Reviewed and Recommended: Cloak, by James Gough

I have a secret.  It’s James Gough’s young adult fantasy novel Cloak.  It’s a terrific read and a solid entry in a trending genre but, thanks to Gough being a new author and Cloak being put out by a small press, you’ve never heard of it.  It’s a secret I’d love to have more people in on.

Cloak is one of those stories that’s so simple that its value may go unnoticed at first.  The novel’s main conceit—that many people among us throughout history are secretly human/animal hybrids, hiding the special abilities this gives them—is so clever that one wonders why it’s never been done before.

But of course it has been done before.  What sets Cloak apart is how much Gough delights in exploring a world in depth that has only been dimly illuminated before.  Animal-based fantasy novels often have mad doctors and super powers, but this is the only one I know of which has both.  Cloak is The Island of Dr. Moreau meets the X-Men.

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Book Review: Wizard’s First Rule

19315199A preview of the new series Legend of the Seeker on TV last Fall got me to finally pick up Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, the novel upon which the first season of the show is based. 

Wizard’s First Rule is long and detailed, but not really epic: it concerns a fairly small cast moving in a linear plot line with only a handful of major episodes.  Reading it, one gets whisked away and wonders how the book doesn’t get bogged down when it lovingly explores every nook and cranny of a scene, for chapters at a time.  But, magically, it doesn’t.

Although sometimes the magic wanes and it does get a bit slow.  One long sequence in the middle, about the two main heroes sojourning with an indigenous tribe, goes on too long.  It presents the reader with some excellent daring-do, but we must wade through quite a bit of exposition to be so rewarded. 

Still, despite the occasional speed bump, Wizard’s First Rule engages us and invents far more than enough originality to make the slow patrs worth it.  However, (he said, reversing himself again), on the subject of originality, I must add that some parts of the book are poor copies of the genre classics.  The obvious example here is a creature called Samuel, whose every single characteristic is exactly like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  Goodkind clearly doesn’t need to crib ideas from anyone; why not write Samuel differently?

But the best part of Wizard’s First Rule is its unabashed politics.  That’s right; this is a very political novel.  Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Redwall

19314675A couple of years ago my wife found a big bargain sale of children’s books at a warehouse in the northeast part of town. As that covers two of our main interests (books, bargains), we went and cleaned up. Among other textual detritus on a folding table, I saw a stack of books called Redwall, on sale for a dollar. A quick survey showed it to be some kind of medieval warrior fantasy about mice, which seemed appropriate for my son, so I picked it up.

He loved it.  He loved it so much, that he’s now read a few of the sequels and wants to read more (#20 in the series just came out in October, so he’ll have plenty of fodder for a while).  Wanting to keep up with my son’s interests–and enjoy a story that was coming so highly endorsed!–I finally read it, too.

Simply splendid.  The author, Brian Jacques, writes in a mode that we rarely see: an innocent, earnest fantasy adventure that doesn’t blink from the reality of evil’s power to inflict suffering, yet never denying that goodness endures, and may do so with wonder and joy.

It’s closer to The Hobbit than to The Lord of the Rings, but is a seamless mixture of the two tones, what we might expect from children’s literature and what we tend to see in books meant more for older readers.  Jacques never hesitates to summarily kill off characters–good and bad ones–to serve his story, but the reader never doubts for a moment that the peaceful, charitable mice of the tragically besieged Redwall Abbey will prevail.  If Disney had made The Lord of the Rings, it might have looked more like this. 

Along with this unblinking yet childlike coming of age tale (for our headstrong hero must put off the silly boy mouse he was in order to save his friends), Jacques gives us his novel in prose that T.S. White would have approved of.  His writing is simple enough for most precocious children to understand, but clever and allusive enough to interest anyone who cares for good style (at one point, the young mouse is counseled by an older rabbit character–whose dialogue is rendered in a pitch-perfect harmony of British dialects, as are the words of all the minor characters–to keep a “stiff upper whisker”).  My only complaint is that Jacques is overly fond of exclamations; it got distracting. 

This Christmas, buy two copies.  One for a fantasy-loving child, and one for yourself.