“Pirate Cinema” by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, 2012)

Pirate Cinema
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After the success of Little Brother and For the Win, bestselling author Cory Doctorow returns with another young adult novel about an oppressed youth who is looking to change the world for the better in an uncertain near future.  This time Doctorow jumps across the pond to Britain, where he spends a good portion of his time, and writes about the subject of internet piracy.

In a near future, Trent McCauley is a smart sixteen year-old who does his school work but spends most of his time downloading videos of a fictitious celebrity and creating vids about him using clips from all the movies the person has been in, telling a specific story, usually played to music.  He has a lot of fun doing it and there’s definitely an artwork and talent to it.  Then the internet is cut off in the household under the recent law for internet piracy, and the family is now severed from the internet at home for a whole year; which is really important.  Trent’s sister needs it to do all her school work, she simply won’t pass her classes without it; his mother needs it to get support for her medical condition; and his father needs it because he’s unemployed, and needs to claim his unemployment checks, as well as look for jobs.  It puts the family in a dire situation, with Trent feeling really guilty about the whole thing.

So he does what any teenager would logically do: he runs away from home.  He arrives in London with high hopes of living on the street, which are soon dashed when his belongings are stolen and he finds himself hungry and terribly alone, and wondering if he’s made a terrible mistake.  But he soon makes some new friends who show him the ropes and how to get by pretty easily in London, eventually leading them to squat in an abandoned pub, where they get the power back on, the internet going, and life begins to go pretty well.

Their goal is to have lots of movie viewing parties via a secret internet website that gets people together, to support the vid-making industry and create awareness about what they’re doing and why it isn’t wrong and shouldn’t be illegal.  They’re also looking to fight back against the passing of a recent law in Parliament that is now imprisoning teenagers and children for internet piracy.  Their numbers begin to grow, and gain support; the question is how they are going to make this change happen, without coming off as a radical group of homeless people.

Pirate Cinema feels a lot like the British version of Little Brother, as Doctorow has done his work with how the government works and how the internet is used and perceived in Britain.  He even goes so far as to use a British vernacular, with plenty of slang thrown in.  The weakness of the book is in the conflicts and issues the main character has to deal with.  Trent definitely gets himself into some direct situations and problems, but they’re never really that hard or tough, and he always gets out of it real easy.  It still makes for an enjoyable story that is lacking in potential dramatic tension.  Readers — especially teens — will nevertheless enjoy the book for what it’s trying to do.

Originally written on December 5, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy” by Helen Hollick (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009)

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Originally published in Britain during the early 1990s, The Kingmaking is the first book in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy from British author Helen Hollick.  With the tagline “a novel of Arthur as he really was,” Hollick certainly does her research in bringing to life the possible idea of a war king known as Arthur that would grow to become the magical, immortal legend.

The Arthurian legend is an interesting one that has seen and continues to see countless retellings, due to the fact that there is very little evidence proving the existence of a warrior king known as Arthur; mentions of Merlin and Guenevere are even rarer, while Lancelot is a complete fabrication by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century.  What is known is that the fifth century was a very turbulent time for Britain with the desertion by Rome and its forces; the invasion of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes; and the invading forces of the Scots and Picts from Ireland and Scotland respectively.  Britain was a melting pot of different peoples, and the Britons were left wondering what to do after being supported and protected for so long by the Romans.  It was in this time – it is thought — at the dawn of the Middle Ages, that a warrior king arose to defend the Britons and lead them to defending their country.

Hollick uses Wales as her setting for Arthur and his people, using Welsh names like Gwenhwyfar (for Guenevere), Cunedda (for Gwenhwyfar’s father), and Uthr (for rightful king of Britain and father to Arthur).  While Camelot is thought to be located near Glastonbury and Tintagel is to be found in Cornwall, with the invading forces pushing the Britons back, Wales was a very likely location for Arthur and his people.  Hollick also uses characters who were known to exist, like Vortigern who supposedly ruled the Britons for some time and was purportedly the one to invite the Germanic forces from the mainland to defend the Britons against the Scots and Picts.  There is Hengest and Horsa, the ruthless Saxon Brothers, Hengest’s daughter Rowena, as well as some of Vortigern’s own offspring, Vortimer, Catigern, and his daughter Winifred.

Hollick writes of a world and life that is becoming somewhat familiar, with the growing genre of medieval historical fiction, joining other epic novels like Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and Cathedral of the Sea.  These are not the romanticized and glamorous characters of Chrétien de Troyes, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, or the famous musical Camelot.  It is a cold, harsh world, where much blood is shed and many die.  Hollick does a wonderful job of balancing the narrative with the different characters, and not just keeping it to one person as is common in other Arthurian sagas.  She also maintains the historical accuracy, using the tools and the skills that existed in the world of the fifth century, and yet making The Kingmaking a fast-paced, action-packed start to one of the best Arthurian series to be written.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 30th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Victory of Eagles” by Naomi Novik (Del Rey, 2008)

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Bestselling author Naomi Novik returns with the fifth book in her Temeraire series which has since been optioned by Peter Jackson – Victory of Eagles, where the war is not going so well for Britain, as Napoleon lands on her shores with his army of men and dragons fighting for his empire.

Temeraire is uncertain of the fate of his master and dearly close friend, Captain Laurence, after the events of Empire of Ivory, Laurence now finds himself sentenced a traitor and awaiting execution.  Relieved of service and residing in some breeding grounds in Wales, Temeraire must battle great odds to defy the military conduct, find, and rescue Laurence.  In his journey, Temeraire gains some allies and begins a small army of his own, composed solely of dragons and no commanders, who fight by their own code and conduct.  Eventually joining the British force against Napoleon, Temeraire demands pay and rights for the dragons, equal to those given to any member of His Majesty’s service.   It is up to Temeraire and his army to first find Laurence and then to help defend Britain again Napoleon’s invading forces, or all may be lost.

Victory of Eagles is a stunning addition to the series that adds new elements and subplots, making the continuing story more interesting and riveting.  Like the others, Victory of Eagles leaves readers hungrily waiting for more.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 2nd 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Eagle: The Concluding Volume of the Camulod Chronicles” by Jack Whyte (Forge, 2006)

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Jack Whyte has come a very long way from the crumbling empire of Rome many generations ago to the man known as Riothamus – Arthur.  In this ninth concluding book in the series, we finally get the full story of Arthur’s life, and what makes this series interesting is that while our hero is obvious, in the context of the series, he is but one of the many players on the stage of early medieval Britain.  This is what Whyte is saying with this series: that it’s not about specific individuals, but – as is the case with all history – it is a series of events over hundreds of years that lead to the establishment of Britain as a country, putting itself back together as a sovereign nation after its abandonment by Rome.

Continuing on from the Lance Thrower, our narrator is Clothar, known as “Lance” by his friends because of his skilled ability to throw lances with precision at the enemy – a feat no other man, not even Arthur, can master.  In the first part of the book, Arthur forms his knights – a term taken from the Roman élite, all with their own specifically designed swords in the form of Excalibur.  The knights are addressed by the term “seur” from a Frankish term meaning one of noble or high stature.  Whyte is impressive in his interweaving of parts of the Arthurian legend and fitting them in a realistic setting in fifth century Britain.  In the second part of The Eagle, it is learned that the girl who Arthur considered his soul mate in the Lance Thrower was in fact his sister and that an act of naïve incest was committed.  At the same time, Clothar has his own personal problems to deal with in falling in love with a woman who is to be married.  After a long night of sharing their love, they must accept their fate and go their separate ways.  In the final part of the book, Clothar must go with Arthur’s élite cavalry to Gaul where he will train thousands more men both to establish the authority of Arthur and his cavalry, as well as to prepare for any invading forces.  Word has begun to spread of these invading peoples from the distant east known as Huns, led by a man known as Attila.

While the fate of Gaul with the invading Huns is never fully revealed, the book ends, naturally, with Arthur’s death from a wound in battle, while his son Mordred is next in line to rule.  The book ends without any great summation of the mighty ruler known as Arthur who united Britain and made it a nation to be reckoned with, but tapering out like a long burning candle.  Whyte’s point here is that the saga of Camulod is over, its characters now all dead, but they have done much to change Britain from the abandoned land after the fall of Rome.  Their part is complete, and it will be up to other people, other kings, and other rulers to continue making Britain into a great nation.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 5th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Lords of the North” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2007)

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In Lords of the North (coming January 23rd), the wonderful writer of great historical periods and characters brings us the third in his increasingly popular Saxon Chronicles series, as he tells the story of King Alfred the Great’s life and his work in unifying the many kingdoms into the country we know today as England.

We continue with our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who has just helped Alfred save and maintain control over the land of Wessex, therefore preventing the complete invasion by the Danes.  Angered with Alfred’s piousness and making every decision according to God, Uhtred flees north to Northumbria, still hoping one day to defeat his uncle and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.  It is here that he meets old Danish friends and before he realizes what’s going on, a deal has been brokered to maintain peace in Northumbria in return for Uhtred’s enslavement.  Without his blood-stained blade – Serpent-Breath – the many lords of the region are happy to get rid of this formidable warrior.

Uhtred, stripped of his title and power, then spends most of the book suffering abuse and torture as a slave on a trading vessel traveling along the Flemish coast, and back and forth between Britain and the mainland.  On a number of occasions they face off again this “red ship” that is a trader like them.  Upon returning to the original place where Uhtred was sold – so that more slaves can be bought – the red ship appears out of nowhere and beaches the shore.  Foreign Danes stream out and Uhtred soon finds himself face to face with an even older friend who raised him.

Eventually he discovers that it is thanks to Alfred’s help that he has received his emancipation.  With his title, weapons, and armor restored, along with more allies from the south forming a considerable army, they set out to defeat these lesser heathen lords and regain control of the kingdom of Northumbria.  The book ends with the reader contemplating what is next for Uhtred in the further Saxon Chronicles: Will he regain control of his land?  Will he remain a lone pagan among the many determined Christians?  Sadly, we will have to wait another whole year before we can read more about Uhtred of Bebbanburg, slayer of the great Ubba Lothbrokson, and his adventures with the pious Alfred the Great.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 9th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“The Pale Horseman” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2006)

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In The Pale Horseman (sequel to The Last Kingdom), Bernard Cornwell surges on with his series on the life of Alfred the Great, but not simply with a furthering of the plot, but some clear development in both story, character, and the whole point Cornwell is trying to make with this series.

In Pale Horseman we now learn that our hero from the last book, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, while just as skilled in his knowledge of languages, way with words, as well as his ability with his trusty sword – Serpent-breath – is actually not that great of a guy.   When he has to spend time at home with his child and pious wife who wants him to be a good Christian, he treats them with disdain and instead goes off with his buddies on one of Alfred’s ships, kills a lot of people, and steals considerable amounts of wealth, as well as kidnapping his very own pagan sorceress.  While the pathetic excuse for this case can be made that “it’s what men did back then,” I find it an admirable move by Cornwell to make the protagonist out to be a character that most would find at the least disreputable.  But ultimately these facets of Uhtred’s character only serve to make him more believable, which is certainly a critique of the characters in Cornwell’s other works.

At the same time, he magnificently captures the feel of the period.  Here you have the Saxons trying to defend their country (which they invaded just four hundred years before and occupied) against the Vikings and Danes who all but succeed in their conquering of Britain.  Cornwell even goes on to say in his elucidating “author’s note” that if it weren’t for Alfred’s decision, when all seemed lost, to still fight back and win, that Cornwell would be telling this story in Danish.  Whether you’re a Saxon, a Viking, or a Briton; identity was something both questioned and sought after in this melting pot of a country.  Cornwell cleverly reveals this with Uhtred’s ability to speak many languages, as well as being often thought a Viking or a Briton, but not a Saxon, which he considers himself.

At the end when all that remains of Saxon Britain is a small area of marsh in Wessex, Alfred unites his people who band together from all areas of the surrounding country, and manages to defeat and push the Vikings out of his land, making Wessex the one strong remaining Saxon place left in all Britain.  It was with this victory that Alfred earned the title “great.”  The book ends with the future knowledge and hope that Alfred the Great will begin taking back the rest of Britain and pushing the Vikings out for good.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 6th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.