Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


Review: ‘The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive’ by Brandon Sanderson

December 8, 2010

The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

Introduction From the Back Cover:

I long for the days before the Last Desolation.

The age before the Heralds abandoned us and the Knights Radiant turned against us. A time when there was still magic in the world and honor in the hearts of men.

The world became ours, and we lost it. Nothing, it appears, is more challenging to the souls of men than victory itself.

Or was that victory an illusion all along? Did our enemies realize that the harder they fought, the stronger we resisted? Perhaps they saw that the heat and the hammer only make for a better grade of sword. But ignore the steel long enough, and it will eventually rust away.

There are four whom we watch. The first is the surgeon, forced to put aside healing to become a soldier in the most brutal war of our time. The second is the assassin, a murderer who weeps as he kills. The third is the liar, a young woman who wears a scholar’s mantle over the heart of a thief. The last is the highprince, a warlord whose eyes have opened to the past as his thirst for battle wanes.

The world can change. Surgebinding and Shardwielding can return; the magics of ancient days can become ours again. These four people are key.

One of them may redeem us.

And one of them will destroy us.

What Drew Me to the Book:

As anyone that’s visited Following that Raven in the last couple of years has likely surmised, Brandon Sanderson is currently my favorite modern fantasy writer so to say that I was looking forward to The Way of Kings would be something of an understatement. And even if I wasn’t already a huge fan, who could look at that epic Michael Whelan cover and not be drawn to the book!? It’s one of the strongest covers I’ve encountered and I suspect that more than a few readers will be gained gazing into the possibilities it suggests in its striking color and detail.

The Review:

Let me clarify that I will be reviewing The Way of Kings based on the Macmillan audio performance by fan favorites Michael Kramer and Kate Reading. I purchased the large tome for my library shelves as well, and am very impressed by the production values, illustrations, and reference material that it contains and will be referring to it often in the future to heighten my experience with the series no doubt, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to listen to the book as read by these two veteran voice actors that I already enjoy so much. Truthfully, it may have been their best performance yet. Whatever the case, they certainly brought their “A” game and I highly recommend that fans of the book (or potential fans) give the audio version a listen if at all possible.

The Way of Kings: Book One of the Stormlight Archive is the inaugural entry in a 10-volume epic, and it hits the ground at a sprint, thrusting the reader right into battle following an impressive prologue/prelude set-up which sets a grim mood following the wake of an apparent betrayal amongst immortal warriors, bringing desolation to the land of Roshar. The battles that ensue are fought not only by highly trained soldiers in the Alethi and Parshendi armies (the two warring sides in a 6-year struggle) but on a larger scale between great warriors donning coveted armored carapaces with superhuman capabilities, likewise by unarmored individuals able to harness the Stormlight prevalent in a world of high storms, granting them preternatural abilities, and one of Sanderson’s best magical “systems” yet. I can also say right off the bat that Sanderson crafts these clashes (and, yes, there are many) with meticulous care and outside the characters themselves the scenes of battle were the strongest part of the novels for me, rich in detail and never losing sight of the excitement that should be implicit in such scenes, particularly those involving close combat.

Following four principle characters throughout, The Way of Kings provides strong characterization in each case: Szeth is a reluctant assassin whose great power is as mysterious as his past and he gets the ball rolling quickly in the book with a thrilling battle and the death of a king, Shallan is a young woman who rides the high seas seeking an opportunity to apprentice under a gifted scholar, and heretic, named Jasnah; but there are motives underlying her quest that will have great repercussions the both of them, particularly as she begins to confront herself. Dalinar, the “Blackthorn,” is an aging Alethi high prince, a wielder of  Shardplate armoer, and a commander in King Elhokar’s army who awakens to visions of a cryptic “final desolation” while striving to unite his fellow high princes as a unified force to win the war against the drawn out war against the Parshendi and prepare for its coming. Finally, Kaladin, a great military man (and former surgeon’s apprentice) in the Alethi army tragically finds himself a slave to the very army in which he was enlisted after having been betrayed by a “light eyes” he once trusted. His trials as a bridge-runner (a job with a rather high mortality rate) provide the bulk of the narrative, and seeing him awaken to the potential within himself in this dire situation is a joy to behold throughout the narrative, particularly as his and Dalinar’s story begin to run parallel, ultimately converging.

Roshar is world whose hard landscape is filled with ever present danger, be it the constant threat of death on the shattered plains in battle, terror at being confronted by one of the many massive beasts that roam the chasms, mistrust and deceit among companions and peers, assassinations around every bend, or even the elements themselves that ravage the landscape with consistent high storms to deadly consequence. The characters that inhabit this world have to have a bit of grisliness in them simply in order to survive and while I have run across the minor criticism that the main players are cut a little too rigid in this mold, offering black and white morality in their roles, it is a criticism that I cannot level as I readily found what I perceived to be real “character” in both the righteous and deplorable actions of notable players (never having been one to believe that “character” is necessarily found in the gray areas) and real concern for the sticky situations that certainly provided the reader opportunities to fret over the actions they took and the consequences that followed. You’ll root for and against the principle and supporting cast and that certainly indicates something worthwhile to me. Additionally, there’s a lot to be said for supporting characters like Jasnah, Sylphrena (“Sil”), Navani, Wit and Saddeus (among others) that populate the novel. At times they outright steal the show and, along with the particulars of Sanderson’s magic system, make the world a much richer, more interesting, place to visit.

The tale interweaves through each character with ease as they come into spheres of influence one with another, the story working its threads skillfully toward a cohesive whole despite a few unanswered questions at the novels end — but such is the case with this being the first in a large multi-volume series and I was not unsatisfied at the conclusion. To the contrary, I was champing at the bit for the next novel. With my studies ramping up I knew that 2010 would be a hectic one and that I wouldn’t be able to read nearly as many novels of my own choosing as I’d like, but I am glad to have been able to finally experience this one and am glad to say that it’s definitely a journey worth taking — incidentally, something the novel itself has more than a little to say about.


Review: Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

July 5, 2010

Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Set in the imaginative realm of the award-winning comic book series FABLES, PETER and MAX is a stand-alone prose novel – the first ever published starring FABLES characters!

Long ago, in the deepest dark of The Black Forest, two brothers – Peter Piper and his older brother Max – encountered ominous forces that changed them both irreparably. Thus begins an epic tale of sibling rivalry, magic, music and revenge that spans medieval times to the present day, when their deadly conflict surfaces in the placid calm of modern day Fabletown.

What Drew Me to the Book:

Already a huge fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables series at DC Comics (Vertigo imprint) it didn’t take much to sell me on the idea of a prose novel set in the same fascinating Fables world in which Willingham would have hundreds of pages with which to bring these rich characters to life once more, and in an entirely new way.

The Review:

Who doesn’t like the idea of taking an established fairy-tale, and turning it on its head with a clever twist or two? Disney’s Enchanted rocketed to the tops of the box office when it was released several years ago based on such a premise and if the popularity of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series is any indication there remains an even larger audience just waiting in the wings to eat this kind of thing up. My wife, for example, was intrigued as I explained the premise behind Fables to her a couple of weeks ago. She smiled at the possibilities that lay in store as clever twists are placed on old tales, and she surprised me one night as I arrived home from work with the news that she had devoured Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love, which I had laid on my nightstand several nights earlier. She was full of all kinds of questions about the Fables and I’m hoping that the series will become something that we can enjoy together as she takes future steps into Fabletown. So, having finished Peter & Max several days ago I can now heartily recommend that she, and other potential fans, try Bill Willingham’s prose novel to that end.

From start to finish the novel cleverly builds on the familiar stories of Peter Piper (who once picked a peck of pickled peppers) and his brother Max, better known as the Pied Piper. The novel follows these two brothers throughout the course of their young lives and into the future as the choices, prejudices and tragedies of their youth threaten the lives of  their family and countless others as they grow into manhood and are forced to confront one another as opposing forces of good and evil. One of the more clever storytelling devices that Willingham employs in Peter & Max is that he alternates chapters between past and  present adventures, following each of the main characters as he does so that we see how past events are driving the modern conflict between the characters. This approach gives the reader that much more to chew on and that’s always a good thing when there’s so much meat to the story.

Seriously, this isn’t your grandfather’s storybook fairy-tale, not when our hero is former member of a thieves guild and expertly trained in the finer points of assassination (as is his wife) but who also has the gentile nature you’d expect from a boy who plays the flute, and is simply known as “Peter.” It’s finding out just how these twists work into the fairy-tale setting we think we know so well that always hooks the reader and helps to make these stories fun to experience, particularly when Willingham has all the room he needs to really open up the story and get at the heart of his characters. Because as fun as the surprises are, and as gripping as the narrative is throughout (I struggle to recall a single lull in the telling)  it’s the characters that you really serve to warm your heart (or in the case of a couple of them, freeze it) and who you’ll remember when you close the final page.

Peter & Max is one of those stories that you’ll read again and again. It’s full of the same magic you find in your favorite fairy-tales of old, but with an added measure of maturity and cleverness that you’ll appreciate as an adult.  And please, don’t be put off in the least by the fact that you may never have read his Fables comic series as it isn’t necessary to have enjoyed those to really get a hold of this one. Willingham gives the new reader everything he or she will need to begin creating his world in their minds, and if by chance you’re already a Fables fan, then you’ll have plenty of additional material to chew on in the newest adventure. There’s something for everyone here and I give Peter & Max my highest recommendation as a result! Here’s hoping that this is one of many Fables novels to come.

If Peter & Max sounds like something you’ll enjoy, you can preview the first two chapters while enjoying the lush illustrations of Fables artist Steve Leialoha here at DC’s Vertigo blog. Now, to print these off for my wife…


Review: Yokai by Stan Sakai

March 22, 2010

Yokai by Stan Sakai

Publisher: Dark Horse

What Drew Me to the Book: I’m already a huge Usagi fan, and Stan Sakai celebrated Usagi Yojimbo’s 25th Anniversary in 2009. I jumped at the chance to add this to my collection, as I always do. These last twenty-five years have been spent carefully crafting, and lovingly applying to paper the adventures of a master-less samurai named Miyamoto Usagi (loosely based on Japanese hero Miyamoto Musashi) who travels the dangerous towns and countrysides of feudal Japan on a journey of the soul, often finding himself front and center in a brouhaha that was previously unconcerned with him, all because of a good heart and a nearly unmatched sword.

Well, one of the ways Stan was able to celebrate the 25-year milestone was by giving fans of the long-eared ronin and newcomers alike a full-length, fully painted, stand alone graphic novel entitled Yokai which features one of the things Stan most enjoys drawing alongside Usagi: monsters! Fortunately, Japanese folklore is chock full of interesting monsters just screaming for Stan’s unique art style to commit them to paper as only he can, and it seems a project that was just waiting to happen. Here’s a little background, then, on the anniversary project by Stan himself as found in the interview wrapping up the volume:

I wanted the story to be special, because I had never done a painted story on this scale before. Two stories came to mind. One was the return of Jei, one of my more popular characters, and this story about the yokai, the ghosts, goblins, and haunts of Japanese mythology. I needed a standalone story that those unfamiliar with Usagi could enjoy, but that would satisfy the longtime readers as well.

Japan has such a wonderful tradition of mythology and folklore, with not only the really horrific monsters, but also the goofy ones, such as the animated umbrella or the animated teapot. I wanted to do something with these creatures from folklore. There’s the legend of “The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons,” where every summer the demons get together and parade through towns, scaring people. On this particular night, however, they actually want to overrun and conquer Japan. But they need a living soul to guide them, so they kidnap a little girl, and her mother begs Usagi to rescue her. That’s how the story of Yokai came about. I wanted Usagi to go through a wide range of emotions, so there’s a lot of action, drama, and humor.

I actually had the privilege of  speaking with Stan for a few moments at an event in Austin, Texas several months before Yokai was released and his enthusiasm about the graphic novel was palpable. At that point he hadn’t decided on the story just yet and had apparently been mulling over ideas for some time, but it wasn’t difficult to discern that this was a project close to his heart and that fans would be in for a treat.

The Review: Now, having read the story I can say that the long anticipated wait was very much worth it. The pacing is brisk, the story itself is very clever (made all the more fun by a signature plot twist near the end) and the painted visuals are stunning. In fact, one of the “goodies” included at the stories conclusion is a step-by-step illustration of how an individual panel went from pencils, to inks, to painted illustration and wrapping your head around the kind of time and dedication this must have taken on this scale quickly becomes apparent. Just beautiful stuff.

While it is not the deepest of Usagi’s stories (but, boy, are there plenty of those in the multiple Eisner award-winning series!) it is certainly a fun ride and well worth pulling off the shelf over and over to revisit. And incidentally, for the long time Usagi fan, there’s even a revelation or two about Sasuke the Demon Queller, one of the more interesting supporting characters who populates Usagi’s world, that I thought added another satisfyingly rich layer to the tale, along with that touch of tragedy that so many of Usagi’s adventures are asked to carry with them. So keep an eye out for that if you’ve not already plowed through it already.

The book is beautifully bound in a small, attractive, hardback and retails at $14.95. Please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy and if you enjoyed Stan Sakai’s painted work, see if you can’t track down “Return to Adachi Plain,” another fully painted 8-page story found in The Art of Usagi Yojimbo collection that will aptly introduce you to one of the most fateful days in Usagi’s life and that will likely spur you on to collect his many adventures for years to come (one of my own all-time favorites). It’s been a fantastic ride so far and we can  look forward to much, much more to come which may the best news of all. So, here’s to 25 more years of Usagi with a hearty “thanks” to boot!


Review: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

March 16, 2010

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Publisher: MacMillan

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling…

What Drew Me to the Book: Brandon Sanderson’s name was seemingly everywhere when I started Follow That Raven and, as with several other authors whose work I began seeking out the last couple of years, I had heard almost nothing but praise for what he had been able to accomplish thus far. What’s more, all that I had uncovered about the books seemed to be the elements of a good story that would draw me in most: that the characters felt real and were relatable, that the stories were very entertaining, and full of unique world-building skills — as well as the rarer ability to create compelling magic systems that operated within prescribed boundaries with consequences attached — within those worlds.

Granted, it also didn’t hurt that he was fairly new on the scene (relatively speaking). I didn’t feel that the task of starting at the beginning of his works and working through them one by one nearly as daunting as some of the other authors I was interested in trying out and after enjoying his short story “Firstborn”, I was raring to get started on Elantris, Sanderson’s debut novel.

“Elantris was beautiful, once.”

The Review: I should say, right off the bat, that it was a privilege to be formally introduced to Sanderson’s work through this exceptional novel. Elantris, unlike some other works of fantasy & sci-fi  in recent months that have taken a little too long to gain momentum within their narratives, I was almost immediately drawn into the story thanks (or no thanks) to the tragedy that befalls one of the three chief protagonists in the story, prince Raoden of Kae, within moments of the novel’s opening sequences. As Roaden looks out his palace window, surveying the once vibrant city of Elantris that looms on the horizon, we learn of the god-like beings who once inhabited the great city following the Shaod. These were former citizens of Arelon who were (seemingly randomly) transformed into long lived god-like creatures with silvery skin, white hair, wise beyond their years and with powers to heal the sick, transform earth’s elements into food, and perform intricate magics for the benefit of themselves and others. They had been the guides and protectors of Arelon for so long, they were loved, respected, and sought out near and far for their unique gifts.

Only something happened 10 years ago.

Elantris and her inhabitants fell to a curse that left the city in ruins and the once god-like creatures to fall into a pitiful state of near-death, though unable to die in the conventional sense,  in which they resemble something much more akin to walking corpses than demigod. The power that once changed Arelon’s citizens into Elantrians with amazing abilities, now marks them with graying skin and dark splotches throughout their bodies, unable to heal themselves, and exiled within the walls of the decaying, dilapidated, city walls of the fallen city with an undying hunger and precious little food to quench their desire. Hope is gone in Elantris. That is, until Prince Raoden awakens one morning in horror to find that he too has transformed into an Elantrian, exiled to the fallen city, lost forever to the world he once knew…and the young bride to whom he was betrothed.

The novel then follows the plight (and perhaps more appropriately termed “blight”) of the former prince Raoden as he strives to survive in his new condition and surroundings, the adventures and machinations of his former bride-to-be Sarene who remains married to the prince thought dead as Arelon law dictates, and the cunning plan of a religious zealot named Hrathen who seeks to convert the city of Kae en masse before a more thorough threat from a distant land seeks extermination as a more viable option for the ‘unbelieving populace.’

Elantris is an ambitious novel from out of the gate as the story weaves seamlessly through themes of hopelessness, bigotry, oppression, politics, religion and war — yet never feels quite heavy handed as it does so, and almost always managing to entertain throughout the extended journey. Where hope could easily be abandoned at every turn, where it is expected, and at times when things seem awful bleak for everyone involved, there is always a glimmer of hope to hang on to thanks to the convictions of a handful of men and women who refuse to give in to despair. One could perhaps level the charge that such a principled world view by a few of the stories protagonists is somewhat naive and unrealistic given their situations, and at times I wondered how their actions might be received by the more cynical reader, but I was definitely buoyed up by the actions of several of the characters and if I’ve learned anything from real world history it is that good men and women are often exactly where they need to be when a hero is needed — and it is no different here.

Though always engaging, the novel really picks up at its halfway point, grabbing the reader and never letting go until the final epilogue ultimately concludes. I was on the edge of my seat as the conflict throughout the story came to a head, and I really should take a moment to praise Sanderson a little for bringing so many of the characters to life, from the main protagonists to the supporting characters, in ways that make the reader care for so many of them. For example, there is one well established character who picks up an axe near the end of the story who could easily be the main focus of a full length novel all his own, as a layer to his character is further revealed in that scene and the potential for a vivid back story is sought by the reader (certainly this reader anyway) and perhaps one day we will find out more. Additionally, the “villain” of the piece also turns out to be more than one might have initially expected and his story/perspective becomes more and more fascinating as the novel progresses. No doubt he’ll go down as one of my favorite characters in recent years and I look forward to revisiting the book again to see how later revelations cast light on his journey throughout, giving a greater insight to his actions.

The novel wrapped up nicely and as the end loomed near yesterday morning I was certainly saddened that the experience would end, which is always something of a sign of a really good book for me. Though it is worth mentioning here that one of the coolest things about this story is that Sanderson has provided his readers an awful lot of “bonus content” upon its conclusion in the form of extensive annotations, commentary, and even a bonus short story entitled “The Hope of Elantris” which can be purchased as a downloadable file for a measly .49 cents on on, or read for an even measlier “free” price on his official website. I’ll be enthusiastically checking those out now that I’ve finished the novel and am really looking forward to the chance to dive further into the inner workings of the novel and see what else will be added to my experience with the book. Elantris was a lot of fun, and for a debut novel it was all the more impressive. So for the final verdict, definitely comes highly recommended by me.

Now, I just have to decide which Sanderson novel to tackle next. I’ve got both Warbreaker and the Mistborn trilogy patiently waiting in the wings and I’m torn as to which to start first!


A Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

August 26, 2009

shadow-of-the-wind“Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it.”

With so much on my plate these days, the last thing I needed was another book to add to my reading list. I was already entrenched in two very good novels but, for what seemed like months on end, I continued to stumble upon praise for Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and while I happily  put it on my gargantuan reading list – even near the top – there was something about that haunting cover that resonated with me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer to read it.

Shifting my focus a little, I opened the book to see what lay in store and 3-chapters in I was completely wrapped up in the story of a young boy named Daniel Sempere, who reeling from the loss of his mother some years prior, finds solace in his his books, the loving presence of his father and her precious memory. One early morning, following an episode where Daniel realizes in terror that he can no longer remember his mothers face, Daniel’s father resolves to take him to a strange and secret place known to a precious few as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a vast place where forgotten tomes are lovingly stored and protected by dedicated individuals. There, Daniel is instructed that, according to tradition, he is to select a book that he will care for and call his own. Filled with wonder, Daniel stalks it’s winding corridors and happens upon a book entitled The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. So begins the boy’s adventure to discover more about the forgotten author that wrote his beloved book, and the mysteries surrounding why it may very well be the sole surviving copy.

As I eluded to, it didn’t take long before I found myself immersed in Daniel’s story what with it’s exciting premise, the scenery that played vividly in my mind (despite an utter unfamiliarity with the region) and words that seemed to drip of an old world flavor — in no small part due to Zafón’s  intimate knowledge of his setting as well as Lucia Graves contribution through  a beautiful English translation of his prose — it’s the kind of writing that wraps itself around the mind, seamlessly transporting the reader to another time and place until inevitably the real world abruptly calls them back. In that sense the book works magic by bringing this rich world of a bygone Barcelona to life, and so effectively so that while it began to strike me that one might be hard-pressed to actually label the book as a pure “fantasy” (in the sense that on the surface it’s probably more appropriately labeled a “mystery” novel) there was a ghostly undertone to the work that always seemed present and to the point that I was comfortably enjoying it as a member of that genre. But whatever you’d want to call it, it’s a very good book, with characters that you won’t forget. The Sempere’s, Julián Carax, Fermín Romero de Torres, Inspector Fumero, and the mysterious Lain Coubert figure will likely set up shop as residents in the “corner” of my memory that I often reserve for favorite literary characters and they do so because they were so effectively brought to life through their trials, tragedy, failures and successes throughout the book as nothing is easily achieved. And I must admit that I’m a sucker for a good pulp hero and that I had fun placing one of the more prominent figures you’ll encounter in the novel into the kind of setting where a Kent Allard (aka “The Shadow”) might comfortably preside…particularly given the nature of events that unfold in the final chapters of the novel.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss out on The Shadow of the Wind for as long as I did, here’s hoping that you’ll pick it up sooner rather than later and give it a try. The book lover in you will likely appreciate its reverent take on the power of the written word and along with the wonderful journey into mystery, and the novels fully realized characters, that you’ll find a little more about yourself in the process. Books are mirrors indeed. Now, how long do you suspect it’s going to take me to read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s follow-up to TSOTW, The Angel’s Game?


‘And Dream Such Dreams’ by Lee Allred

July 9, 2009

lincoln-monumentIn September 2008, Down East Books released an anthology of short stories edited by Noreen Doyle entitled Otherworldly Maine, featuring a myriad of tales relating to, or inspired by the old, rich and storied state of Maine, 23rd state in the Union.  Author and Sidewise Award for Alternate History finalist Lee Allred submitted a short story for the publication entitled And Dream Such Dreams, a poignant tale set during the American Civil War in which President Abraham Lincoln plays a central role, while sharing a peculiar connection to ancient Greece and the principles of funerary rites aptly summarized in the phrase — “parainesis of the living, epainesis of the dead” or admonishment for the living, praise for the dead as Allred explains.  But how do Greek funerary rites connect President Lincoln, a  mysterious professor who begins visiting him nightly in his dreams, and the American Civil War?

Real world Civil War hero Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain opens the story addressing the audience at the Dedication of the 20th Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3, 1889 stating:

‘We know not of the future,’ he concluded, ‘and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action.’  The audience politely clapped and came up to shake his hand. The crowd milled about for a while until, as if on cue, it slowly melted away, leaving Chamberlain to stand silently alone.

But such as it was, the audience hadn’t quite grasped what Chamberlain had been trying to say and it will take Abraham Lincoln, Assistant Private Secretary John Hay and the lessons of a Greek professor for the readers themselves to truly understand the weight of his words by stories end.

Comments: I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with author Lee Allred on several occasions now and he’s nothing if not a thoughtful individual with vivid imagination, quick wit, and civil_lincoln2a deep respect for virtue — all of which that’s on full display in the short story And Dream Such Dreams.  Told from three compelling points of view, we follow President Lincoln through a pivotal phase in the Civil War, enjoying insights unique to each of the storytellers.  Allred’s literary method allows the reader to slowly form a whole of the puzzle that’s laid before him following the cryptic comments in Chamberlain’s opening speech as the narrative becomes ever clearer as we travel with our heroes through the soles of their individual experiences — not unlike an interested observer in a dream — towards the conclusion in this worthwhile tale of deep humility and self sacrifice.

And let me say that while I likely could have walked away from the short story pleased with what I was able to glean about the historical figures from the details scattered throughout, I would reckon that Allred deserves a pat on the back for not only creating an authentic sense of who the characters were but for creating a desire, at least in my case, to find out more about their triumphs through the historical scholarship available on each, particularly where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and John Hay were concerned (as I’ve long enjoyed learning about Lincoln).   In the end, no words were wasted and like all good works of fiction and non-fiction alike there was some cause for introspection…and application.  Definitely do yourself a favor and enjoy Lee Allred’s unique take on President Lincoln, his friends, and the glimpse into what makes good men great.

Chamberlain’s hand brushed his side. The wound from Petersburg should have killed him, but he had been spared for a reason, as if part of a bargain.

Following the stories conclusion I wrote Mr. Allred once more to inquire further and he was kind enough to take the time to provide some valuable feedback as to some of the inspiration for the tale, a little as to why he holds President Lincoln in high esteem, and other valuable insights — so I hope you’ll take a moment to sit back and enjoy the detailed commentary he provided:

Having read To Dream Such Dreams and East of Appomattox (found in Alternate Generals III from Baen Books) it goes without saying that the two stories are deeply trenched in the American Civil War, its lore and its heroes. If you don’t mind expounding further, what was it about that period in American history that initially inspired you to make it the setting of ‘To Dream Such Dreams?’

Connie Willis, in her forward to her magnificent novel LINCOLN’S DREAMS, wrote:

“In the first part of Lincoln’s Dreams, Jeff [the main character] is offered a job researching the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He turns it down. ‘I’m busy studying the long-term effects of the Civil War.’ And I guess that’s what I was doing, too, writing this book.

Because the Civil War isn’t over. Its images, dreamlike, stay with us — young boys lying face-down in cornfields and orchards, and Robert E. Lee on Traveller. And Lincoln, dead in the White House, and the sound of crying.”

I refer to my “To Dream Such Dreams” as a ghost story. And it is, but in more than the usual sense. The Civil War  itself is a ghost story. It’s a haunting. Even after 144 years — an aptly termed gross of years, a dozen dozen — it haunts us still. It haunts me still.

Lincoln giving his farewell in Springfield, knowing — knowing! — beyond all mortal reason that he will never return. The Union boys at Fredericksburg, clutching the shattered frozen corpses of their friends, ghoulishly pressing against them for their fading warmth in the icy night, then those same boys standing victorious at the stone wall at Pickets Charge, chanting “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” in awful and just revenge against the shattered Confederates fleeing the field. Lincoln begging, pleading to the South “We must not be enemies, but friends.” The agony of four simple words four long, bloody years later: “And the war came.”

I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several of the Civil War battlefields: Pea Ridge, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga. Something indeed abides. And each time I get the feeling that Joshua Chamberlain spoke of across the veil of time: “And reverent men and women from afar and generations that know us not and that we know not of, shall come here to ponder and to dream and the power of the vision shall pass into their souls.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating that you tied principles of ancient Greek funerary rites to Abraham Lincoln and the tragic fate that felled him in the spring of ’65 following the war, and I’m curious what it was about the Greek ideal of ‘admonishment for the living, praise for the dead’ that led you back to the legendary president?

Well, I can’t claim credit for the original Greek idea. Several years Garry Wills won a Pulitzer for his non-fiction book, LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG. Wills explored in great detail the parallels between Greek funeral oration and the Gettysburg Address. The first time I picked up a book and read the back copy (which made it sound almost as if Lincoln purposely copied Greek oratory), my first thought was “As if!” Lincoln, self-educated on the Prairie, like Shakespeare before him, had only a “little Latin, less Greek.” Lincoln didn’t know enough Greek to do it on purpose.

Then, like a true science fiction author, my next thought immediately was: “But someone who did know enough Greek was Joshua Chamberlain!”

I didn’t finish writing “To Dream Such Dreams,” though, until after I had served three rotations in Iraq. The concept of “admonishment for the living, praise for the dead” has a very new, very different, very concrete meaning for me now than it did the younger Lee Allred who first picked up the Wills book.

I came to the quick conclusion (heh) that you held President Lincoln in a high esteem, and wondered if you might share something with readers that you’ve found to particularly inspiring about the 16th President of the United States?

You may have heard the claim that, next to Shakespeare and Christ, more books have been written about Lincoln than any man who ever lived. And yet, no matter how many books are written about him, the definitive Lincoln still eludes us. He is a chameleon figure. The Lincoln of each of those books is whichever Rorschach Lincoln the respective historian wants to believe in.

The specific Lincoln I chose to write about (as a fiction writer — an entirely different prospect than writing as a historian) is the religio-mythic Christus figure. The Savior of the Republic. The American Moses who was not allowed to see the fruits of his victory. The dark, brooding melancholy man who dreamed dreams and saw visions, dreams of the black boat, visions of his own death.

Do I think that that is the real Lincoln which existed or even could exist? The Lincoln I wrote about would be called in my own culture “a prophet, seer, and revelator.” I leave it at that.

Repeatedly in “To Dream Such Dreams” I refer to General Daniel Sickles’ account of Lincoln’s desperate prayer for victory during the ongoing battle of Gettysburg. I have added only one thing to that account: the proffered bargain, Lincoln’s life for the Union’s.

Lincoln repeatedly referred to himself as an Instrumentality in God’s Hands — “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”. Lincoln, like the other great figure of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, repeatedly spoke of the payment of debts. (Robert E. Lee’s last conscious words were “I will pay that sum,” as readers of “East of Appomattox” will well note.) Much of Lincoln’s sublime Second Inaugural Address speaks of the debts that must be “sunk” (paid):

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”

The proffered bargain I added as fiction is thus not entirely out of character, but then, is it truly fiction? Perhaps I merely added was really there all along.

Standing on that railcar platform at Springfield, Lincoln’s words were those of a man who knew he’d never return. His words and actions the day of Ford’s Theatre were of a man who seemingly knew what lay ahead. It is not so difficult to imagine Lincoln that evening as he left for the theatre, taking one last look around him at the nation he preserved and saying, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter but I am calm as a summer’s morning.”

What, if anything, are you currently reading and what might you recommend that might have slipped under our reader’s radar?

Science fiction, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series (TRADING IN DANGER is the first book) is how military science fiction shoot-em-ups ought to be written. LINCOLN’S DREAMS by Connie Willis is what “To Dreams Such Dreams” wants to be when it grows up. RULED BRITANNIA by Harry Turtledove is an alternate history tour de force.

Non-fiction: I’m studying Shea’s PEA RIDGE: CAMPAIGN IN THE WEST, the definitive book on the crucial-but-overlooked Civil War battle in Northwest Arkansas. I also just picked up (surprise, surprise) another biography of Lincoln: William Lee Miller’s LINCOLN’S VIRTUES: AN ETHICAL BIOGRAPHY. It promises to be a good read.

What’s next for Lee Allred on the literary front?

I don’t talk about what I’m currently working on. Sorry. Long-standing policy.

I can talk a little about what’s in the publishing pipeline. I should have a short-story titled “Hymnal” coming out in a reprint anthology coming out soon. The story’s about the far future and the heat death of the universe. It first appeared in a collection that had very, very, very, very low distribution, so it’s more like a brand new first publication for the piece. Release details are still in play. I’ll post details at my website when I have them.



The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

July 7, 2009


“Recently I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting any better. So I wrote a short story…” – Neil Gaiman

Introduction & Overview: I was well aware that Neil Gaiman was a great storyteller thanks to his comic book work for Marvel and DC over the years, but it was only relatively recently that I tried one of his novels. I had heard of the stop motion animated film entitled “Coraline” in the making and, loving that medium, wanted to get a drop on her story and travels into a new and exciting world she stumbles upon where she meets her Other Mother…and things start to go downhill rather fast. I read it in one sitting while waiting for my sister to welcome her newest into the world and it was a huge breath of fresh air. It was original, didn’t take itself too seriously, was full of whimsical characters, more than a little creepy, and was a great deal of fun from start to finish. It appeared I had indeed been missing out up to now and that I’d have to keep an eye on this Gaiman fellow’s books. Well, wouldn’t you know it, other people appear to be doing the same and after releasing The Graveyard Book Neal Gaiman went and won himself the John Newbery Medal and a string of honors for the book. Most recently he won an Audie for the audio version of the book and after listening to a sample chapter, and with promises of violins, I decided that I had better jump on board quick and see what all the fuss was about.

The boy was supposed to die. The man Jack had already taken care of his family in the dark of night and with knife firmly in hand snuffing out the life of a baby was supposed to be the easy part of the job. But the boy was gone. Having awoken in his crib he had decided to explore and after lifting himself up and over the bars he had playfully made his way to the bedroom door, down the stairs, and thanks to an open door…into the dark night. On his great adventure that night he found himself traveling up a hill near his home and into a sprawling graveyard. Jack was beside himself, how could the boy have escaped!? Where could he have gone?

Comments: Like Coraline, I was completely engrossed in The Graveyard Book in the few days it took me to complete it on my drives to and from work. I’ve discovered that a good audio book does wonders for me on my long commute and I found myself a little perturbed to actually arrive at my destinations while listening to this. Neil Gaiman does a splendid job bringing the story to life, enthusiastically breathing the characters to life with a genuine excitement, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and an entertaining english accent that is entirely appropriate to the setting. I don’t know that the book would’ve come to life in quite the same way had I read it, but I can say that you’ll do yourself a favor by listening to his own reading.

Well, it seems that the boy that escaped Jack’s clutches that fateful night would become one “Nobody Owens,” a name given him by his ghostly parents Mr. & Mrs. Owens, citizens of the graveyard who, alongside his guardian Silas, take the baby in to protect him from the dangers that lay outside the graveyard gates. Dangers like Jack. “Bod,” as his friends call him, is something of a remarkable boy, taking for his family and friends the dead that inhabit the old graveyard. For him, doing this is as normal as it would be for you and I to go to school each morning and converse with our friends in the hallways. Given the “freedom of the graveyard” Bod is taught lessons by its ghostly citizens both practical and magical and through the course of the book we are treated to several compelling adventures that demonstrate Bod’s growth from a toddler to a young man, from naivete to wisdom, as he tries to apply what he’s learned both within and without the graveyard gates, all while Silas and a group known as the Honour Guard work mysteriously behind the scenes to uncover the truth behind the attempt on his life those many years ago. With Silas’ help, and the assistance of a childhood friend named Scarlett Amber Perkins, Bod slowly begins to unwrap a number of the mysteries surrounding his families death as well and it was interesting to me that instead of being concerned with what he might find, even frightful about the confrontation that might inevitably occur between Jack and himself one day were he to continue pushing for information that he didn’t cower, and that he wasn’t much scared. Actually, in something of a refreshing twist, Bod actually lets the reader in on the fact that it’s not he that has something to fear but that as he grows and adapts to his abilities that  Jack may very well be the one that needs…protecting. It’s not often you see as proactive a group of characters in a novel, much less one geared towards young adults, and it made for a very interesting dynamic when the bad guys do indeed show their faces again. You’ll see!

Additionally, the book is just chock full of mystery, be it a particular characters motivation, why another behaves as they do, what lurks in the dark, or just what kind of being someone really is and these are addressed (or not addressed) masterfully throughout the book so as to fully flesh out an unforgettable cast and add layers of depth to the story. There was actually a scene that occurs towards the end of the book where one of the characters reacts in a way that I couldn’t comprehend at all and for a moment I wanted to level a measure of negative criticism at the book before I realized once more that people seldom react as we might hope, or that would even seem rational on occasion and that it actually made that moment all the more real for me. In the same line of thought, Gaiman doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to confronting the reader with hard truths about Bod, his situation, or the human condition — particularly when he addresses themes of borders and belonging. Despite the story being awfully fun, with good clean scares throughout, it’s likely that its those deeper, life affirming, themes that will stay with the reader and that truly makes it a modern classic worthy of the Newbery for fine literature. Obviously then, I give Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book a very, very high recommendation and hope that you’ll enjoy reading it yourself, as well as with your little ones.

I know I’ll be reading this again and probably again…