Saturday, May 28, 2016

Book Review: Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle (N.D. Wilson)


Sam Miracle, a boy whose bones have fused together, escapes into his own world of imagination, filled with adventure and action. A place where his arms can bend, a place where they are fast.

When strange time-traveling outlaws come looking for him, Sam’s stories become very, very real. His stories were real, memories of his past selves. And with the help of a time-traveling priest and a spunky girl named Gloria Spalding, Sam has one last chance to stop the Vulture from roaming through time and doing whatever he so pleases with it.

Outlaws of Time takes readers all through time as Sam Miracle and Gloria Spalding are chased through time. Sam’s arms become bendy, but they take on a life of their own… quite literally. Just when you think there’s time to breathe, the villains arrive with guns blazing and force the heroes to keep running. The chaos that follows on Sam’s heels forces him to really think and understand – and accept – the role he is meant to fill, however dark or painful it is.

Sam is a hero with a lot of growing to do, and it makes the story interesting. He’s confused and unsure of himself and of the purpose everyone seems to think he must fulfill, and sometimes it scares him. When his arms are grafted with snakes, he reacts in a way I would expect (in a way I would react if I had snakes for arms). He freaks out, and he has a hard time adjusting and coping with this change in his life. It makes him realistic as we watch him panic and try to regain some scrap of control over his life. But these events make Sam’s character develop as the story goes on. He slowly begins to understand, and he adds his own goals to the ones others have set for him. He finds a determination inside him that makes him stronger.

Glory is the one who keeps Sam going. She helps him remember and to stay focused. But she has her own growing she needs to do. She tries to live her favorite book, The Legend of Poncho, but their danger is not a book. It was interesting to see her mindset focused on that, and how Father Tiempo, a man who offers much guidance and wisdom in the early chapters, tries to correct this view. Glory (and perhaps to some degree, us) need to live our own lives, and not try to copy our favorite books. Our lives are our story, and it’s important how we live it. I liked how Glory, while maybe not quite a main character like Sam is, has an arc too. She has growing to do.

The villain, El Buitre, or the Vulture, is excellently twisted. He is not at all afraid to do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants, or kill whoever he needs to kill. He’s cunning and devious, and plays with time in order to get his way. His assistant, Mrs. Dervish, is a villain who doesn’t appear very often, but whose abilities make me intrigued. She seems to have played a role in putting El Buitre where he is today (or yesterday, or tomorrow), and I’m curious to know what more she can do. She has the potential to be a very dangerous villain. The pair of them create an evil force to be reckoned with, a force that follows no rules.

The time travel aspect was a little bit confusing (time travel has always been a confusing topic for me, though), but somehow Mr. Wilson’s use of it and how he developed it made it seem simpler to understand. The book seems to expand on the aspect of time, adding a darkness that sits outside of it, and it seems to have a life of its own, where El Buitre walks freely. Time and time travel involves a lot of sand, but the worldbuilding done is both simple, yet with an underlying layer of complexity that I hope is explored more in the next books.

****

Violence/gore: Characters are shot, and some are killed. A little of description of the snake arm grafting is revealed, but it’s not very detailed (from what I remember). One character is tortured. Sam’s past selves and their fates are spoken of, and it’s a lot violent (not described in detail, though).

Profanity: Only referenced.

Sexual content: None.

Other: Nothing that I recall that would be very questionable. There may be characters who drink liquor or smoke, but I’m afraid I don’t recall any instances. Some of the boys at SADDYR have committed a few felonies (but that’s likely the reason they were put in SADDYR anyway).

Have you read Outlaws of Time? What did you think of it? :D

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Faith in Fantasy

Fantasy stories are fascinating inventions. The writer creates whole worlds apart from our own, and populates them with a variety of peoples, from elves and humans to goblins and nymphs. Creatures inhabit these worlds too in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Anything can happen in stories set in these secondary worlds. The reader’s imagination is put to work when he or she reads fantasy. The battle of Helm’s Deep, or the secret meeting between Mr. Tumnus and Lucy Pevensie under the lamppost, or the flight to Neverland all require one’s imagination to turn the gears and give the words the muscle and skin the reader designs.

These stories are a good way to relax for a while, perhaps after a particularly hard final exam, or a stressful day at work. We can sit down and read (or write, it can be relaxing on both sides) and become lost in a good story for a little while. Readers and writers alike ought to remember, though, that it’s not healthy to obsess over these worlds and the heroes within them. These stories shouldn’t be used to avoid responsibilities, or as a shield against all of the problems in life, or become too obsessed. But when we know that these stories of fantasy that tickle the imagination are not real, we are better off, and even better when we learn from the struggles of the characters, identifying with their weaknesses or strengths.

Fantasy and imagination can be a form of entertainment (in moderation). But it can also direct our attention to our faith in God. The imagination is a tool, one which writers take advantage of to create these fantasy stories. And through their words, readers will go on wild adventures and turn pages to see if their favorite characters make it to the end. And sometimes fantasy can also direct readers to faith, using the fictional to illustrate fact, similar to Jesus’ parables. It’s not just fantasy that has this ability, other genres can do this too, but fantasy relies very heavily on imagination, so it’s the genre we’re looking at here. Imagination can be a tool used by writers to guide readers to the reality of their faith, and even the real world.

Imagination and fantasy, in the midst of new and exotic worlds and peoples, can draw from Biblical principles, weaving them into the story, however quietly or boldly as the writer deems appropriate. It can teach and edify readers and writers alike as the characters of the stories grow and learn. C.S. Lewis does this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with the message of forgiveness by showing how Edmund is forgiven of betraying his siblings to the White Witch. The stories the imagination creates can also use the stories from the Bible, as a pattern or mold for the plot as allegories, and can become like a track for the themes and messages of the stories. Mr. Lewis utilizes allegory by using Aslan as a representative of Jesus Christ, and in his fantasy story, he illustrates the sacrifice Christ made for us through the sacrifice Aslan makes for Edmund. This use of the imagination, combined with the adventure and peril surrounding the characters, lends a fresh look at the real story, and reinforces the power and affect of the true story of Jesus’ death for us.


The characters, plot, and settings all work to convey the themes and messages of fantasy to readers, and this includes themes and messages pertaining to our faith. The imagination puts the words into pictures, so when these elements of a story are brought into the imagination, we have an image we can use, a sort of model, to see the message that is intended. It creates a sort of channel that delivers the message in illustrations our minds create, and when we see the characters we can relate to being affected by the events of the story and learning from their actions, we in turn can learn. The characters can help direct us toward God by the way they behave and grow throughout the story.

Reading these stories can be profitable, but they must be written first. And even writing the stories can produce moments where the writer learns from or is challenged by the messages in his or her own tale. Both the creation of the story and the reading of it can be edifying. As I was writing Here I Stand (a novella for a college course), my protagonist learned to stand for his beliefs, even when everyone else didn’t, and when he was persecuted for refusing to bow before false gods. At the same time, he learned to trust in God and His perfect plan, and that even in the midst torture, God planned for that to happen. My protagonist learned to trust in that plan even when he didn’t know where it would take him.


Later, I was worrying about the future. About my personal life, about my writing. It was getting frustrating and upsetting. But I realized: I just made this character struggle with this, and he learned to trust God. Why aren’t I doing what he did? I just dragged that character through misery and heartbreak in order to teach it to him. Why am I not taking to heart what I strove to illustrate?

So I learned to trust God with my struggles. Mine were nowhere near the conditions my protagonist suffered, but the idea was the same: I learned through my own character to trust God when things were getting hard. My imagination and the story I crafted with it taught me that lesson. I think because I had been invested in the protagonist’s life and outcome, the message hit a little closer to home and was able to leave a stronger impact. So writing and reading fantasy both have the potential to teach and challenge. They’re a great source of entertainment, but they’re also a great source of faith.

By pulling the real into fantasy, we can be directed to the reality of faith through the story. The imagination can craft stories and adventures that provide a fresh look at Biblical stories and the messages that accompany them, as well as the principles taught throughout the Bible. It’s a treasure trove of material to be woven into stories, so they can reach further to readers and teach and even challenge them to reach higher in their faith. When the stories involve complex characters and high-stakes plots, the message will come through all the stronger.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: The Shadow Throne (Jennifer A. Nielsen)




Note: Contains some spoilers.

With very little time to recover from his stay with the pirates, King Jaron is now forced to begin preparations for war. But with war coming at his country from three sides, Imogen captured, and his armies spread thin already, Jaron is pushed to his limits mentally and physically, and even though he has strategies, it may cost him a lot more than he is ready for.

The Shadow Throne is the culmination of the Ascendance Trilogy, and the plot urges Jaron and his readers onward at a steady pace, with the worst possible scenarios closing in around them. The few people Jaron can trust are spread all across the country and outside of it, and it adds strain to his responsibilities. We’re just never sure if Jaron has a plan, what it is, or if it’ll even work. Jaron receives blows physically and emotionally, and it leaves him nearly crippled.

What makes this mystery about our lack of knowing Jaron’s mind, at times, interesting is how it’s from Jaron’s point of view, in the 1st person. So we see his thought processes, feel his physical and emotional pain and stress, but at the same time we don’t see his plans all the time. We’re left in the dark as to what exactly the young king is plotting, and only when it plays out do we see what Jaron had planned. It’s almost as if Jaron is truly telling this story to an audience and, true to his mischievous personality, deliberately withholds information from us and makes us eager for answers, waiting until his big (and usually dramatic) reveal. So on one hand we can be worried for Jaron, but on the other hand we suspect he has a plan.

Jaron is, as I’ve said before, an amazing main character. I often fall for the side characters, but Jaron is among the few main characters that have caught my eye and interest and made me kind of swoon (yes, it happens. ;) ). He’s incredibly witty and gives off a devil-may-care attitude, which make people lose their patience with him and consider him incompetent, especially when he does not divulge his reasons for the orders he gives. He’s quick to think and act, but he calculates it with decent accuracy. He also has his flaws, and these combined with his witty tongue make him rather charming. Jaron struggles to cultivate friendships, or understand them fully. While he does try to shield his emotions sometimes, he also doesn’t make a big effort to conceal them, especially when he is with Mott or another of his close friends. He knows his weaknesses (physical, emotional, mental) and he works to compensate for them.

The villain, King Vargan of Avenia, doesn’t make many appearances, but his presence is heavy on Jaron and his friends in the form of his armies and allies. It’s clear that Avenia alone could overpower Carthya, but Vargan makes it worse by recruiting the neighboring countries of Gelyn and Mendenwal. King Vargan himself is malicious and cruel, and with all of his power, it doesn’t seem that he has any weaknesses. He’s close to completely crushing Carthya and its Ascendant King.

Mott, again, is an amazing side character. He is Jaron’s loyal friend and bodyguard, and refuses to leave Jaron’s side unless firmly ordered (usually more than once). I love characters like Mott, strong, incredibly loyal, a close friend and confidant, but also a kind of mentor. He teaches Jaron what it means to truly love, to truly serve. Yes, Jaron drives him mad and I’m pretty sure he would lock Jaron up if it meant keeping him safe, but he is also respectful of Jaron and his title. His character doesn’t go through a lot of development, but his presence in Jaron’s life is really nice to see.

One of my favorite things about this trilogy is how there’s no presence of magic. It’s a high fantasy story, but there’s no magic in it. In its place is political and military strategy, and it makes the trilogy different, I think, than other fantasy novels. Another aspect, overall, was that all three books were clean of profanity (it is referenced, but I mean here that it’s not in the dialogue itself)  and sexual content (bedroom scenes specifically). I enjoy books more when I don’t see those elements in a story, and it was nice to find a story without those elements.

***

Violence/gore: A lot of bloodshed, since there is war, but it’s not described in detail. Jaron is cruelly abused and beaten, but again it’s not detailed.

Sexual content: Two characters share a few kisses.

Profanity: Only referenced.

Other: Jaron lies often to the enemy. There may be characters who drink wine or other strong drink (I don’t remember if there had been any instances, but it’s probable).

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Beautiful People: Westly "Wes" Hawkins



Wheeee Beautiful People is back! :D Because April was Camp NaNoWriMo (think normal NaNo, but with customized word goals and cabin mates!), the linkup was delayed. But now Cait and Sky are back for May, and I'll be introducing a character from the blog serial Fence Jumpers (so some of you may know who he is ;) ). While Wes isn't the MC, he plays a major role, and he's full of sarcasm and swaggering confidence. Fence Jumpers is a dystopian story set in Cincinnati, where the mayor is building something shady, and the Fence Jumpers, under the guise of juvenile delinquents, go about trying to expose his plans. When siblings Skyler and Hannah join them, things go nuts.


How often does he smile? Would he smile at a stranger?
Mm, not often. At least not a genuine smile. A smirk is more his thing. He likely would not smile at a stranger. Wes doesn’t trust strangers.

What is the cruelest thing he’s ever been told? And what was his reaction?
I don’t know… perhaps when he was told why his father was never around, why his mother was alone. It didn’t affect him at first, but over time, he become angry because of it. He got into some bad stuff, letting his bitterness influence his decisions.

What is the kindest thing he’s ever been told? And what was his reaction?
Kindest… probably what Hannah told him once. That he’s a better role model to the younger Fence Jumpers than he gives himself credit for, despite his past. His reaction? Likely a smile, and they kissed twice. It gave him a good confidence boost (at the time he was running low on that).

What is one strong memory that has stuck with him from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
The death of his older brother Kurt, and the day he almost killed himself. Both events were from drug overdose. When their mom died, Kurt began using, and his death led Wes down that same road. Kip saved him from that life when Wes tried to kill himself. It’s stuck with him, and it’s helped shape him to become a young man who tries to help the younger Jumpers from that lifestyle. He knows what it does to a person, and he works hard to keep the kiddos away from it.


What book (a real actual published book!) do you think he would benefit from reading?
The Bible. For real, as much as I love the daylights out of my Jumper, he needs the Bible. It would help a lot, especially with dealing with his past.

Has he ever been seriously injured? How severely? How did he react?
I’m not sure… I wouldn’t be surprised if he has been, maybe a broken nose or limb (it's an occupational hazard). He’s still able to run and leap fences, so it’s probably not too bad. He probably took it bravely and acted as if it didn’t hurt like crazy, even if it does indeed hurt like crazy and he's ready to pass out.

Does he like and get along with his neighbours?
If his neighbors are the Jumpers (and later Coyotes) he lives with, it probably depends on the person. He wouldn’t show much affection for them, but you lay a finger on any one of them and he will explode in a fury of fists. He can rub people the wrong way, but he’s usually only sarcastic and snarky.

On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being easy and 10 being difficult) how easy is he to get along with?
Haha, probably a 7, maybe. If you just push past the sarcasm, he’s alright, but he knows how to push buttons when he wants.

If he could travel anywhere in the world, where would he go?
Far, far away from Cincinnati. Far from busy cities, and somewhere with open stretches of field and quiet woods. Somewhere safe, somewhere he doesn’t feel threatened everywhere he turns.

Who was the last person he held hands with?
Probably Hannah. Most definitely Hannah.

Images found via Pinterest.


What do you all think of Wes? If you've read the story, do you like him? Hate him? Feel so-so about him?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review: The Runaway King (Jennifer A. Nielsen)




Note: Spoiler for the first book.

It’s been only a few short weeks since the orphan Sage revealed himself to be the missing Prince Jaron of Carthya. Jaron is now king, but that doesn’t mean anyone likes it. His regents are discontent with this new development, as Jaron doesn’t quite seem like king material. To make matters worse, the kingdom is being threatened, and Jaron can’t seem to rally his regents to back him up to fight and protect his kingdom. When the regents demand a steward in Jaron’s place, Jaron knows he needs to take matters into his own hands in order to stop Avenia and the pirates from destroying Carthya.

The Runaway King picks up shortly after The False Prince, and the conflict of the story begins within the first chapter. We learn the source of the conflict quickly, and it’s the start of Jaron’s goals. The plot is tense and engaging, with plenty of action and a liberal dose of Jaron’s witty sarcasm and saucy behavior. At the end when the action seems to be winding down, finally, for characters to breathe, they and readers are jerked onward by a sudden twist, enticing us into the third and final book.

Jaron is as sarcastic and saucy as he was in the first book. He tends to come across as a king who doesn’t seem to care about things as much as he ought, and his sarcasm and sass irritate more than they do amuse. But when it comes down to it, Jaron is a king who would do anything for his kingdom, even if it means dying for it. He assumes his street orphan name once more and joins the pirates, and even when things aren’t at all in his favor, Jaron refuses to run. He sees his plan through, even when even he admits it’s a really, really bad plan. And behind the sarcasm and the immense courage, Jaron is afraid. He hides it for the most part from everyone but his closest friends, but with a first-person POV we see that he is terrified at times. He even hates his plan, but as king he knows it’s something he must do in order to protect his people.

The villain, Devlin, is a good one. He doesn’t really stand out, but he’s ruthless and rough. He shows a little bit of admiration for Jaron’s gutsy mouthing off. Another villain, Roden, stands out a little more. He’s after revenge, and he’ll even challenge the pirate king to get at Jaron himself. His own development later on is interesting, and while it did seem a little sudden, it still makes sense.

While this character wasn’t in the book very much, I still loved his scenes. Mott is the one person who could probably get away with scolding the king for being a stupid, incorrigible boy. He’s as loyal to Jaron as Jaron is loyal to his kingdom, but while he’s respectful, he doesn’t let that keep him from being straightforward and bold with his king. His and Jaron’s relationship is strong. Jaron lets himself open up with Mott, letting his friend see his fear and his moments of humbleness (one wouldn’t think of the word humble to describe this boy!). And in turn, Mott continually affirms his loyalty to Jaron, and offers him his advice and counsel (whether or not it’s taken).

Like in The False Prince, this fantasy story has no traces of magic. It is quite clearly set in another world, but it has no magic, no wizards or spells. The political intrigue and strategy takes the place of magic, which plays a role in the suspense and gives Jaron and the plot a time constraint. It’s an interesting approach to fantasy I haven’t read before, a world without magic, but at the same time it’s fascinating.

***
Violence/Gore: There is an assassination attempt on Jaron’s life. Jaron gets into a lot of rough fights, and he’s wounded more than once. A character breaks the leg of another. Characters are murdered but nothing is described in detail.

Profanity: Only referenced.

Sexual content: Jaron and Imogen make it appear as if they’re hiding in the bushes for romantic purposes while trying to escape the pirate camp. One serving girl at the pirate camp makes it sound as if Jaron had done something inappropriate with Imogen, who had warned the girl away from him.

Other: Liquor is consumed. Jaron steals from a man who gave him a place to sleep and eat. He also tells a few lies, usually to conceal his true identity.