Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).


Interview with Merlin Author T.A. Barron!

downloadAs a big fan of T.A. Barron’s Merlin Saga series, I’m excited to announce the paperback release of Atlantis Rising, the first book in an exciting fantasy new series!  I’m even more exciting to bring you all this interview with the author.  Enjoy!

From the publisher: “With his trademark magic and adventure, T.A. Barron, international best-selling author of The Merlin Saga, has returned with a whole new mythology – the origin of the legendary isle of Atlantis.  Atlantis Rising is the first book in an exciting new trilogy that explores not how Atlantis was destroyed, but how it was born.”

Q&A with T. A. Barron on Atlantis Rising

What fascinates you most about the legend of Atlantis?

No word evokes more of a feeling of tragedy than the word Atlantis. It stands for almost, what might have been. The tale of Atlantis is such a beautiful story, and for the 2000 years since Plato first wrote about it, people have wondered and dreamed about it. But one thing that has never changed is that the island of Atlantis was utterly destroyed.  I started to wonder, though, about something else—how Atlantis began.  How did a place that rose to such a level of near perfection get destroyed by the flaws and weaknesses of its people? Ultimately, how did that happen? This big unknown question is what got me to write Atlantis Rising. I wanted to add a new thread to the tapestry of myth about Atlantis—how it all began, the secrets of its origins.

Why do you choose to write about origins of stories?

When you write about the origins of a great legend, you experience the best of two worlds. You get to tap into a wondrous emotional and mythical journey that people have celebrated and enjoyed for a long time—which is why stories persist, why people keep telling the tales about Merlin or Atlantis. At the same time though, you get the opportunity to be fresh and original. You can explore and go behind the myth to discover how and where it all began. It just might start with the most inconsequential event—a boy stealing a pie, a girl discovering something strange in the woods, or a young man washing ashore. In those small moments you may discover the beginning of an amazing adventure!

What research was involved in preparing for Atlantis Rising

Before starting this project, I read everything I possibly could about Atlantis. As I got deeper into the research, I realized not only is there an immense story of high ideals and tragic consequences, human aspirations and failures, but a wonderful mystery of how it all began. That powered me even more to want to set forth the beginning, the origins of that magical place.  In addition, I have often thought about Atlantis since visiting Greece 20 years ago—the place where the legend began.  Often, I’ve recalled the sight of that landscape, the sound of waves on those islands, and the smell of the Mediterranean air. All that will, I hope, come through for anyone who reads the Atlantis trilogy.

In the last few scenes of Atlantis Rising, we see Atlantis become an island at last, while Promi returns to the spirit world. Where does the second book start?

The second book picks up immediately after Atlantis Rising finishes.  But time works differently between Earth and the spirit realm. Quite a bit more could have happened up in the spirit realm than has happened on Atlantis.  You see, during that brief interval—which feels just like a few days on Earth—many perils have risen. Some of them are dangers that come from old enemies—enemies who want to control all the magic and power of the Earth. And some of the perils come from romance…and we all know how tricky that can be.

In Atlantis Rising, Promi, the protagonist, risks his life for Smackberry pie. What dessert would you risk everything for?

Fresh Colorado snow-covered in maple syrup.

Thanks, T.A. Barron, for stopping by to share your thoughts – and thanks to the publisher for orchestrating this opportunity.  Whether you’re a fan of Barron or new to him, I hope you’ve enjoyed his thoughts and I invite (encourage!) you to check out his books – they’re great fun!

Thoughts: The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

12127810House of Hades by Rick Riordan
Final Verdict: 3.7 out of 4.0

3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

The House of Hades is Book 4 in the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan.  This series follows the five-book Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, but it incorporates the Roman mythology alongside the Greek.  In this adventure, Percy, hero of the Greeks, and his team must join forces with Jason, hero of the Romans, and his own team in order to stop Gaea and Tartarus from rising and destroying the world.  The awakening of these ancient gods is causing an identity crisis, of sorts, among the “new” gods (like Zeus).  It is essentially blurring the lines between Greek and Roman mytho-worlds, so that at any given moment a god might switch personalities.  Needless to say, these split-personalities leave the gods relatively helpless, so the demi-gods, their half-human/half-god offspring, must take charge. In this fourth installment, Gaea and Tartarus have opened the Doors of Death, which means hundreds upon hundreds of monsters are slipping out of the underworld.  Percy and Annabel are in the underworld, while Jason and the rest of the gang are fighting their way to the Doors of Death, as the team must work together to close the Doors from both sides, or else certain doom awaits the planet and all life as we know it.

3.75 – Characters very well-developed.

One of the criticisms I have for the Riordan series’ (including Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, and this one) is that the character depth is always a bit lacking – although the books typically cover about a year (though sometimes quite a bit less, as has been the case with this particular series), still there is little growth & development for any of the major or minor characters.  This is a “Middle Grade” series, so perhaps character depth isn’t too be expected, but in any series that spans a certain amount of time – a few years or more- I would hope to see some.  Riordan has taken steps in this one, though, and as many have noted, even makes quite a bold decision (one I have been waiting for, for years!) to reveal personal information about one of the cross-over characters from the Percy Jackson series.  In addition, many of the other characters, such as Jason, Leo, and Frank, all face crucial turning points in this book, moments of decision which will help to define them possibly for the rest of their lives.  This attention to characterization and willingness to allow these characters to grow beyond their cookie-cutter “action/adventure hero” roles thrilled me quite a bit and truly makes me feel that this is possibly the best book of all three mythology series’ thus far.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Rick Riordan’s books are so easy to read, partly because they are fun and entertaining, but also because he knows how to construct a fast-paced, logical, episodic storyline.  In The House of Hades, Riordan’s heroes are constantly meeting new friends and foes, mythological deities, monsters, and creatures of all sorts, from the Roman and Greek worlds.  All of this could be confusing and overwhelming, if not for Riordan’s adeptness at giving his readers just enough new information at manageable intervals, while advancing the story and also allowing his primary characters, those who have been with us since Book One, enough page time of their own.  Many have said this book left them breathless because of its pace, and I agree that it is certainly one of the more action-packed installments of his always action-packed series’.  It is hard to stop reading, hard to quit even after finishing a character section (the books are broken up by character perspective, each character getting about 4 chapters from their point of view, before moving on to another main character).  Ultimately, though, despite the whirlwind ride this book can sometimes be, it manages to remain consistent – going just far enough and just fast enough, without falling apart.  There are natural breaks, places where a reader can logically pause and step away, but the problem is – you won’t want to!

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I always love about the Riordan books is how slyly educational they are.  Readers will learn so much about ancient Greek and Roman mythology (or Egyptian, if you’re reading The Kane Chronicles), without noticing they’re learning anything at all.  This is because the mythology, the original stories and the original characters, are re-imagined so brilliantly, revisited so expertly, in this modern setting.  Gods using cell phones?  Demigods eating fast food?   Sure, that’s all current – but the events that take place, the rivalries that exist, the personalities of the heroes, the gods, they remain wonderfully true to the original epic stories of Homer, Ovid, and others.  Believe it or not, I can credit Riordan’s books, this particular one as well as others, with helping me to enjoy James Joyce’s Ulysses.  This is because, though I have read Homer’s Odyssey, revisiting the old tales through this contemporary lens has helped me to keep in mind the original epic and the string of events, the gods helpful to or antagonistic of Odysseus, which are paralleled in Joyce’s Irish epic. In addition, in House of Hades especially, Riordan takes some steps which have been made in young adult and contemporary literature, but which have been left relatively unexplored at the MG level.  J.K. Rowling allowed certain things to happen but which were revealed only through unspoken allusion; here, Riordan allows one of his characters, Nico di Angelo, to develop fully and completely, and exposes the raw nerves that come with it – it is a breath of fresh air for the popular fantasy genre and for this reading level.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: MG+
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Young Adult, Action/Adventure.

Notable Quotes:

“Magic is neither good nor evil. It is a tool, like a knife. Is a knife evil? Only if the wielder is evil.”

“I figure the world is basically a machine. I don’t know who made it, if it was the Fates, or the gods, or the capital-G god or whatever. But it chugs along the way it’s supposed to most of the time. Sure, little pieces break off and stuff goes haywire once in a while, but mostly… things happen for a reason.”

“Love is no game! It is no flowery softness! It is hard work- It demands everything from you- especially the truth. Only then does it yield results.”

“I’m not choosing one of your paths. I’m making my own.”

“It’s natural to feel fear.  All great warriors are afraid. Only the stupid and the delusional are not.”

“It is a costly thing, looking on the true face of Love.”

“The dead see what they believe they will see. So do the living. That is the secret.”

Thoughts: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

15819028The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was a pleasant surprise for me.  It had been much-hyped, before and after publication, and my experience with “those” kinds of books has tended to be less than wonderful.  I am thrilled to say, though, that The Golem and the Jinni, not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them (mine, especially).  The story is about two mythological creates whose paths are fated to cross.  The first, Ahmad, is a gorgeous, fiery Jinni who has been bound to a wicked master for generations; the second, Chava, is a uniquely gifted Golem, created to serve a specific purpose but now lost without her master who died at sea shortly after she was awaken (born).  The two creatures meet in New York city, thousands of miles from their middle eastern homelands, at the turn of the century (1899).  Although they are quite different – differently skilled, with wildly different temperaments – they develop a strange friendship, the strength of which their own fate, and the fate of the world, might depend on.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

It is rare to read a fantasy story about two inhuman characters who read as so very human.  Each of these creatures is awoken in a time, place, and situation which calls for them to be essentially born anew.  They must learn the ways of the world, the languages and customs of the new world, in order to survive and to protect those who they have grown to care for, if somewhat begrudgingly.  The Jinni, a creature of fire and air, learns to hone his skills with metalwork and artistry, all the while longing for freedom from his bondage and for his homeland, the deserts of the Middle East.  The Golem, more intelligent, inquisitive, and lifelike than any other golem before her, struggles to navigate such a populated place; living in New York is difficult for someone like her, because she can sense and feel all the thoughts and emotions of those around her.  Interestingly enough, while they both learn much about humanity by living amongst humans, it is the friendship that develops between them, the bond that only two non-humans can share, which teaches them the greatest human lessons of all – faith, love, and sacrifice.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Wecker certainly has a talent not just for storytelling, but for story-crafting. The story of Ahmad and his master, which is central to The Golem and the Jinni, is one which spans centuries of time, and numerous countries; yet, Wecker manages to weave the jinni’s sparse memories so fluidly into the main story that we hardly realize how much history has unfolded before us.  The lives of the characters and their stories interconnect effortlessly, right up to the conclusion, which is stunning in conception and delivery.  Her prose is simultaneously deep and delicate, romantic and bare.  The marriage of style and story reminds me of the great gothic Romances, of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley – Wecker has somehow recreated one of the most sentimental, exploratory literary movements in a contemporary novel that is set in the past.  She provides just enough suspense, just enough romance, just enough magic, and just enough reality to make it all work seamlessly.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What the great gothic Romances, like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did was to tell the story of humanity through a supernatural lens.  What can we learn about ourselves, about our desire for power, knowledge, control, by exploring the cause and effect relationship between who we are and what we create?  Wecker revisits this question, she asks, again, what does it mean to be human, to be capable of creating great and terrible things, to be gods among men?  Much of today’s literature, with the exception, perhaps, of those like DeLillo and Vonnegut, forgets to question this power, forgets to wonder about the cause-and-effect relationship between our scientific, technological advances and our moral centers.  Wecker does this, in the original form.  She reminds us to think about how far we go, to question the value of our creations, to wonder about our humanity, and to reevaluate ourselves and our impact on the world – our dasein, as Heidegger would put it.  Above everything, she reminds us that the world belongs to all of us and that the best we can do with our lives is to love and to learn.  The Golem and the Jinni was one of my favorite reads of 2013.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Historical Fiction, Witchcraft, Romance.

Notable Quotes:

“A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.”

“Sometimes men want what they don’t have because they don’t have it. Even if everyone offered to share, they would only want the share that wasn’t theirs.”

“I look at what we call faith, and all I see is superstition and subjugation. All religions . . . create false divisions, and enslave us to fantasies, when we need to focus on the here and now.”

Thoughts: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

3777732City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 25

3 – Plot/Story is Interesting & Believable

City of Glass is the third book in the Mortal Instruments sextet.  It follows the story of Clary, Simon, Jace, Alec, and Isabelle, which is first established in City of Bones and then built upon in City of Ashes.  In this one, Clary and Jace, having fought together in the battle against their father, Valentine, have resolved to put their rather odd feelings for each other aside and move forward as siblings.  Clary, having gained recognition and respect in the Shadowhunter world, having fought to protect New York (and the world) from Valentine and his demons, gains permission to visit Alicante, the capital city of Shadowhunters.  Jace, hoping to protect her from what he is sure will turn into a difficult interrogation (no one else being as yet aware of Clary’s special abilities), attempts to get himself and the others through Magnus Bane’s portal before Clary can join them.  Of course, nothing goes quite right and, eventually, Clary finds herself in Alicante, where Simon has been imprisoned, and begins to learn much more about her family history and the history of the Shadowhunter race.  Soon, through his network of spies, Valentine manages to discover where the third Mortal Instrument has been hidden and manages to bring down Alicante’s protections, forcing the Shadowhunter and downworlder races to come together or face extinction. 

3 – Characters well-developed

One of the reasons why this third book is my favorite in the series, so far, is that we finally get more history about the Shadowhunter race, the rise of Valentine, and the histories of Clary and Jace’s families (as well as the Lightwoods).  There is some overcomplicating to the Valentine story, which leaves some of the relationships and their necessary resolutions feeling contrived and convoluted, but it also allows for a clearer path for the main characters, moving forward into the second half of the sextet.  The relationship between Magnus Bane and Alec develops nicely, and unlikely friendships (such as between Jace and Simon) begin to form, which adds nice depth and interest to the overall plotline.  Allowing for the building of these minor relationships, such as those between Luke and Jocelyn or Simon and Izzy, gives strength and complexity (and a bit of relief) to the main relationship between Jace & Clary (which, if not complicated enough, also gets added complications from two new potential romantic interests).  Some characters from previous books return to add perspective and other new characters, such as Luke’s sister, provide some clarity and new information to the history of this story and the people involved.

4 – Extraordinary Pose/Style, enhancing the story.

Clare is definitely fantastic storyteller and her prose manages not just to keep up with the rapid pace of her stories, but also to give the story appropriate constraint and structure.  The chapters are long, which is unusual in such a fast-moving book, but each chapter works well as its own small scene with connections to the chapters preceding and following, as well as to the larger story (which includes the earlier and likely the later books) as  a whole.  I always enjoy Clare’s inclusion of literary allusions, though I still would like to see her give more pointed reference to the works and writers she’s invoking (many of the chapter titles come from prominent literary works, for instance, as do various phrases throughout the book – even a ‘Notes’ section at the end of the book, with explanations about why she chose to title her chapters certain ways would be not only professional but also quite interesting and fun, particularly for readers who then might be inspired to read the original works).  Still, Clare controls her story well, allowing it to surge forward when appropriate, as a fantasy-adventure story should, but always keeping the reigns so that the plot does not lose direction.  The language and structure are appropriate to the reading level.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the story

One of the primary criticisms of this book is how blatantly derivative it is and, to be honest, I could not help shaking this feeling throughout the entire reading experience.  There are clearly many elements of the story which are taken directly from other fantasy works, such as the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and even Star Wars.  While it is important for sci-fi/fantasy writers to be aware of the predecessors and, in most cases, to draw upon that tradition to inform their own works, Clare has not quite managed to balance inspiration with originality – she leans far too heavily on reworking others’ themes, perhaps modernizing them, but employing them in such a way as to find them basically creatively recycled.  This is an important and valid criticism, I think, but it must also be said that she does have a solid grasp on contemporary social issues and includes them appropriately in her works – modernizing the fantasy genre in a way which is only just beginning to take hold.  The melodrama and humor are balanced well and the book brings a satisfying if rather predictable ending to the first half of the sextet (I felt the trilogy could end here, so I am not quite sure what the next three books in the sextet will be all about).  Ultimately, those who enjoyed the first two books and who have come to love these characters and their stories will likely be quite satisfied with this third installment – I am interested to see what happens next.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG, YA+
Interest: Fantasy, Supernatural, Angel Lore, Magic, Good vs. Evil, Family, Friendship, Racism.

Notable Quotes:

“Love didn’t make you weak, it made you stronger.”

“People aren’t born good or bad. Maybe they’re born with tendencies either way, but it’s the way you live your life that matters.”

“I love you, and I will love you until I die, and if there is life after that, I’ll love you then.”

“I am a man and men do not consume pink beverages. Get thee gone, woman, and bring me something brown.”

“You never really hate anyone as much as someone you cared about once.”

Thoughts: The Gunslinger by Stephen King


The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 6

The Gunslinger is Book 1 in Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series. King was heavily influenced by Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings but, though he had the early inklings of this story when he was very young, he waited decades to write it because he wanted to make sure it was his own story, and no one else’s. Although this is just book one of seven, I can already say with some confidence that he has succeeded; this is certainly going to be an epic fantasy series, but one which is uniquely Stephen King (which means, utterly different from fantasy series’ most of us would think of, when we think of the genre as a whole). In this book, we meet Roland Deschain, the protagonist and last Gunslinger – a highly trained part-assassin, part-demigod. Roland is tracking a powerful and dangerous adversary, the “man in black” (who readers of King will recognize as the face of evil in certain other books). He is also searching for the Dark Tower, the image of which comes to him in his dreams and hallucinations – he knows it is a source of ancient power, but he does not know what he will find there, who built it, who lives there, or what will happen to him when he finds it.

At its core, The Gunslinger is a quest novel with fantasy elements, inspired by Lord of the Rings, sure, but also by Le Morte D’Arthur and the original quest tales. Roland must overcome obstacles and slay dragons (metaphorically) in his chase to reach the tower. The reader will also see that the landscape, resembling earth but a different one, perhaps out of time or of another dimension, plays a large part in the fantasy and, likely, in the magical abilities that some of these characters have.

Roland’s character is interesting and though an unlikely hero, King’s ability at constructing background stories and introducing flashbacks at critical points in the narrative definitely helps the reader empathize with him. Although I was highly troubled by one of Roland’s decisions near the end of the book (we are expecting it – but still hoping that there might be another way), the earlier exploration into Roland’s background and the later ten-year hallucination he experiences in the desert helps us understand why he did what he did.

The language, prose, and structure are all classic King. He is crude, raw, and fluid. The pages turn because the story is fast-paced and formulaic – short chapters introducing major and minor characters in various episodes which advance the plot. Of course, it is all device, but it works and King is a master of it.

This first book in the series explores, as later books likely will, the nature of good and evil and how people are largely capable of both the good and the bad and although there may be some pure good and some pure evil, most are found along a spectrum of sorts. It also comments on modernity, religious fanaticism, alcoholism, power, and sacrifice. It is an enjoyable, interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable read – a good introduction to what will likely be a great series. I am excited to read the rest.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Epic Fantasy, Quest Narratives, Good/Evil, Holy Grail.

Notable Quotes:

“The mystery of the universe is not time but size.”

“Few if any seemed to have grasped the Principle of Reality; new knowledge leads always to yet more awesome mysteries. Greater physiological knowledge of the brain makes the existence of the soul less possible yet more probable by the nature of the search.”

“Do any men grow up, or do they only come of age?”

“They had discovered one could grow as hungry for light as for food.”

“Was there ever a trap to match the trap of love?”

The Gunslinger is Book 4 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Thoughts: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott


The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 4

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott is book one in “The Secrets of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel,” a YA fantasy series often likened to Harry Potter. Sophie and Josh Newman, teenagers and twins, have spent most of their lives moving from place to place. Their parents are architects who are always on the move, searching for that next big find. Because of this, the twins have become used to instability and are rather adept at adapting. This is fortunate because, one day, the strange bookshop owner who Josh works for, Nick Fleming, is attacked by a powerful and legendary magician, Dr. John Dee, and his golem minions. Immediately, Josh and Sophie are swept off by Fleming, torn from their family and told that they might just be the two people who will become responsible for saving the world, as the prophecies say. The twins are thrust into an underworld filled with ancient legends, dark and powerful gods, bitter rivalries, and the many varied forms of magic, alchemy, sorcery, and science – and, soon, their own powers are to be awakened.

While many people have told me that this is their second favorite fantasy series, after Harry Potter, I am not quite as convinced or enthralled. I do plan to read the next book in the series, and hopefully finish the entire thing at some point.  However, one of the weakest elements for The Alchemyst was, in my opinion, its characters – and characters/characterization is always an important story element for me. The main characters, Sophie and Josh, are thrown into the major plot so quickly; there is little time to learn anything about them. Then, as things continue to happen, we do see certain elements of their personalities (mostly told, not shown), such as Josh’s potential jealousies, Sophie’s insecurities, and the fact that they have learned to love & protect each other as a result of not just being siblings, but also having absent parents who move around so much. Still, there was so little depth to them, and even less to the secondary characters. Nicholas Flamel’s love-story with Penelope is interesting, but not entirely relevant. I wish the pace of the story would have slowed down so that the characters could have had more time to interact and so that the narrative itself could have told us more about them, their histories, and their motivations. Maybe this will happen in later books – but as a stand-alone examination of this first book, I must say I was disappointed.

That being said, the book is largely an action-fantasy or fantasy-adventure story, and the prose and structure are certainly fitting. The language and vocabulary are appropriate for the reading level, and the pages definitely turn (which is both a pro and a con, in this case). In addition to a strong style, there are many historical and mythological elements of the book which are interesting and educational, something I enjoy quite a bit in fantasy stories of this level (the reason why I love the Rick Riordan books so much – they are fun and they teach us things). I particularly enjoy the exploration of “auras” as a type of power and individuality.  Still, I felt that much of the time, Scott was throwing his mythological characters into the story for the sake of having them and to show off just how much he had researched about these ancient tales. The gods (Elders) pop-up all over the place, as do the immortals, mythological beasts, etc. There is a whole lot happening all of the time, which is fine for keeping one occupied, but upon reflection, I realize it left me with a sense of time spent pleasantly, simply, but unsatisfactorily. This first book, I felt, was interesting and fun. It has some great historical/mythological foundations to pull from, and the Author’s Note at the end of the book, which tells of Scott’s research into Flamel, is fantastic. But, ultimately, it was a bit of a shallow reading experience. If you are looking for a fun fantasy tale that won’t necessarily leave you thinking about it afterwards, this might be a good book for you.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: MG/YA
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Alchemy, Siblings, Twins, Family, Absent Parents

Notable Quotes:

“[Humans] barely look, they rarely listen, they never smell, and they think they can only experience feelings through their skin. But they talk, oh, do they talk. That makes up for the lack of use of their other senses.” (149-50)

“Once begun, change cannot be reversed.” (225)