Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Sanderson, Brandon

Review of Elantris

Elantris eBook by Brandon Sanderson - 9780575097452 | Rakuten KoboWhen I was a child, I only read fantasy novels. I was totally obsessed with the genre. But in middle school, I abandoned fantasy for classical literature of the Victorian era. Then, at university I discovered the research library and I stopped reading novels altogether. Since starting this blog, I have obviously returned to reading fiction. But until about 6 months ago, I had not read an adult fantasy novel. This all changed with Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Yesterday, I finished my second major high fantasy: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Unlike Rothfuss, Sanderson finishes his series. He also appears to respect his readers more. I decided to try Sanderson’s works after following several of his live-streams. Sometimes, the personality of an author makes all of the difference.

Elantris was not Sanderson’s first novel. As he likes to tell his fans, he had written 6 novels before Elantris, but couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing them. So while Elantris was his debut, it was not the first book he had ever written. Not by a long shot. Nevertheless, there are certain clichés in the work that a more recent fantasy author would probably avoid, such as a “not like other women” protagonist and casual ableism (deformity as curse). Elantris was published in 2005, before readers went public with their criticism of these clichés.

Summary

Raoden, the prince of Arelon, wakes up cursed in the neighboring former kingdom of Elantris. 10 years earlier, Elantris had been placed under a curse by Lord Jaddeth, the god of this universe. The damned of Elantris suffer but never die. Raoden discovers that an early foot injury only becomes more and more painful as the months go by. Consequently, the new Elantrians lack all hope and only live by their belly. There are three major gangs that fight over the little food brought into Elantris. Raoden, however, has a different vision for the people. Always the optimist, he believes that giving people tasks – such as cleaning the slime from the stones of the city – will give the Elantrians a reason to live. It will restore their humanity.

Our second protagonist is Sarene, the woman who had been betrothed to Raoden before he had been taken by the Shaod to Elantris. She is a princess of the kingdom of Teod. Recently, a priest named Hrathen has arrived to convert Arelon to his version of the Derethi religion before the kingdom is cursed by Lord Jaddeth. Hrathen threatens the sovereignty of Arelon because his religion, Shu-Dereth, is also the official religion of the Kingdom of Fjorden. Sarene is bound and determined to prevent Fjorden from conquering Arelon and destroying Arelon’s alliance with Teod.

Reaction

My favorite character was actually a secondary character: Galladon. Galladon is Raoden’s friend in Elantris. He is a pessimist in the manner of C3PO. I hope to learn more about him in a spin-off series or a sequel. I loved how loyal he was to Raoden despite his reservations. Raoden and Galladon had an interesting friendship.

My least favorite character was Sarene. Like I said, I am not a fan of the “not like other women” cliché. She made some dismissive remarks about the other women in the Arlene kingdom. She also lacked flaws. A female character can be strong without being stoic and a master of martial arts.

I knew before reading Elantris that I would probably find a few elements lacking. This is not Sanderson’s most famous book and it is a debut However, I hoped that it would be a fun stand-alone and would encourage me to read more of Sanderson’s works. Elantris succeeded on both counts. The battle scenes were well-written and Hrathen was a fairly complex villain.

3 Stars.

Favorite Quote

Do not dash if you only have the strength to walk, and do not waste your time pushing on the walls that will not give. More importantly, don’t shove where a pat would be sufficient.

Clarke, Susanna, Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrellAlthough I had planned to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for Bout of Books 24, I only finished it a couple of days ago. It is a massive book – clocking in at anywhere between 750 and 1000 pages, depending on the edition. I couldn’t lay it on my lap without crushing my legs into oblivion. After reading the first half in hardback, I finally caved in and borrowed an electronic copy through my library’s Overdrive.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a historical fantasy set in England during the Napoleanic Wars. The eponymous Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in the country, even though there are hundreds of theoretical magicians who research the history of magic. Theoretical magicians cannot perform a single spell. In 1806, two members of The Learned Society of York Magicians ask why practical magic is no longer encouraged by the society. After much bickering, the leaders agree to write to Mr. Norrell to ask him to attend the next meeting. But the only practical magician in England has no patience for theoretical magicians and their ridicule of “true” magic. The Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband if Mr. Norrell proves that he can perform magic. When the statues of the York Cathedral suddenly begin to speak one winter day, the Society members are forced to concede defeat.

Thus begins the public career of Mr. Norrell, a clever but narcissistic magician. He starts his own journal of magic and offers his services to the king. One of his closest friends is a Cabinet member, Sir Walter Pole. Pole is engaged to a woman who is deathly sick, although her mother refuses to acknowledge her infirmity. When Emma Wintertowne –  the fiancée – dies before the marriage day, Mr. Norrell offers to raise her from the dead. But to do so, Mr. Norrell has to summon a mischievous fairy.

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrell illustrations
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

The second half of the book mostly follows Mr. Norrell’s student Jonathan Strange, an equally arrogant and accomplished magician. He and Norrell do not see eye to eye on anything. Strange is a devoted follower of the Raven King – a magician who established his kingdom in Northern England and trained a number of prominent magicians during the middle ages. Mr. Norrell, on the other hand, thinks that nothing good can come of fairies. He’d know.

But if they can’t get along, how will Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell address the evil that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has been brewing in England?

Despite its length and copious footnotes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a page-turner. I was impressed by the accuracy of Clarke’s imitation of 19th-century English prose. At numerous points in the novel, I thought I was reading a Victorian novel. Yet, Clarke subverts in significant ways the clichés of gothic fantasy.

It is also  the perfect book for readers who enjoy fantasy about the history of magic. Susanna Clarke has invented an entire history of magic to accompany her novel. There are numerous, lengthy footnotes that accompany the narrative. Because I love research, I did not skip a single footnote. I found that they added to my reading experience. Nevertheless, I don’t think you will miss much if you choose to skip them.

Although there were a few scenes that could have been edited out, I was sucked in by the novel’s spooky atmosphere. This is the perfect book to read in fall or winter. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is a morally-complex character, despite the damage that he wreaks in the lives of the magicians’ friends and family members. More than once, I sympathized with his diagnosis of Mr. Norrell’s enterprise.

It may be a bit old-fashioned of me to say that I prefer fantasy about magicians, wizards, and the history of magic. The fantasy genre is breaking new grounds and abandoning its “wizard’s apprentice” origins. But I am a sucker for those fantasies. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a very satisfying novel, and I look forward to reading more by Susanna Clarke.

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Modern Detour

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Reflections on The Lord of the Rings (Contains Spoilers)

I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.

Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.

During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.

Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.

I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.

Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing!  It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.

I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Read-Along, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Review of The Fellowship of the Ring

The FellowshipI read The Fellowship of the Ring for a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books. I plan on reading Two Towers and The Return of the King by the end of August. My review for the first book of the trilogy is below.

What was it about?

The story starts with Bilbo Baggins preparing for his eleventy-first birthday celebration. Decades have passed since he returned from his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, but even at this advanced age, Bilbo, to the dismay of the Sackville-Bagginses, still hasn’t shown any sign that he intends on quitting Bag End. (Bilbo’s adventure is recounted in The Hobbit. I reviewed the book last month). Bilbo and the Sackville-Bagginses never did get on. Still, he knows that with or without an invitation the onerous family will be present at his party.

The hobbits love food, drink, and good cheer, and Bilbo’s party seems to far surpass their expectations – that is, until suddenly, while in the middle of giving a speech to his guests, Bilbo vanishes.

Back in Bag End, Bilbo removes the ring from his finger and prepares to leave the Shire. Gandalf, who had arrived for the birthday celebration and knows about the invisibility ring, convinces his friend to leave the ring to his nephew, Frodo.

On Frodo’s fiftieth birthday, Gandalf returns to Bag End with a strong sense that something is just not right.  Although Bilbo had not physically aged since his return from the East, he had confided to Gandalf that he was tired and in need of a long holiday. Bilbo’s behavior had reminded the great wizard of a creature who, for the past so many years, he had been pursuing all over Middle-Earth: Gollum. As it turns out, the ring is not just a magical toy. The evil Sauron of Mordor created this ring to rule over Middle-Earth. In recent years, Sauron has become increasingly aware of the presence of the ring, and if he repossess it, Gandalf knows that he will be unstoppable. Unless the ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, all of Middle-Earth will come under Sauron’s dominion. Reluctantly, Frodo and his friend Samwise Gamgee agree to take the treacherous journey to Mordor.

What did I think of it?

The Fellowship of the Ring is a a fantastic beginning to the trilogy. Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo, meets many strange and powerful creatures, but unlike The Hobbit, the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring are described in great detail. While there is a lot of traveling and fighting in the story, the emphasis is on the characters themselves. The ring is very powerful, and anyone (except maybe Tom Bombadil) could potentially come under its influence. There are many paths to Mordor, but not every path should be followed. Choice is a very important theme in the novel. Should they go home or should they go to Mordor? Should the ring be destroyed or used? Is the journey even worth it?

This was my fourth time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was younger, I had great difficulty getting through the book. Tolkien describes Middle-Earth in painstaking detail and his narrative style is dense. Except for Frodo’s meeting with Tom Bombadil which I still feel is needlessly drawn out, I now think that most of the descriptions are essential to the story. During my latest reread, I was struck by the many similarities between the creatures living in Middle-Earth and ourselves. The characters react very realistically to the situations they find themselves in. As in our world, it is often hard to discern between good and evil.

I would like, once again, to turn your attention to this fantastic interactive map of Middle-Earth. It has helped me understand the world a lot more than I could from the books alone. If you choose to read The Lord of the Rings, I recommend you take advantage of this great resource.

Favorite Quote

[Frodo]: “[Gollum] deserves death.”

[Gandalf]: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

 

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Horror, Shelley, Mary

Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus

What was it about?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters between a man named R. Walton and his sister, Margaret, in which the former describes his desire to explore the North Pole. This young explorer is hungry for knowledge. He may not be an intellectual, but he has a “love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all [his] projects, which hurries [him] out of the common pathways of men.”

His ship sets out from St. Petersburg, Russia and is well on its way, when Captain Walton spots on the ice a man who is clearly on the brink of death. The man is quickly brought on deck where the sailors try to save his life. But the man has a pressing question. Had the captain seen a large creature on a dog sled? The man was in pursuit of this creature, and Walton notices that he is more distressed by its escape than by his present condition. Walton tells his friend about the expedition and his insatiable desire to master the elements. But instead of being impressed, the man howls that Walton is no better than himself – greedy, selfish, and mad. The captain is surprised that his friend doesn’t share his excitement for the expedition.

After a few letters, suddenly, the nature of the letters changes, and instead of describing his personal journey to the North Pole, Walton sends his sister a detailed account of the mysterious man’s life. This man is Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist who, not unlike Walton, had an insatiable desire for knowledge. At the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, Frankenstein studied chemistry and aimed to impress his professors. He also had a dream to create a living, breathing human being. For two years, Frankenstein isolated himself from his family and friends and cared for nothing but the success of his dream project. One night, Frankenstein finally managed to create intelligent life. But this creature was nothing like the one the scientist had dreamed of creating. The creature Victor created was a monster who followed his creator all over the Earth, leaving death and horror in its wake.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you hear of Frankenstein’s monster? Do you think of a grunting brute, arms straight out, with a walk like a zombie’s? This may be the monster in film adaptations, but this is not the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s monster reads classical works, listens to music, and appreciates the beauty of the natural world. Except for his appearance, Victor’s creation is not much different from a human person. It is because of his resemblance to man that the monster is such a relatable and pitiful creature. The monster desires love, but he is a hideous figure. No one, not even his creator, gives him the love he craves. Love is a basic human need that the creature, through no fault of his own, is not allowed to experience. The monster is a victim of his circumstances. There is so much responsibility that comes with being a creator, and Victor finds, to his horror, that he cannot accept the responsibility. However reasonable the request may sound, Victor cannot convince himself to do the monster’s will. Although the cover of my edition has a picture of the fiend, Victor’s creature does its damage backstage, so to speak. It only appears a handful of times in the story, but from the shadows, it destroys so many lives.

Although the plot was predictable with a slow, drawn out ending, the questions explored in Frankenstein are more relevant than ever.  So many scientists want to understand life. There have been many attempts to create primitive life in vitro. All attempts have failed thus far, but there is a constant hunger for knowledge and the mastery of life in the scientific community – a hunger that may well be unhealthy and disastrous. The central theme in Frankenstein is the responsibility of a creator toward his/her creation. Victor never considered the consequences of creating such a unique being. He was so wrapped up in the objective world that he lost sight of the things that really matter – love, friendship, and family. I am convinced that there is a great need for bioethics in the medical and scientific world.

Favorite Quote

[M. Waldman, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, ends his lecture on modern chemistry]: “‘The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know the metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”