Book Review | Sky Raiders by Brandon Mull

Imagine a world on the fringes of our own where imagination can create real things. Now allow me to tell you that such a world exists (possibly because you imagined it) between the covers of Brandon Mull‘s Five Kingdoms series.

sky_raidersIn Sky Raiders, the first of the series, Cole follows his kidnapped friends into the Outskirts, made up of five kingdoms and populated by mysterious powers and people. It isn’t long before Cole is marked as a slave and drafted into the dangerous service of the Sky Raiders, a cross between flying pirates and a salvaging crew. With flying castles, magical objects, and a mysterious power running rampant in the Outskirts, Mull knows how to create a captivating fantasy world.

This should come as no surprise to readers of his previous series, Fablehaven (reviewed here) and the Beyonders (which is next on my reading list). In Five Kingdoms, Brandon Mull seems to borrow some familiar fantasy elements (flying ships, pirates, and swords from Peter Pan, magical objects from the Brothers Grimm, and a ragtag group of misfits from every teen fantasy ever written), but he infuses them with new life and wonder.

Sky Raiders is a quick-paced adventure and a delightful read. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in teen fantasy in general and well-written teen fantasy in specific.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?

I am Josh, creator of worlds.

josh_creator_of_worlds

In the last month or so, the members of my writer’s group have been challenging each other to write more short stories to submit for publication. The idea is that if we are writing and getting published, then we might have some credibility on the subject. And that is important since we want to do some speaking engagements at writers’ conferences about short stories.

I love short stories. I love all stories in general, but short ones are nice for me because I don’t always have the staying power that long ones require. That doesn’t mean that I don’t dream about long-form fiction. But dreaming isn’t writing any more than wishing to be skinny is exercising.

The problem I have with short stories is that I get the seed of an idea and then it keeps growing. When it grows big enough, by all rights it should become a novel. But I have three unfinished novels currently moldering under a pile of good intentions to finish them and no plans to do so. So keeping my vision for short stories small is important.

But…

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy stories. There’s a flash fiction contest coming up from Splickety Publishing Group that focuses on fantasy and sci-fi, and I intend to make an entry. As a result, I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite fantasy stories: Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Discworld, Fablehaven, Harry Potter, etc.

Want to take a guess as to how many of these are representative of flash fiction? I’ll save you the trouble. None of them.

Fantasy stories are made to be long, because half the fun of having a fantasy story is in creating the world in which the story is set. And a good world need rules. If there is magic, how does it work? What are the fantastic creatures like? Are there gods or deities meddling in the affairs of men? How did the world come to be in the first place?

Once you make the playground for your characters to run around in, it is nice to take to your time with a long page count and let them run free. Restricting them to a 500 word count is hard.

And yet, that’s my plan. My seed of an idea is growing, but I think I can break it up in flash fiction tidbits. Essentially, I’m going to create a series of related stories set in the fantasy world I’m designing. Will it work? I don’t know. But that’s not going to stop me from trying.

Would you read a series of flash fiction posts set in the same fantasy world? Do you like world-building? What is your favorite fantasy series and why?

Turn Another World Upside Down with Andrew Rogers | A Breathe Conference Retrospective

andrew-at-jot2There are a few reasons why I attended Andrew Rogers‘ session at the Breathe Conference. First, I found the topic interesting. Second, I regularly write slipstream flash fiction and have a few science fiction/fantasy pieces in the works. Third, Andrew is my friend and fellow weakling, and I wanted him to feel my support. But whatever my reasons for attending, I am really glad I did.

Here’s the description:

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Slipstream. Mystery and Crime. In this workshop, we’ll discuss this question and learn how to start writing meaningful genre fiction.

Andrew opened his session with a question–the question, perhaps–which haunts every Christian writer. How “Christian” do I need to make my book?

It is a question that I have wrestled time and again, as a writer, as a reader, and as an employee of a Christian bookstore. Does every book written by a Christian need to adhere to some redemptive guideline? Does it need a three-point sermon and a hymn? Can is have cuss words? What if my characters don’t behave themselves?

Andrew asked us to write some questions in response to the main one. As writers of genre fiction, how do we approach the religiosity of our books? Are we hesitant to publish–or even tell our friends–about our work for fear of what they might say?

WriteMichigan-cover2-1_0A few years ago, Andrew won the Reader’s Choice in the Write Michigan contest. His story revolved around a mentally handicapped man living in a world where every aspect of life is recorded digitally. And though that is the way things seem to be now, the tale is set in the near future where it is even more the case. The thing about the story was that it didn’t have a hint of Christian message. The main character did not pray, did not worship, did not get resurrected on the third day. It was simply a story about a man dealing with issues of death and legacy.

As such, Andrew was afraid to tell certain friends and family members that he was in the running for the reader’s choice portion of the writing contest. What if they read it and asked him why his story did not share the gospel message? The fear of that question kept Andrew silent until about a week before the end of the voting deadline. With time running out, he decided to share in spite of his fears, and he braced himself for the question.

But he did not get negative feedback from anyone. Not even from the sweet little old granny that he was sure would question his faith upon realizing that his story omitted God.

Andrew realized something; books and stories written by Christians do not need slather the gospel on like a topping. In fact, those that do are worse because of it. Rather, our faith is baked into our work as an ingredient, and made evident by our writing. After all, we are made in the image of a creative God. Writing is simply the form of creativity which allows us special insight into who God is. Our stories are reflections of that creative nature.

As to the question of how much violence or cussing or whatever our books should have, that is something that the author must answer. Sometimes, publishers will ask the author to change this or that aspect of the story, but this is less of a reflection on the author’s state of faith than a consideration of the publisher’s buying community. And cleaning up the cuss words is just the cost of doing business with Christian publishers.

If this post seems a bit scattered, there was a lot to discuss in the workshop and my notes are about as organized as I am. But it was a great session and one that left me thinking long after about the intersection of my faith and my writing.

What do you think about “Christian” books? Should publishers be able to dictate how clean a character’s language should be? Have you ever not shared your work with others for fear of being labeled a heretic?

Book Review | A Draw of Kings by Patrick W. Carr

9780764210457In A Draw of Kings, we complete the journey of Errol Stone. From his inebriated beginning in A Cast of Stones, Errol has certainly come a long way. Battle-worn and burdened with unfair truths, Stone staggers back from Merakh to find the kingdom of Illustra in the hands of an evil usurper. And though his actions from The Hero’s Lot deserve a hero’s welcome, Stone is greeted with a set of manacles and the promise of death.

This final installment of The Staff & the Sword series is page-turning high-action fantasy. Carr arrests your attention and keeps it held tight as Errol escapes from frying pan to frying pan, edging ever closer to the final fire. With stakes that couldn’t be higher, Errol struggles with the demands placed upon him in ways that make him both real and tragic.

If there is anything negative to say about the conclusion of this epic tale, it is that 450 pages is not long enough to explore the richness of the world Carr has created. The story could have been well-served by another installment in the series, though I’m guessing the publisher may not have had the confidence in it to justify the risk. And so, the final battle, though beautifully written and with surprising twists, leaves something to be desired as the reader runs from fight to fight wondering where the half of the warriors went.

With such rich action and grand writing, one might be surprised that Patrick Carr teaches Math instead of English. Though if he brings the kind of intensity to algebra as he does to sword fighting, I have a feeling that his students are some of the finest mathematicians in his home state of Tennessee. I only hope that his teaching career leaves him enough time to keep writing, as his debut series leaves this reader reeling and wanting more.

Pick up your copy of A Draw of Kings at Baker Book House today!

In Praise of the Creativity of the Reader

Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work–the writer might have died long ago.

– Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

reading_as_adventureWhen I think about the worlds of fantasy that I’ve visited through literature, I am awed by the fact that simple words on a page can induce such hallucinatory visions.

Sure, the reader has to have the words to read, so the writer is necessary, but only in the same way that a car’s engine is necessary for speeding along an interstate, weaving between cars, while evading the flashing red and blue lights of reality. No one thinks about the engine unless something breaks down.

Indeed, it is the reader who must supply the faces of characters, the tonal qualities of their voices, the gaits of their walks. The reader is the one who paints the canvas of a book’s outline with brushes of past experience and imagination.

This can, of course, lead to difficulty when the reading experience is shared with other people. For one thing, the pronunciation of names can vary greatly. I remember when I finally discussed the Harry Potter novels with my wife, I mentioned something about Herm-ee-own, to which she responded, “Her-my-owe-knee?”

But this variation of experience between readers gives us more than embarrassment; it gives us insight. When we read, we discover ourselves at least as much as we discover the characters in the book. After all, we are supplying the never-mentioned details. And when we discuss our reactions to books with others, we reveal the things that we felt to be important or noteworthy.

Reading is so much more than letters assembled into words. It is our key to a world within.

Book Review | The Hero’s Lot

9780764210440In novels, as in life, no good deed goes unpunished.

The Hero’s Lot, second in The Staff & The Sword series, picks up right where A Cast of Stones left off. Fresh from rescuing the kingdom, Errol Stone is arrested and given a likely death sentence. Compelled to travel deep into enemy territory and kill a nearly-omniscient foe, Errol assembles a band of Illustra’s finest warriors. Adventure ensues.

Author, Patrick W. Carr, has hit his stride. Having developed the characters in A Cast of Stones, Carr is free to expand the scope of the story, revealing new races and ancient history. The tension grows throughout and readers will grow to love the world that Carr creates. This book could easily have been twice as long and no one would have complained.

In fact, my only complaint is that I have to wait until February 2014 for the next book (A Draw of Kings) to release.

Though published by a Christian publisher and with specific theological parallels, The Staff & The Sword series stands on its own merit as worthy of reading. In fact, some conservative folk may have issue with the amount of violence and substance abuse within these books. But readers willing to take a chance on this new author will be rewarded with a tale of redemption fraught with true-to-life struggles against the powers that control us. All without being preachy, which is nice.

If you haven’t read A Cast of Stones, do that first, but follow it quickly with The Hero’s Lot. Chances are good that you will have just found a new favorite author.

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Read my review for A Cast of Stones here.

Book Review | The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

What’s better than a fantasy novel featuring a magical orphan? A fantasy novel that focuses on three magical near-orphans.

I picked up John Stephens’ book, The Emerald Atlas, at the insistence of my pal, Bob Evenhouse. I never heard of Stephens or his book before, but according to the book cover, it was a New York Times Bestseller and carried an endorsement from Brandon Mull, author of the Fablehaven series, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Why not give it a chance?

Meet the children with the surname P. Kate is the oldest, the responsible one, the one charged by her soon-to-disappear parents to watch over her younger siblings. Michael is the middle child, the brain and the nerd with an obsession for dwarves. Emma is the youngest, the one who answers questions with her fists and defends her older brother.

Moved from orphanage to orphanage, each worse than the last, the children P have landed at the strangest orphanage yet. With no other children, a cranky cook, a handyman ex-photographer with secrets, and a mysterious director, the orphanage at Cambridge Falls is like nothing the children have seen. But when they discover the green book behind a hidden door, their adventures really begin.

Time travel, magic, and the mysterious forces beneath Cambridge Falls mix to create a fantastically fast-paced story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The characters are well-written, the plot compelling, and Stephens’ handling of time-travel masterful. The only complaint that I have is that I don’t yet own the next book in the series.

8 Questions | Meet Author L. B. Graham

Fantasy Author, L. B. Graham

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a fantastic fantasy (redundant?) author. I was first introduced to the books of L. B. Graham by a college friend at a Christian publishing trade show. After college, my friend Jesse went to work for P&R Publishing while pursuing a graduate degree. P&R Publishing is better known for Reformed theological tomes than fiction, so I was surprised when Jesse pressed a copy of Graham’s Beyond the Summerland into my hands and said, “As a fellow Lord of the Rings fan, I think you’ll like this.” And I did. Admittedly, it took me a minute to get past the book cover (fantasy covers can be notoriously bad), but once I got into the story, I really enjoyed it.

First in the Binding of the Blade series

A couple years later, I got to meet L. B. Graham at the same trade show. He and I got into a discussion of his book covers and I remember how very honest he was about them. I told him that I enjoyed the books in spite of their covers and I would do what I could to promote them in my bookstore. Unlike meeting some authors you like only to discover that you only like their books and would never like them in real life, it was a good experience.

I recently friended (I remember back when “friend” was just a noun; I must be getting old) L. B. Graham on Facebook. I reintroduced myself and asked if he would be willing to do an interview with me so you all could meet him. He was happy to do so. After reading the interview, I encourage you to visit his website (http://blog.lbgraham.com/) and buy all of his books.

The interview:

1. Fantasy writer Terry Goodkind once said, “Fantasy allows you to shine a different kind of light on human beings. I believe the only valid use of fantasy is to illustrate important human themes.” What themes do you illustrate in your books?

It’s a good question, even if it does reference Terry Goodkind (oh wait, did I say that out loud?), so let me see… My first series, “The Binding of the Blade,” revolved around the theme of ‘longing for restoration.’ It imagines a world where the making of weapons represents ‘the Fall’ and where the ‘unmaking’ of weapons is a prelude to Restoration. As such, it wrestles a good bit with what it means to navigate a broken world while yearning for a perfect one.

My current fantasy series, “The Wandering,” (which begins with “The Darker Road,” coming in the spring) revolves around a very different theme than my first. Namely, that a world that rejects its maker and puts its trust and hope in lesser things might find that for this rebellion, a price might have to be paid. So, it is kind of a judgment theme and pretty different than the restoration theme of BOTB.

Like Huck Finn, only with robots.

My Indie book, “The Raft, The River, and The Robot,” which is a slightly dystopic, futuristic novel inspired in large part by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” wrestles – much like the book that inspired it – with identity. How do we find and define ourselves, and to what extent do parents and social context shape us, both in that we are molded by them and in that we push away at times from them.

And, having said all this, I hasten to add that the books are more interesting than this might make them sound. J The theme is often under and behind the story, not up front in preachy ways, I hope…

2. When and why did you start writing fiction?

While I had tackled a few stories before this, my first real story was “Killer Kudzu,” a choose-your-own-adventure story written in about 1982, I think. I wrote it on index cards as part of a project for school.  I continued to dabble in fiction in High School and College, and occasionally thereafter.

In seminary, I did an independent study on “the Problem of Pain” and part of my arrangement with my supervising professor was that I could report on my work with a story, rather than a traditional paper, and I wrote a 60 page story for that.

I didn’t start working on a novel for publication until 1998/1999, when I began in earnest to turn that story into a novel, and even though I didn’t finish it, it got my wheels turning and led pretty soon to my decision to go back to the fantasy idea I’d had years before when I was a college student, and that eventually became “The Binding of the Blade.”

3. Describe your writing space.

This may be less than inspirational, but these days it is usually a booth at McDonalds. The soda is cheap and the internet is free, and I hunker down for a while and get to work.

I wrote my first series, alternating between home (on some weekday nights) and my classroom (on Saturday afternoons), but as my kids have grown and I live further from the school where I teach, I’ve adapted. All I really need is my computer and some headphones to drown out the world, and I’m ready to go…

4. Your Binding of the Blade series was published by P&R Publishing, then you published two books independently, and you’ve got a book coming next year from Living Ink Books (publisher of Bryan Davis’ Dragons in Our Midst series). Which has been the best publishing experience? Why?

I’m going to do something unusual for me and take the tactful approach here and say ‘they aren’t better or worse, they’re different.’

Actually, I don’t have much of a choice, because while I worked with P&R pretty constantly between 2002 and 2008, and have since had a few years to reflect on that experience, I don’t have nearly the perspective on my Indie experience or Living Ink.

Having said that, they really are different. After working with a traditional publisher, I really enjoyed the creative control of Indie publishing. I made final decisions on covers, and on titles, etc, and that was great. Consequently, I have a finished product that really does fit my vision for each of those stories.

Another of Graham’s indie titles

At the same time, I spent my money to get those books to that level of professional quality, I have to try to market them myself, and so on. Both the financial risk and potential reward grow exponentially with Indie publishing, so the jury is still out on the wisdom of going that way.

As for Living Ink, the decision to go with them had a lot to do with the fact that they’ve consciously worked to create a fantasy presence in the Christian market, where many Christian publishers are hesitant to commit to fantasy as a genre. I applaud and appreciate that commitment.

5. Can you tell us about your upcoming book, The Darker Road?

“The Darker Road” is the story of the dramatic collapse of an empire. I don’t want to give too much away, but the King of this empire has stolen a powerful talisman of sorts, and he is using it to strengthen his already considerable military might. And even as he is preparing to use that might to further subdue the empire he governs, the rightful keepers of the talisman come looking for it. That’s how it all starts, anyway, and the conflict that ensues is only the beginning.

There is a pretty cool ‘alternative technology’ system in the series, which makes for some fun devices and weapons and so forth. This also creates a pretty unique feel for the stories, as they don’t quite fit into the traditional, medieval/semi-medieval feel of many fantasy worlds. At the same time, I definitely think the series fits the ‘fantasy’ mold, even if it stretches some of the conventions.

For example, I think one of the fascinating things about fantasy is this contrast in fantasy stories between a way of life that is somewhat archaic, or behind us, and magic and magical abilities which give the characters abilities that are beyond us. In “The Darker Road,” I think the reader will get a similar experience, where sometimes the world feels dated, and in other ways, very advanced.

6. Any advice for aspiring writers?

Lots, but I’ll stay basic: read & write. The absolute, non-negotiable foundation for becoming a good writer is to read & write.  You need to read, read, read, so you can learn the craft of writing from those who have gone before, and you need to write, write, write, since no one (or almost no one, anyway) ever becomes good at anything without lots and lots of practice.

7. What book is on your nightstand?

I am trying to read three different books right now.  When I’m on my recumbent exercise bike in the basement, I am currently reading “Sword at Sunset,” which is Rosemary Sutcliff’s version of King Arthur. When I am in bed and up for a challenge, I’m re-reading “War in Heaven” by Charles Williams – which of course means that “The Novels of Charles Williams” by Tom Howard is also on my nightstand, since I never try to read Williams without it handy. Lastly, when I’m in bed and too tired to venture into Williams & only looking for ‘easy reading,’ I’m reading Book 5 of the “The Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. I haven’t read much King, but some friends and former students encouraged me to read his ‘epic fantasy’ series, and so I’m working my way through it.

8. What do you want people to know aside from your writing?

This is a very open-ended question, so I’ll take full advantage. What I want people to know is that Christianity is about grace, not moralism, and I think when Christians set out to be story tellers, they need to keep this in mind. A book isn’t Christian because the people in it behave morally, even as a person isn’t a Christian because he or she tries to behave morally. We need a better, more faithful, deeper standard of evaluation than that.

And with that, I’ll say thanks to you, Josh, for the interview, and best wishes to all of your blog readers!

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No, L. B. Graham. Thank you.

Book Club Update | Time & Place

I’ve floated the date of the book discussion of A Game of Thrones out to the group of guys who I know have read the book and we have confirmed August 23rd as the date. The book discussion will start at 7pm.

We’ll be meeting at Graydon’s Crossing. The discussion is free, the food is not. Bring money to eat or drink. Browse the menu by clicking on the picture.

The address is 1223 Plainfield NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49505.

The goal of the book discussion is to enrich each others’ understanding of the book and to think about the story, characters, and message critically.

Or we could just talk about the bits we liked and why we liked them.

I’ll leave it open to the people who show up how we do it.

If you think you might be coming, drop me a note in the comments so I can reserve adequate tables at the pub.

Back to School | It Begins…

Today is the first day of the online course that I spoke of earlier. To save you the click, I’ve enrolled in a free online course offered by the University of Michigan through Coursera entitled “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. After reading the course syllabus, I’m pretty excited to get started.

That said, this is also my first full week back at work after taking a week of paternity time to help out with my newest daughter. I’ve forgotten just how busy life can seem when you are getting less sleep. Fortunately, my wife is encouraging me to go back to sleep in the middle of the night when the newest one needs to eat. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that the true difficulty of having two kids doesn’t come from the youngest one (who mostly just sleeps and eats and poops and wakes you up in the middle of the night), but from the oldest one (who is running all over pulling out the toys and things that you just put away probably because you just put things away and she sees that as an affront to her toddler feng shui).

Anyway, now that the time has come to do the online course, I’m wondering if I will be able to give it my all, when I am also trying to give my all to my wife, my family, my work, and my writing (including this blog). I’m a big guy, but I don’t know if I’ll be big enough to divide into that many directions.

This is just a worry I have. I’ve done difficult things before and have come out the stronger for it. I’m probably just quibbling here, but if you think of it, offer up a prayer on my behalf that I’ll be able to take care of my responsibilities and not lose my mind in the process of pursuing my creative outlets.