Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dawn of Wonder (The Wakening)

I've just listened to the best audio book ever.

That may be a little bit superfluous, but I don't care, I loved it.

I bought this book because it was on Audible's list of the best books of last year, and they were right.

The book is called Dawn of Wonder, and it is the first book in a series called The Wakening by Jonathan Renshaw.  From what I understand, this is Mr. Renshaw's first published work, and he is off to an amazing start.

As a synopsis with spoilers only for the first few chapters (of a total of sixty six or so), I will say this book is about a 12 year old boy whose best friend is kidnapped and sold to be sacrificed by a strange civilization.  He then chooses to dedicate his life to avenging her death.

The first thing that I noticed about the book, listening to the sample chapter, was the delicious way Renshaw described the natural world and its unnatural disturbances.  Beautiful, detailed descriptions are given to the fantastic "pearlnut trees" as well as to more familiar features of the landscape.

This book is definitely high fantasy in the sense that it takes place in some fictional world, but there are only a few instances of things that could be considered magical.  I would say the book is mostly pretty grounded in rational ideas, but occasionally something that resembles the supernatural does happen.

I would describe the action sequences as being over the top.  In trying to describe violence, puzzles, and traps, I would say it's along the lines of Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean.  It resembles slapstick, but it is serious, and the actions of the characters do have consequences.

I would say this first book in the series is appropriate for most young adult readers.  I would be remiss in failing to mention that there is a copious amount of child abuse in the book.  There is no lewd content or foul language, but it does deal with some very heavy themes (like slavery), and it also features a copious amount of violence.

Overall, I think the word outstanding fairly describes this ambitious first entry in The Wakening series.  I await the second installment with much anticipation.  I don't have any theories about where it's going to go from here, which is a rare thing for me.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Guards! Guards!

I remember when I first started trying to keep this blog up, someone told me to try to vary my reading.  I imagine they meant for me to try to read lots of different genres and authors.  I then proceeded to mostly ignore them, because I'm doing this for fun.  Rereading Guards!  Guards! is a good example of how I would prefer to spend my time.

What's compelling about Terry Pratchett's Guards!  Guards!  is the way he turns the classic fantasy narrative of the one true king on its head.  There are certain expectations in the fantasy genre of the rightful king in exile.  He's got to have an ancestral sword or a birthmark or something by which he can be identified.  He's got to have some secret explanation as to how he came to turn up claiming his legitimate rule.  He's got to prove himself in some remarkable act of valor.

In the Lord of the Rings, there's Aragorn.  In the Song of Ice and Fire, there's a major spoiler for those who haven't finished the most current season of Game of Thrones.  In The Once and Future King, there's Arthur.

When you find this character in the story, you generally know that somehow he should come to power, and he will work hard to keep the people in his kingdom safe and happy.

This is not really how Discworld works, though the series generally celebrates these high fantasy ideas as much as it makes fun of them.  Guards!  Guards! is one of the strongest examples of this.

Guards!  Guards! is the first book that covers the Ankh-Morpork city watch as operated by Samuel Vimes, one of my favorite Pratchett characters.  Vimes is heavily involved in the series as a whole, and he is as developed and pragmatic as any fantasy character Game of Thrones could throw at you.  He seems to be more influenced by film noir detective stories than by high fantasy tropes.

The rest of the watch is equally colorful.  Corporal Nobby Nobbs, Sgt Colon, and Carrot Ironfounderson are unforgettable characters even in the Discworld with its great wealth of well developed characters.

While this isn't my favorite Discworld novel, I would consider it an essential read for people who like high fantasy.

Clan of the Cave Bear

So, getting back to my little project of reading as many good books as I possibly can, I recently read Clan of the Cave Bear.

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in a series called Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel.  I will start out by saying that the series becomes increasingly difficult to slog through.  I've been stranded in the middle of the third book for weeks.  They have a huge number of scenes that are so awkward and uncomfortable I find myself skipping almost full chapters.  I'd prefer the books spent more time on the anthropology they're drawn from and less time on romance and mating rituals.  There are people and places with names so ridiculous I won't even attempt to spell them.  The main male character is sometimes very irritating.  I will attempt to finish the series in its entirety, as I've heard nothing but good things.  I have the next two books at ready in case I finish the third one soon.

All of that said, I can remember hearing the title of the first book as long as I can remember, and there's a reason for that.  Clan of the Cave Bear is among the best books I've ever read.  I would never have imagined a story about Neanderthals could be so poignant and entertaining.  I was genuinely touched by Auel's imaginative storytelling and beautifully constructed characters.

The story follows a young Cro Magnum girl named Ayla who is adopted by a family of Neanderthal people.  Together, they have to find a new cave and survive a harsh environment.  Ayla's life is further complicated by the Neanderthal clan's ridged societal norms and customs.  There are many impulses Ayla has to deny in order to fit in with her adoptive family.  Ayla must carve out a role for herself in order to survive, with many obstacles along the way.

The most enjoyable part of this story for me are Ayla's Neanderthal family members.  They're complex, developed characters, some of whom are based in part on real skeletal finds.  My attachment to these flawed but lifelike characters really drove my interest through the first book.  It really helps my enjoyment of the book knowing the results of recent genetic testing that find Neanderthal genes in many modern humans.

There's a lot of science and scientific speculation in this book.  I'm sure many academics have tried to pick it apart and show which parts of it are likely accurate and which parts are completely made up.  Auel did a lot of research, but the book is definitely more art that science.  The line between the real and the imagined is blurred in a unique, distinctive way.  There are parts of it I would argue are science fiction, and there are parts that are unadulterated fantasy, and that's absolutely intriguing.  It makes me want to read more like it, though I wouldn't know where to begin to look for something like this.  So far the second and third books really lack some of the unexplainable magic of the first one, but I'm hopeful for a return to that.

While it did occur to me that Ayla has an unrealistic ability to excel at almost everything she tries, Ayla is an impressive character.  Even though the second book was mostly her alone in the wilderness, she was still much more compelling by herself than the other main character was interacting with a huge number of other characters.  She has a tendency to invent all the tools our ancestors needed to survive almost entirely by herself, but I still find her vulnerable enough that I care what happens to her.  I would describe the character as a feminist icon, a woman who does all the things she's not suppose to do.

A movie adaptation of this exists, but I can't imagine it could do the book any kind of justice at all.  Most of the dialog is spoken in sign language in the book, which would make it very difficult for most hearing people to follow if they did a faithful adaptation.  An adaptation with a lot of spoken words would take out most of the drama of the early chapters of the story.

I would give the first book all of the stars.  It's extremely enjoyable.