The Prestige: Showstopper

My journey with The Prestige fittingly began with a bit of magic trickery. “Oh, if you like the movie you have to read the book.” The bookseller explained. He went on, “One hundred percent worth it.” Then, with a flourish of legerdemain and misdirection, the book miraculously appeared in my bag while my fifteen dollars in cash (a budget set by my wife to limit my purchase to one book) materialized in the cash register. And so Christopher Priest’s novel of feuding stage magicians, famously developed for the silver screen in 2006, landed on my to-read pile. 

Normally I would disregard a book’s adaptation to any other media in my review. But like the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the film and the book versions of The Prestige remain inextricably intertwined. To keep things spoiler-free, here’s my warning: if you’ve seen the movie prior to picking up the novel, you will start ahead of the game. You’ll be privy to many, but crucially not all, of the secrets within. 

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier each have a great-great-grandchild exploring the mysteries of their descendants. This delicately frames the narrative in a semi-modern day (the book was first published in 1995) mystery. These short segments bookend the crux of the novel: two large sections that outline each of the dueling magician’s lives in his own words. Alfred Borden sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of magic and how it’s performed. He tells of his feud with Rupert Angier and the many years over which it occurs. His story sways beautifully between personal growth and regression, and he drops details that form the outside borders of a puzzle. The first pieces are there, but there’s much left to fill in. 

After an interlude from the two descendants, Rupert Angier tells his side of the story through his diary. It covers 20 years of his life and often skips huge chunks of time, but the burden of completing the puzzle falls on his narrative. In this, author Christopher Priest delivers. 

I’ve stayed deliberately tight-lipped about the details of the plot for good reason: it’s juicy and immensely entertaining. Watching this story unfold reflects the wonder of a magic show. Laden with misdirection and twists, The Prestige reads as one fantastic illusion. Borden and Angier tell their respective sides of the tale with brash egos befitting career stage performers, and the first-person approach lends a certain weight of plausibility to their outlandish recountings. Priest’s deep characters and elegant prose go a long, long way in making this book a mystery worth unfurling.

The downside to Priest’s narrative approach is the pacing. Borden and Angier feel incredibly real throughout the novel, thanks to Priest’s prosaic heavy lifting. The downside? Reading through two entire lives told autobiographically feels slow. In a book where details are essential to the story, it’s easily forgivable. But it’s also worth noting that, even at 360 pages, it’s a slow read. What I’m really trying to say here is this: if you start The Prestige, you’re signing up for a slow burn. You have to be content to let the details simmer as you trek through the pages. If you can manage that, you’re in for a great payoff. 

And that’s where the book really shines. The ending, though crafted with similar reveals to the movie, takes things one step further. The final 30 pages offer a veritable treasure trove for prefer-the-book purists. There’s merit in the entire story, but the finale alone makes the journey worthwhile. Combining elements of horror and mystery, it packs a real mystical punch. The end of this novel-length magic trick is the exclamation mark on a beautifully written, sometimes rambling, entirely entertaining sentence. 

Rating: The Prestige – 8.5/10

Ormeshadow – A Little Slice Of Life

712zdrcfehlPriya Sharma’s Ormeshadow overflows with dark family secrets, generations of lore, and tragedy. Sharma has a knack for pitting characters against one another with beautifully selected words. Ormeshadow reads like a wood-carving: Sharma removes all the excess material and presents a pristine, sharp product that feels at once succinct and sprawling.

Gideon Belman’s life completely changes when his father, John, ushers the family to Ormeshadow farm on the heels of his failure as a scholar in Bath. The land rests near the Orme–a sleeping dragon, as legend puts it, upon whose back the land has grown. John regales young Gideon with tales of the dragon and his family’s inextricable ties to it. John’s wife, Clare, tolerates the stories. Ormeshadow is tended by John’s brother Thomas, a rugged farmhand supported by his wife Maud, his boys Peter and Samuel, and his daughter Charity. The reunion dredges up years of resentment and hatred, and Gideon is thrust against his wishes into a life that seems intent on dragging him into madness and cruelty.

A true novella, Ormeshadow reads at a brisk pace, following Gideon’s life after the move and skipping years of time. Sharma’s chapters are snapshots in time, and the blanks she leaves can be easily filled in by imaginative readers. It’s almost like a series of vignettes, each serving a simple purpose: to tell us how Gideon has coped with the innumerable tragedies that befall him in Ormeshadow. The short length serves to better the book by quickly leading the reader to new, darker territory with every turn of the page.

The plot itself could be described as predictable (and probably has been described that way by some). However, when a predictable plot point was finally revealed, I felt spurred on by it, rather than hindered. Sharma’s characters are so believable that I became ravenous for more detail. To experience the characters dealing with their struggles is the heart of the story. Moments of realization and heartbreak abound, but they’re overshadowed by the subtler character moments that follow. Peppered throughout the book are the stories of the Orme and how it came to be. These stories lend mystical context to the modern-day goings-on in the tale, and they’re the cherry on top of the Sharma’s prosaic cake.

All that said, if you read Ormeshadow for any reason, let it be the prose. Sharma writes with a lyricism and brevity reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road. She says what must be said, and she does it with remarkable verbal grace. Simple, accessible, and beautiful descriptions lie on every page, and it’s a wonder to behold.

Stories of the Orme and legends of the Belman family give Ormeshadow a distinct mystical bent, as I mentioned above. These, presumably, are the reason for the novella’s “Dark Fantasy” genre-billing. I bring this up because, unless you sensationally interpret the story’s final moments, Ormeshadow is more of a dark realism story. It’s replete with family drama, plenty of lore, and a dash of mystery, but the fantasy elements are minimal. This doesn’t detract from the book’s quality at all. Instead, it’s a fair warning to readers seeking a grim fantasy tale. This novella may not satisfy that particular craving, but it is worth your time.

Priya Sharma’s novella bursts with character and flawless prose. She weaves a tale of family intrigue, dark pasts, and overcoming adversity. For such a quick read, Ormeshadow packs a hell of a punch.

Rating: Ormeshadow – 8.0/10
-Cole

A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons – This is the Longest Review Title Ever

Memoirs don’t typically fall within The Quill To Live’s purview. But Ben Folds, in a move reflective of his genre-bending career as a musician, has broken the mold and crafted a decidedly whimsical and punk autobiography that hooked me, a near-exclusive SFF reader, from start to finish. Ben Folds fans will likely flock to the artist’s book, which shines with the same exuberance and flair that he so often pours into his music.

Ben Folds, in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, weaves tales that cover an impressive range of emotions and topics, reflecting his songwriting. Sadness, anger, hardship, and moments of success color the book, boosted by Folds’ signature voice. That voice, stripped from its usual sonic medium, hops off the page and makes Fold’s unique brand of celebrity feel accessible to readers, even without his expertly crafted melodies setting the stage for the prose. Like his album “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” A Dream About Lightning Bugs makes its creator intensely relatable, even as he tells stories of performing on stage for thousands. 

The book succeeds because it is unabashedly Ben Folds. I usually steer clear of memoirs for fear of ghostwriters diluting the subject’s personality. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, though deftly edited and polished, bears no signs of outside influence. It reads like a Ben Folds song sounds, and his tales mirror the music he produced during the time in which those stories took place. 

A welcome wave of relief rushed over me when I discovered that Ben Folds’ life is actually interesting. Too often authors, in their autobiographies, try to make something out of nothing. Folds has a way of packaging the seemingly mundane in evergreen life lessons. When he explores his later work, he calls back to the earlier struggles that influenced it. This is all to say that Folds knows the story he wants to tell, the message he wants to share, and he does it well by carefully choosing the right anecdotes to grace the page. 

Certain moments stand out to me personally because I’ve always imagined Ben Folds a certain way through the lens of his music. Folds is Dad-like, unafraid of controversy, and willing to be himself without hesitation. Moments in the book showcase that he is that person (and much more) while also highlighting the moments that shaped his confidence as a musician and a person. He’s honest about his shortcomings. He accepts responsibility for his wrongdoings, including events that led to his multiple marriages and subsequent divorces. He describes throwing his shitty drum set into a lake as a rage-addled end to his time in college. He considers the good and the bad equally, and his memoir feels utterly balanced and satisfying as a result. This isn’t the story of a man justifying the things he’s done wrong. It’s the story of Folds coming to terms with his hardships, self-inflicted or otherwise, and understanding their role in his eventual (and continuing) success. 

After finishing A Dream About Lightning Bugs, I felt a new appreciation for Ben Folds. Reading his story in his own words lent me a new perspective on his music, which I’ve listened to voraciously for years. On the heels of this memoir, I’m more excited than ever to see what he does next. 

Rating: A Dream About Lightning Bugs – 8/10

Famous Men Who Never Lived – Open Your Heart And Your Reality

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Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.

Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.

Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.

The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.

And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.

Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.

Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
-Cole

The Rise of Kyoshi – Solid as a Rock

F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi, written with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, breaks new ground in the Avatar universe while paying homage to the source material that fans love. The novel explores new territories and pursues intriguing storylines that equally satisfy that Avatar craving and provide a fresh journey back to the world of benders. 

The Rise of Kyoshi follows the titular earth Avatar in her early days. Yee cleverly circumvents tried-and-true Avatar tropes–discovering the new Avatar, training montages, etc.– by placing Kyoshi in the center of a secret scandal. The Avatar has been incorrectly identified, and Kyoshi is his servant. The revelation that Kyoshi is the actual Avatar (and has been living with the misidentified one) kickstarts an Aang-worthy whirlwind of controversy, betrayal, and growth for both Kyoshi and her comrades. From there, the story meanders through the Earth Kingdom as Kyoshi learns about herself and her bending abilities. Yee weaves an elegant tapestry of politics, history, bending, and character to build upon the world fans know and love, but Rise doesn’t lean on these Avatar-trappings for support. Rather, Yee builds on the rich lore of the Avatar universe and crafts a unique story that deftly avoids using the critically acclaimed source material as a crutch. 

Kyoshi’s story is one of heartbreak, personal discovery, and hunger for power. We meet her as a fledgling bender who’s been cast aside by her parents, teachers, and society at large. Her adventures characterize her as a tough but unseasoned bender who has a keen eye for strategy but has yet to find her true moral compass. In this way, she’s an interesting middle ground between the two Avatars we’ve explored most in the two TV shows: Aang and Korra. Kyoshi blends Aang’s thirst for bending prowess with Korra’s search for meaning and self-discovery, creating a powerhouse character that’s just plain fun to read about. 

The supporting cast boasts a collection of interesting characters who typically stray into archetypal territory. While The Rise of Kyoshi deals with heavy themes and doesn’t steer clear of tough topics, the characters adjacent to Kyoshi are indicative of the young adult genre stamp. Kyoshi’s “Team Avatar” comprises a smattering of benders who each have a stand-out personality trait: there’s the aloof/suspicious leader of the bunch, the reluctant sifu, the warmhearted but tough-on-the-outside friend, and many more. This isn’t to say they aren’t lovable or enjoyable to see in action. Instead, I got the sense that there’s more to the characters than is readily available here.

The most unexpected surprise during my read-through was the exquisite description of bending. As an Avatar superfan, I worried that prose wouldn’t be a fit vehicle for the insane acts of bending often portrayed by the core series or the graphic novels. But Yee rose to the challenge and doled out amazing bending set-pieces. He treats bending techniques with great care and makes it feel real and intuitive, which is a crucial element in any Avatar story. 

The Rise of Kyoshi begs the question: will non-Avatar fans enjoy this/is it a good entry point to the world? My opinion: this book is best served as a dessert following the entree that is the series rather than an appetizer. It uses the series as its foundation, despite being a prequel, and deals out fan service in a tasteful way that gives added meaning to ardent fans. That said, a new reader could very much enjoy the prosaic introduction to Avatar and use it as a gateway to the larger pantheon of TV and graphic novels set in the same universe. 

Casting aside any previous fandom or lack thereof, The Rise of Kyoshi is an excellent extension of Avatar lore. Kyoshi is a perfect subject, lending a new perspective to the Avatar’s history and duties outside of Aang and Korra. As the avatar universe continues to successfully expand, it’s impressive how the worldbuilding remains consistently high quality, fresh, and doesn’t step on the toes of what came before. I’m already eagerly awaiting The Shadow of Kyoshi, which releases July 2020. If you’re a fan of Avatar in any capacity, this one’s for you.

Rating: The Rise of Kyoshi – 8.5/10

-Cole

Hollow Kingdom – Crow And Tell

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Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.

Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots

Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.

This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.

The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.

Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
-Cole

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – Natural 20

“I’m going to read the entire Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” turned out to be my greatest terrible idea yet. Or maybe it was a terrible great idea? I’m not entirely sure, mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed the 320-page deep dive into the world of DnD, but it also felt like trudging through a quagmire of intricate rules and descriptions just so I can tell people when they’re wrong about how effective their Potion of Fortitude is. By the time I turned the final page, I felt resoundingly good about my time with the manual.

The first point in the Player’s Handbook’s favor is its inherent fantasy bent. We’re no strangers to fantasy here, but to read through a fantasy game’s manual, no matter how whimsical or magical the game’s content, is decidedly different than picking up Lord of the Rings. The Player’s Handbook reads as a remarkably self-aware manual, playing that awareness to its advantage by offering short prosaic snippets that help readers vividly imagine the worlds of DnD before then giving more context to the nitty-gritty rules aspects of the game. These short fantasy descriptions that lead each chapter are welcoming entryways into the deep explorations of game mechanics that follow. 

The Player’s Handbook achieves its designated purpose. Namely, explaining the rules of “the world’s greatest role-playing game” to a newcomer. I opened the tome with just four DnD sessions under my belt (all played with the *supposedly experienced* Quill to Live staff!), most of which saw my character, Jimbabwe Razzledazzle, simply making jokes and occasionally bonking enemies on their heads with xylophone mallets to little effect. There was a tipping point somewhere in those first four sessions, though, when I thought “I need to know this game inside and out,” sparking my impulse to read straight through the first of the game’s core rulebooks. 

The rule descriptions are flawlessly complemented by expertly crafted illustrations that bring the world of DnD to life. It’s a game predicated on imagination, and seeing that concept depicted in the illustrations is an added bonus on top of the comprehensive and accessible rule-based content. 

DnD’s pantheon of rules plays the starring role as one might expect, but it feels distinctly readable in a way I never anticipated. The book is laid out in chapters and parts, each outlining a core facet of DnD: Races, Classes, Combat, Equipment, Spells, and more. I found the chapters and the content within them less captivating as the book carried on, but that’s because the layout and order just makes sense. I ravenously read through the class and race descriptions, eager to understand which types of beings might inhabit a game world and how they differ. Then I ventured more slowly into the other game elements. Sure, reading about the effects of leather armor can be interesting enough, but the true joy of reading through these segments is in understanding how they impact the game. For that reason, the less outwardly exciting chapters are completely manageable…

…until SPELLS. “Spells” is the final core chapter before a few appendices, and it’s literally just 50+ pages of spell descriptions. I read them all. Every. Single. One. Even when three different spells had near-identical effects with only small stat changes to differentiate them from their arcane brethren, I read every word. It felt philosophically necessary, if slightly masochistic, to make the leap and finish the book all the way through, even though it meant slogging through the spell descriptions. And this isn’t to say that they’re bad. Quite the opposite–the spell descriptions have that same accessible-but-fun spark as the rest of the rules. They’re just so…numerous. 

But I didn’t quit, and I don’t think any player should. The spells available in DnD quite literally weave magic into the world. And while most of them aren’t available to players right away, there’s value in knowing just what kinds of magic permeate your game world, and I felt better-versed in DnD after closing the page on the “Spells” chapter. 

There are myriad game elements, rule descriptions, and other tips and tricks in the Player’s Handbook that I’ve neglected to mention here. The book is so replete with game lore and mechanics that it’s impossible not to recommend it to anyone interested in jumping down the DnD rabbit hole. Pair those rules with amazing illustrations and tidbits of fun fantasy wordsmithery, and it’s a critical hit. 

Rating: Player’s Handbook – Read it if you’re at all interested in playing DnD/10
-Cole