February / March 2004

HOLDER OF LIGHTNING
A novel by S.L. Farrell
$29.95 (U.S.)
DAW Books

S.L. Farrell, Irish by ancestry, here presents a cogent, well-written and somewhat downbeat fantasy about an Ireland than never was. Subtitled "The Cloudmages #1," just so there is no doubt that this is the beginning of a series, HOLDER OF LIGHTNING is the tale of Jenna Aoire, a peasant girl who finds what she at first thinks is just a strange little green stone one night after a storm. But it is far more than just a simple gem. It will transform her, often painfully, into the most powerful magician of her age - against her will.

Aided and abetted by unlikely (and occasionally non-human) friends, Jenna slowly learns to control the powers invested in her by her ownership of a legendary gemstone of tremendous power. Rather like Tolkien's One Ring, Jenna's stone is the Lámh Shábhála, the master "cloch" stone that can control all others. All too soon, her genial country-girl naiveté is stripped away and her life becomes infinitely more complex and dangerous. Even as her power and understanding grow, she learns to her sorrow that there is no one she can truly trust.

Jenna is an appealing heroine, and Farrell is careful to keep the focus tightly on her, so that we as readers learn the story even as Jenna does. He is also careful to keep her sympathetic and human, so that the reader never loses empathy with her. I don't want to give too much of the plot away partly because it takes some interesting turns, and partly because Farrell's writing is delightfully clear and transparent. Long-time readers of this column know that I am not particularly disposed toward fantasy in general, but I must say that Jenna's story captivated me from the opening pages.

This well-written and meticulously researched tale is occasionally rather violent, but the bloodshed is never gratuitous. Farrell builds a complete world here, and it's silly to think that a medieval world wouldn't be a harsh place in which to live. I, for one, look forward to visiting it again from the comfort of my armchair. In the meantime, you can visit Farrell on the web at http://www.farrellworlds.com.


RECENT RAVES

THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE
Written and directed by Sylvain Chomet
With the voice talents ofJean-Paul Donda, Michael Robin, and Monica Viegas

Well! This is certainly one of the funniest films I've ever seen, and that's saying something when the subject is both French and animated. But from frame one I couldn't tell what was going to happen next, which isn't something once can say about most Disney offerings, for example. Also, the movie is simply gorgeous at times, with outstanding character design and flat-out excellent animation, better than anything I've seen out of America (lately) that isn't Pixar.

The film opens with a black-and-white sequence that turns out to be a broadcast of an archival performance of the Triplets of Belleville, a sister act that was very popular in the Thirties. Watching this are Champion, a young boy, and his grandmother. Something, we know not what, has happened to Champion's parents and the old lady is raising him. He has lost his zest for life, and she tries various things to interest him. But it is only when she brings home a bicycle that he finally begins to come alive.

Fast-forward some years. Champion is a muscle-thighed young man, and his loyal granny and his overweight dog, Bruno, help him relentlessly train for the Tour de France, the nationwide bicycle race. Upon entering the race, however, Champion, despite his endurance and strength, finds himself a bit out of his league with the pro cyclists. Soon he is running dead last. And that's when a mysterious van shows up and begins kidnapping the stragglers of the race…

The Triplets of Belleville has some really clever sight (and sound!) gags, including sly references to earlier animated films. Also, I'm very thankful I have just enough knowledge of French to have caught a cute little throw-away pun about Laughing Cow cheese. There is very little dialog in this movie, just a few lines of French and a few of English - but it really doesn't need any, because the story, whacky as it is, is perfectly transparent. We soon learn why Champion has been kidnapped, and it's easy to understand his granny's zeal to rescue him. She trails him to Beleville, Chomet's surrealistic take 1930's-1950's New York City, where everyone is even fatter than Bruno

She searches in vain for her grandson, but her luck changes one day when she accidentally runs into - surprise! -- the Triplets. They are long in the tooth but still performing. Although living in what can only be called reduced circumstances they have cheerily adapted, and subsist on "game" from a nearby swamp. Their method of securing the game has to be seen to be believed, and would certainly cause Chuck Jones to blanch.

There is some truly lovely blending of 2D and 3D animation in places, especially during Bruno's dreams.

The movie is doing respectable box-office here, so I can only hope that Chomet will be given enough money to commit more of his lunacy to celluloid. I can't recommend this film highly enough. Film website: http://www.tripletsofbelleville.com. Worth a visit!


LESS THAN GOOD

I went to see 50 First Dates with my daughter, not expecting much (Adam Sandler, after all) -- but it was actually a lot better than I had feared it would be. Drew Barrymore, paired again with Sandler for the first time since his best film, The Wedding Singer, does a creditable job and is nothing if not affecting and appealing. Even Sandler reins in his usual gross-out humor (for the most part; but watch out for the vomiting walrus) and comes across as a pretty decent guy. He's a veterinarian in Hawaii and falls in love with Barrymore when he meets her in a diner one day. But the movie then springs a big surprise -- and I am so glad that I don't watch enough TV to have seen the previews that reveal the surprise. You could do a lot worse than to take a first date to see 50 First Dates. May the God of Reviewers wash my brain out with soap for saying so.