Friday, May 27, 2022

On Rereading Dragons in Our Midst

My favorites list, whether speaking of authors or series, has changed quite a few times since I first got into fantasy. Wayne Thomas Batson, once in my top three favorite authors, now doesn't even make the top ten. J.R.R. Tolkien stood alone at the highest rank — until Anne Elisabeth Stengl and Brandon Sanderson proved themselves worthy to join him. I spent a heady six months obsessing over Ted Dekker's Circle Trilogy, only for it to fall dramatically out of favor when I tried to reread it a few years later.

But amid all this, there are some authors and books that have consistently remained — well, if not in my top three, at least in my top ten. Chief among them (aside from Tolkien again) is Bryan Davis, particularly with his Dragons in Our Midst and Oracles of Fire series. These were two of the first non-classic fantasy series I fell in love with — and I think it's fair to say that I was really, really into them. I reread them multiple times; I even memorized some of the poetry. And about seven months ago, I decided to return to the two series, reread them, and see how they stood up to the test of time. For the results, well, read on.


On Rereading Dragons in Our Midst

  1. Most of it is as good as I remembered . . . and some bits are better. I'm not going to claim that this series is the pinnacle of literary art, but it remains a genuinely enjoyable, exciting story with a lot of emphasis on family and some very deep, powerful themes. The things about the book that I loved originally, I still love. I also found that I could appreciate some elements of the book that I didn't really get (or didn't love) when I was younger. This is particularly evident in The Candlestone and Enoch's Ghost, which used to be my least favorite books in the double-series and are now . . . well, neither one is my new favorite (I still love Circles of Seven best), but they're both several places higher on the list because I finally get what the author was trying to say with them.
  2. There's so much less angst and edginess than there could've been. I didn't appreciate this enough as a preteen/teen originally reading the series — but, of course, then I didn't have all the experience with other YA (particularly secular YA) to compare it to. Davis gives quite a few members of his cast enough tragic backstory to make the edgiest D&D rogue's story look like a comedy, so he'd be well within his right to make them equally angsty, and he just . . . doesn't. Is there introspection? Emotion? Of course! Do characters hit some pretty low lows? Absolutely. But it doesn't saturate the characters or the narrative, which is really nice, and the characters who would have the most reason for angst (namely, Bonnie, Sapphira, and Elam) end up the exact opposite character type. Granted, that can be frustrating for different reasons, but it's less frustrating than the alternative.
  3. It's really fun to go back to a series that's so family-focused. Very family-focused indeed, actually, given that DiOM/OoF give Kendra E. Ardnek's Rizkaland Legends a run for their money with how large a percentage of major characters are related. And whatever else you say about this series, you have to appreciate how Davis makes a point of writing active, healthy parent-kid relationships into the story and having multiple generations taking on adventures, challenges, and battles together.
  4. Bryan Davis really just does what he wants, doesn't he? This was less evident when I initially read the series, since (A) the YA fantasy genre and its conventions were still somewhat being established and (B) I hadn't read enough to really be aware of what conventions there were. But on rereading the series, it becomes very clear that Davis is a man who looked at trends, said "Nah," and proceeded to make a career out of writing what he thought would be cool. And so, in this series — You have dragons and King Arthur in the modern day. You have multiple variations of an afterlife and interdimensional travel between them, along with so many resurrections. You have sci-fi-ish stuff like Ashley's inventions and her supercomputer/AI, as well as (arguably) two different completely unrelated variations on people being grown in plants. You have everything about Abaddon's lair. And you know what? It works. And it's wonderful. (I would even argue that it works because everything is so all-over, but if I get into that, this point will end up being its own blog post.)
  5. This is, if possible, even more spiritually in-your-face than I remembered. No one can deny that the way Christian fantasy is written has changed since the 2000s when these books were published. Even if you look exclusively at Davis's books, you'll see that over time, the stories lean less into allegory and get more and more subtle with their spiritual messages. So, going back to Dragons in Our Midst and Oracles of Fire, two series which I remembered as being extremely heavy on the Scripture and spiritual stuff even compared to the series' contemporaries, was a bit of an interesting experience. On one hand, the heavy-handedness of some sections and elements (and the emphasis on purity) can pull you out of the story . . . but on the other hand, it was honestly refreshing to read something that's so up-front about being based in Christianity and so saturated in Spiritual truth.

Whew! That was a bit longer than I intended. I had fun both returning to an old favorite and analyzing how I feel about it now, though. If you're still reading, please tell me in the comments what your favorite Bryan Davis book or series is (or which of his works you think looks most interesting). Also tell me if you'd be interested in that blog post about why I think the way Davis mixes so many different elements into his story works so well; I kinda want to get more into this now.
Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 20, 2022

Non-European Fantasy Favorites

I have mixed feelings about a lot of recent trends in fantasy and speculative fiction . . . but one trend that I absolutely love is the move towards settings based in locations and cultures other than medieval, Edwardian, or Victorian European ones (specifically those from northern and western Europe). While I will always appreciate the classics when they're well done, it's nice to get some variety. And since I've never actually compiled a list of my favorite non-European fantasy stories, I thought I should remedy that this week! Not all of these are recent releases — actually, most of them have been out for a while, since I'm SUPER behind on any recent books that I didn't agree to review — but they're well-loved by me and well worth a read!

(Please note that I'm not including any urban/contemporary fantasy on this list — while my love of the City Between and Dragons in Our Midst series is deep and well-documented, these genres aren't as overwhelmingly Europe-based as many other fantasy genres are.)


Non-European Fantasy Favorites

1. The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. I debated a lot about whether or not I could include this series because, you know, it's heavily inspired by ancient Greece (with a side trip in one book to ancient Persia), and Greece is technically European? But it's very much not your standard medieval European fantasy, and that's evident in everything from the lore and mythology to the food to the architecture to the landscape to the language and names. It's so great.
Bonus Greek-inspired fantasy recommendation: Coiled by H.L. Burke.

2. Golden Daughter by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. I would like to be very clear that the only reason this isn't first on the list is that it's the seventh book in the series — it's a gorgeous Asian-inspired fantasy epic (and, realistically, you could pick it up without having read any of the other Goldstone Wood novels, though there are certain elements whose significance you might not pick up on). As in the Queen's Thief books, this isn't just a standard fantasy novel with an "exotic" aesthetic tacked on — the location informs the culture, which informs the characters and storyline, and everything just comes together so well.
Bonus Asian-inspired fantasy recommendation: The Dragon's Flower by Wyn Estelle Owens

3. The Books of the Infinite trilogy by R. J. Larson. Arguably the least like traditional European fantasy out of everything on this list and everything that I considered putting on this list, the Books of the Infinite take place in a world much like Israel and its neighbors in the second half of the Old Testament. It's a story of prophets and kings, of signs and miracles and mercy and judgment, and it's generally well worth a read.
Bonus Biblical fantasy recommendation: Overpowered by Kathryn McConaughy

4. Horseman by Kyle Robert Shultz. This Wild West-inspired tale takes place in Shultz's Afterverse, and while I don't love it quite as much as the original Beaumont and Beasley series, it's still a lot of fun. You've got classic Wild West and fantasy tropes, plus the kind of colorful assortment of characters you can only get in this type of setting, plus reimaginings of American folklore — it's great.
Bonus Wild West fantasy recommendation: Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale

5. Jackaby by William Ritter. Storms, I haven't read these books in ages, though the last one has been on my mind lately because of some of the myths and folklore I've been reading. Anyway, this historical fantasy-mystery series is set somewhere in New England in the late 1800s — the author doesn't specify which state, which I can't entirely blame him for. And it does feel pretty American, particularly leaning on the idea of America at the time as a blending of people (and, in this case, magical beings) immigrated from other cultures and countries.
Bonus American fantasy-mystery recommendation: The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman

What are your favorite non-European fantasy reads, whether recent or not? Please tell me in the comments; I can always use more recs!
Thanks for reading!


Friday, May 13, 2022

Thoughts on Search for the Astral Dragon

Hello hello! As I've mentioned several times, today I'm sharing my thoughts on Bryan Davis's latest release, Search for the Astral Dragon. I remember reading an early version of the first chapter years and years ago, when Davis was still doing writing advice and critiques on his blog, so it was cool to get to see the finished story now. I can tell you up front that it's a story well worth picking up — read on to find out why.

 Thoughts on Search for the Astral Dragon

  1. This story has the same vibes as Dragons in Our Midst, and I'm here for it. I keep trying to figure out how to explain what I mean by this, and I don't think I'm going to be able to articulate my precise thoughts, but — reading Search for the Astral Dragon feels very much like reading Dragons in Our Midst, even though the stories and characters are quite different indeed. I don't think that feeling is just because this is a middle grade/early YA novel (versus the adult works Davis has mostly been writing lately), nor do I think it's just because of the comparative ages of the characters. The fact that it's less gritty than Reapers or Oculus Gate probably does have something to do with it, but I think it's also the themes and the general "attitude" of the book. Whatever the source, I very much appreciated it.
  2. Davis does space adventure quite well. Bryan Davis has plenty of experience in sci-fi writing — even his fantasy series have a healthy dose of science-fiction elements. However, this is the first time that he's taken his stories into space, and he does an excellent job of it. The space travel and space combat elements felt believable, and we have a nice variety of planets and beings living on these planets. (I will say that I had trouble differentiating or, to some degree, picturing some of the alien races, whose names I can't currently remember . . . but that may also be a me problem.)
  3. I liked the characters, though I didn't get super attached to them. I mean, I very much cared what happened to them and whether they made it to the end of the story, but I don't think any of them will be living rent-free in my head. Megan Willis is a spunky, determined lead who feels pleasantly different from any of Davis's previous protagonists. Oliver, Crystal, and Dirk were all interesting in their ways, and Perdanthus was probably my second-favorite character (though I don't think I could put my finger on why).
  4. Some of the "humor" was pretty juvenile. Humor, for the record, is in quotation marks because I didn't find the bits I'm referring to particularly funny. Davis is usually pretty good at including lighthearted moments in his stories, typically via friends teasing each other or, if the situation allows, being goofy as friends often are, and these moments generally feel pretty natural. However, there's a particular running "joke" in Astral Dragon (at least, I assume it's meant to be funny) that made me groan each of the half-dozen times it came up, and not in the "That pun was so bad it's good" way. It's not offensive, it's just . . . not funny to me, and probably not to anyone except maybe a preteen boy. (I remember having a similar problem in Wanted: A Superhero to Save the World, so it could just be a thing with how Davis writes for younger audiences.)
  5. The themes were excellent. A common theme in many of Davis's books is the tension between justice and mercy, and that's particularly evident in Search for the Astral Dragon. Davis encourages readers to ponder along with Megan when and if it is right or wrong to take a life — even a villain's life — and what an "acceptable sacrifice" really means, if it exists at all. Weighty topics for a middle grade novel, but Davis handles them well, with enough nuance for adult readers and enough sensitivity for younger ones.

Does Search for the Astral Dragon sound like your cup of tea? If so, you can pick it up on Amazon or on the author's site — and please tell me in the comments what element of the book you think sounds most interesting! If you've read it already, do you know what I mean about it feeling like Dragons in Our Midst?
Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 6, 2022

April 2022 Doings!

April has, unsurprisingly, flown right by, and here we are in May already. I think you all already know what the month's main events were (one of them was pretty hard to miss if you follow me anywhere online), but we'll get on with the Doings all the same.


  • Mask of Scarlet is officially published and out in the world! Huzzah! We did have a little delay on Kindle Unlimited availability due to my forgetting to click the "make available in KU" button, but otherwise, the release went pretty well. Many thanks to everyone who participated!
  • Other than Mask of Scarlet release stuff, my main writing project was starting the rewrite/first edit of Through a Shattered Glass (formerly known as the Super Secret Mystery Project). This has been going a bit slower than anticipated — I had a couple busy weeks when I didn't get to do as much as I wanted. But in general, it's coming along well, and the fact that I'm working with a much more extended timeline than usual means I can get in an extra round of feedback, which I'm happy about.
  • I also did some work on the current module of the Defenders of Serys D&D campaign I'm running, though we missed several weeks this month, which meant I didn't have to do too much. (The current adventure also has too many possible path branches for me to prep too far in advance.)
  • In general, stuff was pretty quiet on the writing front, but that's fine — it's always nice to have a more restful month.


  • Well, this was a better reading month than March was.
  • Unsurprisingly, this month included a lot of ARCs. I've already posted my thoughts on most of those, but I'll provide a quick recap:
    • Tall & Dark was a delightful con/mystery adventure followup to Miss Sharp's Monsters. Highlights included the same memoir-ish style as Miss Sharp, the same dark and exciting world full of monstrous royalty, a new and clever MC, and a return of Grand Duke Vasily (who is having, just, the worst succession of bad days). I reviewed this at the start of the month.
    • My Soul to Take is the third of Bryan Davis's Oculus Gate series. It's a worldhopping Davis book, so obviously I enjoyed it — read the rest of my thoughts here.
    • Crown and Cinder and Cindy Ellen were my fellow Midnight Curfews books, and I enjoyed both very much! Crown and Cinder is a blend of Pride and Prejudice and Cinderella that just works wonderfully well (my thoughts), and Cindy Ellen is a short and sweet Old West Cinderella story (again, my thoughts here).
    • Search for the Astral Dragon is the only ARC here that I haven't already posted about — that's coming next week. In the meantime, I can say that it's a thrilling space adventure that I definitely recommend picking up.
  • Outside of ARCs, we have a nice assortment of stories. I did finally finish Raising Steam, though it took me pretty much all month (reading between ARCs and due library books). I stand by what I said earlier — it's a good story, but it's not a great Discworld novel. It lacks the usual spark, and I think it's largely because no one is an underdog anymore. At this point, I only have one book left in the series (well, plus Small Gods, which I may or may not read), and I'm hoping very hard that it doesn't suffer from the same problem.
  • On a more cheerful note: Every Living Thing is the final James Herriot memoir, and it's just as lovely as the others. This one deals a great deal with Herriot's family and with the new assistants who come through the practice, which was fun. Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 4 was exciting, though I kind of can't believe that I didn't see a particular twist coming. Finally, Leading Edge is an anthology that contained a couple ok stories (interesting premises, but too open-ended for me) and one really delightful story about fae magic and goblin markets and true love. It's a pretty cheap ebook, and I'd recommend picking it up just for that one story.


  • Aaaaand we're back to the watching-stuff slump, probably because I was too busy to spend much time on the treadmill or set aside work early enough to watch anything. I finished Critical Role Episode 8, watched a little bit more No Evil, and that's pretty much it.


  • . . . What the pumpernickel happened this month?
  • Outside of the book release, most of this month's activity centered around work and Holy Week . . . usually at the same time. Last year, the church was still in pandemic mode, so Easter was comparatively low-key. This year, we had a big Good Friday event in addition to services and promo graphics and regular weekly stuff, and . . . it was a lot.
  • And then I ended up getting hit hard by allergies and a little bit of a bug midway through Holy Week.
  • It was not a good time.
  • But everything got done that needed to be done! And I still got to go to Easter lunch with the Bible Study!
  • And I made a coconut cake, and it was delicious! It's a recipe from my former supervisor (the one who retired in January), and it was my first time trying it. I was a little nervous, but it turned out super well!
  • Other than Easter stuff . . . we spent two weekends working outside, one to cut and split a fallen tree into logs and one to split and stack all the wood we got from other fallen trees that we'd only cut into sections. That was, y'know, a lot. I'm just the person carrying things, and I was tired.
  • I ended the month with another cake, this one chocolate with chocolate icing. Mostly by accident, I ended up making it on the day of Mask of Scarlet's release. (I mostly made it for dessert at Bible study that evening.) It was also very tasty, though putting sprinkles on it was a mistake because they kind of . . . went everywhere.
  • I did not do very well with walking on the treadmill, nor did I figure out a stretching routine like I intended. I did start working on another goal, though, which is learning (via YouTube) some popular line dances. I'm hoping that, by the time September rolls around and I have another wedding to go to, I'll be able to actually participate in some of the dancing rather than just sitting on the sidelines.

May Plans

  • The most exciting bits of May are happening at the same time: my sister coming home from college for the summer and our Bible study's yearly retreat. I'm honestly not sure which I'm more excited about.
  • I intend to finish the first edit of Through a Shattered Glass by the end of the month — maybe a second round of edits as well, if things go extraordinarily well.
  • I also really need to figure out what's happening with the TaSG cover. Which probably means biting the bullet and hiring someone to make it, because once you factor in the cost of stock art, it's a pretty reasonably priced option. I'm just procrastinating because my favorite cover designer isn't available.
  • At work, I think May will end up being the Month of Signage . . . unless stuff keeps getting delayed, which is entirely possible. It will, if nothing else, probably be fairly quiet since we sorta dropped the summer newsletter that would normally be taking up a lot of time. (In theory, this means that I should also take the month to update all my how-to-do-this-job documentation and maybe print a copy so that other people can reference it. Will I actually do that? Who knows.)
  • One solid plan I do have is that I'm going to participate in Bryan Davis's big 20-years-of-authordom celebration contest! Which means y'all will be seeing a fair bit about Davis's books on my blog and social media accounts. (Don't worry; I will intersperse it with non-Davis-related stuff.)
  • This also means that I want to finish rereading Oracles of Fire so I can write the "rereading DiOM/OoF" blog post that I've been planning for months. I should probably get back to finishing up my series rereads in general, honestly . . .
  • I also want to work on crafting projects! Specifically, cosplay-related stuff for Realm Makers! My plan is to do more low-key cosplays three days (which will have a base of primarily items that I either already have in my closet or can wear as normal clothes in addition to in a cosplay), plus a "centerpiece" outfit for the Awards Banquet. I am very excited, and I'm trying to manage my expectations, but . . . yeah. I have gotten very few opportunities in my life to cosplay, so I like taking advantage of the opportunities I do get, especially because I've been watching a fair number of Morgan Donner videos in the last year.

How was your April? Any exciting plans for May? Did you pick up any of the Midnight Curfews releases? What's your favorite cake (to make or to eat)? Do you enjoy cosplay? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!