Monday, May 24, 2021

Dragon's Wrath by: Justin Richards


While the Virgin New Adventures went on past The Dying Days with Bernice Summerfield, it no longer felt like the same range simply because of the protagonist change and the inaugural book in the range, Oh No It Isn’t!, while brilliant, felt incredibly stand alone which made it feel less like the start to a new series and story arc and more like just a special release to see if people would actually continue reading.  The second installment, Dragon’s Wrath, while also standalone actually feels more like some character progression is happening and features the return of one character to actually build a character relationship which sets up a lot of what’s going to be happening in future books.  Justin Richards pens a tale fully embracing the archeologist nature of Bernice Summerfield as a character, as she is tasked with finding the Gamalian Dragon, a statue from a conqueror of many galaxies.  One small problem, the Gamalian Dragon seems to be in Benny’s bag already.  And there’s been a murder at St. Oscar’s, of a man who had a rare appointment with one Irving Braxiatel.  Setting the book up like this means that Richards can take control of where the range is going and reintroduce audiences to Braxiatel and his chess playing ways.  Interestingly, in the audio adaptation from Big Finish Productions, Irving Braxiatel is written out, which makes the adaptation make no sense and barely resemble the book.


The audio adaptation seems to be more readily available as it has been in print for over twenty years and just recently been made available on download, but those who have listened to it perhaps doesn’t have an understanding of what Dragon’s Wrath is.  It’s the starting point for the rest of the series: Benny goes on an adventure and gets swept up in a conspiracy to unravel historical truths.  Richards’ writes a story where the whole point is examining a period of history and revealing it for the actual truth.  The highlight of this book is the interplay between Benny and Braxiatel, a character Richards created for Theatre of War and grew to be one of the more popular Doctor Who spin-off characters after this book.  In the Doctor Who books, outside of his introduction, Braxiatel only appeared in The Empire of Glass and Happy Endings prior to this.  As with Theatre of War, Braxiatel was responsible for much of the plot occurring and resolving: throughout this book he’s the one nudging Benny in the correct direction based on his own suspicions.  Brax is a character who is always one step ahead, but importantly he is charming and keeps bringing Benny closer.  Benny, on the other hand, is wrapped up in unraveling the mystery around her.  She’s still trying to get over her divorce to Jason and has a slight crush on Nicholas Clyde, a professor of history who accompanies her to see and examine the Dragon.  Benny as detective is also an excellent angle to take her character, as the book makes it feel like she is using this expedition as a distraction from everything else going on in her life which allows Richards to really explore her psyche.


This isn’t to say that Dragon’s Wrath isn’t without its problems: it drags quite a bit throughout the middle section and there are points which could be trimmed down here and there, but overall it’s a book which really sets the Benny series in motion.  The villain, Romolo Nusek, is an interesting character, but there is a character shift that wasn’t quite there right at the beginning where he is introduced as trying to uncover his family history.  There could have been more done to make him either an effective twist villain or an outright villain from the start, as Richards doesn’t really decide if it’s supposed to be a twist.  The murder mystery plot also feels just a bit half baked overall, as it almost is just a starting point to get Benny and Braxiatel to have that first conversation which of course is great, but it doesn’t quite connect.  The ending, however, is perfect and there is this sense of doom that there will be repercussions to what Brax has done here.  7/10.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Dresden Files: Proven Guilty by: Jim Butcher


If Dead Beat dragged The Dresden Files to a quality series, Proven Guilty is the book which solidifies the series as doing something excellent.  Previous reviews have highlighted the pulpy urban fantasy nature of the series, which is still present here, but this is the book where things genuinely get dark and stay dark.  The book opens with the White Council executing a teenage warlock for breaking one of the Laws of Magic, and that inciting incident sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Obviously with a title like Proven Guilty, this opening trial sequence becomes paramount for the success of the book, as well as Harry’s unvoluntary complacency in allowing this death to happen.  As a Warder he can only watch as essentially an outsider as a state sanctioned murder takes place, and that becomes parallel for the climax of this book.  Jim Butcher makes the decision to make the climax of this book not be around an action sequence like the previous seven books, but essentially a trial.  Sure there is a big action sequence that comes right before the mystery is revealed as the plot goes right into Faerie and the Winter Court which makes it an excellent parallel of Summer Knight, though pulling itself through much better than Summer Knight.  The trial itself is essentially the resolution to several character conflicts which have been simmering from as far back as Grave Peril, showing really that that was the real point where everything started for The Dresden Files and the first two books were prologue.  Harry’s not necessarily a character always associated with cleverness, but that’s something he’s always really had and he knows just how to bring together chess pieces to at least survive the situation even if it doesn’t end with him getting the best outcome.


Butcher seems to have mastered the character interactions and makes the important decision to put the war with the Red Court Vampires into the background actually works.  The war plays a large part in the motivations of the White Council and the inevitable resolution to the book, adding some nice little endings.  Now the climax does bring in a few tropes which make it fall  apart ever so slightly, but it is an important one for the characters.  There is this simmering tension that is slowly coming to a head as the war, which to this point has been essentially a non-entity.  Entering the Winter Court’s domain before the climax essentially helps the war effort, however unintentionally, possibly tipping the scales and forcing Dresden to actually take part.  Proven Guilty really starts like any other book of The Dresden Files, with an investigation, this time into murders occurring at a horror film convention.  This setting actually is interesting as Butcher doesn’t ever seem to look down on fans of horror or those that go to conventions, but clearly admires what they do.  There is this celebration of fan culture here and there is this brilliant red herring as who is actually behind the murders doesn’t ever actually get discovered here.  There is a White Court Vampire here, another of the Raith family, who feeds on fear which is of course excellent for a horror film convention, as even the quick bursts from a jump scare can provide a morsel of food.  This is also the one where movie monsters come to life, and although none of them are from actual horror films that a reader would know, Butcher does play on several tropes and horror figures that are in the public consciousness.


The first half of the book actually does feel very much like a different book as the main character conflict is between Harry and Thomas as Thomas finds himself back on his feet and earning money in a way possible to not be fired.  There is still this idea of brotherly love and Harry actually feels emotional as Thomas says goodbye, though Butcher makes it clear that this is not going to be an ending for the character.  This is revealed early enough in the book that Thomas plays an important part through the rest of this book and is clearly still going to be a major player throughout the rest of the series.  He’s also one of those interesting characters as he is one of Harry’s flirts with the dark: Harry is technically working with the enemy even if the White and Red Courts are not on good terms.  More importantly, this book deals with Molly Carpenter in a very human storyline, mostly taken away from the magic.  Molly has grown into a 17-year-old rebel, running away from home and making friends with people who makes her good Christian mother weep and despair.  Molly has also been dabbling in magic and has this weird obsession with Harry, one of which he resists even if she is insistent in setting up awkward situations.  These parts of the book in particular are a bit odd as Butcher is unsure of what tone to use really because of the genuine ick that this gives off: Harry is a grown man, and while he isn’t ever tempted the fact that he isn’t outwardly grossed out it doesn’t always work.  The play in the second half when Molly is damseled and Charity Carpenter, who until this point has essentially despised Harry, comes to her rescue and those relationships are worked out is a highlight of the book.  The familial theme here is essentially that children will listen, they may not obey, but they will listen and an examination of the cyclical personalities from parent to child.  Charity secretly practiced magic and dabbled in the dark just like her daughter.  Charity is also a certifiable badass who fights with a hammer and honestly that’s just the best note to end on.


Overall, Proven Guilty may not be the perfect installment of The Dresden Files, but it is one that continues the quality of Dead Beat in exploring the characters and actually moving the series forward leaps and bounds.  Butcher continues to provide us with a good time and that is all that readers really can hope for.  8/10.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by: Rick Riordan


When I set out to read the mythological works of Rick Riordan, I intended to be finished before the release of the final installment in The Trials of Apollo.  That clearly didn’t happen as by that point I had only made it into The Kane Chronicles, so here I am over half a year later in the middle of The Trials of Apollo and feeling the slow burn of the series.  The Hidden Oracle was actually a great start to the series and gave some interesting characters with an interesting premise, but The Dark Prophecy kind of takes a turn for the worse.  The series set itself on an exploration of what happens when a god has to become mortal which it did incredibly well, so it becomes a surprise when The Dark Prophecy kind of leaves that out of Apollo’s motivation as a character.  Sure, Meg being missing is an important motivation and works, but Riordan doesn’t allow more than one thought to be put in Apollo’s head at a time which feels like the entire story just isn’t nearly as cohesive.  Yes there is the great step of limiting setting to one or two places and making this feel like a series where each installment does lead right into another, but the Waystation doesn’t quite work as Riordan intended.  The intent is to cause friction between Apollo and Artemis, however, Artemis doesn’t actually appear so it’s only the Hunters and inhabitants of the Waystation which provide that friction.  These are all essentially new characters, including some of the exes of Apollo which is where the book gets the closest to meeting the character dynamics of previous books.  Riordan almost introduces too many characters in this book while trying to appease fans by including characters like Leo and Calypso, implying that the New Rome characters will be in the next book, and a final appearance of Grover Underwood.


Emperor Commodus is this book’s villain, and honestly he and his underlings really aren’t that interesting.  He’s power mad, we’ve seen that before, and Riordan really is making this book feel like it was aimed at a younger audience.  There’s an evil character who gets redeemed from The Heroes of Olympus which kind of happens only because the plot demands it, though it was a minor character in The Lost Hero so that isn’t exactly the worst thing to happen.  There’s also this indulgence in snake imagery in lieu of using Python as a villain.  There is at least two “couples” which work really well, Apollo and Meg in the second half having some great moments though tainted by the step backward in exploration, and Leo and Calypso.  Leo and Calypso’s relationship is one that just seems like it’s built on care and worry, both kind of being flawed characters which is a glimmer of the previous Riordan books shining through because of that.  There is a great moment when Leo goes on ahead right after the end of the book which is great and brilliant.  Also The Dark Prophecy doesn’t actually really appear until the very end of the book making the title seem worthless.


Overall, this book is the weakest I’ve read from Riordan thus far and honestly is one that feels like it can be skipped.  Fans may like it for some of the cameos and there is some great setup and the occasional character work, but really it’s one that drags on far too long.  It took way too long to actually get going and once it gets going it doesn’t actually go anywhere resulting in an experience which is very meh.  5/10.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Three Doctors by: Terrance Dicks


The Three Doctors was written by Terrance Dicks, based on the story of the same name by: Bob Baker and Dave Martin.  It was the 17th story to be novelized by Target Books.


There is something to be said about Doctor Who novelizations which make an effort to improve on the visuals of the television serial.  Doctor Who, for as much as everyone loves it and adores it, is a show made on a limited budget, often out of the producers’ control, with a premise that would stop even the most expensive of budgets from fully realizing.  The Three Doctors is one of those stories whose plot involves the entering of an anti-matter universe and creatures from said universe threatening UNIT.  Omega’s realm and the battle in Omega’s mind in particular are aspects which the viewer can see are being done on a set, yet Terrance Dicks’ adaptation actually builds up the script’s inklings of a cave of wonders, emphasizing the great fire which causes the characters to leave the universe when on television it’s just a small jet of steam.  The imagery is beautiful as Dicks’s prose allows for Omega’s character to be more of a tragic figure, separated from Stephen Thorne’s iconic over the top portrayal of the Time Lord.  There is also the Gallifrey sequences of this book which are taken straight from the television serial, but there is this sense of desperation as Dicks removes some of the stoicism of the Time Lords which gives some emotional depth.  There is also an interesting note that this story is the first where the earlier Doctors are referred to as the First and Second Doctor, respectively.


Overall, The Three Doctors is a different style of adaptation as it follows the same beats, making the interesting decision not to increase the First Doctor’s participation in the plot while still giving some more depth.  It is however, slightly inferior even with the lush prose and descriptions as nothing can replicate Pertwee, Troughton, and Manning’s chemistry.  8/10.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Riyria Revelations: Theft of Swords by: Michael J. Sullivan


There is a clear divide between classic and modern family, with classic fantasy being more focused on worldbuilding and epic quests with maybe one or two important character relationships while modern fantasy characterizes itself by the characters, often making more of an intimate experience and a deeper character experience.  The 2011 first volume of The Riyria Revelations after a successful period of time on the online self-publishing circuit before being picked up by Orbit Books before the final book of the series could be published.  Theft of Swords collects The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha which were originally published in 2008 and 2009, respectively, by Michael J. Sullivan.  Sullivan drafted the entire series before even publishing, not originally having the intent to publish these, being written for his thirteen-year-old daughter with dyslexia.  It’s an omnibus that across two books essentially tells a complete story about the assassination and reinstation of a monarchy while two honorable thieves are framed for the assassination and then forced to kidnap the rightful heir to the throne.  The first book is essentially a murder mystery while the second is your classic example of quest fantasy to destroy an evil monster.  It becomes an interesting delineation with the two books being essentially separate stories that dovetail into one another.  Avempartha especially has a great recap for new readers in explaining the events of the previous book in the form of a play called The Crown Conspiracy, which was given good reviews but was criticized for not having any elves or more fantasy races in it.


The feature of Theft of Swords is really the dynamic between Hadrian and Royce, our pair of honorable thieves.  Hadrian is also an expert swordsman with some secrets hinted on the status of his family and perhaps gets the more interesting characterization as Royce ends up playing the straight man to the comedic character of Hadrian.  When escorting the young prince Alric they get their best interactions as Alric is the standard spoiled prince character which is excellent.  They both have the chance to give this prince a chance to grow up which makes what could have been a very standard character into something great.  Yes his isn’t in much of the second book, though I suppose that there will be some development with Alric in the back four books.  When Sullivan mentioned that he was intending to build up the world slowly over the course of six books which is something you can see in the first two.  The end of Avempartha in particular hints that there are elves in this world which may be coming out of the woodwork against the racist humans which makes for an interesting little thread, especially as the monster is something created to destroy humanity which had been imprisoned for one thousand years.  It makes the two books feel incredibly different even if they still work as two halves of one cohesive whole.  The end point does have the issue of being just that, a stopping point, and not necessarily a good ending.


Overall, Theft of Swords is perhaps best described as a classic fantasy story with a modern writing style.  The story itself is straight out of the works of Tolkien, the writing style is completely modern with the brotherhood between Hadrian and Royce together being worth the book’s price tag.  This is a book which does suffer from being two novels put into one as they lead into one another and the weaker worldbuilding makes this less than one of the greats, but it isn’t one that should be discounted and has the potential to be great.  7/10.