Review of Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - Nine Princes in Amber by Roger ZelaznyNine Princes in Amber
By Roger Zelazny; Read by Alessandro Juliani
5.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2012
Themes: / Fantasy / Siblings / Royalty / Swordplay / Magic /

Before Joss Whedon, there was Roger Zelazny. I thought this at some point during this time through Nine Princes in Amber, a book I revisit now and then. Zelazny’s dialogue is snarky and the story quick and interesting. Figure out how to depict the road to Amber, and the Amber novels would make an excellent television series. If Joss wrote this, though, the women in the story would have stronger roles.

My reason for re-reading this was the publication of a new unabridged audio version from Audible Frontiers. Alessandro Juliani narrates, and makes the story even better. Before this, the only unabridged recording that existed was read by Zelazny himself. I’ll definitely keep those audiobooks – Zelazny has a very distinctive voice – but Juliani’s reading fleshes out the character of Corwin so well that it makes the book more entertaining.

The novel is told in first person from Corwin’s point of view. At the opening, Corwin wakes up in a hospital bed with memory loss. As he figures things out, so do we. He learns that he’s a quick healer, that he’s got some skills, and that he has a sister. Further along he realizes more – he’s part of a royal family of Amber, the only true world. There’s magic and intrigue, there’s trumps and travels to Amber, there are creatures and mean princes. It’s wonderful. And it’s a short listen, coming in at only 5 1/2 hours.

If you like this one, listen to the other four in the series, all available on Audible. They are all great fun. After that, there are another five books. It’s excellent to see that Audible Frontiers is alert enough to change the narrator for those. Alessandro Juliani narrates the first five books, then Wil Wheaton takes over for the next five because those books are from another character’s point of view. Well done, Audible!

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

SFFaudio Review

Princess Academy by Shannon HalePrincess Academy
By Shannon Hale; Read by a Full Cast
8 CDs – 8 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Full Cast Audio
Published: 2007
ISBN: 1933322772
Themes: / Fantasy / Young Adult / Magic / Culture / Royalty / Boarding School / Economics /

Earlier this year (2007), the unabridged Full Cast Audio production of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl won an Audie Award for Achievement in Production. Now, Full Cast Audio offers another Shannon Hale novel in a production that may be even better. Princess Academy is a wonderful YA fantasy novel that is a sure bet to enthrall readers (and now listeners) of all ages.

It’s become cliché to say that this or that YA novel has wider appeal than their target audience but Shannon Hale’s, without question, fit that description. They are appropriate for young listeners (the box says “ages 10 to adult”) and at the same time are smart enough and, most importantly, true enough for older readers. This novel is entertaining, but the characters live realistic and difficult lives. Through them, Hale helps us understand that there’s nothing more important in life than love.

The main character of the novel is Miri, a fourteen year old girl who is small for her age. She lives in a mountain village, where most of the residents work in the nearby quarry. One day, a herald arrives and announces that priests have determined that the bride of the prince, who lives in a bustling city, will come from the tiny region that Miri lives in, and that all girls 14-18 years old must report to an academy so that they might be educated for the prince’s visit one year later, when he will make his choice. The girls are collected and brought to the academy, some of them willingly, and some of them not.

Miri is not happy about it, and her feelings of inadequacy due to the overprotective way her father treats her are compounded and confused by the fact that he does not put up much of a fight to keep her from going. But once she gets to the academy and learns to read, she realizes the benefit and takes full advantage of the experience, which is made all the more difficult by a very hard headmistress. Throughout the story, Miri learns of a magic called “quarryspeak”, which is a method of psychic communication that seems to work only between quarry workers while in the quarry. She finds that there’s more to it than that, and she finds out there’s a lot more to everything else, too.

The Full Cast Audio team has mastered their unique method of unabridged audiobook production. There is no other company that produces audiobooks the way they do it, and every book they come out with is technically better than the last. Actors are used for all the dialogue, and a narrator reads everything else. An 8 hour production like this would lose its appeal if any of the roles were cast with questionable talent, but that’s not a problem here. Particularly good were Jo D’Aloisio, the young girl who played Miri, Laura Credidio, the narrator, and Alice Morigi, who played Tutor Olana, the icy headmistress. The entire cast deserves kudos. Skilled acting and directing along with perfect music and editing make this production a wondrous experience. Simply excellent, all around.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson

Review of Legends II: Volume One

Legends II: Volume 1Legends II: Volume One
Edited by Robert Silverberg; Stories by George R.R. Martin & Anne McCaffrey
Read by Graeme Malcolm & Alyssa Bresnahan
3 Cassettes – 5.25 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: 2004
ISBN: 0739310828
Themes: / Fantasy / Series / Collection / Dragons / Knights / Royalty /

The tag line to this audio book is “New short novels by the masters of modern fantasy”. Would it have knocked out any teeth to use the word “novella?” It’s like calling a pack of number 2 pencils “a pallet of light-duty lumber.” A novella is not merely a novel that was born sickly or abstained from performance-enhancing drugs; it is a distinct literary form with a tighter focus in theme, setting, character, and time. Has the novella become such a bane to publishers that they seek to disguise it with a new name, as politicians have disguised the apocalypse of global warming with the ambivalence of climate change? I hope not. The literary form of Goethe, Conrad, Silverberg and Leiber still has a lot to offer us today. Its name should be spoken with pride, and its name-bearers sold, bought and read (or listened to) without shame.

A great place to start is George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire: The Sworn Sword”, which is a fine example of a fantasy novella. It is tightly focused on a single, weighty event in time: The final clash between the proud, nearly-extinguished ser Eustace, and the desperately aggressive Lady Webber. Caught in the middle are our protagonists: Dunk, the simple knight with a sense of right and wrong that supersedes his own pride and safety, and Egg, whose compassion for even the lowest grows every time we see him. Heraclitus proposed that character determines destiny, and this is certainly true here. Everything that occurs within Martin’s tough, gritty, complex tale feels like an inevitable result of the characters and their choices. For those looking for lots of sword-banging, spell-casting action, this isn’t the place to find it. This story deals more in verbal confrontation, shades of revealed truth, and the nature of honor and treachery. My only quibble is that the ending, hard-won as it is, is a little pat, especially after the moral ambiguity of Dunk and Egg’s first story “The Hedge Knight” and the foregoing mass of this one. But given everything else about this absorbing tale, hewn from the same wood as the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire, this is a very minor point.

Martin’s pacing is slow and deliberate, shining a light into all the crevices of the personal, moral and physical terrain covered here. Graeme Malcolm’s reading is fittingly unhurried and considered. A British accent is a must for high fantasy like this (in my opinion), and Malcolm’s is dignified and readily intelligible to the American ear. There is even a compelling, extensive introduction to tune your ear to it. I think you’ll enjoy Malcolm’s voice characterizations, as well, as they are subtle, yet distinct, and seem well matched to the characters. Some music is present, mostly as punctuation between the book title, the introductory material, and the story itself, which is helpful. It also accompanies the brief prologue and epilogue to the story, which is not helpful, but also not too distracting.

Anne McCaffrey’s story “Pern: Beyond Between” is much less successful. It seems less a novella (let alone a wee novel) than a doughy short story that got rolled out a little too thin. The main ingredient is the disappearance of Lessa and Hoth into the great unknown of Between, but sifted in are travels in space, time, and Between; a few changes in viewpoint; and even a digression into a different genre. Sadly, the result never quite rises off the page. You will never quite taste the wistful loss and the painful discovery this story hints at, nor feel the fullness of the characters in your belly. It will leave you hungry for the Pern you remember from the original novels. And should you have missed these rightfully revered classics, I highly recommend skipping the appetizer-sized review of it which precedes the story. It gives a little too much away.

As with the first story, the reading of this one is wonderful. If Alyssa Bresnahan’s voice isn’t the voice I heard in my head while reading the original Pern series, no one’s is. It is the perfect complement to McCaffrey’s prose, flawed as that may be. Again, music is used to separate the introductory material from the story, and this time it is kept sensibly out of the narration.

The sound and production quality of both these stories are exceptional; however, they make an oddly matched pair. McCaffrey’s story could be safely given to your emotionally stable ten-year-old niece, but some of the language and themes of Martin’s would blister the poor child’s ears. And the packaging? Even calling it bland would imply an effervescence it sorely lacks. And of the 11 authors represented in the hardback version of this book (which lists only a tiny bit more than this audio book), only two are represented here. How much would you have to shell out to hear the novellas from all these distinguished authors? I shudder to imagine it. In short, while one of these stories is outstanding and the narrations excellent, this audio book does little to attract a new audience to the novella, and it certainly does not provide great value for the money.

Posted by Kurt Dietz

Review of Twisted Rhymes


Twisted Rhymes by Bob HarperTwisted Rhymes
Performed by Bob Harper
1 CD – 52 minutes
Published by: Bob Harper Productions
Themes: / Horror / Royalty / Ghosts / Zombies / Medieval / Tavern / Revenge /

I played this CD not knowing at all what to expect. I heard some music and some background voices that quickly established the setting of a royal feast. Then the voice of Bob Harper started to perform a poem and I was pulled right in. The poem starts well enough “…it was a marvelous affair…” but I realized that the affair was not so marvelous. The king, not sane, describes his burdens to the lords in attendence… and things get horrifying from there. I immediately played the 5 minute track again. And again. Like a good song, I wanted to keep listening, but I continued on and listened to the rest of the CD in one mesmerized sitting.

Harper’s resonant tone in combination with the sound effects and music – it just works beautifully. These poems are great scary fun, suitable for family listening; though some scenes are definitely intense, I would not call the horror “graphic”. They are more in the Poe tradition – in fact, a few of the tracks are influenced directly enough by Poe to be called homage.

The entire CD was a very pleasant surprise. These ten short horror stories left me a nice creepy feeling this season the likes of which I haven’t experienced for a long time. Highly recommended!

You can buy this at Horrorsound, the website for Bob Harper Productions.

Posted by Scott D. Danielson