Fantasy/SF Book Reviews

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The Burning Land by Victoria Strauss

Eos, February, 2004
Hardcover, 496 pages
ISBN: 0380978911
Ordering information:

The Burning Land
 by Victoria Strauss After a devastating war, the Empire of Arsace has finally prevailed, and has re-instituted its religion of the worship of the God Ârata, which was outlawed under the prior regime. Now the state and the king are allied. The church is all-powerful and heretics are severely punished. Any child who manifests signs of becoming a Shaper (a mage who can manipulate inorganic matter) is taken from his parents and sent to the Church for training. The Shapers are forced to take vows of celibacy and to take drugs to control their incredible powers, which may only be used in church services. When the Church hears rumors about a group of renegade, unrestrained Mages who have made their home in the Desert of Tears, young Shaper Gyalo is sent with an entourage to find the renegades and bring them home. Gyalo and his entourage begin their journey across the forbidding landscape of the burning lands. Soon the self-assured and pious Gyalo will encounter secrets that will shake his faith to its very foundations -- and possibly spell the beginning of a worldwide upheaval.

The Burning Land is the first book in a new duology by the multi-talented Victoria Strauss, the author of The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone. The Burning Land is a prime example of the perfectly executed fantasy. Ms. Strauss has created a fast-moving and exciting adventure, set in a fantastic and fully realized world full of religious repression, powerful magic, hidden love and dark secrets. The smug Gyalo, who has his world turned upside down, the outspoken Axane, who dares to question her society's strictest laws, and the handsome and arrogant Râvar, who is driven to near madness by his unrequited love and new ideas which challenge his religious training, are all powerful and vivid characters. With crisp prose, rich characterizations and a compelling plotline, The Burning Land is a thought-provoking, exhilarating novel.

--Claire E. White

Endless Nights (The Sandman, Book 11) by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Glenn Fabry, Milo Manara et al.

Vertigo/DC Comics, September, 2003
Graphic Novel, 160 pages
ISBN: 1401200893
Ordering information:

Endless Nights (The Sandman, Book 11)
by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Glenn Fabry, Milo Manara et al. Bestselling author Neil Gaiman returns to the medium that made him famous in this eleventh book in the Sandman series, entitled Endless Nights. For the uninitiated, The Endless are immortal siblings with godlike powers: Dream, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destruction, and Destiny. The tortured Dream rules over the realm where humans go when they sleep. This collection of stories and prose poems is illustrated by seven different talented illustrators. The stories run the gamut in style and content. "Fifteen Portraits of Despair" is an experimental collection of prose poems, illustrated by Barron Storey with appropriately macabre, disturbing images. In a revealing personal poem, Gaiman describes Despair thusly: "It is a writer, with nothing left that he knows how to say. It is an artist, and fingers that will never catch the vision." Mercifully, Gaiman appears to be in no imminent danger of succumbing to this version of despair. He has ideas to spare and the writing talent to get his message across easily.

In "Death and Venice," P. Craig Russell takes a lush and lavish approach to the illustrations for the story of pleasure loving aristocrats who try to escape both time and Death. "What I've Tasted of Desire," a story of one woman's eventually understanding of desire and price she willingly paid, is accompanied by the erotic and lyrical illustrations of Milo Manara, who creates one of the most compelling depictions of the androgynous Desire seen in the Sandman series. In a funny and layered story, "The Heart of a Star," we see the Endless in a time period long before any of the original Sandman stories. At a sort of annual convention of immortals, the Endless interact with suns and other supernatural beings as they squabble, discuss and vote on responsibilities and obligations to the universe. This far back in the past our sun, Sol, was still a goofy adolescent, Delirium was still Delight, an ill-tempered Death scared the daylights out of everyone, and Dream found a girlfriend. For a while Dream almost seemed happy…until the mischievous Desire introduced the girlfriend to Stoa, the Sun of her planet. Dream is furious with Desire. And Destiny comments that this little incident will be much discussed eons later when it is decreed that the Endless may not love mortals. In "Endless Nights" we visit the enigmatic Destiny, as the blind Endless walks through his garden, and reads the book : "Inside the book is the Universe." Although much too short, "Endless Nights" provides a marvelous end to the book. Frank Quitely's art is majestic and stark, hinting of the incredible complexities that lies in the mysterious figure of Destiny.

This is a rich and complex work, which reveals new nuances on the second or third reading. Sandman fans will see this is a marvelous addition to the canon, with many inside jokes and illumination of certain points raised in the series. But for those who have never read a comic or even considered picking up a graphic novel, this is the one to start with. For one thing, neophytes get exposure to a broad range of art styles from very talented artists. Plus there is the unmistakable style of Neil Gaiman's writing; although he never writes the same kind of thing twice (American Gods is pretty far away from The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish in subject matter, for example) there is a certain, ineffable "Neil-ness" about his writing. The wit, the style, the ….something. It's there, and it's worth reading, regardless of the subject matter or format.

--Claire E. White

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