Friday, 28 September 2012

Prophecy of the Flame

Title: Prophecy of the Flame
Series: Prophecy of the Flame #1
Author: Lynn Hardy
Pages: 373 (ebook)
Published: November 20th 2011
Published by: Resilient Publishing

In a blinding flash of light, five strangers are yanked from this world and thrust into a land of sorcery as they are granted the looks and abilities of the people they were playing. This band of wannabe heroes soon discovers that having the powers they have always dreamed of, does not make life a dream come true. The Crusaders of the Light struggle to form a cohesive band as they blend twentieth century technology with the supernatural powers of this new world, fighting to liberate the kingdom of Cuthburan from the evil horde threatening humanity. Battle is also waged within Reba, an ordinary housewife who has become the most powerful mage on the planet, as she struggles to remain true to her wedding vows. Drawn against her will to the arms of Prince Alexandros, Reba must choose marriage toa handsome prince in a magical world or returning to the husband she left behind.

Five strangers are live-action role-playing when they are yanked from Earth to an alternate dimension to help fight a hoard of demons. In the process they are transformed into the characters they were pretending to be, both physically and in terms of ability.An interesting concept poorly written basically sums up my opinion of this book. The blurb intrigued me but the story and the writing let it down for me.

Now, I don't really know anything about live-action role playing, so I can't really comment on the start of the book as I have no real reference point as to how it all works and if it all works out slightly conveniently, well it's a book and stuff like that happens. It was upon their transportation to another world that I began to have problems.

There was no 'argh, we've been transported to another dimension!', 'argh, it's completely changed the way we look!', 'argh, we suddenly have all these abilities we were only pretending to have!', 'argh, what the hell is going on!' freaking out at all. They all very calmly accepted what was going on. As I mentioned, they were changed physically to represent their characters, some growing or shrinking by several inches, if not feet. First issue: they would not physically be able to make their bodies work in these conditions. Their brain is used to working with certain expectations of their bodies and they would all be falling over all over the spot if this had actually happened and would have trouble walking never mind being able to practice fighting within a matter of hours. But you know, suspension of disbelief...I'll go with it as a first problem - and one quite often overlooked in fiction when people switch bodies or what-have-you.

That they've all suddenly acquired various magic/fighting skills is far too convenient. There is no learning curve (necessary to the story as there isn't enough time to have them learn but poorly explained away) and they're all instantly ridiculously proficient and have full control of their abilities. Archmage Reba - the POV character - is the most powerful mage ever apparently, and there is no problem she can't fix instantly and with apparently very little effort. There is no getting to grips with her abilities, no mistakes, and only one instance of her trying something that doesn't work straight off. Seriously?!

I think it was this that bothered me the most. She can create anything from anything with a few rhymes. At first there is at least the limitation of it bringing on migraines but then boom, perpetual healing spell cast and there's no problem. Public speaking a problem? Another spell - she's the best orator in the world! She's forgetting stuff? Perfect memory! She's fighting? Super strength! Walking just too darned slow? Flying! Oh, and while she's at it why not give herself better boobs and eternal youth! I get this was Hardy trying to make it so we can identify with her ("Yeah, she's super-powerful but she still worries about normal stuff!") but it just felt ridiculous.

And because of there being no problem she can't solve, the story just felt superfluous. Why spend all this time preparing for a big battle when she could just wander off and blast them? For me it never really felt like anyone was in any real danger so there was no tension. It basically felt like there were a series of problems thrown up simply for Reba to solve.

A spell (shockingly!) means they instantly understand the language, and apparently know the names of things that have no equivalent in English, though only sporadically. Name of the castle? Fine. Name of the stone the castle's built of? Nope, got to ask what that is. Names of the demons (which no one had seen a day earlier, yet all of which now have names which everyone knows) - fine.

Reba is given a maid. But she's more than just a maid! She's basically also a prostitute for Reba's pleasure. Why on earth they'd assume she was a lesbian/bi is never explained, and it certainly doesn't seem to be the norm. Then the maid gets all offended when Reba turns her down! I didn't see the point of this at all.

One positive was the emotional trouble Reba is in. Married back in our world, she is confronted by a very handsome and quite lovely Prince in the new one, and I think Hardy did a good job as she fights to resist his advances, making her position quite clear but wondering what is happening back home. How long she's been gone, what her husband is doing, and what will happen if she can never find a way back.

This aside, there are a few problems with the writing itself. Weird metaphors ("she shook off the unwanted feeling like a coyote shaking off morning dew" - what the...?) and weird turns of phrase (people don't move things - they manipulate them; a simple response is said 'by rote'; 'so-and-so meet so-and-so' is the formal introduction performed by the king) both made this very difficult for me to read. I'd keep stopping to wonder at her weird choice of words. It feels at times like she's used a thesaurus and randomly picked a word without checking that it actually works in the context. (Bringing to mind the episode of Friends where Joey 'Baby Kangaroo' Tribbiani does the same thing.) And in several lists commas were replaced with semi-colons which was mildly annoying more than anything else.

And there was a picture of a horse at the end of every chapter. I have no idea why. Horses were barely mentioned. This confused me quite a lot.

Definitely not a series I'll be continuing with. Or a book I'll ever read again. Or a book I'll be recommending to anyone. Ever.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Little Dorrit

Title: Little Dorrit
Author: Charles Dickens
Pages: 848 (paperback, with some extra stuff at the beginning and end)
Published: April 1st 2009; originally published 1885-1857
Published by: Vintage Classics

Amy Dorrit’s father is not very good with money. She was born in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and has lived there with her family for all of her twenty-two years, only leaving during the day to work as a seamstress for the forbidding Mrs. Clennam. But Amy’s fortunes are about to change: the arrival of Mrs. Clennam’s son Arthur, back from working in China, heralds the beginning of stunning revelations not just about Amy but also about Arthur himself.

Amy Dorrit lives with her father in a debtors prison, hiding the fact that she works for their living and that her older brother and sister work (or attempt to) to support themselves. He is something of a broken man, once prosperous but now without a penny to his name and dismayed by this fact. Then Arthur Clennam returns from working with his now-deceased father in China and finds her working for his mother. His interest is piqued...and he's not the only one. Soon, an unexpected revelation vastly changes the fortunes of the family. All of this takes place on the backdrop of Victorian England, and with the usual array of slightly mad characters seen in Dickens novels.

So, the BBC did an adaptation of this a few years ago, and I watched it maybe 18 months ago. Now the BBC is pretty good at this kind of thing (Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, anyone?) and I really enjoyed it. Of course, I'd never read the book so I didn't have anything to compare it to, but still. I liked the characters and the story, and it was very easy to watch.

Maybe it's because I already knew the story - so minimising the suspense of 'what's going on? What's going to happen?' - but I struggled a little to keep going whilst reading it. Part of this may be due to Dickens' writing style. There is quite a lot of description and lists and lists of whatever is going on around the characters: food stuffs, things they can see, what people are wearing etc. There is also quite a lot of superfluous description in general, and chapters relatively regularly started with pages and pages of description of where they were based. Yes, this is good in some ways, but in a book this long it becomes a bit difficult after a while.

I've not read much Dickens, but in this book he did something I'd never come across before. Most of the time, we would follow characters around and their actions would be narrated in the standard fashion. Speech in speech marks and all that. But this time, for one character it was more written from the point of an invisible presence or something. People's actions were described, and it was said that they made comments about one thing or another, but the actual interactions weren't really given. I'm sure there's a technical term for it but I don't know it. Now, I didn't like this, and luckily it only occurred in a minority of chapters, but I still didn't like it.

The characters themselves were wonderful, many of them complete with their own little annoying quirks (you know you all have your own!) and you got a real feel for them and to grow to care about (or dislike, as appropriate) many of them. Little Amy Dorrit is sweet and self-sacrificing, always doing what she can for others before thinking of herself. She cares for her father immensely, and does everything she allowed to for him. Her older brother and sister - though her brother isn't really present all that much - are quite the opposite. They think only of themselves and how to achieve their own ends, though Edward doesn't seem to have quite the same capabilities when in comes to succeeding in this as Fanny does. There is also Amy's uncle, and seeing their relationship in particular is lovely, as you get the feeling that he is the only one who truly understands and appreciates all she does, whatever their circumstance in life.

There were a number of quite amusing secondary characters who had their own roles to play, and the Circumlocution Office (a branch of the government which works towards perfecting how to not do things) is a wonderful parody of the government system even now. I suppose something never change!

The story, though long, is quite interesting. There is a good deal of mystery surrounding a couple of people, their actions and motives, and while some things come as a complete surprise, you can work out a couple of things.

Interesting story with good characters, but there was maybe just a little bit too much extra stuff around it all.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Run With the Horsemen

Title: Run with the Horsemen
Author: Ferrol Sams
Series: Porther Osbourne Jr. #1
Pages: 422
Published: August 28th 1982
Published by: Peachtree Publishers

A boy's account of growing up through the rituals of life on an ancestral farm in middle Georgia between the big wars. It is a rueful, humorous story of the people in one rural county, but the telling cuts so deep it breaks through to the universal. Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer, and The Catcher in the Rye, "Run with the Horsemen" is the powerfully moving and delightfully endearing story of Porter Osborne Jr.'s journey to adulthood.

It's deep-south USA during the Great Depression. Porter Osbourne Jr. is just doing his best to grow up among all the other stuff going on. Ambitious and intelligent, but also a consummate (thought not always intentional) trouble-maker, he's lives on a cotton plantation with his parents, sisters and much of his extended family, never mind the coloured people who work the farm with them. This books follows the first 15 or so years of his life.

I'm not entirely sure exactly at which point I began to love this book. It's just a series of stories - with a slightly unsatisfying end, at least up until the point where I was told it was the first in a series - about a boy growing up on a farm in Georgia during the depression. That's it. Just...stuff that happens to him, troubles he faces (and gets himself into) and him growing up.

But I do know why I love it. It is, I think, pretty much entirely because of the character of Porter Osbourne Jr. - most commonly referred to in the narrative simply as 'the boy'. He is determined and intelligent and kind-hearted, with quite a strong mischievous streak running through him which provides much entertainment for him and others, but also getting him into trouble on occasion. His father says something at the end of the fist chapter which I think sums him up brilliantly: "He's not a bad boy. He minds well. I just can't think of enough things to tell him not to do." But for all this, he is principled: he stands up for what he believes is right no matter what, and that is because of his parents.

You don't see much of his mother. She is present but not central, but he obviously loves her and she has done a wonderful job of bringing him up 'proper'. When it comes to his father, he teaches him some very good lessons but is very flawed. The start of the book put me in mind of To Kill a Mockingbird namely because of the setting I believe, but now I think about it, Porter Osbourne Sr. is similar to Atticus Finch, but a less perfect version. He does his best to bring up his children well and give them freedom to grow and learn, but he has some quite significant flaws of his which inhibit this somewhat, and he is a lot more absent that Atticus.

Each chapter is a self-contained little story and while some of them are better than others, all of them are enjoyable. Of course, with this comes the problem that most of the time, though the writing is engaging, there is a natural breaking point at the end of each chapter as whichever little story is wrapped up. Unfortunately, this makes it all too easy to put the book down at the end of each chapter, and is probably a lot of the reason why it took me as long as it did to read this book. On top of this, the very southern accents of the coloured staff made it difficult at times to understand just what was being said. I have minimal experience of this accent, so it may be that this is less of an issue for those who are more used to it, but it was a little difficult at times. 

Still, overall a very good book.