[ Book Review ] Meg’s Very First DNF

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen (Did Not Finish)

Read by James Langton

(A review in which Meg spends a lot of time comparing literature to video games. She was just that bored.)

My review is going to start with a premise that is also a chunk of advice for all future writers. If you’re going to borrow/steal, at least make it entertaining.

The basic premise of Here, There Be Dragons, is the existence of a magical land (The Archipelago of Dreams) in which every land ever imagined or committed to pen exists and is in danger of falling under the command of the evil Winter King.

So far so good. Everyone loves a great conglomeration of well-loved tales. What’s the problem?

First, by “every land ever imagined or committed to pen,” I mean every British story that has persisted longer than half a century.

Within the first few hours of listening, scenes/characters from Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Narnia (though the fauns may have just been a Greek myth throwback), Sherlock Holmes and many other fairy tales marched across the plot-scape. One of main characters introduced wears clothing that is a mish-mash of every Hans Christen Anderson and Grimm Brother’s fairytale.

Had I known that this was a metaphor-times-8-million for the rest of the book, I would have stopped right there. And admittedly, that may have been part of my problem: I really don’t like any of the stories listed in the paragraph above.

If I had a deeper love for Brit lit, then maybe I would have found the references a little quainter. And maybe if the story had simply brushed by the other tales, paid them a passing tip-of-the-hat, it would have been like a delightful game of hide-and-seek to find your favorite Hobbit. But that wasn’t the case.

But it wasn’t the “borrowing” that did me in.

Recently, Mass Effect hit the video-game world with a bang and a spaceship. In this space opera, Commander Shepard fights off an invading band of uber-AI aliens while playing politics to the many races  of the galaxy, most of whom hate humans simply for being whiny meatbags.

When this epic scifi story got to the shelves, one thing became glaringly obvious: the game designer, BioWare, had plucked liberally from all of the great science-fiction staples: Stargate, Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, with some Space Odyssey and Asimov sprinkled in.

And for taking all those elements and splicing them into something original, BioWare created a phenomenon.

How did Mass Effect manage to create a great, captivating story while Here, There be Dragons did not? I suspect the ability to shoot aliens has something to do with it.

But surely the story borrowing wasn’t that bad, Meg. You just pointed out it can be done well.

Okay, take this example:

Our group of characters must get into a mountain pass where a dragon lives. But they get stuck at the front door because the way in is barricaded and can only be opened by an elvish magic word that the leader of the group has suddenly forgotten. Some of you may recall a very similar scene in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (especially since that is the precise place where there is a clear deviation of script between the theatrical and extended cuts — yes, I have seen them that many times).

Shortly after that, they meet the dragon who begins to talk about how the real ruler of the Archipelago of Dreams must wear a magic ring. That’s right. A ring.

Oh, and the elves and dwarves have special magic rings, too, donchaknow. As soon as I hit that part, I was unenthusiastically waiting for the dragon to proclaim, “One ring to rule them!”  It never quite got to that point, but it tottered close enough that I had to call the book dead as a DNF.

Mind, I really love retellings of popular stories. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked remains one of my favorite books and Robin McKinley’s many forays into retelling famous fairy tales make a fangirl out of me. But what makes those stand out is the 100% commitment to the story. When Maguire wrote Wicked, it wasn’t about making fan-fiction nods to other versions: it was about reinventing a world that was already so well-loved that there was no choice but to go-big-or-go-home.

In Here, There Be Dragons, the whole thing felt too tame, too contained. It was just not engaging in the way that Wicked or Mass Effect are. A retelling is about reinventing a loved story, not simply rehashing it. We have reviews and cliff-notes for that.

About halfway through the audiobook, every time someone said/thought the word ‘dragon,’ my mind took a full-pelt sprint to my basement where Dragon Age II was sleeping in my Xbox. There be dragons there, too (and a whole bunch more theme stealing by BioWare, though this time from high fantasy classics). And in the game, at least, the dragons want to eat my face rather than serve me tea.

Simple equation:

Face-chomping dragons > Mildly British dragons.

Conclusion:

I may meander back to the book at some point. It’s not completely terrible; the novel is one of the rare instances where it is solely the story that kills the book, rather than the manner in which it is written. Hopefully Owens, who has a lovely way with prose, offers up something better in the next go around.

[ Book Review ] In which Meg tries to tone down Collins Fangirling

Meg’s Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

(the third book of the Hunger Games Trilogy)

When the Nebula Awards announced their short list for this year’s best books, and I decided to jump in and read all the nominees for YA fiction. I started with (and actually only read) Mockingjay because a) I already own it and b)I thought it would be the fastest to knock out. I’ve already read it, after all.

Six months after my first read, I did not expect that same gut-wrenching emotional response to the conclusion of this phenomenal trilogy.

Yes, I just said phenomenal.

The trilogy follows Katniss, who is selected as a tribute to participate in The Hunger Games, a yearly reality show that pits children from across a dystopian future-America in a battle to the death. While the first two novels are concerned with the Games, the third moves into new ground. The reality show games are over and the war games are just beginning. However, I’m not going to discuss the plot of Mockingjay. It’s impossible to do so without spoilers. Suffice it to say, the novel picks up a few days after the end of the second book, Catching Fire.

In this third installment, rather than rehashing the events of previous books, Collins brings the important facts up when the plot demands it, and I love her for it. The story moves at a steady pace, laying out the story with a careful deliberation that I did not appreciate on my first read. This time, however, I was engrossed with how well Collins crafted the structure of this novel.

This series has one of the best uses of first person present tense I’ve ever read in YA. Not only that, the chose of narration style drives the characterization forward. The 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen is a well-written and intense character, and the reader is completely immersed in her mind.  Because Katniss she’s not one for long-term thinking, neither is the reader. And that allows Collins to pull one of the best and most emotionally terrible misdirections in YA literature I’ve ever had the harrowing pleasure to read. Even on the second time through, I was crying by the end.

The main character herself is perhaps one of the most unlikeable heroes in YA fiction, straying hard left onto the line of anti-hero. But again, it’s because of how well Collins has crafted her. Because Katniss is so much more concerned about the well-being of her family and friends than her own safety, it almost gives readers the right to disregard it as well. In the first book, I distinctly remember not wanting Katniss to live, but rather Peeta and Rue. This doesn’t change in Mockingjay; Katniss’s survival is secondary to stopping the war as quickly and as bloodlessly as possible. This might be a turn-off for some readers, but it works. For me, it is a testament to the characters and world Collins has built.

Overall, if I had rated this on the first go around, it would have only received four canaries — the first hundred pages were so intolerably long. Collins took her time building the world and adding in characters and I simply couldn’t care about, still high off her previous book and wanting to get to the end of this one. Who’s gonna die, I yelled at the book. How will the trilogy end?

In my impatience, I missed how much more thematic Mockingjay is compared to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. The motifs and symbolism (and I mean those words in the capital-L Literary way, not the every-book-technically-has-symbolism-and-motifs way) are in sharp relief here. They’re still not shoved down the throat (except the anti-war bits), but they’re not as easy to shake off as in the first two books. They sink their claws in for the long haul.

Okay one last last thought: I still hadn’t unpacked my books after moving, so I borrowed Mockingjay in Nook book format from a friend. With 100 pages left, I put the Nook down, went to the basement, and dug out my hardcopy in order to finish it. The Nook just wasn’t substantial enough. It didn’t feel right to not hold the weight of the book in my hands as I came up to the ending. I wanted to be able to touch the page with the closing line to be that much closer and connected to the final moment of the story.

That’s the kind of book Mockingjay is.

I could go on — I absolutely adore the book and series — but I’ll stop with one last-last thought: If you haven’t read the Hunger Games series yet, do it. Do it right now. Go to your library and pick it up.

You will not be disappointed.