Tag Archives: fantasy

First Test

Author: Tamora Pierce

Protector of the Small Quartet, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

A decade after the kingdom of Tortall decided to accept girls to train as knights instead of just boys, ten-year-old Kel becomes the first girl to actually apply. Inspired by tales of the Lioness’s valor and already skilled through her training in the Yamani court, Kel is determined to succeed and become a knight of Tortall. But she is shocked when Lord Wyldon, the training master, puts an extra requirement on her that the boys don’t have to fulfill: her first year is a probationary period, and only if she satisfies him at the end of it will she be allowed to stay on as a knight-in-training. Hurt and frustration are barely the beginning of what Kel feels, but her time with the Yamanis has also trained her to hide her emotions and press on through unrealistic expectations, deep-seated prejudice, bullying, and social rejection until she proves herself.

First Test is such a great reminder of just why I love Tamora Pierce’s books so much. It’s this fabulous mix of fantasy and slice-of-life, encompassing bits of school story (the majority of the tale), culture and history, exciting battles, amusing relationships with various animals, and growing friendships among many other things. Plus it’s an excellent look into changing perspectives on what women are capable of and that whole dynamic. Kel is a powerhouse, incredible character–the perfect individual for this particular story. Her story is so similar to and yet so different from Alanna’s in the Song of the Lioness Quartet that it’s quite interesting to compare the two. And knowing that Kel has Alanna’s secret backing is fabulous. But seriously, I love Kel’s stubbornness and determination, the way she works so hard to get where she wants to be. And the way that she’s quiet and feminine–which is partly stubbornness in the face of opposition itself–but is also ready to get into fistfights when necessary also contributes to a richness of character. Plus her friendships with all the various animals and her  intentionality in standing up for those who are weaker and afraid. She’s just a very well-realized and fascinating character, and I love that about her. I also really love her opinionated and chatty mentor Neal as well–also a richly developed and complex character who is quite likeable. It’s been entirely too long since I’ve read these books, and I’m greatly anticipating re-reading the rest of this quartet. I would highly recommend both First Test and the rest of the quartet to . . . well, basically anybody who likes a solid fantasy. As far as appropriate age recommendations, this quartet (like the Song of the Lioness books) is difficult to place, but I would say that First Test at least is appropriate for middle-grade and up (possibly even older elementary). Just be warned that the later books in the quartet grow up as Kel grows up, so there may be some more mature content there.

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Sing No Evil

Author: J. P. Ahonen/Illustrator: K. P. Alare

My rating: 4 of 5

Previously published as Perkeros

WARNING: Mature Audience

Perkeros–an avant-garde band just beginning to find its place in the local music scene. Band members include art-student keyboardist Lisa, singer/guitarist Aydin (who keeps mixing pizza with his music), bassist Kervinen (it’s hard to tell which of his stories are for real and which are a product of too much experimentation in the sixties), and drummer Bear (who is, in fact, a bear). And Aksel, the lead guitarist whose extreme nerves and obsessive perfectionism (plus just obsession) over the music may just be enough to shatter the band. Certainly enough to get him ousted from the house by his pragmatic girlfriend. But when the members of Perkeros encounter the seemingly impossible and horrifying results of music gone wrong in another band, it may just be enough for them to reconcile their differences.

Sing No Evil was quite a unique find, and I’m glad to have read it. For one thing, I think it’s the first actual Finnish book I’ve read–I don’t know whether there just aren’t many released in English or if I’m just blind, but I almost never see books by Finnish authors here in the U.S. So that was neat. Plus, this is an extremely dynamic and engaging graphic novel, although I’m rather baffled as to how to classify it. Imagine if Kazu Kibuishi took over the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel–you might end up with something kind of similar. The art style is really nice, and yes, kind of reminiscent of some of Kibuishi’s work. I like the character designs a lot, and the music scenes are fabulously trippy (the cover is a great example of this, actually). But the story itself is this weird (but fascinating) mix of new-adult slice of life stuff–your basic story of young adults trying to work a band into the mix with relationships, work, and higher education–along with some really trippy quasi-demonic deathmetal stuff. It’s kind of creepy (one of several reasons I would label this an adult graphic novel). Of course, there’s some random magical-realism stuff thrown in, too, like Bear being a bear and also being a legitimate member of the band . . . but also being the only animal in this sort of situation in the story. I quite enjoyed the mix in the story, however challenging it was to classify, and the mix of drama, adventure, and humor was nicely balanced. Also random but fun, there are any number of random references just thrown in–I almost died laughing when I saw that Bear’s winter home had a sign saying “Sanders” over the door. Anyhow, I don’t think Sing No Evil is for everyone, but for those interested in a dynamic new adult/fantasy graphic novel with a focus on music, it might be interesting to try.

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Merlin (2008 TV Series)

BBC

AKA: The Adventures of Merlin

Status: Complete (5 seasons/65 episodes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5 (if I’m being honest about the show’s merits) or 6 of 5 (if I’m expressing my undying love of this amazing show)

SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to try to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, but there are certain events which are so deeply a part of Arthurian legend that I can’t honestly consider them spoilers and as such, I may discuss the show’s treatment of them, at least a bit. So if you want a completely spoiler-free impression of this show, just go watch it . . . seriously, what are you waiting for?

Into the heart of Camelot, a kingdom where Uther its king has long made the practice of magic a capital offence, wanders a young man for whom magic is such an integral part of his being as his own breath. Merlin. He’s been sent by a desperate mother to be mentored by the one person she trusts, Uther’s court physician Gaius . . . but deeper and more ancient forces of destiny are at work than a mother’s worry. Merlin rapidly becomes fast friends with the Lady Morgana’s serving girl, Gwen, and just as rapidly gets on the bad side of the prattish prince Arthur. But just because Arthur’s a prat doesn’t mean Merlin wants to see him dead, so he manages to save the prince’s life (secretly using magic) and get himself rewarded by becoming the prince’s manservant (what an honor!). Destiny is at work, though, bringing these two together–the Once and Future King and Emrys, the greatest sorcerer to ever live who will help this king unite the land of Albion, little though they may know it. They may, in time, even become friends, although you’d be hard pressed to get Arthur to admit it.

I love Merlin so very much, and it’s one of those shows that gets better with time–both as you get further into the series and as you watch it again. Certainly, it has its faults (which will be discussed in a bit), but the characters grow on you so very much and their relationships are so rich that the problems with the show are easy to overlook (or at least I have found it so). Essentially, this show is a loose retelling of Arthurian legend–and I mean it when I say it’s a loose retelling. There are certain things that carry over strongly from the classic tales such as names/characters (Arthur, Uther, Merlin, Guinevere, Sir Gwaine, Lancelot, etc.) and events (for instance, you can probably guess how the story ends right from the beginning, the tragedies of Morgana and Mordred, etc.). There’s a lot of original material too, though; the Arthurian legends are only a rough framework for what is essentially an original story. As I said above, there are some things this show doesn’t do so amazingly. The first couple seasons can be a bit repetitive (there are memes; just saying) if you’re looking at the plot of each episode in relation to the other surrounding episodes. This does get better as the show progresses, and I also find that it becomes less noticeable as the characters and their relationships grow on you–the episode framework becomes a background on which the characters are displayed, rather than the main focus of the story. The passage of time is a bit strange and hard to keep track of, too; obviously, only about 5 years passes for the actors, but clearly more time does in the lives of the characters over the course of the show . . . it’s just hard to tell how much time, since the actors haven’t aged to match the passage of time (ignoring the times when Merlin goes old, which are fabulous). The other problem I’ve noticed (and I know I’m not the only one) is that certain characters, particularly Uther and Morgana, are (while brilliantly portrayed by their respective actors) written in an overly one-sided sort of way. For instance, I find it hard to believe that Uther could be so utterly single-minded in his hatred of magic as he is portrayed to be. And Morgana’s change of heart seems too abrupt, too lacking in internal conflict, even considering all that she went through to get to that point. But despite its faults, Merlin is one of my absolute favorite shows ever. Merlin’s character is just brilliantly portrayed (thank you, Colin Morgan), with enough internal conflict and richness of character to totally make up for any lacks elsewhere. And there are so many other brilliant characters–Arthur (obviously; Bradley’s work here is fabulous), Gwen (highly underrated; I adore her), Gaius(amazing mentor character), Gwaine (how can you not love him?!), Leon (also highly underrated), and so many others. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur is so good, too. You can clearly see how they both change over time through their growing friendship, going from basically despising each other to “you’re the only friend I have and I couldn’t bear to lose you.” There’s this great bromance between them, full of sass and humor and teasing, but stemming from a friendship that runs deep. And Colin and Bradley do such a great job of portraying this!!! There are plenty of other cool fantasy/legendary aspects of this show, heartbreaking plots, breathtakingly funny bits . . . but it’s their friendship that makes me love this show so very much.

Created by Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, & Julian Murphy/Written by Julian Jones/Produced by Julie Gardner & Bethan Jones/Starring Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Angel Coulby, Katie McGrath, Richard Wilson, Anthony Head, Nathaniel Parker, & John Hurt/Music by Rob Lane & Rohan Stevenson

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016 Movie)

Heyday Films

My rating: 4 of 5

1926, New York City. Something magical is wrecking havoc, and the magical community is desperately trying to keep the whole thing under wraps and the muggles out of it all . . . which would be easier if there weren’t obsessive, outspoken muggles crying witchcraft from the street corners. Enter into the mix a bumbling young idealist from England carrying a suitcase (bigger on the inside, naturally) full of magical creatures just dying to get out and roam the city. Obviously, trouble is going to ensue, especially when said wizard manages to get himself and his (possibly illegal) creatures seen not just by a muggle but by a straitlaced ex-Auror as well.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a fun jaunt in the world Rowling’s creation. It’s clearly Rowling’s work, but on the other hand, it’s most definitely not Harry Potter, by any means. And it was odd to me that there was this big plot involving the entire local magical community and tying the story into the whole Harry Potter storyline . . . but that part of the story felt almost artificial or forced to me. Like it was there to tie everything together and to make Newt’s story bigger and more exciting, only I wasn’t really interested in that part of the story. But there were other parts of this movie that definitely made up for my not loving the big plot part. For one, the setting was really interesting–1920’s New York, with the added bonus of getting a peek into American wizardry, what’s not to love?! And all of the creatures . . . there’s a sense in which parts of the story almost feel like just a catalogue of magical creatures, but they’re so interesting/cute/wonderful that it’s totally okay. Even better (absolutely without a doubt my favorite part) are the main four characters and their interactions. Newt Scamander himself is the best. He’s a hearty helping of Eleven, a touch of Merlin (especially the sass and attitude), a bit shy and awkward, but thoroughly idealistic and devoted to his creatures and his mission to protect them and educate people about them. I don’t know; I just really enjoyed his personality and the unusual friendship he develops with the others. Jacob, Tina, and Queenie are also rich, well-developed characters who were cast brilliantly. I really loved that they weren’t your typical likeable protagonist types, none of the four were; they’re awkward or bristly or just unusual, and I loved them for it and for the friendships they formed. I would really love to see more of these characters. I think their small (but significant) personal story was what made this movie, and it is certainly what would make me recommend Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to anyone looking for a quirky, magical tale.

Written by J. K. Rowling/Directed by David Yates/Produced by David Heyman, J. K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, & Lionel Wigram/Music by James Newton Howard/Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, & Carmen Ejogo

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A Question of Motives (Merlin Fanfic)

Author: Alaia Skyhawk

FanFiction ID: 6319981

Status: Complete (80 Chapters)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

If only Arthur had actually been knocked out like he’d been pretending to be. Then he would never have to have known that Merlin, his manservant (and best friend, if he’d just admit it), has been keeping important secrets from him. Like the fact that he has magic. Which is illegal. In a kingdom where Arthur’s father is the king. Awkward. . . . Now Arthur has to decide how to carry on from here, and Merlin in turn has to determine how to handle Arthur’s newfound knowledge. Of course, if they can work through the initial awkwardness of the situation, hang onto the deep friendship they share, they could turn this transparency between them into something good–maybe even something amazing–for the benefit of Camelot and each other.

Wow, I have to say that the amount of work put into A Question of Motives is impressive. This story follows series 3 of BBC’s Merlin from the latter parts of episode 2 all the way past the end . . . only in this version, Arthur knows all about Merlin’s magic right from the beginning. What’s more, he accepts it and helps Merlin keep his secret! All in all, I think this story is happier and lighter than most of the Merlin fanfics I’ve read (other than the utterly absurd crack ones, obviously). It’s serious, and when events in the show become dark, this fanfic does as well, but it’s lacking the typical angst that is so very common in this particular fandom. And while I do love the angst, I found  A Question of Motives to be a welcome change. It’s engaging and adventurous, full of friendship and laughter. The author does a great job of altering events in the story to fit with Arthur’s newfound knowledge and the growing group of people involved in Merlin’s secret, slipping original episodes in amongst the canon show episodes and even introducing some charming OCs (yes, I do love Liam!). The only things about this story that were awkward or strange to me were: 1) The author has a way of saying “was stood” when you would usually hear “stood” or “was standing.” I’ve seen a few other authors do this, and I’m wondering if it’s a regional thing . . . but it sounds kind of odd to me. No biggie, though. 2) Uther is too nice and understanding. Of course, it could be that the Uther we see in the show is too polarized and we’re missing this side of him. It was nice to see him being nice on occasion. Just kind of unsettling as well. 3) There was an almost RPG feel to the way that Merlin and his gang acquired new skills, party members, status, etc. Not that that’s a bad thing, it was just kind of noticeable. Still, none of these things was outstanding enough to spoil my enjoyment of a fun and well-written fanfic, which A Question of Motives definitely is. It looks like the author has some other fics connected to this one, and while I haven’t read any of them yet, I will try to point out those connections when I get a chance.

Note: You can find A Question of Motives at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6319981/1/A-Question-of-Motives.

 

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Often So Much (Merlin Fanfic)

Author: Ultra-Geek

FanFiction ID: 8840901

Status: Complete (One-shot)

My rating: 5 of 5

For centuries, Arthur has waited in Avalon for the time ordained for him to return. Waited patiently. Okay, we all know that’s a lie. Truth is, his royal pratness is about to drive Freya crazy, so she sends him back to Merlin a decade ahead of time.

I cannot tell you how much I love this adorable little one-shot. I love post 5×13 stories in general (because the ending of Merlin makes me sad and I need something after to cheer me up). And Ultra-Geek’s stories in general are quite well written and interesting; I would recommend any and all of them. But Often So Much in particular hits a sweet spot for me. The descriptions of the interactions between Arthur and Freya are perfect, and especially the way Freya’s personality is fleshed out and her reactions to Arthur play out are golden. Arthur’s attitudes are spot on as well. And the reunion between Arthur and Merlin is just perfect, nearly enough to make me cry through my grin . . . because it’s touching but a smidge funny too. In any case, for anyone looking for a solid, amusing, and sweet post 5×13 Merlin story, I would highly recommend Often So Much.

Note: You can find Often So Much at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8840901/1/Often-So-Much.

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Dream Country

Author: Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, vol. 3

My rating: 4.5 of 5

WARNING: MATURE AUDIENCE

A struggling author manages to enslave a muse for his own benefit, inspiring amazing ideas but at what cost? Elsewhere, a stray cat attempts to unite a large enough group of cats to dream the same thing and thus alter reality . . . good luck with that one. Centuries before, Will Shakespeare and his motley band of players perform his Dream for an otherworldly audience. And a woman given transformative powers by the sun-god Ra is cursed to never be truly human again.

I swear, this series just keeps getting better! Dream Country is basically a short-story collection in graphic novel form, featuring four unique stories in which Morpheus is a minor character. All four are strange and unique and kind of wonderful in different ways. Which isn’t to say that they’re all happy and fun; some of them, perhaps even parts of all of them, are dark and pensive. Creative and brilliant, still. My favorite was the one featuring Shakespeare–which incidentally won a World Fantasy Award. The story itself is lovely and strange, and Charles Vess’s artwork is just perfect for it. Actually, Vess’s art is basically ideal for Gaiman’s writing in general, or at least for his fantasy; they mesh ridiculously well. The art for the whole collection is quite nice, although for the last story (the Ra one) I struggled for the first bit to figure out what on earth was actually going on. I think that’s just the story and how strange it is, mostly, though. I would highly recommend Dream Country, both for those who are in the midst of reading The Sandman as a series and for those who are just interested in a collection of independent graphic shorts by Gaiman; I don’t think the previous or future volumes are necessary to enjoy this collection.

Covers & Design by Dave McKean/Illustrated by Charles Vess, Malcolm Jones III, Kelley Jones,  & Colleen Doran/Lettered by Todd Klein

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