized, or outcast, and finding the good in each of them.
It seems like it would be a pleasure to read aloud, having a lot of the folksy voice of Keillor even though it's set in the opposite end of the country. But it's a bit of a tear-jerker, for me, so that adds a bit of challenge. I found the book to be really engaging and humorous, but so much of that is in the voice, rather than just the plot, as the movie seems to have closely followed the plot, but completely failed to engage my attention on multiple viewing attempts. Normally I don't talk about film adaptations, but here I found it interesting because it so clearly points out that DiCamillo's writing makes the book shine, and most of that has nothing to do with what happens in the story. A person could learn quite a bit by studying how she presents her narrative voice.(less)