Thursday, February 28, 2019

Stolen Magic - read for fun

Stolen Magic is a book I picked up at my local library during a book sale. It is the third book in the Incorrigible series (I haven't read the first two). I'll assign a grade at the end.

The first thing I noticed about this book is its fantastic opening. I don't normally like first person narratives (that lack framing devices) for a number of reasons. This one here uses its strengths of personality. The very first sentence perfectly describes Katherine Stephenson's personality. It also provides an excellent lead into opening action. This then leads into the initial conflict while providing information about her location and family in a non-intrusive fashion.

Everything after that builds on this fantastic opening. The especially high need for propriety (and maturity!) from our "Incorrigible" heroine due to her elder sister's wedding, her initiation into the Order of the Guardians, the mysterious follower, and even a subplot like her brother's newfound protectiveness; all of these threads build on this opening. This makes for a solid storyline that builds organically (nothing artificial).

Another thing that I like about this story, and the setting in general, is how the stigma against magic is treated. Other books have witches/wizards/etc. hiding their magic because they're afraid of angry mobs or they have to follow the ancient rules of their secret society or some other handwave to create artificial conflict. In this setting, no one thinks magic is evil. They think it is scandalous. It is just not something that well-bred ladies and gentlemen do. This is woven into the society, the backstory, and the character's mindsets; a well integrated element. So while Kat could certainly magic her brother invisible to give him a decisive edge in a brawl, the resulting gossip would ruin him.

Thus, it is clear that hiding one's use of magic is essential to using it to one's benefit. Kat makes sure that no one can see her turn invisible and seeks out an ill-advised spell that her elder sister cast so she can break it before anyone else notices. Indeed, the social conflict, of this book at least, clearly has priority over the magical conflict. However, they twist around each other in interesting ways.

Character-wise it is also a skillful book. Each character is well defined around a cardinal trait and several lesser traits. Those traits are elaborated upon and used to display related traits.
For instance!
Kat's father (who is only referred to as "Papa") is defined by his academia. This means he likes to read and lecture (or rather, sermon) which leads to his inability at practical things like fixing a wagon wheel and great ability in evading social events by escaping to a library. It also informs his parenting style; when he sees his youngest child crying, his first response is to hug and then read a novel to her.  He is not two dimensional.

It has a great ending. It is no small feat to develop several plot threads of varying kinds and severity and then tie them all off. In fact, this is done to the entire trilogy of books. Yet there is still plenty of room for future stories, both magically and romantically, if Stephanie Burgis felt like writing another book.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Stolen Magic" an A+

Click here for my next review request: Counterfeit Count
Click here for my previous book review (a request): Earthware

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Earthware - Answering Review Request

Amr Nasser asked me to read his short story collection, "Earthware". It has a frame narrative of aliens doing anthropology on Earth's humans, and so the short stories are presented as snapshots of their work. This means that my normal method of evaluation is insufficient. However, I will still assign a grade at the end.

These short stories are basically dramatizations of areas in science or psychology etc. that the author finds interesting. The topic, question, etc. is presented as typically two people talking to each other while other events may or may not take place.

For instance, there is one where a scientist makes the argument that smart phones are alive/intelligent because they can do more complex tasks than ants. They can't make this known to us because they don't have the means to. The mad scientist then devises an experiment to test this theory. The story ends as this experiment begins. I can only assume this means that the author does not an answer and doesn't want to speculate.

That is a thing with most of the stories. They have no ending or any kind of resolution, be it happy, sad or otherwise. They don't even have a Sequel Hook or The Adventure Continues sort of ending. They usually end after a single twist, which is something I feel is common to short stories as a style. Overall, they all feel like great beginnings of stories, without a middle or an end. This is especially egregious with "The Chant" because it ends at its climax. After reading it, I sincerely thought the book's formatting cut off the last sentence or so.

"The light at the end of the tunnel" is more like a completed story. It takes the "life is a (subway) tunnel" idea and makes a society out of it, complete with sub-cultures. There are the creative types who make art and music as they go, not really caring about getting out of the tunnel. There are the KBOs (Keep Buggering On) who only care about getting out of the tunnel, but are never far ahead of the others. Then there are the nihilists, who don't care about anything and that includes the resolve to let the subway run them over.

They are all really short, some only a page long. "Brink of Survival" is so short and ends so abruptly that I have no idea what is going on. "Pulling through the curtains", on the other hand, is made stronger for this. It is about a guy with memory loss who is taking medication for it. There is a lot of confusion and few details in its narration. It is disorienting. That's because the protagonist is disoriented by their illness. The treatment is ongoing as the story ends, but there is a sense that it will end in time. It is well done.

The thing about short story collections is that they are a grab bag of quality. Some are excellent, some are dreadful and some are decent. This one in particular is difficult to find an average. I hovered between C- and B+ so I'll settle in the middle.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Earthware" an even B

This was a free review request. The author requested an honest review and so I provided one.

Click here for my next book review (for fun): Stolen Magic

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): Order of the Stick - On the Origin of PCs

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Using Realism to enhance Fantasy - Geography and Culture

Recently I watched a Youtube video by WASD20 about making realistic maps for a tabletop game such as Dungeons and Dragons. It was a fantastic video that made me think more and more deeply about the maps I make for my fantasy novels. Yes, he addresses the surface contradiction of making the map of a fantasy themed game "realistic", but that's not what I want to write about here.

He said that following these rules made the map more realistic and, by this token, the players can immerse themselves more into the campaign setting. It also enables them to make assumptions about the layout and landscape based on reality. This then leads to information resources for them to use in their strategies and/or roleplaying. I believe the term for this is "versimilude". I looked this up: "the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability". Incidentally, he mentioned these rules would come in handy for publishing an RPG playkit….or a novel.

There are two rules that sparked this blog post.

The first rule is "no lonely mountains". Mountains are created through factors that generate several mountains, i.e. mountain ranges. He even pointed out that Tolkien's "Lonely Mountain" in Middle Earth is not actually lonely because the Iron Hills, Grey Mountains and the Mountains of Mirkwood are nearby. 

The second rule is "break the rules". By this he meant to break the rules deliberately. If you have a truly "lonely mountain" then there should be a reason why it is lonely, such as a wizard generating it for some arcane goal or a giant constructing a sculpture that appears as a mountain to humans.

It just so happens that I had a lonely mountain in a novel that I plan to write soon (it is after the one I'm currently writing which is the first one after The Highest Power). Instead of thinking "screw the rules, I'll do whatever I want", I thought of it as an opportunity. How can I deliberately break this rule? Then it came to me.

A reason for the mountain being lonely, and not only that but something that feeds into the society that lives on and around the mountain. Their culture, their religion, their history etc. can now be informed by this lonely mountain's origin.

Again, I'm citing these rules from "10 Rules for Believable Fantasy Maps" which is a WASD20 video by Nate. You can watch it for yourself by clicking this link.

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Order of the Stick - On the Origin of PCs (read for fun)

I am a fan of the "Order of the Stick" main series and so I was interested in its prequel,  On the Origin of PCs.

This is an Origin Episode for the Order of the Stick. It was a fun thing. There is a mix of seriousness and comedy in how the main characters come together. Roy, for example, is fresh out of fighter college and seeking to defeat an evil sorcerer because his dad said he couldn't do it. There's an even a heartfelt speech at the guy's grave. Vaarsuvius, on the other hand, is introduced on a parody of "Iron Chef".

It was interesting to see the diverse initial motivations of the Order's members. Frankly, it's surprising that they all stuck together as long as they have. The final scene makes something that happens in the Godsmoot arc take on much greater weight.

It is not required reading for the main comic as anything in here that is necessary is already included there. Rather, I feel it enriches the narrative to know what happened earlier.

It is a quick read. I finished it about 2.5 hours.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Order of the Stick - On the Origin of PCs" an A+

Click here for my next book review (a request): Earthware

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): Animal Farm

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).