Review of The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyaenko

SFFaudio Review

The Night Watch
By Sergei Lukyaenko; Read by Paul Michael
15 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2012
Themes: / Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / Magic / Good and Evil / Supernatural /

Sergei Lukyanenko is a science-fiction and fantasy author, writing in Russian, and is arguably the most popular contemporary Russian sci-fi writer. His works often feature intense action-packed plots, interwoven with the moral dilemma of keeping one’s humanity while being strong.

In The Night Watch, set in modern Moscow, the “Others” live among us, an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. A thousand-year treaty has maintained the balance of power, and the two sides coexist in an uneasy truce. But an ancient prophecy decrees that one supreme “Other” will rise up and tip the balance, plunging the world into a catastrophic war between the Dark and the Light. When a young boy with extraordinary powers emerges, fulfilling the first half of the prophecy, will the forces of the Light be able to keep the Dark from corrupting the boy and destroying the world?

The book is three novellas, linked by their setting and the fact that each is told by Anton, a Light Other who is now getting field experience after being a file clerk for several years. As he gets more experience, the reader learns more about the subtleties and intricacies of the world between Light and Dark. Each of the stories is thoroughly engrossing and although they build upon each other, the first two stand alone fairly well. The third conclusion brings the book’s overall story arc to a conclusion.

The first page of the book has two messages, which are puzzling and amusing as an introduction. However when I had finished the book I realized they also served to sum up how the author uses the different stories and characters:

This text has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of Light. — The Night Watch

This text has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of Dark. — The Day Watch

Final result: simply fantastic. The way the three stories all look at Light and Dark, treaties and compromises, and even what it means to be unyielding on one side or the other … not only provides a gripping adventure, but food for thought about our own lives.

Audio Notes: I was delighted to find the audio CD available for only $10 and promptly began “rereading.” Narrator Paul Michael has a low key style in reading this book. His dialogue reading features what sound like authentic Russian accents which enhance the book greatly since Anton’s thoughts are read in a regular American accent.

However, I soon noticed that whenever a character spoke there is very little emotion portrayed, no matter how stressful the moment. There are plenty of stressful, action-filled moments and to have them all conveyed in such a subdued fashion drained the color and excitement of the story for me. Eventually, the entire book seemed so colorless that I stopped listening and picked up the print copy to read the third novella.

My husband regularly has conference calls with Russians. Upon hearing my comments, he mentioned that he has noticed a monotonous quality whenever the Russians are speaking English. He attributes it to the difficulty in speaking a foreign language and conducting business simultaneously. Although I was interested to hear this, I neither know nor care whether this is a universal Russian trait. Story narration requires some level of acting to convey the text properly to the ear.

Whatever the reason, I cannot recommend the audio if you want to experience the full flavor of the book.

Posted by Julie D.

Review of The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen KingThe Eyes of the Dragon
By Stephen King; Read by Bronson Pinchot
11 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2010
Themes: / Fantasy / Good and evil / Magic / Monarchy / Wizards /

After writing his magnum opus IT, Stephen King briefly stepped away from the genre that defined his career. The result was The Eyes of the Dragon (1987), a fantasy novel. King said that he wrote The Eyes of the Dragon for his daughter Naomi (for whom the book is dedicated, along with King’s friend Ben Straub) who reportedly never liked her father’s terrifying tales.

While that may be true, I also think that King may have thought he had said all that he had to say about horror and was looking to explore other genres. He may also have simply exhausted himself with the tome-like IT and needed to try his hand at something short and simple. Compared with most King novels, The Eyes of the Dragon is a chapbook (it’s nine compact discs in the Penguin Audio version, 380 pages in paperback including illustrations).

In brief, The Eyes of the Dragon is a story about the inheritance of the kingship of the fictional realm of Delain. Roland, the old king, fathers two sons late in life, Peter and Thomas. Peter, the eldest, is slated to inherit the throne. Peter possesses all the qualities you would want in a monarch—he’s smart, just, honest, and brave. Thomas on the other hand is a near clone of his father—an average thinker, prone to vacillations, reluctant to make important decisions. Roland’s adviser is Flagg, a shadowy wizard who has served the kings of Delain for centuries, perhaps longer. Flagg is actually a demonic figure who wants to see Delain in ruins and the world thrown into a dark age of bloody anarchy. He devises a plot to poison Roland, framing the murder so that the blame falls on Peter. When the dust settles, Thomas, only 12 years old, unfit to rule and terrified with his new responsibility, is put on the throne. Flagg knows that Thomas will be a puppet in his hands and the instrument through which he can finally see his centuries-long evil plans come to fruition. Peter is sentenced to life in a prison in the tower of the Needle, a small cell high above the city.

King has professed a love for the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (The Stand is a semi-homage to The Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Tower series draws its inspiration from that book as well). The Eyes of the Dragon shares a lot in common with The Hobbit. Roland’s ancient heirloom is the arrow Foe-Hammer, one of the names given to Gandalf’s sword Glamdring. It’s also an allusion to the black arrow Bard uses to bring down the dragon Smaug. King tells the tale using an omniscient narrator who speaks with a pleasant, conversational voice, and seems to be relaying the tale years later and from some other time and place. This authorial voice is another hallmark of The Hobbit, written initially for Tolkien’s children and meant to be read aloud.

In general I liked The Eyes of the Dragon very much. As with all of King’s stories it’s wonderfully told with a compelling narrative. It feels like a fairy tale with an edge, in which the events will likely work out for the good in the end but with blood spilled and hearts broken along the way.

Peter is a great character and is easy to root for. Despite his unjust sentence and the fact that he knows he will likely never leave the Needle alive, he refuses to succumb to despair. Peter is a born leader with a carriage of command. Guards who initially spit in his soup or try to bully him, believing that as a convicted murderer he will be humbled and easy prey, are cowed by his regal bearing. His captors begin to question whether he indeed murdered his father. Peter has truth on his side and maintains his innocence with a quiet certitude that inspires awe. After his first week in the Needle he makes up his mind to live, and to not relinquish his kingship. Though he’s been convicted and stripped of his regalia and title he is in all respects still the uncrowned King of Delain.

If you’re a fan of King’s world and works you’ll recognize the name of Flagg, who is also the main villain of The Stand and The Dark Tower. While menacing in The Eyes of the Dragon, I found Flagg not as terrifying as he is portrayed in The Stand. Perhaps it’s because he’s less mysterious here and more of a prototypical evil dark wizard. He only reaches the truly insane level of depravity and malice I came to associate with Flagg of The Stand at the very end of the novel.

The Eyes of the Dragon is a moral tale and uses the fantasy trope of pitting opposing sides of good and evil against each other (Peter is almost stainlessly pure, while Flagg is an unredeemable monster who wants to see Delain thrown into a 1,000-year reign of anarchy and blood-soaked chaos). In between are characters with shades of gray, and just like The Lord of the Rings the outcome is decided by a few average folk who have to make difficult choices that run at odds with their own best interests.

But The Eyes of the Dragon is not without a few flaws. In my opinion King is far more comfortable and convincing when he’s writing about our world and in particular his Maine birthplace. Fictional small towns like Derry and Castle Rock feel real because King knows their environs and peoples. In contrast, the kingdom of Delain is unremarkable and without character (it’s a typical monarchy with kings and a servant class, whose technology is roughly high medieval). Any truly fantastic elements are at a minimum: Flagg is the only person who has access to magic and his spells are more alchemy than spellcraft. The only monster we see is a single smallish dragon in a flashback sequence whose head is mounted on the wall of Roland’s sitting room (from this trophy we get the title of the novel).

There are some holes in the plot, too. For someone who is incredibly ancient, powerful, and brilliantly evil, how does Flagg let Peter live for more than five years, letting him patiently spin his escape plot from the top of the Needle? Flagg recognizes Peter almost from birth as a formidable threat: Why wouldn’t he poison him, or pay the guards to murder him, or simply do it himself? When Flagg finally does catch on to Peter’s escape plan and comes racing up the stairs of the Needle swinging his monstrous double-bladed axe like a medieval version of Jack Torrance, I wondered why he had chosen to wait so long.

The second plot hole is Peter’s method of escape. I won’t spoil it here, but it seemed unrealistic that one of the omnipresent guards (who frequently pop their heads into the window on Peter’s cell door) wouldn’t have caught him in the act at some point during his five-plus years of imprisonment.

Still, a few problems aside, The Eyes of the Dragon is, like most of King’s material, a great read and highly recommended. Bronson Pinchot does a wonderful job as narrator and in particular delivers a wonderfully-voiced Flagg, delivering his lines with a whispering malice.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon SandersonThe Gathering Storm – Book Twelve of The Wheel of Time
By Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer
26 CDs – 34.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2009
ISBN: 9781593977672
Themes: / Fantasy / Epic fantasy / Good and Evil / Power / Politics / Religion / Magic /

The Gathering Storm is the first of the final trilogy of The Wheel of Time series. It was a long time coming, and I am pleased to report that Brandon Sanderson did an outstanding job. I actually spent part of my listening time looking for stylistic differences from the other books, but hats off to Sanderson for pulling this off. He nailed the tone of the other books, and tells a good story.

There are so many characters in these books, with different styles of speaking, that Michael Kramer and Kate Reading would be forgiven for inconsistencies in their narration, as they’ve done all 11 volumes that come before this one. That’s over 230 hours of audio! But they were right on, too. Their professional, enjoyable narration gave the book an additional source of continuity. These two are the voices of the Wheel of Time series.

So much has happened in this series that to say much about the plot here will spoil previous volumes. It should suffice for me to say that I enjoyed this book enough that I’ve started the series over from the beginning, in anticipation of the upcoming pair of concluding novels.

Posted by Tricia

Review of Knife of Dreams: The Wheel of Time, Book 11 by Robert Jordan

Fantasy Audiobooks - Knife of Dreams by Robert JordanKnife of Dreams: Book Eleven of The Wheel of Time
By Robert Jordan; Narrated by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer
26 CD’s – 32 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1593977654
Themes: / Fantasy / Epic Fantasy / Magic / Good and Evil / Demons / Dragons /

The eleventh installment in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, Knife of Dreams proves to be a fast paced and entertaining listen. This audiobook came as a welcome surprise after the last several novels in this series that tended to feel as though they were bogged down with a lot of useless detail and little action. There may be a movement forming of people supporting the cutting off of Nynaeve’s braid. Although, to be fair, she is now overly prone to “almost” yanking her plaited tresses instead of actually doing it. Other behaviors the movement may be interested in deleting from the text are the smoothing and/or arranging of skirts and shawls, sniffing, and Elaine’s new preoccupation with cursing Rand Al’Thor for her discomforts with pregnancy (after all, it takes two, right?). If these things were taken out of the text the world might be left with Wheel of Time pamphlet instead of the series.

Monotonous behaviors aside, Knife of Dreams came through in delivering resolutions to some of the subplots that have been hanging over the course of several novels. Jordan has breathed life back into his series with this book and regained the vitality of the earlier writing.

Kate Reading and Michael Kramer once again deliver fine performances reading the female and male characters respectively. This duo has narrated each book in the Wheel of Time series. The consistency in their character voices, intonations, and personality style demonstrate how well Reading and Kramer understand their characters and how familiar they are with the direction and emotional climate of the story. If you have been disillusioned with past installments of the series, give it another chance, this book is worth the time.

Review of The Fires of Heaven: The Wheel of Time Book 5 by Robert Jordan

Fantasy Audiobooks - The Fires of Heaven by Robert JordanThe Fires of Heaven: Book Five of The Wheel of Time
By Robert Jordan; Narrated by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer
29 CD’s – 38 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
Published: 2004
ISBN: 1593976062
Themes: / Fantasy / Epic Fantasy / Magic / Good and Evil / Demons / Dragons /

The fifth book in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, The Fires of Heaven is one of the author’s better novels. As in all of his books in this series, this book is enjoyable because there is so much going on with the plot and numerous sub-plots. Jordan does a good job of keeping all of the smaller story lines relevant to the overarching theme of the final battle between good and evil that will culminate for Rand al’Thor and his companions in Tarman Gaidon. Jordan does a nice job of blending interesting concepts such as circular time with a compelling story line that includes humor, drama, suspense, romance and all the rest. What sets this book apart from the others in the series is the clever depiction of an epic battle between the Shaido clan of the Aiel and the mixture of warriors following Al’Thor. Once again, there are a lot of things going on among the principle characters in this battle, and Jordan manages to keep it all engaging and very exciting.

A criticism that I have of this book also applies to the other books in the series. The tension between the men and women in the stories is taken too far and beaten to death. It has become annoying to the listener at the point of this book, and begins to be more so in the subsequent novels. In some cases, as with Nynaeve Al’Maera, the character has become completely un-likeable. The characters would be more believable if they could evolve past this stuff or if Jordan could just not mention it so much.

Kate Reading and Michael Cramer work together to narrate the female and male perspectives. Since the books are so large and such big sections of it are told from one gender’s point of view at a time, it works well to keep the listener’s interest. There are also fewer of the awkward-sounding attempts at trying to depict a character of the opposite sex by altering the pitch of the voice.

Ms. Reading is always enjoyable to listen to. She is especially talented at enunciating clearly, yet sounds completely natural. Her classic voice is a pleasant match for the characters she portrays and she manages to subtly distinguish the social class and personality of her characters.

Overall, this is an enjoyable story and one of the best out of the ten volumes, as it moves along at a compelling pace with interesting things happening with the various characters. You won’t find particularly deep or moving scenes in this book, nor is Jordan a particularly picturesque writer, but he is a good story-teller. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes an adventurous story, and who is looking for something epic to listen to.