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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

AvatarTheLastAirbenderI know that having children is a life-enriching experience but I didn’t expect my almost-grown children to get me hooked on an initially unappealing children’s T.V. show; Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. At first the cartoons and martial arts action seemed cheesy, but the show delivers a compelling story filled with friendship, family (good and bad), coming of age, and sympathetic but realistically flawed characters.

The story is set in a fascinating universe where certain people have an innate ability to move and control physical matter, called bending. All benders can move only one element: either earth, water, air or fire. All, that is, except the Avatar who can bend all four, and this power is meant to be used to keep balance and harmony in the world. The Avatar disappeared over one hundred years ago which allowed the Fire Nation to wage a war to take over the world. In the first episode our heroes Katara and Sokka discover that the Avatar, Aang, has been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years as a twelve-year-old boy. The three of them set off on journeys and adventures all around the world, gathering friends and enemies, such as plump, kindly General Iroh who dispenses sage advice and cups of tea, or short, blind Toph who seems helpless, but is much tougher than everyone else. The situation often looks dire, but as Katara says in the opening sequence, “I believe Aang can save the world.”

The well-developed universe includes real martial art systems as the basis for each type of bending and buildings, costumes and cultures based on real ancient Asian cultures (although sometimes mixed). But the best invention may be the chimeric animals! Aang has a huge, furry, guinea-pig-shaped Flying Bison named Appa that you can’t possibly see without wanting one.

There are many spin-off works such as the sequel The Legend of Korra  which expands on the story of the Avatar. It occurs seventy years later than Avatar: The Last Airbender and features that show’s character’s children and grandchildren. They live in Republic City which bears an uncanny resemblance to 1920s New York City.  There are also graphic novels some of which are drawn by the same artists and include original stories that are not in the original show like Avatar the Last Airbender: The Promise.

Like Doctor Who or Spirited Away this is great for the whole family to watch together. The stories are simple enough (and active enough) to appeal to the youngest set while the geopolitical wrangling and character development is enough to keep adults coming back for more.

Check the WRL catalog for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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funkeCharlotte’s post about Lloyd Alexander got me thinking about books for younger readers that are also of interest to adults. I think that Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and its sequels, Inkspell  and Inkdeath fill the bill here. Although they are marketed as young adult fiction, they will work equally well for anyone who is a fantasy fan.

These are very literary stories, premised on the ability of the some characters to read people in and out of fictional tales while reading aloud. It sounds like a great idea at first, but the problem is that when something is read out of a story, something present in the real world is read into the story. Meggie, our heroine, is the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, and she wonders why he will not read her stories from books. We discover that Meggie lost her mother when Mo accidentally reads her into a dark tale. Worse, Mo has read out of the story its arch villain, Capricorn, who is bent on getting back into his story and uses Meggie as a tool to coerce Mo into once again reading aloud.

As Meggie and Mo are pursued, captured, and attempt to escape, they meet with unexpected help, are betrayed by some that they thought true, and must rely on the power of language to face Capricorn and his men. Funke tells a delightful though dark tale about the power of words and the love of books and reading. It is a great story for anyone who shares that love.

Check the WRL catalog for Inkheart

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Hum and the ShiverIn the first decade of the new century, urban fantasy went from a blip on the genre map to a big part of the fantasy fiction market. That success was built on kick-ass heroines modeled after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quirky casts of characters such as those found in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, or glib modern magicians standing in for the classic noir detective, as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The novels featured the creatures of classic horror films–vampires, werewolves, and other monsters–and/or the traditions of the English faerie story–the battle of the seelie and unseelie court beneath the noses of regular mortals–all given a modern twist. At the time, these tropes were fun, and fresh, a great variation on the fat doorstops of epic fantasy.

But like any publishing phenomena, the pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s not so fresh anymore. After reading five or six series that follow the same approach, most readers feel like they had been there, done that.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see new takes on contemporary fantasy, and Alex Bledsoe has done just that with his novels about the Tufa people of the east Tennessee mountains. Yes, it’s another variation on the fairy courts, but by displacing the fey into the heart of the Appalachians, casting a wounded American woman soldier as the protagonist, bathing the story in mountain music, and putting Hatfield/McCoy-style feuding at the center of conflict, Bledsoe makes something entirely new.

The story concerns Bronwyn Hyatt, a young woman who went into the Army to escape the pressures of a close-knit family, her reputation as a trouble-making girl, and in particular her dangerously wild ex-boyfriend. But now she’s back from Iraq, a war hero with a shattered leg, knowing instinctually that she has to come to grips with her past and find a way to balance her own needs with her family obligation and destiny.

Two outsiders figure prominently. Craig Chess is a young Methodist preacher trying to build a congregation in the midst of people who don’t take to outsiders. There’s chemistry between him and Bronwyn, but that comes with the danger of provoking Duane, the hair-trigger violent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to believe that their relationship is over. Don Swayback is a reporter sent to cover Bronwyn’s return who rediscovers his forgotten family history and his own musical gift.

All of this is set in the mysterious Cloud County, a locale where roads seem to disappear or re-arrange for unwanted strangers. Family traditions run deep, with most divided into one of two feuding camps, united only in their dislike of the outside world. Music lovers will love this world, as the magic is intrinsically connected with its playing.

The story continues in Wisp of a Thing, from 2013, and Long Black Curl, due out this year.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hum and the Shiver

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OracleI knew that Judith Merkle Riley wrote historical fiction with strong female characters and a hint of the occult. These qualities put her on my “to be read” list. But that she had written a novel about “The Affair of the Poisons,” a macabre scandal from the age of Louis XIV, put her on the “move aside, all other books, I must read this immediately” list. What this says about me, I leave to the speculation of the reader.

Geneviève Pasquier, a serious young gentlewoman of the 1600s, isn’t a likely candidate to become a seer. She prefers reading Descartes and the Roman stoics to brewing love potions or telling fortunes. But when an assault forces her from her dysfunctional family home, she is adopted into a shady network of crystal gazers and amateur pharmacists who make their living on the fringes of respectable Paris.

Young Geneviève reinvents herself as the Marquise de Morville, a supposedly-150-year-old widow who stomps about Paris crankily lamenting the good old days of Henri IV and reading her customers’ futures in a basin of water. She refers customers to her colleagues for love spells, beauty elixirs, and other, less savory services–pins in a wax doll, a black mass, or a discreet abortion. Business is good, but her mentor, a Donna Corleone known to history as La Voisin, has ambitions that carry her protégé into dangerous circles, among the cutthroat “gilded wolves” of Versailles and the would-be mistresses of the king.

Geneviève’s visions of the future are the only paranormal aspect to a historical fantasy that is otherwise chockablock with historical detail. Riley is the kind of writer who never refers generically to a “carriage” when she can refer specifically to a sedan chair, a fiacre, or a vinaigrette. While many of the characters are historical, the secondary, fictional characters are equally entertaining. Pages from the ending I was already writing in my head the further adventures of Sophie, the ladies’ maid who conveniently becomes “possessed” by one of the ranking powers of Hell when she doesn’t feel like doing the chores (“Astaroth didn’t like dusting because he refused to bend over”).

This was a great blend of chills, history, and even some romance. For another entertaining police caper in old Paris, you could try Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower. If you’re more interested in history than fiction, don’t miss Anne Somerset’s scholarly-but-dishy The Affair of the Poisonswhich covers this episode specifically, or The Poisoner’s Handbookwhich covers poisoners and their “inheritance powders” in general.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oracle Glass

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HookThere’s nothing so tempting to readers as the opportunity to rewrite the books they enjoy. (Even though sometimes it leads to chaos.) And how meta is it for fictional authors to give happy endings to “flawed classics?”  At their best, authors exploring fictional characters from different points of view–villains reconsidered, offstage characters allowed their own voices, principal characters followed beyond the ends of the original story–increase the reader’s understanding and pleasure in the original book.

If that’s what you’re after, don’t pick up Alias Hook. If you’re interested in a story that recasts the hero in an awful light and turns the two-dimensional villain into a grievously abused victim with a tiny chance at redemption, Alias Hook is a terrific place to go.

Gifted with magic and music, leader of boys who don’t want to grow up, recruiter of girls who take all responsibility until they ask too much, what character better represents eternal boyhood than Peter Pan? At least that’s the Pan that Hook cannot escape, despite trying for 300 years. This Pan is competitive, but only on his own rules, (which include keeping Hook alive while allowing the Lost Boys to kill his crew), controlling the environment to his own advantage, and of course ruling the Indians and mermaids that live in Neverland at his pleasure.

Granted, Hook is not that nice a guy–the spoiled rich son of a merchant, he became a privateer in the 1680’s and was imprisoned as a pirate by the French enemy. Released into the poverty and bitterness, his hatred took him on a path that led him to Neverland. He still dresses as the Restoration dandy he was, but underneath all that lace and rich cloth, he longs for redemption and an end to his captivity. With the arrival of Stella Parrish–a WOMAN! in NEVERLAND!–he may just achieve that.

Jensen leads us on a trip through Neverland, including the land of the fairies, the Indian village, and the mysterious path leading to the beautiful loreleis who lure unwary sailors to their death. In each, she shows us a rich and mythical place where wisdom and adulthood are held at bay by the mercurial boy. It is plain early on that Hook (and just how did he lose that hand?) must forge his own destiny and find a way to escape Pan’s world; but how? The answer is as simple and as mythical as it is emotionally rewarding.

Check the WRL catalog for Alias Hook

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Jackaby“You have been in the Ukraine, I perceive.”

In this young adult mystery, Abigail Rook, a young woman recently arrived in New England in 1892, apprentices herself to a detective of the supernatural. Author William Ritter owes a double thanks to the cover artist, for the gorgeously eerie book jacket, and to the publicist who decided to market the book as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes.”

The character of R. F. Jackaby deliberately evokes Conan Doyle’s detective, if Watson had ever been turned into a duck. (Jackaby’s previous assistant is “temporarily waterfowl.”) Aloof, inscrutable, and garbed like an eccentric in a wild hat and scarf, Jackaby sweeps around the city of New Fiddleham dealing with the domovyk, kobold, or pixies that the police force overlook. The police may not be fond of him, but his esoteric skills and bottomless pockets full of tuning forks and gizmos for spying the unworldly make him an invaluable asset when a serial murderer preying on the city seems to be not a man, but a monster.

Narrator Abigail is resourceful, a paleontologist’s daughter who took off to see more of the world than her staid English upbringing could show her. She quickly adjusts to sharing her living quarters with a ghost, not to mention to encounters with bridge trolls and a perfectly chilling banshee. Like any good Watson, she grounds her employer in the mundane world, noticing the overlooked details and trying to be as helpful as one can be when one’s boss is dogged by unsettling paranormal occurrences and doesn’t know how to give a straight answer to a question:

“How many people have you got living here?….”

“Well… that depends on your definition of people… and also of living.”

I’m honestly not sure why the novel is set in America, as its inspirations are so very British, and the humor has a decidedly English twist, a reined-in Douglas Adams voice: “Across town, Mr. Henderson–the man who had heard the banshee’s silent scream—spent the evening dying. To be more accurate, he spent a very brief portion of the evening dying, and the rest of it being dead.”

Quirky and occasionally touching, this is a promising start to a series with spooks and derring-do that should appeal to fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Company.

Check the WRL catalog for Jackaby.

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enchantedI’ll end the week with an entertaining retelling of the Frog Prince fairytale.

You know the story, right? A lovely girl befriends a frog.  She kisses the frog; he turns into a prince; and they all live happily ever after.

Not in this version. Yes, the beautiful and smart girl, Sunday Woodcutter, meets a talking frog by a pond in the woods.  They become friends.  And yes, she kisses him to see what would happen.  Hours later, when the frog finally turns into a man, Rumbold realizes he is the one person Sunday would never want to see again.  He is the Crown Prince of Arilland, the man responsible for her beloved brother’s death.

Prince Rumbold can’t stop thinking about Sunday, though.  He decides to hold three balls and invite all the women in the country to attend so he has a chance to woo Sunday as a man.  But the balls don’t go exactly as planned.  Spells and secrets need to be revealed before the story can end in the expected happily ever after.

The author cleverly weaves glimpses of other fairy tales throughout the book–one sister has a story similar to Cinderella, another tragically dies from magical dancing shoes, her brother trades a cow for some beans, and there is a giant–it was worth turning the pages just to see who would turn up next and how the “real” story would unfold.

Kontis has written a second in the Woodcutter sisters series, Hero, about the adventures of Saturday.  I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in this delightful, magical world.

Check the WRL catalog for Enchanted

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