Posts filed under ‘Fantasy’

2011 World Book Day Pick: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds by Barry HughartBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Reviewed by Mr Jason Erik Lundberg

My book pick for 2011 World Book Day is Barry Hughart’s masterful 1984 novel Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was. Here’s why.

Despite the book winning the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Mythopoeic Award for Best Fantasy, it has largely gone unknown and unremarked upon by the majority of fantasy readers. It was apparently successful enough for two more novels to be written about the protagonists Master Li Kao and Number Ten Ox (The Story of the Stone in 1988, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1991), but for all intents and purposes the books have dropped into obscurity. The Stars Our Destination Books released an omnibus of all three novels in 1998, called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, and ten years later Subterranean Press re-released the omnibus in both trade hardcover and limited leatherbound slipcased editions.

The novel takes place in seventh-century imperial China, but an alternate fantastical version of China (what Hughart refers to as “An Ancient China That Never Was”). In the small village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho lives our narrator:

My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong, I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.

On the fifteenth day of the eighth moon in the Year of the Dragon 3,337 (A.D. 639), after the annual silk harvest is inexplicably destroyed by blight, all the children of Ku-fu between the ages of eight and thirteen mysteriously fall into a coma from which they cannot awaken. Number Ten Ox is sent to Peking (Beijing) to find a wise man who can help them, and comes across Master Li Kao, an unkempt and grizzled old sage with “a slight flaw in his character” and a mischievous glint in his eye.

What follows is a masterful quest to find the Great Root of Power, a ginseng root with the ability to awaken the children from their unnatural slumber. Along the way, they run afoul of ghosts and monsters, navigate treacherous labyrinths, trick riches and information from the heartless and miserly, avoid the murderous gaze of the dreaded Duke of Ch’in, and find themselves wrapped up in a centuries-old conspiracy that involves immortal wise men and the August Personage of Jade himself.

Hughart’s prose vaults the reader through a spectacular and unexpected chain of events, and always with a sly nod and a wink, and dialogue that is often laugh-out-loud funny. Old as he is, Master Li has the sharp wit of the Smartest Man in China, and his observations and rapport with Number Ten Ox reveal a playfulness that comes across as hilarious. Even when they are in the most perilous of situations (which happens quite a bit throughout the novel), Li and Ox are the paragons of buddy comedy, which helps to diffuse the often horrible and over-the-top things that they must endure on their quest.

This is a book written by an American about ancient China, and so it is up to the reader to decide how authentic the voice and the story are here. (This is an especially apt challenge for our students, who have much more contextual knowledge of Chinese culture, literature, and mythology than I do.) However, that said, the book feels as if it rings true; both in the telling and in the details that Hughart chooses to give, it is evident that he did a tremendous amount of research and showed an equal amount of respect for Chinese history and cosmology. I welcome comments, especially from students who read the book, about the book’s authenticity.

Regardless, Bridge of Birds is a book worth discovering and keeping alive through discussion and recommendation. Kong Chian Library has multiple copies of Bridge of Birds for student borrowing; copies are also available to buy at OpenTrolley (but stocks are low, so be sure to order quickly).

N.B. My pick for 2010 WBD was Neil Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book, which I described thusly: “A remarkable retelling of The Jungle Book, but one set in a graveyard where the orphaned boy is brought up by ghosts. Nobody “Bod” Owens learns the important skills of Fading and Fear, but out beyond the graveyard still lives the man Jack who killed Bod’s family, and is waiting to finish the job. Scary and wonderful and full of masterful turns of phrase. An instant classic.”


April 15, 2011 at 11:22 am 4 comments

Review: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

The Lost HeroThe Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
Reviewed by Jeremy Yeo (4P1)

The Lost Hero picks up several months after the events of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and introduces three new characters: Jason, an amnesiac who happens to be the son of Zeus; Piper, Jason’s “girlfriend” and a daughter of Aphrodite; and Leo, Jason’s best friend and a son of Hephaestus. While undertaking a dangerous quest to rescue Hera, the Queen of the Gods, the trio battle sinister new monsters and cross swords with some of the most notorious humans in Greek mythology, all while trying to rediscover Jason’s lost past.

I personally found this book a welcome change from the first-person perspective of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, as this story is told from the third-person viewpoints of the three protagonists instead. More of Greek mythology’s monsters, heroes and villains have been intricately woven into 21st century society, which was both amusing and interesting. A must read if you are a fan of Greek Mythology.

Addendum by Lu Wen Hao (2I3):

This book is another one of Rick Riordan’s classic thrillers, packed with wit, action and heart, full of the usual wry humor and nonstop action that never fails to disappoint. The book is crammed with plot devices and subplots, such as the gods who drift back and forth between their Greek and Roman personas. Riordan has proven that his storytelling is as polished as ever with The Lost Hero, by bringing Roman gods into the mix as well, and giving them slightly different personalities. In a way, this serves to make the plot more complicated and interesting by letting the readers to stretch their imaginations.

Long story short, this is a book that readers of the fantasy genre would love, and I strongly recommend it to avid supporters of fantasy and thoughtful readers who reflect on their personal favorite stories.

January 19, 2011 at 12:27 pm Leave a comment

Review: The Beast House by Richard Laymon

The Beast HouseThe Beast House by Richard Laymon
Reviewed by Aaron Lee (4P3)

The Beast House, Richard Laymon’s eighth book, combines horror, mystery, and romance into a suspenseful and frightening story. School librarians Tyler and Nora are driving along California’s highways to look for Tyler’s old boyfriend, a small-town cop named Dan Jenson. Along the way, they find out that Dan is now working in Malacasa Point, and they pick up two additional riders, a pair of discharged Marines named Abe and Jack.

At Malacasa Point, the group comes across the Beast House, a creepy tourist attraction and the site of several grisly murders. It is here that Tyler discovers that Dan was killed during a routine patrol, and that Gorman Hardy, author of Horror of Black River Falls, has a connection to the Beast House and the torture and murders enacted there.

I liked the cinematic quality of Laymon’s writing style, making his story feel like a movie. He uses many specific details to describe the actions of the main characters and the appearances of the beast itself, thus enabling the reader to imagine them vividly.

However, there were two things that I disliked about this novel. First, some of the characters only show up once, and then the reader never sees them again. One significant example would be the driver who attacks the two librarians at the beginning of the novel, and then disappears. Secondly, Laymon focuses only on the relationship between Tyler and Abe, which may be a turn-off for readers wanting to know more about the other characters in the novel.

The Beast House is able to generate genuine fear in the reader, as the author is able to describe the scenes in the novel well. Thus, if you really love reading suspense stories, this book might be suitable for you.

January 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm Leave a comment

Review: “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez

Leaf Storm“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”
from Leaf Storm and Other Stories by Gabriel García Márquez
Reviewed by Foo Yang Yi (2I4)

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a story featured in Leaf Storm and Other Stories, a short story collection by Gabriel García Márquez. This particular story is an example of magical realism, where fictional elements (for example, magic) are used in a realistic atmosphere to perhaps understand reality.

This story depicts the arrival of an old man with wings in a seaside town or village, perhaps in a medieval setting due to the behaviours or actions of the characters. Naturally, this attracts the curiousity of the local residents, who either treat him as an angel, or simply have fun at his expense, usually by doing things like offering him papal lunches, or throwing him mothballs, fruit peels and breakfast leftovers as how they would treat a lowly animal. Eventually, at the end of the story, the old man departs, leaving some people feeling slightly relieved due to the hype that was caused while he was still around. This story might be a children’s story as Marquez claims it to be, but there are indeed many sides to it. Throughout this story, we are shown the antics of the villagers, their attitudes and good or bad sides, and other incidents (for example, the woman who is turned into a spider), as well as traits that apply to most human beings that we can observe while reading this story.

While there aren’t many of the typical elements we might see in a story, like a rising/falling action or a climax, the narration requires us to pay attention to the details for us to understand what is going on, and perhaps pick out what we observe. For example: “Pelayo and Elisenda were happy with fatigue, for in less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims still waiting their turn to enter reached beyond the horizon.” I feel that details such as these are the more interesting parts in the story due to their showing of the more common, yet perceived as despicable, human traits.

While this book is entirely fictional due to its use of fantasy elements, the traits of the villagers parallel those of actual people (for example, their greed). Pelayo fences in the area and charges people five cents per entry to see the old man, and in the end is left with rooms crammed with money. Others do not seek individual gain, but gains for the community at large, such as making the old man the mayor, or giving him the position of a five-star general to win all wars. Some also treat him with insensitivity, like holding him captive in a chicken coop among hens, while having fun at his expense: “tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.” In the meantime, the old man is the only one who does not actively participate in these events, but merely tries to make himself comfortable and ignore the villagers. This tactic is disrupted when they burn him with a red-hot iron to try to induce rage or pain, therefore showing hardly any care for what he feels.

In conclusion, I think that this particular story is very interesting, and I recommend this for fans of the fantasy genre as well as for those who reflect a lot on what they have read.

July 14, 2010 at 11:46 am 1 comment

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl's Moving CastleHowl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Reviewed by Keith Low Sheng Hng (3H1)

Howl’s Moving Castle tracks the life of Sophie Hatter as she gains self-confidence and follows her destiny through many trials with an evil sorceress, a handsome wizard and a fire demon.

After being magically transformed by the Witch of the Waste from a young lady into an old crone, Sophie escapes and finds work as a cleaning lady at the moving castle of the wizard Howl. Eventually, she realises her own magical power – being able to bring life to inanimate objects, just by talking to them – and manages to remind the reclusive Howl of his humanity, an act which enables her to return to her original age.

This book revolves around the themes of youth, destiny and love. By using certain juxtapositions between each character’s different approach to several central themes, Jones draws parallels to the reality of the differing personalities and depth of character and how this might be applicable to the differing personalities we have in reality. Furthermore, the book deals with issues such as self-confidence. Sophie, who was born as the eldest of three daughters, often thinks that she is jinxed for life. On the contrary, she has skills that allow her to sew clothes that can charm anyone and talk life into otherwise inanimate objects.

Interestingly, Jones employs many references to established works. Sophie’s surname, Hatter, might be derived from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Similarly, the Witch of the Waste might be a pun on the Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Such references add colour and depth to Jones’ book, allowing the reader to fully understand and appreciate the fantastical elements that she is making reference to.

However, the reader might feel that the book’s conclusion, the last ten pages or so, is slightly rushed. In addition, it is only at this point that Jones starts to explain all the sub-plots more clearly. If the conclusion had been developed more thoroughly, it would allow the reader to empathise more clearly with the characters and the book. Furthermore, if the sub-plots were explained consistently throughout, it might have allowed the exciting plot to sink in better.

Those who have watched the movie adaptation of the same title might find the plot in the film significantly different from what’s found in the book. Expect to see a slight change in the characters as well. However, Miyazaki’s movie adaptation still proves to be equally delightful. His input of themes such as redemption and problem-solving, and the Victorian setting, add much to the film’s charm.

July 11, 2010 at 11:48 am 4 comments

Review: The Novice by Trudi Caravan

The NoviceThe Novice by Trudi Caravan
Reviewed by Koh Jian Way (2A2)

In the second book of the Black Magician trilogy, the Magician’s Guild gathers once again to purge the city of undesirables. But a young girl penetrates their shield and secures a place in the Magician’s Guild.

“Even if a magician’s powers surface of their own accord, he will soon be dead if he does not gain the knowledge of how to control them.”

Novices from the Magician’s Guild are expected to come from rich families, but Sonea is the exception, born to the city’s slums. Her lowly origins are a deterrent to friendship, and a source of antagonism from Regin, who sees himself as her rival. The public battle between Sonea and Regin forms a high point in the novel, keeping the reader gripped with anticipation. Yet despite Sonea’s background, she is more powerful than her great ally,  Lord Dannyl, the newly promoted Guild Ambassador.

The Novice shares similarities with the Harry Potter series. Like Sonea, Harry Potter is an orphan who grew up with his non-magic relatives; he also comes from disadvantaged beginnings. Another similarity is the rivalry between Sonea and Regin, which parallels that between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

I was surprised at the relationship that bloomed between Lord Dorrien and Sonea; the setting is not sufficiently detailed to describe the sudden relationship that developed between them. Some foreshadowing and subtle hints may have more appropriately laid the groundwork for the development of the characters’ feelings for each other, so that the relationship did not feel so sudden.

But all in all, this book is highly enjoyable. I highly recommend this book to all fantasy readers.

July 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm Leave a comment

Surreal Botany and the Singaporean Connection

Just to toot my own horn here for a moment: I just discovered that Quarterly Literary Review Singapore gave a glowing review to A Field Guide to Surreal Botany (an anthology I edited with my wife Janet Chui, published by Two Cranes Press in 2008; her illustrations for the book shortlisted her for the World Fantasy Award for Best Artist) in their January 2009 issue. The review is by Leonard Ng and is called “A Postmodern Naturalism“:

At first glance it seems to be a fairly formulaic concept: solicit a bunch of botanical articles on imaginary plants, sort those articles by geographical region, add some watercolour illustrations, and there you go—a pretty little postmodern book. The whole thing, frankly, sounds like the sort of too-clever idea which would work much better as an intellectual exercise than a completed work. It is, therefore, rather a surprise that A Field Guide to Surreal Botany succeeds at all.

Yet succeed it does, and more than that: A Field Guide to Surreal Botany is a delight from start to finish.


[F]or all the book’s simulation of a document from the past, one cannot get away from the fact that it is printed on decidedly modern acid-free paper. The weathered age spots call attention to their own artificiality by virtue of the very material they are printed on: acid-free paper does not, after all, spot and yellow in the manner of older wood-pulp papers. This book is indeed very much a document of a more contemporary time: the article on the Twilight Luon-Sibir (Russica spectrata) makes reference to a 2006 botanical expedition, and the Esemtep is a plant which is, in fact, part computer—a cyber-botanical organism. This collision between simulated past and simulated present is symbolic of the aporias which form the conceptual core of the work: a place where science fiction and fictional science blend into each other, and where reality and imagination call each other into question.

Since the book’s publication in July 2008, it has been reviewed in major genre magazines such as Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy; in highly-respected blogs like io9, Chasing Ray, The Agony Column, and Bibliophile Stalker; and, to my great delight, in the peer-reviewed journal Science. But I’m also incredibly pleased to see a review in QLRS, because of the book’s relationship to Singapore.

Though Janet and I conceived of the book whilst still living in the USA, it wasn’t until after we moved to Singapore that we finished compiling the entries, and she began the arduous task of illustrating each specimen and designing the book’s layout. Once we’d finished assembling the book, we tasked local printer KEP Media (who also design and publish HCI’s triannual newsletter Panorama) with printing the book. And when we wanted to celebrate the anthology’s release, we did so at local literary bookshop BooksActually, who were gracious enough to help us launch the book and invite much of Singapore’s currently working writers to make us feel a part of the literary scene.

The book is available in Singapore at BooksActually and Select Books; if you would like to acquire a copy, I highly recommend that you patronize one of these excellent independent bookshops. Janet and I will be happy to sign copies upon request.

(As a side note, my novelette “In Jurong” was published in QLRS in October 2009.)

April 3, 2010 at 5:54 pm 2 comments

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