Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Dragon's Lair

The Dragon's Lair
by Elizabeth Haydon
Recommended Ages: 12+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Sky Raiders

Sky Raiders
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 11+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Thief Queen's Daughter

The Thief Queen's Daughter
by Elizabeth Haydon
Recommended Ages: 12+

In The Floating Island, we first met Ven Polypheme, an unusual specimen of the ancient Nain race. Unlike the typical Nain, whose idea of a good time is to dig ore out of a mountain's roots, Ven's family lives in a human city and specializes in building ships. Unlike other members of his large, practical family, Ven has the itchy feet of an explorer. And unlike practically anyone else in known history, Ven has survived an attack by the Fire Pirates. By the opening of this sequel, Ven has found his way to a wayside inn staffed by orphaned children. His friends include the cook's mate of a sailing ship, a pastor-in-training for a congregation of little people, a pickpocket named Ida No, and a quiet little Gwadd girl who shares her people's power to make things grow. These friends are ready to join Ven on his next adventure, when young King Vandemere sends him to the thieves' market to seek the origin of a mysterious, glowing stone.

You see, Vandemere has hired Ven to be his eyes and ears in the wide world, reporting on any real magic he may find. Only now, on a day when everything goes wrong, the king has also fired Ven. The young Nain is still resolved to go and find out what he can, even though the Gated City is such a dangerous place. This walled-off area within the port city of Kingston has long been home to charlatans, pickpockets, and worse. Visitors are only allowed once a week, on market days, and can only get in and out with the aid of tokens purchased at the gate. Anyone caught inside the Gated City's walls after the closing bell, will be stuck there at least until the next week's market day. And though some of the people who live there are decent folk, some are downright dangerous—especially within the keyhole-shaped gate that leads to the Inner Market, where the evil Thief Queen rules over her Raven Court.

When Ven and friends try their wits against Queen Felonia and her villains, trouble is bound to break out. And break out it does. First their most vulnerable companion disappears, stolen from under their noses. Then someone ransacks the shop of a weapons dealer who has shown them kindness. A scary fortune-teller lays a strange and perhaps costly gift on Ven, one he has no time to learn how to use just yet. And of course, the kids find themselves trapped between the Thief Queen and her hideous plans for her daughter. Only as they make their death-defying escape do they discover the good magic hidden within the walls of the bad city.

This is the second book in "The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme," a series that continues with The Dragon's Lair. A fourth book, titled The Tree of Water, will be published in October 2014. Elizabeth Haydon, whose dust-cover bio reads like the made-up credentials of a pseudonym like Lemony Snicket or Pseudonymous Bosch, is nevertheless also known for her (so far) seven-book "Symphony of Ages" series, running from Rhapsody: Child of Blood to her most recent title, The Merchant Emperor. In the present book, Haydon alternates between fragments from Ven's first-person journal and a third-person narrative that supposedly fills in the gaps. Is it original fiction or literary restoration? Answer: Yes. For in addition to her original characters and world-building, Haydon gives us lightly disguised retellings of such classic stories as Cinderella. Meanwhile, the tale-within-a-tale, explaining a certain Wonder revealed in this book, is a movingly beautiful imitation of traditional folklore. Ven's journey also includes a clever riddle and a valuable lesson about how to spot a true friend. And the young adventurers' thrilling escape reveals layer upon layer of danger and magic brooding beneath the surface of the Kingdom of Serendair.

Hymn for Christ-Centered Hymnody

Here is a hymn that may serve best as the dedicatory poem to a book of hymns.
O Christ, our theme of highest worth,
Make fit the praise of all the earth!
Whom we would laud on lowered knee,
Raise up a worthy hymnody!
Breathe into us a reverent song,
And hold it back from speaking wrong;
Help us to frame Thy praise aright!
Draw those who hear it to Thy light!

Lord of our song, we humbly pray,
Be all in all we do or say.
Make this our fundamental tone:
Salvation is of Thee alone;
Not of our works, which serve Thee ill,
But only by Thy gracious will.
This shall retune man's bitter din:
The sweeter strain of pardoned sin.

Composer of our flesh and soul,
Give hymns that keep Thy praises whole!
For Thou hast saved us without stint;
We claim not half, nor slightest tint.
To Thee we turn, not by our choice,
But by Thy lively, calling voice.
Through faith, Thy gift that sets us free,
Bind us to faithful hymnody!

Lord, grant us hymns that locate Thee
Where Thou hast sworn Thyself to be:
The baptism bath; the mighty word
Wherein Thy living voice is heard;
The consecrated bread and wine;
The absolution, which is Thine.
So give us hymns that glorify
Thy chosen means of drawing nigh.

Because Thou, Christ, hast suffered loss,
Redeeming us by blood and cross,
Teach us to make Thine agony
The theme of all our melody.
Lest we despise pain, sorrow, need,
Keep us from songs of shallow greed.
Whatever woe our hearts may feel,
Thy hymns will thereby soothe and heal.

And finally, long-suffering God,
When every tongue and tribe and blood
Has learned to sing Thy blest refrain,
Perfect creation's song again.
With penitence and praise we pray,
Make haste to cue that tuneful day
When, having dried at last our tears,
We join the music of the spheres!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Elantris

Elantris
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

I've never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, and I'm generally leery of thick fantasy novels that have the look of "Book One of a Punishingly Long Series." Three things convinced me to give this book a try. First is the fact that, although it was his first published novel back in 2005, Sanderson hasn't written any sequels to it... yet. I'm told he plans to, but so far all he has rolled out is a novella set in the same universe, titled The Emperor's Soul, and a short e-book called The Hope of Elantris. It's possible we may luck out and this will be a standalone novel; that would be just about perfect. The second and deciding vote in favor of reading it is the fact that an audio-book, read by Jack Garrett for Recorded Books, was available at the public library. Third, and making it unanimous, is the list of other works by Brandon Sanderson, which includes a bunch of other stuff that I suddenly want to read. More on that in a bit.

The city of Elantris used to be a glowing place, populated by gods in human form. Their skin gleamed like polished silver. Their hair was radiant white. They could heal sicknesses and injuries, turn trash into food, and do many other wonders, using a type of magic called AonDor: channeling enormous power (Dor) into the world by means of complex, glowing characters drawn on the air (Aons). Elantrians were almost immortal, though anyone could become one. If you were at least partly descended from the people of Arelon or Teod, and if you lived in or near the country of Arelon that surrounded Elantris, you might just wake up one morning and find yourself Elantrian. It was all very lovely until something happened that I wouldn't be able to spell, since I only read the audio-book. Fortunately, I was able to find an online glossary of this book, to which I am greatly indebted.

The word I'm looking for is Reod, and however you spell it, it shattered the magic of Elantris. Suddenly, a city of the gods became an earthly hell of the damned. In the ten years since the Reod, Elantris has become a dark, slime-encrusted ghetto full of shriveled zombies, divided between three savage gangs. When a new person undergoes the transformation into an Elantrian (Shaod), he is considered dead—though his actual fate is worse than death. Their hearts don't beat. Their hair falls out. Their skin turns blotchy, gray, and wrinkled. No matter how much they eat (which isn't much, most days), they are tormented by hunger. And since their bodies no longer heal, all their injuries, from a stubbed toe to a scraped elbow, accumulate in a chorus of pain that will eventually drive them mad. Most Elantrians last only a few months before they check out, becoming a whimpering bag of bones, never able to die. For good reason, those who continue to become Elantrians—at a rate of one or two a day, on average—are regarded as eternally damned. The local priests clap white robes on them, hand them a small basket of food, and shove them into the abandoned city with a brisk slam of the front gate.

Ten years after the Reod, the kingdom of Arelon is in trouble. Raoden, the king's only son, has fallen to the Shaod. His royal father covers it up, claiming that Raoden died of some disfiguring plague (hence the closed-casket funeral). This triggers a unique clause in Raoden's marriage contract to the Teoish princess Sarene, who was already en route their wedding when fate struck. On arrival, Sarene finds she is already legally married to Raoden, already a widow who can never marry again. Though her hopes of finding love and companionship are disappointed, Sarene is politician enough to recognize that both Arelon and Teod are in trouble. Both countries will need their alliance to survive against the gathering might of a theocratic empire that has already conquered the rest of the world. And even if her headstrong ways put her at odds with King Iadon's views on women, Sarene may be Arelon's best hope for resisting the Fjordell Empire.

Using a combination of religious outreach and military might, the followers of the Derethi god Jaddeth and his earthly servant, the Wyrn, have all but completed their mission to subdue the world. After heinous scenes of slaughter and chaos wrapped up their latest conquest, the only remaining holdouts are Teod and Arelon. Now there's a new Gyorn in town—that's a high-ranking Derethi priest, if you want to know—and he intends to convert the people of Arelon to his religion in three months or bust. And by "bust" I mean, if he doesn't succeed, the Wyrn's armies will destroy every man, woman, and child in the country. Hrathen knows that the only way to avoid a bloodbath is to make full use of his talent for reasonable persuasion, bribery, and political manipulation, to capture the allegiance of the nobility. Once their leaders are converted, the people will follow. Then it will be a simple matter of converting the kingdom of Arelon into a client state of Fjorden.

What Hrathen doesn't reckon on is the political skill of the young princess from Teod. With wits that match his own, she quickly rises to leadership in an opposing party that thwarts Hrathen's plans at every step. Meanwhile, Hrathen's designs for saving Arelon by peaceful means are undermined by Dashe, a passionate young priest whose hatred of Elantris is of almost demonic intensity. Between these two, Hrathen finds his faith shaken, his certainties challenged.

On the third point of the triangle, opposite Sarene and Hrathen, is Raoden himself. Everyone thinks he's dead, but he has other ideas—ideas that bid fair to transform Elantris once again. While he struggles to manage his rapidly growing pain, Raoden tries to unite the almost subhuman gangs of Elantris, beginning to rebuild a society and restore a sense of hope and purpose. Unfortunately he finds his aims thwarted by both Hrathen and Sarene, each of whom wants to use Elantris for political reasons. As he senses his time as a conscious person running out, Raoden races to rediscover the lost art of AonDor and the secret of why it stopped working. Then, if he can manage it before the inevitable disaster breaks out, perhaps he can heal what was broken ten years ago—and save a kingdom from the brink of destruction.

Whew! That's a lot of stuff to pack into one book! If I teased it any less, you wouldn't know enough of what the book is about to understand why it's such an impressive story. Any more, and I would risk spoiling too much. Here's hoping you now know just enough about Elantris to salivate. It's a thought-provoking book full of ideas about politics and religion. It's an immersive book, introducing a richly complex fantasy world, built atop many layers of history, folklore, and culture. It's an emotionally gripping book, touching the heart with the misery of Elantris, the loneliness of the princess, the tormented doubts of the priest, the growing love between Raoden and Sarene, and above all, the skillful application of suspense. There came a time, towards the end of the audio-book, when it was no longer safe for me to listen to it while driving. I had to take the CDs indoors, where I could swear at the characters, and yell, and wave my hands, and kick the air, and suck on my knuckles, without endangering other drivers and pedestrians.

This book was Brandon Sanderson's big break. According to this list of his titles, he went on from here to write such world-building fantasy epics as the Mistborn trilogy (now four books, starting with The Final Empire), the Stormlight Archive series (so far two books, starting with The Way of Kings), the Infinity Blade series (Awakening and Redemption), and another standalone novel of the same type, titled Warbreaker. He is also the author chosen by Robert Jordan's widow to complete the Wheel of Time cycle, which he managed in only three books (from The Gathering Storm to A Memory of Light). After reading this book, I will be more tempted to plunge into more of these big, fat, highly acclaimed novels.

However... There are other titles by Mr. Sanderson that I find even more imminently attractive. Now that I have tried him out, I don't know how I can resist them any longer. These include the Alcatraz quartet, beginning with Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, and featuring a bespectacled boy with amazing powers; the ongoing Reckoners trilogy, starting with Steelheart, and presenting a dystopian spin on the concept of a world with superheroes; Firstborn, a standalone novel whose hero is a prince in a futuristic, galactic empire; and The Rithmatist, the start of a new YA fantasy series, set in a world in which sidewalk chalk drawings can come horribly to life. I can hardly wait to plunge in!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Moving Along...

Today's progress on moving houses...

I heard back from a prospective landlord, who said pets are not allowed in her properties. She then gave me the phone number for the Stover City Hall, where I persuaded a clerk to email me the city's landlord list. One of these two ladies was nice enough to observe that everybody in the world has been editor of the Stover paper in recent years, and nobody has lasted very long. That was really encouraging to hear, as I prepare to leave behind all I have known these past seven years and to start anew. Harrumph.

I visited Walmart and stocked up on packing boxes, tape, Sharpie markers, and some other urgently needed supplies as the two-week countdown to Moving Day continues to tick away.

On reaching home, I started calling landlords on the list sent me by city hall. The results:
  • Out of 7 landlords with multiple-unit properties:
    • Two had phone numbers that led to the good old error message starting with three ascending tones, followed by a recorded voice saying, "We're sorry. The number you dialed..."
    • Two numbers, including the alternate number for one of the out-of-service numbers above, went to voice mail. I left messages.
    • One landlord said no pets are allowed.
    • One landlord said they only have storage units available for now.
    • I skipped over two landlords, for now, because the names of their properties indicated that they deal in trailer homes—a last-resort option for me.
  • Out of 7 landlords representing multiple properties:
    • One number was out of service.
    • I left voice mails at two numbers.
    • Two landlords said all their properties are currently rented.
    • One lady had a house available that sounded just right, but she wasn't sure pets would be allowed. My parents are going to look at the place next week.
    • Another landlord said both of his properties may become available between August and October, and that pets are allowed; another promising lead.
  • Out of 5 landlords representing a single property each:
    • One number was out of service.
    • I left voice mails at two numbers.
    • There was absolutely no answer at one number.
    • One lady said they would allow outside pets only.
So there it stands for now. Two perhaps-maybe-possible landlords have been spotted. Several more have yet to return my call. And there are still two whom I haven't tried to reach yet (three, if you count the number whose line kept ringing). Not a totally encouraging day's work, but not a complete shutout either.

UPDATE: The lady whose line kept ringing without any answer, called back. She had seen my number on Caller ID and wanted to know what I was calling about. After a slightly confusing conversation, it transpired that her property has already been rented. Bummer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Today's Checklist Progress

Further to yesterday's post about all the things I need to do to get moving on, er, moving...

Today I contacted the veterinarians in the community I am moving to and collected information about where I can board my cats, if I can't immediately find a place that will accept pets; whether they board pets, what it would cost, etc. Then I arranged to have my kitty's (Sinead) and puss's (Tyrone) vaccination records faxed to the place from their primary care vet.

I used the local ads classified "for rent" to look up the phone numbers of a couple of prospective landlords. Tried reaching one and left a voice mail at an office that is only open Thursdays and part of Friday. Called another and actually heard a busy signal for the first time in so many years that I could hardly believe my ears. On a cell phone, the sound effect comes with a cute little animation that I have never seen before.

I went to my apartment complex's leasing office and submitted a form announcing my intention to move out, effective at the end of the month. The bookkeeper gave me a tentative figure for the buyout on my lease and the kind of payment plan I could use to make it a little less ruinous. Reader, I'm four months into my current lease, but if I make the minimum payment each month I will still be paying off the buyout at this time next year.

Baby steps, and not very many of them, but there's only so much business you can accomplish at the end of a hard day's work... And my work so far this week has accomplished little more than to make me relish the new career path opening before me. God be praised!