Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Twins Sophie and Josh Newman have managed to get summer jobs in San Francisco just across the road from each other. Sophie is working at a coffee shop and Josh is working in a bookshop owned by Nick and Perry Flemming. Then one afternoon a mysterious group appears at the bookshop and turns John and Sophie's worlds upside down. Nick and Perry are no ordinary people. Nick is none other than the famous 14th century alchemist Nicholas Flamel who is reputed to have discovered the secret of eternal life. Perry is his wife Perenelle, a gifted 14th century sorceress. The mysterious group is determined to wrest the secrets of eternal life from the pair and help the dangerous Dark Elders re-take the world and destroy humankind. When the twins interfere in their plans they are forced to join Nicholas on the run and it soon becomes clear that perhaps their intervention was no accident. Perhaps they are the ones spoken of in prophecy who will save humankind. Find out in this first installment of the 'Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel' series.

Its been some time since I've read a good children's fantasy book that draws on so much history, myth and legend. It is a real treat as I have always loved reading myths and legends and Scott has managed to interweave them into this story so beautifully. There are Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian Gods, Celtic gods, Norse gods, references to Arthurian legend, the Great Fire of London, a famous Elizabethan astrologer and much more besides. It really is a good book if you want to introduce children to a whole host of trivia and expand their knowledge whilst at the same time reading an enjoyable book. It would hopefully lead to them reading greek myths and Arthurian legends :)

The book has a good mix of fantasy, reality (although I do question 15 year olds knowing how to drive and not being stopped by the police....) and adventure. It is very readable and has very good pace. I found it very enjoyable and couldn't put it down.

I would definitely recommend people who like children's fantasy books (like Inkheart or Eragon or Artemis Fowl) to give this a try and I would definitely recommend adults encouraging their kids to read it.

*4 stars*

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Back after a break

Hi everyone

Well I'm back to reading after a break over the summer holidays. I don't know why it happens but I sometimes go through periods where I just don't feel like reading. The up side to this is that when I come back to reading I enjoy it so much that I think that by taking a break it increases my enjoyment.

I've posted the first of two reviews I want to do based on some of the books I've read over the last couple of weeks. Both are fantasy books. Brisingr is the third in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. The Hickory Staff is the first of a series of books by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon called the Eldarn Sequence. This is a similar type of fantasy to Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series, the our world and a fantasy world cross over.

I am going to try and read books other than my staple diet of historical crime fiction and fantasy over the coming months. One of the fans of this blog (you know who you are my friend) has suggested I should try to read some Asian books. Now I don't know if I'll be able to manage this but I have two books I'm intending to try (copies in local library permitting). They are A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Whether this fulfils the request, I don't know but I feel its worth trying new things.

So there you go, all suggestions are welcome and very much appreciated! So feel free to drop me an e-mail or leave a message on this blog :)

I look forward to another good season of reading.

The Hickory Staff: Eldarn Sequence Book 1 by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon

In a sleepy town in Colorado Steven Taylor, assistant bank manager, has been given the thankless task of going through the safety deposit box lists and working out which are live and which have not been touched for years. What he doesn't expect to find is a box that has been left untouched for 135 years, used only once. When Steven's curiosity gets the better of him he finds a way to break into the box, landing him and his house mate Mark into a whole heap of trouble.

Meanwhile, in a land far far away, the royal families across the land of Eldarn are quickly being destroyed by disease, treachery, lunacy and grief. Only one survives and begins a reign of terror across the whole continent that will last centuries. It is the portal to this terrifying dictatorship that Steven manages to find and accidentally falls through along with Mark. Here they meet the local resistance and find themselves caught up in a plot to free all of Eldarn. Can they survive, rescue Eldarn and manage to find a way home? You'll have to read it to find out :)

I do like a good fantasty book. I thought Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind was fantastic but after reading the first 6/7 books in the series got a bit bored with the recycled storyline (boy meets girl, something separates them and they spend the rest of the book trying to be with one another again). I also love kids fantasy like Harry Potter and Eragon. So when I saw this book in the Sci-fi and Fantasy section of Waterstones last year I made a mental note to borrow it from the library sometime and give it a try.

When I first started reading it, I won't lie, I found it hard going. The story kept jumping to different scenes in different places at different times. The story seems to lack any cohesion until you get to about 70 to 100 pages in. Then the story really gets going and the first bit of the book gradually starts making sense. So whatever you do, when you try this story, get 150 pages in at least before deciding whether or not to give up.

I like this book, it's a good honest bit of fantasy with all the things you want, strange new worlds, magic, an adventure, good vs evil and a little bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Characters have flaws (such as Steven's obsession with maths puzzles :) ) and not everyone has a happy ending. It is the first book in a trilogy but its good enough to have me wanting to read more, particularly as it ends on a tremendous cliff hanger and given the rest of the book you really don't know what will happen.

There are some irritating aspects to the book. The periodic references to Mark being black and the racism he does or does not encounter don't seem to make much sense. They come across as the authors having a periodic dig about racist attitudes and a need to remind the reader of Mark's origins. I can't rule out that further along in the series this will all make sense but it still comes across a little irritating at times. What relevance does it have that the character is black? Should they be singled out for that?

As well as Mark being singled out, one of the characters in this book can unexpectedly do magic. Whilst there are some clues being laid in the second book as to why this is, you do feel its a bit too much to believe and too much of a coincidence in this first book. You got along with it because you have to, but in some ways it feels as if its taken for granted. There's very little working out why or learning how to use it or anything like that. It just feels a little odd!

For fantasy fans out there who have read things like Terry Goodkind and Charles Stross' Merchant Princes saga I would definitely recommend giving this one a try.

*4 stars*

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

*Warning: This review may contain spoilers for those who have not read Eragon or Eldest, the first two books of this series*

Brisingr directly follows on from where Eldest left off. Eragon, now half elf and half human, has to come to terms with the betrayal of Murtagh and the revelations about his parentage. Whilst struggling with this he must also assist his cousin Roran in saving his beloved Katrina, avenge his uncle, fight for the Varden, remove the curse he unwittingly bestowed on a young girl, fulfil his obligations to the dwarves and continue his training. As if that wasn't enough he needs to find a way to defeat Murtagh, Thorn and eventually Galbatorix. Having barely escaped with his life after his last encounter with Murtagh the odds are overwhelming against Eragon. With so many pledges and tasks it seems as though Eragon will have his work cut out for him, especially when his pledges conflict with one another. Follow Eragon as he continues to work his way to his ultimate task, with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes til the final page.

I couldn't wait to pick up the next book in the Inheritance series and I was not disappointed. Paolini has once again brought Alagaesia to life with its multitude of races and varying topography. It was a delight to re-enter this world and pick up where we had left off, straight after the battle where Murtagh and Thorn defeat Eragon and Saphira.

As you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but some may find this latest installment not what they expected. It is a little slower than previous books, with somewhat less action. However the book does deepen our knowledge of the characters and provides us with some interesting insights. Paolini explores the themes of power, obedience, justice and family in this book. There are several points at which characters are forced to make decisions that affect our notions of these ideas. For example one character is forced to have another punished for disobeying orders, despite the fact that by doing so the character saved lives and made the mission a success. Paolini is forcing us and the characters to see the wider picture. There is definitely a sense of 'every action has a consequence' and some of the actions from previous books, like the blessing of Elva and his promise to undo the curse. There is a feeling of wrapping up loose ends as Eragon begins to fulfil some of his promises which I think is a great thing and leaves the way open for the final book to concentrate on his quest to defeat Galbatorix.

For those who were hoping to find out what would happen in the end, obviously this book does not give the answer. In some ways it can be seen as a bit of a filler to stave off the main event, but I didn't feel it was any less enjoyable for this. I still couldn't put the book down and had at least two nights when I looked at the clock, swore and raced off to bed :)

For people looking for something original and new, perhaps this isn't the series for you. What I love about this series is that it combines some standard fantasy ideas like dragons and elves and quests and battles, in a comfortable and engaging way. It takes me back to the sort of books I read as a child and the films I grew to love. They are exactly the sort of books I would curl up on the sofa with when I'm feeling down and just escape to.

So if you want fantasy that is light, enjoyable and interesting, I would definitely recommend the Inheritance cyle.

*4 stars*