“King Raven” by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson, 2011)

King Raven
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Stephen R. Lawhead’s Robin Hood trilogy – Hood (2006), Scarlet (2007), and Tuck (2009) – received much acclaim and became big bestsellers when they were released, as he presented one of the more complete and superior epic tales of this forest hero and his band of merry men.  In 2011, for those looking to read the trilogy for the first time, or for those hardcore fans, Thomas Nelson released all three books in a single mighty volume, allowing readers to put it up on their shelf next to their copies of The Once and Future King and The Lord of the Rings.

Bran ap Brychan doesn’t really know if he ever wants to be king, but his father is a poor king who doesn’t treat his subjects of Elfael as well as he should perhaps, but Bran doesn’t really know what he wants to be.  Then all that changes when a group of Normans invade the Welsh kingdom and his father is killed, making Bran the automatic heir.  Except the Normans seize the kingdom, awarding it to a bishop and care little for Bran and his supposed claim to this throne.  And so begins Bran’s adventure, as he brings together a band of merry men to go see King William and wrest back his kingdom.  Thwarted in London, he is told he can have his kingdom back for a ridiculously high amount of money.  So Bran sets about getting the money the only way he knows how: from those cursed Normans who stole his land, as well as making sure his people are treated right and well.

Stephen Lawhead presents the first of his impressive trilogy on Robin Hood in Hood, explaining his detailed research in the afterword, and pointing out the unlikelihood of this character living in the thirteenth century in Sherwood Forest and going against King John.  Lawhead posits Robin Hood living in the late eleventh century in the time of William the Conqueror and his overtaking of Britain with his Normans.  Bran is a Welshman, and the Normans cared little for this distant part of Britain, except when they wanted to make it their own.  It makes perfect sense that a man out of legend would rise up to help the people against these dastardly Normans.  Lawhead also pulls from Celtic mythology to blend this story that might well have been, seamlessly.  He also does a great job of playing on the many fabled stories and clichés everyone knows about Robin Hood, though tweaking them a little to make them all the more entertaining.  Hood is a great and riveting work of historical fiction that will have any fan of the genre hooked.

In Scarlet, the book opens with the framing tale of Scarlet, who is in prison and sentenced to be hanged.  In the brief time before his execution, Scarlet tells his story of losing everything and becoming a forester when he meets this King Raven.  At first challenged to an archery contest, he reveals his extreme skill, rivaling that of King Raven, better known as Bran, and soon becomes a valuable member of his “merry men.”  But Bran needs a skilled warrior like Scarlet to fight back against these Normans steadily taking control of Wales, as William the Red doles out more land to his cutthroat barons.  The book comes to its climax as Scarlet must choose whether to be executed, or to give up the secret location of King Raven and his men.

In the conclusion to the trilogy, Tuck, told from the viewpoint of the redoubtable friar, it seems the Normans simply won’t give up, and King Raven, also known as Rhi Bran Hood to the people of Wales, must muster not only his skilled foresters, but incite an entire revolt from his people, based mainly in his kingdom of Elfael.  With the treacherous Abbot Hugo and the evil and bloodthirsty Sheriff de Glanville, it will take everyone working together to bring these Normans to their knees once and for all and send the firm message to King William the Red that King Raven and his Welshmen will not be crushed.

Lawhead rounds out the trilogy in a great way, bringing it all to a satisfying close, but still with plenty of action and subplots and complex goings on.  Again blending the history with the Welsh mythology, it is a very enjoyable read seen through the eyes of a new character.  And the King Raven tome allows readers to enjoy the complete saga in one big book and perhaps one very long sitting (though I wouldn’t recommend it), as well as featuring a sample of one of Lawhead’s other books, The Skin Map.

Originally written on March 13, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Vortex” by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2011)

Vortex
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Robert Charles Wilson returns with the thrilling conclusion to his trilogy that began with Spin and Axis, in Vortex.  Like the previous sequel, this one begins with something completely new and different from the other novels, immediately hooking in the reader, though this time Wilson provides a familiar face, Turk Findley, to guide the reader along.

Through the power of the enigmatic beings known as the Hypotheticals, Turk has been transported ten thousand years into the future, along with the unique character of Isaac Dvali, who was created as a conduit to the Hypotheticals.  They find themselves joining with a population known as the Vox, who travel on a massive island that is the size of a continent.  The Vox have been traveling for centuries through the arches to different worlds.  They know that the world known as Earth, which is now in ruin and degradation, but it is the place where they hope to finally face and commune with the Hypotheticals.

The strange twist to this is that this story of Findley, Isaac and the Vox is being told through the journal writings of a troubled man known as Orin Mather, ten thousand years in the past (set in the world and time of Spin), who is being helped by a psychiatrist, Sandra Cole, as well as a cop, Bose.  They’re all trying to deal with this story set in the distant future and decide whether it’s true or a work of fantastic fiction.

Readers of the trilogy may not get all the resolution they expect, especially not if they’re wondering what happened to certain characters in Spin, or why things are happening the way they are and at this time, i.e. why the Hypotheticals are doing this?  However, readers will be completely hooked by the great storytelling and full and developed characters that are all trying to understand the big why of it all, just like the reader.  And it is really only at the very end of Vortex that readers get the full answers they’ve been patiently waiting for since the stars blacked out and disappeared long ago in Spin.

Originally written on September 21, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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You might also like . . .

Spin    Axis    Chronoliths

“Amulet of Samarkand” & “Golem’s Eye” by Jonathan Stroud (Disney, 2003 & 2004)

Amulet of Samarkandstarstarstarstar

So I met Jonathan Stroud last Friday, author of the Bartimaeus triology, of which the first two are out: “The Amulet of Samarkand” and “The Golem’s Eye.” He came to the bookstore I work at in Petaluma, Copperfield’s, and was pretty entertaining. He was the classic English guy writing about a doomed England of magic and magicians and the regular people known as “commoners”: average English accent from near London area with some clipped Cockney when speaking, but when reading clear, upper class southern England accent; a very ordinary looking guy in a t-shirt and slacks, totally unassuming and seemingly unaware that he’s a big famous author who’s growing and growing in notoriety.
I was talking to him about how I really liked that in his fantasy books involving magicians being separate and higher in social stature than ordinary people like you and me, Stroud pays more attention to what is happening socially with the paradigm, than just telling a story about a hot-shot wizard doing great things. And he seemed happy to know that I had spotted this in his books. That they took a different direction to most of the kids fantasy books out today involving the Harry Potter character, which has now practically become an archetype.

In the world of the Bartimaeus trilogy, magicians don’t actually have that much power. They have all their control and magic from summoning djinn from another world and using them to do magical things, and all the summoning of imps, djinn, and higher level afrits is done through reading incantations from books. So in this world, the magicians really don’t have that much power. Yet the magicians control the entire government from Parliament to the prime minister.

And then you have the ordinary people, the “commoners” who are a subjugated people who work in factories and any and all jobs that involve labor. And are meek and always do as they are told, and it comes off as an almost Orwellian dystopia. Except there are a few that somehow possess some ability to take attacks from magicians and djinn and not be killed by them and that they are able to see on multiple planes. There are seven planes, humans can only see on the first, and magicians with the aid of lenses can see the first three, while the djinn and afrits are on all seven planes. And this group is known as the “Resistance,” as they try to overthrow the magicians and take back control of the country.

And then there’s the nebulous rest of Europe in which you have the east consisting mainly of the Czechs who are warring against the English and have been for a long time, but are now at truce.

So it’s a very interesting world with lots going on instead of just some tough wizard kid fighting a bad guy. I recommend it to all who want to read a different kind of fantasy.

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Originally written on September 28th, 2004 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Color of Heaven” by Kim Dong Hwa (Pantheon, 2009)

Color of Heavenstarstarstar

In this concluding volume to the Color of Earth trilogy, Kim Dong Hwa takes the relationship between Ehwa and her mother to a new level, for the little girl is now seventeen and a blossoming woman.  The women find they have more in common than they thought, as they wait and yearn for their lovers who are far away, wondering when they will return.  Nevertheless, Ehwa still has some crucial lessons to learn from her parent.  But Hwa must bring the series to a close, and he does so with Ehwa’s betrothal to Duksam, and their beautiful wedding.  Her mother says goodbye to the daughter she’s had in her home for so long, and while her lover now returns to her for good, she finds herself once again looking out from her home, waiting, this time for the return of her daughter who she now misses greatly.  Kim Dong Hwa’s artwork and scenery continue to astound, while The Color of Heaven does an incredible job of revealing facets of Korean culture rendered in such a beautiful way.

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Originally written on August 8th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“The Color of Water” by Kim Dong Hwa (Pantheon, 2009)

Color of Waterstarstarstar

In the second book of the trilogy, The Color of Water, after The Color of Earth, Ehwa is now a growing girl and boys are on her mind all the time, but readers can see the beautiful woman she will become.  And yet she still has a lot to learn about life, the world, and more importantly, men and what they can be like.  Fortunately she has her mother to educate her on the ways of the world and the ways of men and their desires.  Ehwa is a naïve young girl, but a fast learner.  With the expression “third time’s the charm,” Ehwa has high hopes for this third, new boy in her life, Duksam.  Friction grows between Ehwa and her mother, as the girl is always wanting to go out and find Duksam, while ignoring her duties and chores.  Ehwa has also attracted the eye of an old man who will do everything he can to get her.  There is also jealousy growing between Ehwa and her mother, who receives infrequent visits from her “picture man.”  Kim Dong Hwa continues his beautiful artwork and wonderful poetic words that combine simile through nature to educate Ehwa and readers about love and life.  Readers will be left anxiously waiting for the conclusion of the trilogy, The Color of Heaven.

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Originally written on July 18th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“The Color of Earth” by Dong Hwa Kim (First Second, 2009)

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The first in a trilogy, the graphic novel The Color of Earth is now available to English-speaking (and reading) audiences for the first time.  While author and artist, Dong Hwa Kim, has published a number of graphic novels – or manwha as they are called in Korea – like My Sky and The Red Bicycle, this trilogy represents a new foray for him.  Ehwa is a young girl who doesn’t have a father, and her only role model is a single mother who is mocked by men at the local tavern she owns and runs.  In her early years, Ehwa looks down on her mother for allowing men to treat her this way, but as she grows into womanhood and becomes interested in boys, she begins to understand more.  Her mother knows that the men are harmless, but when they go too far, she is quick to stop them or at least stick up for herself.  The Color of Earth explores Ehwa becoming a teenager and her first simple relationships with boys, as well as her mother finding a new love in her life.  The trilogy is continued in The Color of Water, and has become a bestseller in Korea among both men and women, for Kim has a talent in telling a beautiful story, but also for getting to the heart of humanity.  It is a story that will grow on you and become a classic like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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

Originally written on June 18th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Green” by Jay Lake (Tor, 2009)

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From the  author of Escapement and Mainspring comes something totally different. Green is clearly a novel that Jay Lake has put a lot of heart and soul into, with carefully chosen wordings and phrasings, along with a unique story.  The first in a trilogy, Green is a book that will be a welcoming read to those who’ve ever felt they didn’t belong and will be an eye-opener for those who’ve never experienced this.

Green is a girl sold by her father at a very young age and stolen from the simple world she has known and forced into a form of servitude and training.  While she doesn’t know what she is being trained for at first, it is grueling, abusive, forcing her to lock away the simple memories of her father and home for protection.  Her training ranges from cooking and the making of clothes, to the martial arts and the use of weapons.  She soon knows she has few friends in this harsh world.  Eventually she will be sold from the Pomegranate Court to become a concubine to some man she’s never met, under the orders of the Duke.

Named Emerald at the end of her training and the arrival of her “monthly courses,” she proclaims herself Green, killing the mistress who beat her for years, and escaping the confines of the court, leaving the town of Copper Downs, and fleeing back to her home, hoping for love, respect, and a place to belong.  There she finds a father who doesn’t remember her, and the ox Endurance – her symbol of survival – a withered, dying animal.  Fate takes her back to Copper Downs, now a trained assassin, she becomes wrapped up in the political intrigue, becoming a formidable adversary to anyone stepping in her path.

A fantasy world with an oriental flavor that has gods and goddesses who are real and live with us, but at the same time are not infallible.  Lake also introduces unusual creatures who live among the peoples and proudly crosses the “bestiality” line much as he did in Mainspring, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Lake should be somewhat applauded for doing this with a character who has never belonged or fitted in anywhere.

Green is a book with poetical lines and paragraphs that make the reader take their time.  This may force some to give up, but the result by the end of the book is a magical tale that is well worth the read from cover to cover.

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Originally written on August 28th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (William Morrow, 2009)

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From authors Guillermo del Toro, who needs no introduction except for maybe two words – Pan’s Labyrinth, and maybe two more, The Hobbit, and Chuck Hogan, of  Prince of Thieves and The Standoff, comes the first book in a trilogy about vampires of a different variety coming to take over the world.  In a horror-thriller that is a combination of classic Michael Crichton with some War of the Worlds and a foundation of Dracula, The Strain is a fast-paced book you’ll be tearing through from cover to cover, and then feeling sad it’s all over and having to wait for the sequel; while in the back of your mind you’ll be wondering what the movie will be like.

A Boeing 777 is scheduled to land at JFK; it touches down according to plan and as it begins taxiing to the terminal it suddenly shuts down, all lights go out, no communication coming from the plane.  When the authorities reach the 777 to investigate, they find all the window shades closed, the engines turned off, and no sign of activity.  Opening the emergency exit over the wing, they find all the passengers sitting peacefully in their seats, appearing dead.  The Canary Project, a rapid-response biological hazard team under the CDC is mobilized, headed by Dr. Eph Goodweather to investigate.  There are a couple of survivors who are rushed to hospital, the rest taken to the morgue.

As Goodweather slowly begins putting the pieces together, the pale corpses in the morgue come to life and return to their homes, infecting others, increasing the number of vampires exponentially.  The biology of these vampires involves a retractable stinger that elongates the mouth and launches with rapid speed at the victim.  A former professor, Abraham Setrakian, who knew this day would come, joins forces with Goodweather to try and stop this growing army of vampires.  Otherwise they’ll take Manhattan within a week, the country within a month, and the world in two months.

Del Toro and Hogan have created a unique war here in the humans vs.  vampires, as these vampires are akin to the zombies of 28 Days Later: seemingly unstoppable and outright terrifying.  The Strain will keep readers on the edge of their seats and wanting more.

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

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

“The Road to Jersualem” by Jan Guillou (Harpercollins, 2009)

Road to Jersualemstarstarstar

As a medieval historian and a big fan of historical fiction, family members from Sweden have been telling me for years to learn some Swedish so I can enjoy the fabulous bestselling Crusades Trilogy from Swedish author Jan Guillou.  I still have yet to improve my language beyond basic Swedish, fortunately this isn’t a problem anymore.  The first book in the trilogy, The Road to Jerusalem, which has done very well in Europe also, is now available in English to American readers.

The title may be somewhat of a misnomer, with an emphasis on “road to,” as the main characters never even make it near to the Holy Land.  However as this is a trilogy, readers know they’ll get there eventually.  In this first book, the year is 1150, and readers are introduced to Arn Magnusson, a boy of noble birth who is sent to a cloister where he learns the ways of the church, as well as some expert training in weaponry and horse riding from a master.  Eventually leaving the cloister, Arn is reunited with his family who, expecting a humble monk, find a powerful but pious warrior.  After committing and being charged with a grave sin, he is forced to become a member of the Knights Templar at the end of the book.

On the surface this seems a simple story, and readers may have a little trouble with the many Swedish names and words (a pronunciation guide would’ve been helpful; fortunately I at least know how to sound those foreign letters: å sounds like “awe,” ä with a soft “e” sound like “egg,” ö and ø [ø is the equivalent in the Norwegian and Danish alphabets] have an “er” sound), but Guillou does an incredible job of analyzing and revealing medieval twelfth-century life in Scandinavia.  In the style of Ken Follett’s  Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, Guillou isn’t obvious and overbearing with the history, but reveals it through plot and story, allowing readers to make deductions for themselves.  And for those who’ve seen the Swedish tre kronor or three crown flag and symbol prevalent throughout Sweden, will have their questions answered in The Road to Jerusalem.

Guillou probably could’ve combined the trilogy into once massive book à la Ken Follett, but instead you have a fun trilogy that begins with a strong foundation and background for those not too familiar with the period and area, continuing in the second book, The Templar Knight, due out May 2010.

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

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