Month: March 2015

Book Review: The Dragon Whisperer

Dragon WhispererThe Dragon Whisperer
Author: Vanessa Ricci-Thode
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 197 pages
Published by: Iguana Books
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A solid fantasy debut by a new indie author.

Fantasy books are often like warm blankets on a cold night. There is something familiar and reassuring in them that comforts the reader, allowing him or her to escape to a world where anything is possible. Yet the very things that make these books so comforting also have the potential to be suffocating. I imagine it’s rather hard to come up with an original story when the framework of classical fantasy is so rigidly defined, and there’s usually not much sympathy from readers when an author tries to be original by breaking the rules. It then becomes a game of how best to bend rather than break the rules. The Dragon Whisperer, Vanessa Ricci-Thode’s debut fantasy novel published by Iguana Books, succeeds in bending a few rules of the classic fantasy genre without breaking them, but my overall opinion is somewhat mixed.

The most visible stake in the ground—at least in terms of departing from classical fantasy—is the emphasis on female characters. Dionelle, a young woman whose “natural” immunity to fire thrusts her into the role of an envoy between humans and dragons, is the protagonist of the piece. Of the three main conflicts in the book, two involve female antagonists and the other is about Dionelle’s struggle to make her husband, Reiser, understand her perspective. The dragon realm is also firmly established as a matriarchal society, where only females have any real power or authority.

In many ways, that strong feminine aspect was a refreshing break from a genre that tends to circumscribe female roles, but I also don’t think it went far enough. The story was still rooted in a patriarchal society where a king is monarch and a husband is expected to be the head of his house. More than once, this juxtaposition of modern feminist attitudes with medieval patriarchal assumptions created a quandary for me. I found it difficult to understand, for example, how Dionelle could expect Reiser to support her quest for personal fulfillment when she was the product of an arranged marriage. There was also a fair amount of irony to be found in the fact that men are ultimately responsible for saving the day. The potential was there to create a real sense of empowerment and self-realization, but it ended up being washed away in a sea of patriarchal norms.

Another step back from the standard fantasy novel, although more subtle, was the internal nature of the quest. Yes, there was some element of saving the world from impending doom, but Dionelle’s personal struggles took on a much greater importance than any other story element. Bringing marital struggles, spiteful sisters and career aspirations to the fore was an interesting gambit, but my personal taste definitely leans more towards the traditional elements of action and adventure.

The strongest element of the novel, in my opinion, was Ricci-Thode’s handling of the dragons, although this really got a lot less time than it deserved. Rather than selfish beasts obsessed with gold, these dragons are creatures obsessed with beauty.  It’s a slight twist that works very well, and serves to make the dragons’ motivations and behaviours quite believable. Unfortunately, the plot had a tendency to veer away from this strong suit on more than one occasion, and I believe the story suffered because of it.

Although my personal response was rather mixed, The Dragon Whisperer is a respectable debut. Moreover, Iguana Books did a bang-up job of publishing, with a gorgeous matte black cover that simply begs to be read. A solid effort overall.

From the Publisher:

Dionelle was born unique: she is immune to fire. Shortly after marrying Reiser, Dionelle’s unique talents catch the attention of a wicked noblewoman, Lady Karth, who is in need of a new dragon whisperer. Dionelle is crudely thrust into the position, but shows a natural talent for dealing with dragons. Reiser is against the idea, but Dionelle loves what she does and grows fond of the dragons, breeding tension between her and Reiser.

Ricci ThodeVanessa has always been a bookaholic, even as a young child—making picture books before she learned to read and write. She has written seven fantasy novels, with an eighth book that only needs an ending to complete yet another. This is her first foray into the world of publishing, at least as an author, and she’s so excited that she hasn’t slept since her book was accepted. Vanessa lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband, daughter, and two dogs and currently makes her living as a freelance fiction editor.

Graphic Novel Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue is warmest colorBlue is the Warmest Color
Author: Julie Maroh
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 160 pages
Published by: Arsenal Pulp Press
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A tender, intimate and painful love story that perfectly captures the turmoil of youthful emotion and self-discovery.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sensational press to grab people’s attention. Such was the case when the film adaptation of Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, and I’m perhaps a little ashamed to admit that my ears perked up on account of the flurry of publicity. Then again, it’s not every day that squeaky-clean Steven Spielberg puts his image on the line to unreservedly praise a film which was largely overshadowed by strong reactions to its graphic lesbian sex scenes. In a way, you could even say that Steven Spielberg drove me to read this book, because I felt compelled to find out what sort of story would cause him to gush over the movie adaptation.

After reading the novel for myself, one thing I can say is that it’s definitely worth the buzz. Julie Maroh is an exceptionally talented artist, and her ability to convey emotional tension and sexual desire is uncanny. Were this a written novel, I don’t think it could pack half the punch of just one of these panels. This is a story perfectly suited to the graphic novel format, but also one executed with rare style and an eye for what matters. And although some of the panels certainly ensure the “graphic” part of this novel, I would never describe the art as gratuitous. Despite the nudity and sexual content, the depictions are never lurid or prurient. In fact, they fit so extraordinarily well with the contours of the story that they are expected and, quite frankly, feel altogether natural.

Another element that really won me over was the title. Can I just admit to loving the ambiguity? It’s wonderful because it doesn’t make sense, and things which don’t make sense immediately arouse my curiosity. Blue is the warmest colour, you say? On what basis can you even begin to make that claim? But start reading the story and you will quickly realize that blue is the colour of desire in this tale; it’s the warmth of love and the burning of passion. The drawings are also done in a muted style with greens and browns as the main palette, which makes the blue pop out in electrifying contrast.

What also makes the title work is that blue isn’t the warmest colour – at least not in a conventional sense. And the love story here, of course, is not conventional either. It’s all about a young girl struggling with the undeniable fact that she is a lesbian. The emotional turmoil is almost unbearable even in the reading, and one of the panels — an illustration of this young woman on the funeral pyre like Joan of Arc, surrounded by a group of KKK members — evokes the feeling of this stigma in painful detail. And yet, despite the unconventional nature of her love, the emotions on display are universal. This is a story of true love, even if the packaging is a bit different.

Blue is the Warmest Color is one of those books which makes you feel enlightened after the fact, as though you’ve really walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and can now approach a culturally loaded topic with some modicum of sympathy. It’s a compelling story in its own right, and deserving of all the accolades being thrown its way. Arsenal Pulp Press also did an incredible job in publishing this graphic novel, and I would be remiss not to point it out. The glossy cover is enough to grab anyone’s attention from the get-go, but I was totally impressed with every aspect of the finished product. It’s always nice to see a publisher pay such attention to the small details. Definitely recommended.

If you want to take a peek at the artwork, Arsenal Pulp Press has an excerpt posted on their website.

From the Publisher:

Originally published in French as Le bleu est une couleur chaudeBlue is the Warmest Color is a graphic novel about growing up, falling in love, and coming out. Clementine is a junior in high school who seems average enough: she has friends, family, and the romantic attention of the boys in her school. When her openly gay best friend takes her out on the town, she wanders into a lesbian bar where she encounters Emma: a punkish, confident girl with blue hair. Their attraction is instant and electric, and Clementine find herself in a relationship that will test her friends, parents, and her own ideas about herself and her identity.

First published in French by Glénat, the book has won several awards, including the Audience Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, Europe’s largest.

The live-action, French-language film version of Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. Directed by director Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, the film generated wide praise as well as controversy for its explicit scenes. It will be released in North America in the fall of 2013 through Sundance Selects/IFC Films (USA) and Mongrel Media (Canada) as well as other countries around the world, including the UK and Ireland (Artificial Eye) and Australia (Transmission Films).

Julie MarohJulie Maroh is an author and illustrator originally from northern France. She studied comic art at the Institute Saint-Luc in Brussels and lithography and engraving at the Royal Academy of Arts in Brussels, where she still lives.