Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brandie Tarvin and the Blue Kingdoms

Allow me to introduce you to Ms. Brandie Tarvin.

Ms. Tarvin is an author who has contributed short stories to both volumes of the Blue Kingdoms Fantasy series. The first is "Just my Luck" in Pirates of the Blue Kingdoms and the second is "The Monster of Mogahnee Bay" in Shades & Specters. She is also an old friend of mine, and when she recently asked me to write reviews of these two stories, I was happy to oblige.

At first glance, the stories in Blue Kingdoms resemble many of the pirate stories we've all been exposed to over the years. However, once the reader sees words like "half-elf" in the narrative, they soon realize that this world promises to be a bit more interesting that your average seafaring yarn.

"Just my Luck" introduces us to Captain Sheldon, a man who stumbled into piracy after a run of bad luck. We quickly learn about his ship The Hidden Treasure and his colorful crew that could drive a lesser man to drink. Into all this comes a hapless sailor babbling in a foreign dialect and clutching a seemingly useless scroll. He appears harmless, but Captain Sheldon is about to discover just how much worse his luck can get.

Ms. Tarvin makes a great choice by dropping the story into the aftermath of a storm. It's a wonderful way to introduce the ship and the crew amidst their scurrying around and affecting repairs. The eclectic crew quickly signal that this story will have it's share of comedy, and though it took me a second reading to nail down all of the characters, each is given their own moments to shine in the course of the story.

The heart of this tale is that of a comedy/swashbuckler, and it could have even worked without the fantasy elements in play. The aforementioned characters are funny and memorable. The action set piece is exciting given the odds our protagonist is up against. Ms. Tarvin even displays a subtle touch in her descriptions of their opponents that clearly tell the reader who they are without coming right out and saying it.

The way the story ends screams for a followup (you can practically hear the Muppets announcer intone, "Tune in next week when you'll hear yeoman Tick say..."). Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the story is that I was left wanting to read the further adventures of Captain Sheldon and his rag tag crew.

Alas, this was not to be in the second book. It's probably for the better, though, as this volume strikes a far spookier tone than the first. "The Monster of Mogahnee Bay" concerns an isolated harbor town whose residents become excited when a strange ship enters it's waters. Everyone is pleased for this development, except for Glenda the harbormaster. She has her suspicions about the boat, and it's going to be a struggle to save the town from what lies in the belly of that black ship.

My biggest obstacle with this story concerns the town's isolation. We are told it is the result of a mysterious haze that has surrounded the island for fifty years and cuts it off from the outside world. No more information is offered beyond this, and for me this became a distraction. Though it certainly provides an excellent motivation for the townspeople to row out to the ship in increasing numbers, it could have done much more. The story could have gained a further level of fear and terror by describing how these people could have lived for fifty years without news, supplies and simple human contact.

Aside from this missed opportunity, the story is very well done. Ms. Tarvin easily changes from the light atmosphere of her first story to the heavy and foreboding one in her second. Glenda is a great protagonist and the reader is right there with her in her struggle against both the town and the black ship. The subplot of her relationship with Robert Hammerwright is touching. And I especially liked some of Ms. Tarvin's descriptions, such as the red silk that Glenda uses to try and save the town. All in all, a very fine ghost story that creates the perfect mood.

As a side note, I couldn't help but notice how moments in the two stories seem to echo moments in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. At the beginning of the first film, we have a scene where a boat comes across a person in the water. After he is brought aboard, it's revealed that he possess a magical artifact that some very bad guys are looking to get back, much like the plot of "Luck". A little later on in the first film, we see a dark, foreboding ship enter a harbor, bringing death to many of those people who live in the town as it does in "Moghanee". Even the end of "Moghanee" sees a character make a sacrifice very similar to the end of the third POTC film.

But this is nitpicking, and it's more a case of my having seen the trilogy way too many times than a shortcoming of Ms. Tarvin' stories. The classic way to start a story is for unknown elements to cross paths, and here we have an example of the protagonist finding trouble in the first story, and trouble finding the protagonist in the second. There is nothing new under the sun.

It all comes down to if the stories is entertaining, and they are that. Ms. Tarvin handles the divergent themes of the comic and the supernatural with a deft hand, and I personally look forward to her further works.

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