Jedi Quest: The Master of Disguise

March 31, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

disguiseJedi Quest: The Master of Disguise by Jude Watson

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The Master of Disguise returns us to the quest for Granta Omega, the mysterious character who is hunting Jedi. We finally learn why he’s trying to capture them, and it’s much darker than we would have thought. While the search for Granta makes up a large part of the plot, the real focus of the story is on Anakin’s development, and it’s there that the book shines.

In their search for Granta, Obi-Wan and Anakin split up, with Anakin staying behind at the temple while Obi-Wan follows up some leads. While at the temple, Anakin receives training from Soara, another Jedi Master, and it’s through this training that we start to see the Dark Side manifest in Anakin. This is important to me, since the movies never explained to me how Anakin could have that much darkness inside him, and Watson captures it pretty well. She shows his ego and his arrogance, his petty jealousies and his anger, and how he uses all that to channel the Force in the wrong way. This is evident in the movies, but we never see the origins of that part of his character, and this book reveals it. We still don’t see what led him to that arrogance, but we at least see how it shapes him.

A continuing theme in the Jedi Quest books is showing how Anakin may be more skilled than the other Padawans, he’s not more developed than them. Part of it is how he came late to Jedi training, and he winds up being more like a regular teenager than the other Padawans. The long-time Padawans have had more training and are more in control of their emotions, and they have more maturity than Anakin. This creates a rivalry between Anakin and Ferus, though it’s a rivalry that only Anakin seems to carry.

The Master of Disguise shows how well Watson can understand her characters. It’s still not a perfect story, but it reminds me of some of the better books she wrote in the Jedi Apprentice series. I’m hoping she will keep the focus on Anakin the way she does in this book, because that’s where my interest lies for Jedi Quest.

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Jedi Quest: The Dangerous Games

March 30, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gamesJedi Quest: The Dangerous Games by Jude Watson

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Our band of Master-Apprentice teams from The Way of the Apprentice makes an appearance in The Dangerous Games, where they’ve been sent to work security at the Galactic Games (like our Olympics). This is a Jude Watson story, so of course a routine security assignment turns into something much more involved when it comes to light that there’s corruption among the games thanks to the underground betting taking place on the games. It’s also discovered that an illegal pod race will take place, and of course Anakin gets involved with that, running into old acquaintances from the Boonta Eve Classic.

Watson reprises Didi and Astri, the father-daughter owners of the diner from Jedi Apprentice, which was fun. They were the highlights of their stories in the earlier series, though Didi continues to be more of annoyance than anything else. Astri is now married to a go-getter involved with the games, which seemed like a stretch to me. I couldn’t see why she would even get involved with someone as smarmy as that, but hey, this is the franchise that expected us to buy the Padmé-Anakin relationship, so maybe there was a precedent involved. Either way, it wasn’t convincing.

Also, there were a few too many familiar faces in the story, making the Expanded Universe look a lot smaller. I get that the Galactic Games brings in people from all over, but for old friends and acquaintances to all find each other in this one event felt like a stretch. I’ve said before that the EU is lousy with coincidences, and that’s evident in The Dangerous Games. Obi-Wan might say that’s the Living Force guiding people together, but I can’t help but see it as fan service.

The story isn’t bad, and kept me engaged more than the preceding books in the series, but I still think the Jedi Apprentice series is better. In the end, the relationship between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is more interesting than the one between Obi-Wan and Anakin.

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A House at the Bottom of a Lake

March 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

houseA House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman

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I haven’t read Bird Box. Yet. It’s on my list, based on good reviews, and the fact that it’s horror, but I haven’t made my way to it. A House at the Bottom of a Lake might make me move it up my list.

This novella is horror, because there are some elements to it that make you wonder what’s real and what’s imagined, but to classify it strictly as horror would be a disservice to the story. It’s really a story about first love, told against the backdrop of a house a young couple discovers at the bottom of a lake.

Malerman captures the two main characters well. His story stays focused on the two of them. Occasionally, another character might pop up in the story, but the only two people who matter in this story are James and Amelia. The book opens with their awkward meeting, continues to their awkward first date, and then starts to take shape once they find something to open up about — the house. From there, their relationship develops, and as it does, so does the house.

The story is unnerving without being explicit. Malerman does a great job creating atmosphere, and showing things that aren’t graphic or horrifying, but certainly show that things aren’t right. It’s slightly off-kilter, and Malerman maintains that feeling in his narrative by jumping between his two main characters’ points of view without making a clean break. At first, I thought the style was a detriment to the story; later I realized it was supporting it.

I like horror done right. By that I mean I want a story that gives you a shiver, not one that shocks you with how graphic it is. In some ways, “done right” means that it will appeal to people who aren’t fans of horror, since the horror will be subtle enough to create that chill while telling a different kind of story around it. A House at the Bottom of a Lake is horror done right.

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Jedi Quest: The Trail of the Jedi

March 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

trailJedi Quest: The Trail of the Jedi by Jude Watson

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In The Trail of the Jedi, Obi-Wan and Anakin go to Ragoon-6 for a tracking exercise. While searching for the other Jedi who’s trying to avoid them, they find something else — bounty hunters. Someone has sent them to the planet to capture the Jedi, so what starts out as a simple exercise becomes of one survival and evasion.

I prefer this story to the other two that have preceded it, namely because it hones in on the relationship between the two main characters. We get to see more of the internal struggle not just of Anakin, but also of Obi-Wan. It turns out Obi-Wan is trying to live up to being the kind of master Qui-Gon was, and it’s hindering him, since his personality is so different. In the Jedi Apprentice series, Watson made a point of showing how a master learns as much as his apprentice during their time together, and she continues that trend in Jedi Quest.

Watson starts to establish the over-arching story of the series here, too. I liked how she had a larger story behind the Jedi Apprentice series, and I expected to see her do that here, too, so I’m glad to see it developing. It will help keep my interest in the series, which so far doesn’t quite compare to what she did with Jedi Apprentice.

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The Anubis Gates

March 27, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

anubisThe Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

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I’ve read The Anubis Gates before, about fifteen years ago. I loved it. It was convoluted and hard to follow, but once everything fell into place, I could see how it was a perfect story, well-written and engaging enough to stick with me for years to come. I had been thinking about re-reading it for a few months, and eventually broke down and bought the audiobook. I figured a re-read would be easier for me to follow as an audiobook than a new-to-me book.

When re-reading a favorite book, there’s always the risk of losing how you feel about the story, but there’s also the chance that you’ll find a new appreciation for it. With The Anubis Gates, it was a little of both. On the one hand, that moment of awe when all the disparate pieces of the story join together is gone, since you already know how it’s going to end; on the other hand, you can see how well Powers put the entire story together and appreciate his talents that much more. It’s a little like reading Shirley Jackon’s “The Lottery”: that first time, it’s shocking; the next time, it’s even more chilling as you see how she built up the tension.

The story is about Egyptian magic, time travel, and English poetry, but it’s also about perseverance, courage, and history. Like I said up above, it’s convoluted, but it’s worth it. I see other reviews that mention how the story meanders a lot at the beginning, but every tangent he includes at the start of the story is important to how the story develops. It’s brilliantly constructed, populated with characters you’ll love and hate (appropriately, of course), and it has an ending that’s fitting without being forced.

I have to take some time to talk about the reader, Bronson Pinchot. I only know him as Balki from Perfect Strangers, though I know he’s done much more than that, and had I not known that he was the narrator, I never would have guessed. His narration is natural, and his accents are convincing and distinctive. Of the audiobooks I’ve listened to, they tend to be either dry or over-the-top, but Pinchot captures the right amount of animation to the reading to make you feel a part of the story instead of just being spoken to.

Toward the end of the book, I started losing track of the story, but I blame it on being an audiobook, not on the story or the narrator. Sometimes I find it hard to pay attention to someone speaking, no matter how much I’m into the story. It’s made me realize that audiobooks aren’t for me. Adaptations are fine, but my attention span isn’t one that’s conducive to straight audiobooks.

In another fifteen years, I’ll probably find the itch to re-read this again, since it’s just that good. It’s a classic — deservedly so — and worthy of revisiting every so often. If you haven’t read this one yet, you should.

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Jedi Quest: The Way of the Apprentice

March 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

apprenticeJedi Quest: The Way of the Apprentice by Jude Watson

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The Way of the Apprentice continues the Jedi Quest series, even though this is volume one of the series. Path to Truth was a prologue of sorts, highlighting Anakin alone, but this book shows him among his peers at the Academy. Watson places Anakin at the same age as Obi-Wan was in Jedi Apprentice, and attempts to capture their relationship in a similar way. Unfortunately, Anakin’s character lacks a lot of the empathy Obi-Wan did, even at that age, and the series is harder for me to like, especially since Anakin is intended to be the main character of the series.

In this story, four Master-Apprentice teams are sent to Radnor, a planet that has been ravaged by a toxic cloud that is overwhelming the planet. They’re to help evacuate the remaining citizens, but once there, their ship is stolen, and they get caught up in investigating the source of the cloud. The series being what it is (and with Watson at the helm), of course there’s more to it than what it seems, and the six of them race to understand how to best help the planet.

The main focus of the story is on the apprentices, who are separated from their masters near the start of the story. Anakin has befriended one of them over their mechanical skills, but he makes an enemy of sorts out of another one, namely because he’s very good at being a Jedi apprentice. Anakin is jealous, thinking that he’s the best, and the two of them butt heads throughout the story as they each try to take charge of their situation. It wasn’t endearing to Anakin at all (and I’m sure Watson didn’t want us to side with Anakin here), but since half the story is told from his perspective, half of the story becomes insufferable because we just want to smack him and tell him to grow up.

I get it — Watson wants to show how Anakin always had the potential to fall to the dark side. The thing is, the crucial development of his character would have taken place between the end of Episode I and the beginning of Jedi Quest, which Watson overlooks. Episode I Anakin is too sweet and too caring to believe that he would become Darth Vader, and Watson starts the series with his personality already too close to Episode II Anakin. Maybe she will utilize some flashbacks throughout the series to fill in that gap.

To me, that’s the most important development, and the biggest sticking point to me regarding Anakin in the Expanded Universe. If Watson doesn’t address it, then it’s still the biggest gap in the story, and the one that I’m most interested in reading. If not, I guess I can hold out hope that the new canon does a better job of showing his character development.

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Jedi Quest: Path to Truth

March 23, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

truthJedi Quest: Path to Truth by Jude Watson

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Path to Truth starts a new series by Watson, this time focusing on Obi-Wan and Anakin, during the time between Episode I and Episode II. The story begins with Anakin retrieving a crystal for his lightsaber, and continues to both of them accompanying a ship in the hopes of preventing it from being raided. It turns out that Krayn, a slaver who has a history with Anakin, is the raider in question, and of course, the ship doesn’t make it to its destination without running into him.

Watson ties this series in with her Jedi Apprentice series, using characters and events from that series to tie them both together. She had done this to some degree with the last two books in the Jedi Apprentice series — the Special Edition books — but I like how she handled it here. Siri makes an appearance, and Obi-Wan recollects his experience as Qui-Gon’s apprentice with how he approaches his own. It helps tie the universe together, in a way that different writers approaching the same characters might not do.

I had a hard time with Anakin here, because I kept seeing and hearing him in Hayden Christensen mode, when he was closer in age to Jake Lloyd mode. Watson is starting to lay the foundation on how Anakin could go from sweet and empathetic to impatient and headstrong, but she still takes him too far to his later persona for me to accept it. That’s been a big sticking point for me regarding the entire Expanded Universe, since the diversity of Anakin’s character between Episode I and II is so great. Given the way Watson presents Anakin at thirteen, it sounds like the Jedi Academy and the constant talk of him being the Chosen One is what fed his ego to change him.

I don’t feel like Jedi Quest is as effective as Jedi Apprentice, but there are several more books to go. I find the relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is more interesting than that of Obi-Wan and Anakin, but that could be because I’m already familiar with the latter relationship due to the movies. Jedi Apprentice feels fresh; Jedi Quest feels a bit forced.

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The 13 Clocks

March 22, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

13The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

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I’ve read this book before, over fifteen years ago, so I didn’t remember much of it going in for my second reading. The only reason I decided to re-read it is because the introduction by Neil Gaiman was reprinted in The View from the Cheap Seats, and it was enough to pique my interest. It’s hard not to want to read it when Gaiman enthuses about it like he does. (This is also how Gene Wolfe’s Peace wound up in my to-read stack.)

There are some things to like about the story, namely in the way Thurber creates his narrative. The story is peppered with alliteration and verse, making it a perfect candidate for reading aloud. It’s also Thurber’s take on fairy tales, meaning that it takes some of the tropes in fairy tales and turns them on their heads. The thing is, he doesn’t take it far enough to skewer fairy tales, and in some cases, he uses the tropes pretty much in the same way traditional fairy tales do.

The princess, for example, could have been so much more. She’s been enchanted by her uncle to speak only one sentence in his presence, and is essentially imprisoned by him, and only her rescue by a prince can save her. The prince doesn’t go on a mission to save her, though; he sees her and decides she’s pretty enough to marry. Once she’s rescued (no spoilers here; this is a fairy tale, after all), she still doesn’t have much of a personality of character outside of her beauty and charm. For all that Thurber tries to subvert fairy tales, he misses the chance to follow through on this character.

The story is clever enough, and the prose lyrical enough, to make it fun to read, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights Gaiman suggests it reaches. Then again, Gaiman admits that he’s read this book since he was a child, so it’s possible there’s some nostalgia affecting how he feels about the book. Regardless, it disappointed me, namely because my expectations were so high.

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Hearts in Suspension

March 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

suspensionHearts in Suspension, edited by Jim Bishop

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I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction, but I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, and the lure of reading new material by him — recently written, and some of his earliest writings — drew me to this book. It’s a collection of essays by King and some of his contemporaries from the years he attended the University of Maine at Orono, since 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of his starting college there. The book also includes the novella Hearts in Atlantis, included in the collection of the same name, which is King’s take on what the 1960s meant to him.

“Five to One, One in Five” is King’s essay, which introduces the collection. It gives some background into Hearts in Atlantis, so much so that it shows how autobiographical the novella is. He based characters in the story on real people he met at college, and it’s interesting to see these two pieces together and see how one influenced the other. That’s true of most fiction, but anyone who doesn’t see how King’s life influences his fiction hasn’t read enough of either. The man wrote himself into The Dark Tower, for crying out loud.

The rest of the essays are a bit of a mixed bag. You can tell the writers from the non-writers there, but each of them do their part to convey what the 1960s meant to them. Not all of them talk about King; some mention him only once or twice; others put the focus of their essays on him. You find a lot of repetition there, too, since so many events of the 1960s — the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Kent State, and the Great Chicken Crisis are common refrains — tie them all together. It’s to be expected; big, momentous events like that present a shared experience that links people together, and the 1960s were a big, momentous time.

I don’t see this book having much appeal to a casual reader, but for folks who have read all of King’s books, read up on his life, read books about King, and maybe even traveled to Maine in the hopes of meeting the man, this book will be of great interest. If nothing else, it will allow you to re-read one of King’s most affecting stories and see it in context with real life.

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Every Heart a Doorway

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

doorwayEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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Most of us feel nostalgia for our younger selves, but how much stronger would that nostalgia be if our younger selves were able to go to places like Narnia or Oz or Wonderland? How would we feel later, when we returned to the boring drudgery of the real world? Would we wish to return? Would we never look back? How would we adjust to real life once again? Seanan McGuire examines those very questions with Every Heart a Doorway.

First things first: McGuire is an outstanding writer. Her turns of phrase are poetic, her observations of human behavior are astute, and her characterization skills are deft. She builds this world — our world, yes, but one populated with these parallel universes — so perfectly, so succinctly, that you get drawn in within just a few pages. The idea behind this novella is golden, especially to anyone who spent a lot of time in those fictional worlds growing up, and when I first heard about it, I knew I had to read it.

Narratively, the story lives up to my expectations; plot-wise, it’s not quite what I was hoping it would be. One of the problems with a high-concept story like this is having a plot that supports it. McGuire hits it just perfectly, building up these fantasy worlds to create a conflict that makes sense, but then she rushes through the events. It doesn’t feel like it has enough time to build up the proper tension, like it’s just hitting its stride for a longer development when the big reveal comes through, and it feels premature. I know Tor has built up a strong reputation for its line of novellas, and maybe McGuire was trying to force this story to fit that line, but it almost feels like this should have been a full-length novel.

Anyone who finds their interest piqued by the summary of this book should read it. It will be right up their alley. Just be prepared for the sudden ending.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “Every Sperm is Sacred” by Monty Python

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