Fantasy Watch: Fairy-Tales the New Trend?

One day, they found themselves trapped in a world where all their happy endings were stolen. …our world.

Whenever a new paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction show appears on my TV watching radar, I pounce. This Halloween week, we have the pleasure of seeing two fairy-tale related premieres. Grimm, a detective-style story about a guy who can see the fairy tale creatures all around us, and Once Upon a Time, a story of fairy tale characters who find themselves in a small modern-day USA town.

The Story: Once Upon a Time…

…an evil queen got her revenge on Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) by cursing them to be sent to a parallel world, their memories wiped and their happily ever afters gone.

“Where are we going?” Snow White demands, as a maelstrom of psychedelic curse clouds consumes the walls of the nursery.

“Somewhere horrible,” the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) says. “Absolutely horrible.”

Modern-day state of Maine.

But the story really starts when a ten year old kid (Jared Gilmore) takes a Greyhound bus upstate, turns up on bail bondswoman Emma’s  (Jennifer Morrison)  doorstep, and announces, “I’m your son.”

Not only that, he insists that Emma needs to come back with him to Storybrooke, Maine to save everyone from the Evil Queen’s curse. Everyone there is a fairy tale character, he tells her, and they’ve all forgotten who they are.

By pairing the two worlds, Once Upon a Time promises something to both fantasy-lovers and those of us in it for the mystery, drama, and small-town angst. Each episode will spend time in both worlds, moving Emma’s story forward, even as it retraces the steps of Snow White’s happy ending and the lead up to the Evil Queen’s curse.

The performance is top-notch, with the actors playing up the melodrama of their fairy tale roles, and the gritty humanity of their modern day counterparts. Robert Carlyle (Mr. Gold aka Rumpelstiltskin) plays his creepy, mad role to perfection and there’s something so adorable about Jennifer Morrison’s frustrated confusion as the little boy demands she return to Storybrooke with him.

And of course, my personal favorite bit of the first episode? The soundtrack as the Evil Queen crashes the wedding.  Dun-Dun Dun-Dun Dun-Dun.

The pilot creates and builds on its dramatic tension. We, as viewers, know the truth about Storybrooke and we also know who everyone’s alter ego is. But it’s a secret between us, the town mayor (aka Evil Queen), and the little boy. Fairyland itself incorporates an interesting cross-section of fairy tale characters: Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio exists alongside Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and Red Riding Hood, promising variety and vivid characters.

With its premiere on ABC netting over 12 million viewers, Once Upon a Time is sure to stick around. But only time will tell if it’s a story worth watching.

[ Book Review ] Indie Series: The Gamble of the Godless

The Gamble of the Godless by David Maine

Normally, you can’t throw a stone in the fantasy aisle without hitting elves, dwarves, and orcs. But David Maine, an author who had made his debut in literary fiction, steers The Gamble of the Godless clear of fantasy staples. Here is a world where animals talk and your head can explode if someone looks at you funny. Avin de Bors dreams of an ambush of wolves-on-men and, when he wakes, finds that an entire army has been demolished on the Free Plains by his house.

Avin does not set out to become a hero–he’s merely looking to keep his brother from being killed in a misguided war. In the process, he becomes the center of a ragtag group of creatures on a quest. What begins as a day trip with a suspiciously eloquent footsoldier named Ax becomes an epic journey to discover more about the mysterious force that is drawing on weak-willed discontents all across the land.

While The Gamble of the Godlessby David Maine follows our friendly Avin (who performs his role as budding hero well, without the excessive angst that drapes many coming-of-age novels), he is not the reason to read the book. His animal companions are.

The characters that join Avin’s quest are impressive in their variety: a horse with a past, an explosives-wielding raccoon, and a tiny owl. Though not taking center stage, the female characters do their best to steal the show. I took an immediate liking to the feisty, one-armed sorceress, and the most charming creature award has to go to Summon-the-Wind, a drug-addled cheetah. Continue reading

[ Series Review ] Patricia Briggs and the Wolves

The Mercedes Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs

I had to stop and think (a process that ended up stretching into weeks of procrastination) about how I was going to summarize this series. On the one hand, there are six Mercy Thompson books out there, each building on the other, and I want to talk about my impressions, dammit. On the other, canaries like spoiler-free overviews. So here goes nothing.

The premise: For her day job, Mercedes Thompson is the local Volkswagen mechanic in the contemporary Tri-Cities area of Washington, working in a garage she bought from a gremlin. After work, she spends her free time running around her backwoods as a coyote and avoiding her neighborhood werewolves.

Moon Called: The series opens with a great premise, a strong lead character, and a slightly shaky plot. Mercedes Thompson is a shape-shifter mechanic who’s doing very well on her own, thank-you-very-much, when a homeless, starving werewolf stops by and asks her for a job.

The story hooked from the beginning, as did Briggs easy approach world-building. It fits well into the urban fantasy tradition of supernatural heroines–ostracized for their gift, troubled by their upbringing, pursued by handsome men (and not-men), caught up by conspiracies… What can I say, I eat it up.

Blood Bound: Though Mercedes has been fixing cars for her vampire customers on the side for a while now, she doesn’t expect one to come knocking. But Stephan, an okay guy as far as the dead go and Mercy’s friend, needs her help and her unique coyote-walker nose to investigate something that has come to town. Turns out, it’s big, scary, and spells trouble in large, bloody letters.

We learn more about the secretive (and cut-throat) world of vampire politics and about Mercy’s heritage as a coyote walker. Hint: Leaving a walker alive is a no-no for vampires. (Whoops, Stephan.)

Whereas the first book, Moon Called, threw me when its convoluted plot unraveled, the story in this installment is solid.  Instead, I had some trouble on the interpersonal front.

CanaryTheFirst calls a time out to talk about it:

Oh dear. At this rate, we’re gonna be in a lot of trouble by book seven. Sure, I have a weakness for light, fluffy romance in my urban fantasy. But it reaches a critical point (and implodes my suspension of disbelief) when the number of men in love with the main character exceeds the author’s ability to explain what’s so special about our tom-boyish, scrappy heroine. Some authors (I’m looking at you, Laurel K. Hamilton) go for a mystical explanation. Maybe the main character is an incubus, or smells really, really good to magical creatures. Most of the time, though, the immortal, ancient, all-powerful men fight over her because she’s brave, cute, and keeps telling them to get lost.

Right.

So you can see why I became mildly concerned (read: annoyed) when a third powerful manly-man professed his undying devotion to our Mercy. I say. Hands off, vampire!

But! By the third and fourth book, the romantic subplot that was Mercy Thompson’s life settled out; Briggs even offered a couple explanations for the Why-Of-The-Attraction (WOTA). I am glad to say that my cynicism was unwarranted and the love triangle did not, in fact, resolve itself into a love septagon.

Time in!

Iron Kissed: This is the book where the series really hits its stride. When a series of murders happen on the fey reservation, Mercy’s friend and mentor is the primary suspect. She knows Zee didn’t do it, but the Gray Lords would rather he take the fall–as quietly and as quickly as possible.  It’s up to Mercy to figure out who’s behind the deaths and get Zee’s name cleared. This book ups the intensity once again, and the costs of being involved are a whole lot higher in this book.

This is also the first book of the series in which Briggs uses an event to sketch out an explicit message to the audience–one about survival and the lasting effects of emotional scars.

Bone Crossed: Mercy is still trying to heal from the fallout in Iron Kissed when Stephan materializes in her living room, starved and tortured–and really, really hungry for blood.

Turns out, the vampires found out what Mercy did in Blood Bound, and Stephan is merely the beginning. They’re coming after her, and not even her ties to the local wolves may be enough to stop them.

Silver Borne: This book is the high point of the series story arc, pulling together the loose ends from all the other books in the most delightful way. The fey want the Silver Borne, and they have reason to suspect that Mercy has it. Mercy herself has no idea what a Silver Borne is. But when her home is burned down and Sam, her roommate, begins to lose his hold on reality, she knows she’s running out of time. This books marks the conclusion of several plot arcs: who does Mercy end up with, her relationship with the pack, and her position in the supernatural world.

River Marked: Because of how conclusive Silver Borne was in closing up the major story arcs from previous books, River Marked reads like a lighter addition, geared almost exclusively towards the fans: there is an indulgent wedding scene, light banter between characters, and token appearance of old favorite characters.

This novel also diverges from the others in its introduction of a completely new type of supernatural. Mercedes’ native american heritage, something only lightly touched on in the other books, rears its head with a vengeance (and tries to eat Mercy). Despite (or perhaps because) there is no clear continuity between the other books and this latest installment, the books sometimes slips into podium mode, with characters making Message lectures about change, humanity, and Doing the Right Thing. With this book, mileage may vary wildly.

However, I am keeping my fingers crossed that instead of being a shaky downhill roll, River Marked is setting up a new, long-term plot arc. I’m looking at you, upcoming Thompson novel…

Upcoming: Mercy Thompson #7 (Spring 2013)

You Might Also Like:

  • Kelley Armstrong: Bitten
  • Robin McKinley: Sunshine
  • Kim Harrison: Dead Witch Walking
  • Rachel Caine: Ill Wind

Want more Briggs? Check out her Fantasy novels in our article on Patricia Briggs and the Flying Critters. Read about her other werewolf series in Patricia Briggs and Some More Wolves.


[ Book Review ] Camelot, ‘Tis a Silly Place for Papers

The Camelot Papers by Peter David


Judging from the tabloid-looking cover, The Camelot Papers looks like a laugh-out-loud US Weekly meets Arthurian England farce. But that’s not it.

Not it at all.

The Camelot Papers by Peter David is a series of journal entries written by Viviana, a mid-to-late 20s woman sold into the service of Uther Pendragon and later his son Arthur. Despite her status, Viviana is more educated than the royals to whom she’s indentured, something both Arthur (who admits to her he’s illiterate) and “wizard” Merlin find most interesting.

The only trouble is, I’m not quite sure what the cover has to do with the story at all.

Yes, there’s humor, but The Camelot Papers also features a lot of serious moments laced with its trademark dark wryness. There are cute scenes and places where I’d smile at something witty Viviana said or something Arthur did that makes him look like an idiot. But not once did I laugh out loud and turn to my roommate and say, “Okay, okay, lemme read this to you…” It’s not that type of humor novel.

What kind of novel is it, then? It’s one with a strong narrative voice and intriguing characters. Viviana isn’t a wallflower; she has a voice and she uses it when she can, then braces herself for the consequences. She’s neither abrasive nor rude, but cautious–and insanely optimistic despite what life has dealt her.

When Merlin questions her perspective, Viviana explains, “It is not for me to judge the world, sir. It is for me to survive in it…that is my philosophy. I cling to it to survive. I find it more palatable than the thought that God permits my existence to be one long, unending misery because He has some higher purpose to which I am not privy.”

That outlook on life makes Viviana the perfect narrator. Throughout the novel she doesn’t judge nor wallow in anger at her situation–her own father sold her to settle debts. Instead, she ends up explaining to Arthur that despite her journal filling with entries, she prefers each chapter of her life to start at Day One. That said, she’s not a Royal Historian color-washing Camelot in rainbows and leprechauns. Neither is she a journalist writing a scandalous tell-all book. She’s a fly-on-the-wall, writing a daily journal about the people in her life.

And the results are one part dark-realism, one part black humor.

Let me give you some examples: The novel opens up with Viviana thrown face-first on a bed with King Uther about to have his way with her. The moment is thankfully interrupted when Arthur walks in and goes, “Is this a bad time?”

During the celebration of Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding, King Uther dies, presumably poisoned by his wine. A rival of Uther’s, Maleagant, challenges Arthur for the crown. A duel breaks out, and Arthur stabs his father’s murder. Maleagant grabs his bleeding chest and says with his dying breath: “This would probably be a bad time… to tell you… I am innocent…”

That’s what I’ve always loved about David’s writing. Even in the most serious of situations, one line is all it takes to break up the scene. He’s damn good at writing serious scenes and stories, but the humor-laced comments… It’s almost as if David can’t help himself. And really, we don’t want him to.

If your only source of knowledge of King Arthur is Monty Python, you might not appreciate The Camelot Papers as much. Names and references will fly by, and nothing is really explained. Oh, sure, Viviana mentions that Arthur is Uther’s son and Merlin’s a crazy old man. But Viviana doesn’t explain in her journals who she is. In most Arthurian tales, Viviane is the name of the Lady of the Lake, the woman who gave Arthur his famous sword Excalibur. (Though the fake forward by fake professors giving the fake journals their fake stamp of authenticity does address this, indicating that the journals are proof the Lady of the Lake was real person.)

And then there’s Viviana’s imaginary boyfriend, a Knight named Galahad. He’s perfect, he’s awesome, he’s everything Twihards think Edward is… which is pretty close to how Galahad the Pure was in Le Morte d’Arthur.

Overall, The Camelot Papers is an engaging read–unexpectedly so. That  cover had me thinking it was going to be reading a parody, a la Monty Python. Instead, what I got was a solid, stand-alone story based loosely on the legends of Camelot. For lovers of King Arthur, definitely give The Camelot Papers a read. But don’t go looking for it in your local bookstore; it’s a Nook/Kindle exclusive… and available as a print-on-demand via Amazon.

And if this sounds like something for you, there’s more. While David is mostly known for comics and Star Trek novels, this isn’t his first venture into Arthurian mythology with a twist. I highly recommend the Knight Life trilogy (Knight Life, One Knight Only and Fall of Knight) which tells the story of King Arthur’s return to the modern world, and how he successfully ran for mayor of New York City.

[ Book Review ] Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey: I had to hear it to like it

What do 30-Rock, Saturday Night Live, and 63.4% of my friends have in common? Tina Fey. And, in the case of my friends, the looks they give me–part mild concern, part disbelief–when I reluctantly admit that I don’t watch either show. At least, not beyond a few youtube clips those self-same friends are moved to send my way in pity.

And this is why I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I went for an audiobook version of Tina Fey’s Bossypants (narrated by the author, herself).  Had I picked up the print version of Fey’s collection of articles,  I’d have been reading it flat, and flat wouldn’t have done anything but create an angry, sardonic atmosphere. But with Tina Fey performing her own words, there is nothing vicious in the narrator’s light, chirpy voice–and the liberal in me was content.

But wait, canary. You just called this a collection of articles. It’s a book.

Yes, Bossypants is presented as a memoir, but the book is best approached as a collection of chapters and commentary, only loosely connected by Fey’s themes from her childhood to now. In fact, that’s one of the thing I ended up enjoying immensely. Not only are the stories entertaining, but there are a lot of them. And just when I might have been tempted to let my mind wander, Fey ends a story and hits me with a pithy list–or a series of replies to comments from the internet.

TheOtherCanary informs me that this is what modern nonfiction memiors look like. Weird.  Continue reading

[ Book Review ] This is how you write Star Wars

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Deceived by Paul S. Kemp

Audiobook read by Marc Thompson

I once read that the best villain is one you feel sympathetic for. I thought about that, then thought about all the villains I love. Javert from Les Miserables, Elphaba from Wicked, Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan… All loveable characters, despite their evilness.

Darth Malgus from Star Wars: The Old Republic – Deceived is right up there.

In all the Star Wars novels I’ve read, this is the first Sith Lord I’ve seen depicted as a vulnerable human being–and that includes Vader. There’s more to this guy than his one-dimensional balls-of-hatred counterparts. Darth Malgus may have been born in the Empire, trained in the dark side his whole life, and views the Jedi as misguided idiots, but he has one weakness: his female servant Eleena. He loves her, and she him, and it’s that vulnerability–that love for not only a slave, but a non-human Twi’lek slave–that the other Sith take pleasure in exposing. 

But at the same time, Malgus isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. He leads an all-out attack against the Republic’s capitol planet, destroys the Jedi Temple and kills a powerful Jedi Master. He’s an evil, evil man… but still finds time to make out with his girlfriend before killing Jedi scum.

And that’s what gets him in trouble with his master: Lead a Sith Army against Republic forces, destroy the Jedi Temple, and then get sent to babysit the planetary blockade because you ordered the Imperial medics to treat your injured slave as they would an injured Sith Lord. Sucks to be you, Malgus. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Indie Series: Falling–A Flirty Fantasy of Fallen Idols

Falling: A Flirty Fantasy of Fallen Idols by Cecilia Gray

(Book #1 of the Fallen Idols)

(4 romantic canaries, right here.)

This was a wonderful weekend read–fun, light, with one of the strongest first-person narrators I’ve read in the romance genre in a long, long time.

Our main character, Alexis, isn’t afraid to climb mountains to get what she wants–literally. Labeled The World’s Bravest Woman, she rappels down buildings and rafts rapids. But when her fiancé dumps her for a busty Italian model, she’d rather hide under a blanket on her sister’s couch. Her sister has other ideas, and Alexis finds herself being dragged into the latest all-exclusive club for some post-break-up therapy.

Enter one plotting goddess, a coven of witches, and one immortal Greek warrior with an 184-year-old curse hanging over his head. It’s a night on the town in downtown San Francisco.

So where does this chick flick treat water in the enormous pool of paranormal romance? The story is told from Alexis point of view, and she is an engaging, intelligent narrator who has no problem realizing that instant attraction isn’t exactly real love, and that erratic behavior on the guy’s part calls for the psychiatric ward, not an elopement. I do love me a sane heroine.

At this point, I didn’t even mind Alexis’ hang-ups over her own appearance or the turbo-charged attraction–unavoidable when the plot demands true luv in ten thousand words or less. It was a solid five-canary romance right until the main action hit the metaphysical fan. Continue reading