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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Review: Living Next Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson

Note: From this point on in the book reviews I'm going to be reading short stories between books from various anthologies that I have. So, occasionally a post will pop up with a short story review on it, and then that same post will reappear with a new story added, until I finish that particular anthology and do a overall review for it.

Now to the review of this particular book.
This was one of the hardest books for me to get into. The opening is so utterly bizarre that I hadn't a clue what was really going on until around page 200--about halfway into the book. The story is basically as follows:
Francine is a young teenager who has run away from her world to another world. She's running away from her life where love has failed her, hoping that she might find love elsewhere. It's there in Sankhara that she meets Jalaeka who turns out to be a splinter of the god-like entity called the Unity. But Unity wants Jalaeka back and is willing to do just about anything, even destroying entire sidebars (alternate worlds), to get what it wants.

I really did like the concept for this. The sidebars/worlds are all these fantastic places where fantasies and dreams are realities. Some places are like breeding grounds for super heroes and villians; others have elves and other mystical creatures. All these worlds completely unique to each other.
The problem with the novel isn't this concept, but with the way that Robson presents everything. The beginning is a blob of information and world building that doesn't make hardly any sense at all. I got lost so many times trying to figure out who the heck is who and why the hell these characters that are supposedly human are acting so, well, inhuman. I'm still baffled by that myself. Is there something about Jalaeka that makes people suddenly in love with him? I'm sort of lost there. Part of the issue is the overwhelming amount of character viewpoints. At first I was used to the simple three--Jalaeka, Francine, and Greg--but then Robson adds in Valkyrie, Theo, and Rita too, later on in the novel. This is all just too much. I can't keep concentrated on the concepts that are very deep and already difficult to grasp when I'm forced to jump around character to character.
In all honesty the novel only started getting interesting to me by around page 200, and it had me somewhat hooked for about 100 pages, but Robson managed to kill it again for me by going off on random almost useless tangents about past lives or some such that actually have so little to do with the story at hand. Unity is freaking out trying to get Jalaeka, trying to destroy his friends to get to him, etc. and then Jalaeka is trying to fix his friends because Unity has translated Greg (meaning assimilated basically) and the only thing that can fix it is the Engine. Then fooling with the Engine screws everything up and the entire world of Sankhara starts going down the tubes, and right in the middle of all this we are graced with a flashback session. Why? There is no reason for it. I don't care about Jalaeka's past at this point, some 300+ pages into the novel, because quite frankly there are far bigger things going on--namely the destruction of an entire world!
In the end the novel leaves so many questions unanswered and the sense of persistent confusion at what exactly happened and why. While her writing style is rather poetic in nature, it doesn't do anything to soften the blow that is this novel. It's a tough read. There's nothing exactly easy about this. I found myself wanting it to end already so I could move on. Several times I wanted to put it down and stop reading. I wish this had been written far differently with more believable characters and a plot that centered around the central theme rather than running off in random directions. As such, this isn't exactly the great novel it's being toted as by NY Times and the Guardian.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Chapter Twenty Four: Of Night and Dark Dealings

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James heard the sounds before he looked. They were close and he imagined that he could actually feel the breath of wicked monsters along the nape of his neck. Powerful howls forced him to close off his ear canals. He’d heard them in the distance moments before, but now they were immediately behind. There were screeches unlike the Nu’thri, like children screaming at that unnaturally high pitch, inhuman. Then there was the sound of the Nu’thri, screeching in protest somewhere farther behind.
Then he looked, chancing that brief moment when the trek ahead seemed without obstacles. His heart leapt into his throat, his stomach too, and he gulped frantically to push them down. The beats of his heart became wild with fear and terror. His skin crawled with goose bumps and every hair on his body, except the ones on his head that were far too heavy to move, stood up at attention, while his pupils became narrow like lifeless circles embedded in his skull.

The creatures that followed were far removed from being human, yet at the same time they bore disturbingly human characteristics. The three beasts in the lead of the pack were wolves, but not ordinary wolves. They were larger than any man James had ever seen with obvious muscles flexing and rippling down their flanks. They ran on all fours, but hobbled on their two front legs as if they could run on both two and four legs. Long snouts, enshrouded with thick, oily, silver fur met with jaws filled with sharp yellow teeth, monstrous in every way. Spittle dribbled from their lips and their eyes were unnaturally blue as if they were dead. The fur ran all the way down their flanks to stretched, bushy tails; claws dug deep into the earth with each movement and their snarls filtered through the air of other sounds. James knew immediately that these were werewolves.
The landscape rushed by as he rode, the soft ashen earth bursting alive at each hoof beat. Iliad led him one way, and then another, winding around small fires that thrust new ash and black smoke into the air, flames lost in the dark and only noticeable by the sounds and the continuing motion of new burned material. The air became suddenly warmer as Iliad led on. When James took in his surroundings again he saw massive fires burning everywhere—a hot spot. The flames were visible and rose up into the sky like hungry fingers. The sounds were deafening, so much so that he could hardly hear the sound of his own steed plowing along.
Howls came again from the rear. He peered once more, saw the beasts, and turned back. Fear engulfed him. They were going to catch up, there was no doubt in his mind. The steeds were fast, but not fast enough.
Mirdur’eth turned sharp right, following Iliad, and then sharp left, and back again. They wound around a huge flame, the heat causing a sudden tinge of pain on James’ face. He leaned away and then they were away from it.
Then all stopped. On both sides of them were flames and molten ash festering in tiny pools. Ahead the flat ground abruptly gave way to a tall cliff face too steep and high for anyone to climb. The cliff was obsidian all the way up, dark and shimmering with the light from the fires. James turned Mirdur’eth, catching Iliad’s eye and seeing the panic in the man’s face. He saw Pea and Darl too—sweat trickling down to their chins—and Triska with her soft, motherly complexion turned into a dirty and stern parody of her former self.
He knew instantly that they were trapped, even as he turned and beckoned Mirdur’eth to gallop in the opposite direction. The werewolves were there first, waltzing out of the shadows and black plumes with wicked grins upon their faces, if such a thing were possible. Heads low, mouths frothing with anticipation, they ambled forward and covered the only escape route, spreading out across the small expanse of open space. Their eyes gleamed with the flickers of orange flame, turning their unnaturally blue eyes into sinister moons reddened by the path of the sun. Each were entirely the same, no distinguishing marks whatsoever. Yet it was the one in the middle that seemed to lead as it took a few steps and let out a mighty howl, leaning its head back as it did so. A moment later and the other two followed suit.
“Dismount,” Darl said.
“Why?” Iliad clung to the reigns as if they were his only hope of survival.
“Werewolves have no regard for other living things. They’ll kill the horses and Blaersteeds without thinking twice. A meal is a meal to them.”
Iliad seemed to concede, moving his gaze from Darl to James, and then to the three werewolves, now pacing back and forth as if contemplating the best action to take next.
“At least we have magic on our side,” James said with a fake grin, then hopped off of Mirdur’eth.
“Not really,” Pea said, dismounting. “Werewolves are resistant.”
“And cunning.” Darl drew James’ sword for him, handing the hilt over. “A scratch can be healed, but if any of you are bitten after this is over I will not hesitate to kill you.”
Pea grimaced. “I thought you would say something of that nature. The feeling is all too mutual my grumpy friend.”
James lifted his blade, feeling the weight. It felt no different in his hands than it had days ago, yet doubt in his abilities appeared in his mind and stuck. The corrupted Masters were easy, he thought. They had no physical weapons, just hands and teeth. This is different. Too different.
I’m not ready.
Magic flowed like a river next to him; Pea and Triska were pulling it up from the woodworks. Then he too tugged at the magic within him, and his Fearl. For a brief moment he forgot, having not used it in days, then it all came back to him and he found himself channeling huge portions to his hands. Iliad appeared beside him, bow drawn.
“Wait for them,” Darl said, sword at the ready, his body shifted at such an angle to allow for maximum motion. “Let them make the first mistake.”
“Remember. They’re resistant. Try to use the environment to your advantage.”
“It’s all dust,” James said.
“Still, it might be good for something.”
James hung on to his magic, feeling it winding through his fingers and wobbling back and forth between his hands. His blade shimmered and sung as if it were being rubbed on its edge by a violin bow. He watched the blade and the strange shimmer. It didn’t glow, but it seemed to have a light of its own that flickered as if sunlight were hitting it. The part that confused him the most was the sound. Even as he moved his hands the singing persisted. Then, he found the connection. His magic was leaving his hands in small amounts, rolling up the edge of the blade and back down again. He didn’t bother stopping the flow. Whatever the reason for it, the blade seemed tuned in to him like a radio to a perfect frequency. The blade looked newer because of the connection as if it were freshly cleaned and sharpened. The others noticed it too, Pea most of all, but neither of them looked at him for more than a brief moment.
Then from the shadows, appearing as black shades, came two strange figures covered in billowing black robes. The cloth flittered in the wind, exposing its mild transparency and giving the air of something neither living nor dead, nor something attached to the physical world. They had no faces and no true limbs, only blanks spaces where those things would be; their motions were fluid and serpentine, gliding through the air, back and forth as if they were swimming. Behind them appeared the Nu’thri with Iliad’s arrow still embedded in its shoulder. Its gleaming face slithered low to the ground and its tongue flicked from tooth to tooth hungrily.
“Those are specters,” Iliad said. “Protect your hearts.”
James thought to say something and then stopped dead as the three werewolves bounded towards them. Their motions were swift, but arduous, as if all their muscle and strength prevented them from moving like a true wolf. Jaws were extended, opened wide to expose pink tongues flecked with blackened skin. The lead werewolf roared and leapt into the air. It launched up with surprising speed and height and came down with claws ready to grab.
Then all three were in the air as the two specters and the Nu’thri came behind cautiously. James sensed magic, but unlike his own and strangely similar to the presence he had felt outside of the barrier. It seemed cautious and made no attempt to invade his mind. Rather it seemed to hover beyond the werewolves, controlled by the shadowy figures there.
James started and came out of his reverie. He didn’t know who had spoken to him, but when he looked up he saw the lead werewolf coming down at him. He instinctually pushed his magic out, imagining it becoming a wall. A transparent curve shot forward and collided with the werewolf, and exploded in a whiff of smoke just as quickly as it had made contact, leaving the werewolf at nearly the same speed as it had been before. He lunged sideways as it came down. One of its claws nipped his side, but he ignored it and tried to roll onto his feet.
“Resistant,” Pea screamed, releasing a torrent of dust particles in the face of one of the other werewolves. It yelped and clawed at its face and only barely managed to dive out of the way as Darl came down on it. The third werewolf cried as an arrow bore into its shoulder, but it didn’t stop.
James faced the lead werewolf. Someone cried out nearby but he didn’t take his eye off of the creature before him. It watched him, breathing heavy breathes and growling at the same time. Then it roared and ran at him, leaping onto its back legs and raising its front limbs like human arms. He raised his sword and prepared for the strike. His mind raced with doubts and fear. Sweat trickled down his face and back, arms and legs. He shivered.
It reared back and swung its arm at him. He cringed for a moment, unsure what to do. Dust suddenly wrenched itself up from the ground and poured into a makeshift wall, solidifying around the werewolf’s arm. It let out a furious howl.
“Fight you stupid boy,” Darl said, bellowing as loud as possible over the howling and roars.
James gulped back his fear. The werewolf pounded on the dust wall. He pulled his sword back and swung with all his might at the giant clawed hand, covered in fur, muscle, and pulsing veins. His sword struck, embedding the blade deep into the bone. A massive scream came from the other side of the wall and then a series of bangs as the werewolf pounded on the dust and tried to yank its arm away. Before he could do anything the wall crumbled like a sand castle and the werewolf tugged him forward and wrenched the blade from its wrist. Dark red blood poured from the wound and dribbled down the edge of his blade. It looked at him indignantly; its cold blue eyes narrowed.
Triska slipped into view, temporarily drawing the werewolf’s attention. She looked haggard as if she had spent the last few moments running around. Her face was a grimace.
Then James sensed her magic. Warmth came over him and washed away the doubts, pushing them into the back of his mind. His shivers dissipated, as did the terror, yet the fear lingered there. Then more magic came and the werewolf roared in protest as its wound opened farther. It clawed at its hand and wrist, further damaging the flesh. Blood came out in rivulets now, streaming down its fur and arm uncontrollably.
James could see the rage in the werewolf’s eyes. It stepped forward and scratched the ground, uplifting dust in his face. He stumbled back as Triska continued her magic; the werewolf backhanded him in the chest. He coughed and flew sideways, landing with a soft thud and sliding several feet. When he opened his eyes he couldn’t see; his vision was blurred and gray. A human yelp sounded close by, a sound he knew came from Triska. Then deep, watery breaths whispered by his ear. His eyes watered. He wiped and opened them. Everything was a blur. He could see figures moving about, things flying through the air, and the unmistakable large shapes of the werewolves. Then he turned towards the breaths. There the two specters moved counterclockwise in the air, surrounding him as the Nu’thri moved closer.
He stumbled back on his hands, pushing himself away, but no matter what he did the two specters stayed close. He saw their faces now, only they weren’t truly faces, but emaciated transparent impressions of faces that looked as though they once existed, yet now were expressionless and featureless—blank slates. Then one reached out to him with hands that had suddenly appeared connected to arms that shifted in and out of vision. He instinctually lurched away and swung his sword haphazardly. The blade glided straight through, causing the arm to simply dissolve and re-grow. It reached farther and farther, aiming for his heart.
James panicked. His mind raced with the desire to run. Fear was there, but no terror, no chaotic thoughts. Something Triska had done to him made him forget how much danger he truly was in. He couldn’t see past the initial fear that he needed to get away. Beyond that his thoughts were blocked.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had let his magic slip away. It no longer graced his hands or flowed through him. His initial terror and the dust in his eyes had forced him to lose concentration. He channeled the energy quickly. The hand came down as he struggled to find the energy again. His heart skipped, or at least he thought it did as terrible pain and then numbness attacked his chest. He tried to cry out, but nothing came from his lips. He felt as though something were gripping his heart, holding it still.
Something materialized in the shadowy cloth of the specter. James looked up as the black tatters of cloth pushed away and a massive ghostly head appeared. Long teeth protruded from its face. They were too long for the specter’s mouth, jutting out half of their length in every direction. It had no eyes, only blank spaces where they should have been. It opened its mouth and hot breath hit him in the face. The stench of death—rotting flesh, blood, decay, and all manner of things rotten—wafted over him and left moisture on his face. Another invisible hand gripped his heart; the second specter was doing the same from behind. Then the specter in front leaned over and James came to the realization that the teeth in its face were undeniable real.
The Fearl glowed bright now, something it had not done in a long time. Magic slipped into his grasp, all of its own accord. He grabbed it and tugged. Strange voices, speaking in snake-like sounds, shouted in his mind. There were too many to count, all speaking in unison.
Lifeless, they said. The heart. Ours. Become one of us. Give in.
James managed a faint yelp as he harnessed the magic. He tried to push the voices out, but couldn’t. His heart skipped again; the hands pulled tighter and his heart rushed faster.
You will not die. Live forever. Become one of us. Live forever as lifeless.
“No!” He managed to scream it as loud as he could as his breathing began to falter. Then the magic ripped through his hands. He couldn’t be sure what he was doing, but pain issued from every inch of his fingers as the magic tore its way out of him. Images flashed in his mind—his images—but he couldn’t make sense of them. Fire, serpents, and walls of black.
Then the earth around him shook. The specters sniffed the air as if they could smell whatever it was that was coming. Before they could move great hands formed out of the dust, rising into the air and gripping the two specters. They screeched an earsplitting sound. The dust hands tightened and relief came to James’ heart as the specters let him go. He saw the apprehension in the Nu’thri’s movements as it leaned back slightly.
James couldn’t control the magic. His hands bled, long gashes lacing every tip, digit, and palm. The two dusty hands leaned forward and then abruptly slammed into the earth. The specters cried as they were crushed into the ground. With each motion his true hands hurt more and more and the gashes reached to his wrists and then his arms. A tremendous scream shot out from beneath the dusty hands, which had covered the two specters, and then the specters were silent—dead as something dead could be. His magic hands rose back up and then popped out of existence, sending ash and dust into the air.
Magic still flowed from his hands despite his best efforts to stop it. He tried to stand; his hands screamed with agonizing pain. The pain slid up his forearms as the gashes tore more and more. Somehow he managed to get to his feet, shakily. Then pain shot through his toes and the ball of his foot and he stumbled over and down to a knee. He looked around in an attempt to get his bearings. One of the werewolves had fallen, a long gaping cut through its throat, and another roared angrily as ash and obsidian shards formed shackles for its wrists and legs. The lead werewolf struggled with six arrows embedded in its chest.
James saw Triska lying in a heap nearby. For a moment he thought she was dead. Then she breathed and shuddered and he let out a sigh of relief. His magic slowed, but it still came out in waves, causing shivers to issue up his arms. The dust and ash around his feet shifted with the pulses.
A strange cloudiness came over him; his mind became disturbingly numb as if he were in shock after being hit in the head. Sound dissipated to murmurs of nothingness. A new pulsing appeared, throbbing in his head as if his mind were trying to pump blood too fast. The veins on his forehead flinched and he found himself leaning over until he started to topple. Hands reached instinctually, but with his mind so numb he couldn’t feel the pain anymore. Then he sensed it lingering in the back of his mind—the ancient magic. It moved through his mind like smoke through a screen, through all the tiny holes of his defenses. The numbness increased and he went from blind to blurry to clear, and to blind again. Fighting proved useless. It shoved aside all his mental blocks, thrust itself into his mind, stealing images of things he had never seen before like a computer virus. Someone appeared beside him, but he couldn’t look at them. He felt the pressure of his clothes being tugged, but he couldn’t seem to move his head. His eyes stared blankly forward and spit fell from his mouth.
He heard voices again, like the specters only deeper and more sinister.
Zagra calls. Zagra calls.
He wanted to speak, but all he could manage was a faint groan.
The one who rides in the shadow of the dead. Become one of us. Join the shadows. Join the dead.
In the corner of his eye he saw the Nu’thri standing fully upright on its emaciated legs, its bones all visible beneath the ethereal blue glow of its skin. Its mouth was open, gaping like an azure tomb. Its eyes were blank. James saw the images again—fire, serpents, and walls of black. He flinched, his eyes stared forward and sudden surges of magic poured through his hands. Something told him that his wounds were getting worse, but he couldn’t feel any of it. One of the massive fires burned crystal clear in his vision.
Then, something stirred in the flames. He tried to gulp, but couldn’t. Fear trickled through him even as the ancient presence pushed through his mind, trying to bat down the last of his blocks to reach the energies that controlled his ability to live. The flames shook and then surged out in a mighty cylinder, becoming an enormous serpent with long fangs. The serpent surged towards James. Fear surfaced in his mind, but not his. Sound came back to him and he could hear the serpent roar. It turned violently sideways and then slithered swiftly towards the Nu’thri, which leaned farther back.
James sensed more magic flowing. The serpent and Nu’thri collided, magic striking the flames and turning into clouds of smoke. The serpent continued, pushing and reaching for the Nu’thri. Magic became sparks and sparks became stretched streams of molten ash. Then the jaws of the serpent closed around the Nu’thri. Light flashed; the serpent screeched. A new flash shined and then the serpent exploded in a wave of fire and ash leaving behind nothing, not the Nu’thri, not anything.
The fire settled or disappeared and the connection ceased entirely from James’ mind. He slumped over and landed with a thud in the soft ash and dust. All feeling returned and pain surged up every inch of his body except his chest. There were gashes in nearly every place and blood trickled from all them. Weakness slowly came as the magic ceased moving through his fingertips. There were voices and then Pea, Darl, and Iliad appeared in his vision. They looked down on him, but not with faces of concern for his wellbeing. They were faces of fear, fear of him, of what had just happened. They too were bleeding. Small cuts were on their faces, arms, and midsections. They each looked haggard, spent, exhausted.
As his vision began to become blurry, James heard Triska limping forward. She appeared in his vision, pushing the others angrily away. He smiled faintly. Then everything went completely dark and he dropped away from the world.

Why "I" Would Sell Out Like Paolini

Apparently the community of Eragon haters is increasing throughout various avenues of the literary world. I'm sure many of you have already noticed this, and many have jumped on the wagon. Some of you are like me where you just don't care what the rest of the world thinks because you take it as a personal attack on your integrity when people question your ability to like or dislike a book. There are still others that truly battle to the end with people who have apparently spent the ridiculous amount of time to analyze a book that they apparently hate with a passion--a group of folks that continue to baffle me. I'm not a fan of the LOTR books, but I certainly have not taken it upon myself to analyze the living crap out of the novels just to simply get my point across that I don't like the books. It's a personal opinion, nothing more. Generally speaking I consider myself a critic, and like all critics, I have a select cast of people who like books like me. I offer an avenue to perhaps find new books that fit into the mold for such people to peruse, since most of us are not magically connected to the hip of big SF/F publishers and don't have the option of getting advanced reading copies of all the latest releases.
Having rambled sufficiently enough now, I'll get to my point. This all came up on TeenageWriters during a very similar Eragon bash fest as I have seen in various other avenues all over the Internet. Granted, it is not nearly as thorough or hateful as the anti-Eragon websites where people that apparently have nothing better to do with their lives sit down and read the book cover to cover, over and over again, and then resort to actually digging up statistics from ancient times to apply them scientifically to a universe that can't exist in the real world in the first place. If you can't see that as insanely absurd, then you probably shouldn't read further.
Now, one of the things that came up was a discussion of Paolini's success and the overall impression I get is that he basically sold out to the market or some such. It involved plenty of hate for the cliches and such.
I'm here to say that I would gladly sell out in much the same manner if it means that I'm going to be read and admired by fans across the world. If selling out means I get a best selling novel, or two, or three, or hell twenty, and have a following of devoted fans who, while very much as absurd as the haters, spend their lives analyzing and learning every little niche of my world, then by all means I would gladly sell out. If selling out means I get to sell 8 million books and get a magnificent opportunity to see my work put on the big screen, then you better believe I would jump on that opportunity. My dream is to be a published writer and someone who can make a living as a writer. But if selling out means I get to write something I enjoy, that others enjoy, and makes me successful, then I am more than willing to do that.
And for the record, this is not directed at any individual, but something that has been swimming around in my head ever since I saw that anti-eragon site on the net. I've been thinking of writing this rant for some time now, and the TW thread pretty much gave me the spark to do it. A further note, I doubt any of the members on TW actually did the extensive reading as the anti-eragon sites have, but likely took much of their information from such avenues. I don't believe anyone at TW would waste that kind of time because I get the impression that most of them have adequate lives and can leave a book they dislike well enough alone in the end.
Okay, now that is all.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix

Initial Thoughts:
I was enthralled and disappointed in the film. On the one hand I think they did a good job bringing together many of the important aspects of the book. They managed to capture Umbridge very well. Staunton is absolutely perfect as Umbridge. In fact, I can't imagine anyone else playing her. She made me hate her as much as I hated the character in the book (that's a good thing mind you). She captured the twisted evil that is the Ministry of Magic. As a movie I can see this as being a fantastic film. The pace is very tuned and once again there is a fantastic cast. While the direction is surely not perfect, as a film it is rather good. As an adaptation, however, it is terrible. That's to be expected though, and if you are fooling yourself into thinking that Hollywood might one day do a really great book-to-film adaptation you should probably seek help. Hollywood has yet to accurately portray a book on the big screen, so it's no surprise at all that this would turn out to leave behind extremely important aspects from the book.

Now for what I usually do in regards to films--grading. This is done as follows. There is potential for 5 points in each category: direction, cast, score, adaptation, writing, and visuals (CG, etc.). Here goes.

Direction 3/5
As I mentioned, the direction is not perfect. This is very evident in various scenes where a good use of direction could have made things more convincing. One scene is where Fudge proclaims "he's back". To the audience that's like a big "well duh..." moment. This is partly a writing flaw, for writing that line in the first place, and a directional flaw. The director should have seriously looked at that scene. Fudge should just have looked surprised, maybe collapsed. There is plenty of liberty that could have been taken with that scene.
Generally speaking things seem fairly smooth in direction. It's not nearly as good as Columbus--back in the good times for the series--but it will suffice for the next film. Hopefully for book seven they bring back Columbus and Williams though. While good, it's far from what it could be. Being smooth isn't enough--the wow factor gets that 4th star, and the super wow factor gets the 5 (thanks Peter Jackson for making me realize this).

Cast 5/5
There is no doubt in my mind that the producers of this series were right in their choices for the different cast members. We all know full well the ability of the actors that were picked to play the main characters, and they are well noted for their rolls. Stuanton, who plays Umbridge, is the perfect person for the position, as I mentioned. While I am upset by the change in Dumbledore's due to Harris' death, I can say that at least this new Dumbledore stays consistent. Actors for Lupin, Mad-eye, Tonks, and many many more continue to prove that they are perfect for the roll. This is solid, folks, perfectly solid. There is little room for failure in the casting. They did a great job and it continues to show.

This is where I think the film takes a huge fall into no-man's land. Yes, there was yet another change in film composers, and this time it is so glaringly noticeable in the score that I almost wanted to scream out loud. John Williams, the guy we've all heard of, started this all off by creating truly original and memorable music for the first three films, and he left behind that legacy for Patrick Doyle in the fourth film. Now, with this new composer (Nicholas Hooper) who has taken the foundations left to him and completely destroyed them. We get minor glimpses of Williams' foundations, but I am mostly disturbed by the almost complete absence of the main theme! How can you possibly leave behind the power and useability of that memorable theme? And how does giving us a little moment of it in the beginning of the film enough of a tribute? It's not. The score is dismal, not because it isn't original and interesting, but because it has almost nothing to do with the feel of Harry Potter. It sounds, ironically enough seeing how Hooper is British, like a score written for a Nicholas Cage action movie--like National Treasure. It's so American sounding that it made me cringe in the theaters (both times mind you). Electric guitar does not belong in Harry Potter, not by any stretch.
To add to that, there is this complete lack of understanding of space and silence. Several moments in the score when things seem dire or quiet, or for some reason some sort of low emotion needs to be presented, there is almost nothing interesting going on in the music, just low, inaudible tones without substance. This is unacceptable.
I hope they bring back Williams soon. The soundtracks are degrading at an alarming rate now.

Now, I mentioned it already that one should not expect greatness from a Hollywood adaptation. This is still the case here. While the story is still strong, it's not the full story. So much is left behind so there can be this bare bones plot to cling to. A simple half hour of additional footage could have added depth to the world--further depth really. I'm not going to go into this part much more simply because those that are loyal to the books know exactly what has been left out here. It's usual to leave stuff out and all of us should understand this, but when half of the story is gone that's a whole different issue.

Now, generally speaking the writing wasn't all that bad. The lines were good enough, but every so often there would be moments where you really just thought it was corny or annoying. One of the scenes I thought hurt the story was the one where Dumbledore explains himself to Harry. That could have been written so much better in such a way to make Dumbledore look wise, but in such a way that he can still be wrong. Instead, it was written to portray him as somewhat of a fool.
Otherwise, the script is good enough. It gets the job done.

As usual, the visuals were stunning. Great landscapes, amazing sets, and of course wicked CG wizard battles! How freaking awesome it is to see Death Eaters shooting through the air like fluid blobs of black smoke, and the good guys doing the same as white almost Patronus Charm style smoke. Light and magical explosions are completely fantastic here. In fact, I think this is one of the coolest magic battles of all time--the one between Voldemort and Dumbledore. Likely this will be outshined by book seven. But the blazing sparks and fire and all of it are just so amazingly cool to me. Top marks for this because they managed to do something quite powerful here. And the Kestrals were amazing too!

Overall 3.2/5
It's a good film, but it has its flaws. Hopefully these will be rectified in the upcoming sixth film and hopefully all the kinks will have been worked out by the seventh. Obviously there will be kinks in the adaptation, but we can live with that can't we? Definitely worth seeing in theaters since the visuals will surely make everyone leap with joy and the story itself is fantastic. That and we all seem to have a fascination with how these kids are growing up in such a bizarre and amazing world.
Kudos to Harry Potter.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

I'm not one of those folks that waited in line at night for the last 5 books to come out. I'm also not one of those that started out in the beginning, or latched on to the popularity as the movies came flying onto the big screen. Ironically enough, it wasn't the story that drove me to Harry Potter originally, nor anything to do with Pottermania or the first film. It all started at Barnes & Noble, many years ago now. The first Harry Potter movie was coming out in theaters and my sister was a fanatic. I wasn't much into the books, and didn't really care. In fact, I think I was rather adamant about how 'stupid and ridiculous' they were. Then I saw something in B&N: the soundtrack to HP composed by none other than John Williams. I about took a dive at the counter because, well, I love John Williams. He is, by far, one of the greatest modern composers of our day, and possibly of all time. So I bought the soundtrack, on impulse, knowing full well that it was going to be completely amazing, as all his work is. And, it was, as I had hoped. In fact, it was better than completely amazing. His compositions were spawning a new foundation of greatness for Williams. I thought to myself, I have to see this stuff in action. I went with my Sister, Aunt, and Grandpa--who had actually been reading the books before Pottermania even started. And I was stunned! It was an amazing film and story!
Then started my ascent into greatness. I picked up the book soon after and I was hooked. I read the first three one after another and waited anxiously for my sister to finish off the fourth. I read that and then the fifth and sixth as they came out. I saw all the movies too and became one of those that said, "They're alright, but not as good as the book", which is entirely true. Then I pre-ordered the seventh, anticipating desperately to read it, praying and hoping that it would be a great end to a great series.
And, it is!
To say that J. K. Rowling has managed to captivate the minds of children almost everywhere would be like saying the Bible has influenced people. She has managed to pull together this fantastic final volume to the HP sequence with flare and amazing tenacity.
The story takes off some short time after book six, towards the end of the summer before what would be Harry's seventh year at Hogwarts. But he, Ron, and Hermoine are not going back, as we already know. However, things are heating up. Voldemort and asserting his power, using the Imperius Curse and various other manipulations to control people within the Ministry. His army of Death Eaters is growing by the day and Harry must get to safety before the Fidelius Charm on his house fails and Voldemort can attack him.
Then, it's to the plan: hunting down the remaining Horcruxes, wherever they may be.
I'm not willing to spoil this novel for those that have not read it, because that would be rude and mean. But that's the basic plan. Voldemort is taking over; Harry has a mission.
The story starts off quick, diving right into the action, giving you a perfect view of things going on. We meet again with familiar faces, and then there is death.
Rowling is really pulling your heartstrings here. Granted, it's not like Dumbledore being killed, which literally tore my heart in two and nearly left me in sobbing fits, but she is doing her best to show you just how dark and horrible Harry's world is becoming. Of course, we all know how evil Voldemort is, having read the earlier books. Right? If you haven't read them, do so, or else I might be forced to use the Cruciatus Curse on you. CRUCIO!
Now, this novel is huge, clocking in at just a mere 759 pages. And there is plenty of fantastic stuff going around. You get a true sense of just how dire Harry's situation is becoming, and how close he is to not only losing everything, and just how far away and hard it will be to succeed on his mission.
This is a tantalizing end to the series. While I have to admit I was left with so many questions, I find that many of them don't really matter, because the most important questions have been answered: Is Snape really bad? Is Dumbledore really dead? How will Harry beat Voldemort, and can he? I was curious to know what happened to the Dursley's or Hermoine's parents, but not enough to ignore just has gripping the story was. This is Rowling pulling together a decades worth of writing and you get the impression that there could be more. I hope there is more. I really do. She leaves it in a position where she could very well write more novels, perhaps not from the perspective of Harry, but perhaps another character.
If you are weary of this last volume, don't be. It will really pull some twists on you. You'll be surprised by many things, I assure you.
And, so, as things come to a close, I find myself suddenly saddened. The novel was fantastic, amazing on so many levels, but I find that now I have nothing to look forward to. Will there ever be a series that could capture the worlds' attention in such a manner as this? Will there be a novel that people line up at bookstores for hours before release? I don't know. I pray there will be. This is the end to one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. May the literary world take this moment to shine.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Chapter Twenty Three: Of Shadowy Lands

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

When James woke he knew immediately that he was not truly awake, but in a dream. He was in a large room, surrounded on all sides by a circular wall of stone bricks. There was no door and the ceiling flickered in and out of transparency, exposing a night sky peppered with blazing red stars. He wasn’t alone in the room, for Luthien sat on a stool on the opposite end, legs propped up on a shiny oak table. A long, wicked grin was across his face and his milky white left eye stared off into nowhere while his right eye remained fixed on James.
James shivered, took a step back and found himself against the wall. He had no way of knowing if the dream was simply just a dream, or something more. He wondered, in that brief moment, if he could possibly have some sort of connection with Luthien, allowing this dream to occur.

Luthien stood. He was gargantuan, or so James thought for a moment as the black iron clad man’s shadow crossed the room. Tiny wind, like little hands, flew into the room, blew around, and left. Luthien was fully upright. Black gauntlets covered his arms, a pitch dark cape drifted behind him, pushed along by the new gusts of wind, and his shoulders were broad and dressed in sheets of metal. The armor range as it shifted. It seemed light on Luthien, despite its heavy appearance.
Then Luthien stepped forward, his metallic boots making a loud, echoing clang on the stone floor. His armor rustled as he walked, creating a clattering sound across the room like a dull wind chime, eerie and altogether vagarious. Luthien held his hand out and James recoiled against the wall again. Voices came at James now, from all directions. Some of them were vaguely familiar, like the voices that seemed to have attacked him when he tried to slip away into paralysis at the wrong time. They whispered sharply at him and amongst themselves. Luthien came closer and at each step he pushed back against the wall. Fear took over every motion. He saw the dark hand of Luthien coming, the twisted milky eye staring into him and away from him at the same time. It was a horrid thing to look into. The pupil seemed to float in the white bubble that was the eye and ripples seemed to pass over the surface.
Then something struck James. It wasn’t Luthien, but whatever it was he became suddenly aware of the nothingness above becoming light. Another strike…
James bolted awake. He looked up into the early morning light, however dim in the shadow. The stern face of Darl looked down at him. He refocused his vision, looking Darl clean in the face.
“What did you dream?” Darl said angrily.
“Wha…” was the only thing he could manage to get out. He was still in limbo between the sleeping and waking worlds. His speech slurred.
Darl repeated with more strength and a jerk. “What did you dream?”
“Luthien,” he said, “again.”
“It’s your connection to the Eye. He’s searching your future.”
“Searching my future?”
“Yes. That’s where the nightmares are coming from.” Then Darl stood up.
Pea appeared a moment later, holding a pouch of water up reassuringly. James took it, drank, and handed it back. “They’re not nearly as bad as they could be. Luthien is, well, rather well trained. The use of his Eye could do a lot more harm to your mind.”
James blinked as Pea tapped him gently on the forehead.
“In any case, try to block him out. Remember, it’s a dream.”
He nodded a slow, agreeing nod. “How accurate can he be with the predictions?”
Pea sighed. “They say that he is never wrong. But what they say may not be reality.”
“They being people?”
A nod.
“Luthien wouldn’t want to let anyone know if he had weaknesses.”
“Right, so logically he wouldn’t let on that his ability to predict the future is flawed in any way. I don’t think he can see everything. That’s far too much power for any one man to take without going absolutely crazy. Then again, Luthien isn’t exactly sane.”
“No, he’s not.” He took in a deep breath and brush away the last bits of sleep. “Where did he get this power?”
“If I knew that I think this war would have been avoided.”
James thought about that. It made sense. If someone else could get the ability to see the future too it could very well negate anything that Luthien was doing; the two powers would cancel each other out. But nobody else had that ability, as far as he knew and as far as anyone else knew in Traea. Luthien would continue controlling lands that once belonged to others—the kingdoms assimilated into Angtholand and forgotten and those still standing and being taken—so long as he could predict and adapt to what the future told.
“He can see the future for anyone?” James cocked his head sheepishly.
“Well, that’s entirely based on the minds of a collective mass of peoples of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Needless to say, such information is just as fallible as the theory that pixies aren’t intelligent enough to be considered people.”
“But that’s…”
“Absurd. I know. I’ve met enough pixies in my travels to know that they can think just like the rest of us. They just put off an air of inferiority to trap unsuspecting idiots into their traps.”
“And you’ve never been caught?”
“Well, sort of, actually, not exactly…”
He giggled and put his hand over his mouth. He had meant to say something entirely different than ‘absurd’, but whatever it was he was going to say was lost to him now as he tried to control his laughter at Pea’s discomfort.
“Oh, of course, laugh while you still can my friend. Pixies are no picnic!”
“I don’t doubt it.” He grinned wide.
Pea returned the grin. “I’ve been stunned a few more times than I would like. It’s not exactly conducive to increasing ones pride.”
Together they shared a short laugh before Pea turned away to pack his things. Iliad was not in the dip, but a moment later appeared over the edge along with Triska. Dark colored dirt covered small patches on their arms, legs, and faces. They hustled down the embankment and rested near their packs for a moment.
“They’re still coming,” Iliad said, breathing heavily. “We’ll have to move through here and try our best to keep out of site. I need to be able to see the Scorched Path to make sure we get through quickly. The less time we spend in there the better.” He indicated the Fire Rim with a move of his head.
“Alright,” Darl said from behind James, fumbling loudly with his things, “then we move now.”
James stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow. Night sweats. His neck and shoulders were moist too. He ignored it all and quickly packed his things. Mirdur’eth turned to look at him and he gently patted the beast on the neck. Then something caught his attention. There in one of the panniers was the black egg-like thing that Triska had told him to hang onto. He glided a finger over it and it seemed to sparkle. A smile crossed is face and then he hopped up onto Mirdur’eth’s back and followed Iliad out of the dip. The others were behind him now. Mirdur’eth bobbed his big black head.
“See, patience pays off,” James said.
Mirdur’eth made a series of long grunting noises.
James wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, but he responded by saying, “You’re closer to the front of the pack now. Maybe Iliad will let you lead later.” Then he playfully patted Mirdur’eth on the neck.
Iliad guided them out of the dip and straight towards the Fire Rim. As they neared the vastness of what lay before them a chill went down James’ spine. They edged closer to the barrier, and then they crossed through. He had expected to feel the barrier, but there was nothing. It was almost as if the barrier wasn’t there at all.
The world that lay before him looked more frightening now that it had before. Ash fell from the sky like snow. The rumbles of distant fires sounded deep in his ears; cracks and booms like explosions rebounded off the earth and into his feet. To his left he could see a single massive fire burning nothing. The earth was barren here, covered only in ash and rock. There was nothing to burn, yet the fires burned with no signs of ever stopping. He stared into a fire nearby. The flames didn’t move from their place; he could see them burning and flicking upwards, but the base of the flames never moved, as if fixed in a single spot to burn forever. Strange howls came from beyond, through smoke and all.
“Remember,” Iliad said, yelling loud and clear, “stick together and under no circumstances do we separate.”
Then they were moving along, going up one way, and down another, and passing between fires and cliffs made of black obsidian. He wondered how Iliad was going to keep them close to the Scorched Path. He could see no path nearby. Maybe he remembers the landscape. That assertion seemed doubly absurd to him as everything looked drearily the same. There were no massive hills or memorable landmarks.
His concerns were answered some time later. Morning had pretty much come and gone, as they had been traveling for hours, and it was then that Iliad halted the group and dismounted. Iliad indicated for them all to remain there and then he was gone beyond a massive flame that spewed smoke and fresh ash everywhere. James didn’t much like waiting. In fact, the idea of sitting in Hell-brought-to-life made him more apt to continue moving. At the pace they were going he knew he wouldn’t see true light anytime soon. Then Iliad returned, his face far more ash-covered than it had been before. James gathered that Iliad had gone looking for the Scorched Path to make sure they were still on course. His face was barren, though, a look that suggested concern. The supply train was still growing, that much was certain.
They continued through the ash. The horses and Blaersteeds left behind hoof marks. Ash would fill them eventually. By late afternoon Iliad stopped them at the base of a curved cliff that provided some protection from the falling ash. They made camp there, though no fire was put up and nobody spoke much more than small talk. No one slept unarmed, even Pea, who carried with him a knife that could very well have been the size of a sword to a Littlekind. James slept and woke feeling as though he were in a horrible dream world, a nightmare. Reality came to him and before he knew it Iliad was leading again.
No living creatures showed themselves on the second day, much like the first, but loud howls, cries, and screeches came out of the shadows frequently. They were animal in nature, some like birds and others like dogs.
The days slid by. One, two, three, and four. Night seemed to run together with morning, and morning with afternoon. It was impossible to tell when exactly the sun was rising and falling as the Fire Rim was in a perpetual state of darkness. They passed dozens more fires of all sizes—enormous and blazing, small like campfires, or like oversized bonfires. Iliad stopped them each night, or what seemed to be the closest thing to night, and each morning they were up and moving. Occasionally Iliad would halt the group and then disappear, only to return several moments later with the same grim look upon his face.
As the days passed the sounds of the things living in the Fire Rim grew stronger. At night James heard panting, like a large canine or a massive cat. Then something would howl in the distance, something else would whoop and cry in response, and the panting would be gone. The noises were strange, but what frightened him the most was that they seemed to be following he and his companions. Three nights elapsed and each night he heard the same panting at the same deep level, slightly feline and wholly menacing.
On the fourth night, while the others slept, James found that he could not bring himself to lie down. He propped himself up against a rock of round, melted ash and watched the night, dark but for a nearby fire that flickered and crackled. He listened, beyond the fire, beyond the usual strange sounds off in the distance. He imagined crickets for a moment, and then they too were gone, having never been there in the first place. Then, in all the silence he had created, he heard it. At first he thought it was his own breathing and his heart beating, but sluggishly it came into focus. He didn’t turn, at first out of fear, and then out of an instinct that came up from the woodworks of his body. His gaze wandered to the others, all sleeping and all utterly unaware of the sound behind him. It breathed in long, surreptitious breaths, a slight saliva filled burble beneath it all. Footsteps came, crunching delicately in the ash like boots to snow.
James’ heart raced, his breathing became erratic, susceptive. The thing was too close for comfort, unnervingly close. It dawned on him how familiar the breathing was. He was reminded of Nara’karesh, the Lyphon, and the way that creature had breathed, spoke, and even walked. This creature was uncomfortably familiar to him.
The thing came closer and James ideated that it stood right behind him, breathing damply down his neck. His mind played tricks with his senses; he mentally shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts, the fear. He silently fumbled for the hilt of his sword, found it, and brought it forward to his chest secretly. His eyes moved from where they had stared for so long—deep into the black of the night—and to his companions. None of them were awake, not even Iliad. He wondered who was supposed to be on watch, if anyone. He couldn’t recall if there had been a watch and that seemed ridiculous to him.
Then the thing came truly within his comfort zone and he could not longer sit still. He pushed himself up, out of his blankets, and all in one motion drew his sword, the metal shrieking as it came out of the scabbard. He used his momentum to whirl around lifted his sword, ready to defend himself.
To say that his jaw dropped when he saw what had been following them would be an understatement, provided that the human jaw were capable of falling to the ground. The creature could easily have been seven feet tall if it stood, but instead it hunched low to the ground, draped in long, billowy robes that were shredded as if a giant cat had played with them. Its legs weren’t visible and the way it bobbed so low to the ground suggested that it made little use of its legs to begin with. White hands that glowed with an ethereal, ghostly hue, protruded from its robes, dangling in the air with long, lifeless digits, nails cracked and pointed in multiple shards like bits of glass. Its face was a glowing pool of blue fire where two wide open eyes protruded like giant marbles, flicking side to side. It had no nose, only an open cavity where two holes exposed a milky skull. Where ears were supposed to be there were two bulbous masses that looked like infected skin, and the mouth was disturbingly large and filled with long, jagged teeth and a tongue that wandered within as if it had a mind of its own. All this bathed in the spiritualistic blue glow that emanated from every inch of its exposed body.
Then it screamed, crying a loud, earsplitting sound, leaning forward menacingly and opening its mouth unnaturally more. Its eyes focused on James; he stepped back. The scream alerted the others and in a matter of seconds Iliad was on his feet, bow drawn.
“Nu’thri,” Iliad said, half under his breath. Then Iliad pulled back the arrow held firmly in his hand so that the bow creaked with the strain. He let it go and the arrow whizzed through the air. The arrow thudded into the Nu’thri, striking it where its shoulder would be. The force of the arrow sent the creature careening back; it screeched, echoing its cries across the landscape.
James lurched back and then nearly toppled over as new sounds came out in the distance. Strong roars, screeches, and cries came, followed by answering calls in the same manner. They were drawn out, as if the creatures that made them were being called into action, organizing somewhere beyond. The Nu’thri screeched again. James flinched. It skirted away along the ground, winding back and forth like a worm.
“That would be our queue,” Iliad said, slinging his bow over his shoulder and turning concernedly to the others, “to move now.”
There was no hesitation. James shoved his things haphazardly into the panniers on Mirdur’eth’s side, pushing so hard that the sacks shifted abnormally on the left. He sheathed his sword and thrust it in its place, giving his steed a fearful look. Mirdur’eth remained silent, giving James an animals’ best representation of a comforting look. Then James mounted.
Iliad gave each of them a brief moment, and then, rapping his feet along his horse’s sides, he took off through the ash and smoke. Mirdur’eth made quick pursuit and James could only hold on and try to move with the steed’s motions. Hooves thumped in the ash behind, followed by eerie howls and malicious snarls.
He closed his eyes for a brief moment and mouthed a silent prayer.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Chapter Twenty Two: Of Reason Lost, War Rising

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

They rode for hours before coming to the bridge crossing over the Nor’kal River. The deep blue of clean water rushed by at surprising speeds, allowing little place for rocks or anything else to settle. Only a few enormous rocks that acted as supports for the bridge made homes in the speedy waters.

The wooden planks were purposefully woven in such a fashion to provide strong support for anything and everything that might want to cross. The bridge could support wagons, if needed, and James gathered from the markings in the wood that it was a well used path at one time. They crossed easily, the wood only creaking a few times in protest as the horse and Blaersteed hooves crossed, clanking and clinking along. Soon they were beyond the bridge riding through patches of forest, bushes, and tall grasses. A road quickly presented itself. It showed signs of lack of use—branches and bushes hanging over the sides and a lack of fresh tracks from people, animals, or vehicles—and it was here that James saw the distant Fire Rim.

It was a wall of smoke and ash, gray as the thick fog of the coast in the morning, gray as the night underneath thick rain clouds. There were great plumes of fire and black smoke that dotted the landscape there, ancient fires that had burned for centuries and would continue to burn for as long as the magical barrier held the flames at bay. He wondered just how it was possible that the fire could rage on for so long. Eventually the fires would lose their fuel as everything burned to bits. But, somehow the fires continued on as if fed by magic or something worse.
It suddenly occurred to him that he knew next to nothing about the Fire Rim, only the nature of its existence. It was a dangerous place, but he had no idea what dangers they would face. Will there be terrible monsters there, he thought. As much as he hoped otherwise, he knew that something dark and mysterious had to live there. It was a frightening place that would make a wonderful home for the frightening beasts he had already seen in his travels.
And, underneath all these thoughts and concerns were further thoughts, deep and untouchable. He feared for Laura. It would take them close to a month to get to Teirlin’pur. The distance was too great for even the Blaersteeds to ride continuously. They would have to stop and rest as soon as they reached the edge of the Fire Rim. He was weary of the journey ahead. With so much ground to cover and with Luthien nipping at their heels it seemed inconceivable. He wondered if more assassins would be sent their way, or if they would encounter them on the trail. They had been lucky at the Summering Rocks. Too lucky. He dreaded facing more assassins who could wield the Shadow Horses. Iliad had caught them completely off guard, and even James had surprised them with the fist of water, but James knew that they wouldn’t have that luck again. Word would have traveled, somehow. Luthien would know that he wasn’t a simple boy anymore, that he could use magic with force.
Luthien would know that he couldn’t be taken without a fight.
They crossed the bushy terrain easily; the horses and Blaersteeds made no sound along the way. North were the beginning formations of the Nor Marshlands—dark terrain, pools, swamps, and a faint smell of decay. The wind traveled southward strong enough to bring the scent with it. James didn’t pinch his nose or cringe; the smell didn’t bother him enough, but he got an idea of the type of terrain there. There was a swamp in Woodton. The town called it Burly’s Bog, but he had always known it as the Collective of Useless Waste because people used it like a dump. The water had come there due to some sort of irrigation disaster, something to do with an accidental divergence of the Stillwater River that let some of the water flow elsewhere. The excess water flowed into a slight dip in the earth where it created Burly’s Bog, much to the chagrin of one Alfred Burly who, at the tender age of eighty, demanded that the city pay for the damages to his backyard. The city asked him to move at their expense and he strictly refused, deciding rather to remain in his ramshackle home to torment anybody who happened to come by to have a look at the new ecosystem. Ironically enough that same ecosystem was made into a germ factory in a matter of days. No frogs made homes there and the mosquitoes were too afraid, or smart—James guessed the former.
The journey dragged on. Occasional conversations broke out. Discussions of random things like who would cook on the first night or who would tie the horses when they stopped. There was a general silence about anything of vast importance in the group. James could feel it and it made him glad. He didn’t feel like addressing anything that might prove difficult. He had enough on his mind as it was. They were leaving familiarity and entering a land full of people that had no apparent distaste for what Luthien was doing; they were traveling through a dead zone and they were doing it all under the radar of Luthien and his men.
After a time, as the light faded beyond the horizon and the landscape became thickly dark, Iliad halted the group and dismounted. He set quickly to putting up a fire and the rest dismounted and began to unpack for the night. James was the last to return to the ground. He hesitated at the reigns, eyeing the deeply black silhouette of the Fire Rim. Wariness came over him, a feeling of disappointment too as he doubted himself. He wondered if he had it in him to go through that place. Then the thoughts slid away as the sound of flames crackled and he was on the earth again, unpacking all he needed to get a nights rest.
He didn’t eat much, only one Fidget Fowl egg. A huge pile of them had been given to the group for the first couple days of the journey. Pea had prepared them as he had at Arnur and everyone ate graciously. Then James quietly tucked away under a gray blanket—bristly and mildly itchy—and listened to the sounds of the night and the conversation that he was not a part of.
“What do you think we’ll find when we get there?” It was Pea’s voice attempting to be quiet.
Iliad spoke next, even more hushed. “Creatures of the night. Daemonkind, Shiftkind, and the like. My Uncle didn’t tell you while I was away?”
There was a brief silence. James couldn’t see, but he knew that silence suggested someone was nodding a clear ‘no’.
“That’s unfortunate. He should have said something. It’s not like him.”
“He was busy,” Darl said.
“True.” Iliad let out a sigh. “It’s a danger zone. You know about the fire, the bad terrain. But I don’t think most realize what lives there. You see, logically, it makes no sense that anything can survive there. But werewolves, wraiths, specters, and Nu’thri live there.”
“Nu’thri?” Triska’s voice faltered in the middle of the word, but she managed to get it out.
“They aren’t nearly as dangerous as people think, but formidable enough. Very rare to see.”
“How rare?” Pea coughed.
“If we see one it’ll be a miracle. I’ve never actually seen one, but the last time I went through I heard their cries. I think they generally avoid what they don’t understand; otherwise they could have killed me and my horse. It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim without military escort.”
“It’s not all that wise to travel through the Fire Rim at all,” Darl said with a mumble.
There was a clatter of items, wood and something metallic banging against each other, and then Iliad said, “Is he strong enough for this journey?”
Their voices became more hushed and James had to struggle to hear. He shifted in his covers.
“He’s seen worse things than most men do in their lives,” Darl said, softly, sympathetically. “If he breaks now it would be a surprise.”
“I don’t think he realizes how strong he really is,” Pea said.
And then their voices trailed away, stifled by the crackling fire. James didn’t listen anymore, or try to for that matter. He looked out into the night, along the grass and bushes and into the skyline dotted with pinpoints of light. The stars were different here too, he noticed. No Big Dipper or Bootes. Then he closed his eyes.
When James awoke the sun had barely begun to come up over the horizon. It was still rather dark, though he could see. He wasn’t the first up, as he had not been at any point in time on his journey. Everyone else seemed to have a biological clock that worked like an old man’s, clicking on the alarm at god-awful hours of the day. His biological clock was still set to ‘vacation’ and he couldn’t shut it off. If the others let him he would sleep until noon.
He was up in a matter of minutes, packed and ready to continue the journey. Mirdur’eth and the other animals had found a comfortable home in the grass nearby, each lying down with their heads up and ears flicking back and forth, alert. James was so preoccupied with getting ready to move that he hardly noticed Iliad walk up and set a plate of roasted tomatoes and what looked like burnt bacon next to him. When he looked down his mouth immediately began to salivate. He wolfed down the tomatoes and examined the bacon like sticks. They smelled like meat and when he tested the corner of one it had the distinct flavor of meat, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what exactly it was and decided it didn’t matter and ate them without much more thought.
Darl doused the fire, kicking dirt and rocks over it. The flames puttered out and smoke floated upwards. Triska passed a warm smile in James’ direction; he smiled back. Then he mounted Mirdur’eth, who had stood and walked up to the dead fire. His things were packed and he was ready to move on.
The others mounted and then Iliad was leading again, and again Mirdur’eth protested.
James leaned over and placed his forehead on Mirdur’eth’s neck. “Stop,” he said as if talking to a child.
Mirdur’eth grunted, bobbed his head.
“Iliad knows the way,” he patted the steed on the neck. “Just let him lead.”
Another grunt and then silence.
James watched the terrain change as they came closer and closer to the shadow of the Fire Rim. They moved at a quick trot, making sure to cover as much ground as possible in one day. He knew how important it was to Iliad to avoid spending more time than necessary in the Fire Rim at night. Werewolves, he thought. They only come out at night. He shivered, but not because the idea of dealing with werewolves was altogether frightening, though it was, but because he found it hard to believe that werewolves existed at all. They were sheer creatures of nighttime fantasy back on Earth. He wondered what other creatures that he had come to know in mythology existed in Traea. Do vampires exist here? Walking gods, demigods, nymphs, chthonic creatures? He wondered if the Great Fathers had ever come to Earth in living form. Were they like the Greek gods?
They were closing in on the Fire Rim, yet it still seemed so far away. He could see the flames now of the larger fires, fires that burned deep red, flames licking the sky like burning devils. Dark smoke flew up into the sky in other areas. The low rumble of the fires could be heard, only barely. The sound filtered through the earth like a miniature quake. It was a sound of a fire that had raged unhindered, a low, deep, guttural shake as if at any moment the earth would split in two.
James continued on, following Iliad and the others. None of the horses or Blaersteeds faltered. He gathered that the Blaersteeds were too smart to be afraid, and assumed that the horses were well trained for combat. The sky turned into a haze as waves of heat purged the air. It looked like a giant wall of flames and smoke, impenetrable, dark, and unforgiving. He likened the great plumes to living entities, living beings that wound up into the sky in a mockery of the life cycle—living and dying and being reborn over and over again.
Then something flashed, small and barely noticeable. But he had seen it. He averted his gaze from the smoke wall ahead and looked down, along a mild slope to the very base where the magical barrier made invisible contact with the earth. The thing flashed again and in the distance there he saw something moving out from the shadows, a large thing as it was able to attract his attention and he could see it clearly. It was a wagon, guarded on all sides by a dozen men, soldiers clad in dark steel armor. The wagon came forward and behind it another appeared, and another.
“Supply train,” Darl said bitterly. “Luthien’s mad to take his supplies through there.”
Several more wagons appeared, increasing the line ten fold.
“They are well defended,” Iliad added.
Darl grumbled in response.
Before long the line of wagons and soldiers stretched for nearly a mile. Iliad guided them down the slope in the opposite direction, hoping to keep the group hidden in the shadows. James kept a close eye on the ever increasing line of wagons. None of the soldiers moved from the line or did anything that seemed suspicious. They hadn’t seen him and his companions.
After a few moments of hustling through the shadows Iliad paused beyond a flattened rock outcrop. The top of the rock looked as if it had been hewn off by a giant blade, an unnaturally flat surface. They were still a good distance from the edge of the Fire Rim, some miles away at the base of the downward slope. Night was falling, the light cascading across the landscape crookedly, pouring long streams of orange-red light over everything. A tinge of purple hung at the base of the horizon.
They dismounted and James took a seat at the edge of the rock formation, watching as the wagon train, still growing in number, drove up the slope beyond, the first few disappearing over the top. There were more soldiers than he cared to count. The mass of them molded into a continuous line alongside the wagons. It was like a long slithering mass of silver, a metallic serpent winding its way through the fields and trees.
“This puts strain on our plans.” Iliad slid away from the edge of the formation. “I don’t know another way through other than the Scorched Path and that supply train must go on for miles.”
“We’ll have to find another way then,” James said.
Iliad laughed mockingly. “Oh, that would be a treat. The Scorched Path is only safe because it’s the only path that takes you straight where you need to go. Out, you see. Maybe we’d find our way through without using it.” He threw his arms up. “But maybe not.”
“It has to be done.” Triska was slumped down on the ground. She wiped sweat from her brow. “No use arguing over it. We can’t go back.”
“Easy for you to say.” Iliad mumbled, letting the words trail off until they were silent. He watched the massive wall of smoke intently, a contemplating look that indicated just how concerned he truly was.
James turned away from the line of wagons and looked deep into the Fire Rim. There were clean spots there; spots where they could walk if need be where the smoke and flames wouldn’t cloud them. He hadn’t noticed such spots before. The wall of smoke had made everything there seem like a haze of dark colors, as if there was nothing else there. He eyed Iliad, trying to show with his eyes how important it was that they continue, even though their original plan had been foiled. Iliad noticed this and sighed.
“So be it,” Iliad said. “Be fast and stay low.”
Then together they grabbed the reigns of their respective beasts and followed Iliad down the slope in a southeast direction. James crouched as low as he could, but Pea had the advantage over them all. They moved swiftly across the grass, Iliad especially so. He moved with the motions of a fox, swift, sly and all together mysterious. His legs drove him forward without causing strain on his crouched upper body. His movements were barely audible, so silent that had James not been trampling the earth with Iliad directly in his sights he would not have known that the man was there at all. They were the movements of someone trained to stay hidden and completely silent. Almost too silent, James thought. Even for a scout.
They came to another rock formation, this one much smaller than the last and only capable of hiding a few of them and none of the horses. Iliad lingered for a brief moment, taking notice of the ever increasing supply line now some distance farther away. Then they were moving again. Iliad no longer crouched; neither did James. Once they were halfway down the slope to the wall of smoke of the Fire Rim, Iliad turned and mounted his horse. He motioned for the others to do the same. They did and before all of them were on their beasts Iliad tore away. Mirdur’eth and the other Blaersteeds quickly made pursuit, leaving Triska to groan as her horse grunted before bolting off as well.
The slope abruptly ended along the side of the Fire Rim, flattening out into a straight plain. There was a large dip some distance south and it was there that Iliad was riding. James chanced a glance back. The wagons were mere dots now and he couldn’t see any abnormal motion. Then he turned to the Fire Rim. The flames were bright here, insanely bright. He thought for a moment that he felt the heat, but quickly discerned that it was simply a figment of his imagination. But the flames looked unnaturally hot, almost as if he were looking directly into the sun through an ultraviolet Imaging Telescope. He turned away. Something crept up into his senses. Magic or something even worse. It wasn’t just the barrier, though when he looked within himself he could feel the magic flowing from there, but it was an almost other-worldly presence of magic. He saw the irony of that, him being from another world and then finding something that felt like it too was from another world.
Being so close to the Fire Rim sent waves of those strange sensations through him. Some sent chills down his spine, while others seemed to feed off of him as if the sensations themselves were living entities. It was a darkness he had not felt before because it had no physical form. It lived within the Fire Rim, but unchained. An old magic unlike any he had read about. There was plenty of ancient magic left in Traea, laid out like statistics in the etiquette book. But the ancient magic nudging through the barrier of the Fire Rim, pushing and prodding him inside and out, and feeling around his senses eerily, was nothing that any book could quite describe. It was as if it were so old that it preceded the creation of the world. The imagery came to him through invisible hands, only they weren’t invisible in his mind. He could see them reaching out like ghostly white tendrils, branch-like and fingering at him, into him, around him. Then it was gone, a single flash of nothingness in his mind and no trace of it was there. He could still feel the magic floating out in the Fire Rim, but it no longer reached for him, pulled on him or seemed at all interested in him as it had just moments before. He was relieved, glad even that he could no longer feel it within him.
James looked to the others. Pea and Triska seemed paler than usual, from his vantage point. He wondered if the strange presence had affected them too, and what exactly it wanted. His mind felt perfectly in order, just as it had been before the strange magic had touched him. Then Pea and Triska shivered and, like the travel of a yawn across persons, James did too. It went down his whole body and was gone.
“I don’t like this place one bit,” Pea said.
“I don’t think anyone likes this place,” James said. “You felt it too?”
Pea nodded; so did Triska.
“Old magic,” Triska said. “Something old and new at the same time. I don’t think it has been here before. It’s alive somehow.”
“What did it want?” He shifted on Mirdur’eth’s back, feeling another chill coming on.
“What do all sneaky, deceptive things want?” Pea shook his head like someone trying to shoo away an insect.
There was a long pause, silent but for the sound of the horses riding down the slope and finally into the dip in the earth where everyone came to a full stop and the rumble nearby. Then it was Darl who spoke.
“Information. Always information. And it got it too, whatever it is.”
“Whatever it is,” Pea began with a cautious breath, “it is not meant to be here. It’s something corrupt.”
Darl sighed deep, with a hint of irritation. “What isn’t corrupt these days?”
Everyone was silent after that, even the horses and Blaersteeds. Iliad disappeared over the top of the dip, returning every so often to let everyone know that all was safe and well, and that the line of wagons was continuing to grow. James had a growing concern that they would encounter the wagons within the Fire Rim. The soldiers would be more apt to pay attention there, taking into account all the dangers during the day, and the worse dangers at night. He and his companions would have to go well out of the way to avoid them if the supply line turned out to be as large as he was thinking.
They made a camp there in the dip. No fire was lit, though the night grew cold and one would have been welcomed. The risk of the smoke being seen, smelt, or some such was too great, or so Iliad had said. They needed to make it through the Fire Rim with as little trouble as possible.
Night fell fast, accelerated by the massive shadow of the billowing smoke beyond the barrier. James couldn’t see the moon at all, no matter how hard he looked. Complete darkness came over everything until even his night vision was useless. He lay there, staring off into the nothingness, aware of only the sounds of his companions as they ruffled through their things or slowed their breathing as they prepared to sleep. For a moment he thought to stay up all night. He was restless. The darkness was too unnatural for him. It was like being trapped and having no control at all.
Slowly, despite his restlessness, he laid back and let his eyelids fall. Mirdur’eth panted nearby and then his mind drifted away and he was asleep.