Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rebels: Review & Giveaway


It’s always interesting to reach the end of a series—and a little challenging to summarize both the book and the series at once.

51VCByhE72LSo much has changed in the course of the three books in Jill Williamson's The Safe Lands series! It’s not just where the Glenrock people are living that’s different—it’s who they have become.

After their neighbors at Glenrock are captured by the Safe Land’s enforcers in Captives, Levi has to become the leader, taking the place of the elders they’ve lost. The place is a twisted, drugged-out dystopian, where everyone lives for today because they’re promised nine lives and a future in Bliss, but no one actually knows what the future is like. Levi can get the others into temporary safety, disappearing into the underground, but they have no way to actually escape the city.

As Outcasts begins and the rest find safety in hiding, Mason is still on his way to becoming the medic he always to be. He has as many emotional injuries to heal, though, as physical wounds. Even more important, he needs to find some answers to the plague that is destroying the Safe Lands, and he needs Medic Ciddah Rourke to help him. He knows he can’t trust her—but he has to anyway, even if it means endangering his own life and his brother’s.

And Omar—Omar, the bratty little brother who betrays his village for a chance at glamor, is ready to become an adult and help undo the damage he caused. He also needs to help Shaylinn, now that the Surrogacy Center has impregnated her with his child(ren). The only problem? At the beginning of Rebels, he and Mason are sentenced to early liberation. They’re about to find out the secret no one will talk about.

As I said yesterday, it’s a complicated story.

The plot follows five different narrative voices high speed down a freeway jumbled with overpasses and intersections. If you haven’t read the previous books recently, there is enough backstory to get you up to speed, but if you haven’t read them at all, you might miss a lot of the action by jumping into the story at this point.

With all these threads going, it takes a while to see where the story is headed, but the journey never really slows down. Toward the end, the pieces came together briefly, before splitting apart again into a frenzied chase sequence and a TV drama that seems almost tame by comparison.

The complication actually works both ways—while there is a lot of action in play, the story does jump tracks a couple of times. At one point, for example, a major character ends up working in a cow shed and notices how awful the conditions are. It’s not a bad point to make, but to me, the section feels out of step with the rest of the story. It reads along the lines of: “Nasty dictator, corrupt system, people out to kill me—wow, modern farming practices are rotten—must escape before I get killed.” The sections like this don’t hurt the story much, though they do jar a little and make the climax feel slightly off.

It’s also sort of hard to explain why this story doesn’t end up highly demoralizing. The world of the Safe Lands is so extremely well-built and grotesque, it should be depressing. I also find heroes (or villains) who consistently mess up and end up depressed—well, depressing. I didn’t really expect to like the story much when I started reading Captives, and after a while, even quirky Princess Bride allusions can get depressing. So for me, it’s saying a lot that Omar and Shaylinn—struggling through their broken world—makes this a story about hope.

With that said, I really did enjoy the story. It’s been a fascinating journey, watching the characters grow and change, but it was really Omar who kept me reading. I was surprised in Captives to find how much I still liked him after he messes up so badly, and I’ve continued to like him as he struggles to fix his mistakes only to fail and lose hope once again. I might even read the series again someday.

#####
  
You can see what the other CSFF Tour participants are saying about Rebels here:

Julie Bihn Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Writer Rani
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Elizabeth Williams

As I said yesterday, I am hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway for a copy of Rebels. You can enter the giveaway by leaving a comment here or on my review tomorrow. Even better, you can get a second entry by linking to your favorite post from one of the other tour participants--I'm looking hearing about the posts you like and why.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

[My thanks to Blink/Zondervan for sending me a review copy of Rebels in connection with the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rebels: Blog Tour & Giveaway

Welcome to the September CSFF Blog Tour!

The book this month is Jill Williamson's Rebels, the third and final book in her The Safe Lands series.

After Safe Land enforcers take the Glenrock families as Captives, Levi, Mason, and Omar find themselves snared behind a façade of lies and tricks that has kept the people of the Safe Lands bedazzled for generations. When the three brothers attempt to rescue their families from the Safe Land's harem (also known as the Surrogacy Center), they end up as Outcasts, hiding from the enforcers and working with a group of dissidents to rescue friends who don’t always want to be rescued.

Now, as Rebels themselves, they might have the chance to find the truth behind the lies. The trick is finding the right help, especially with pregnancies, unhappy family members, and old grudges getting in the way.

This third book kept the suspense going so long I was beginning to wonder whether Rebels really was the last book in the series—until the climax hit with a bit of a crash.

With the series wrapped up, I liked how the characters, especially Omar, changed and grew into their new roles. The series as a whole is a little more complicated to describe—I do like the story, but a few things stuck out to me for one reason or another. More on that in my review tomorrow, though.

For now, I happen to have a second copy of Rebels which came when I received my review copy for this tour. I'm hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway to find this second copy a home. You can enter the giveaway by leaving a comment here or on my review tomorrow. Even better, you can get a second entry by linking to your favorite post from one of the other tour participants--I'm looking hearing about the posts you like and why.


Julie Bihn
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Vicky DealSharingAunt
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Writer Rani
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Elizabeth Williams


Rebels - http://www.amazon.com/Rebels-Safe-Lands-Jill-Williamson/dp/0310735777/
Author's Website - http://www.jillwilliamson.com/

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Friday, September 26, 2014

Rewriting Monsters


Have you ever met a good ork?

They're about as rare as a duck sitting on a rooftop, aren't they?

Recently, I read Rick Riordan’s House of Hades, and a small part of that story got me thinking about another book by Donita K. Paul. I don’t remember which book specifically, but it was one of the later books in the DragonKeeper series.

Both books—and both series as a whole—have several groups of characters who start out entirely bad. Riordan’s villains are the Titans and Gaia’s monsters in general; Paul’s are the seven low races of Amara. Partway through both stories, a character shows up who belongs to one of the ‘bad guy’ groups, but isn’t actually bad himself.

Now, my initial reaction was—“That’s odd, why would an author suddenly decide bad characters can be good?”

Oddly enough, I happened to run across two different articles on the topic soon after reading House of Hades, while I was still pondering the question.

The first was Rebecca LuElla Miller’s post on Speculative Faith, where she discusses why so many stories and movies want to reinvent the villains from older stories. Miller argues that this sort of story tries to erase the reality of evil by explaining the story behind it: “The problem, as I see it, with this kind of thinking is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, there really is no evil—just evil circumstances or evil influences.”

Evil is real. We can try to understand why someone would want to commit murder, but even understanding doesn’t change the fact that some people murder because they can and they like to do it.

Like Miller, I don’t really like the idea of explaining away evil, so at first I wanted to extend that line of thinking to Bob the Titan. If a group of characters are functionally orcs—their role in life and their nature is to attack humans—how can one of those characters suddenly be not an orc?

That line of thinking didn’t quite fit, however. Miller was writing about stories like Malificent (which I haven’t seen yet), with a misunderstood villain. My issue was with good characters belonging to villainous races such as orcs or trolls or Titans. The real question was whether those characters might be heavily influenced, but not trapped, by their background.

I found a better answer in another blog post—this one about portraying cultural drift in fantasy cultures. In this article, Hannah Emery, a sociologist, suggests developing fantasy cultures realistically with a full range of skills, opinions, personalities, styles, and motives. She points out that American culture—from McD’s to homesteading—is bigger than just one stereotype, so why can’t dwarf or orc cultures be the same?

The challenge is that you have to treat the characters as individuals—not as stereotypes or a chip of the cultural monolith.

Even Tolkien did this, I think. There may not be any good orcs in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien suggests that some characters fight on one side or another simply because that’s what their culture taught them to do. Some of his orcs fight humans because that’s what orcs do, but some would rather just get away from the bigger, meaner orcs, back to their nice, cozy, stinky orc dens.

Of course, that's the challenge with writing any character—even if the guy is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten, you still have to develop his personality. It’s not okay just to say “And this dude is evil, despicable, and thoroughly rotten” and leave the story at that.

Well, it might work if you are writing a parody of some kind—as with Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Even in that series, though, the villain has a very distinct personality, motives, and methods.

That’s where I think Paul actually failed, while Riordan succeeded. Paul’s redeemed character felt like a side to the main story. His presence forced the other characters to reconsider their view of the low races, but he himself left very little impression on anyone.

Riordan, on the other hand, produces someone with a background and a personality, someone who is confused and struggling with the idea that he’s supposed to be bad but maybe wants to be good. He’s something more than a showpiece, and his presences makes a difference in how the story plays out. Plus, there are hints that maybe Bob is not the only one with a conscience.

Maybe it’s not so much about rewriting monsters as suggesting that the old stereotypes are more of a guideline than anything else. After all, ducks do sit on rooftops sometimes.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Behold the Dawn: Review


With the melee at Bari, Italy, Marcus Annan has yet another tourney, yet another death to put behind him. It’s all he’s good for now, or so he thinks.

He’s put a lot of things behind him—his whole life actually—but the darkest secrets from his past are about to show up, and an old acquaintance wants to reopen an old wound. The secret drives Annan from one fray in Bari toward another one in Acre. He hardly knows what he wants to do there—but he’s about to get dragged down anyway by an undercurrent of schemes and betrayal.

Behold the DawnAnd with that, Behold the Dawn takes off.

After reading K. M. Weiland’s Dreamlander last year, I’ve been interested in reading more by her. Behold the Dawn was high on the list since it’s historical adventure novel set during the crusades—the Middle Ages, King Richard, and all that other lovely history. The story isn't really about that history, but the history gives this story a good background and sets the tone for the rest of the adventure.

When I first started Behold the Dawn, it was a little hard to get into the story, mostly because I was trying to read the book while chasing down several other distractions. This week, though, I decided to set aside a couple of days and start over.

My final take? I really like this book.

Behold the Dawn does have a couple rough sections toward the beginning of the story, and I did a bit of a double-take at one poorly worded metaphor, but the writing overall felt easy to follow and the story itself raced through an amazing journey of dark corners and twisted secrets.

Best of all, Marcus had me cheering for him by the time I was well into the story. He’s got a history rather like most other broody heroes, but I felt he avoided the annoying angst that goes with that stereotype. He’s good at fighting, for one thing. He thinks it’s doomed him and he has no chance at escaping the life of an accursed tourneyer, but since he’s good at it, he has no problem with going after someone—especially when the guy is just asking for it. At the same time, he’s also honorable, though a bit rough on the outside.

Add to that a smart aleck squire who is quite willing to call his master a troll, a love story, a handful of other characters, and a well-played plot. This isn’t a fun and word-play story, but it’s a good story of hope and second chances.

It’s also just a fun story to read—in fact, by the time all the secrets had spilled out, I was ready to start reading all over again. I actually did go back and reread a couple earlier sections after the final plot twist, just to admire how well I’d been suckered into those first couple of chapters.

I’ll probably want to go back and reread this book at some point, and I would definitely recommend it for adventure/historian fans. Story nerds and writers might also want to check out K. M. Weiland's site on writing craft: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/


[My thanks to K. M. Weiland and Story Cartel for sending me a free Kindle copy of Behold the Dawn, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book. ]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Case Study in Spontaneity


Sometimes brilliant ideas are so brilliant that everyone thinks of them at once. My husband and I had one of those ideas last night. 


Like half of the population of the northern United States, we were sitting at the dinner table, talking about the chance of seeing the aurora borealis last night.

So, I came up with the brilliant suggestion—why could go camping! Find a place, pitch the tent, go to bed, and wait for the munchkin to wake us up at midnight or 3 a.m. He’s quite good at that, so we might get a couple chances to venture out and see what we could see. We could even take the leftover pancake mix from our August camping trip to make breakfast before coming home.

After a ten-minute discussion and a quick check to find a campground, we decided on a plan. If we hurried, we might make it out before it got too dark, so—yes, camping trip; yes, northern lights (we hoped); and no, pancakes.

That last part was just as well, because I was only thinking about the pancake mix. I hadn’t made it as far as remembering the skillet, peanut butter, syrup, or jams, much less plates, forks, knives, and napkins. Or even a mixing bowl…

We didn’t have two sleeping bags, so we planned to take a couple of quilts instead. We had the car packed, the baby in pajamas, and were out the door about forty minutes from the time we first floated the idea. We also forgot the second quilt.

Of course, night always comes a little faster than you expect, and you never get out the door quite as fast as you expect. We were only halfway to the campground before night caught up with us. As we left the highway and headed uphill to find a site, we could only see the road ahead of us in the darkness. We went on, though, past the main parking lot and along the windy logging road until we reached the entrance…

…and found the campground was full. We drove the loop anyway, but the sign at the entrance was correct—no room here.

Now we had to come up with Plan B.

We didn’t have a map, but we knew we could find a couple lookout points along the route back into town. With that in mind, we decided to head back and stop the first place we found something promising. Maybe we wouldn’t camp, but we could at least hang out and watch the stars.

Perhaps we should have thought better of that plan when we found the traffic backed up over a mile from our destination.

The cars were creeping up the steep hill, all of them waiting to turn the same direction.

We joined the line, though, and eventually reached our turn. Past that point, the traffic was moving pretty quickly, so we went on, scanning the dark shoulders for a sign. The drive took a bit longer than we expect, but soon enough we passed what we were waiting to see—lookout point, one quarter mile.

The lines of parked cars started just after that. By then, we knew the parking lot would be packed, so we pulled off into the first empty spot we could find on the shoulder.

Our plan was pretty simple by this point—let’s see what happens. So, we loaded up the baby backpack with a water bottle, a tarp, and a blanket, tucked the baby into a front pack, and grabbed our pillows.

We saw a few other stragglers headed down the road to the lookout, but as we approached the entrance, we met a tangle of cars—those still hoping to get in, as well as those who had given up and were headed out. The backup worked in our favor here, and we made it across the road in one piece, only to meet a larger crowd of people gathering on the hillside below the parking lot.

At this point, the adventure was about to lose its charm.

Fortunately, we had visited this place about a year ago. On that trip, we discovered a secret trail that looped along the hill below the main lookout area. Now, we headed down it, expecting to meet another crowd at any moment.

This time, the plan worked. When we got to the place we remembered, a flat stretch of trail overlooking the river, no one else was around. We had an area wide enough to spread out tarp with a little extra room, and we had a gorgeous view of the sky—everything we could ask for.

Somewhere on the hillside above us, a laser beam swung back and forth across the sky. Down in our little nook, the munchkin stared around fascinated for a few minutes, fussed around for a few more minutes, and then settled down to sleep.

The wind was blowing hard all the while, but we settled under our quilt and watch the sky. The quietness last for half an hour, maybe an hour.

Then other people began wandering down our secret path. The rest of the trip didn’t last very long after that. We moved to another section for a short time, but the wind was still blowing steady, even though it wasn’t too cold. Plus, the moon had come up, and our slim chance of seeing the aurora borealis had faded. It was just time to head home.

So, we gathered up our stuff and trekked back up the hill. The parking lot had quieted down somewhat, but it was still packed—think about fifty cars trying to fit into a place meant for twenty. It was 11 p.m. by the time we reached our car and packed up, but more cars were still driving up. When we reached the turn back down the hill, the line had doubled from what it was before, and we were just as glad to be heading home.

We didn’t see the lights after all, but as they say—fun was had by all.