Book Review: The Death of the Necromancer

Synopsis: Nicolas Valiarde has a complicated life. To the world he presents himself as a high society recluse and art dealer. In reality, he is the mastermind thief, Donatien, who has stolen several priceless objects while staying barely one step ahead of the formidable Inspector Ronsarde and his companion Dr. Halle. Nicolas manages this by being very smart, very careful, and very rich in compatriots: his lover Madeline, an actress of no mean talent; his friend Reynard, a former cavalry officer who disgraceful exit from service was arranged by a mutual enemy; the powerful wizard Arisilde, whose opium addiction has reduced him to a shade of his former glory; and a crew of loyal criminals in his employ.

The story opens with Nicolas and his crew stealing a vault of gold from the cellars of a noble household while a large ball is taking place over their heads. The gold is meant to be planted elsewhere to incriminate his enemy, the lord framed Nicolas’ patron, Edouard, years earlier on the charge of necromancy. And though Edouard was exonerated of the charge, it is a posthumous exoneration after his execution. The lord who arranged these events is never convicted nor publicly suspected. Which is why Nicolas wants him so badly. 

But it turns out Nicolas is not the only thief prowling the cellars that same evening, and his path unfortunately crosses with that of a very powerful foe who cannot be ignored.

Review: Martha Wells writes fantasy action/adventure novels in the style of her accidental namesake H. G. Wells, but she does so with the sensibilities of a modern author writing to a modern audience.

The Death of the Necromancer takes place in a city something like 19th century London – the resemblances between Inspector Ronsarde and Sherlock Holmes are hardly accidental, and the very strong, independent character of Madeline must work within the limitations of societal gender roles – and yet it is also a world in which wizardry and fayre combine with gaslights, revolvers, and horse-drawn carriages to create the perfect fantasy milieu. Not quite steam punk, not quite Victorian or Gothic romance, not at all LARP thief epic or zombie horror tale, this story borrows from all to create something new and unique.

When the book opens, Nicolas is in the middle of a complicated plot to bring down his nemesis, but this motive must be set aside to fulfill a more compelling filial duty. His new opponent is using a device, invented by his patron, to commit unspeakable crimes, and Nicolas must stop him. It is not so much that Nicolas possesses moral scruples (or so he believes) as that he is greatly angered by this foul appropriation of his patron’s great work. Nicolas is the iconic gentleman thief, but he possesses no predilection for magic, which puts him at a severe disadvantage. He will need all his considerable talents not only to combat this dark magician, but merely to stay alive. It won’t be enough. He will require the help of his friends, especially his partner Madeline, and a few unexpected allies who show up from time to time.

There book is pure adventure story with humor, suspense, and several surprises that you will not see coming. I would recommend it for any lover of speculative fantasy fiction. While there are shades of romance, there is no explicit sex, though parents be warned before giving this your child. As the title suggests, there are reanimated dead people and just enough gore that I would think twice from recommending the book to a child. This is not a horror book by any means, and the author wisely refrains as much as possible from lurid, grotesque detail. You will not likely get nightmares from The Death of the Necromancer, but you can expect several sleepless nights staying up late reading.

Movie Review: Earth To Echo

Synopsis: Three 13-year olds, misfits at school, are about to have their tight friendship broken up. The neighborhood is slated for demolition for a new highway and everyone is moving away. The day before they all move, weird things start happening to their cell phones, and they figure out that the images on their phones are a map to a location 20 miles away in the Nevada desert. They decide to spend a final evening together, following the map on their bikes. They discover a piece of metallic junk under a high-voltage transmission wire which turns out to house an alien (fortunately small, benign, cute, resembling a small owl) in need of help. They spend the entire night on a quest to help this tiny creature, never quite sure if they are good Samaritans helping a lost traveler or unwitting accomplices to a potential disaster that could kill everyone in their neighborhood. Along the way they pick up a fourth companion, the pretty girl from school who lives in another world from them and yet isn’t really so different. They also have to avoid sinister construction workers who are not whom they appear to be.

Review: I spent the good part of an hour looking for a movie that my family could watch together. My children are 12 and 9 years old, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find good quality movies that meet everyone’s differing needs and tastes. We did not want nightmare-inducing graphic images, nor cloying feel-good family flics, nor overdone or underdone animation, nor inferior 20th century special effects that my jaded children already despise. We picked this one because it interested the children and we knew nothing about it except some cool CGI in the previews. However my hopes weren’t high. Movie buffs will recognize many of the familiar tropes in the above synopsis that I recognized, and I expected something very derivative. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

The plot sounds like a mash up of Spielberg alien movies – Close Encounters and E.T., with a touch of cinema verité (ala Blair Witch Project). The main device of the movie is that it is a self-narrated video project made by one of the 13-year-old boys. I fully expected ninety minutes of bizarre camera angles, blurring racing shots, poor film editing, and voice-over explications for whatever could not be shown visually at an objective angle. But none of that happens. The device works, in part because modern camera technology has evolved to the point that it is entirely believable a thirteen year old could have several mountable, high-quality cameras including a Google Glass type contraption. It also works because the story is never forced to fit this device, nor made to take a back seat to special effects.

The plot is kept simple so the filmmakers could focus on telling an adventure story and growing the characters with detail. There are no special effects in the first ten or twenty minutes of the movie; we simply get to know these quirky, charming, flawed, and very real children with little or no impending sense of science fiction on the horizon. By the time the adventure takes off, you care about them and don’t need the action or the CGI to keep you hooked. In fact, the special effects are generally underdone, and slowly ramped up, which prevents the film from breaking out of its hyper-real, documentary quality. Even as machines come apart, float through the air, and piece together again, you have the sense that it is real.

Thematically the film deals with children on the cusp of adolescence wanting some power over their lives, which admittedly is not everyone’s cup of tea. However the movie is never boring or tiresome, and the pace keeps you distracted from questions like, “Why haven’t the camera batteries run out?”or “Why don’t these kids look like they’ve been up all night long?” It was suspenseful without being stressful (important for my children), emotional without being maudlin, and often unexpectedly funny, all of which is supported, rather than hindered, by the device of self-filming.

Most refreshing to me is that the children act their age at all times, and the story is told entirely from their vantage point. Perhaps having a 12 year old in my house helped, but the movie brought back memories of that raging hormonal, emotional, scary time of life. The adults are real adults who talk down to children, indulge them, worry about them, dismiss them, and constantly underestimate them.

This is not a work of literature. It is a fun romp, and the writers did a great job of fleshing out the story while cutting out any fat. At ninety minutes, it won’t take up your entire evening, and my only criticism is that it will certainly raise my daughter’s expectations of getting her own cell phone sometime soon.