The Hopeful Wanderer.015 – Warning Signs

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Blood on the dirt path ahead of me. So fresh it glistened bright red in the noonday sunlight, still puddling around bits of gravel. Just a moment ago, a hare had hopped down this turn, tall sunflower stalks obscuring it from my line of sight. Now it was gone. Now, the blood.

Sunflowers. Though the sun glared down from just overhead, every bloom lining the ditch to either side faced one direction. Faced me. Staring like brown pupils within unsettling yellow irises, unblinking. Tall stalks rubbed against enormous leaves, making a noise like bristly leather. No other sound broke the silence. My scalp prickled at the tension, at the sense of expectation.

I would not travel down this path. Despite the lack of breeze, a hissing rustle set up from the sunflowers as I turned away. Perhaps they should’ve waited to kill the hare, if they’d wanted to snare bigger prey like me. How could such a dangerous patch of plants be left alone out here?

Off to the side, I spied more red hidden within a clump of tall grass. A sign, though of a different kind than the blood. When I hauled the sign from the thick tangle of plants, I read on it warnings of danger ahead in four different languages. Do not pass. At least someone out there had tried. I side-eyed the sunflowers, noting the way younger stalks grew around a gap in the ground where the sign must have once stood. Suspicious.

Since the warnings couldn’t have saved the life of the poor hare, I silently thanked the unfortunate creature as I used a rock to hammer the sign back into the ground. Far enough away that the sunflowers could not cut it down again anytime soon.


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The Hopeful Wanderer.014 – A Ghostly Guardian

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A thick cloud came to rest over farmland and countryside, shading the afternoon in sepia tones and muffling the distant sounds of highway traffic. To avoid a wide, unnecessary loop of interstate, I was cutting across an open field, boots squishing in mud from overnight rainfall. Yellowing grass swished against my knees, soaking my pants legs to my ankles, and moisture beaded in my hair, dripping cold down my face. Everything smelled damp, full of possibility.

Watching where I stepped, I almost missed it. A gentle whuff of breath and warmth radiating at my side alerted me to the presence of another walking with me, pace sedate, bearing regal. Just visible in the fog was an enormous buck, brown coat fading into the the landscape. Its antlers grew shaped like tree branches, winter dull twigs rattling together as it turned its head toward me.

A guardian. Legends spoke of the wisdom of the ancient guardians, rarely seen, who imparted their knowledge to those they deemed worthy. Shocked, I stopped, and when it realized I no longer kept pace, it paused ahead.

I stared. It looked back at me. The thudding of my heart crashed in my ears.

“I have questions,” I whispered. My voice sounded like nothing at all. “Please.”

Those liquid black eyes bored into me. My breathing stalled altogether as I waited, hoped. A beat of time passed, but then slowly, silently, the guardian turned and walked away, vanishing into the white fog.

Alone now, I tipped my chin back, searching for meaning in the swirling mist above. Nothingness and emptiness. I let out a breath and quietly accepted rejection.

Of course we all had questions; that made none of us special. I hoped one day that someone would learn from this guardian what I could not.


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Book Review: Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

While I don’t quite agree that ‘Thunderhead’ beats ‘Scythe,’ they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality. 

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Thunderhead by New York Times-bestselling author Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead Synopsis

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.

Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

(Via Goodreads)

About Neal Shusterman

Neal has made his mark as a successful novelist, screenwriter, and television writer. As a full-time writer, he claims to be his own hardest task-master, always at work creating new stories to tell. His books have received many awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, as well as garnering a myriad of state and local awards across the country. Neal’s talents range from film directing (two short films he directed won him the coveted CINE Golden Eagle Awards) to writing music and stage plays – including book and lyrical contributions to “American Twistory,” which is currently played in several major cities. He has even tried his hand at creating Games, having developed three successful “How to Host a Mystery” game for teens, as well as seven “How to Host a Murder” games.

(Via Neal Shusterman’s website)

My Impressions

For a reader, an entertainment consumer of any stripe, really, hyped up claims about a new release tend to disappoint. I picked up Thunderhead from the library because I liked the prior installment, Scythe, enough to devour the last chunk of it in one Saturday afternoon (even with my Work In Progress judging me from my writing desk). But when I read somewhere (an offhand comment? an official review, maybe?) that Thunderhead surpassed Scythe, I became wary. When does book two in a trilogy compare with the first? Rarely.

Yet I found myself pleasantly surprised. While I don’t quite agree that Thunderhead beats Scythe, they’re absolutely comparable in terms of quality.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

The narrative of Neal Shusterman’s Thunderhead brings expanded perspective to already established lore, homing in on previously mentioned sects like our wonderful and terrible Scythes, the religious Tonists, and a new class, the rebellious Unsavories. It touches on many aspects of what it means to be human in an immortal world, recognizing the need for deific reverence, rebellion, and guidance.

It also covers the perspective of an entity that recognizes itself as not God, but which concludes that it might as well be. It also begins to relate more and more to the humans which it protects as it discovers within itself the ability to experience betrayal, anguish, fury, and helplessness.

Characters

Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, or rather, Scythes Anastasia and Lucifer, pick up with coming into their own separate but intertwined callings, each becoming more formidable and dangerous in the realms of politics and shadows. Scythes Curie and Faraday continue to impact Thunderhead‘s narrative, inciting change in the same vein as their protégés.

We meet a few new characters as well, including the Thunderhead itself, (the musings of which replace the Scythe gleaning journal excerpts present in Scythe), as well as Greyson Tolliver, a boy raised by the Thunderhead and used as an extension of its will. (Jesus son of God metaphor, anyone?)

The villains, whose identities I cannot spoil because it’s a huge reveal, get a little more focus as well. The allowance of a passionate and intelligent female villain satisfied me very much, and I do hope she gets a long existence of betrayal and revenge.

Motifs

The “war in Heaven” motif that grew present toward the end of Scythe becomes even more apparent with the insertion of the Thunderhead’s point of view on the increasing division between new order and old guard Scythes. Even without the blunt function of having Rowan use Lucifer as his Scythe name, it’s pretty clear that this immortal world stands in for Heaven and the divided Scythes represent pre-Fall angels and devils.

The Ending

That ending. Hard on the heels of triumph comes disaster, relating in loving detail and fabulous pacing the follies of humanity. The denouement events stirred my anxiety and had me on the edge of my seat during my lunch break. I had meant to cut that break short to make up for lost paid time, but I literally couldn’t stop reading Thunderhead until I finished it. Delicious anguish, tagged with a note of hope. The cliffhanger has its hooks in me and I must know how this series ends. No doubt, I will be picking up book three, entitled The Toll.

What I Disliked

Without revealing any spoilers, I at first disliked the beginning of the villain arc. It seemed clichéd, just a trope that’s become a recognizably lazy storytelling insertion. But as Thunderhead progressed, Shusterman proved himself capable of handling a worn out trope and sparking new life into it.

So it grew on me and I no longer have much of a problem with it at all.

Recommendations

I recommend Thunderhead to readers of thought provoking, philosophical fiction, compelling narratives, and examinations of the human condition.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.54 stars


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Book Review: Valiant

A study in edges, where Faerieland meets big city, where drug addiction meets magic, where homelessness meets whimsy.

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Valiant by #1 New York Times-bestselling author Holly Black

Synopsis

When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York City, she’s trying to escape a life that has utterly betrayed her. Sporting a new identity, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city’s labyrinthine subway system. But there’s something eerily beguiling about Val’s new friends. And when one talks Val into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature with whom they are all involved, Val finds herself torn between her newfound affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her new friends are becoming.

(Via Book Depository)

About the Author

Holly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), The Modern Faerie Tale series, the Curse Workers series, Doll Bones, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the Magisterium series (with Cassandra Clare) and The Darkest Part of the Forest. She has been a a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award and a Newbery Honor. She currently lives in New England with her husband and son in a house with a secret door.

(Via the author’s website)

My Impressions

It turns out that Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie actually exists as the second in Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series. Not that it mattered much, as this story stood on its own quite splendidly. The narrative may have made one or two references to Tithe, its predecessor, but clearly I needn’t have read it to understand Valiant, because I absolutely took these out of order.

The undertone of Valiant puts me in mind of Maggie Steifvater’s Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, one of my absolute favorite books — it displays a similar raw hunger, oozing pure enthusiasm if not finesse. An obvious representation of Black’s earlier offerings before experience could smooth out the edges of her style. The narrative itself is a study in edges, where Faerieland meets big city, where drug addiction meets magic, where homelessness meets whimsy. In that regard, it displayed a remarkable likeliness to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

I enjoyed how such a jagged demeanor overflowed into the main character, Val, and her total jock attitude. Not only does the narrative not focus on refining her into something more feminine, it makes a point of proving how her masculine interests and behavior become integral to the plot’s resoluation. She herself grows increasingly liminal, bearing a unisex name and wearing a unisex identity, until she seems mutable enough for anything and anyone. Capable of navigating the fine line between the mortal and Faerie worlds thrown together in the shadows of New York City.

I would recommend Valiant to fans of Neverwhere, urban fantasy, and angry girls.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads raiting: 3.91 stars


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The Hopeful Wanderer.012 – Artificial Illumination

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Between one town and the next, I spied in the distance twin lanterns casting steady, white light into the night, throwing tree limbs and grass blades into sharp, black relief. One lamp hung above the other, appearing like the eyes in a face cocked sideways. Perhaps in curiosity, perhaps madness. No matter how close my steps drew me to them, I never quite reached the house I thought the beacons must illuminate. No turnoff marked the way to them. Eventually, I passed by, expecting to plunge back into utter darkness.

Yet the path ahead of me remained bright, like the cast of an LED flashlight. My own shadow wandered before me, lengthy and alone. Even the furthest reaches of light should have faded by now.

Two sounds reached me at once: water gurgling against rocks, and a strange, electric hum. I dared not look back, knowing I would see those lamps, one cockeyed above the other, following behind, homing in on me like spotlights. Heat radiated against the back of my neck where they stared. That humming grew louder and louder until it buzzed in my ears and down to my bones.

I broke into a run. With little chance of stumbling on that daylight-bright path, I stretched my legs as far as they would go. Satchel thumping against my back. Metal jangling behind, the hot scent of burning filament in my nose. Closer, closer.

The path dipped and then I was splashing into cool water up to my knees. Mossy rocks rolled beneath my feet and I fell headlong into the shallow river. When I resurfaced, however, gasping and bruised, the lanterns had vanished, replaced with natural moonlight and the hum with the throaty croak of nearby frogs.


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The Hopeful Wanderer.011 – Unrooted

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An ornate greenhouse existed not only far from civilization, but smack in the middle of an already existing forest. Enormous, though in height rather than breadth. Craning my head back to gaze upward at its towering, clear walls, I wondered what must grow within.

So I went inside.

Warmth blanketed my face like an unpleasant breath, filling my lungs with dew. The warring scents of growth and rot assailed me. Lush green plants grew in clay pots set upon plastic bench tops, rows and rows lined up neat from the door to the back wall. Some small enough to fit in my palm, others taller than me. None of them explained the reason for such a tall building.

But there, in the center. Looking like a shaggy Christmas tree, an enormous Douglas fir rose toward the glass ceiling, roots knotting deep into the dirt. I saw no one else, so I approached the fir. The only sound was the crunch of gravel beneath my shoes.

When I stopped before the  fir, a deep, timber creak rumbled over me, shaking leaves and rattling pots. “Are you a plant?” the tree asked me.

“Not at all,” I replied. “I’m the opposite.”

“A wanderer, then,” the fir sighed. “You have arrived at last.”

My eyebrows rose. “Where is here?”

“Your last stop,” said the fir. “All in my greenhouse once wandered, but they took root here, and now they’re safe.”

With new eyes, I took in the plants around. So many wanderers. All trapped in pots, unable to even touch true earth. A shudder rushed through me. “I’m not staying.”

All the way to the exit, roots followed me, breaking the earth threateningly behind my feet. Fir needles rustled in hissing laughter at my back. “When you weary of wandering, you will return.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer.010 – The Scribbler

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From Pexels

The room was a disaster of notes pinned to cork boards, diagrams on white boards, stacks of notebooks, piles of crumpled paper, pens scattered everywhere. Every time I walked into the home of the Scribbler, I wondered if she would have begun plotting on the ceiling itself. A glance upward confirmed things hadn’t quite progressed that far. Yet.

At the sound of my entrance, the owner of this isolated house poked her head out of another room. Short brown hair stuck up every which way and a brilliant smile lit her face. “You came back.” She would be awake in the middle of the night.

I set my satchel down next to my favorite spot, a gray, sagging armchair. I had to relocate a leaning bunch of books from the cushion to an over-encumbered table, its surface more dirty dishes than wood. “I always do,” I said, dropping into the seat, closing my eyes.

“Someday you won’t, I think.” Soon, the warm scent of coffee reached me. When I looked, she was holding out a mug bearing the phrase don’t piss off the writer and nothing more, while with her other hand, she rummaged through precarious piles. Spiral notebooks slithered away from her touch like living, shrinking things.

Even accepting the mug weighed on me. Time for me to release the burdens of my recent experiences. Well past, really.

With a triumphant noise, she yanked out a much-abused flip notebook–the same one she had been using to record my wanderings last time–and took a seat on a squishy ottoman. Poising her pen, she turned her full attention to me. “Let’s pick up where we left off,” said the Scribbler. “Now tell me, how did you manage to get an ancient deity to sing to you?”


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