Saturday, August 11, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, First Round :: Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine vs. Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

Continuing the Summer Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books, the fourth matchup pits Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine against Taft 2012 by Jason Heller. Per our contest rules, I have read the first 25 pages of both, and the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading.

Hunter and Fox: Pyr Books trade paperback, June 2012, 274 pages, cover illustration by Cynthia Sheppard, a Shifted World novel. Philippa Ballantine is a New Zealand author and podcaster living in the USA. She is co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels with Tee Morris. She is the author of the books Geist and Spectyr in the ongoing Books of the Order series. The first 25 pages cover a little more than two chapters.

The Caisah, ruler of the shifting land Conhaero, destroyed the native Vaerli people, taking away most of their magical powers. The Vaerli woman called Talyn the Dark, who rides a fearsome green steed, became the Caisah’s Hunter, killing and capturing people for her enemy. For her dirty work, Talyn is rewarded with pieces of a mysterious golden puzzle which Talyn believes is the only hope for her people.

Meanwhile, Finbarr the Fox, who is a talespinner and mage of sorts, tells an audience about life before the Caisah, how it was a golden time, even if the lands were less stable. He tries to raise sympathy for the Vaerli. His story earns him a beating from the Caisah’s Rutilian Guard. Then Finn travels to the city Perilous and Fair, where he spots Talyn, the Hunter herself, entering the Caisah’s citadel.

Elsewhere, Talyn’s lost brother Byre is called “Vaerli scum” and escapes an angry mob.

Taft 2012: Quirk Books paperback, June 2012, 249 pages, cover illustration by Doogie Horner. Jason Heller is journalist and author living in Denver. I live in the same metro area, but I have not met him (but fellow Fantastic Reviewer Aaron says he's a good guy). Heller is the author of The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. Taft 2012 is his first novel. The first 25 pages include a prologue, three chapters, and various informational tidbits.

In Taft 2012, unlike in our world, President William Howard Taft mysteriously disappeared in March of 1913, the morning of the inauguration of his successor, Woodrow Wilson. For years, Taft was missing and presumed dead. The last thing Taft remembers is being exhausted and lying down to sleep on the Ellipse. Next, a confused Taft is pulling himself out of the mud, heading towards the fountain, and he gets shot in the leg.

Secret Service agent Kowalczyk saw a oversized, muddy man lurching towards a White House press conference, not halting when ordered, and so he shot the intruder. The water of the White House's South Lawn fountain and the rain reveal a man wearing a dirty tweed suit who improbably looks and acts like President Taft. He is taken into the White House to recuperate. The date is November 2011.

Taft is questioned by men in suits. Taft's identity is confirmed by physical traits, DNA tests, and his knowing a secret presidential ID code. Taft's great-granddaughter, who is a congresswoman from Ohio, wants to know what the hell is up. A panicked Taft momentarily mistakes a woman who is a history professor for his wife Nellie.

The Battle: We have a fantasy set on another world featuring magic and a brutal ruler, and a book set in the modern day about an improbably resurrected US President from a hundred years ago. These are two very different books, in tone as well as subject matter.

Hunter and Fox begins with a smorgasbord of fantasy concepts and world building. Various intriguing magic talents are presented, such as Talyn’s time-sense. I like the idea of the Chaoslands, with various peoples seemingly from different worlds. It’s interesting that the Caisah is immortal while the Vaerli are long-lived. Many things are touched upon, perhaps too many.

In the first 25 pages, the character of The Fox, Finn, is likable but I can only guess at his motivations. The Hunter Talyn appears set up to become an antihero.

Taft 2012 takes a preposterous idea and runs with it. There's no attempted explanation of how President Taft could appear after nearly a hundred years. No one yet is claiming Taft is a government conspiracy. Quotes, letters, memos, radio transcripts and other bits are nicely used to help tell the story. The character Taft believably speaks in an old-fashioned manner. I like the humorous touches, such as Taft's appreciation of Twinkies.

After reading a short sample of these novels, I asked myself in which book was I more curious to learn what happens next. I enjoy the escapism of reading books set in unreal fantasy worlds, but in this case I found I'd rather continue reading the book set in something resembling reality.

THE WINNER: TAFT 2012 by Jason Heller

Taft 2012 moves on to the second round, where it will meet Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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