The High King (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The High KingThe High King

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #5
Unabridged Audiobook, 7 hrs, 24 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 29 – 30, 2017


Arawn-Death-Lord has managed to get his hands on Dyrnwyn, Gwydion’s sword, which has emboldened him to move his forces to launch an all-out assault on the Kingdom of Prydain. Gwydion and his allies move quickly to assemble the forces necessary to stand against him — basically, it’s an Armageddon-type situation, and all hands are needed.

Taran is sent to the Free Commots, where he spent so much time recently to gather their support — and he does so, almost without trying to, becomes the leader of the assembled forces (such as they are) of the rather libertarian people. Before you know it, Taran’s leading his band into battle at the side of Gwydion and the other warleaders. It’s a stretch to believe, but at this point, you go with it. The forces marshaled against the High King are strong enough to make this an uphill battle, but when treason rears its ugly head and the forces of Prydain are divided against themselves, it really seems that all hope is lost. Eventually, Gwydion and his forces head off on a last-ditch effort to stop the Death Lord, while Taran, his companions, allies, followers and Glew take on a vital, but smaller task that will allow Gwydion’s hail Mary to work.

And frankly, that whole treason storyline bugs me — not just because it’s evil, but because it’s futile, stupid, and pointless. I think this was Alexander’s biggest error in the series. It serves no real purpose but to stack the odds against the armies of Prydain.

Finally, we get final battles — The Death Lord and his forces are defeated (spoiler, children’s fantasy written in the 60’s features good guys winning); the future of Prydain is settled; other Tolkien-esque things take place as is fitting in the conclusion to a fantasy series (actually, Tolkien was probably following the same older rules and tropes as Alexander, but we now associate them with Tolkien, not his predecessors).

Taran finally grows up into what Alexander’s been holdig out for him all along — it takes the whole novel, but it happens. Gwydion is probably the least interesting he’s ever been here, which is a shame. Eilonwy? Oh, Eilonwy — she’s just so perfect (as a character, probably annoying in real life — still, someone you want in your corner). I loved everything about her in this book. I wish Gurgi had a little more to do, and that Glew had far, far less. Fflewddur Fflam remains the unsung hero of this series — the sacrifices he makes, the efforts he makes, his wisdom, etc., are all overshadowed by his comedic use. What he goes through moved me more this time through than any of the deaths. As an aside, the first time I saw a picture of Lloyd Alexander, I shouted — Fflewddur! I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I just had a strange imagination, but he looks exactly like a Fflam.

Oh, and there are many, many deaths — mostly nameless soldiers on both sides, but there are quite a few named people, too. Some get great heroic moments, others are just named in a list of the fallen. I remember the first time I read this book being very upset by just one of them — it was quite possibly the first time in my young life that anyone other than a dog, an ailing elderly person or a villain had died in a book I read. I still get sad when I read that particular one, but it doesn’t get to me as much.

James Langton’s performance here is consistent with what he’s done for the last few books. If you liked him before, you’ll like him now. If not . . .

I remember liking this more than I did, even just a few years ago when I read this with my kids. Still, a great way to wrap up this series — Alexander ties up everything that needs tiring up, he rewards all the surviving characters in a fitting way and sends our heroes off on new adventures. There’s still a bit of fun, a little adventure, and character growth throughout, with all things ending up just where they need to satisfy readers. It’s really easy for adult-me to see where kid-me fell in love with the genre thanks to this series. Still, a fitting conclusion to this series — which I still recommend for young and old (primarily the young).

—–

4 Stars

Black Fall by D. J. Bodden

Honestly? I really wasn’t that interested in this book — Bodden followed me on Twitter, and I followed back — I saw that he had a link to NetGalley for this book, so I clicked and checked it out. It seemed like a perfectly nice book and one that probably had an interesting take on teenaged vampires, but I really wasn’t in the mood for that, so I closed the window. Or so I remember it. The next day, I got an email saying that I’d been approved for the book. Not wanting my NetGalley percentage to take a hit, I threw it on to the Kindle and made room on the schedule. So, let the fact that I wasn’t all that interested in this book in the first place put a certain spin on what I’m going to say here.

Black FallBlack Fall

by D. J. Bodden
Series: The Black Year, #1

eARC, 294 pg.
2015

Read: April 12 – 13, 2017


Jonas Black is a typical sixteen year-old, with a very driven girlfriend (who’s pretty much mapped out the next few years of their lives), a decent home life, a couple of invested parents, and so on in NYC. Which makes him not that typical, I guess — but he’s the kind of kid people think of as “typical.” When we meet him, however, he’s reeling from the unexpected death of his father, and his mother doesn’t seem to be acting all that normal at the funeral.

Not long after that, strange things start happening to Jonas — he blacks out unexpectedly, his mother’s behavior gets even stranger, lastly he and his mother are attacked at home, and rescued by someone unlikely (leading to 2 very large men escorting him to school). He’s able to pin his mother down and she explains to him that she’s a vampire, as was his father — and he is, too. There was a problem with my download and so the conversation where his mother describes the experiment that made him into the vampire he is (born, not made) and whatnot. Thankfully, I don’t want to get into details anyway, because I’d probably get it wrong. I really appreciate that Jonas isn’t a Chosen One kind of character — more of an Engineered One. But even at that, I don’t think anyone planned on him tackling things that he did at this stage of his life (I’m semi-prepared to be proven wrong in future books).

So, while juggling school and his girlfriend, Jonas is basically enrolled in a self-defense course for vampires (there’s more to it than that, but . . . ) where he meets some other vampires and a reticent werewolf. He befriends/is befriended by a vampire, Eve, about the same age — but who knows what she’s doing — and wants to get to know the werewolf, Kieran. While I’m largely on the fence about the older vampires Jonas meets — I really like Eve. Kieran and the other werewolves are cool — and not just because I prefer lycanthropes to vamps. Before long the three of them — and a small army of others — find themselves in the middle of an effort to put a stop to a demon’s schemes.

Bodden’s vampires are pretty interesting — I like some of the tweaks he makes to the standard profile. Ditto for his werewolves. His entire supernatural taxonomy and how it relates to the world is pretty well-realized and elaborate. I was pretty impressed by it, and am curious about it as well. I’m not saying they’re drastically different (vampires don’t glow or anything), but Bodden’s vamps aren’t the same as Hunters’s, Butcher’s, Briggs’, etc.

A word of warning: There’s. Just. So. Much. Exposition. I get it, really — Jonas needed to be introduced to this world, and acclimatized really soon for his own safety. Which was mighty convenient, because it helped the reader learn about The Black Year’s take on vampires, werewolves, lichs (is that the proper plural form? lichen doesn’t seem right), specters, hunters, etc. On the whole, Bodden did a decent job blending character moments and infodumps, merging what we need to learn with keeping things moving. Still, it frequently felt like this was a guide to the supernatural world more than a novel — he might as well have named a couple of characters Ryan and Esposito.

I was engaged enough to keep going, but at a certain point, I’d just about given up hope of really enjoying the book, and just put my head down to plow though and get it over with so I could move on. I was surprised a little later to find out that I was invested in the fate of these characters, and was really getting a kick out of Bodden’s work. I can’t point to what it was that got me there, but it probably had something to do with Kieran. I do want to stress that it was after the 50% mark, so stick with it if your experience is like mine. By the time I was finished, I was ready for book #2 (…and probably 3….and most likely 4).

I will not say that this is the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s a fresh take on many UF staples from a YA point-of-view, with compelling characters, a well-built world, and a solid plot (especially when it gets around to moving).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author via NetGalley in exchange for this post — I appreciate the read.

—–

3.5 Stars

Taran Wanderer (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

Taran WandererTaran Wanderer

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #4
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs, 22 min.
Listening Library, 2005

Read: March 28, 2017


The one question that’s plagued Taran all his life is just who is he? Who is his family? Is there any chance at all that his family is some sort of nobility? This last question has taken on a new level of importance to him as he has realized that he’s in love with a princess and can’t do anything about it without that nobility.

Dallben can’t answer the question for him — but he allows Taran leave to go try to find the answer himself. I’ve never understood just how Taran can pull this off — there’s practically no birth records in Prydain (I can’t imagine), it’s not like he can get blood tests done — and he doesn’t really interview anyone, just meanders around.

Still, he visits various corners of the kingdom — visiting friends old and new, dipping his toe in all sorts of trades and vocations. He renders aid, and gets aid. Fflewddur Fflam shows up and spends a good portion of the novel traveling with him (Gurgi remains a constant companion). There’s a confrontation with a wizard, a regional armed conflict to try to settle, a mercenary band to deal with — as well as other woes.

He learns a lot, he matures a lot, and maybe even gets a dose of wisdom. It’s not your traditional fantasy novel by any sense, but it’s a good one.

As for the audiobook? Everything I’ve said about the other books in the series — Alexander’s introduction and Langton’s performance — holds true for this one.

The most emotionally rich of the books, the most thoughtful — particularly for those of the target age. Good, good stuff.

—–

4 Stars

The Castle of Llyr (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Castle of LlyrThe Castle of Llyr

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #3
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs, 36 min.
Listening Library, 2004

Read: March 20, 2017


Taran is tasked with escorting Princess Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona, where she’ll be taken in by distant relatives — the king and queen, who will help her learn how to be a proper young lady (an idea she finds ridiculous). They sail there on a ship “captained” by the island’s Prince Rhun.

Once they reach the island, Taran runs into Fflewddur Fflam, who’s enjoying barding again — even if the castle’s steward, Magg, has an intense dislike of his music. Shortly after that, Taran discovers there’s a threat to Eilonwy in the castle and tries to save her from it without letting her know she’s in danger. That goes poorly and he joins the rescue effort instead (also led by Rhun — or at least Rhun thinks so).

The companions also meet the world’s littlest giant (why does that sound like it belongs more in The Phantom Tollbooth than here?) and a mountain cat that we’ll get to spend a lot of time with. There’s a lot of links to the first book as well as the last book in the series here.

The introduction by Alexander was great — I wish I could hear more of his own takes on the books. Langton was solid. Again, I think he could talk a little faster — but that’s minor. His Prince Rhun’s “Hullo”s are just what I’ve heard in my head all these decades.

This is probably the most entertaining of the lot — there’s some really good comedy here. Taran grows up a lot more here than he does in other books, I think, which adds something more than just entertainment to this book. It’s possible that this is the one in the series I read the most as a kid. The story isn’t as rich as I remember, but factoring in the growth in characters and the entertainment factor, the experience as a whole was pretty satisfying — and I’ll take that.

—–

3.5 Stars

The Magician’s Workshop, Volume One by Christopher Hansen, J.R. Fehr

The Magician’s Workshop, Volume OneThe Magician’s Workshop, Volume One

by Christopher Hansen, J.R. Fehr
Series: The Magician’s Workshop, #1

Kindle Edition, 290 pg.
Wondertale Press, 2014

Read: Mach 22 – 24, 2017


I’m sick and tired of these books that introduce you to a character and their problems/goals and then abandon them for another storyline or two with no relation to the first for over 50% of the book. I get that this is a thing that people do all over the place (I read a couple of books last year that never returned to the people in the introductory chapter or really explained why we spent time with them), but it drives me crazy. Fine, multiple point-of-view characters, multiple storylines, but don’t dump one for 150 pages or so after introducing them.

That’s probably not the best way to start this post, but hey, if they can start the book awkwardly, I can start my post about it awkwardly, too.

There was some great worldbuilding at work here — Hansen and Fehr did yeoman’s work there. But they failed at translating it into a setting for stories. They wisely didn’t dump everything on the reader in the first chapter — but they way they went about doling out the explanation of what’s going on, why the world/magic/society works the way it does was way too slow. I can’t imagine that all too many readers in their target audience (12 and up) are going to have the patience to wade through it all.

Part of the magic system is another one of my pet peeves — everyone has magical powers. This can work, but usually it doesn’t — as even Dash Parr can tell you, everyone being special (or having magic) “is another way of saying no one is.” I’m not sure why that’s considered magic in this world. For underage people, they can only use their magic for training in controlled circumstances. When they get older, they’re tested and part of the test (that makes no sense to me) will reveal whether the user is qualified to be a magician — one of the elite professional magicians, as opposed to those who are limited in their use of magic — by some standard I can’t explain.

The novel focuses on a handful of youth — some who know each other, some that don’t — as they finish preparation of the day of testing. Some have lofty goals, some have small, but important goals, some have dark backstories, others are trying to be the first in their family to join the elite ranks.

Here’s my biggest beef with this book: there’s no story here. It’s all set-up. It’s The Fellowship of the Ring that stops when they get to Rivendell and the Council starts, or any Spider-Man story that stops after the death of Uncle Ben these characters get to (and in some cases, start) the testing and the book ends. Yeah, sure, the notes at the front of the book say this is to be read with Vol. 2 — but, sorry, that doesn’t cut it. There’s not a story here, there are no complete arcs — it’s part of a book.

There’s some not unclever commentary on media culture, critique, fans and whatnot throughout this book — especially later on. Also, there’s a strong “hey, the real world is just as fantastic as the ones we create” message that I really appreciated. Some good stuff for younger readers to read.

This is a swing and a miss — there’s a lot to be commended here, but the flaws are too much to overlook. I want to give this a 3, but I just don’t think I can justify it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Sorry.

—–

2 Stars

Ignite by Danielle Rogland

IgniteIgnite

by Danielle Rogland

Kindle Edition, ? pg.
Inkitt, 2017

Read: March 2 – 4, 2017

Something pretty bad happened to the world (at least Europe) — we’re not really told what precisely, but it was fairly significant. From the rubble of society a man named Donovan raises and restores some order and stability — it doesn’t take long for him to become some sort of horrible despot, and becomes Emperor Donovan.

We come into New London some decades after this and meet a young pickpocket named Jacks. She’s been living on the streets for years now, after Donovan’s agents have killed her parents. She’s confident, scrappy and strong — but she knows her limits. One day, she’s trying to help some people from her neighborhood and encounters the legendary group The Flames. The Flames are known throughout New London (and further, actually) for standing against the Emperor and his agents. Where they strike, the leave burning candles behind — a symbol of hope — a literal light in the darkness.

Jacks can’t believe that she’s run into them and actually aids them. Slowly, she’s brought into their confidence and becomes one — just in time for The Flames to uncover a large new initiative about to be launched to eliminate Donovan’s enemies. The only question is: Are they too late?

In the midst of this, the Flames have to grow and evolve both as they bring Jacks into the fold, but as that results in secrets and weaknesses come to light. It’s not just Donovan’s troops that are a threat to the group, but problems from within could actually destroy The Flames. When Rogland is dealing with the relationships, the backstories and what those mean for the characters futures that she really shines.

We don’t get a clear picture just what makes Emperor Donovan worthy of being overthrown — other than bringing some sort of stability to the post-disaster world, we learn nothing about how he runs things as a whole. We do know that he’s horrible (at best) to the people that live and work in his household, and that he has his goons publicly execute dissenters. The Flames uncover an even worse solution that Donovan has for dissenters/protestors/rebels, too. But that’s all we’re given — I’m not saying that’s not horrible, but it’s not exactly a hugely oppressive general environment (that we know about).

The other thing we don’t know is how The Flames actually accomplish much — yeah, they have heart, they have a strategic whiz of a leader (I guess), and a heckuva computer guru — but beyond that, without getting into details, it’s hard to believe that the group you read about can be as effective as we are told they are. And really, we don’t know what The Flames (or any of their allies) are really for — we just know they’re anti-Donovan. But there’s nothing they’re rallying around, no principles, or guiding philosophy or anything.

Still, in the moment you don’t notice any of that much (if at all) — what you do notice is Jacks finding a place in the world — a place where she’s not alone, trying to scrape by. Rather, she has a family of sorts, people who care, people looking out for her, and who need her in return, people she can help. Moreover, she has a purpose, she’s part of something bigger than herself. I could say the same for most of the people in The Flames, actually. The flaws of the book fade into the background in the midst of the characters and their lives.

Could this book be better? Yeah — the plot, the internal logic, etc. could use some real work. But I’m not sure that Rogland could give us that while maintaining the experience of this book. Would I have preferred something more developed? Sure — but I really can’t complain about what we have here. It’s a very satisfying read, with a strong emotional hook, and that’s good enough for me. The ending begs for another volume or two, hopefully they’re forthcoming. But, unlike others of the type, it doesn’t demand a sequel, it could work as a stand-alone. I just hope it isn’t one. 

Disclaimer: I received this novel from Inkitt in exchange for this post — thanks!

—–

3 Stars

The Black Cauldron (Audiobook) by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton

The Black CauldronThe Black Cauldron

by Lloyd Alexander, James Langton (Narrator)
Series: Chronicles of Prydain, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs, 28 min.
Listening Library, 2004

Read: March 15 – 16, 2017


Of the five books in the Chronicles, this is probably my least favorite installment, still I enjoyed reliving it with this audio. Why Disney chose this one to make a movie out of, I’ll never know (and have never seen).

Prince Gwydion has called a council at Cair Dalben — bringing warriors, royalty and others from across the land to discuss something of urgency. Taran is included as well, thanks to the Prince’s experience in the previous book. One of the attendees, Prince Ellidyr, is a young, proud twit who might as well have been named William Zabka — if he doesn’t remind you of the quintessential 80’s movie antagonist, you’re not reading him right. He and Taran clash immediately, and are predictably assigned to work together.

We also meet the son of Taliesin, the chief bard, Adaon. Adaon is one of those characters that comes out of nowhere, every character loves and so do the readers. He’s wise, kind, and probably a decent fighter. Taran is possibly more taken with him as friend and role model than he was with Gwydion — partially because he’s not a prince, and so is more approachable; but also is just that kind of guy. Thankfully, Taran and he are also assigned to work together so it’s not all about the jousting with Ellidyr.

There were other characters introduced — several actually, but those two are the ones to focus on now. I’m not going to tell you anything about Gwystyl and Kaw, because I’ll not do them justice. But you’ll enjoy both. Gurgi was Gurgi, and Eilonwy was perfect — seriously just perfect. I always liked the character, but maybe never as much as I am this time through the series.

I got distracted by talking about the characters, the purpose of the council is to go hunting for the Black Cauldron, the source of the Cauldron Born warriors of Arawn. These are basically zombies with swords, doing anything their master calls for — and were the source of a good deal of apprehension when I was a kid, and now just seem like a great foe. Their numbers are swelling, making Dalben and Gwydion certain that something bad is on the horizon — now seems like a good time to raid the Dark Lord’s domain and destroy the Cauldon. Which may not derail the plans in motion, but will at least make them easier for the good guys to survive.

So after the Council, the heroes head out. As soon as they launch their strike, they discover that someone has beaten them to it — the Cauldron is gone and they’ve got to regroup before hunting it down. Things go bad there, the companions are separated from each other and on the run from those the Cauldron has already produced.

Taran, Ellidyr, Adaon, Gurgi and Fflewddurr get a lead on the Cauldron and decide to follow it up immediately rather than let their foes get it while they’re off looking for Gwydion. This takes them to the swamps of Morva — one of my favorite places in the series — and to the hut of Orddu, Orwen, & Orgoch. They will chill younger readers and entertain readers of all ages. From there peril, betrayal, redemption, grief and more ensue as the companions try to destroy the titular MacGuffin.

The Lloyd Alexander introduction to this one was better than the previous — I’m such a geek that listening to little bits of Alexander was one of the highlights of my day. I don’t think I have anything to say about Langton’s performance here that I didn’t say last time. It was good, nothing spectacular, though. He kept me engaged, even if he paced it slower than I’d like. Whoever transferred this from audiotape to digital format had an odd approach to dead space between tapes/tape sides — there are times that I feared the file had stopped unexpectedly, either from a corruption in the file or a glitch in the app, and just as I’d grab my phone to check the Langton’s voice would start again.

A needed part of the story, if only for Taran’s growth, and for what it sets up in books to come. It was never my favorite growing up, still isn’t now, but it was still an entertaining few hours.

—–

3 Stars