Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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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.

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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.

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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!

Comments:

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.