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Ender’s Game: Review by Club Fantasci

Ender's Game: Review by Club Fantasci
Club Fantasci met last weekend to discuss both the March Book of the Month – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. You can watch the discussion of co-hosts David Lowry, Dionne Lister, Kriss Morton and myself below.

You can find our full reviews of the books here on the Club Fantasci website.

April’s Book of the Month is The Glass Demon by Helen Grant and the Hangout will take place on April 26th at 7:30pm CST.

Review of ‘The Accidental Sorcerer’ by K.E. Mills

Welcome to Ottosland, a country with a vague British flavour, in a world that more or less resembles ours, except that alongside the telephone sits the crystal ball. This is a world of both magic and technology.

Gerald Dunwoody is a Third Grade wizard, graduate of a mere correspondence course in wizardry, and reduced to the level of inspector for a government department. When the blame for the destruction of Ottosland’s most prestigious staff factory falls on Gerald, he finds himself virtually unemployable.

At the enthusiastic insistence of his genius friend, Monk Markham, Gerald takes a job as advisor to the King of New Ottosland. Monk reasons that Gerald needs to get away from the debacle that is the destruction of Stuttley’s, and when he returns, not only will the uproar have died down, but Gerald will have ‘advisor to a king’ on his resume.

Reg, Gerald’s apparently sentient bird, is less enthusiastic. Potential employers need to be vetted, she says. Royalty can be dangerous. And what does a king want with a Third Grade wizard?

Against Reg’s objections, Gerald takes the job and they travel to New Ottosland, where they are greeted by Princess Melissande, the Prime Minister of New Ottosland. It quickly becomes clear things are not at all what they seem. The Privy Council has been sacked. Melissande, under-staffed and over-worked, is trying to do the work of the Council, the Prime Minister, and negotiate with a delegation from neighbouring Kallarap about tariffs the king refuses to pay. The kingdom is verging on bankruptcy.

And King Lional himself demands that Gerald impress him, or be sent on his way.

Sweating under pressure, Gerald somehow manages to turn Lional’s cat into a lion. A level 12 transmogrification spell? Impossible! Such a feat is beyond the skills of a mere Third Grade wizard. But what if Gerald isn’t a Third Grade Wizard anymore? What if the events at Stuttley’s have… changed him?

Completing the royal ensemble is Prince Rupert, more interested in his butterfly house than the running of a nearly bankrupt kingdom or royal politics. He is quite obviously mad, and yet Gerald has the sinking feeling that Rupert might be the saner of the two brothers when Lional announces that Gerald will be his secret weapon in the negotiations against Kallarap.

Adding a sinister feel to proceedings, it soon comes to light that Gerald’s five predecessors in the position of advisor to King Lional, all First Grade wizards, have not been seen since they supposedly left New Ottosland…

Why is Lional determined to provoke war against his neighbours? What happened to the missing wizards? And what does he want with Gerald?

The book is engaging and fast-paced, as well as humorous, though perhaps written more in a young adult style. If that bothers you, give the book a miss, but I found the story compelling and well-written. Though hardly the most competent wizard, Gerald draws you in with his personality, his well-meaning dedication, and his genuine attempts to make the best of a bad situation. When things turn really pear-shaped, he is really tested, and the decisions he makes will shape the man he will become.

A mostly fun, light-hearted read interspersed with darker moments, the book is a solid, well-written effort and definitely worth your time. 

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The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty: A Review

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty

The book is described as retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. ‘Retelling’ is a loose description, since the events of the story in fact take place after Sleeping Beauty has been awoken.

My use of the word ‘story’ is also necessarily loose. Does the book have a story? I can’t say I actually noticed one in amongst the gratuitous sex, violence and depravity, and I was, in fact, looking very hard! The main character has no goal I could discern, unless it is to please her new masters, and that is not an especially hard goal to achieve. A goal of escaping would be readily understood and easy to relate, but the thought does not even cross the idiotic girl’s mind. There is no real conflict. 

The story, such as it is, is that Sleeping Beauty is awakened not by a kiss, but by rape. I’ll say it, although the book avoids use of the word until page 84 or something like, but I call a spade a spade, and it’s rape. The Prince who awakens her comes from a kingdom that appears to be feared, for the newly awakened parents of Sleeping Beauty readily accede to the Prince taking away their only daughter – after he parades her naked and gropes her in front of them. I have difficulty conceiving the father who would have tolerated this in front of his very eyes, no matter how much he felt he owed the man who’d broken his enchantment. 

Taken from her home, Beauty is introduced to a society where many Princes and Princesses are sent as ‘tribute’. These Princes and Princesses are kept naked, abused, humiliated, and mistreated in the grossest way imaginable. 

The book is touted as BDSM, but I call foul – this is a grossly misleading statement. BDSM is a consensual sexual activity between adults, at least one of whom is usually submissive and takes pleasure in being so, and at least one who is usually dominant and takes pleasure in being so. True BDSM relationships are characterised by a surprising amount of power resting in the hands of the submissive, who possesses the power to stop proceedings by use of the ‘safety’ word. 

What occurs in the Court of the Prince is not consensual, and we have another word for activities that would have been BDSM if only they were consensual, and that word is torture. The activities are imposed by the will of the captors on the helpless captives, and comprise torture of the most humiliating and debilitating kind, designed to break the spirit and turn a human being into some kind of malleable dough that can be reshaped as the torturer desires, into a willing slave, desperate to please, with no thought or concern for themselves. If you were to transpose any member of the Court of this Kingdom into the TV show, Criminal Minds, they would be the most despicable kind of psychopath, kidnapping women and torturing them into compliance – most definitely the unsub!

I’ve read Kushiel’s Dart, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty only infuriated and sickened me. I distinguish the two books on this basis – Phedre, the protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart, is touched by the gods, and derives genuine pleasure from her own pain, and enters into liaisons consensually of her own free will and possesses the ability to cease proceedings by use of her signalle. The activities embodied in Kushiel’s Dart are in fact BDSM. On the odd occasion that Phedre endured actual torture, rather than consensual BDSM, and despised her body’s own response, it was a sacrifice she voluntarily made for the lives of others. 

The perverted relationship between Mord-Sith and ‘pet’
of which this book reminds me
By contrast, the slaves of the Court do not consent to proceedings, have no power to stop the abuse by use of a safety word, and do not naturally derive pleasure from their pain – rather, they are conditioned to never feel pleasure without pain, thus forcing the brain to form associations between the two (much the same way Valerian House in Kushiel’s Dart trains its initiatives, except Valerian does not humiliate and break its adepts). Eventually the pain-pleasure sensations become so closely entwined, the captives experience a sexual response to the infliction of pain. 

It is difficult for me to say where the story goes after Beauty is brought to Court – it doesn’t really go anywhere. The book becomes nothing but a long progression of physical and sexual abuse, rape, and deliberately degrading and humiliating activities. Beauty is kept naked, raped, forced to unclothe her master and perform other tasks with her teeth, to perform sexual acts on her master and other people, kept on hands and knees, spanked and physically abused in other ways, tied up as an adornment, and driven like a horse. Although a multitude of ways are invented to punish her, they vary little in substance, and most consisted of some kind of spanking. I am now heartily bored of spanking, to the point where the production of another paddle produced an eye roll and a stifled yawn. 

I didn’t relate to, or like, any of the characters in the book. So far as Beauty goes, I have no idea what her character was before her enslavement by the Prince, and she breaks to his will so quickly I almost despise her weakness. She scurries to obey after only being paraded naked and spanked a few times, and never once does the thought of escape cross her mind. I concede escape may not have been feasible, nor an attempt wise, but she doesn’t even think about the matter enough to draw any such conclusions! She says only nothing can save her, even though she’s not tried to save herself. 

Other characters describe Beauty as rebellious, or graceful and dignified under pressure, yet all I see is a frightened girl desperate for approval, scurrying to escape a spanking with tears down her face. There is nothing of dignity about the character that I can discern, and certainly nothing rebellious! Whatever it is these other characters see, it has not been adequately communicated to us, as indeed the case with many of Beauty’s emotions – she says she feels certain things, but I am not feeling them with her. This may be due to significant use of passive language and ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’. 

But at least Mord-Sith
acknowledge what they do is torture…
The Prince, his mother the Queen, and the Court are cruel and cold-hearted. They describe the slavery as ‘providing perspective’ and ‘understanding’ to the slaves, and yet none of them are subjected to such treatment, or would even consider it necessary, and the hypocrisy revolts me. This is not an improvement process, but a justification for deriving their own pleasure. 

Twice the book put me in mind of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truthseries, and not in a good way. The Court’s philosophies on slaves remind me of Jagang’s theories within the Old Kingdom – people should have no personal pride, and should serve the good of the people with no sense of self, a principle which of course did not apply to Jagang and similarly does not apply to the people of the Court. This was a revolting philosophy in that book, but no one pretended otherwise – the quest was to destroy Jagang and his way of life. Here it is accepted, lauded, embraced by all members of the kingdom, right down to the common people. Everyone seems to be depraved, and I have yet to meet a character who had much in the way of common decency, because even the slaves are recruited into degrading and mistreating each other.   

The second instance is that the members of the Court remind me of the Mord-Sith, pushing, and poking, and prodding, humiliating, and degrading, and hurting their slaves until they break, and once broken, become malleable and compliant. The Mord-Sith at least have the excuse of having been taken and tortured and trained as girls in exactly the same way they now train their pets. The members of the Court have no excuse, and commit the same gross injustices in nothing but the name of their own pleasure and amusement.   

My main issue with the book is that it appears to be nothing but a recounting of the grossest forms of abuse against humanity for gratuitous purposes, and the book attempts to pass this off as legitimate BDSM when it is anything but, and an exploration of the human psychology of seduction and desire, when I’m not seeing a lot of seduction, only a lot of cruelty. I support the consensual ideology of BDSM, but when you take away a person’s free will, subjugate them, abuse them, and rape them, it’s nothing but torture.

Other nitpicks with the book included:

  • Excessive use of telling and passive language;
  • Cliches – the spilling of blood on the taking of virginity is such a cliché. It in fact only happens in less than half of all cases. What I wouldn’t give for a book where having sex with a virgin produces no blood!
  • Inaccuracies – early in the book the Prince causes Beauty to ejaculate. I have difficulty accepting this. Female ejaculation is little understood even in this modern age, but it’s generally accepted it requires a comfortable, relaxed woman for the process to take place. Rape and abuse are hardly conducive to creating that outcome. I also struggle to believe so many tasks can be performed with only the teeth. Ever tried to carry a boot any distance in your teeth?
  • Internal thoughts are written identically to dialogue, sometimes creating confusion as to whether something is spoken aloud or only thought;
  • Infodumping – one character, Prince Alexi, tells his tale of abuse and humiliation over what seemed liked three long chapters. Yawn. Also, I suspect any man who was forcibly sodomised so many times by so many men and so many improvised implements in such a short period of time would almost certainly have sustained internal injuries resulting in death!

In short, the book sickened me, made me furiously angry, and otherwise largely bored me. The erotic scenes were repetitive and lacking in imagination, and the books lacks relateable characters, conflict, tension, or basically anything interesting beyond the abuse of fellow humans.

It ended with Beauty about to be shipped off to some even worse torture than had already been inflicted upon her (this time at her own instigation) and I honestly can’t say I’m inclined to read the sequel. 

No, wait – there is one scenario in which I would read the sequel. If every member of the Court (and possibly the castle) was stripped naked, covered in honey, and staked out over an anthill! Failing that, maybe if Richard Rahl came along and lopped off all their heads. 

Yeah, Richard, off with all their heads!

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Club Fantasci: The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty

November’s Book of the Month for Club Fantasci was The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice. The book certainly seems to polarise readers, and it had that effect on myself and my co-hosts. Watch the Hangout below to see what we thought of this rewrite of the classic Sleeping Beauty.

Reviews by the co-hosts will shortly be available on the Club Fantasci website and will be linked here as soon as they go up. 

Next month, we have another erotic fantasy – Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Tune in to see the Hangout on December 29 at 7pm CST or, it being the holiday season, check it out while recovering from a post-holiday hangover!

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The Rook: Book Review

I picked The Rook up free at GenreCon in Sydney, Australia – part of the free goodie bag every conference attendee receives. Though it was outside my main reading tastes (i.e. not epic fantasy), the blurb intrigued me, and it certainly contained enough elements of the supernatural for me to say ‘close enough is good enough’. 

Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced Miffany, to rhyme with Tiffany, rather than the correct Welsh pronunciation – ugh) opens her eyes in a park, surrounded by a ring of dead men, with a letter addressed to ‘You’ from ‘Me’ – the former occupant of the body. 

Intriguing, but I must confess the initial chapters had me most confused as to whether this was a case of body-switching (my first impression) or amnesia. By about a quarter of the book, I’d settled comfortably on amnesia, but a quarter is too much to be confused and I was disappointed because I’d misunderstood, and the body-switching sounded far more interesting than garden variety amnesia. 

Guided by the letters, Myfanwy must decide whether to find out who is trying to kill her (the former ‘her’) or escape to a life of comfortable anonymity. Having chosen to flee her unknown assassins, she is thwarted in the attempt by an attack at the bank where she is to retrieve instructions on how to make a clean escape. When she mysteriously leaves her assailants unconscious, she instead elects to resume her former life and hunt down the person trying to kill her. 

Myfanwy discovers she is a ‘Rook’ in the Checquy, UK government department tasked with controlling the supernatural – one of the eight powerful leaders of the organisation, and possessed of supernatural powers of her own. Using comprehensive notes left by her predecessor, who knew she was to lose her memory, she bluffs her way through her first few days of fumbling ignorance to secure her position in the organisation. Once established, she sets out to find the traitor in their midst, and stave off an ancient, powerful enemy from the Checquy’s past.  

While the plot was intriguing and enjoyable, and by the end I was completely enthralled and found myself compelled to finish, desperate to know the identity of the traitor, I found the book suffered from a number of problems that on a pickier day would have led me to drop the book like a hot potato. As it was, I was at least halfway in before I felt fully invested, and that is far too late.

Myfanwy. What kind of person would take someone whose name is pronounced ‘Miffany’ seriously? Worse, someone called her ‘Miffy’. My toddler watches a cartoon with a rabbit called Miffy. I cannot abide it. I have no idea what purpose this incorrect pronunciation of the name was intended to serve. When Myfanwy’s long lost sister turned up, it appeared Myfanwy had been mispronouncing her own name (not that revelation change anything). Given she was old enough to know how to pronounce her own name when she was taken into government training, I’ve no idea how this happened, or why it happened, except to annoy the reader. 

Also, the reappearance of the sister seemed gratuitous and served no purpose, except to conveniently offer a villain leverage over Myfanwy – despite the fact neither the current Myfanwy, nor her predecessor, knew or had any emotional connection to the sister. 

Myfanwy made a number of huge errors in her impersonation of herself in the early days, and didn’t appear to make much attempt at all to behave consistent with what she did know about her predecessor (granted, not much). I concede I’d probably have wanted to shake things up since it seems the old Myfanwy was a bit of a wet dishrag, but she did it accidentally, in a fumbling, ignorant kind of way. 

Amazingly, only one person figured out what had happened, and that person kept their mouth shut. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d expect a senior member of a covert operation to be interrogated if there was even a suspicion they were being impersonated, and even more so in a covert supernatural organisation where perhaps the idea of someone being replaced isn’t so completely far-fetched. But despite noticing she was behaving differently, no one said a thing. This was largely attributed to the power Myfanwy wielded as Rook, but at the same time it was apparent other staff treated her as a laughing-stock. This stretched my credulity. 

The letters from Myfanwy’s predecessor (and there were a few) provided the author with a convenient excuse to infodump backstory in large chunks. Convenient, but unnecessary and annoying. Some of the information so provided was interesting and relevant, while others appeared to have been included for humour only. Mostly I found these annoying as they took me away from the actual interesting story. The so-called humour left me flat in most cases. When a huge fungus swallows a series of strike teams, I’m not inclined to be amused by its colouration. The book was supposed to be humorous, I understand, but it never really struck the right tone to achieve it.    

In some instances (only occasionally) the author did a substantial amount of work building tension, made a huge and important revelation, and then did nothing with it. For instance, Myfanwy made an important discovery while interrogating a prisoner. It was implied, not spelled out (i.e. the reader had to do some basic math to work it out), and it was huge. I expected Myfanwy to report this to her superiors or, if she daren’t trust them with it, I expected her to act on it herself, or at least think about what it meant. Instead, at the opening of the next chapter – nothing. It was ignored so completely, I began to think I had misunderstood what I’d read. It was important enough it should have rated a mention, and if she had thought about it, probably she would have figured out who the traitor was earlier.

Myfanwy also appeared to have experienced a significant increase in her powers post-amnesia, and this was never satisfactorily explained. 

The editing could have used some work, too, with unnecessary instances of passive language and repetition which, while not quite enough to put me off, were more noticeable in light of some of the larger plot issues identified above, and only served to annoy me more. 

I did enjoy the story, enough that I will probably check out the author’s next work, but if you are one of those people who is exceptionally picky about the quality of the books you read (which usually I am these days) or otherwise have a huge TBR list, you might not want to take the time. 

I’d give this three stars – solid effort, but could have done with more polish and refinement. 

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