Mortal Coils – Eric Nyland

Nylund crested the New York Times bestseller list with a book set in the Halo world. I try to stay away from stories set in video game worlds. Smells too much like fan fiction to me. I can’t judge Nyland’s Halo adventure since I haven’t read it so I’ll hide my bias and stick to Mortal Coils.

Mortal Coils is one of a line of new fantasy books that I have read lately that is set in a fairly standard urban modern fantasy. Two twins, Fiona and Eliot, grow up under the tyranny of their grandmother and the awful cooking but slightly kinder gaze of their great grandmother. Grandma is a cruel taskmaster and their days are filled with classical learning and nonfiction. TV and socializing are completely out of the question. Their only form of enjoyment is a game in which the twins flex their encyclopedic knowledge by hurling insults at each other that derive from obscure texts or MENSA hand guides of pretension. Surprisingly, Nylund does this well. You can tell he’s aching to stretch his own intellect but he manages to do so without losing sight of the story or boring the reader to tears.

This dull existence carries right on up to their magical sixteenth birthdays at which point they discover they are actually the spawn of a goddess and Lucifer. This isn’t a spoiler as you can read this on the back of the book cover. This is where I let out a bit of a groan. Too formulaic. Everything is dull and painful in your existence then you turn a certain age and BOOM – ‘You’re a wizard Harry.’ Or ‘You’re father’s Poseidon.’  I feel sorry for the poor kid who finds out his father is Tiger Woods when he turns sixteen. We all know what his powers will be – dropping putts and sponsorships while showing off the huge head on his driver.

They do indeed have magical powers and from that point forward a lot of the book is spent on them discovering what they are. Eliot’s gift has to do with music while Fiona’s is a little more violent in nature. I found myself wishing the author spent a little more time developing the details of Eliot’s power as anything magically musical is pretty damn cool. Except the bard class in damn near any fantasy role playing game. The music dynamic just doesn’t translate from fiction to a quantifiable set of rules. Instead you get some weak ass stilted approximation that is just painful to be a part of. But I digress.

The twins are set three Herculean tasks that they must complete. These will test their mettle and more importantly their allegiance. Are they going to be good?  Are they going to be evil?  These questions don’t truly get answered and Nylund sets you up with a final teaser that will segue into the next book of the trilogy or series. It wasn’t one of the top fantasy books I have read but for the most part it worked. The formulaic nature felt a bit like I was watching television. I’m still undecided on whether I will pick up the next one.

King Raven Trilogy – Stephen Lawhead

I’ve always been a big fan of historical fiction and Lawhead is a master of the genre. He takes one of the most beloved legends of all time and immerses the reader into the grit and darkness of the time period. Lawhead’s Robin Hood is Welsh. The author seems to think this liberty with a murky past is tantamount to English sacrilege. Perhaps if I were an erstwhile resident of Nottingham this might chap my quiver but as a reader it took nothing from the story.

The trilogy starts with Hood. This is where we are introduced to our protagonist. Instead of King Richard or Prince John, our hero has to deal with the Norman king William the Red. Lawhead does a great job of capturing this time period wherein the English language gains its French flair. As one might expect, the Norman invasion changes the Welsh political dynamic and our Rhi Bran becomes a title-less, homeless miscreant courtesy of those damn Ffreinc. After a brief foray into the mystical, King Raven is born. Although Little John is with him in spirit and a decidedly Welsh name, there is nothing merry about King Raven’s men. They band together for one mission, to get their small principality back and under, if not Welsh ownership, at least Welsh command. The sleight of hand employed by King Raven is effective but not ground-breakingly clever. The story is engrossing and Lawhead doesn’t allow himself to fall too deeply into the historical minutiae that can burn it.

The trilogy continues with Scarlet. This story leaves our King Raven as a footnote to a new character, the charming, unlucky Will Scatlocke. This character is developed within the Norman penal system. He tells his story to a Ffreinc priest in the days before his own hanging. It’s hard not to fall in love with the rogue with a heart of gold. There’s a reason why Han Solo is still the best remembered Star Wars icon and all the blame (most of it but not all) doesn’t fall entirely on Mark Hammil. The underlying story of the trilogy does not progress much in this installation but it’s a welcome diversion to meet this character and others like Alan A’Dale. If you ever go back and read the old legends, they all seem to be short stories of their various misdeeds and Lawhead harnesses this diversionary tactic well. It is satisfying though when the two sets of characters join ranks at the end.

The final installation is Tuck. This is not an introduction to the Friar as a new character. He had been introduced, albeit somewhat briefly, in Hood. This novel is a continuation of the original story but with all of our characters working together. The story ends strong and you put the final book down with a good taste in your mouth. All in all, a fun read with a different take on a famous legend. They’re not the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read, but they’re worth the price of admission.

Compare this to Ridley Scott’s recent bungling of the tale. It’s amazing that the guy that did Alien, Legend, Blade Runner and Gladiator could make Robin Hood so painfully boring. Spend a little time on character development for Christ’s sake! I understand that you don’t have to be Errol Flynn merry to do Robin Hood but he could have taken a page out of Lawhead’s book, any page, and at least make the story interesting. Instead, you get a mish mash of wonderful actors reading a script that felt like it was written by the guy who does coupons for Safeway. It’s sad that the cinema success bar is set by the Bruckenheimmer era of explosions and battle scenes with zero story, but it’s just plain depressing when someone like Scott slides under that bar. I’d love to go to one of these summer blockbusters when I actually care about what happens to the main characters and not just wish that they would all die in a horrible explosion at the end of the first thirty minutes so I can leave the theater without pissing off my wife.