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‘Speculative Japan 2: “The Man Who Watched The Sea” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy’ ****

Fantasy fiction is one of my very favourite genres to read since I grew up with it, and I’ve been trying to find some Japanese fantasy for the longest time. However, my search had been mostly fruitless until I stumbled upon a fellow blogger’s review of the “Speculative Japan” series of fantasy and science fiction short stories. Needless to say I was more than happy to finally acquire a volume for myself.

This second volume consists of 13 short stories by a different author each. Even though all of the stories fall under the category of fantasy or sci-fi, they are so diverse and they handle their themes in such a different yet interesting manner.

In the Introduction of the book, Darrell Schweitzer accurately observes that most people expect samurais, geishas, kimonos and “a ritual suicide or three” whenever they think of inherently Japanese elements and while I do agree with this remark, I also felt like those stories couldn’t be more Japanese, even though most of those elements which first come to one’s mind were absent.

Whilst fantasy and science fiction do not seem to be very popular in Japanese fiction (at least when translated into English), they dominate the anime/manga and video game world, which I believe makes such an interesting contradiction. For instance, Kitakuni Koji’s “Midst the Mist”, a story revolving around a specific breed of aliens that lived inside human bodies as parasites, strongly reminded me of the anime/manga series “Parasyte”.

Most of the stories contained in this collection were focused mostly on sci-fi rather than fantasy, but it was still great to read them as they offered a very fresh perspective and approach on the themes they chose to follow compared to the sci-fi stories that I have read so far, which are mainly American. Moreover, some of the stories such as Tani Koshu’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk”, a space story about ghost ships, and Ogawa Issui’s “Old Vohl’s Planet”, a story about the evolution of (alien) species, contained quite a few scientific terms and it was evident that the authors had conducted a very thorough research before writing anything down. I can only imagine how challenging the translation of these stories might have been!

Of course, in short story collections it is very rare for all the stories to equally be of one’s liking, and therefore there were some stories I didn’t enjoy as much as the others. “Freud” by Enjoe Toh was one of them, which I found rather uninteresting. On the other hand, some of my favourites were “The Whale That Sang On The Milky Nework” by Ohara Mariko, “Emanon: A Reminiscence” by Kajio Shinji and “The Man Who Watched The Sea” by Kobayashi Yasumi, which was also featured in the title of the collection.

The translations were also all very good and they had a very natural flow. Even though I read Japanese literature often, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors featured in this collection, so I was very happy to discover some new authors whose work I would very much like to follow. It would have been nice, though, if some information about the authors were also included in the collection.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these short stories and I definitely discovered some gems in there. It was very well put together and I will definitely seek out the rest of the series’ volumes in the future.

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Graphic Novel: ‘Hinges’ by Meredith McClaren ***

During January I read quite a few graphic novels, since my month was filled with responsibilities and at times I needed to read something that didn’t require me to concentrate too much on it. Therefore, one of the graphic novels I read was Hinges Volume 1 & 2 by Meredith McClaren.

9ea0067753fd842199dfeac94fb3a447Hinges used to be a webcomic that was later turned into a graphic novel in printed form. It is mainly a fantasy story, though it doesn’t contain that many fantasy elements (if one excepts the setting, of course), so I’m pretty sure even those who are not fans of fantasy could read it seamlessly. The story unfolds in a town, Cobble, which is populated by dolls. Each doll chooses an animal companion upon their arrival there and then they are given a job to occupy themselves with.

Volume 1 begins with the arrival of our protagonist, Orio, in this town. The animal she has selected as a companion seems to be quite unnatural (we learn more of its nature in volume 2) and it causes too much trouble in the town. And that’s pretty much the plot of the first volume.

The text is not very prevalent in this graphic novel, as most pages are wordless panels which may be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but unfortunately they don’t contribute much to the plot and they certainly don’t help you understand what’s going on most of the time. 334764-_sx312_ql80_ttd_

In hopes that volume 2 would offer some more insight into the story and answer some of the questions left behind by its predecessor, I ventured into reading that. Indeed, some questions were addressed, like the nature of Orio’s animal companion, but upon reaching the last page, I had the feeling that even more questions were formed instead.

Volume 2 continues in the same manner as volume 1, with little text and most pages being taken up by artwork panels. A new character is introduced, though, but the volume ends with a cliffhanger.

The artwork is mostly beautiful, though some panels can seem a bit sloppy and awkward at times. The setting is gorgeous and the colours used add more to the creation of the perfect atmosphere. Taking into account that this started as a webcomic, it is rather understandable that the plot is all over the place sometimes, or even seems to be non-existent. There are times, however, when the turn of events indicates that something bigger lies behind, and you just have to endure the long introduction to get to the good part.

I can’t help but feel this graphic novel has so much potential and I’m waiting for it to prove me right in the following volumes. It’s worth checking out, even just for the pretty art and the mysterious atmosphere evoked.

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‘Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf’ by R.A. Salvatore ****

Most fantasy literature fans are well acquainted with R.A. Salvatore and the enormous saga he has created. His contribution to the ‘Forgotten Realms’ series spans approximately 27 books, the latest installment of which I am reviewing here.

Based on the largely popular role-playing game ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, the ‘Forgotten Realms’ series has inspired numerous novels, video games and comic books alike. Salvatore’s contribution to the franchise opened with the creation of one of the most popular fantasy characters, the dark elf Drizzt Do ‘Urden, whose adventures and shortcomings are related in the books. 25230744

Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf is the latest addition to the saga and it immediately continues the story from where the previous book left off. It is rather difficult to follow the story without having read the previous books or without at least knowing the general premise (and yet you will be filled with spoilers for future developments in the story). This book describes an imminent war between races for its most part, so the action and the suspense is ever present throughout the story.

I have been a fan of the series for quite a long while (though I admit I haven’t yet managed to read all of the books!), but this was my first time reading the books in the original English version. It is true that many things get lost in translation, and one of them certainly was the dialects and the various peculiarities of speech that were not retained in the Greek translations I had previously encountered. It was nice to see that some races like dwarves for example, have a distinct way of speaking, but as a non-native English speaker, it made the text a bit more demanding for me from time to time.

All in all, I was really satisfied with the story and I think Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf is an excellent continuation to the series. Salvatore’s writing is really engaging and (along with the vivid descriptions) it draws you in, making you feel like a part of the world described as well. I have not talked about the plot very much here, as I find it really difficult to explain anything without giving the plot out. The ‘Forgotten Realms’ seems like a pretty daunting series to tackle reading, but I would highly recommend it to any fantasy fan out there.

I really enjoyed reading this book, mostly because it let me revisit a world I had fallen in love with as a teenager and still have a soft spot for even now.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente ****

First published in June 2012.

Catherynne M. Valente is rather a prolific author of children’s fantasy and science fiction novels and will be publishing the sequel to this novel – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There – in 2013. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was the winner of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Literature in 2011.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making tells the story of September, a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha, Nebraska. She is rather a lonely child with her father away fighting in an unnamed war, her mother busy at work dealing with ‘stubborn airplane engines’, and no real friends to speak of. September is sent on a quest by a kindly witch in order to rescue a Spoon from the clutches of the Marquess of Fairyland – a character described as ‘very splendid and very frightening’ – who lives in its capital, Pandemonium. Whilst this is rather a strange motive for such an adventure, it is one which September faces gallantly.

Valente has created a cast of her own which is peopled by personified natural phenomenons – the Green Wind, for example, takes September to the Perverse and Perilous Sea which shares a border with Fairyland. The novel also contains such creatures as ‘hamadryads’, ‘spriggans’, witches and wairwulves – creatures who are wolves for the majority of the month and turn into humans upon the full moon. There is also a golem made entirely of soap shavings, Will-o’-the-wisps, hobgoblins and enormous mice who stand taller than fully grown adults.

The magical elements are apparent from the outset and the fairytale-esque phrase ‘Once upon a time’ at the beginning of the novel sets the tone for the entire story. As well as magical, the novel is often quite amusing. The Green wind tells September that ‘Fairyland is a very Scientifick place. We subscribe to all the best journals’. He also lets the protagonist know that he is taking her away from her home because ‘Omaha is no place for anybody’.

A third person perspective has been used throughout which includes many of September’s thoughts in italics. The narrative often speaks directly to the reader, which really involves us in September’s story. The illustrations throughout are just lovely and, along with the thought which has gone into the elaborate titles and subtitles of each chapter – ‘Exeunt on a Leopard’, ‘The Closet Between Worlds’, ‘The Great Velocipede Migration’ and ‘Autumn is the Kingdom Where Everything Changes’, for example – really add to the magical feel of the story. Each chapter also has rather a long subheading reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which begins ‘In which…’. Aspects of the storyline also echo those of The Wizard of Oz. Parallels can be drawn between the poppy field in which Dorothy falls asleep and the ‘meadow full of tiny red flowers’ which September wakes up in. There are also similarities with the quest, where the heroine is sent, along with her magical companions, to the capital city of a magical land to meet its feared and revered leader.

Valente’s descriptions are sublime and fit incredibly well with the story. Her writing is rather original and this can be seen particularly in the way in which she writes about her heroine – ‘Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly’ – and other characters such as the Green Wind, who is dressed throughout ‘in a green smoking jacket’ and jodhpurs. The prose throughout is charming and Valente is clearly very skilled in her writing. A good example of her constant inventiveness can be seen when she states the following: ‘All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one.’

Whilst The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is essentially aimed at the young adult market, it is one, like the tradition of novels such as Harry Potter, which appeals to adults just as much. The speech of the majority of the characters is grown-up in its style and the vocabulary which Valente has woven in throughout the novel allows it to appeal to a more advanced audience.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a wonderfully inventive tale and such an adventure. It is apparent from the outset that Valente has such love for her characters and the world which she has created, and the story is a perfect read for lovers of nostalgia and fans of fantasy novels of all ages.

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Graphic Novel: ‘In Search Of Lost Dragons’ by Élian Black’mor and Carine M ****

‘In Search of Lost Dragons’ is a graphic novel very different from all the others I have encountered so far. The storyline is rather simple, but the whole premise and especially the gorgeous illustrations and drawings adorning the book are so enticing and, in my opinion, what makes this book marvelous from start to finish. 24580295

The graphic novel is layed out as a travel diary (or personal notebook at times), narrating the story of the author as he embarks on a journey in which he discovers and stumbles upon many different kinds of dragons, which he illustrates and makes a list out of. He explores most of Europe, Scandinavia, as well as Asia, and the dragons he discovers in each place (like the people he encounters there) are so distinct and befitting to the particular setting. I found the general setting rather original and so well executed. I adored all the illustrations depicting the many different kinds of dragons the narrator came across on his travels, as well as various other creatures and mythical beings. The fact that the narrator chose to include tickets, show pamphlets, letters and newspaper clippings related to his search for dragons was quite excellent, as it enhanced the general feeling of reading the account of his adventures.

Most of the illustrations were absolutely stunning and some of the drawings were reminiscent of Tim Burton’s style of sketching. Apart from including a variety of pamphlets and tickets as part of his diary, the reader also notices some coffee cup stains being part of some of the papers and newspaper clippings included in the narrator’s archive, which is a detail I personally enjoyed a lot.

At times, I caught myself being more engrossed in the magnificence of the illustrations rather than the story itself, so I had to go back and reread certain passages in order to make sure I haven’t skipped any important part. I found it a bit difficult to read the text at times, due to the font, which was beautiful and very fitting to the mythical theme of dragons and the age this quest is set, but also quite tiring when reading it on screen instead of on a paper copy.

This book is definitely a treasure for any and all fantasy and folklore lovers, since it contains so much interesting information on dragons mainly but on some other fantastical creatures as well. It would be perfect to have this book in your library so you can go back to it at any given moment and read about a specific dragon species or simply admire the illustrations for the billionth time (because it is more than certain that you will).

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One From the Archive: ‘A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In’ by Magnus Mills **

First published in September 2012

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In has been hailed as ‘quirky, curious and very funny’, ‘an enchantingly surreal Kafkaesque/philosophical fairy tale’ and ‘a masterpiece’. These accolades are set to attract a wealth of different readers to Booker Prize shortlisted author Magnus Mills’ latest novel.

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In takes place in the Empire of Greater Fallowfields, a kind of ‘other England’, where nothing is quite what it seems. The novel is told from the first person narrative perspective of the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court, who has no idea how to guide an orchestra or how to play an instrument.

The novel opens with a cabinet meeting, to which the expected Emperor of Greater Fallowfields does not turn up. His absence, at first, is put down to ‘a brief hiatus in the affairs of state’, and is rescheduled. Whilst one of the characters, Garganey, tells the conductor that ‘we’re all officers of the empire and we’re all equal in the hierarchy’, all of the characters who attend the meeting are given rather elaborate titles that show that they are hierarchically above the everyday citizens of the land. These range from the Librarian-in-Chief, Postmaster General and Astronomer Royal, to the convoluted ‘His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields’. The everyday citizens are also referred to as ‘serfs’, all of whom are ‘the personal property of the emperor himself’.

The story itself is rather inventive. The Astronomer Royal may only use the telescope in his observatory once he has sixpence to put in its slot, the most famous landmark in the entire land is an enormous cake-shaped building which sits in the grounds of the royal park, and the orchestra’s instruments take it in turns to ‘sleep’ in the antechamber. Some of the rules are rather laughable – an imperial decree means that nobody is allowed to purchase more than a penny’s worth of sweets at any one time to stop them ‘from being greedy’, for example – but there is a skewed sensibility which runs through the book, one which makes the reader stop and think ‘what if…?’.

The absence of the emperor of Greater Fallowfields stretches on and on, causing a character named Garganey to step into his ‘role as King’, which he has to be reminded is merely a temporary measure until the rightful ruler returns. Nobody in the land really knows what they are doing, and it is difficult to feel much empathy for the mainly daft characters who people the novel.

Echoes of Terry Pratchett’s work can be found in the more quirky and fantastical elements of the story. Mills’ writing style is interesting, but his strength lies more in the world he has created rather than what he causes to occur in it. The storyline is a little weak in places and the characters seem to meander along. It is as though he has put all of his effort into creating Greater Fallowfields and introductions to all the characters which people it, but little else seems to have been considered. Indeed, it is a difficult book to classify. It is a satirical book, but not one which can be classified as a wholly satirical novel; it is a contemporary work of fiction but it the land which Mills has created feels somehow dated and old fashioned; and there are elements of a kind of fantasy throughout, but not one which is developed enough to make the novel fall into such a category.

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In will certainly appeal more to lovers of quirkiness or pseudo-fantasy than to the average reader.

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‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ by J.K. Rowling ***

I have wanted to read this book for an awfully long time – since I learnt of its publication, in fact – and I

‘The Tales of Beedle the Bard’ by J.K. Rowling

purchased a copy for my boyfriend a couple of years ago now, thinking that it wouldn’t take him long to get to and that I could read it afterwards.  It is, however, still sitting unread on his bookshelf.  I decided to eventually borrow The Tales of Beedle the Bard from my local library, and read it in less than an hour one chilly February evening.  The book itself is lovely, despite the fact that the copy which I borrowed was very worn and looked as though children had chewed on its corners.

I had hoped that it would not be disappointing, as I have sadly found the other Harry Potter companion books to be so.  I remember reading a lot of mixed feedback for this book – some gushing, and others not very complimentary at all – around its publication, so I did not set my expectations too high upon beginning it.

Beedle the Bard supposedly lived in the fifteenth century, and was the original author of these stories.  The additional commentary to the volume has been ‘written by’ Professor Dumbledore, and the entirety is said to have been translated by Hermione Granger.

Five stories in all are collected in The Tales of Beedle the Bard – ‘The Wizard and the Hopping Pot’, ‘The Fountain of Fair Fortune’, ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart’, ‘Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump’ and ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’.  The introduction to the volume states that this book is ‘a collection of stories written for young wizards and witches.  They have been popular bedtime reading for centuries…  [Here] we meet heroes and heroines, who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do’.  The introduction is quite amusing, comparing the tales rather favourably to ‘Muggle’ fairytales, and stating such things as, ‘Asha, Altheda, Amata and Babbitty Rabbitty are all witches who take their fate into their own hands, rather than taking a prolonged nap or waiting for someone to return a lost shoe’.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a very quick read, and the stories themselves are more like fables really.  The illustrations are sweet, and the use of imagined history in Dumbledore’s commentary works well too.  Whilst it is a nice addition to the Harry Potter stories, The Tales of Beedle the Bard does feel rather underwhelming, and it does become a little repetitive after a while.  I presume that I probably would have preferred it far more had I still been a child upon reading it.

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‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black ****

I first heard of ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ some years ago, but it has taken the watching of a video on Booktube – in which Little Book Owl has the most beautiful edition of the collected series – for me to get around to reading it.  Rather than write separate yet similar reviews for each book in the series, I thought it would be a good idea to amalgamate them into one rather long critique.

Artwork from ‘The Ironwood Tree’

Throughout the entire series, I absolutely adored the beautiful illustrations and cover designs, and I loved the way in which the tale was introduced by way of two letters – the first from one of the authors, Holly Black, and the second purported to have been written by the Grace children, the protagonists of the series.  I was expecting to find myself reading something similar to Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ books (and I must admit that I was hoping for such a series too).  Whilst ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ books are not as witty or well written as the aforementioned, they are just as readable and creative.

The first book in The Spiderwick Chronicles is The Field Guide.  I cannot help but fall for books with chapter titles which begin ‘In which…’, so that was a major point in the book’s favour at the outset.  The three Grace children – Mallory and her younger twin brothers, Simon and Jared – have moved with their mother into their Great-Great-Aunt Lucinda’s house following their parents’ divorce.  In the first book, they find a secret library within the house, and uncover ‘The Field Guide’ – an informative book which tells them all about faeries and the magic world.

Throughout all of the books in the series, the authors set the scene well and build atmosphere marvellously.  They have given great consideration to the pace of the stories, and each is very difficult to put down.  By the end of the first book, I was longing to know what would happen next, and was so pleased to acquire the rest of the series so that I could read it soon afterwards.

The second book is entitled The Seeing Stone, and in it, young Simon goes missing, prompting a search by his siblings.  I liked the way in which, from one book to the next, DiTerlizzi and Black recapped the important details from the previous tale at the outset.  This book particularly was incredibly inventive, and I must admit I did find their goblins rather creepy.  They were far from the little devious men which I was used to from Blyton’s books.  In this novel particularly, I very much enjoyed the element of not quite knowing what was going to happen next.  The plotlines are woven cleverly.

A beautiful illustration from the series

I liked the way in which, in all the books, the children were made to work together, despite their occasional dislike and mistrust of one another.  In the third tale, Lucinda’s Secret, the children get to meet their aforementioned Great-Great-Aunt Lucinda, who is a wonderfully eccentric character.  I found this tale a lot darker than the previous two, and some of the elements which DiTerlizzi and Black touch upon would probably have scared me when I was younger.

The fourth book, The Ironwood Tree, was my least favourite of ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’, despite its beautiful cover (see the picture above).  The pace and storyline of the tale did improve as it went along, but it did not quite match up to the rest of the series for me, both in terms of its plot and characterisation.

I am pleased to say that the final book in the series, The Wrath of Mulgarath, improved dramatically, and it is fair to say that I very much enjoyed ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ overall.  The ending to the series was wonderfully thought out, and I very much liked the slightly extended length of the book, which tied up all of the loose ends from the other stories.  I would highly recommend ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ to all, and am rather looking forward to reading through them again when I have my own children.