Review: Crooks & Straights

Crooks and StraightsCrooks and Straights by Masha du Toit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a wonderful read which I suppose falls into the YA category but suited me just fine as an adult reader. It is the story of a young girl in a magical version of South Africa who gets caught between the magical and non-magical world around her. The world itself is full of everyday magic, but also tension as it becomes increasingly clear that magical people and creatures are an oppressed underclass. As such, the book deals with civil rights issues and the topic of children with special needs, through the lens of a world uncomfortable with magical or odd things.

The book is full of inventive magical details and feels very real and well-constructed, and the writing flows well and is often quite beautiful. I recommend Crooks and Straights to fans of Harry Potter, movies like Howl’s Moving Castle, and the books of Neil Gaiman.

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Fiction Friday: 5/11/12

For today’s Fiction Friday, I have a graphic novel adaptation, a novel that mixes gambling with magic, and a cyberpunk short story.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories

I have mentioned it more than once before, so now it is time for my full review of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories, Jason Bradley Thompson’s adaptation of dream-related stories by H.P. Lovecraft. I was very excited to get my hands on this graphic novel and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Immediately inside the cover is a wonderful map of H.P. Lovecraft’s dream realms that I am tempted to use as the basis of the next RPG I run (someday, someday). This is followed by the short stories “The White Ship,” “Celephais,”, and “The Strange High House in the Mist,” and the main attraction, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

The illustration is black and white and intricately detailed, with each panel filled to the brim with details both mundane and fantastic. Each story except for “Strange High House” involves the main character entering the dream realms. Once there, the dreamer is represented as a simplistic “mock man,” a simplistic, cartoony character with a large flat face, expressive eyes, and knobbed sticks for hands and feet. This is a neat way to set the dreamer apart from the fantastic world they are adventuring in; at a glance, you always know where the dreamer is in any given panel.

Jason’s architecture is a strong point. His dream realms are filled with incredible, gargantuan cities with building stacked upon building, spires, statues, domes, minarets, and residences both grand and decrepit. Likewise, the inhabitants of the dream realm are well thought-out and -depicted, from ordinary human inhabitants to divine and semi-divine beings to the slimy-faced, turbaned merchants whose wide, crooked-lipped smile succeeds in evoking menace and disgust. There are also monsters galore, with ghouls, gugs, night-gaunts, and plenty of tentacled, slobbering nightmare creatures.  And let’s not forget the cats. I’m a sucker for well-drawn talking cats, and the adventurous kitties in these pages add just the right light touch to some dark proceedings.

I think the best parts of the GN are when Jason is filling in background details that are not part of the original text, for here you can really see his imagination at work and how he did not skimp on any page. There is a two-page spread (pgs 20-21) of Kuranes searching for the dream-city Celephais that includes panels of him searching through industrial-looking wreckage, having tea with a dragon, speaking to birds big and small, fleeing monsters up a spiral staircase, and standing on a flying carpet, to name a few of the scenes, all on a page that evokes a Candyland-ish journey through the dream realms. In the center of the page is the actual human dreamer, at the same time asleep in bed and part of a mountainous landscape. Some of these scenes are suggested in the original text, but most are not. It shows the care with which Jason decided when to narrate straight from the stories, and when he let the art speak for itself.

To sum up: great art and a wonderful adaptation of some classic H.P. Lovecraft stories: what more could you ask for?

Vegas Knights

Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights is a book I had to read once I saw its premise of magic users in Las Vegas, because it’s a story that’s been plaguing my mind ever since I first drove away from the city of sin with no money in my pockets. With each visit, I would entertain the same daydream: What if I could have used magic to tilt the odds in my favor? Vegas Knights answers that question.

It is the story of Jackson and Bill, two college students who have learned enough magic to get themselves in trouble with it, and who decide to make some money at the blackjack table by using their magic to make sure they are dealt the cards they need. Whenever I thought of writing this story, I would get stuck at the next logical point: if you can use magic to cheat in Vegas, you can be sure that the casinos use magic, too, and they won’t look kindly on your activities when they catch you. Needless to say, Matt did not let that be a sticking point; rather it is the starting point for Jackson and Bill’s excellent adventure. The story spirals out from there as these two college boys experience the highs and lows of Vegas life and learn what’s underneath the surface and who’s really in charge of Vegas.

Vegas Knights ends up being a fun adventure story with a surprisingly personal through-line for one of the main characters. I tore through it and had a good time. It is available from the usual e-tailers, or you can buy a DRM-free version from the publisher, Angry Robot.

Love in a Time of Bio-mal by Colum Paget

This dystopian, cyberpunk short story is a fractured tale of a tempestuous relationship, set against the backdrop of a world in which neuro-bio-warfare has ravaged the land. The rich live behind hermetically-sealed walls, while the poorest suffer the worst after-effects of the war, such as rogue bio-mal that can make you age prematurely. The narrator has lost his place in the higher ranks of the society, and with it, the woman who was using him to climb the social ladder. The story starts with an emotional punch as we see the lengths the narrator is willing to go in order to win back his former love, and it does not let up from there.

I enjoyed the whole story, especially the bits about rogue Artificial Intelligence, which I won’t ruin for you by getting into here. Love in a Time of Bio-mal can be found in Electric Spec, Volume 7, Issue 1. Links to more stories can be found at Colum’s blog, The Singularity Sucks.

Diane Duane E-Book Sale

There is a 60% sale on Diane Duane and Peter Morwood’s e-books at their website. It started on 5/8/12 and is going to run until an unspecified time. Their books are DRM-free and you can’t beat this deal. I highly recommend the So You Want to Be a Wizard books.

Up Next on Lithicbee

Sunday: Part Thirteen of The Only City Left. Will the secrets of Allin’s family history be revealed at last? Was the werewolf ghost who was chasing him really his Uncle? Be here on Sunday for Allin Arcady’s adventures through a planet-sized city called Earth!

Webcomics Wednesday: This time around I’ll be focusing on webcomics that sell digital issues you can read on your tablet.

Diane Duane E-Books

I still get visits from Google searches for some variant of “C.J. Cherryh e-books,” which reminds me that one of the reasons I started this blog was to collect links to authors’ e-books. So for my second post in the series I am going to discuss science-fiction and fantasy novelist Diane Duane.

I first discovered Diane Duane through the Thieves’ World series (much the same as how I found Ms. Cherryh!). The first two books of the Thieves’ World series are collected into one e-book, Thieves’ World: First Blood, but Ms. Duane did not contribute to the series until the sixth book and I will probably do a whole post on Thieves’ World at some point, so… moving on!

At some point I got a Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of the first three books in Ms. Duane’s Young Wizards series: So You Want to Be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, and High Wizardry. The first book is about a young girl named Nita who lives on Long Island, is frequently bullied, and who ends up becoming a wizard along with new friend Kit. As a young boy who lived on Long Island, was frequently bullied, and who wouldn’t have minded becoming a wizard, So You Want to Be a Wizard quickly became one of my favorite books. I have owned it in that original SFBC version, a 5-in-1 SFBC version, a paperback, and now an e-book version.

I re-read So You Want to Be a Wizard this week and although I am not that child anymore who discovered the book for the first time, I still enjoyed reading the book. These books are about magic and wizards, but it is a very science-fiction-based magic system, and the wizards are more like computer programmers who have access to the code that the universe runs on (known as the Speech in the books). Change the code, change the universe. Their job as wizards is to keep the universe running and slow down its eventual heat-death. It is a neat concept and a little different from what you would expect in a book about wizards.

The Young Wizards series is available from Diane Duane’s website, where you can buy it direct from the site or from links to the major e-book sellers out there. What’s interesting is that there are separate links for buyers from the U.S.A., from Canada, and for international (non-North American) buyers. I actually purchased the international versions even though I reside in the U.S.A. because you can purchase those directly from Ms. Duane’s site and because they are DRM-free. So when I opened So You Want to Be a Wizard and saw that it didn’t have chapter breaks (the lack of which is a pet peeve of mine), I was able to open it up in Calibre, convert it to an epub, add the chapter breaks in Sigil, and convert it back to a mobi for my Kindle. I know not everyone wants or needs this freedom, but for me it is nice.

Ms. Duane’s website also has links to her Middle Kingdoms series (The Door into Fire, The Door into Shadow, The Door into Sunset), Feline Wizards series (The Book of Night with Moon, To Visit the Queen), the stand-alone novel Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses, and the short story collection Uptown Local and Other Interventions. There is also one book, A Wind from the South, that is advertised in a sidebar only and so might be-overlooked; according to Ms. Duane’s Wikipedia entry, this book is previously unpublished and was released as an e-book only.

Amazon has more of Ms. Duane’s books available than she lists on her web site, mostly in the Star Trek universe and in a series of Young Adult books called Tom Clancy’s Net Force of which I am wholly unfamiliar. The full list of her available books on Amazon is here; just select Kindle Edition to see e-books only.

Looking over all the e-books that are available, I can only think, “Why haven’t I read so many of these books?” I think I fell out of touch with Ms. Duane’s books somewhere along the way. Maybe once I left young-adulthood, I was less inclined to read these tales. I recently purchased all nine Young Wizards books from her site and I am looking forward to re-reading the first five or six (I can’t remember if I read the sixth book yet) and reading the rest for the first time. I have a feeling that after that I will be returning to Ms. Duane’s site to check out her other books. It’s never too late to be a kid (or young adult) again.

(Note: In researching authors’ e-book availability, I focus on what books, if any, the author has available for download on their own site or their site of choice, and what Amazon has available. Since I don’t own a Nook or a Sony Reader, I don’t check the availability on those sites anymore, although it is usually a mirror of what is available on Amazon.)