Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
April 2013

PRESCRIPTION: Hounded by Kevin Hearne
SYMPTOMS: Light-hearted urban fantasy, snappy dialog, magic-heavy action, mythology
DOSAGE: (out of five)

Atticus O'Sullivan is a 2000-year-old druid playing mortal in Tempe, Arizona, while waiting for Aenghus Òg, the Celtic god of love, to forget he wants him dead. That isn't likely, since Atticus humiliated him a few centuries before when he nicked a magic sword, Fragarach the Answerer. Atticus has avoided Aenghus ever since, but all good things must come to an end and thank the petulant pantheon they do because Hounded, the first of Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series, is one of the most fantastically entertaining books I've read in ages.

The first person narration is tight and vibrant, its strength of characterization and voice reminiscent of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. In fact, Atticus has been described as "the logical heir to . . . Dresden" by SFFWorld, though he's not so much a sorcerer P.I. as a savant hippie with a justified sense of paranoia. Where readers might expect a licensed B.A. like Dresden to crack his knuckles and deliver a snarky "come at me, bro" when faced with his mortal enemy, Atticus books the next Boeing 747 out of Dangertown. Unless said mortal enemy threatens his dog.

While similar to Storm Front in break-neck pacing, narrative mode, and unmannered faeries, Hounded shrugs off the city grit and self-deprecation for a charming swagger that lends the story a feel-good vibe not found in much of the urban fantasy genre. Atticus's conversations with his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon, break up the excitement with comic relief and little details that hint at Atticus's protracted personal history give his character believability, despite an age of roughly two Millennia. Unlike a lot of fantasy fiction's senior citizens, Atticus isn't jaded or infinitely wise. He stays alive for love of living and sometimes he gets it wrong. Also, his attorney is a werewolf and he practices swordsmanship with a viking-turned-vampire. Who wouldn't want to stick around?

Though Atticus avoids conflict when possible, he recognizes when it's time to face the enemy and makes a conscious effort to minimize collateral damage. His personal sense of morality and goodwill toward man (and beast) give him both gravity as a character and an ethos mortal readers can respect. Atticus is the kind of hero who casually decapitates a god-turned-assassin on the same day he mows his elderly neighbor's lawn, and does it with an eye toward all that is awesome about being (and did we mention staying?) alive.

For audiobook lovers, Hounded is a must-listen. Luke Daniels is a master of accents, nailing everything from Irish to Slavic to Indian, and does a great job reading women's voices without resorting to a Beegees impression. His rendering of Oberon is one of audio fiction's great under-appreciated performances.

PRESCRIPTION: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
SYMPTOMS: Young Adult, Alternate History, Steampunk, Adventure, World War I
DOSAGE: (out of five)

In an alternate WWI, two teens from opposite sides of the conflict work together to save a living airship, the genetically-fabricated hydrogen whale known as the Leviathan. The first book in a YA Steampunk trilogy, Leviathan incorporates elements of all the series I loved as a kid (okay, and now): a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a soldier, a naïve prince hiding a commoner and utterly failing his bluff roll, and characters on opposite sides of the war who readers (okay, I) totally want to fall in love.

Westerfeld has always had his finger on the pulse of teen fiction, but with its release just at the first swell of the mainstream popularization to steampunk and its triple threat of relatable characters, exciting story, and unique world-building, Leviathan hits the sweet spot of current and timeless storytelling. Westerfeld anchors the details of his alternate elements in familiar events, incorporating the diverse political tensions of 1914 Europe as a touchstones for his own version of the conflict: those who use genetically fabricated beasts in place of technology, the Darwinists, and those who use complex diesel and steam-based machinery, the Clankers.

Deryn Sharp is Steampunk's answer to Pierce's Alanna. Her dream is to fly like her father, so she disguises herself as a boy to serve as a soldier on an airship. Despite her job's inherent difficulties, she never shows self-doubt or wishes she were a boy, even if it would make her duties easier. In a time when girls are inundated with timid, self-conscious heroines, Deryn is a breath of fresh air: she is as comfortable in her own skin as she is in trousers and never once judges her own worth based on her appearance. Unlike a lot of cross-dressing heroines, she doesn't need to bathe, put on a dress, and walk slowly down the stairs in front of the hero to feel confident. Her disguise serves to liberate her, paradoxically allowing her to be more herself than she ever was in corsets and skirts.

Prince Alek of Hohenberg is the non-inheriting son of recently-assassinated Archduke Ferdinand. Though Alek's common mother prohibits him from inheriting his father's title, a secret letter from the Pope names him the next in line to rule the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With barely a moment to grieve his parents' death, Alek is dragged away to hide in the Swiss Alps until the war is over. While Deryn knows exactly who she is, Alek's challenge is reconciling his own self-concept with a world that suddenly shatters around him. He is no longer safe and no longer certain quite what his role is, though he takes the first step toward finding out when the Leviathan crashes in the Swiss Alps where he's hiding. Alek is faced with the choice between allowing the Darwinists and their airbeast to die and risking what may be his only chance for a stable future.

Anyone who liked Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter audiobooks will enjoy Alan Cummings's performance of Leviathan. He's Scottish like Deryn and listeners will recognize his talent at the German/Austrian accents, which are well rehearsed from his roles as X-men's Nightcrawler and Cabaret's Emcee, making him a perfect fit for both heroes.

Possible discussion topics: what do secrets say about the characters that keep them and who they keep them from; what do Alek's choices imply about his concept of self throughout the book; and what obstacles do the characters overcome to relate to one another "across enemy lines" and how does it compares to modern/real-life challenges?

Read more by Lauren Harris


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