Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Cry Wolf
September 13, 2008, 1024
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Cry WolfFollowing up a novella with a novel continuing the story and managing to hit the NYT Bestseller’s List at the same time is no small feat. That is exactly what Patricia Briggs does in Cry Wolf, the first book in a spin-off series set in the same world as her popular Mercedes Thompson books. Despite the travails of figuring out how to write a novel after a novella, this volume still presents an entertaining story that promises a series with a subtly different and subversive take on the werewolves found so commonly in urban fantasy.

Cry Wolf picks up where “Alpha and Omega” leaves off (you can read it in the collection On the Prowl; see my review here), though gives some small amount of back story. That said, reading the novella first would probably improve perspective on both character development and the unique twists Briggs offers in her heroine, Anna. Anna is an unwilling werewolf recently rescued from an abusive pack by Charles, the son and enforcer of the most powerful alpha werewolf in North America. She must now deal with both her own history, her new relationship with Charles, and being a rare omega werewolf, who tempers the violent natures of dominant wolves. Charles’ serious wounds necessitate her presence to calm him, but soon she finds herself trying to adjust to newfound independence and assisting in Charles’ search for a rogue werewolf in the back country of Montana.

This series in particular edges more into the realm of romantic fiction than the Mercedes Thompson books. We get to see much of Anna and Charles emotional interactions and a chance for some insight into werewolf psyches. Briggs’ writing in this volume places a central focus on character interactions at the beginning of the novel, though begins to slip into a more action-oriented tone towards the latter portion of the book. In fact, the action hits all at once when the characters realise it’s not just a rogue werewolf, but a different brand of ancient evil at the pack’s back door. Though the action struggles to maintain balance with the character depth encountered earlier on, it’s still nothing that upsets the book’s rhythm. The abrupt plot change lacks enough surrounding foreshadowing and lead-in events that it seemed like an easy way to Make Things Happen.

The ending also gave me pause since the post-action wrap up lasts a page and a half, yet several life-altering events occur for Anna. As a reader I felt cheated of the characters’ experiences, and I liken it to reading a series of “begats”from the Bible, where the writing became a list of things that happened next. Despite the sudden change in character importance with suddenly relevant pasts, and having a whirlwind ending, Cry Wolf remains a satisfying read.

Even with these faults Cry Wolf stands out since Patricia Briggs brings deeper themes to the table, infusing Anna and Charles’ story with meaning beyond themselves. Though certainly not all, a large chunk of urban fantasy on the shelves seems designed mostly for action and character entanglements, but lacks a means to connect to readers on a more intimate level. This is where Briggs’ writing excelled for me, more so than any of the Mercy Thompson books.

One of the themes in the book is acceptance and negotiation; of the self, of others, and of events. Werewolves must reach some sort of acceptance after experiencing the change in order to negotiate co-existence between their human and their “wolf” sides. While this creates a dichotomy between human and wolf (and the natural, or arguably the supernatural), the importance of merging these separate aspects resonated with me. And just as these two inner aspects must balance out, so must the social roles of werewolves–dominants and submissives. However, using the idea of alphas and omegas in hand with the socio-political pack structure allows Briggs to create that same brand of negotiation found on an individual psychological level. This draws the individual and the societal together in order to create links between characters and their social setting through deft structure in the story, and creates a greater sense of the importance of pack life.

While Cry Wolf isn’t a perfect book (what book is?) its faults were obscured by the emotional impact and meaning present in the story itself. Any writer can put together a werewolf story, but not that many of them can do it in a way that makes you suspend disbelief with ease and become truly involved with the characters. Patricia Briggs does it, and does it well. Now comes the hard part: waiting for the sequel.

Briggs, Patricia. Cry Wolf. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 294 pages. $8.99 (Canadian), paperback.

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Watchtower
February 24, 2008, 1801
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

WatchtowerBeing one of those authors who pops in and out of the publishing world, Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books can be hard to find. I first discovered her with Dragon’s Winter, published in 1998, and spent many years thereafter trying to search out anything by her that I could. What I didn’t know was Dragon’s Winter was a massive accomplishment for her. In the early eighties, Lynn suffered from severe writer’s block–she did not begin writing again until the mid nineties. Sometimes shelf space is a losing battle when an author doesn’t keep writing and her books don’t stay in print. In any case, I managed to find the entire Chronicles of Tornor at a book sale earlier this month and grabbed them up, fast as I could.

Watchtower is the first book in the Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, and Lynn’s second published novel. The story starts with Tornor Keep’s defeat from a southern army: Prince Errel is held hostage as the conquering lord’s jester so Ryke, Tornor’s defeated commander, will cooperate as a commanding officer for his new lord. The southern lord’s army has been pressing north in a winter battle, taking the keeps as they move through the mountains. When two messengers from the Green Clan bear a request for a treaty from the neighbouring keep, the prince secretly sends his commander to ask for the messengers’ aid in escaping the fallen keep. This eventually results in a journey to Vanima, a town of revolutionaries hidden in the mountains, and a plan to recapture Tornor.

Themes of societal change, gender and sexual identity, and questioning whether violence and war are acceptable practices permeate Watchtower. Elizabeth A. Lynn was one of the first fantasy and science fiction writers to explore GLBT themes, and this book antes up. The messengers are women who dress androgynously outside of Vanima, and fled their past lives to remain in a long-term relationship. Ryke tends toward the stubborn, and does not welcome change, remaining steadfastly loyal to Prince Errel and Tornor itself. He serves as a foil to Errel, often providing a conservative viewpoint and remains uncomfortable with life in Vanima even as he questions his own society throughout the book. It can be argued that Ryke falls in love with Errel over the course of the book, but there is no explicit mention of this.

Vanima itself has a non-hierarchical social structure with a communal economy. The entire community works together and learns chearis together, an oft nonviolent dance-like form of combat which is very much like aikido (not surprisingly, Lynn is a 6th dan aikido instructor). This is a strong contrast to Tornor, which has strictly defined sexual roles, a strong idea of us versus “the other”, and a distinct hierarchy devoted to warfare. Through Ryke, we experience his eventual horror and disgust with the violence of warfare and its consequences. Even more horrific is his acceptance at one point that sexual assault cannot even really be considered rape when done as a part of war.

Lynn’s writing reminds me of studying translated Icelandic sagas–the details are important. Characters show their inner thoughts and emotions through actions, and the book lacks descriptions of internal dialogue. However, the sparseness can be problematic and sometimes conceals characters more than revealing. Some passages depicting daily life in Vanima and in the resolution of the story near the end of the book come off as being prescriptive more so than descriptive, and this interferes with the “fourth wall” of the novel and contributes to breaking down the reader’s sense of wonder. A large part of the book is spent in travel of one sort or another, which can be seen as symbolic for the inner paradigm shift–most notably in Ryke.

Overall, Watchtower serves as an entry point to a world in the midst of upheaval. I suspect Watchtower was awarded the World Fantasy Award in 1980 for the intellectual exercise Elizabeth A. Lynn showcases in the novel more so than her prose. However much I like the simple phrasing of Lynn’s writing, it doesn’t negate the tenuous nature of our connection to her characters and world-building. More depth is required for a truly engaging read, but the book remains enjoyable and raises some important questions that remain relevant today.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. Watchtower. 1979. New York: Berkeley Books, 1981. 226 pages. $0.75 (Canadian), bought used.



Shadow Unit & Other Stuff
February 19, 2008, 2043
Filed under: news | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Unfortunately I’m a little under the weather today, but I’ve got a review of Emma Bull’s Territory in the works, and a couple others. Here are some interesting things to check out in the meantime:

Emma Bull & co. have started a fanfic site for a TV show that… doesn’t exist? It’s called Shadow Unit, and the first novella by Emma Bull is now up. Other collaborators include Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly. If you’re curious how the idea came about, check here for an explanation.

Did you sign up for the free eBooks from Tor yet? Apparently the site will also have social networking, and potential to purchase original short fiction from writers, accompanied by original artwork. I’m curious to see how Tor works the site, and what kinds of costs will be associated with the for-purchase items… See info at Bloggasm. (Thanks for passing this on to me, Flaede!)

Mike Shepherd now has contracts for books #7-9 in the Kris Longknife series, which I suppose must be selling well given the sheer number of books due to populate the series. I’m really hoping the next book takes the series somewhere new, and it’s nice to see that if it’s good, it’ll at least be three more books of good. This news amongst other book wheelings and dealings at The Swivet.

Last but not least, please check out Grasping for the Wind for more book review love–if you haven’t already. Its proprietor has been lovely enough to urge visitors to come and visit, which is very kind and much appreciated.



Kris Longknife: Audacious
February 3, 2008, 0021
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Audacious

Mike Shepherd (aka Mike Moscoe) wrote the first Kris Longknife book in 2004 and since then put out 4 more books in the series, culminating in Kris Longknife: Audacious. I was excited to get my hands on this new installment, expecting the action and page-turning nature of the previous entires in the series. I like the Kris Longknife series, and have from the outset. Kris, the central protagonist in the series, is a multi-faceted character as the Princess of Wardhaven and a naval officer trying to cope with the fame of her family. Not something that’s always possible when her family rules her corner of the universe and pulls rank within upper echelons of both family and political realms.

This book in particular explores the conflict between her and her Grandfather Ray (aka The King of Many Planets), who plunks her on a “vacation” on the peaceful and relaxing New Eden. As any astute reader expects New Eden has a few snakes in the garden, to the tune of multiple assassination attempts on Kris as well as civil unrest. And of course, what Kris Longknife book would be complete without more Peterwald family plots? In the first book of the series her interactions with the Peterwalds were questionable, and have only gone downhill from there. The Peterwalds are almost a pleasant and expected villain: they are to Kris as Elmer Fudd is to Bugs Bunny, just with more explosions and less humour. For some reason though, the plot treats the Peterwalds as throwaway villains whose motives are never fully explored.

Mike Shepherd puts a strong emphasis on class differences and freedom of information thematically, but any message is buried in the frequent rah-rah marines-are-gods statements and poor copy editing. I thought perhaps this was an inherent irony, but I suspect not. With Kris’ privileged station in life and her position as a military officer it’s unfortunate the author didn’t give these themes the full attention readers deserve. It took some effort to stay involved in the story because the characters and plot offer little to connect with, which is unusual for this series.

Sadly this book took a well-established series of enjoyable light-hearted sci-fi fluff and turned instead to choppy plotting, cardboard characters, and staid platitudes. And I have to say this: I suspect at least 3 or 4 trained sets of eyes went over the manuscript, yet there were a plethora of errors that made me stop and shout something about every 20 minutes at best (ask my husband–he had to hear about each error). For fans of the series there is light at the end of the tunnel; after a full book of reacting, Kris finally takes some action that may burn some bridges. The concluding chapter offers a promising story arc. So despite my disappointment in this volume, I am optimistic that the next book in the series will move in new directions.

The bottom line: Kris Longknife: Audacious is a passable read if not the gem of the series. I’m hoping this is all just symptomatic of Kris’ growing pains, and Mike Shepherd will make it up to us in the end after such a promising start.

Shepherd, Mike. Kris Longknife: Audacious. New York: Ace Books, 2007.  373 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).