R.M. Prioleau – Firebrand (2012) | Book Review

R.M. Prioleau FirebrandEver since the whole Harry Potter multimedia empire began, stories about young wizards and various other magic-tinged fantasy novels have become a dime a dozen. Whereas previously just about every work of fantasy had been trying really hard to be the next Lord of the Rings, the trend in fantasy now is to try to be the next Harry Potter.

Firebrand, the first in a planned trilogy by R.M. Prioleau, fits comfortably into the mold of these young-boy-becomes-wizard stories. The keyword here is “comfortably,” for better or worse. The story follows a young man and his little brother, who are sent away by their completely unlikable parents to be part of a magic school, where they are trained from a young age by essentially a very angry, bitter Dumbledore/Gandalf-type wizard.

The storyline itself follows typical progression. There is some early struggle, but Kaijin, the protagonist, gets a hang of the power and becomes an above average wizard. Very few stories are told of the wizard whose abilities are just “meh.” Naturally, evil is a foot and there is much fire and undead creatures and general ne’er do-welling.

Although the picture painted so far doesn’t scream excellence, there is still some merit in Firebrand. R.M. Prioleau’s prose is above average, and aside from a few moments that felt a bit cliched, the dialogue is pretty good too. Unlikely so many self-published works, there aren’t any times in Firebrand when the writing ability of the author, or lack thereof, gets in the way of a reader’s ability to enjoy the story.

Firebrand may be highly derivative, but it is certainly readable and will probably appeal more to young readers who don’t mind revisiting territory that has already been revisited too many times before. The target audience isn’t grown-ups, and it isn’t the kind of young adult read that will cross over to readers of all ages, but it’s certainly the kind of thing that younger readers will eat up. It’s well-written despite its “been there, done that” feel, and it very well may become more interesting as the trilogy goes on. Fantasy aficionados with a taste for young adult literature will find something to enjoy in Firebrand.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Firebrand is available in eBook form from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and in paperback form from Amazon. Check out R.M. Prioleau’s website, and follow her on Twitter.

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Film Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: B-

Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.

Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.

It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke  or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.

Review: The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell (2011)

The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press, 2011

Rating: B-

A woman whose father worked as the city executioner is on his death bed, and his daughter is forced to take up his axe to execute a criminal to continue putting food on the table so her children don’t starve. Things get more interesting when her family are captured by raiders, and Tana is forced to leave the city, axe in hand, to track down her lost children.

Set in the same world as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist, Buckell’s novella was released at the same time and is complimentary to the other work. Despite the strength of development of this world remaining, The Executioness doesn’t end up having the same strength of narrative or general impact of its companion. Buckell writes good prose and dialogue, but the plot is a bit paint by numbers by comparison. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with a pissed off mother going after her kidnapped children, I can’t help but think it’s a gender-reversed fantasy adaptation of a certain Liam Neeson film.

This novella still has redeeming qualities; Tana is a strong protagonist that it is not only likable, but very well developed considering the rather small word count involved in a novella. Buckell does an extraordinary job of giving the reader a good sense of who Tana is, including some real change over the course of the story. It is a real feather in one’s cap as a writer when you can develop a character more over the course of about one hundred pages than many science fiction and fantasy writers manage to do over the course of a novel three or four times as long.

Despite not being able to live up to the quality of Bacigalupi’s work, the strength of its character development and the fact that it still shares that perfect fantasy world make The Executioness a worthwhile read. Buckell has, at the very least, established himself here as a writer that is worth taking notice of in his future endeavors. This world deserves revisiting by either of its writers, and it would be a welcome read to see further adventures of Tana.

Review: The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011)

The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press, 2011

Rating: A-

In a fantasy world where poisonous bramble grows wild by feeding off the energy residue left behind by casting illegal magic, a destitute alchemist named Jeoz invents a device can be used to destroy the bramble once and for all. His young daughter is terminally ill and he is forced to use illegal magic to keep her alive, and it is his hope that by offering up his invention to the local government, they will use their more advanced magical aptitude to cure his daughter of her illness once and for all.

Paolo Bacigalupi made a name for himself immediately with The Windup Girl, and is yet to disappoint since. There is no style that can be directly pinpointed as being Bacigalupi’s; everything he writes seems so fresh and inventive and nothing at all like anything that has come before it. The Windup Girl was near-future dystopian biopunk with a large cast of characters that, despite generally being unlikable, felt so developed and thoroughly real in a perfectly designed sci-fi dystopia. Ship Breaker, a novel for young adults, follows a young man who makes a living by harvesting copper from crashed ships, as the metal has become precious in a world ravaged by climate change.

Environmentalism is the one theme that is consistent between all of his works. In The Alchemist, the bramble that grows from the use of magic is a metaphor for climate change coming as a result of reckless use of technology that leaves behind environmental destruction in the form of carbon emissions. Although fantasy has the tendency to borrow too heavily from what has come before it, the world of The Alchemist (and it’s companion novella, The Executioness) is wholly original and brilliant. With immaculate prose and flawless dialogue, Bacigalupi is the best science fiction writer working today, with barely any competition at all. Writers like Mieville and Stephenson have contributed important novels to the speculative fiction canon, but neither of them can boast the consistency of Bacigalupi’s contributions to the medium.