Monday, November 25, 2013

KING by R. J. Larson

King is a 2013 young-adult fantasy novel by R. J. Larson, the conclusion to her Books of the Infinite trilogy. Here, King Akabe marries into a pagan family to obtain the land to rebuild the Infinite’s temple.

The Infinite himself sits most of this one out – that’s kind of the point, but without all the prophet business, the first half or so of the book is little more than a bunch of political intrigue and self-indulgent feel-goodery, and it doesn’t feel fresh.

Hand-in-hand with this is the plotting, which is a relatively serious issue here. There’s significant padding, as in the other books; Larson spends time on plots that every reader knows aren’t going anywhere – and then brings sudden and anticlimactic resolution to the series’ ongoing romantic subplot. King has no real overarching plot: the book meanders along without much cohesion, and there’s nothing remotely approximating a climax.

All the threat and doom that hung over the protagonist in the first two books is out the window; it’s obvious to the reader by this point that Larson has no intention of following through on any of it. Never mind the contrivedly feel-good ending; in contrast to the first two, there’s not an iota of suspense in this book.

One of Larson’s strengths is the way she handles her multiple lead characters. King has the largest cast in the trilogy, and Ela, Kien, and Akabe are all, for the most part, sympathetic and compelling. (A number of characters are, from time to time, too stupid to live, particularly in terms of their relationships, and Kien and Ela spend a good portion of the book being nigh-insufferable together, but these aren’t quite deal-breakers.)

While Larson did a pretty good job of not being preachy in Prophet and Judge, King feels a little more sanctimonious as Larson gets her characters proselytizing. Many action scenes are not at all well described, which softens the impact of the book’s events. Larson also continues her annoying tendency to change scene right before the end of a chapter in a cheap attempt to manufacture suspense.

On the balance, though, throughout the trilogy, Larson has done an effective job of executing her premise, managing to incorporate God as a character without beating the reader over the head too badly, without making the story too predictable or unforgivably deus ex machina, and without raising too many theological red flags for the Judeo-Christian readership. In this regard, the Books of the Infinite are noteworthy.

King, then, is the weakest entry in a generally solid series that started fresh and full of potential and was generally satisfying in that regard, even as it was content to cling exasperatingly to the safe and saccharine paths of young-adult storytelling.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

THE SWORD OF SHE-RA by Roger McKenzie and Fred Fredericks

So here’s one that slipped through the cracks on me during the Mammoth Read-Along Masters of the Universe Marathon: 

The Sword of She-Ra is a 1985 Princess of Power children’s book written by Roger McKenzie and illustrated by Fred Fredericks. Here, Prince Adam takes the Sword of Protection into another dimension to find its rightful owner.

This book is, essentially, a severely abridged adaptation of the first half of Filmation’s The Secret of the Sword film. Substantial changes have been made (e.g., they’re rescuing Queen Angella from Beast Island rather than He-Man, and they get there on flying goats) and the story has been rearranged (e.g., they go to Beast Island before Adam ever finds Adora).

Aside from a single page with Hordak and Shadow Weaver, the named Horde villains are nowhere to be found – it’s troopers all the way through. One wonders whether this was done out of consideration for the PoP toyline or the delicate sensibilities of the young female audience.

Fredericks’ art is generally fine. He isn’t much for backgrounds and his male characters look stubby sometimes, but the female characters look good and the pages where he really applies himself are solid. The Horde Trooper are oddly colored, though. But an Earl Norem cover is always worth getting excited about.

The Sword of She-Ra is a passable version of She-Ra’s origin story, and it’s different enough from The Secret of the Sword that it’s worth checking out for that reason alone. Plus, where else are you going to see Cringer on a flying goat (sort of)?


Monday, November 11, 2013

PEACE ON EARTH by Mary Engelbreit

Mary Engelbreit’s Peace on Earth: A Christmas Collection is a 2013 children’s book, her celebration of what she loves about Christmas.

This isn’t a collection of stories—Peace on Earth is comprised of the text of various Christmas hymns, the accounts of the birth of Jesus from Luke and the visit of the magi from Matthew, and numerous poems and short essays from other authors, all with illustrations and borders by Engelbreit.

This latter is, of course, why nearly everyone who picks this book up does so, and Engelbreit’s art is quite good, as you’d expect. Her style is distinct, her colors are warm and vibrant, and, with the exception of the fact that she misspells “magi” in one of her illustrations, everything looks excellent.

But while the art is great, the text is largely unimpressive and uninteresting. The hymns we know already, and many of the poems—nothing else really stands out, and you can read through this book in about five minutes. Neither my wife nor my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, both of whom are big fans of other Engelbreit works, were particularly impressed with Peace on Earth, although they did enjoy looking at the pictures once or twice.

Peace on Earth is perfectly good if you’re looking for a collection of Engelbreit’s Christmas art. But don’t ask it for any more than that.


*  *  *  *  *

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, November 4, 2013

JUDGE by R. J. Larson

Judge is a 2012 young-adult fantasy novel by R. J. Larson, the second in her Books of the Infinite trilogy. Here, Ela and Kien are sent separately by the Infinite to proclaim repentance to two idolatrous nations.

Judge gets off to something of a slow start, for a number of reasons – too much chit-chat, too many story tangents, too much treating the horse like it’s an interesting supporting character. Ela is still insecure, questioning, and fatalistic – it doesn’t seemed like she’s learned much from the events of Prophet (it also gets tiresome for the reader, who has a pretty good sense of how these things go – this is, after all, a trilogy).

The second half of the book is considerably better, however, as the plot finally meanders to its destination. Siege, famine, persecution – these books do better the more serious and the more grim they get. And yet Larson has trouble juxtaposing the horrific events in the book with the PG rating she’s imposed on the story, and she always errs on the side of the latter. And while it feels that Larson takes the path of least resistance with the story (one that leads in a decidedly cheesy and feel-good direction), there’s some truly suspenseful and compelling writing here.

All things considered, Larson does an impressive job of telling a story of this sort without being too preachy (mostly) and in keeping some of the outcome uncertain. However, whereas in Prophet, Larson adopted the general prophetic mode of the Old Testament to tell her own story, in Judge, she appropriates OT stories and story elements more explicitly. She borrows extensively from the story of Jeremiah, which works well enough in her framework, but she also takes the vast bulk of the Jonah story and Elisha’s floating axe head. R. J. Larson, please stop doing that.

In short, it’s got some problems, and it plays things a little too safe for my taste, but Judge is nonetheless worthwhile.