Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Dark Thorn by Shawn Speakman

The Dark Thorn – Shawn Speakman

Genre: Fantasy
Published: Speakman Press
Publication Date: November 2011
Reviewed by Justin Hanvey

QUICK HIT – Set within a universe where Celtic myth and Arthurian legend come alive, Speakman’s novel is a fantasy epic of grand ambition. He has placed himself easily in the pantheon of other great fantasy authors such as Brooks, Salvatore, and Donaldson.

The Dark Thorn is not Shawn Speakman’s first novel, but it is the first one he’s willing to share with an audience. It’s a fantasy epic which takes place in both modern day Seattle and the Otherworld of Celtic legend, the home of the Tuatha De Danann. Richard is the protagonist, a knight that lives as a homeless man on the streets of Seattle, and protects the portal to Annwn, the Otherworld. He is helped by a mysterious old man named Merle, and later the boy Bran, whose past is the catalyst for much of the action that happens in the novel. It is at once a modern-age fairy tale and an age-old story of how power and greed can corrupt even the most benevolent of people. Richard joins with Merle and Bran to bring balance to the worlds, and to protect the portal from forces of fey and Church (the Catholic Church to be exact) on both sides of the portal. The story is even more complicated than this, though, and even involves the son of Charles II, Philip Plantagenet; sent by his father on Crusade into Annwn, he quickly sets up a power base by some fairly insidious means which become apparent as the story goes on until the final blasphemous twist.
This is not a Christian novel, but it is a novel about religion and also extremism in any of its forms. Speakman is a strong believer in faith and its personal merit to our lives, but he is not a believer in extremism, in pushing faith on others, or making faith a weapon. His novel is very powerful in this aspect as it almost acts as a parable on doubt, faith, and where truth should be in our personal lives. But to call it a parable is to directly miss its beauty, for in many ways, especially in his descriptive prowess, this novel is a work of art. Annwn itself falls off the page into an elaborate tapestry right before the reader’s eyes. It is filled with beautiful places and terrible creatures. Seattle by comparison seems glum and almost two-dimensional, but you can see the love that the author, a resident of Seattle himself, has for the coastal city. His descriptive abilities especially take him past a debut novelist status. But then, having been mentored by the award-winning author Terry Brooks, who could expect any less? Brooks’ touch is seen throughout the book in the way magic is handled, in the snide comments of the fairy Snedeker, and in various shoutouts to Brooks himself.
There are very few flaws—some spelling mistakes and other things—but the novel is nevertheless a very strong debut. Richard especially plays like a take on Thomas Covenant, the protagonist of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: a man struggling with a dark past and an uncertain future. His cynicism and brokenness is balanced out by young Bran, a boy who is seeing this new world for the first time with the wonder of a child. Even when his wonder is tempered by pain, as in all things, this will lead to him being a stronger hero. Richard himself undergoes a softening, so to speak, and revelations learned throughout the story help him to begin to come to terms with his past.
If you like a good fantasy story, look no further. Right now the novel is only available for Kindle at Amazon, though, which is probably my biggest complaint, as the cover artwork is simply stunning and would look lovely on a hardcover novel sitting on your coffee table! But it’s balanced out by a rather cheap price, $6.99, which is very affordable in this current economy. A hardcover is eventually coming, Speakman promises, and he continues to work on the next novel in the series:  The Everwinter Wraith, supposedly even better than Dark Thorn, which is hard to believe. He is also working on a short story for an anthology called Unfettered. Many of Speakman’s friends have come along to write in this anthology, including Brooks, Salvatore, Rothfuss, Sanderson, Butcher, Erikson and many more. The proceeds will go to pay for Shawn’s cancer treatments. It is refreshing and hopeful to see the fantasy-lit world coming together to help a friend out in this way.
The novel is a novel of hope, and its take on faith is refreshing. I hope to see more from this burgeoning author, and his wondrous world he’s created. Looking forward to the next novel.

The Ocean At The End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: William Morrow

Publication Date: 6/18/2013

Reviewed by Justin Hanvey

QUICK HIT – An enchanting tale of youth and wonder, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells a story about a boy and the hard childhood he lived, as well as the hope he found in three mysterious women who gave him the adventure of a lifetime, and taught him the virtues of forgiveness, self sacrifice and friendship.

I picked up this novel with high expectations and while those expectations weren’t completely met, I loved the novel nonetheless. Like Gaiman’s earlier novel The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of a young boy named surrounded by creatures of another world, who draw him in to a new understanding of life.
Unlike Graveyard Book, this one doesn’t seem nearly as fleshed out, and suffers a bit for it. Some of the characters seem rote caricatures created simply to be foils for the protagonist. Unfortunately one of these is the boy’s father himself, and the rest of his family, who seem barely there, and when they are it is in some pretty rough horrific parts.
Gaiman plays a little rough with the boy as well, giving him a sort of sad existence, with no friends, parents who barely care, and a sister that gets most of the attention. When he finally gets a friend (a kitten), he loses it in a tragic way which eventually leads to more tragedy.
But in the midst of this he meets the three women who will change his life forever. Based on ancient myths of the three Fates, these women are called the Hempstocks. There is Old Mrs. Hempstock, Ginnie, her daughter, and Lettie, her granddaughter who befriends the boy (who remains unnamed, since it is written in first person)
After a man commits suicide right by the Hempstock farm in the father’s car, the boy is drawn into a story with terror and wonder alike. The women are caretakers in a way, watching over their town with a motherly attention. When strange things start happening in the town, Lettie and the boy investigate, and accidentally unleash an evil that takes much hardship and sacrifice to deal with.
It is both an ancient story, a myth, much like the books of Egyptian and Greek folklore that the boy likes to read, and a modern fairy tale of home and our memories and longings for the childhood we once had, while pragmatically admitting that it wasn’t perfect. As an adult the boy revisits the old Hempstock farm, and memories which had been buried of his adventures there come to light, and we are whisked along to his childhood, filled with all its horror and beauty.
To say more would give up a lot of that beauty, and it’s certainly a book worth reading despite its few flaws. In the boy we see a little bit of each of us, wanderers in a strange world full of possibilities, and in the three women we see the embodiment of those possibilities, so vast as to be magical. That the rest of his life seems to pale in comparison is probably intentional.
A very good book, and a quick read at only 178 pages. Good for a night when you don’t have to get up early the next day, or a summer afternoon with your cat curled up beside you. Prepare to be enchanted and just a bit horrified, but mostly to find a deeper wonder in the beautiful and mysterious world around you.