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A roundup of book reviews - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
A roundup of book reviews
Well, I mentioned I've been reading a bit the last couple of weeks. I finally bought Cell yesterday and happily curled up reading it all night. But anyway, some reviews. I'll skip the ones I got advance copies of, because, though they're provided for reviewing purposes, I'm not sure they mean "reviewing on LiveJournal." So I'll cover The Intruders, Golden, and The Fetch more completely when they actually come out.

by Kenneth Oppel

The sequel to Airborn (which I read right after this), Skybreaker is an adventure in a world where airplanes were never invented. Airships are the main kind of transportation, and our hero, Matt Cruse, is an academy student hoping to move up. His girlfriend, Kate DeVries, is a wealthy heiress who uses her money to fund her daring quests for scientific knowledge, particularly in the field of zoology. Together, they join with a crew and a gypsy girl to salvage the airship of a fabulously rich inventor who disappeared many years earlier. In the course of it, they discover unknown animals who live in the high air currents above the earth--electrically charged squids, actually.

Nearly everything in the book works. Kate is spunky, Matt's steadfast, the creatures are reasonably neat. I like the idea of the drifting airship and the salvage operation, and I'm glad Kate's unpleasant guardian got a chance to do something useful. There are good action sequences, and the characters are all well realized.

The unsuccessful part involves a love triangle--well, quadrangle--that's grafted onto the thing--will Matt leave Kate for the beautiful gypsy girl? Is Kate going to go for the rich ship's captain, leaving her in her social element? Very ho-hum, very predictable, and it doesn't reflect well on any of them. (Now, if it had been well done and didn't reflect well on the characters, that would be one thing, but if you're going to sacrifice an element of likability, make it in the service of making the character more interesting, not less.)

I immediately went to pick up the first book in the series, Airborn, which is a rousingly good adventure as well.

Warriors: The New Prophecy: Dawn
by Erin Hunter

When I first heard of Warriors, I mumbled back and forth to myself about whether or not to get it for the 12-18 crowd, and decided that it was probably too young and left it to children's. That, I think, was a mistake. We got the galley of Dawn, the third book in the second series, and I found it engaging and interesting at thirty-five. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series now, and got as much background as I could at the website in the interim. (Dawn covered enough that I understood it without the background, though I think having the backstories would have made it fuller.)

To begin with, the world set-up: There are feral cats, rogues, and "kittypets" in a geographical area that seems to be under a lot of development. Kittypets are more important in the earlier books, I'm guessing, as one of the eventual leaders began his life as such, but Dawn does feature a wise and kind kittypet called Cody, who is respectful of her "housefolk"--which is good, as the other "two-legs" don't represent our species very well. Rogues wander with no attachments. The feral cats of the forest are the story's main concern, and live in four clans--ThunderClan, RiverClan, WindClan, and ShadowClan. They have a decently developed religion that worships their ancestors, who all become part of StarClan when they die. Since they're eminently civilized, I'll call them "clan cats" for the remainder of the review. As Dawn opens, "two-leg monsters"--easily recognizable as construction machines, though the cats don't know this--tear down a gathering spot and chase ThunderClan from its home. In what I'm guessing is picked up from the previous books, the daughters of the clan leader, Firestar (the former kittypet), are both away from camp when this happens. Squirrelpaw, an apprentice warrior, has gone off with cats from other clans to hear a prophecy, while Leafpaw, an apprentice medicine cat, has been captured by construction workers who have been setting traps. The first half of the book tells their stories separately, until a daring rescue of all the captured cats... and the loss of one valued clan cat. (Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, but the cats are cool, so I think most people will be willing.)

The second half of the book deals with the fallout of the prophecy, which says that the clans have to leave the forest and move on to a new place they've never been. Firestar, though in exile, won't leave without the other clans, who have, for various reasons, not been eager to leave. Starvation on the moors, where the prey has been chased away, finally causes WindClan to seek help, and an attack on ShadowClan by humans intent on getting them out brings things to a climax, leading to an exodus of the clans, going through dangerous territory, meeting a tribe of non-clan cats, and fighting with predators.

This book was a very pleasant surprise. I kind of wish I'd been reading them all along.

In the category of "Well... at least I've never seen it before..."

by Tony Abbott

Young Santa Claus travels with pirates and fights goblins.

I kid you not.

We meet Kringle as a little boy, named after the sound of an elven bell (St. Nicholas makes no appearance here), growing up in the north country--most likely Britain, as what I think is Hadrian's Wall is described, along with the Viking raids--just as the Romans are deserting it. His parents have both been killed by goblins, and he and his guardian, Merwin, are separated by another goblin attack. He's taken in by elves, from whom he's separated, then travels with pirates, then goes after goblins and escapes with a priest who will, I presume, convert him (he's just been told the Christmas story; I haven't finished yet). There are runestones and a magic wand that makes wintery storms, plus a mouse who wakes Brother Alban and a fly that keeps his place in his book. Kringle can hear the voice of the runestones, and wants to rescue children from the goblins, who kidnap them for reasons no one understands.

A book like this has to be good.

I don't mean that like, "Whoa, man... there's no way that wouldn't be good." I mean that in the sense of, "There's no way in hell that's going to work unless it's very, very good." If it had been very good, I'd be clapping for an original piece of fantasy and a new take on an old legend. Unfortunately, it's mediocre, so I'm left raising my eyebrows and going, "Um... okay?"

Parts of it read well. The part where Kringle rescues a pirate boy is actually a nice bit of characterization, as is his attempt to stop the goblin sacking of the pirate ship, his fondness for the elves, and his care for Brother Alban. But his conversion is shaping up to be heavy-handed, the events just fall on top of each other, and, worst of all, the author used his lifetime quota of narrative explanation points in the first half of the first chapter. I mean, honestly. You can get away with that if you're writing Dick and Jane, but anything above a first grade reading level can't absorb that much. Also, to avoid internal monologue, the author gives Kringle the annoying habit of talking to himself and answering himself, which keeps making me look for other characters on the page. Moral of the story: If you're going to write about Santa Claus and pirates and goblins, give the reader a hand with that suspension of disbelief thing by writing brilliantly.

by Stephen King

Stephen King really, really sucks at retiring. It's been less than a year since Dark Tower 7 came out, which was going to be the last, but clearly, he just kept on chugging. There's another one on the way, and we get the first chapter at the end of Cell. I love this guy.

We open in Boston, when "the Pulse," a phenomenon which remains largely unexplained, hits the cell phones of the world, wiping out human behaviors and causing people to attach each other. In the first chapter, you get people tearing each other's throats out, biting dogs, and driving Duck Tour buses into ice cream trucks. By the end of the first section, Boston is in the process of burning flat, and Clay Riddell and his new cell-less friends Alice and Tom start walking north, so that Clay can find his family. His son has a cell phone, you see, and he's very, very worried about what he might find.

Oh, and the phone-crazies start to evolve.

I'd love to say, "Stephen King came back and is better than ever," but honestly, this one's a little pedestrian. It's better than Dreamcatcher, but that's not saying much. But it hits its marks, and King has decidedly not lost his ability to keep me turning pages. I bought it at five and finished it at two-thirty. Just one more chapter, ma! ;)

The strengths are King's usual strengths--it's compulsively readable, it serves up neat little adventures on the way, and the main characters are reasonably likable without being perfect. It's also got a good (if brief) look at Boston and New England in general, though his Boston geography is, as he admits, a little skewed. The premise works decently (though I'd have liked to see it established earlier that the Pulse was something that was going on and on, rather than something that just grabbed people who happened to be on at a particular moment in time). He understands that weird line between humor and horror very well, and a lot of it, you're torn between being amused and creeped out. (Eg, the phone-crazies love elevator music and play it all night long.) The ending, while not totally spiffy, is satisfying in an "oh-come-on-you-didn't-just-not-tell-me-that" way.

The weaknesses aren't things I expect from King, though. He's usually very good at obeying Chekhov's law about guns in act one being fired in act three, but the plot develops in a haphazard way, and things that he spends time developing never get anywhere. After all the time spent talking about how Tom's housecat is lucky, establishing Tom's care about the cat, and Clay internally complaining that Tom is silly to be thinking about the cat, it never occurred to me until the last page--literally--that ol' Rafe wasn't going to come in with some important plot point. I wasn't sure how, but with all the setup, it seemed odd that he really did just wander away. There's also a lovingly described paperweight Clay means to give to his estranged wife--and the conflict about the marriage is constantly mentioned--but the paperweight disappears and the encounter with the wife may as well have been left out for all the emotional resonance it had. Sigh.

Still, it's good to know the retirment story was just another one of his scary yarns. I'll take a mediocre King over the best efforts of some other authors any day of the week.


12 comments or Leave a comment
lacontessamala From: lacontessamala Date: March 9th, 2006 11:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just wrote a review of Cell for the local paper, and I blew it out of the water for the crappy ending. I thought the book was nice for what it was, which was a gory zombie book, but it's no "Hearts in Atlantis".

I was also annoyed with the lack of plot development in places, and the total lack of subplot.

Hey, if you're a King fan, and you ever get a brainwave about it, could you write a satisfying ending to that book? I was just profoundly annoyed, and I know you could do it justice. *puppy dog eyes*
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2006 11:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's really not something I could do, because we don't know enough about Johnny-Gee to really take a stab at what happened. I wasn't especially bothered by the "Will it work or won't it?" ending--that was a deliberate, if frustrating choice. The goofs like dropping Rafe and the swing-and-miss on the wife bugged me more.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 9th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Though I will say, I think he's begging for more fanfic. The single point-of-view with an obvious story happening outside the POV range is like saying, "Hey! How come none of you are playing in my sandbox?" ;))
lacontessamala From: lacontessamala Date: March 10th, 2006 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Mmm,I know. One of the things I brought up in my review was my annoyance with not knowing anything more about the Pulse. The whole book felt like one subplot out of a typical King novel. And while it technically works, I guess, it still feels lazy, and I was left wanting to know more. A lot more.

P.S. The copy editor just told me the headline he put on my review: "King phones this one in." bwahahahahahaa.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2006 01:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm wondering if there's going to be a "companion novel" at some point, talking about what's going on at Kent Pond.
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: March 10th, 2006 06:46 am (UTC) (Link)

nothing to do with the book reviews...

I just saw that today (3/10) is Remus's birthday--it's on the JK Rowling site!! I thought of you immediately.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2006 07:02 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: nothing to do with the book reviews...

Yeah, I remembered, mostly because I marked everyone's birthday on my HBP calendar for Shades. I shall have to think of a good ficcy present for him.
buffyannotater From: buffyannotater Date: March 10th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I haven't read Cell yet, but I've heard the theory thrown around on-line, and interestingly, independent of that, from a RL friend of mine who just finished the book, that the Pulse is the apocalyptic event that first caused Roland's world in The Dark Tower series to begin to crumble.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2006 06:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
It could kind of make sense--Clay's graphic novel, which is obviously a DT simulcrum, does get skewered.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 10th, 2006 06:49 pm (UTC) (Link)


Trust me, one of them--pretty negative.
(Deleted comment)
12 comments or Leave a comment