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…


Dean Koontz’ Frankenstein, Prodigal Son: A Review

May 28, 2009

Prodigal Son_R1Introduction & Overview: Having been thoroughly impressed by Dean Koontz’ celebrated Odd Thomas series, I thought that I would do myself a favor and try another series of his that had caught my attention while searching for something new on the shelves, namely, Koontz’ Frankenstein.  Now, here I should probably confess that outside of being a huge fan of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s classic Young Frankenstein and being a child of the 80’s that enthusiastically swallowed up the campy Monster Squad flick and its gentle take on the Frankenstein monster that I’ve never really been all that keen on the myth.  I’ve always preferred reading about the howling creatures of the night, and maybe a few vampires and swamp things here and there to reading about Frankenstein or his creation.  I suppose that as ingenious a performance as it was, Boris Karloff’s theatrical version wasn’t enough to a yung-un weaned on Dr. Doom, The Joker and the Red Skull to ever really frighten and as a result I never really gave Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or his “monster” much of a chance (though, thankfully, the lesson of who the real “monster” of the two was wasn’t completely lost on me).

Enter Deucalion.

Over two hundred years has passed since that fateful night when Victor Frankenstein seemingly brought his creation to life, and having found the means wherewith to prolong his life Victor, now Helios, commands a vast biological empire in the heart of New Orleans, a front for a far reaching scheme to replace flawed and superstitious humanity with a “new race” of his own making who are physically superior in almost every way to the “old race” and completely subservient to his will and desires.  But things become complicated for Victor, and two homicide detectives when a string of ghastly murders breaks out in the city further threatening the safety of its citizens and bearing an unnerving connection to Helios and his plans.  To whom can the city, and a couple of perplexed detectives turn to when the natural becomes supernatural, and the enemy is unlike anything humanity has ever seen?

In these mountains of tibet, a fiery sunset conjured a mirage of molten gold from the glaciers and the snowfields. A serrated blade of Himalayan peaks, with Everest at its hilt, cut the sky.  Far from civilization, this vast panorama soothed Deucalion. For several years, he had preferred to avoid people, except for Buddhist monks in this windswept rooftop of the world.  Although he had not killed for a long time, he still harbored the capacity for homicidal fury. Here he strove always to suppress his darker urges, sought calm, and hoped to find true peace.

From an open stone balcony of the whitewashed monastery, as he gazed at the sun-splashed ice pack, he considered, not for the first time, that these two elements, fire and ice, defined his life.  At his side, an elderly monk, Nebo, asked, “Are you looking at the mountains—or beyond them, to what you left behind?”

Although Deucalion had learned to speak several Tibetan dialects during his lengthy sojourn here, he and the old monk often spoke English, for it afforded them privacy.  “I don’t miss much of that world. The sea. The sound of shore birds. A few friends. Cheez-Its.”

Shortly thereafter, in his seclusion, Deucalion is greeted by a messenger who while shocked at his appearance manages to deliver the post.  ‘It’s him, Victor Frankenstein is alive.’ And its up to his creation to do what he was unable to do more than two hundred years ago.  Stop Frankenstein.

Comments: This isn’t the Karloff monster.  Instead Deucalion (the son of Prometheus in Greek myth after whom he has named himself) is a haunted individual, long lived, with a tragic past who  has set foot on the road to redemption and self-sacrifice despite an inner struggle to suppress an inner rage that continually seeks release.  In Koontz’ Frankenstein we are presented with a heroic figure who has felt a divine presence in his life after some two hundred years of trying to grasp his place in the universe to the point he feels it his destiny to stop the unnatural perversions of his earthly creator.  As such, it was easy for me to cheer him on in the endeavor, particularly as we become more and more aware of the depths of Victor’s depraved mind and privy to what his new race is capable of with little to no remorse for who they hurt, kill and maim in the process.  Honestly, in the back of my mind I was constantly troubled by the ramifications of what an entire world populated by these cold killers would be like as I read and it was truly chilling to imagine.

The story is made all the richer by an interesting cast of characters including homicide detectives Carson O’ Conner and Michael Maddison who find themselves elbows deep in Victor’s plans desperately searching for answers as to what’s happening around them, as well as characters like Erica 4 and Randall 6 who despite being members of the “new race” prove that there’s a little more to his creations than even Victor can comprehend when they act contrary to his wishes, and with tendencies more akin to those he seeks to wipe out completely.  Koontz moves the story along at a breakneck pace, with short chapters that jump into the different characters perspectives and experience to piece together the narrative pinning down the underlying tapestry of the novel.  It’s a true page turner and an awful lot of fun in the process.  The first of a three part series there’s a lot to introduce and to discover in The Prodigal Son and its a fair criticism to say that the ending is a little abrupt, and surprisingly so, as it leads into the next installment but it does serve to prime the reader for the next chapter in City of  Night and I had little choice but to track that down and get started as quickly as I could.

Interestingly, the book was originally a script for a 2 hour pilot that Koontz had developed for an ongoing series on the USA Network, but as he explains in the foreword he pulled out of the project when extensive revisions to the script were made and disappointed in the direction it took, fully realized his story in the one we see here.  That’s good for us because it’s an exciting piece of work and one easily capable of completely capturing the imagination so I give it a very high recommendation to anyone even remotely interested in a good thriller, monster movie, or just a big ‘ol smile on your face.

Look for the 3rd installment of Dean Koontz’ Frankenstein, enttitled Dead or Alive on July 28th.


Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: A Review

May 19, 2009

endersgame_2Introductions: It’s been almost 15-years since a good friend of mine recommended Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  These were “the good old days,” we were in high school, I was dating my high school sweetheart and likely we were at his house discussing comics, religion or somesuch when in the course of the conversation he told me about Ender’s Game and that knowing my tastes I was sure to enjoy it.  I can recall only a few slivers of why he thought it would appeal to me, but an epic space battle and a group of warriors fighting in it that resembled a couple existing heroes of mine were probably part of the deal.  To be honest though, I wasn’t sold right away.  I loved Star Wars in its many forms, but beyond that, Sci-Fi wasn’t really my thing at all.  Still, I filed it away in the recesses of my mind for future reference and some 15 years later, shamed that I hadn’t yet read what was considered to be one of the greatest science fiction books of all time and primed through years of reading so as to see the error of my ways…here we are.

Synopsis: Set in Earth’s future, mankind finds itself performing a dangerous balancing act and tensions are high.  On the one hand, nations distrust one another and alliances are held together by weakening threads (as has long since been the case) but on the other hand mankind as a whole has only just begun to recover from a full-scale invasion by the Formics, or “buggers,” a highly intelligent insectoid race that attempted to subjugate the earth and its inhabitants before ultimately being driven back to their home world by a legendary pilot and more than a few dedicated individuals.  The earth knows a measure of peace, but what if the buggers return?  And what of the alliances left strained after the Formic War?  Thus the stage is set and we’re introduced to Andrew “Ender” Wiggen, a 6-year old boy that the International Fleet has had their eye on for some time.  Hand picked for his unique profile, family situation, and “skills” he is enrolled in the IF’s Battle School, an elite training academy removed far from the Earth’s atmosphere where he will train to potentially become an officer/commander in mankind’s future conflicts against the Formics.  In Battle School Ender is tried and tested in unique null gravity environments, high stress situations, and complex command simulators to the brink of exhaustion, and beyond, in the hopes that he is truly mankind’s next great hope.

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears,and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.  ‘That’s what you said about the brother.’ The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability. ‘Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.’  Not if the other person is his enemy.  ‘So what do we do? Surround himself with enemies all the time?’  If we have to.  ‘I thought you said you liked this kid.’  If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like the favorite uncle.  ‘All right. We’re saving the world, after all.  Take him.’

Comments: In many ways, Ender’s Game was chock full of the things that I had expected, even hoped, that it would be.  Ender is at once an interesting, if troubled, protagonist with infinite potential for good (and bad) in the unforgiving setting in which he finds himself.  I was immediately sympathetic to his increasingly complex situation and was often surprised when remembering that this was a very young adolescent who faced decisions that would make confident adults cower in fear.  A child that was shaped, and almost forced, to mold himself into a military savior for mankind.  I had expected a morality tale and one that would make me cheer for our hero.  Don’t get me wrong, we did get that in Ender, but we also got a very hard book that tackled some extremely raw themes and along the way we got a more multi-faceted hero than I would have at first imagined.  I was a little hasty in a previous column to state that Ender didn’t give up, that he moved forward in the toughest times recalling why he had joined the International Fleet in the first place.  But as I progressed in the novel I found that I was mistaken, there were times when he did give up, when it was all too much for him and he had to find a way to cope for awhile.  But it would be unjust for me to have expected him to never give up, to be a perfect soldier.  He wasn’t even 10-years old for 9/10ths of the book for heavens sake.  What would I have done at 10?  Or as the author himself aptly put it: “If, at times, they still seem immature, remember that they have adult intellects operating in children’s bodies with children’s emotional responses.” But Ender did persevere, he overcame grief, sickness and exhaustion to put one foot in front of the other and when he couldn’t find a reason to follow the orders his commanders gave, he substituted reasoning that would propel him forward to perform his duties for those back home.  He was asked to bear a burden that no one else could have shouldered — despite being lied to at every turn — and unbeknownst to him, he turned out to be the hero the earth needed and the hero we envisioned, if through the refiner’s fire.  Evidenced, I’d wager, in the role he takes up after learning the truth and embarking with his sister on their more ‘spiritual’  journey (don’t want to let those 29 year old spoilers out of the bag).  In the end I can say that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the descriptions of the ships, star fighters, or even the buggers as they could have been even more fascinating than they ended up being for me but they were all functional, certainly, and it was the only area that I noted a passing disappointment, outside of a general disdain for the idea that parents wouldn’t do all that they could to care for a child they had brought into the world, their apathy was more than a little disheartening but then again maybe there’s more to be explored there.  I loved the cast at the IF’s Battle School, Bean was a real hoot as were Alai, Dink and Petra who I hope to read about in the future Ender books.  Card’s pacing was franetic in the 324-page novel and there were plenty of times where I couldn’t put it down, which always drives home the fun I’m really having.  That joy of reading goes a long way with me and upon closing the book I can say not only that I had a really good time, but that Ender & Co. will likely stay with me for a long time to come…especially as I dive further into Card’s Enderverse with the arrival of the next 3 books later this week!

Rating: I’m still mulling over whether or not to give out numerical scores, and would love any feedback as to what you think, but I’d highly recommend the book and hope it doesn’t take you 15-years to sit down and read it when all is said and done.  It deserves a much quicker response time, like now.


Lilith by George MacDonald: A Review

May 14, 2009

macdonaldWhen I made the rather hasty decision of starting a blog based on my love of books, and it came time to find a name for it, I racked my brain thinking of something that might be witty, clever, and memorable for visitors — but when that endeavor utterly failed — my mind focused back on the fantasy novel that has likely had the greatest, and most profound, impact on me over the years and that was George MacDonald’s 1895 masterpiece, Lilith.  Arguably his greatest work.   In it, there is a peculiar raven that helps kick off the tale and he serves to be a wonderful surprise in the book and I thought it an appropriate theme of ‘beckoning beyond’ for the blog here.

But more on that as we go, don’t want to get too ahead of myself.

As Lilith opens, readers are immediately introduced to one Mr. Vane, a recent graduate of Oxford University and the inheritor of his families English estate.  Additionally, we learn of a mysterious specter that may be haunting the vast library within which servants in the home have heard whisperings of for some time.  And thus the tale begins in earnest when having spotted the specter Mr. Vane rushes after him, following him anxiously into a series of twists and turns in his home that he had heretofore been unfamiliar with, and straight into a small chamber in a vast expanse of chambers.  There, his gaze falls from sunlight forcing its way into the room upon an old mirror within:

It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle, with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball. I had been looking at rather than into the mirror, when suddenly I became aware that it reflected neither the chamber nor my own person. I have an impression of having seen the wall melt away, but what followed is enough to account for any uncertainty:–could I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture? I saw before me a wild country, broken and heathy. Desolate hills of no great height, but somehow of strange appearance, occupied the middle distance; along the horizon stretched the tops of a far-off mountain range; nearest me lay a tract of moorland, flat and melancholy.

Being short-sighted, I stepped closer to examine the texture of a stone in the immediate foreground, and in the act espied, hopping toward me with solemnity, a large and ancient raven, whose purply black was here and there softened with gray. He seemed looking for worms as he came. Nowise astonished at the appearance of a live creature in a picture, I took another step forward to see him better, stumbled over something–doubtless the frame of the mirror–and stood nose to beak with the bird: I was in the open air, on a houseless heath!

The Raven then…speaks.  And he informs our hero in a coarse, bird-like, voice that the best way to find out where he has come is to first “do something,” and that it best involve making himself “at home” in his new surroundings.  MacDonald employs  these riddles, thoughtful insights, and a grand imagination to force us to ask questions and to bring to vivid life a world that will forever change Mr. Vane as he struggles towards self-discoveries that test notions about his ‘self’ and the perceptions of everything around him, and in many cases, alters them completely.  Along the way Vane will meet giant abominations that rise from the ground below in the hopes of devouring prey, dancing skeletons, ignorant giants, the innocent “little ones,” ghosts of the fallen, great giant cats, a protective moon, and of course, Lilith herself.  Prior knowledge of Lilith is relatively unnecessary to enjoy the story but in supplying a little background, according to some texts in Jewish folk tradition, Lilith was Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden and the two had a falling away from one another when after a fashion Adam implored Lilith to submit to his will.  Following her refusal she became a demon, with great power, plaguing the children of men thereafter.  MacDonald uses her as a character in the tale as a means of setting up theological, physiological and psychological conflict between herself and Mr. Vane but even more so as a means of exploring the issues of good and evil,  defiance, beauty, repentance, to ultimately even mercy as it applies to us all.

So much was ours ere ever the first sun rose upon our freedom: what must not the eternal day bring with it!


I’ve meandered through Lilith on at least 3 different occasions now, and I use the word “meander” to intentionally denote that the experience is not one to be taken lightly, or at an accelerated pace, if indeed the reader wants to get as much out of it as possible.  Right off the bat it’s important to understand that this is a Christian work and that MacDonald requires an honest effort from the reader to work within himself to both ask and answer questions that the book presents in order to best move forward.  If a work of faith is not what you’re looking for then perhaps its best to look elsewhere, though I’d always recommend giving it a try first.  And like Mr. Vane, we won’t have all the answers right in front of us but little by little a small phrase here becomes deeper in its allegory, and a symbol there becomes a clue to the true nature of a character.  But make no mistake, this is a fun and entertaining book full of thought that’s worth reading as a fantasy “romance” but there are certainly levels to what one can take from it.  After 3 readings I’m more and more aware that I’ve not even scratched the surface of all there is to glean from its contents, but I come out of it even more fulfilled than the last time and maybe a little more honest with myself with each attempt.  It is not a pretentious work reeking in the idea of its own self-importance by any means, rather, it is an experience in reflection exposing some really nasty stuff, while offering a hopeful alternative if we’re willing to learn and grow as Mr. Vane ultimately chose to do.  At its heart, Lilith is a novel about finding one’s true self and where true happiness comes from and thus it becomes a deeply personal work.  Which is likely the point.

If you’ve never had the chance to read anything by George MacDonald and wonder what it was that inspired the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Lewis Carroll among the other giants of fantasy then please do yourself a favor and take some time to acquaint yourself with any number of his stories.  They’re all extremely enriching experiences.

And I give Lilith the highest recommendation.