Tag Archives: Youth Books

Reviews of books aimed at youths.

Book Review: Three Hands for Scorpio by Andre Norton

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On and off over the last few years this blogger has hoped to write a review of Andre Norton’s Three Hands for Scorpio. But despite her best efforts, until today this blogger did not manage to find the time. And on closer reflection that may have less to do with her schedule and more to do with the quality of the book itself.

Scorpio was the last novel Andre Norton wrote before her death in March 2005. Already ill for some time before this, she lived long enough to see the cover art (pictured above) before passing through the last gate she referenced so often in her fiction. Though she did her best and turned out a good story, comparing it to her previous works shows that Norton was at the end of her time when she wrote Three Hands for Scorpio.

Set in a fictional version of England, the book blends sixteenth century and Medieval Britain, with mixed results. There are snaplocks (guns) and swords used alongside alien magic and ancient sorcery. A church under the head of a queen is the primary religion in the characters’ home country, while a strange religion that brutally mistreats women has taken hold in the northern land of Gurlyon. Amidst these two countries lies a third land hidden in a ravine. This country is filled with strange creatures and even weirder inhabitants. Known as the Dismals, it is a land where many go but from which none have ever returned.

Andre Norton Witch World series/Halfblood Chronicles series/Trillium series/stand alone novel ...

Andre Alice Norton

Normally, Ms. Norton could have sewn this tapestry together seamlessly. But due to her illness, she did not succeed as well as she could have. Although the story is entertaining there are scenes that do not seem to be related to one another, yet are said to tie together. Descriptions, one of Miss Norton’s strong points, wander off base from time to time or focus on matters that have no importance. Some could accuse her of always engaging in this practice, but previous Norton novels always used descriptions of weird temples, places, or beasts/plants to help enhance the sense of strangeness and wonder in her fictional worlds. Three Hands for Scorpio tries to do this but does not quite succeed.

I think, personally, that the reason for this failure rests entirely on the author’s deteriorating powers. Ms. Norton was not far from death’s door when she wrote Three Hands for Scorpio. After a point, I believe, she simply could not focus well enough or spend the energy to finish tying off the various threads of the story without using up what time remained to her.

In all honesty, despite its flaws, I appreciate this novel precisely because it is Ms. Norton’s last. She held on long enough to give her fans one final story, a book to cherish because she fought death to give readers an enjoyable parting gift. That took a great deal of strength, commitment, and courage on her part, and I believe it behooves readers to give her the respect she earned in her final months on this Earth.

31 best Tristan Elwell images on Pinterest | Fantasy art, Fantasy artwork and Cover art

Having said this, it is now time to take a look at the tale itself. Three Hands for Scorpio follows the adventures of the three daughters of Earl Scorpy of Verset. Verset is on the Alsonian border, right across from the northern country of Gurlyon. A great battle waged on the day of the sisters’ birth ended the ongoing war with the North, though border raids and kidnappings remain a part of life in and around Verset.

The three Scorpy girls – Tamara, Sabina, and Drucilla – are identical triplets. Tamara is the oldest, the one who enjoys horse riding and combat training the most. Sabina’s talent is herb lore and healing. Drucilla enjoys weaving tapestries, often basing her patterns on things she has seen in her dreams.

Each sister possesses the Talent, a measure of Power with which they were born. It seems to operate on the same basis as the Talent in the Witch World even though this country is in an alternate universe. All three girls can communicate telepathically, constantly talking among themselves mind-to-mind. They are also able to speak to their mother, who is a strong sorceress, and their father in this manner. While he has less Talent than the women in his family, that which the Lord of Verset does hold is quite formidable.

The story starts with the three sisters embroidering a tapestry Drucilla dreamed up. As they are working Sabina comments that there is something off about the design, prompting Tam and Cilla to take a closer look at it. Just as they realize the drawing is of Dark origin, their mother steps into the room and demands to know what is going on. Learning that Drucilla dreamt the design and did not of her own volition choose to begin weaving it, the Lady of Verset has her daughters repudiate the evil behind the picture. She then has the family’s wise woman, known as Duty, take the embroidery to be destroyed.

Once the offensive weaving has been removed from the room, the Lady of Verset tells her daughters that their father has at last secured a truce with the neighboring Gurly lord, who will bring a priest of the alien religion along in his retinue. Rumors about this creed’s view of women have reached the castle already and the girls are advised to be on their best behavior. Angering the priest may jeopardize the treaty and begin the war all over again.

Now one would think Cilla’s dream and near-disastrous embroidery would have served as a warning to the family that something nasty was coming. And the Verset family is certainly cautious. However, despite their best safety measures, trouble erupts. The priest traveling with the Gurly lord calls the Verset ladies openly insults the ladies of Verset, and the noble’s second son speaks to Tamara as though she were a prostitute at dinner. Infuriated by his lack of honor, all three sisters immediately stand up. Mincing no words, Tam explains why they are leaving the table, further humiliating the young lord. Then she marches off with her sisters to their tower room.

Image result for three hands for scorpio by andre norton

Thinking over their behavior after they have calmed down, the three are none too sure they acted rightly. When their mother arrives they expect a scolding. However, while she admits their abrupt exit caused a scene, she holds them blameless for the dilemma. Their father likewise absolves them when he joins their mother in holding court in the girls’ bedroom.

Explaining that the three will remain home when their parents go with the Gurly lord to sign the treaty elsewhere, the sisters’ parents tell them that while they are technically “grounded,” they essentially have to hold the fort while the Lord and Lady of Verset are gone. This night’s trouble has been a baptism of fire, meaning the sisters have now unofficially entered the world plotting and scheming the adults have dealt with for so long. Therefore they must be prepared to ride to war – metaphorically speaking. They are officially “grounded” and confined to the tower for the foreseeable future, after all.

So for the next few days the Scorpy girls maintain their training regimen at the same time they monitor the castle. As they wrap up fencing practice two of the maids run in to tell them about a peddler, one who says he has no news of the North. Since every peddler usually has news from Gurlyon, the three are immediately suspicious. They send the women to buy some of the trader’s finery and learn more about what he has or hasn’t seen. They also have the castle bailiff try to get information out of him via games and drink.

What information the sisters’ receive isn’t unreasonable but it is still odd enough to set them wondering. With dusk becoming night the three head up to bed, suddenly quite tired. Before hitting the sack, though, one of them draws a symbol for warding over the door to their chamber. When asked why, she admits she did it on instinct.

Too tired to think about this very hard, the three fall into bed. In the middle of the night, Sabina awakes to find she cannot move. Nor can she speak, telepathically or with her voice. Helpless, she witnesses strangers pull her and her sisters out of bed, tie them up in rugs, and take them out of the castle into the wilds.

After a time of hard riding Tam, Bina, and Cilla find they have been captured by a Breaksword, one who survived a hanging. Though he has been hired by the Gurly noble’s son to bring the Scorpy girls to him, he also wants revenge on the Lord of Verset. Since Lord Scorpy had him hung, this Breaksword is happy to take the job of kidnapping his daughters just to make him suffer. When the castle rouses from the spell laid on it and the residents come looking for the sisters, he has them thrown into the Dismals – where the adventure really begins.

Image result for three hands for scorpio by andre norton

As I said above, the novel is not very well tied together. The description of the sisters’ abduction does not flow the way previous kidnappings Norton orchestrated did. Scenes like it also fall apart as one tries to read them. The active transitions from place to place or scene to scene literally become a near-incoherent mess for two or three paragraphs (in this reader’s mind) before straightening out into intelligible writing. It makes the story hard to read and can give even the most committed reader a headache.

Now, this does not change the fact that the story is good, or that it was a strong effort on the part of a dying author. It does, however, mean that readers will have a difficult time making their way throughout the narrative. Norton did her best – she really did. But it was not enough to make Three Hands for Scorpio the equal of her earlier works.

Clearly, this book is not for the casual reader. It may not even appeal to die-hard Andre Norton fans. I really cannot recommend this book to anyone in either category who looks at my opinion and says, “Nope, not going to wade through that to find the gem!”

I understand that. I really do. And I respect readers who feel Scorpio isn’t worth their time. However, I do suggest giving it at least one read through. Norton was not at her best when she wrote Three Hands, but she was determined to go out with flags flying. That is an effort that is worth a glance, isn’t it?

‘Til next time,

The Mithril Guardian

Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout: Before There Was a J. K. Rowling There Was Andre Norton

Book Review: House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones obituary | Books | The Guardian

Diana Wynne Jones

Previously, the first two books in this Diana Wynne Jones’ series – Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air – were reviewed here and here at Thoughts on the Edge of Forever. It is hard to recall for sure, but this blogger may or may not have stated in the latter post that she wished Mrs. Jones would write a fourth book in the series in the future.

Unfortunately, what I did not know at the time that post was published was that Mrs. Jones had passed away several years prior. If she has completed any more novels, then they have not been and never will be published this side of eternity. In her honor, therefore, this blogger decided to review the third and final book in her Howl’s Moving Castle trilogy. This would be none other than House of Many Ways.

The book begins with Mrs. Baker having a discussion with her great aunt by marriage. Aunt Sempronia has decided that Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s only daughter, Charmain, must take care of her Great-Uncle William’s house. Known to the rest of High Norland as Wizard Norland, Great-Uncle William is going in for surgery to take care of “…a growth.” No one else in the family can find the time to manage the property, so Aunt Sempronia has come in search of someone to mind the manor.

Truth be told, though, Aunt Sempronia has already selected the lucky young person who will manage the house while her Great-Uncle is away. This fortunate youth is the Bakers’ daughter, Charmain. Aunt Sempronia thinks the responsibility would be good for grand-niece-by-marriage, since the child does nothing but read and eat while her Aunt is present. Despite eating so much Charmain is quite skinny. She also hasn’t had to lift a finger to work around the house, with her mother treating her like a caged tigress and her father forbidding her to do anything that isn’t “nice.”

Retro Friday Review: House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne ...

So while she is not pleased to have been volunteered, Charmain is more than happy to have the opportunity to leave home. It is, as she herself admits, the opportunity she has been waiting for. The day before she leaves, Charmain takes out paper and pen to write a letter to the King of High Norland. The King and his daughter, Princess Hilda (whom we met in Castle in the Air), are busy cataloging the royal library.

Charmain loves books, and so working at the library with the King and the Princess has been her dream job for most of her young life. Free of her parents’ supervision for the next couple of weeks, she decides to take the plunge and applies to become their aid in the royal library. Although she is certain the King will dispose of her letter after reading it, Charmain feels better for trying.

The next day Aunt Sempronia arrives and picks her up. During the ride she grills the girl about her skills, asking in the process if she knows any magic. Since Mrs. Baker believes that magic is “not nice,” Charmain has never learned to use it. The idea of being denied her opportunity makes her blanch.

Luckily, Aunt Sempronia doesn’t seem to notice. She rattles off a few more notes about what is expected of her grand-niece-by-marriage until they arrive at the house. They get there just before the Elves come to pick up Great-Uncle William and take him in for surgery. Charmain barely has time to meet him, let alone ask him for instructions, before he is whisked away.

Left to her own devices, Charmain looks around. What she finds is an absolute mess. The taps in the kitchen sink are gone, the laundry has piled up, and dirty dishes abound. Exclaiming at the disaster, the heroine is quite surprised when Great-Uncle William’s voice echoes from the house itself. He has left instructions for her via a briefcase full of papers and a spell that lets him give her directions around the house.

Amazon.com: World of Howl Collection: Howl's Moving Castle ...

He also asks her to take care of his little dog, a white terrier type animal he calls Waif. Overcome by the sudden onslaught of responsibility, Charmain resorts to her first, best source of comfort. She grabs a book and starts reading….

….Only to find that her mother packed plenty of clothes and her father enough food to last a week. But neither of them packed one book for her to read while she is away from home.

Things pick up from here, readers, but I won’t spoil the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that this book in the trilogy is the one I have reread most. It is the funniest of the three novels, and I do not say that lightly. Everything entertaining in the earlier books is here, plus some. The characters are fantastic, the magic is good, and the hilarity is just pitch perfect.

If you can pick up House of Many Ways, I highly recommend doing so. You cannot go wrong with this book. Some may not like it as much as the previous ones, but this seems rather unlikely to me. How could anyone not find this story as funny as it is heartwarming?

Of course, there is only one way to find out. 😉

‘Til next time, readers!

The Mithril Guardian

Book Review: House of Many Ways | Anime and Book Messiah

Book Review: Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey - Reviews ...

Black Horses for the King is the first Anne McCaffrey book that I have ever read. No, I am not joking; prior to this, yours truly had never done more than peek at a page of Miss McCaffrey’s books. The Dragon Riders of Pern series is on my “to read” list, but so far this blogger has not actually read those books.

Knowing her reputation with those novels, however, Black Horses for the King looked like a good place for this writer to begin getting to know Miss McCaffrey and her work. While it doesn’t strike me as an excellent piece, it is enjoyable and well written. I really have no complaints about it, beyond a few minor nitpicks.

The story begins with Galwyn Varianus, who has been apprenticed to his uncle, a rough sailor and pagan who despises him. Following his lead, the crew picks on the boy mercilessly. The fact that Galwyn is currently cleaning up after six seasick passengers below decks isn’t helping much, since their discomfort is making him ill, too. Despite that, he is doing his best to avoid telling off the sailors; doing that only makes them increase their cruel teasing. But when one of the sailors insults the lad’s mother, Galwyn whirls around, ready for a fight…

…Only to be stopped by Comes Artos, the Dux Bellorum. Artos is Latin for Arthur, making this novel an Arthurian tale. Miss McCaffrey, however, is leaving off the magic and other familiar trappings in order to remain as true to history as she can. She is also focusing on an almost mundane aspect of the legend – the large horses Arthur had to buy to repulse the recurrent Saxon invasions.

Artos is sailing to the continent to buy big horses he can breed with the larger ponies in England so that his men can face the Saxons on better terms. On their ponies the Britons cannot face the pagan invaders, since the animals are incapable of carrying the large Englishmen for great distances or long amounts of time. In order to out-maneuver and overcome the invaders, Artos and his Companions need bigger horses. So they are sailing to Septimania to buy them.

When apprised of the Comes’ plan, Galwyn finds he approves of it. Having grown up in a Roman villa prior to his apprenticeship with his uncle, the boy has a fondness for and skill with horses. He would much rather tend the animals than sail, but due to his father’s death, working at sea appeared to be the best way he to support his mother and sisters until he can find a different profession. And better companions.

Black Horses For The King ISBN 9780552529730 PDF epub ...

But when his uncle’s crew goes too far, Galwyn seizes his chance and escapes his hateful relative’s ship. He then buys a pony and follows Lord Artos to the fair in Septimania. There his knowledge of horses, his ability to bargain, and his skill with languages prove invaluable in the purchase of a large group of black Libyans – stallions, mares, and foals. Following their purchase he, Artos, and the rest of the Companions lead the animals to port in order to bring them back to England.

Shipping the creatures across the ocean is difficult work, since they are as unused to the water as the Companions, who are too busy taking care of them to get sick this time. On their first arrival in England, Galwyn makes a final end to his apprenticeship under his uncle. Staying with Artos and his Companions, he helps bring the other two sets of horses to Britain.

From there, he travels to a farm where the animals will be tended and allowed to breed with each other and the biggest Briton ponies. On the way he becomes apprentice to the horse expert friend of Artos, a man named Canyd. Canyd and his fellow horse masters are trying to make the first horse shoe in order to protect the animals’ feet. As Canyd likes to remind everyone around him, whether they want to hear him or not: “No hoof, no horse!”

Black Horses for the King does not strike me as the best of Miss McCaffrey’s work. Still, it is an enjoyable story that presents a good picture of the times in which it is set. Horse and history lovers will find it a great read, and it is hard to stop once you get going with it. In the final analysis, it is a worthy book from a good author.

‘Til next time, readers!

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey (Paperback ...

Book Review: Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

Retro Friday Review: Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne ...

Previously, Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle was reviewed here at Thoughts. It was so good that I thought an analysis of the sequel was in order. Castle in the Air has the great distinction of improving upon the framework in the original story, something that doesn’t always happen in modern fiction.

It begins in the Sultanates of Rashpuht, a country far to the south of Ingary, the nation where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. A young carpet merchant named Abdullah is standing in his booth at the Bazaar, daydreaming about being a prince. Though Abdullah’s father was a rich carpet merchant, everything but his booth went to his first wife’s in-laws because he was disappointed in his son.

Just why he was upset with his son Abdullah doesn’t know. And at this point, it doesn’t matter to him, either. Despite his daydreams, Abdullah is a very happy carpet merchant. He sells enough goods to make a comfortable living, and he is content to never be wealthy or leave the Bazaar. In truth, he really does not have a reason to want to leave; his reveries just add a touch of romance to his otherwise ordinary life.

In the middle of his latest fantasy (which, for the first time, features a beautiful princess), a customer appears and asks to sell him a carpet. He wants five hundred gold pieces for the rug, but Abdullah is skeptical. The mat is in bad shape, and even if he wanted it, he certainly wouldn’t pay five hundred gold coins for it.

So when the man says it is a magic carpet, Abdullah is intrigued but disbelieving. He allows the stranger to enter the booth proper in order to have him prove that the carpet can fly. Even when a commotion occurs in the next stall, the carpet merchant keeps an eye on his customer as the man orders the rug two feet into the air.

The carpet does as it is told and, after checking to make sure none of the usual tricks could have been pulled to fake its flight, Abdullah agrees to buy the carpet. Several hours are spent haggling over the price, and he finally pays two hundred fifty gold pieces for the mat before going out to lunch. Worried the rug will fly away when he leaves, Abdullah ties it the center pole of the booth to make sure it stays put.

Castle in the Air (First Edition)

It does. But in order to keep an even better eye on it, Abdullah puts the carpet on top of his bed (which is made up of other carpets piled one atop the other). During the night, Abdullah wakes to find himself in a luscious garden. There he meets a girl – a princess – who mistakes him for a girl.

How can she make that obvious error? Simple – the only man she has ever seen is her father, the Sultan. Confused, but convinced this is all a dream, Abdullah tells the princess about his daydreams. And because he thinks he is still asleep, he makes it sound like his daylight fantasies are the truth.

The delighted princess, who identifies herself as Flower-in-the-Night, absorbs his tale with avid interest. But when the two try to experiment with the carpet, they accidentally give it the wrong command, sending Abdullah back to his booth post-haste. He wakes up again the next morning feeling blue, until he realizes that he was not actually dreaming. The carpet transported him to a real palace where he met a real princess named Flower-in-the-Night.

Abdullah spends the rest of the day buying paintings of different men so he can bring them to Flower-in-the-Night (who is still convinced he is a woman). Once he has done this, he tries ordering the carpet back to the palace at once. But it doesn’t budge, throwing Abdullah into despair. There appears to be a secret code word that will “activate” the magic carpet, but since he does not know it, he is stuck.

Once he calms down a little, though, Abdullah reminds himself that the carpet definitely took him to the palace the previous night. Deciding that he must have mumbled the code word in his sleep, he asks the rug to transport him to Flower-in-the-Night as soon as he speaks the word in his sleep. Meanwhile, he waits anxiously for nightfall so he can go to bed and return to his princess.

The plan works, and Abdullah shows Flower-in-the-Night the pictures. She studies them all, especially the ones showing the most handsome specimens, then declares that none of them are as handsome as her midnight visitor. Confirming that she is now sure he is, in fact, a man, Abdullah falls to discussing marriage with her. As it turns out, Flower-in-the-Night is to be betrothed to the Prince of Ochinstan (the Rashpuht name for Ingary). Upset upon learning that it is common for men in Rashpuht to have more than one wife, Flower-in-the-Night declares that to be an unfair arrangement, especially when Abdullah says he thinks even the Prince of Ochinstan already has several wives.

Castle in the Air Audiobook | Diana Wynne Jones | Audible.com

The discussion of marriage eventually brings the two to talk about their relationship. It isn’t long before they both decide to elope, and Abdullah begins to set the plan in motion. He narrowly escapes being married to his two fat cousins before the following nightfall. After selling off his stock and sewing the money into his clothes, he goes to sleep on the carpet.

Sometime later, he awakes in the garden. Flower-in-the-Night rushes out to meet him, and it looks like their fairy tale life together is about to begin…

…Until an enormous, dark djinn arrives and snatches up Flower-in-the-Night.

Things begin to pick up from here, but I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, readers. Suffice it to say this novel is as good – if not better – than its predecessor. The humor is top notch, the characters are well drawn, and the story is executed beautifully. It is a great read.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Pick up Castle in the Air and Howl’s Moving Castle at your earliest opportunity and read them for yourselves. You won’t regret it!

Until next time!

Castle in the Air (Howl's Moving Castle, #2) by Diana ...

Book Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

YES!!! Finally, the pile of books this author set out to review last year is DONE!!! Whoo-hoo!

Sorry to take so long to get here, readers. But with one thing and another, yours truly ended up going through these various analyses at a snail’s pace. Hopefully, that will be avoidable it in the future – but since life happens, we will have to wait and see how that goes. The important thing is that this particular novel is now on the table for discussion. Yay! 😀

It has been some time since I read The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, in full. However, that has not dimmed my love for this wonderful book. Despereaux is one of the best children’s stories ever written. Ms. DiCamillo is a truly good writer who is well-respected in the field, as shown by Dean Koontz’ many allusions to her novels (including this one) in his stories. They appear to agree on many things and seem to see life through a similar lens, which means that if you like the one, you may enjoy the other.

That being said, it is not a guarantee. DiCamillo writes for children, middle graders on up to high school level. Her focus isn’t on horror, though there is an undercurrent of dread in many of her novels. For the most part, she deals in fairy tales, though hers are different from the originals in many ways. The Tale of Despereaux is, as we shall see, a good example of this…

Within the walls of a castle in a far away land, Despereaux Tilling is the only surviving mouse in his litter. Born to Antoinette and Lester Tilling, the rest of his litter died at birth. Disappointed by this and how the stresses of giving birth keep ruining her beauty, Antoinette declares she will have no more babies. Staring at Despereaux, Lester Tilling sighs and states that he will be the last and that he will die soon, just like the others.

The reason he says this? Despereaux is an unnaturally small mouse. With the exception of his ears, this infant mouse is extremely tiny. But his ears are huge, much like Dumbo’s were. More disturbing to his father, this last son was born with his eyes open. On top of this, instead of dying, the little mouse lives. Though he hardly grows any bigger and becomes ill easily, Despereaux keeps on living happily in the castle.

Others, however, are not pleased with the youngest of the Tilling offspring. This is due almost entirely to the fact that Despereaux does not act at all like a proper mouse. He does not scurry, search for crumbs, or fear anything or anyone within the castle. Instead he stares at light streaming through the windows and listens to a music none of the other mice seem to hear.

And then things go from bad to worse. Despereaux learns to read in lew of chewing up and eating the glue in the books in the castle library. How he learns is a mystery; when his older sister takes him to the library to start chewing up the books, Despereaux looks at the open volume she wants him to start on and read the first line aloud.

He finds the story in the book enthralling.  It is about a knight rescuing a fair princess and goes back to read it every single day after his older siblings give up trying to teach him how to be a proper mouse. Although this is decidedly odd behavior for a mouse, his family leaves him to it. This allows him to spend the hours he is not reading exploring the world of the castle or staring at light streaming through windows.

In between readings and wanderings, Despereaux discovers the sound he is hearing is music. The music is played by the king for his daughter, the Princess Pea. Going to a crack in the wall of her room, Despereaux listens to the music from the hole. Then he sticks his head through the hole. Then his front legs, and so on, until he is right in the room at the foot of the king, where the princess sees him.

And then something amazing, wonderful, and utterly ridiculous happens. Despereaux falls in love with the princess. (Yes, he does. Really.)

Now the Princess Pea has her own story. A few years ago her mother died. This was due to shock. Arat, Chiaroscuro (Roscuro for short), from the castle dungeon snuck into the chandelier above the banquet hall and accidentally fell in the queen’s soup. Seeing him, the queen was so astonished that she could only say, “There is a rat in my soup,” before fainting and falling face first into said soup. That is where she died.

Following this sad event, the king outlawed rats, soup, and spoons to assuage his grief. His and the castle staff’s only solace now is the Princess Pea, to whom the king is singing and with whom Despereaux has fallen in love. Pea wants to have soup back in the kingdom just like everyone else, but she is still too sad over her mother’s death to do anything about changing her father’s mind in that regard at the moment.

Meanwhile, stuck in the dungeon below the castle, Roscuro is plotting his revenge on the princess for having him banished. Unlike most rats, Roscuro has a great love of light and beauty. Seeing the princess glaring at him after her mother’s death broke his heart, and now he wants to get back at her and everyone else in the castle.

What does all of this have to do with poor Despereaux? Unknown to him, he has not met the princess unobserved. One of his older brothers sees the princess touch Despereaux on the nose. Convinced he is, at least, a goner, this brother reports everything he has witnessed to the council of mice that run the mouse community in the castle.

They are not happy that the little mouse has been seen. Part of this is for practical reasons – if the palace staff starts seeing too many mice around, or the king gets upset about seeing a mouse, the entire community will be chased out of the castle or banished to the dungeon with the rats. But most of the reason the council is unhappy is because mice do not fraternize with humans; it “simply isn’t done.”

So now you can imagine how they react to Despereaux’s declaration of undying love for the Princess Pea, can’t you, readers?

Ah, ah, ah! Those are all the spoilers that you are going to get! I’ve given too much of the story away as it is. If you want to know more, borrow or buy The Tale of Despereaux today. Worth its purchase price many times over, this is a book no shelf should be lacking!

Until next time. 😉

Book Review: Sword of Clontarf by Charles A. Brady

Sword of Clontarf : Charles Brady : 9780976638681

Whew! After that streak of Star Wars reviews, some of you might have been worried that I had no other books to talk about. Fear not, hardy readers! There are a couple of different novels which I have up my sleave, one of which we will discuss today. Since we are only a few weeks from December (where did the year go?!?!), however, I will have time for just one more book review this year. That slot is going to another Dean Koontz book, as promised to Mr. Bookstooge. All others will have to wait until January of 2019.

There will be more Star Wars reviews next year, though, so stay tuned for them! I have had to postpone one of my promised Spotlight! articles – the one I described as rollingly entertaining here – until January, too. This is on account not only with the focus of the upcoming Spotlight! post, but of the last article discussing Wedge Antilles. Still, he had to do a lot of rolling in his X-Wing, so maybe we can count him as the promised Spotlight! discussion. Next year’s first two Spotlight! foci will be different, however. Trust me. 😉

All right, with that out of the way, let us turn to today’s subject. This would be Sword of Clontarf, by Charles A. Brady. Sword is a children’s book, obviously, centered on a fictional character who shows us a piece of history. Originally published in 1960, the reprint I have came out in 2006, so you can buy a good copy of this story new if you desire, readers.

The book begins with Niall (pronounced like “Neil”) Arneson being shaken awake by his Irish, Christian mother. Taken to Iceland after being captured by Vikings during a raid on Ireland, Etain the Fair is known throughout Eaglewaterheath, Iceland, as the Dumb Woman. No one means disrespect to her with this title – especially since she is the second wife of the steading’s master, Arne Helgison. Etain is known as the Dumb Woman because she can’t speak.

Only, now she suddenly is speaking to Niall. And she is speaking in Irish!

Finally on his feet, Niall learns from his mother and his uncle, Hjalti, that his father has been murdered. Clearly, this is bad, but on it’s own it is not enough to warrant such an urgent wake up call. Nor is it cause for Niall to flee his home all of a sudden. By rights, Niall should be out with his three older half brothers hunting his father’s murderers.

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But you see, that is where the crunch comes. Niall is a Christian. His older half brothers are pagan, just like his father. Arne allowed Etain to keep her faith and have Niall baptized, but he retained his pagan views. His first three sons followed his example, but they have never liked Etain or their kid half brother. With Arne gone they are likely to seize the chance to murder Niall themselves before chasing down Arne’s killers.

Etain, naturally, does not want that for her son. While Hjalti would be happy to offer Niall protection and care, being fonder of him than of his other nephews, the idea of having to kill his brother’s other sons to defend the youngest does not appeal to him anymore than it does to Etain. Thus the two have come at this early hour to prepare Niall either to flee or to fight. It is his choice.

Seeing the reason behind their arguments (eventually), Niall accepts their plan and dresses quickly. As he is preparing to leave, his mother drops another bombshell on him. Through her, he is related to the former high king of Ireland, who now serves as the current High King’s chief advisor and friend.

Who is the High King – the present Ard Rhi – of Ireland in this year of 1000? The answer to your question is Brian Boru.

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Brian Boru

Unlike King Arthur, Brian Boru is confirmed to have lived. Around the year 1000, Brian united all the clans of Ireland under one banner, becoming the High King of the island. Traditionally, the position of Ard Rhi didn’t mean what we would think today. The head of every clan in Ireland had a king; becoming Ard Rhi or High King wasn’t like becoming King of England or King of France. It was a somewhat temporary position and it didn’t have a lot of power attached to it.

Biran Boru changed that. For ten years he ruled a united Ireland, keeping the peace and making it the safest it had ever been. There is a legend that, during Brian’s reign, a well dressed young lady with a solid gold ring walked the length of Ireland (35 miles) completely unmolested. That is the type of peace Brian brought to the country.

In the year 1014 the pagan Norsemen – known better to modern audiences simply as “Vikings” – tried to invade Ireland. They raided the country pretty regularly prior to Brian’s reign; I believe he might have become Ard Rhi mainly to drive them from the Emerald Isle’s shores, though it is possible that I am remembering my history incorrectly. Either way, in 1014, on Good Friday, the Norsemen tried again to take Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf.

It was a pitched battle, and if the Norsemen had won, Western civilization might never have risen as quickly or as well from Rome’s ashes. As it is, the Irish turned the assault aside when the tide went out, taking the Norsemen’s boats with it. Some might say this was coincidence, or good planning on the part of the Irish. It was neither; it was Providence, pure and plain and true.

The Battle of Clontarf was a great engagement, and the Irish distinguished themselves well there. But the fight had a cost, too. During the battle Brian Boru was slain in his tent, where he was praying for victory. His death ended Ireland’s unity, though not her civilization, nor her contributions to the West. But it was a sad loss nonetheless.

Before all of this happens in the novel, however, Niall receives something precious and deadly from his mother. Etain didn’t feign dumbness when she was captured by the Norsemen. Not on purpose, anyway. The reason she did not speak when the Norsemen captured her was because she had something in her mouth. It was a talisman they valued highly called Thor’s Ring.

Now the Thor you encounter in this novel isn’t the jovial, knightly, Christianized hero of Marvel Comics’ fame. (Yes, I said ‘Christianized,’ readers. What is more, I meant it; let the new Marvel hierarchy gnash their teeth about it if they like, but the truth is that Stan Lee Christianized the old Norse myths. That includes Thor Odinson.) The Thor in this novel is like the original Norse interpretation: fierce, bloodthirsty, and dangerous. And the Norsemen worship him and his fellow Asgardians accordingly.

Whether one believes such a talisman ever existed or that it had some kind of power does not matter. What matters is that the Norsemen believed it had power. As long as the Irish held the Ring and two other talismen of import in the novel, they could force a truce on the Norsemen. But if the heathen Northmen ever got their hands on the three talismen, it would mean all out, open war between the two factions again.

In order to protect the Ring and her people, Etain hid it in her mouth during the raid. She couldn’t speak without giving away her secret and, when the Norsemen came to the conclusion that she had been born dumb, she kept up the charade out of fear for her life. This fear extended to her husband, whom she came to love deeply. Eventually she felt guilty for keeping him in the dark about her ability to speak. She kept trying to work up the nerve to tell him the truth, but put it off every time. Now, of course, it is too late to set the record straight for him.

Anyway, that is the set up for the first chapter. After saying his good-byes, Niall sets out from Eaglewaterheath with an Irish thrall his mother and uncle have freed. After a series of adventures, he reaches Ireland and joins his mother’s kin…..

….And that is the last of the spoilers you are getting, readers! If you want to know what befalls Niall in Sword of Clontarf, pick the novel up today. A good read that is full of history, it is well worth the purchase price. Enjoy it, readers!

‘Til next time!

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Star Wars: Dark Forces – Soldier for the Empire by William C. Dietz

Star Wars Dark Forces Soldier for the Empire HC (1997 Dark ...

Whoo, all right! We are bookin’ it, readers!  (Haha – pun. 😉 ) Here’s the next Star Wars book on my promised review list: Star Wars: Dark Forces – Soldier for the Empire. This is the first of three short novelizations based on video games where the fan-favorite original EU character Kyle Katarn made his debut. Originally, the hero of the Dark Forces video games was supposed to be Luke Skywalker. However, the game makers realized that putting Luke in the games would mess up the franchise’s continuity. So they decided to come up with a completely new character for the game instead.

This proved to be a really good idea. Due in large part to Kyle’s character, Dark Forces skyrocketed to fame with fans, so much so that several subsequent games were designed for the new Jedi. To make one of these sequel games – Dark Forces II – more interesting, the designers hired actors and actresses to play the characters in “live action” cut scenes during the game. If you want to see what those look like, readers, then check out this post of mine here.

Based on the videos alone, I can see why Kyle became such a hit with fans. Dark Forces II was state of the art when it was created and, while it may not have held up perfectly in everyone’s opinion, the craftsmanship that went into it still shows. Looking at those videos, I wish more modern games had scenes where real actors portrayed characters in the game(s) story/stories. Dark Forces II is a real gem!

All right, drooling done. Time to describe the book. Soldier for the Empire starts out long before Dark Forces II, taking place a few months before the Battle of Yavin. The book begins on the moon world of Sulon, a farming colony with a population mostly made up of humans and droids. Morgan Katarn, father of the hero of the story, sets out from his farm to replace a water pump some distance from his house. While he walks off, thinking about the state of the galaxy, he begins to get a funny feeling that something’s coming…

doloresserier.se - Star Wars Dark Forces Soldier of the Empire

Something dangerous.

His instincts are correct. Above Sulon, a Star Destroyer under the command of the Dark Jedi Jerec looks down on the moon. Despite what the crew thinks, Jerec hasn’t come here just to destroy the Rebel cell on Sulon. He wants Morgan Katarn – alive. Morgan was friends with a Jedi Knight named Qu Rahn, a straggler from the Jedi Purge. Rahn entrusted a valuable secret to the farmer before going into hiding, and Jerec wants the power of this secret.

Since Qu Rahn’s whereabouts are currently unknown, the Dark Jedi’s come to Sulon to take what he wants from Morgan. To that end he deploys Imperial troops disguised as Rebels to lay waste to the farming community. He has them hit one farm and kill the family living there to make the assault look “realistic.” Then he sends them on to Morgan’s place.

But Morgan is Force-sensitve, just like his son. His going out to repair the pump isn’t entirely his own idea, as he discovers when his position allows him to watch the Imperials attack and wreck his farmhouse. Recording the attack, Morgan goes to join the other Rebels, who decide to make a stand against the Empire. They believe the Empire has come to destroy the thermal generator they have been working on for some time now. Once completed and fully operational, the “G-tap,” as the colonists call the generator, will provide the Sulon colony with energy independence.

While Morgan knows the G-tap is in danger of being destroyed, he counsels that Rebel lives are worth more than the generator. He reminds his fellow Rebs that they can always build another generator. They can’t serve their cause or replace their people if they are all dead.

No one listens to Morgan’s sound advice, though, and a few hours later the battle begins. As Katarn predicted, the Rebels on Sulon are completely wiped out. Among the few survivors left for interrogation, Morgan alone is hauled aboard the Star Destroyer to face Jerec. Rather than give the Dark Jedi what he wants, Morgan spits at him and makes a snappy, somewhat rude evasion.

Jerec’s response is to behead him with a vibro-blade. The Dark Jedi then has Morgan’s head put on a pike outside the space port for visitors to see. He has the rest of the Rebels’ corpses beheaded and their heads lined up along the spaceport walls as well, to further emphasize the lengths the Imperials are willing to go to maintain control of the galaxy. (*Author whistles lightly.* They really didn’t play around in the original Star Wars Expanded Universe, readers.)

Star Wars Dark Forces Soldier for The Empire HC HB New | eBay

Completely unaware of what is going on back home Morgan’s son, Kyle Katarn, is undergoing his Omega Exercise. The last test Stormtroopers have to face before they enter service, the Omega Exercise consists of attacking Rebel bases. Those cadets who survive the battle to capture the base and kill the enemy become full-fledged Stormtroopers. The Rebel base Kyle and his men have been assigned to take is in an asteroid belt, but the base itself is called Asteroid-456.

Kyle’s Exercise proves to be a brutal one, with most of his men killed during their forward march through the base. Halfway into the compound, Kyle and his unit reach the communications center of Asteroid-456. This base, as he learns later, is a communications’ hub. Rebel journalists risk their lives to film Imperial attacks and atrocities before taking those films to bases such as Asteroid-456. From there, the Rebels broadcast the footage around the galaxy, allowing thousands of beings to see it. When they do, many flock to the nascent Rebellion to join up and put an end to the Empire’s evil.

Having lost so many men in the fighting, Kyle’s sergeant wants to kill the unarmed Rebels in the comm center immediately. But Kyle, who took his Stormtrooper helmet off sometime earlier, meets the eyes of one of the Rebels; a woman his own age he will later learn is named Jan Ors. He feels an instant connection with Jan, whose startled gaze shows she has felt the “spark” between them, too. Because of that – and the fact that she and the others are unarmed – Kyle orders his unit to spare them.

The Rebels don’t wait around when he makes it clear they should go. They split, and Katarn takes his men back to the mess hall to wait for the Rebels’ reinforcements to attack. Only six men, including Kyle, survive the resultant onslaught. With the sergeant among the dead, no one’s available – or willing – to tell the Empire about the commanding cadet’s merciful actions. Kyle is commended for his bravery in the battle at his graduation, being awarded one of the Empire’s most prestigious medals. His friend Meck Odom invites him to dinner with his family after the ceremony, and Kyle has a grand time with them…

…Only to receive a devastating shock later that night, when he learns that his father is dead. And apparently, the Rebels murdered him.

Soldier for the Empire is a really, REALLY good book. Dietz handles the descriptions of Kyle’s Force-sensitivity impressions well for the most part, and he absolutely nails the atmosphere for Star Wars. The book is a little short on detail in some places for my tastes, but it is based on a video game. Having read novels based on film scripts, I kind of expected that going in. There is always some missed detail in a novel based on a visual medium. I don’t know why that is; I just know it’s there.

Among the many things to praise this book for is the artwork. Lucas Arts/Film hired Dean Williams to paint the pictures, and he did a phenominal job. To quote Sabine Wren, “Now that is art.” A couple of the paintings in the book are so well done that, at first glance, they look like photographs. When I saw the painting of Jan first meeting with Kyle, I half expected her to blink, move, or breathe. Williams is that good of an artist he made his subjects appear to be realI hope he’s still painting!

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All right, now it’s time for a Warning for Younger Readers. There are no sex warnings for Soldier for the Empire. Kyle doesn’t have any sexual fantasies, no women are attacked or abused, and his relationship with Jan is completely above board. But there is a gore warning, which we have already sort of covered. About midway through the book, there’s a lifelike painting of Kyle turning away from an image of his father’s head on a spear. It’s not a particularly gross painting, in my opinion, but it is unnerving.

Because the head is in the top left corner of the picture and Kyle takes up the majority of the bottom right half of the print, a reader’s eye is naturally drawn to him when the page is opened. You notice the heads on the wall behind Kyle’s back, but they’re not rendered in a truly disgusting way. And, since he’s surrounded by light, Kyle tends to make those images look kind of curious rather than scary or disgusting. The only way to notice Morgan’s head is to study the picture or start reading the page opposite the painting. And due to this warning, avoiding looking hard in that direction shouldn’t be too much trouble.

The only other warning I have is for another picture earlier in the book that shows a pair of hands raised above fallen girders in the Rebel base. The hands are not armored, nor are they gloved; they are twisted with the final spasms of agony the dead person experienced. Again, though, the picture draws a reader’s attention more to Kyle and his fellow Stormtroopers than to the hands. You have to look hard to notice the hands and, even then, they are not painted in such a way as to truly frighten or disgust a reader. Dietz and Williams knew the requirements for the story, but they also knew that their target audience included children in the 10-17 age group. Thus I think they did a good job of making sure the story kept its impact without being too bloody and gorey.

These are really the biggest things a smart 10-15 reader should watch out for whenever they pick up Soldier for the Empire.I know someone in this age group who loves this book despite these pictures, so that gives me confidence to recommend it to others who are the same age. Though now that I think about it, my young friend can put up with an awful lot of gorey stuff…. (Author makes a slightly worried face.)

The decision to read or not read this book is entirely up to the young reade, of course. If you don’t think you can handle Soldier for the Empire, wait a little while before you read it. It is a good book, one I wholeheartedly recommend, in part because it carries strong echoes from the original films. Kyle is a great character, as is Jan, and Jerec is a close runner up. The guy is scary, no two ways about it. Bonus points, Mon Mothma, Lando Calrissian, and Thrawn each get guest appearances in this story. We never really see them (except for Lando) in a painting, but they do “appear” in the book. 😀

And if that wasn’t enough, I could literally vouch for this being a good book based on the artwork alone. It is absolutely fantastic! Before you head out to get the novel, readers, here are some prints of Dean Williams’ paintings. Man, I hope this guy is still creating. His work is AMAZING…!

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Jan Ors - Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki

“Remember, the Force will be with you. Always.”