Posts Tagged ‘trope’

Book Review: “H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education” by Mark Walden


Let’s say there’s a secret school populated by a secret subculture of people living in a world alongside ours. Let’s say there’s a kid who has no idea this subculture exists, but he’s been doing things that would bring it to his attention. Let’s say that, one day, he’s accepted into this secret school, where he’s the smartest kid in his year, naturally good at everything, and has some sort of special connection to the head of the secret school.

You’d think you’d know what the story’s about and how it ends, wouldn’t you. You’d think you’re reading Harry Potter, or The Magicians, or Percy Jackson.

But let’s say the secret school is the place where the next generation of super-villains learns everything they need to know about the future of world domination. Changes things a bit, doesn’t it?

Umm… maybe not.

H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education, by Mark Walden, is the first in a (so far) seven-book young-adult series of novels that borrows from the well-traveled genre tropes that gave us the three books I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

H.I.V.E.‘s main character, Otto Malpense, is a white-haired thirteen-year-old British boy with the uncanny ability to comprehend everything he reads and understand the underlying principles of everything he sees. In general, he’s more a pragmatist than a villain — he came to the attention of H.I.V.E. not because he did something evil for evil’s sake, but because he was trying to save the orphanage that was the only home he’d ever known. It just so happened to involve making the British Prime Minister look like an idiot.

Otto’s contemporaries can be picked out of most any genre lineup:

  • Wing Fanchu, an Asian boy who’s good at martial arts and is very honorable.
  • Laura, a Scottish girl good with technology.
  • Shelby, an American cat burglar.
  • Nigel, the kid who’s there because his father was a super-villain and is only good at one class — go on, guess which one*.
  • Franz, an overweight German kid who only talks about food and is also not very good at most classes, although he takes quickly to the ones teaching students how to use politics and economics to take down the good guys.

Other than Nigel and Franz, Otto and his classmates are not happy to be at H.I.V.E. They think they’ve been kidnapped by the school’s headmaster, Dr. Nero, and all they want to do is get home. But to do that, they’ll have to fight off another genre lineup, this one comprised of schoolteachers:

  • The headmaster who “takes an interest” in the main character.
  • The absent-minded technology professor.
  • The drill sergeant who teaches physical education.
  • The one who was turned into an animal.
  • The second-in-command who also can control your mind.
  • Professor Sprout**.
  • The ninja.
  • The artificial intelligence/computer system that sees everything and knows everything, but really just wants to be human (and if it starts performing Shakespeare or tries to hold Commander Riker hostage in one of Dr. Crusher’s plays in a future novel, I’m hanging it all up now).

So far, I’ve given H.I.V.E. a lot of grief over its use of genre conventions, but I hope I’ve done it good-naturedly enough to keep you from being put off the book. I mean, it’s YA; it’s sort of YA’s job to use genre conventions to make characters relatable and understandable. And the story itself is something most kids can understand: being taken from your home because you’re special, but once you get away, all you want is to go back again. I mean, come on, how many of us (when we were kids***) have thought “I’m smarter/better/awesomer than this life I’m currently leading; when will I get to go to that secret school for wizards/villains/demigods?” I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard I wished to be pulled 300 years into the future so I could go to Starfleet Academy.

It didn’t happen, obviously****. Hence my love for genre fiction (escapism) and a fondness for stories using the genre plot we see in H.I.V.E.

The storytelling is pretty good. The characters are well-rounded and often funny. The adventure is… um… adventurous. If anything is poorly-done, it’s the occasional forays into Dr. Nero’s world — we need them to forward the plot and explain whatever couldn’t be infodumped by the Contessa (Professor McGonagall) during the school tour, but they take away from the important part of the story, which is Otto and his friends. When Rowling did it in the Harry Potter novels, she confined it to the first few chapters, sort of a “meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice” thing before we got into whatever adventure Harry is facing in the current book, and I could handle that. But the whole point of third-person-limited is that you only see things through the eyes of your main character, and I think that, by using the Dr. Nero scenes to explain important plot points, the story misses out on the opportunity for more adventures or further characterization of our heroes. For example, they could’ve overheard Nero’s staff dinner because Laura was working on an extra-credit project or something, instead of the author just showing us said dinner.

Of course, that could also have just been a homage to your old-school heroes-vs-villains TV shows and movies where the hero’s journey is briefly put aside to show what the bad guys are doing right now.

I rather enjoyed H.I.V.E., to be honest. I think the storytelling moves at a good clip, the characters are funny, and the idea behind the story is novel enough that I’m interested in reading more books in the series. As a YA book, it reads quickly enough, and is short enough, that you can probably squeeze it into a week’s worth of lunch breaks. I’m not sure how the “intended” audience — young adults — would actually like it, but I know that I got a kick out of it, and I think you will too.

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Note to Parents: Because it’s a YA novel, H.I.V.E. doesn’t contain anything truly objectionable. There’s some bullying and some violence, but nothing more explicit than, say, Prisoner of Azkaban. So, if your kids can handle that, they can definitely handle H.I.V.E.. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* If you said “Herbology”… err, that is, Botany, give yourself a pat on the head.

** The one who is fairly nice and takes care of students who don’t feel like they belong. Also, she teaches Herbology. I mean Botany. Oh, whatever, it’s Professor freaking Sprout from the Harry Potter novels. Just go with it.

*** Or, you know, right now. Either way.

**** OR DID IT???

Book Review: “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman


Please note: this review contains spoilers for Lev Grossman’s previous novel, The Magicians.

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In The Magicians, Lev Grossman introduced us to Quentin Coldwater, an intelligent, callous, callow youth who was picked for the entrance exam to Brakebills, a secret magical academy in upstate New York. Because this is a fantasy novel, I think we all knew he’d make it in. He spent several years learning magic, and learning that it was nothing like Harry Potter. But what made Quentin different is that he also believed in Fillory, a Narnia-like world created by an English novelist. He never expected to actually find it.

Now, a couple of years later, Quentin is one of the two Kings of Fillory. Joined by his Brakebills cohorts Eliot and Janet, and his high school friend Julia, the four of them rule the strange, magical kingdom. But Quentin is getting bored, and what do kings do when they get bored?

They go on quests. And Quentin’s quest takes him right back to where he started: Brakebills. Among other places. Along the way he meets up with his friend Josh and Josh’s new cohort, a dragon-ologist named Poppy. Then Quentin meets a dragon and he learns that his quest might affect the future of magic as he — and everyone in all the worlds — knows it.

As with many sequels, it took me a few chapters to really start enjoying The Magician King. The sense of wonder and discovery from the first novel isn’t quite as evident, although Quentin’s bone-dry sarcasm and asshat-like behavior certainly are. However, the discovery returned when Grossman started layering in flashbacks to Julia’s life — for Julia, unlike the other three rulers of Fillory, did not come up through Brakebills. No, her journey to magic was much rougher, much more “street” — think of those annoying teen films where the from-the-streets dancer has to fit in with the classically-trained ballerinas — and while nothing really new happened, it was still interesting to learn how the other half of witchcraft lives. And judging from what Julia went through at the hands of a trickster god, perhaps it would be better to not have learned magic at all.

But Julia’s journey does introduce us to some interestingly-named characters, such as Pouncy Silverkitten and Failstaff, even if parts of it are quite cliche and technologically silly-sounding (especially the bits with the text-to-speech forum reading software). And, as each layer of Julia’s journey is revealed, so too do we get a little closer to figuring out why Julia acts the way she does in Fillory.

One of the better points of The Magicians was that the book attempted to subvert most of the common tropes of magic-school fiction — either that, or hang such a hugely-kitschy lampshade on them that readers can’t help but wonder how they ever worked in other books. The Magician King does some of the same with Fillory — the random kids who just show up and become kings, the silly-named islands that are actually pretty boring, the constant references to Fillory’s peculiar moon. The seagoing parts of the book directly draw from CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader — as I said before, all of Fillory draws from Narnia — although here again Grossman hangs massive lampshades upon pretty much everything, at least until the story gets serious.

Since the world of Fillory is intended to be Narnia-esque, the author pretty much has to depend upon characterization to fulfill my personal “must have good worldbuilding and interesting characters” requirement. Quentin, while interesting, is quite annoying in his world-weary way; at least Eliot is a little less hipster-mage in this book. He really bugged me in The Magicians. The main characters, though certainly well-rounded, are in their own way fantasy tropes, but again Grossman’s subversion and lampshading of the standard fantasy fiction toolbox makes them worth getting to know. From Benedict the emo-cartographer to Bingle the extra-awesome swordsman, from the talking sloth who won’t shut up to the holier-than-thou of Penny, even from the irrepressible sidekick humor of Josh to the let’s-see-it-through-her-eyes characterization of Poppy, the people (and animals) who populate this book are exactly where they should be.

The overarching plot of the novel felt a bit forced to me — “complete this quest or all magic will go away” — but Grossman manages to pull it off by keeping Quentin’s character consistent. Though Quentin does change as a result of what he goes through, he’s still the same old ennui-filled Quentin. Also, the whole “the hero pays the price” angle didn’t seem like much of a price to me. Still, I enjoyed reading the book, and there were a lot of clever and funny things to keep me interested until I got to the next plot point. And, unlike the first book, The Magician King clearly sets up another sequel. I’m not sure how much longer Grossman can keep up this particular style of storytelling, but I’m on board for book three.

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Note to Parents: This book contains adult language, violence, adult situations, and sexual situations — one of them very violent. I would not recommend it to any but the most mature teens. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

Book Review: “Spectyr” by Philippa Ballantine


The following review contains spoilers for Geist, to which Spectyr is a sequel.

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At the end of Philippa Ballantine’s Geist, Deacons Sorcha and Merrick, along with the aid of Raed the Young Pretender*, vanquished the geistlord Murashev (an exceedingly evil being), who had been brought into their world by the Arch Abbott — the leader of their Order. Raed escaped from an Imperial prison and returned to his pirate ship, Dominion, and Sorcha and Merrick returned to the Mother Abbey to help put back together the Order they serve.

To get to that point, Sorcha and Merrick joined up as partners, journeyed across many miles to a faraway outpost of the Empire, fought members of the Order turned to evil as well as several creatures from the Otherside — the Order exists to protect the Empire from these beings — flew on airships, fell in love, had sex… basically, everything that’s done in a fantasy/buddy-cop/hero’s-journey story of 300 or so pages.

In Spectyr, they do most of those things all over again.

Spectyr begins a few weeks after the end of Geist, with Sorcha Faris and Merrick Chambers being dispatched to rid the Imperial capital of Vermillion of various small-time geists, ghasts, shades, and spectyrs. This rankles them both, and what rankles Sorcha even more is that her husband, Kolya — a marriage in name only, at this point — is, for some reason, fighting to keep Sorcha around the Mother Abbey instead of letting her out into the world to fight the bigger creatures she’s capable of destroying.

Eventually, our Deacons are tasked with protecting an ambassador to the far-off desert land of Chioma. One of the daughters of the Prince of Chioma is to be wedded to the Emperor, and the ambassador is headed there to negotiate something or other**. But once they arrive in Chioma, Sorcha and Merrick uncover a series of murders as well as evidence that a very powerful geistlord — the ancestral enemy of the Rossin — has decided that now is the time to make a comeback.

As I said in my review of Geist, Ballantine’s writing is well-paced, not overly laden with exposition (a major flaw in several fantasy novels I’ve read), and tends to leave tropes for readers to trip over.

Cases in point:

  • Buddy cops relegated to crappy tasks because they’re so powerful no one knows what to do with them.
  • Kick-ass sibling of the Emperor who happens to be a True Believer in a religion to which no one gives credence***.
  • A long journey via airship.
  • A far-off land where the government is semi-autonomous from the Empire, and the Order are as well.
  • Good guys falling into a murder investigation.
  • Main characters get separated.
  • Long-lost relatives.
  • Treachery from out of nowhere.

It’s that last one that really bugged me. At least in Geist I had a fairly good idea who the most evil member of the Order was going to be, but in Spectyr there’s a heel turn that I felt had no real support within the story. It’s like, “oh, hey, here’s someone we haven’t seen in a while. Let’s have him/her be evil now.” I at least need some foreshadowing for that to be effective, and I got none. It would be like if, just before they face Riddler and Two-Face in Batman Forever, Robin suddenly sucker-punches Batman, steals the Bat-boat, and leaves Batman there to get his ass kicked.

There’s also a geist-powered journey to the past for one of the Deacons that provides an info-dump without sounding like one — Ballantine is particularly good at avoiding info-dumps, which is greatly appreciated — while also giving more information about the Native Order (the one that came before the one Merrick and Sorcha are in). This does lead to a fair bit of melodramatic behavior by the other (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers), and I felt somewhat irked because said behavior was out-of-character for the Deacon who didn’t go to the past.

My biggest problem with Spectyr, though, was that, with the exception of the bad guys having different names and the locales being deserts instead of mountains, I could swear I read the same story in Geist. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wanted something more. Something newer. And I really didn’t get it.

Fortunately, Ballantine is a good enough writer**** that it doesn’t matter that she’s used lots of well-known fantasy tropes. The characters are well-rounded and interesting; the action is on par with other fantasy novels (sometimes better); the worldbuilding is complete and comprehensible without requiring massive info-dumps; and the Boss Fight, if a little too much “stuff happens to our hero” than “our hero kicks the Final Boss’s ass”, has an ending that directly leads into the next novel — which Ballantine is writing right now. I’m truly curious to see what’s going to happen at the start of Wrayth, and how our heroes are going to get out of the jam the Boss Fight put them in.

I’d say the book gets really good toward the last 25 percent (similar to what I felt with Geist): we’ve got all the information we need, the pieces are in place, and if one of the Deacons has made some decisions that weren’t the strongest in terms of storytelling, what s/he does at the end of that plot thread is cool enough to make up for it.

I also want to note for the record that, in a follow-up to some of my concerns voiced in my Geist review, Sorcha does not take on any more of Anita Blake’s features, and she does not have a power-of-the week. In fact, the story is written in such a way that it’s impossible for her to level up any further. And, anyway, the story’s not about Sorcha becoming more powerful or learning new battle techniques. Geist pretty much established that Sorcha is as powerful and talented as you can be, and I think that was an excellent choice on Ballantine’s part. It deftly sidesteps the whole training montage that many writers feel they have to include to justify their main character’s badassery, and I respect that storytelling choice. (However, there is a moment in Spectyr that really underlines why every Active, like Sorcha, absolutely must have a Sensitive, like Merrick, in order to function at his or her full potential.)

Overall, I’ll say this: if you loved Geist, you’ll love Spectyr for the same reasons. If you liked Geist, you’ll probably like Spectyr, although you’ll also probably see the same issues with it than I did. Still, Ballantine has created a rich world with a lot of stories to be told, and there’ll be at least two more (she’s contracted to write a fourth Order book after Wrayth). If you like fast-paced fantasy evocative of what you read in the 90s, then you’ll enjoy Spectyr.

And, as I said in my Geist review, that’s exactly the kind of book I like.

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Special thanks to Ace, the novel’s publisher, for providing a review copy.

Note to Parents: Spectyr is a bit more graphic than Geist. If it was a film, I would rate it a “soft R” (with the exception of the sex scene in the first third). It contains enough violence to warrant that. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* To the throne. The Emperor’s family ousted the Rossin family, to which Raed belongs, and now Raed is persona non grata throughout the Empire.

** I didn’t find it of that much import to the story, so I didn’t remember it. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the tale.

*** After you read the scenes in the beginning with Zofiya, tell me you weren’t thinking of Alia in the… third?… Dune novel. Or at the very least the scene where she goes all ninja-crazy on the practice robot in the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation Children of Dune.

**** As a writer and a former English teacher, I know there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but Ballantine has a habit of writing sentences with long dependent clauses followed by short action clauses. For example: As she sipped her tea and nibbled a scone while thinking about what to do this Sunday morning, Gina felt a chill. Completely legal from a grammatical perspective, but the author does it enough that I noticed it.