THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN, by Alyc Helms

In case you missed it, my review of Alyc Helms’ The Dragons of Heaven from Angry Robots Books appeared this week at Skiffy and Fanty.

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“In the darkened streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Missy Masters is struggling to take up the vigilante-hero mantle of her retired, estranged grandfather, Mr. Mystic. Missy shares his stubbornness, his intimate connections with Chinese culture, and his uncanny ability to cross into a realm of shadows and exert limited control over the creatures within…

…The Dragons of Heaven is a fun read. It is a genre blend that combines urban fantasy with folkloric myth, the superhero comic, romance, and the complex family dynamics featured in ‘mainstream’ fiction. There is magical action driving the plot aplenty, there are moments of humor and pop culture reference. But there are also great doses of introspection, of character development for Missy, and deep themes at its core.”

Read the complete review at Skiffy and Fanty!

And look there this coming week for my upcoming review of The Liminal War by Ayize Jama-Everett.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher as part of The Angry Robot Army via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1451679319
496 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Sometimes getting behind on reviews can have its benefits. For example, I’ve gotten to think about this novel for longer after finishing it than I expected. When about halfway through Chris Evans’ Of Bone and Thunder I was still finding it hard to get into, appreciate, or particularly enjoy. Upon finishing it I had a hard time figuring out what of substance I could even say about it.
Upon reflection I realized that my failure to be drawn into the novel stemmed largely from it just not being what I thought it would be, of being the novel I probably unreasonably wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve read a book with the same mindset and results? Once accepting the novel for what it actually intends to be I find a deeper appreciation for it, and Evans’ “daring” to try something a little different. Though I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of the novel, some problems still remain in my mind.
Unreasonable reader expectations began with the novel’s marketing description as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings”. I’m always wary of such comparisons to authors or works, so this wasn’t a strong expectation for me at least. But it may be for other readers. Of Bone and Thunder is a fantasy novel with allegorical themes recalling the Vietnam War. So those titles only serve as overused proxies for highly recognized associations with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Fantasy’. Evans’ novel has little to nothing in common with the plots or styles of Coppola’s film (or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or Tolkien’s trilogy.
Of Bone and Thunder keeps sharp focus on a handful of characters who are soldiers waging war in the land of Luitox for a distant kingdom (The Kingdom). Their enigmatic enemy are the Slyts, a reclusive jungle-inhabiting people skilled at guerilla-style tactics. Beyond the conventional warfare of the common soldiers, the conflict hinges on the power of – and intelligence gathered by thaums (as in thaumaturge) on each side. Balancing their handicap of unfamiliar territory and foe, the Kingdom also has the advantage of flight, in the form of lethal, but volatile, dragons.
One thing Evans does very effectively is include a cast of characters who span the class spectrum of the Kingdom’s military: thaum, commander, dragon-tender, common soldier, covert op, etc. For most of the novel these characters are largely skewed to the male gender – as it would be if it were actually the Vietnam War, but gradually some female characters enter the novel, and thankfully in ways that don’t just involve romantic interest for the men – though that over-worn path is still traveled.
With a focus on individuals of the Kingdom, the novel captures a sense of their psychology and trauma, fighting what seems an almost pointless campaign against an enemy barely known for a distant ruling class that is barely familiar itself. These parallels to Vietnam are blatant, and rather familiar.
And here is where I really wanted Of Bone and Thunder to be something else. Glimpses of the Slyts kept making me want to see and know more about them – their reality and point of view on this war – and see less of the American proxies of the Kingdom. At first it seemed unclear if the Slyts really existed as the propaganda and rumors of the Kingdom said, or if they were even remotely threatening. Written truly different from the recognizably human members of the Kingdom, the Slyt society seemed less a direct version of the Vietnamese and therefore has great potential for deeper, unique development in what is a fantasy novel. But a novel from the point of view of the Slyts are not what this is.
Ultimately how much  a reader may enjoy Of Bone and Thunder may come down to whether it is read as a developed fantasy that recalls aspects of the Vietnam war, versus a novel of the Vietnam War where some elements are swapped out with some fantastic entity, like dragons. For me, some parts of the novel recalled the pulp style writing that science fiction magazines have consciously tried to avoid, like a scene from a Western where guns are simply replaced with lasers, cowboy is replaced with spaceman, etc.
I finished Of Bone and Thunder somewhat perplexed over why it was ever written as a fantasy, and not just as a mainstream novel of the Vietnam War. I was left with the thought that perhaps it’s because the themes and elements of the war are already well-tread. The fantasy aspect and exploration of using dragons or mage-combat in warfare is the draw for this. As long as you enter into the novel with a better sense of what to expect in terms of the story’s focus and find that intriguing – or simply enjoy well-written dialogue and characters in a fantasy setting such as this – the novel is one to check out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670015709
368 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“Moth and Spark” is not the novel I initially expected it to be, and it took me quite awhile to figure out what star rating I could give to it. If going off my own interest and experience I would say two, perhaps even one. But that would be grossly unfair simply because it is a kind of story I don’t enjoy or get much from. If this were my thing, I would probably be inclined to rate it higher, at three or four stars.

The novel is a romance, one written for a predominantly female audience that Leonard has modeled in the spirit and tones of Jane Austen, but set within a fantasy realm. This is quite significant, because fantasy and science fiction rarely contain an infusion of material that may appeal to people who like an Austen or chick-lit type tale, particularly “high” fantasy. (Urban and supernatural fantasy abounds in female influence I would say). But the ‘epic” or ‘high’ fantasy subgenre, being so defined in Medieval (European) institutions and customs, is not terribly female character friendly.

With this, Leonard rather effectively creates a gripping romance within such confines of a vaguely Medieval European fantasy realm populated with dragons. On the plus side, she does this well, writing some beautiful prose and creating an excellent, likable protagonist. The other characters border on being a bit too simplistic in that the majority are just so good or so evil. Those that need to get along with the heroine protagonist do so without any issue at all. They simply adore her, loyally love her with nary a naysay. With the prince and King in particular as men, these ‘perfect’ characters create that strong, but suitably emotional support for the female protagonist. These perfect men are able to fight, make love, or talk deeply about their feelings at the drop of a hat as required. In this, the novel becomes almost like the exact opposite of most fantasy in this genre, where the men have become some ideal of masculinity to suit the heroine.

While this is nice in that it recognizes the defects and deficiencies of the genre, it also falls into the same trap of being equally unrealistic and off-putting. Though just as there are men out there that adore reading a book of mindless action filled with stereotypical women, so will there be women that feel at home reading a lush romance with its idealized supporting male characters. While the protagonist is brilliant, witty, and strong, she still is placed in the confines of being feminine, needing emotional support, attention, and a committed romance in a way that a male protagonist would never be written as needed. She thus remains exceedingly traditional, despite showing at least the ability of independence.

The fantastic aspects in this novel also take a strong backseat to the other elements of the story. Magic and the dragons make an appearance at the very start, but then the majority of the novel is only about romance and court intrigue, indistinguishable from a story that could take place in our own historic reality if we bent the roles of gender social conventions a bit. Fantasy doesn’t enter back into the story (nor much ‘action’ for that matter) until the final third of the novel. It therefore ends up feeling as if it were two distinct types of novel all set into one story, and I think I would have enjoyed the novel far more had there been a better integration of the two.

Three Stars out of Five