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.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009

Rating: B+

Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.

Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.

The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.

Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.