Review: The Charlatan’s Boy

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore. Specifically, it’s a sad day for Floyd Wendellson and his boy, Grady. The paying crowds pay them no longer. After making a living for years by pretending to be a feechie expert and a genuine feechie boy, they may have to get legitimate jobs.

Ha ha! I’m kidding, of course. What they do next is put up the Ugliest Boy in the World act. As the bad new days run on into years, they make a daring bid to bring back the good old days. Their scheme is unethical and there has to be some sort of law against it, but what do you expect from the charlatan and his boy? They’re neither heroes nor villains, only two showmen trying to turn a pretty penny without any punctilious dedication to the truth.

Jonathan Rogers delivers his story in appropriate style. The book is filled with humor, much of it the sort that is seen by the readers and not the characters. It’s written in first-person, and as you can imagine, a charlatan’s boy will not have the most educated voice. Though to be fair, almost no one in the book does. The editor either had a hard or wonderfully easy time of it, depending on whether she tried to distinguish real grammar errors from style or simply decided it was all one.

The world of The Charlatan’s Boy is constructed with imagination and flair. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval. A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book mentions watermelons, I haven’t had the privilege of coming across it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a lasting place in the American imagination, and the drovers are charmingly familiar. If not the brothers of America’s cowboys, they are at least their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. (Perhaps that last phrase is strange to read; it was strange to write.)

Among the rough-and-tumble sorts, constables in blue uniforms and schoolmarms in one-room schoolhouses impose civilization. Yet two things break the mien of the nineteenth-century frontier verging into civilization. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing it.

The Charlatan’s Boy is reminiscent of the old-school episodic novel – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Penrod, Mark Twain. The main issues of the book are set up at the beginning and steadily – if not urgently – addressed. Yet, lingering over drovers’ fires and doing the phrenology routine, even parts that advance the plot often feel anecdotal. The anecdotes were entertaining, well-told, and even charming. But as they followed one on another, I began wondering when the next shoe would finally fall on somebody.

I would, however, do a disservice to this book if I made it sound as if it went nowhere. It did go somewhere, and the climax and conclusion were marvelous. The humor and the lightheartedness of the story are a joy, and sometimes – suddenly but naturally – sadness pierces through, straight to the heart. The Charlatan’s Boy, with its humor and its heart and its style, is captivating and even, in an unemphatic sort of way, brilliant fantasy.

The Worthless World

Stories that are at their core cynical about the world present two different visions. The first is a vision of a world without heroes. The second is a vision of a world that doesn’t deserve heroes. These visions may easily be combined and sometimes are, but each can and does go alone, too. Together or alone, they weave an inescapable cynicism into the fabric of their stories.

I thought of that last weekend, prompted by the new season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Flash review: The good news is that they remedy some of the flaws of the first season; the bad news is that they replace them with new flaws.) Once doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of individuals, the Baudelaires are now doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of institutions. Every pillar of society crumbles when the children try to lean on it: the school, the law, the government, the free press.

It’s not that the institutions are broken. It’s that people are so stupid and savage, and nothing is worse than a crowd of them. A whole town melts into a ruthless mob; an entire hospital’s staff can evidently believe that decapitation is a legitimate medical operation (and be enthusiastic to see it); a circus show that advertises freaks being devoured by lions draws a crowd. In the middle of all this, we’re told that the heroes want to put out fires and the villains want to start them, but in the middle of all this, you have to think: The villains have a point. Lots of places end up burning down in this series, and it’s usually an improvement. Even for a show devoted to satire and absurdity, A Series of Unfortunate Events went too far, made too many people too stupid, too many people wicked, too many institutions worthless.

This is a mistake I’ve seen before. It looms particularly large in fantasy. This is partially because fantasy is by nature inclined to stories about saving the world, and such stories magnify the consequences of the error. When the hero saves the world, our sense of victory will be somewhat reduced if we privately feel that his efforts were perhaps wasted. We will still assent to the moral principle that villains ought not to burn down worlds, even if it’s an aesthetic improvement. But the purpose of stories is less to assent to truths and more to feel them.

Another reason the trope of the worthless world especially afflicts fantasy is that the most common inspiration for fantasy worlds is the Middle Ages. Many people evidently believe that the Middle Ages occurred before the invention of bright colors and were essentially the Black Plague interspersed with crusades. Such inspiration can curiously combine a lack of physical beauty (all the gray! brown! black! dirt and decay!) with a lack of moral beauty (oppression! corruption! superstition! ignorance! violence! everywhere!). When stories take us into such worlds, the stay is unpleasant. I think authors forget what a demoralizing effect the bleakness of their worlds has over their stories. Even genuine heroes can’t always counterbalance it.

Curiously enough, the cynicism of the worthless-world stories doesn’t always seem intended. In these stories, the heroes are truly heroic and a sense of morality prevails. But it’s not enough to have heroes who save the world. We need a world worth saving, too.

Cover Reveal: Bound Beauty

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Welcome to the Cover Reveal for
Bound Beauty
By Jennifer Silverwood

This YA Dark Fantasy is volume three in the Wylder Tale Series
Coming winter 2018, cover designed by Najla Qamber Designs

Beware the bond between blood and beasts…

Vynasha has united the warring human and forgotten clans of Wylderland, claiming her majik and power as curse breaker. Her brother, Ceddrych keeps their nephew safely hidden away while Vynasha and her new allies fight against the feral beasts roaming their borders.

Meanwhile, her friendship with the Iceveins family deepens, unveiling a love she never expected. But her majik is still bound to the cursed prince she left behind and he isn’t done fighting for her soul.

Darker forces walk in the forests, all drawn to Vynasha’s light and the shade of a corrupt Enchantress haunts her waking dreams. A war is about to begin, between the forgotten people of Wylderland and the evil power of Bitterhelm.

Prophecy and Forgotten unite in the epic third chapter of the Wylder Tales Series, a gothic re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.

The Wylder Tales Series
Craving Beauty (Vol. 1)
Wolfsbane’s Daughter (Vol. 1.5)
Scarred Beauty (Vol. 2)
Bound Beauty (Coming 2018)

Grab the first book, Craving Beauty, for FREE! You can find your preferred format here.

Other Books in the Series

About the Author

Jennifer Silverwood was raised deep in the heart of Texas and has been spinning yarns a mile high since childhood. In her spare time she reads and writes and tries to sustain her wanderlust, whether it’s the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, the highlands of Ecuador or a road trip to the next town. Always on the lookout for her next adventure, in print or reality, she dreams of one day proving to the masses that everything really is better in Texas. She is the author of two series—Heaven’s Edge and Wylder Tales—and the stand-alone titles Stay and Silver Hollow.

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Cover Reveal Giveaway

1 winner will receive signed print copies of Craving Beauty and Scarred Beauty and an ebook of Wolfsbane’s Daughter (US only)

1 winner will receive ebooks of Craving Beauty, Wolfsbane’s Daughter and Scarred Beauty, and a $20 Amazon e-gift card (open internationally)
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A St. Valentine’s Poll

So I was thinking about what might be a good or at least passable topic and suddenly I realized: this post will go live on St. Valentine’s Day. It seemed appropriate, then, to write a post themed on this great holiday of love, and anyway I was having trouble scraping up passable topics. Whether this post will be pro- or anti-Valentine’s Day will be up to you.

First of all, we should consider how ironic it is that the holiday of romantic love is named after a Catholic priest, a class of people who are ideally preoccupied with other concerns. Second, we should consider the intersection between romance and speculative fiction. As a fan of SF among other fans, I’ve seen a fair share of hostility directed toward the romance genre. Christian fans, at least, seem sometimes to regard it as the (regretfully ascendant) rival of Christian SF. But romance looming so large in human nature and human experience, it inevitably finds its own place in speculative fiction.

Yet a place shaped by the contours of the genre, and not always a proud one. Science fiction, in its young days, was a man’s genre, and the woman of the old stories was inevitably young and inevitably beautiful and inevitably belonged to the hero; she was also the daughter of the sage old man, and the sage old man and the strong young hero spent all kinds of time explaining things to her. In another vein, not a very deep one but at least bright, girls were tossed in along with all the other things a healthy-minded boy could desire: a quest, an adventure, a cool weapon, a fast ship, a righteous cause.

Fantasy, molded by the ancient traditions of fairy tales, has been less male-centric but not necessarily more sensible. Even moving away from the eternal puzzles of the archetypal fairy tales (could the prince really not identify Cinderella except by her shoe size?), certain ideas have thrown long shadows over the genre – true love that is instant and unmistakable, fated love that can’t be thwarted or resisted. Being rescued from a tower or a dragon or an evil wizard may seem like a clear sign, but on sober reflection, it may not be the soundest basis for a lifelong relationship.

When it comes to balanced and realistic portraitures of romantic love, speculative fiction has not, as a genre, clothed itself with glory. Neither has romance, but that is not our topic, just an aside I couldn’t resist. Over the years, science fiction and fantasy have made progress away from the old tropes and stereotypes. I’ll offer no predictions on where the genre is going. But on this Valentine’s Day, I wonder – where do you want it to go? What, in your ideal book, is the intersection between romance and speculative fiction?

So on this St. Valentine’s Day, cast a vote for or against romance in speculative fiction.

Do you want romance in sci-fi/fantasy?

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Review: Merlin’s Mirror

The old legends of Europe hold that Arthur, greatest of Britain’s kings, was conceived by the trickery of the wizard Merlin. Merlin himself, the tales go, was demon-born, the son of no man.

But what if both were the sons of no man – the sons, rather, of the Sky Lords, aliens seeking to return to Earth? This is the essential idea of Merlin’s Mirror, a science fantasy novel by Andre Norton. The book takes classic tenets of fantasy and works them into a sci-fi universe, and thus the legend of Arthur is reborn into science fiction. There is no “magic”, properly speaking, in Merlin’s Mirror, just misunderstood technology.

Published forty years ago, Merlin’s Mirror is old school: an omniscient viewpoint combined with a brevity that is now almost extinct. This slim volume covers in 205 pages what modern novelists would need a trilogy to tell, and possibly a longer series. It was oddly refreshing to read the story of Merlin’s entire life in one book – just to see it told in its essentials, without chasing the enticing side trails all modern novels have to run down. But the downside of this style of novel-writing is also evident. The novel took Merlin’s ruling motivation (to carry out the mission given him by the Sky Lords) too much for granted; it puzzled me initially.

The brevity hurt Merlin’s characterization in other ways. As a character, he is stained by his manipulative role in Arthur’s conception, showing no reluctance beforehand and little reflection afterwards; the story sweeps on, and Merlin is worse for it. Nor does the novel make it clear, until the very end, that Merlin really cares about anything besides his mission. So although he is in some ways admirable, and in other ways pitiable, he is not really likable.

Norton retains much – not all – of the original unpleasantness of Arthur’s conception and of Mordred’s. This, together was Nimue’s (failed) temptation of Merlin, adds a few raw moments to the book. I did not enjoy it, though I realize that as modern standards go – in some respects, even as the original legends go – the book is mild.

Merlin’s Mirror presents the clearest religious view of any novel I have read by Andre Norton. Yet it is still murky. Aside from presenting a more elegant version of the Christ-as-moral-teacher viewpoint – making Him great, yet only one of many who had seen “the Great Light” – the narrative makes little clear. “The Power” – a phrase of which Merlin proved fond – sometimes refers to knowledge or alien technology, and sometimes seems to be religious, and so confuses the story.

The ending was clever in its own way, and almost hopeful; it had a sense of anticipation, at least. But more than anything else, it was sad. The last pages of the book cast doubt on Merlin’s mission, a doubt compounded by the ambiguity of “the Power” and the immoral means once used by Merlin. This is the worst thing: that Merlin, for all his power and dedication, may have been only a tool or victim. He also may not have been, but a confusion sets in near the end of the book, and it’s hard to tell precisely how meant certain things are meant to be understood.

With an innovative premise, and even some emotional power (“lonely Merlin” – sniff!), Merlin’s Mirror intrigues but it does not satisfy.

Prism Tours: This is not a Werewolf Story


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Book Blitz for
This is Not a Werewolf Story
By Sandra Evans

This Middle Grade Fantasy is perfect for Halloween! Full of fun and mystery, and set at a boarding school where everything isn’t quite as it seems. Read the excerpt and enter the giveaway below…

This Is Not a Werewolf StoryThis is Not a Werewolf Story
by Sandra Evans
Middle Grade Fantasy
Hardcover & ebook, 352 pages
July 26th 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This is the story of Raul, a boy of few words, fewer friends, and almost no family. He is a loner—but he isn’t lonely. All week long he looks after the younger boys at One Of Our Kind Boarding School while dodging the barbs of terrible Tuffman, the jerk of a gym teacher.

Like every other kid in the world, he longs for Fridays, but not for the usual reasons. As soon as the other students go home for the weekend, Raul makes his way to a lighthouse deep in the heart of the woods. There he waits for sunset—and the mysterious, marvelous phenomenon that allows him to go home, too. But the woods have secrets . . . and so does Raul. When a new kid arrives at school, they may not stay secret for long.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

This is the chapter where the new kid runs so fast, Raul decides to talk

New kid. New kid. The words fly around the showers and sinks. I can almost see them, flying up like chickadees startled from the holly tree in the woods.

All the boys are in the big bathroom on the second floor, washing up before breakfast. The littlest kids stand on tiptoe to peek out the windows that look onto the circle driveway.

I pick Sparrow up and hold him so he can see. He’s the littlest of the littles but the kid is dense–like a ton of bricks.

I can’t believe my eyes. No kid has ever come to the school on the back of a Harley. Not in all the years I’ve been here, and I’ve been here longer than anyone. The driver spins the back wheel and a bunch of gravel flies up.

The new kid is holding onto the waist of the driver. He must have a pretty good grip because the driver looks over his shoulder and tries to peel the kid’s fingers away one by one. Then the driver takes off his helmet. We all gasp, because it turns out the driver is a lady with long straight black hair.

Next to me Mean Jack whistles. “What a doll!”

Mean Jack thinks he’s a mobster. A made man, that’s what he calls himself. I call him a numbskull, but not out loud.

About the Author

Sandra Evans is a writer and teacher from the Pacific Northwest. Her forthcoming middle grade novel, This is Not a Werewolf Story (Simon & Schuster July 2016), was inspired by her favorite 12th century French tale, Bisclavret, by Marie de France. Born in Washington state, Sandra spent her childhood on U.S. Navy bases from Florida to Hawaii, and returned to the Northwest as a teenager. Since then, she has lived and traveled in France and Europe, but has never strayed far for long from the Puget Sound region.

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Review: Heart of the Winterland

Princess Calisandra is two hundred years old, and you would never know it, because she still possesses the body, mind, experiences, and maturity of a very young woman. That is what happens when you pass your whole life in a kingdom locked by magic into winter, timelessness, and an inescapable sameness. But finally something is giving, either in Cali or in the magic, because after two hundred years of accepting every day just like the last, she is growing restless. She is about to rebel.

She is about to leave.

She is about to find out what, or who, may exist outside her empty little kingdom, locked in winter and in time.

Heart of the Winterland, written by Kirsten Kooristra, is a fantasy novel appropriate for all audiences. It is rich in world-building and in characters, bringing together warriors, princesses, and sorceresses across a diverse range of milieus, from snowy Trabor to the sea. The magical kingdom of Sjadia, the spell cast by the queen, and indeed the novel’s premise, all stand as imaginative and intriguing concepts.

Unfortunately, there is a meandering quality to the plot. The heroine possesses no real goal, aside from ‘leave and see what’s there’, no nemesis, and little initiative. What she does is usually in response to what happens to her, and what happens to her is due almost entirely to other people or to coincidences. I waited for the central conflict or need to emerge, but it never did.

Heart of the Winterland is a gentle fantasy that is abundant with sympathetic characters, imaginative world-building, and intriguing fantastical concepts. At the same time, it lacks a strong driving force. Choose according to your preferences.

 

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Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Despite the old and no doubt wise saying, Disney canon clearly holds that being raised by wolves is not injuriouspetes-dragon to childhood development. This is one of the lessons of The Jungle Book, another being that if a ferocious man-hating tiger gets your calling card, you cannot lose if you arm yourself with a blazing torch. In the remade Pete’s Dragon, released close on the heels of the remade Jungle Book, we find that it is even better to be raised by dragons.

But still, inevitably, tragic to need such raising. And children grow up only to leave, don’t they?

Pete’s Dragon is a unique movie, at least in today’s world. The opening sequence sets the pattern. It is the slowest opening I have seen in a long, long while, taking its time to the disaster you can feel is coming. A lone car on an isolated highway, the land gorgeously forested around it … a young, pretty mother, a quietly strong father, an adorable little boy … the well-loved book, haltingly read by the little boy with his mother’s patient help, about a dog that gets lost and adventures and being brave …

And then the car crash, because Disney does love to warm your heart just before ripping it out. The crash itself, far from being violent or graphic, is dreamy, fragmented, to some extent detached. And it feels oddly realistic – not that this is the way a thing like that would happen, but it is the way it might be remembered, especially by a child.

If the movie shies away from the violence of the car accident, it still evokes – quietly but effectively – the horror of it, as the little boy wanders away alone from the wreck. The sequence where he encounters the dragon tastes strongly of a fairy tale, from the old, green, untouched forest, to the inhuman menace of the wolves, to the powerful, initially ambiguous appearance of the dragon. (I feel that this is what it would be like to enter Faerie: the beauty and fear and the unknown.)

The rest of the movie is crafted in a similar way. This is a film that lingers – on its characters, on its world, on its pivotal moments. It means to bring out all these things richly, and it will pause to do so. There is action in Pete’s Dragon, but it is not a fast-paced movie.

Neither is there exactly a villain in this movie. The one character who comes close is certainly reckless and somewhat selfish, but in the end even he is not so bad. The movie also rejects the cynical and sarcastic humor so much in vogue today. All of these elements add up to a gentle movie, an unusual movie in today’s theater. Even Disney and Pixar’s animated offerings are a tougher breed.

Pete’s Dragon does a fine job handling Pete’s reintroduction to human society, giving him much the reaction of a wild animal. Perhaps the most notable flaw is that Pete possesses language skills difficult to believe in a child who has lived in the wilderness for six years, with no interaction with other humans since he was five. I do not, however, complain of it. But not because I think it’s ironic or unfair to bring such a complaint against a movie that has a dragon; it may have a dragon but it has normal humans, too, and this is not realistic for humans, y’know. I give the movie a pass because to be realistic, in this respect, would have been more trouble than it’s worth.

The movie is, to the end, ambiguous on Pete’s dragon. The dragon is always central but also always silent, and it is impossible to tell whether he is a highly intelligent animal or in possession of a real, childlike sentience. The adults speak of him as an animal but only Pete could know the answer, and he would not ask the question.

Pete’s Dragon is a gentle, thoughtful film skillfully shot with beauty and a sense of wonder. It may not be the best kind of movie, but it’s the best movie of its kind.

Review: Dragon’s Rook

A border war is, or should be, a simple thing. Two kingdoms want land, to the point of battles and blood; they fight it out, until one gets the land and the other finally goes home. Tragic, as we all know, but straightforward.

But in the war Dissonay and Skarda wage over the unclaimed Territories, nothing is straightforward. Beyond the dispute over the land is a riven family, rumors of an unfaithful queen and brothers-in-law turned against each other and cousins crossing swords to the death. Further yet, a more distant kinship is the heart of a more ancient feud, where lost heirs and lost swords are menaces to the Mad King. And at the furthest edges, old, inhuman powers reach hands into human battles.

In Dragon’s Rook, Keanan Brand spins a complex and epic tale. The novel is high fantasy, of an old-fashioned flavor. There are bits of an invented language, and the story is more multi-threaded than I see in most contemporary fantasy (excepting works by Stephen Lawhead, an old-fashioned author in his own right).

The book itself is long for a modern novel – just breaking 500 pages. A second book will finish the story. It might have been possible to shorten Dragon’s Rook and create a duology, and I salute the author for not doing so. Dragon’s Rook ends in a good place as it is, with its climaxes and converging story lines. Additionally – I will confess it – I have seen so many trilogies, a duology spices things up a bit.

Dragon’s Rook features a large cast of characters, all realistically drawn and many vivid as well. Relatively few got under my skin, but they did exist: Maggie, Yanamari, Mad Morfran and, to a lesser extent, Kieran and Rhon. I felt a couple more would have, had they been given the stage for it. The plot moves through many dangers, and the author lets this take its toll on the characters. A number die, and not only throwaway characters. I am inclined to think too many died. But the author’s willingness to discard characters has its upside, most notably in paving the way for a brilliant new villain.

This novel possesses a strong religious element. Characters struggle with questions of suffering, God’s will, and their own free will. Unlike much Christian fantasy, the outward forms of religion are built into this world: churches (called kirks), priests, religious signs, funeral rituals. Superstitions and a dark, sorcerous order are also part of the religious landscape. In this, as in other ways, the world-building is realistic and thorough.

Although the book is not generally graphic, there are grisly moments. I found one scene hard to bear. The large cast, though mostly a strength, had a negative side in that the characters were sometimes hard to keep track of. It wasn’t always easy, for example, to distinguish one secondary member of the Fourth Lachmil from another.

Dragon’s Rook is strongly written, with beautiful phrases and evocative descriptions. It is a complex epic, drawing its characters from many different corners to face the revival of old hostilities, old legends, and old hopes. Recommended to all lovers of high fantasy.

Cover Reveal: Adela’s Curse

Adelas Curse cover

A witch and her master capture a young faery and command her to kill their enemy. Adela has no choice but to obey. If she does not, they will force the location of her people’s mountain home from her and kill her. To make matters even worse, the person she is to kill is only a man struggling to save his dying land and mend a broken heart.

Count Stefan is a man simply trying to forget the woman he loves and save a land crippled by drought. When a mysterious woman arrives at his castle claiming to be a seamstress, he knows she is more than she seems.

Adela enlists the help of Damian, another faery, to try and delay the inevitable. He insists she has a choice. But with the witch controlling her every move, does she?

 

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Author Bio

Claire Banschbach was born and raised in Midland, TX, the fourth of eight children. She was homeschooled through high school and is now a proud member of the Texas A&M University class of 2014. She is currently working on her Doctorate of Physical Therapy at Texas Tech University Health Science Center. She continues to write in her spare time (and often when she doesn’t have spare time). She hopes her strong foundation in God will help to guide her writing. 

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