Ruins or Lumps

If one wished to read the Essalieyan series in chronological order, they would start with the Sacred Hunt duology, follow it with the first three House War novels, then all of Sun Sword, and end with the rest of House War.  This, of course, does not include the short stories or books yet to be written…but the latter are likely to take place after the existing novels anyway.

I mention chronology because in The Shining Court, book three of Sun Sword, Jewel ATerafin walks a strange road that will shape her future in many ways.  Avandar Gallias, her domicis, is less than amused by this of course.  For the record, a domicis is a personal servant.  When someone like Jewel is served, the domicis is almost their other half, a servant who serves only them, and devotes the whole of their life to their master.  It’s a complicated position that I won’t go into much detail about at this time, mostly because we explore the meaning of the term in other books, not this one.  And I need a bit of a refresher before I go more in depth.

Here in book three, the Voyani begin to come into their own.  These are families, similar to the clans who rule and dwell in the Dominion, who choose a nomadic lifestyle instead.  The Voyani have a matriarchal rule, unlike the clansmen, and are known to have old powers in their bloodlines.  However, little is known for sure given that they are incredibly insular and untrusting.  Still, they are vital to the climax of this particular book.

The Shining Court is the story of one of the biggest gambles to date made by the titular entity.  In fact, this Court is that of Allasakar, the Lord of Night, and his demons.  The Court also has its share of human members, who seek power by allying themselves with the darkness.  The very name evokes the same sort of emotion that sees paranormal romance as a popular genre: that there is something attractive and desirable in what we know to be evil.

Where last book centered on the Festival of the Sun and the Kings’ Challenge, summer holidays around the longest day, this one centers on the Festival of the Moon and the longest night.  Here, in The Shining Court, Michelle West begins to reveal the ancient truths that modern Essalieyan cultures are founded upon.  It’s not like Lord of the Rings where you see ruins dotting the landscape everywhere, reminding the viewer/reader that we are looking at declining civilations squatting on the remains of their gloried ancestors.  Instead, West is gently brushing away the lumps of sand to reveal the stone that lay buried beneath.  And, as you might predict, that stone is far larger and more complete than we could have believed from merely seeing lumps of sand on the surface.  But we’ll get more into that as the series progresses and then even further in the second half of House War.  And then you have to stop and think and remember that even House War is still just setup.  That at that point we still have seers looking at the future and a climax larger than any we’ve yet seen.

I know I’ve mentioned how much I love these books.  But I will have to continue to repeat myself.  I can see it here and now simply in how I write this post.  I admit, it took me a bit to get started, but the more I talked about the series as a whole and where it’s going, the faster I started typing and the more excited I got.  Just like with The Shining Court, where it almost seemed like I read faster as I got closer and closer to the major plot point of this climax; the halfway point in Sun Sword.

So what am I doing still typing here?  Obviously I should be starting the next book.

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Tournament Book

Have I mentioned how much I adore the Sun Sword series by Michelle West?  Because it bears repeating.  I’ve just finished The Uncrowned King, book two in this set.  You know how there’s different types of shows, particularly in anime?  You’ve got your school shows, your slice of life shows, your tournament shows, etc.

This is a tournament book.

I should back up.  In The Broken Sword, we saw the Dominion’s ruling clan, Leonne, slaughtered to the last man, woman, and child to make way for a new ruler.  The only member of the entire clan to be spared was Valedan di’Leonne, the boy who had been sent north as a hostage.  His mother was one of the Tyr’agar’s wives, true, but she was also a seraf.  Valedan was legitimized only so that he could be sent north as the Tyr’agar’s son; a cheat to the system allowing the true-born sons to remain in the Dominion.

Now, Valedan kai di’Leonne has claimed his father’s title as a way to survive and to take back what rightfully belongs to his clan.  One way he has chosen to make his mark is by entering the Essalieyan Empire’s annual competition, the Kings’ Challenge.  If it isn’t quite a tournament, it is still a contest of many skills.  Of the many applicants from within and without the Empire, one hundred are chosen to compete in the events.  I think there are ten.  There is one winner in each event, and one overall winner.  Like in track & field, contestants may enter for a single or multiple events, but can only be the overall winner if they participate in every single competition.  The only one of the events which falls into a tournament bracket is the test of the sword, the final event.

We don’t actually see any of the tournament part of the Challenge, save for the important fights in it, which number only two.  But the various events keep pace throughout the book as several key characters rush around Averalaan trying to filnd all the demons before they can cause trouble.

Did I mention demons in the first book?  If not, by the way, there are demons.  They’d like their Lord of Night, Allasakar, to rule the world.  They cause trouble for our heroes.

The Uncrowned King is Valedan’s book, more than anyone else’s.  He is the titular character, and it is his task to grow and become wise fast enough to earn respect so that when he goes South to claim his birthright, he does so as Tyr’agar, and not as someone’s pawn.

It’s yet another well-written book in one of my favorite series.  There are some lighthearted moments, even jokes, but there are also tender and touching moments, some of which cannot be fully appreciated without a deeper understanding of the Essalieyan series as a whole.  I feel I notice new things every time I reread these books, and love them for it.

In other news, I have started working through From the Ashes, and I managed to pick up a few more books over the weekend.  There was this sidewalk sale in Wicker Park, which I convinced a friend of mine to attend with me.  And then, because getting from Uptown to Wicker Park involves both the El and the CTA, we also stopped at The Gallery on our way back.  (IE, a one-way Ventra ticket is $3, but a one-day ticket is $10 and you can guess which one I bought on Saturday.)

I do appreciate how The Gallery always has at least one book that I am actively searching for, even if I started the day out with nothing in mind.  Aside from the one, I decided it was time to revisit an author that I may have been too young to read the last time I gave her a real try.  But more on that when I get to those books.  It’ll be a bit since, as you’ve noticed, I am still somewhat busy and these books are still on the long side.  I did mention how the whole Sun Sword needs to use my saga-sized book cover, right?

Next up, The Shining Court.  And isn’t that a misnomer.

Progress

Well I did it.  I finally finished beta reading Through Storm and Night for Lauren Jankowski.  Like the first book, I noticed some key additions referring to sexuality (or lack thereof) that I knew hadn’t been present before, but for the most part this was a better book to start with than Sere from the Green.  I didn’t make nearly as many comments and suggestions, which is not really surprising.  After all, Lauren’s a smart person who learns from experience and so it’s clear that her second book would be an improvement on the first.

Taken as a whole, that means that Sere from the Green needed far more extensive edits and changes before it was ready to be republished than the rest of the series.  That’s not to say that none of the other books can benefit from a look-see, as my complaints about The Broken Crown show how small errors can slip through the cracks.  After all, those are the kind of problems I’m trying to help prevent.

It’s nice to have sent Through Storm and Night back to Lauren.  I’ve come to think of beta reading as being similar to a homework assignment.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does take more focus and attention to detail than I might otherwise employ.  Plus there’s the guilt factor.  I feel guilty on the nights that I don’t read a chapter, despite the fact that there is no law saying I have to do this, or the fact that sometimes I really just want to laze and turn on the TV and not think for a while.  I guess part of why it’s felt like homework is the fact that I did have a deadline – after I insisted that such a thing was necessary if she wanted it back in under two months.  It wasn’t a bad deadline at all and I’ve beaten it easily.  It just adds to the feeling of “work” versus “pleasure.”

On the other hand, the clear evidence that my homework makes my friend ridiculously happy does a great deal to ameliorate the mental pain.  And I can blame work in part as well.

And yes, From the Ashes is in my inbox.

Pleasure and Problems

The unspoken rule of the used bookstore is that they never have book one in a series.  Or they have one…but also four and five.  Not two and three.  Or whatever it is you need.  In short, collecting a series from used bookstores is a pain in the ass.  But, if you’re interested and not a fan of “cheating” by resorting to amazon’s marketplace, patience can pay off.  After Michelle Sagara West added herself to my mental list of authors, I began to notice a particular set of books on the shelf.  I saw several different numbers, but never the right ones.  Until one day, when I found books one, two, and three – half the series.  Pleased by the find, I bought them.

I took the books home and I read them soon after, one after another.  Then, impatient to continue the tale, I did break down and order the other three through amazon.  And devoured them upon arrival.  Then, as if this were not enough, I reread the six books mere months later.

I haven’t read everything Michelle Sagara West has written to date, but of what I have seen, I believe The Sun Sword to be her finest work.  These six books are the second set of Essalieyan books, and they have it all.  Grand scale.  War.  Magic.  Good.  Evil.  Characters.  Cultures.  Everything.  This series has quickly become one of my favorites.

It’s no surprise that I’ve been toying with the thought of rereading these books for some months now.  Indeed, part of why I put it off as long as I did was because I had thought to reread the whole Essalieyan series, all fourteen books.  But then I realized that, you know, the Sacred Hunt is decent, and House Wars are interesting, but I don’t care for either of those nearly as much as Sun Sword.  And the anthology is all well and good, but there’s only one story in there that I can reread as often as these six books.

The book I finished today was The Broken Crown, book one of Sun Sword.  As for why it’s taken me so long…I’ve been watching some TV of late.  Well, not live TV.  DVDs.  Not that it matters too much, just that it’s been a distraction.  Of course, given that only one book in the whole Essalieyan series will fit into my normal book cover, not the saga-sized one, you can see that these books may take a bit longer than my norm.  But enough about that, let’s talk content.

Essalieyan is the name of the Empire in this series.  It is a country bordered by the ocean to the east and mountains to the south, ruled by the Twin godborn Kings.  These two are the sons of the gods Reymaris and Cormaris, Justice and Wisdom, and half-human.  In fact, the country has been ruled by Twin Kings, children of these same two gods, for centuries.  It’s a progressive country in many respects, where women are equals and slavery is illegal.  Beneath the Twin Kings are the Ten.  These are powerful noble houses, merchant princes, who rule where the Kings do not have direct oversight.  There are no bloodlines in the Ten, rather they adopt the most fitting people into their Houses.  But most of this is only important as background information.

The Sun Sword focuses on Essalieyan’s southern neighbor, the Dominion of Annagar.  If the Empire equates to Europe, then Annagar is definitely Asian-influenced.  (I hesitate to say anything stronger because while I am familiar with some aspects of Asian cultures, I am no expert.)  Here, women are expected to be subservient, yet they can wield great power under less obvious circumstances.  Clansmen are served by serafs who are technically slaves, yet view themselves more as devoted servants.

The ruler of Annagar is the Tyr’agar.  He controls the Terrean of Raverra and the Tor Leonne, the Lake which is said to be imbued with mystical power.  There are four other Terreans, each ruled by a Tyr’agnate whose allegiance is given to the Tyr’agar. The Tyr’agnate in turn are served by several Tor’agar.  There are also Tyran and Toran (oathguards) and the Radann, who are priests to the only god that is openly worshipped in Annagar, the Lord of the Sun.

I have spent so long discussing the setting of this book and no time at all on what actually happens.  Well, when you have over seven hundred pages, and cover events spanning more than sixteen years, that must be expected.  The other five books will take place during a span of months immediately following The Broken Crown, but I tell you now they cannot answer all the questions a reader may raise.  As I mentioned, this series currently has three separate collections within it, plus an anthology of shorter tales.  And, more importantly, there is at least one more series-within-a-series to come, wherein (hopefully) the various pieces put into play over the course of the preceeding novels will come together in an epic conclusion.

I love the Sun Sword so much.  There is something so intensely satisfying about these books, and yet, they are not perfect.  In fact, there are only two flaws that I truly take note of.  One, a simple grammatical error.  “To” instead of “too” in a single instance.  A forgiveable offense, given the enthralling nature of the book and the sheer length.  Since helping Lauren Jankowski with the new editions of her books, I have a better appreciation for this.  The other error, however, is more problematic.

As I’ve implied, the Essalieyan books are a world apart from all we know.  A universe unto themselves.  Which is why it drives me utterly insane when West uses the term “Pyrrhic victory.”  In her world, there was no King Pyrrhus, no city of Epirus, no Romans and certainly no Battle of Heraclea.  Which means that this phrase cannot possibly exist in Essalieyan nor have the same contextual meaning.

Sure, there’s the argument that any book about another world is really just translated into English for the sake of the reader and so we can use this convenient shorthand that the reader understands, but it’s the same argument I have about measurements.  If you’re writing about ancient Japan, they aren’t going to measure distance in miles or even kilometers.  It would be ri, cho, or shaku, depending on the size of the land or object.  True, the reader may not have a deep understanding of how these differ from the systems we are familiar with in America.  But is that strictly necessary?  A good author can describe things well enough that we get an idea that a shaku is more like a foot and a ri is more like a mile.  This way, the immersion isn’t broken.

Like I said, those are the only two real flaws I can find in The Broken Crown.  The rest is a delightful read full of politics, intrigue, and buildup.

Redwall

When I was nine or ten years old, my reading teacher beckoned me towards the cubbies on her wall, each containing a basket of books.  She fished out a volume and handed it to me saying “You should read this.”  As I reflect back, I know she meant “you should be able to read this at your age and comprehension level.”  All I knew was that this was one of the largest books I’d ever undertaken to read.  And so I discovered Brian Jacques’ Redwall series through The Outcast of Redwall.

I was instantly hooked.  It was my first exposure to anything that epic, and I was thoroughly enthralled.  And then to discover there was even more!?  I could find out about the founding of Redwall Abbey, the history behind the legend of Martin the Warrior, I could even read the book that started it all!  For the next several years, Redwall would become one of my favorite series of all time.

Yet it didn’t even last a decade.  By the time I was in highschool I read those books less and less, and gradually stopped buying the new volumes as well.  I’d realized that, while the books had been wonderful and new and exciting at first, they were almost all the same story, written over and over again with different variations.  In fact, it may be entirely the fault of this series for the bad reaction I had to The Lord of the Isles series as I realized that every single book would follow an identical format.

Flaws aside, I did love Redwall, and it still holds a special place in my heart.  When I did some serious pruning of my library a few years back, I dumped about half of the series, keeping only those books that hold some kind of special resonance for me that I won’t get from the others.  Those few are MossflowerOutcast of RedwallMariel of RedwallThe BellmakerSalamandastron, and Martin the Warrior.  (To be honest, off the top of my head I cannot recall why I still have Salamandastron besides the fact that it’s too damaged to sell in good conscience.  I may have to reread it to find out.)  You may wonder why not the original Redwall or its sequel Mattimeo. Frankly, Redwall suffers from a lot of first book syndrome and is, in the end, the simplest story in the entire series.  As for Mattimeo…I have honestly never really cared for that book.  I only ever read it a handful of times, which says a lot when I’ve just mentioned the amount of damage I’ve done to Salamandastron just reading it.

Looking back on Outcast of Redwall now that I’ve reread it for the first time in over a decade, I think how childish these books truly are.  Oh sure, they’re big books, usually 300-400 pages long, and they include violence, death, and politics.  But there’s something too simplistic about how the world is set up.  Woodland creatures such as mice, otters, moles, squirrels, shrews, badgers, etc. are all good.  Vermin, like rats, stoats, ferrets, foxes, etc. are all evil.  There’s no middle ground.  On reflection, I have to wonder if this is a form of racism that Jacques projected onto his books.  Sure, it’s particularly easy when producing content for kids to go for blanket good and evil.  But because it’s so easy it’s also shallow and unfulfilling.  The real world is shades of grey, not black and white.

Not to mention the fact that most of the different species have varied accents which are written out in the book, requiring readers to puzzle out what’s being said.  This may have been fun as a child, but now it’s rather annoying to translate “Aye, h’ex, that be moi mark, oi be gudd at makin’ et, hurr!” into “Yes, an x is my mark and I’m good at making it, ha!”  Those accents, combined with the endless couplets, rhymes, poems, and songs, fill up numerous pages and clearly show that yes, these stories were originally oral tales, meant to amuse children for a time.  There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, I just have a lot less patience for it than I did when I was younger.

Don’t misunderstand: the Redwall books are still good and worth reading as a child.  I simply found that I grew up and past them at some point.  That’s why it’s been so long since I last read any one of them: I know that most of my pleasure will come from nostalgia, not the work itself.

Well, now that I’ve rambled on for over seven hundred words, I think we can safely say that the contents of this book are of lesser importance in comparison.  If you’ve read a Brian Jacques book before, you can make some educated guesses on what happens here.  If you’ve read Mossflower, you may recall that very last scene of the book which was lifted wholesale and shoved into the middle of a chapter here, without even bothering to change a single word, despite the fact that it features the book’s main character.  If I’m still writing this blog the next time I reread Outcast of Redwall, I’ll try to make that post about the actual story.

Book

It occurs to me that I’ve probably read more nonfiction since starting this blog than I have since I graduated college.  Which is weird, because I read a lot of nonfiction as a kid.  I had a complete set of the Peanuts encyclopedias (volume 9 was purple and about space!), a bunch of miscellaneous Usborne books, some DK Pocket editions (some of which are still in my library), The Big Book of Tell Me Why, etc.  I still read more fiction than nonfiction, but it wasn’t as high a ratio as it is today.

Mulling over this change, the biggest conclusion I can draw is textbooks.  They are the driest, least engaging nonfiction books I can think of off the top of my head.  And we’re talking textbooks and editions from several years ago at the latest – my sister tells me that some of her new textbooks haven’t even been edited properly for grammatical mistakes.  I don’t remember many errors like that in the textbooks I had, but I honestly can’t remember much about them.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned the material and not just for the tests.  But aside from conveying information, there was nothing memorable about the books themselves.  I guess you could see that as a good thing from some perspectives – that there’s nothing getting between you and the information – but that’s a flawed view at best.  Any time information is being conveyed, whether it’s verbally, textually, or any other method, it is being altered.  Whether it’s the emphasis placed on a particular word, the choice of vocabulary, or even the structure of the sentences and paragraphs, the author is leading the reader to look at this piece of information in a particular light – though they may not even realize what it is they’re doing.

Back to my point, most textbooks are boring.  In fact, the books I remember enjoying were the “atypical textbooks.”  That is to say, books that aren’t really textbooks.  This includes the poetry and novels I read in Native American Literature as well as the books for Barbarians in History.  Yes, my university offered a junior-level history course titled Barbarians in History, and it was absolutely wonderful.  We talked about the big ones – Vikings, Huns, and Mongols – as well as less-publicized groups like the Vandals and Visigoths.  There were three “textbooks” assigned for that class, and not a single one was your typical specialized encylopedia.

One was a translated account from a monk who had visited the court of the Mongols, another was a look at Viking life as seen through the finds at a specific archeological dig, and the last is a collected series of lectures about the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  That third book, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians by J.B. Bury, was by far the best of the lot.  It wasn’t cluttered by measurements notes from the dig, nor was it couched in language that I found difficult to understand even though my copy was translated into English.  It was written in a factual, objective manner by someone who was an expert in his field – likely one of the first modern books to be so objective (originally published in 1928).  The only complaint I personally had is that, as a book, the collected lectures lacked a conclusion.  But the reasoning behind that is simple when you remind yourself that yes, this was just a series of lectures that were printed and bound for public consumption.

(I really should find out what happened to my copy of that book.  Or I should get a new one.  It’d be worth rereading now that I don’t have to write a report about it.)

Anyway, I generally haven’t read much nonfiction for myself, unrelated to classes and grades, in years.  Sure, there’ve been some scattered volumes throughout, but those were about as frequent as my forays into other genres.  And yet, there’s something about that bookstore at the Renaissance Faire that just seems to get me to buy nonfiction!  First it was The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, and then it was Cary Elwes’ As You Wish.  Today it was The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston.

So, what was it that attracted me to this particular Book?  To start with, I am a sucker for a well-designed book.  And I don’t just mean a book made to look nice, with quality materials.  I mean a book that’s been laid out and designed by someone who is as much a designer as I am, and who understands that there is so much more you can do with a physical product than pinpoints of light on a computer screen.

 

The design is apparent from the start as the book describes the elements of its makeup and layout from the cover in.  It’s not on every single page, of course, as that would distract from the text, but when a new element is shown, there’s usually a descriptor alongside, just like the ones shown here.

Now, what is this Book about?  It is, quite simply, an overview of the history that is behind every single book we read today.  Houston discusses the materials, the methods of conveying text and images, and finally the actual physical shape and form in depth.  And he does so in a manner that I found to be interesting and engaging, as opposed to dry and interminable.  Of course, when you’ve got a quote from The Princess Bride snuck in there, I’m going to have a more positive opinion.

This book managed to hit so very many of my buttons – in a good way!  I mean, we all know I love books in general and we’ve looked at the design.  I think I’ve also made it clear that I do enjoy history as well, but that’s far from all.  There’s also etymology (the origins of words), art, typography, and just a friendly and open way of writing.  I found myself on multiple occasions hearkening back to recent reads like The Cat of Bubastes and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  The Book is the kind of book that takes what you know, reminds you of what you’ve forgotten, and then builds off of that to take you to the next level of understanding how all these disaparate pieces fit together.

Now, it is not the lightest of reads, given the subject matter and the fact that it takes more attention and time than a simple fantasy adventure.  But it does help that the last hundred pages or so (the total book comes in at 428) are reference material.  Suggested readings, sources, index, you get the idea.  So it has taken me a bit longer than usual to plow my way through.  And, as you can tell, I was thinking about other books at the same time.  Kind of like what happens when I reread Les Miserables.  Except in that case my brain says “I’m having a great time but dear sweet gods above when will it end!?

All in all, I did enjoy myself with The Book and found it quite educational and informative.  At this point in time, I cannot imagine myself rereading it, but I am keeping it anyway.  Design scores big with me.  If this post wasn’t already over twelve hundred words in length, I’d probably talk about The Octopus Rises as well.  But I’ve already digressed enough for one day.

Comparisons

A friend of mine told me yesterday that they didn’t care for Clockwork Heart’s sequels nearly as much as the original.  That Dru Pagliassotti had set the bar too high and these two simply couldn’t measure up.  I replied that I couldn’t accurately judge until I’d finished Clockwork Secrets: Heavy Fire.  At the same time, I was reminded of something I heard about Michael Jackson.  You see, after the massive success of his Thriller album, Bad seemed to be a letdown.  However, if we look back, some of Jackson’s best work was on Bad.  It’s just that everyone was so hyped up for Thriller that any merely human album following it would be a letdown.

Do I think Clockwork Lies and Clockwork Secrets are perfect?  Absolutely not.  But I don’t think that of Clockwork Heart either.  I will admit that all the cloak-and-dagger spy stuff kind of gets old after a while, but that’s because I’m not particularly interested in sensational thrillers.  And I think that there’s a fair bit of coincidences…but when Cristof Forlore is the only exalted ambassador and Taya is his icarus and wife…it makes sense that they’d end up in these crazy situations.

In the end, I find it difficult to complain a book that ends with me laughing.

They say you should finish strong, because whatever you end with will be the last impression a reader has of your book.  And that’s true.  I laughed as much after Clockwork Secrets as I did for C.S. Friedman’s The Madness Season.  Not that these two books have much else in common, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the last thing I read was hilarious and I loved it and even if this book isn’t perfect, it ended on a great note.

There’s more travel here than in the last book, and over larger distances too, so not quite as much time is spent describing the journeys, which is fine.  We do get to visit two new countries: one in greater detail than the other though.  There’s a fair bit on the horror of war, which has been touched upon in the first two novels, but is expanded and expounded upon here (war sucks, yo).  Most importantly, most of the storylines have been wrapped up by the finale, and it looks like things will finally calm down for a while.

Clockwork Secrets is described as the final book in the Clockwork Trilogy and I’d agree with that.  It is what a third book should be; the biggest, the messiest, the one that wraps it all up.  However, the world Pagliassotti’s created isn’t small and has a great deal of depth.  I could definitely see her revisiting these places and/or characters again in separate novels or short stories.  Either later on in the timeline or at different locations during the already-existing books.  I’m not demanding a sequel or anything, just observing that I feel more stories could be told, if the author so chooses.

One nice touch is that the reader gets a chance to consider several different viewpoints, such as that of Ondinium, Demicus, Cabiel, and even a bit of Mareaux.  That last seems best at keeping its opinions to itself and just trying to stay out of the war.  Kind of like a gamer sitting at a table declaring to their fellows “I’m Switzerland!”

Do I agree with my friend?  I don’t think so.  I like that Clockwork Heart can stand completely on its own, but this is no surprise considering that Clockwork Lies wasn’t released until five years later, with Clockwork Secrets following a year after that.  These books weren’t originally conceived as a trilogy and so while the two newer volumes twine together, they do have a different tone and feel in many ways from the first.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can’t possibly be surprising.

Authors are always growing and developing as they work, just like anyone else.  Clockwork Heart was Paglassotti’s first novel and we all know that nobody’s first novel is perfect.  I was talking to Lauren Jankowski about Sere from the Green and its revision process and she commented that its page count has jumped the most of her first four books.  Which is quite surprising given that it was the first book, the roughest book, the book that most clearly showed how much she has learned and grown since it was written.  I cannot hold a first book against an author for having normal “first book issues” so long as I enjoy reading it.  What’s important is that successive books improve from that jumping-off point.

So in that respect, I suspect that the later two books are probably technically better.  They don’t have the same sense of wonder and discovery as the first, but it’s difficult to do that when the first book in a world is our initial introduction and exploration of a brand new world.  And, to be fair, I think Clockwork Secrets captures a bit of that when our heroes visit Cabiel for the first time, Taya’s dream come true.

Actually, part of what works and creates that sense of wonder in both Clockwork Heart and Cabiel is Taya’s viewpoint.  Taya loves her country, her city, and her job, and that joy permeates everything she does and everything she is.  Cabiel is, as I said, a country she has always longed to visit, and being able to do so, regardless of circumstance, is a dream come true.  So of course those experiences are much more positive than say…Alanza.

At the end of the night, I guess I’m saying that I can’t really judge if one book is better than the other two or not.  I’ve enjoyed all three, and am pleased to own them.  And who knows, maybe someday soon I’ll see something else by Dru Pagliassotti.

I’m Shocked

Not too many months back I reread Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti.  I originally picked it up on a friend’s recommendation.  Reflecting back, I can see why she enjoyed it so: she is a pilot, and the icarii fly through the various levels of Ondinium. Does every pilot dream of free-flying?  It seems to be a common theme whenever the two are in the same story, pilots and free-flight.

Anyway, I discovered that there were two more books after Clockwork Heart and dumped them on my amazon wishlist for later.  Later, of course, being that large order recently.  And today I felt like finding out what happened to Taya Icarus and Exalted Cristof Forlore after the events of that book.  Thus, I read Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind.

Spoiler that you find out quite early: Taya and Cristof got married.  The book opens with the pair in Mareaux, the neighboring country from which Taya’s grandparents hailed.  They are doing the kind of diplomatic work discussed at the end of Clockwork Heart and seem to be doing a decent job of it.  It’s only been a year or so since the events of the previous book.  But everything goes wrong after the second attempt on Cristof’s life, prompting the delegation to return to Ondinium.  Then shit gets real.

In what is a standard move for trilogies and series, after an initial book that takes place within a single city, the second book involves multiple locations spanning a map that sadly, doesn’t exist.  Or if it does, it’s not available in the book.  It’s a minor complaint, since many books do not include maps.  Many of the side characters from the first book get cameo appearances, but the focus is on Taya, Cristof, and Lieutenant Amcaratha, Cristof’s lictor ally.  I’d say “friend,” except the man is quite stoic and difficult to get a read on, even through descriptive text.  I’m sure that’s intentional, though it does make Taya’s resolution towards him at the end of Clockwork Lies all the more amusing.

Like many second books, Clockwork Lies shows that the events of its predecessor, terrible as they may be, are really just precursors to what happens within its pages, and likely what is still to come.  The stakes are raised to involve the whole country, not just the capital city.  I was thoroughly enthralled.

I had paused in my reading to glance back at the front, hoping for a map that I had somehow overlooked, when I stopped and stared at the title page.  This book was purchased through amazon, but from a third party vendor.  Not off the marketplace, mind you, but bought brand new through someone partnered with amazon that utilized their free shipping.

And it is signed.

Signed by Dru Pagliassotti, dated “Steampunk Extravaganza 2014.”

I am, as you might notice, still having trouble processing this tiny piece of information.  There was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than a new book that happened to ship from somewhere other than one of amazon’s warehouses.  Did I get lucky?  Well yeah.  Is this company’s whole stock signed?  I have no idea.  I am just trying to understand how I randomly got a signed book without paying up for it in any way, shape, or form.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled.  The only thing that would be better is if I got her to sign my older, well-loved copy of Clockwork Heart.  And probably Clockwork Secrets because I doubt that one has anything special to it, having shipped from amazon directly.

(I just checked.  That title page is free of all pen marks, showing only the printed text.)

So, there you have it.  A totally unexpected bonus to my day.  And the book is good, even if I still prefer the first one.  But I may be a sucker for origin stories, not to mention books that can easily stand alone.  If I hadn’t chosen to look up Dru Pagliassotti randomly one day, I could’ve gone the rest of my life thinking Clockwork Heart was a standalone novel.  And I would’ve been fine with that.  In contrast to Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, not only does the book conclude it’s plot, but it ties up the loose ends in such a way that you didn’t need more.  More is great, but it’s not like Sunshine which barely scratched the surface of the available mysteries to unravel.

For Kids

I built up the Pile rapidly and recently with amazon and the Newberry’s book sale.  Now I’m working on getting it back down simply because the books are there to read and experience for the first time.  Which brings me to today’s read, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart.

This is a tiny little book, only 188 pages long, and some of those are full-page illustrations.  Not many, but just enough to, along with the protagonists and the writing style, make it clear that this is a children’s book.  Actually, it reminds me of Last Chance for Magic, that old Scholastic book I reread last November.  A Walk in Wolf Wood can never be as inherently disappointing because, having never read it before, I had no expectations.

A brother and sister are on vacation with their family in Germany.  Having toured a ruined castle, the group pulls off the road into the Wolf Wood for a picnic lunch and some relaxation.  When their parents fall asleep, the two see a strange man, tears streaming down his face, walk by.  He is dressed for days long gone, and curious, the two follow him.  They end up in the fourteenth century, and it is now their mission to help this man recover his life so that they can return home.

Well, maybe their return doesn’t hinge on completing the mission.  It does read to me as if, should they choose not to aid the man, they would be allowed to return to their own time with no harm done.  Except, of course, then we wouldn’t have a story.

What is an interesting difference between A Walk in Wolf Wood and Last Chance for Magic is the fact that the former magically helps the two adapt.  There isn’t some magical ability for everyone to speak the same language, just that the siblings are magically granted the knowledge necessary to fit in to the world in which they find themselves.  John (the brother) knows how to use an eating knife, Margaret (the sister) knows how to curtsy and properly address elegant ladies, etc.

An interesting twist is that the longer the two spend in the medieval era, the more they forget about the modern day (circa 1980).  They know they aren’t from this place or time, but they begin to lose their knowledge and vocabulary of the present.  In the context of the story it’s not necessarily a bad thing as this serves to protect the two from being killed as witches or enchanters, but it does pose some questions for what might have happened if they stayed longer.

Now, because this is a tale of correcting a wrong, it would be a stronger story if the castle tour that happened just before the book opened had conveyed a tragic legend of some kind, then the magic offered the children a chance to right this wrong.  That would make it a slightly more satisfying conclusion, like in a certain episode of Power Rangers: Time Force.  In that one, the yellow ranger is told a ghost story about the clock tower the group has made their home.  That night, she falls asleep and is somehow transported back in time.  She helps the spirit find his happiness and, in the morning, discovers she has changed the past.  No longer is the clock tower haunted, and everyone lived happily ever after.

It feels kind of awkward to be saying that a cheesy TV show from the early 2000s did a better version of this kind of story in 20 minutes than this book did in 200 pages.

Like I said, this isn’t a bad book.  Nor is it a great one.  It’s…acceptable.  I’ll keep it for the time being, but the next time I need to prune my collection it’ll probably go.

Diving In

Yet another book from that time I had an amazon giftcard is The Tree of Water, the fourth volume in the Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme by Elizabeth Haydon.  I really did want it in paperback, but considering the book was published three years ago and still has no paperback release in sight…I surrendered to my impatience to find out what happens when Ven chooses to go explore Amariel’s home in the ocean.

Like the rest of the Lost Journals, this is a book for younger readers.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s still a stark contrast when I reflect on the differences between the Lost Journals and the Symphony of Ages.  I mean, the former involves elements like…fish out of water, parent issues, all sorts of things that stop shy of even kissing.  Symphony of Ages, on the other hand, has a former prostitute for a main character and rape rears its ugly head more than once.

I suppose another way to look at it is the fact that Ven’s story takes place in the Second Age, and whenever we reflect on the past, where and whenever it may have been, we consider it to have been a better world, a simpler time, superior to today’s world.  In contrast, the Symphony of Ages takes place mostly in the Fourth Age and shows us a darker, grittier world.  Of course, most of the characters in those books are adults as opposed to the teenagers Ven knows, but still.

Also I am trying not to think too hard on the science of having to go to the highest mountain in the deepest trench because there is so very much pressure down there.  But, that’s where Frothta, the Tree of Water, has set its roots.  This is one of the five World Trees, the middle in age which range from Sagia, the oldest, to the “youngest” of the Great White Tree.  The Trees grow in the birthplaces of the elements, and their existence keeps magic in the world.  (Technically there is a sixth Tree, but we don’t talk about that one.  Just like we don’t talk about the Sleeping Child or the Vault.  And none of this is in Ven’s journals.)

From the pseudo-prologue at the start of the book, it’s clear that The Tree of Water was meant to be the first in another set of three Lost Journals.  That’s clear enough by publication dates; this one was released six years after The Dragon’s Lair.  I suppose there’s no real cause for concern at this time though, because it’s not the first time Haydon’s had a long break between books.  It was seven years after The Assassin King came out that The Merchant Emperor was released, though afterwards the other two followed in quick succession.  I don’t know what’s up in her personal life, so I won’t bother to hazard a guess.  All I know is that she intended to write more, so I’ll just have to be patient and keep an eye open.

As for the content and story of this book…it really does follow the same pattern as Ven’s previous adventures.  One or more people asks him to go somewhere, he ends up going for several reasons, picks up one or more friends, solves some problems almost by happenstance, has some terrifying moments wherein he or a companion nearly dies, and then makes it safely back to tell the King about his travels.  I’m not saying this is a bad formula, merely that this is a kid’s book and patterns tend to be more obvious in books for younger readers.

I enjoyed it.  I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time.  I do kind of wish these were adult books, but I’ll take what I can get from a good author in a deep and detailed world.