Tag Archives: historical fantasy

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows

Author: James Lovegrove

The Cthulhu Casebooks, vol. 1

My rating: 4 of 5

The general public is well familiar with the stories of the great detective Sherlock Holmes as written by his friend and partner in crime-fighting, Dr. John Watson. What they don’t know is that those stories are just a cover, an embellishment of certain insignificant events in order to hide something of far greater import–something the public should never know about. Because, while in these stories, Holmes is presented as an extremely logical and brilliant man who always a scientific reason for events, the truth is that he and Watson have encountered things that defy science. Horrible, ancient things that could spell  the end of mankind if left unchecked. And together, they have pledged their logic and skill to defending mankind from behind the scenes. This is the true story of their initial meeting and subsequent first encounter with the occult, as told by Dr. Watson himself.

Retellings and spinoffs of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories seem ubiquitous, and I’ve personally had mixed experiences with them. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows belongs to a niche segment of these stories, ones that–like Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”–cross over with the Lovecraftian mythos. It’s an intriguing mixture, and I found it to be quite well executed in this book. It is couched as being a confession of sorts, written by Watson late in life and never meant to be published. As such, it evokes a tone quite similar to that of the original Doyle stories–I actually found this aspect of it to be fairly convincing. The author makes a lot of comparisons between what was written in said stories and “what actually happened,” which is intriguing to say the least. I found my vocabulary challenged repeatedly, which was refreshing. Unfortunately (although perhaps necessary to evoke the correct feel), the writing expresses period-typical ways of looking at certain people groups, as well as some terminology for such, that could be offensive. Regrettable, that. The actual story and the way the mythology is interwoven into the story is quite well done, a credible way for Holmes to get dragged into this mess. All in all, I found Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows to be a solid, enjoyable story that I would recommend.

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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations

Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.

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The Grand Tour: of The Purloined Coronation Regalia

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia and Kate, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Following their weddings, cousins Kate and Cecy–along with their husbands Thomas and James and Thomas’s mother Lady Sylvia–embark on a grand tour of the Continent, a honeymoon to be remembered. Or, well, that’s what it was supposed to be. And it certainly is. Memorable, that is. Nearly from the start, the party find themselves confronted with strange happenings–mysterious visitors, falling ceilings, magical illness, secret messages, and strange magical rituals performed in ancient ruins, among others. Certain that something odd is going on, they begin investigating, because really, could these people ever leave something that intriguing alone?

The Grand Tour proved a solid follow-up for Wrede and Stevermer’s first volume, Sorcery & Cecelia, although with some marked differences. If I could compare the first volume to Howl’s Moving Castle, then The Grand Tour could better be compared to one of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody stories, just with magic. The dates are completely off, of course, as is the location, but the whole well-to-do British travelers in foreign parts getting involved in mysteries and intrigue involving some antiquity or the other? Definitely fits here. As for the writing, this volume is told more as journals or memoirs as opposed to letters, so the tone is a bit different–actually quite a bit, really. There’s a touch of dissonance at first, to be honest, like the authors are figuring out who their characters are all over again when seen in this different light. After that first bit, though, you get to see more of the characters’ individualities coming through, you get more facets to them than might have been seen if this were also told as correspondence. And the characters are, well, quite the characters. Without the decorum demanded by Regency-era society, they might be quite shocking, and even while attempting to exercise decorum, they push the bounds at times. But in a very enjoyable sort of way. On the whole, I quite enjoyed The Grand Tour and would recommend it to those who enjoy Regency-era stories, historical fantasy, and intrigue.

 

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Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia & Kate, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Kate has been dragged to London along with her (much more lovely and socially graceful) sister Georgina to be presented to Society. Meanwhile, her cousin (and long-time partner in crime) Cecelia is left in the countryside, staving off complete boredom as best she can. The two quickly begin an exchange of letters, sharing gossip and commiserating with each other’s woes. But somehow the two of them soon find themselves dragged into some inexplicable, magical conspiracy, unsure who to trust or what exactly is happening. But these two cousins are nothing if not sharp-witted, and they quickly begin putting their heads together (through letters sent back and forth) to figure this thing out before either of them ends up in true trouble.

Sorcery & Cecelia is an absolutely charming story! I’ve greatly enjoyed Wrede’s stories before, so that’s not particularly surprising; however, I don’t particularly have a great taste for Regency-era stories, and this most certainly is that. But it just has so much to offer, in spite of that, or perhaps because of. The setting causes so much of the story to be couched in politely-barbed wit, and the effect is quite delightful–reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, I’d say. And the addition of magic to the setting is perfect. Between that and Thomas’s character, there are bits that almost remind me as well of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie). The entirety of the story is told in letters exchanged between Kate and Cecy. It’s actually quite brilliant; this book started out as a role-play sort of game between the authors, exchanging letters in character, and sort of just happened to develop into an actual book. Because they’re cool like that. In any case, it works amazingly well. The story starts off a little slow at first, but I found myself quickly falling in love with the cousins’ wit and humor, and as actual plot began really developing, I found myself utterly pulled in. Highly recommended, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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Fables & Reflections (Graphic Novel)

Author: Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, vol. 6

My rating: 5 of 5

WARNING: Mature Audience

Late one night, a blooming artist faces his deepest fears. In September of 1859, a man writes to the paper declaring himself emperor of the United States. For one day out of the year, Caesar leaves his position and takes to the streets, disguised as a beggar, to think and plan beyond the attention of the gods. In 1273, young Marco Polo finds himself lost in a desert sandstorm, beguiled away from the path by voices–real or imagined he cannot tell. On his wedding day, the son of Morpheus of the Endless will find great joy followed by great sorrow, enough to change his existence forever. And through all these stories and more, the presence of Dream weaving through their realities, touching people and altering their minds and hearts–as is the wont of dreams.

Fables & Reflections may just be my favorite Sandman volume to date. It’s quite an eclectic collection. The first good chunk of it–several individual stories–is all essentially historical fiction, more magical realism than true fantasy, really. And I loved the way Gaiman wrote these stories, the way he wove Morpheus into these historical lives and the way he drew attention to lesser known historical figures. The story of Emperor Norton–of whom I had never heard before this–actually moved me to tears. From there, we move to what I would consider more traditional Sandman stories: a kid wandering into the Dreaming, meeting Matthew the raven, and hearing stories from Cain, Abel, and Eve; a highly stylized story of a ruler of Baghdad during its golden age; and perhaps most significantly, a retelling of the story of Orpheus spanning multiple chapters and tying him in with Dream and the Endless directly. The storytelling in all of these tales is absolutely top-notch–clear and insightful and beautifully phrased, basically everything I love about Gaiman’s writing. I also found the art in this volume to be more appealing than that which I typically find in this medium. It’s still definitely a more comic-book style, but the flow is nice, there’s a greater focus on the text (with fonts and such used to great effect), and the coloring is generally appealing; the art suits the stories well. For those who enjoy Gaiman’s writing, I would definitely recommend Fables & Reflection. It’s probably advisable to read the other volumes first, but this could probably stand on its own and be fairly easy to follow as well.

Covers & Design by Dave McKean/Illustrated by Bryan Talbot, Stan Woch, P. Russell Craig, Shawn McManus, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, Duncan Eagleson, Kent Williams, Mark Buckingham, Vince Locke, & Dick Giordano/Colored by Danny Vozzo, Digital Chameleon, & Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh/Lettered by Todd Klein/Introduced by Gene Wolfe

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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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The Inquisitor’s Tale

Author: Adam Gidwitzthe-inquisitors-tale

Illustrator: Hatem Aly

My rating: 5 of 5

The year is 1242, and one dark evening a disconnected group of travelers find themselves together in a small French countryside inn, trading stories to pass the time. Surprisingly, the one evening it seems that all their stories are part of a larger story, a story of three children with seemingly miraculous powers and their faithful dog who is revered as a saint by local peasants. And the tale doesn’t end with the miracles these children have performed, for the very king of France has now declared war against these children. Perhaps, through their interwoven tales, the travelers can puzzle out why such a thing would be.

I was deeply impressed by Gidwitz’s work on The Inquisitor’s Tale. The story is obviously well researched, emulating a storytelling style similar to that of Chaucer’s tales (but in prose), which adds an air of authenticity. It also makes the development of the plot quite interesting, although the pace is slower than that of many tales because of the style. The story draws heavily on both historical research and on the saints tales and folklore of the day, creating a tale that is equal parts historical fiction and fantasy. It’s quite appealing. Also appealing are the characters and the manner in which they develop over the course of the book, particularly after the four of them begin traveling together. Oddly enough, the author does at times choose to use terms which wouldn’t have been common (or even known at all) in 1242–like “allergic” for instance; however, this practice does serve to keep the writing more colloquial, which fits the setting. One of the most powerful and poignant aspects of this story is the way in which it addresses the issues of ignorance and hatred of the alien that were present in that particular place and time, discussing these issues in a way that makes the reader sorely aware of the similarity there is to the discord present in our own day. A painful reminder that we could save so much heartache if we could just learn from history. I also appreciated the way in which complex and difficult theological ideas were incorporated into the story and the way in which the plot tended, ultimately, towards hope and encouraging the reader to be the change we want to see in the world. Demographically, The Inquisitor’s Tale is intended for an upper middle-grade audience, but I think it is an incredible story for anyone that age or older.

 

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