Archive for the ‘Fantasy Fiction’ Category

1984 by George Orwell (Audio Book)

October 2, 2008

Amazon.com Review
“Outside, even through the shut window pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the posters that were plastered everywhere.”

The year is 1984; the scene is London, largest population center of Airstrip One.

Airstrip One is part of the vast political entity Oceania, which is eternally at war with one of two other vast entities, Eurasia and Eastasia. At any moment, depending upon current alignments, all existing records show either that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia, or that it has always been at war with Eastasia and allied with Eurasia. Winston Smith knows this, because his work at the Ministry of Truth involves the constant “correction” of such records. “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

In a grim city and a terrifying country, where Big Brother is always Watching You and the Thought Police can practically read your mind, Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. He knows the Party’s official image of the world is a fluid fiction. He knows the Party controls the people by feeding them lies and narrowing their imaginations through a process of bewilderment and brutalization that alienates each individual from his fellows and deprives him of every liberating human pursuit from reasoned inquiry to sexual passion. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.

Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime–in 1984, George Orwell created a whole vocabulary of words concerning totalitarian control that have since passed into our common vocabulary. More importantly, he has portrayed a chillingly credible dystopia. In our deeply anxious world, the seeds of unthinking conformity are everywhere in evidence; and Big Brother is always looking for his chance.

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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (Audio Book)

October 1, 2008

From Publishers Weekly
Born with green skin and huge teeth, like a dragon, the free-spirited Elphaba grows up to be an anti-totalitarian agitator, an animal-rights activist, a nun, then a nurse who tends the dying?and, ultimately, the headstrong Wicked Witch of the West in the land of Oz. Maguire’s strange and imaginative postmodernist fable uses L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a springboard to create a tense realm inhabited by humans, talking animals (a rhino librarian, a goat physician), Munchkinlanders, dwarves and various tribes. The Wizard of Oz, emperor of this dystopian dictatorship, promotes Industrial Modern architecture and restricts animals’ right to freedom of travel; his holy book is an ancient manuscript of magic that was clairvoyantly located by Madam Blavatsky 40 years earlier. Much of the narrative concerns Elphaba’s troubled youth (she is raised by a giddy alcoholic mother and a hermitlike minister father who transmits to her his habits of loathing and self-hatred) and with her student years. Dorothy appears only near novel’s end, as her house crash-lands on Elphaba’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, in an accident that sets Elphaba on the trail of the girl from Kansas?as well as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Lion?and her fabulous new shoes. Maguire combines puckish humor and bracing pessimism in this fantastical meditation on good and evil, God and free will, which should, despite being far removed in spirit from the Baum books, captivate devotees of fantasy.

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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Audio Book)

October 1, 2008

Amazon.com Review
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The hobbit-hole in question belongs to one Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding member of a “little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.” He is, like most of his kind, well off, well fed, and best pleased when sitting by his own fire with a pipe, a glass of good beer, and a meal to look forward to. Certainly this particular hobbit is the last person one would expect to see set off on a hazardous journey; indeed, when Gandalf the Grey stops by one morning, “looking for someone to share in an adventure,” Baggins fervently wishes the wizard elsewhere. No such luck, however; soon 13 fortune-seeking dwarves have arrived on the hobbit’s doorstep in search of a burglar, and before he can even grab his hat or an umbrella, Bilbo Baggins is swept out his door and into a dangerous adventure.

The dwarves’ goal is to return to their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountains and reclaim a stolen fortune from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they and their reluctant companion meet giant spiders, hostile elves, ravening wolves–and, most perilous of all, a subterranean creature named Gollum from whom Bilbo wins a magical ring in a riddling contest. It is from this life-or-death game in the dark that J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, would eventually spring. Though The Hobbit is lighter in tone than the trilogy that follows, it has, like Bilbo Baggins himself, unexpected iron at its core. Don’t be fooled by its fairy-tale demeanor; this is very much a story for adults, though older children will enjoy it, too. By the time Bilbo returns to his comfortable hobbit-hole, he is a different person altogether, well primed for the bigger adventures to come–and so is the reader.

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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (Audio Book)

October 1, 2008

Amazon.com Review
This is the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories, first published by H.G. Wells in 1898. The novel begins ominously, as the lone voice of a narrator tells readers that “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s…” Things then progress from a series of seemingly mundane reports about odd atmospheric disturbances taking place on Mars to the arrival of Martians just outside of London. At first the Martians seem laughable, hardly able to move in Earth’s comparatively heavy gravity even enough to raise themselves out of the pit created when their spaceship landed. But soon the Martians reveal their true nature as death machines 100-feet tall rise up from the pit and begin laying waste to the surrounding land. Wells quickly moves the story from the countryside to the evacuation of London itself and the loss of all hope as England’s military suffers defeat after defeat. With horror his narrator describes how the Martians suck the blood from living humans for sustenance, and how it’s clear that man is not being conquered so much a corralled.

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The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (Audio Book)

October 1, 2008

When a Victorian scientist propels himself into the year a.d. 802,701, he is initially delighted to find that suffering has been replaced by beauty, contentment, and peace. Entranced at first by the Eloi, an elfin species descended from man, he soon realizes that these beautiful people are simply remnants of a once-great culture—now weak and childishly afraid of the dark. They have every reason to be afraid: in deep tunnels beneath their paradise lurks another race descended from humanity—the sinister Morlocks. And when the scientist’s time machine vanishes, it becomes clear he must search these tunnels if he is ever to return to his own era.

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Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (Audio Book)

September 30, 2008

Twenty-five years before we had William Gibson and “cyberpunk,” we had Philip K. Dick, and if nothing else, this work proves that he was way ahead of his time and that his successors in the genre have done little to build upon his ideas or surpass his vision. In Flow My Tears, we are shown a near-future society transformed to a neo-fascistic police state. Jason Taverner, a pop superstar, finds himself one day without an identity: his friends and lovers don’t recognize or remember him and his music and TV shows are unknown. Most significantly, perhaps, he does not have the precious ID cards without which he cannot safely travel more than a few blocks without being waylaid by police and sent into a forced labor camp. Taverner must contend with a rogue’s gallery of bizarre and memorable characters to discover how his identity was lost and attempt to recover it. Sometimes Dick’s writing is clunky – it is as if ten words at random were removed from the paragraph, and the reader is left slightly uneasy, but this may contribute to the book’s strong mood of paranoia. A touch of psychedelia a la Burroughs compounds this effect. Luckily for the reader, unlike in many of Burroughs’s works, there actually is a story here. And the characterizations are excellent. Unfortunately, however, somewhere towards the ending, Dick breaks down. The book ends quickly and crudely, like a field amputation given by a half-trained medic in the middle of a battle. In addition, there are allusions to Jung, Renaissance poetry, and several other thinkers or artistic movements which obviously influenced Dick, but I feel that he could have done more to develop these references and themes. All in all, though it is a prescient and moving work and one that should be enjoyable to any science-fiction fans.

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The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (Audio Book)

September 30, 2008

Amazon.com Review
From “Rocket Summer” to “The Million-Year Picnic,” Ray Bradbury’s stories of the colonization of Mars form an eerie mesh of past and future. Written in the 1940s, the chronicles drip with nostalgic atmosphere–shady porches with tinkling pitchers of lemonade, grandfather clocks, chintz-covered sofas. But longing for this comfortable past proves dangerous in every way to Bradbury’s characters–the golden-eyed Martians as well as the humans. Starting in the far-flung future of 1999, expedition after expedition leaves Earth to investigate Mars. The Martians guard their mysteries well, but they are decimated by the diseases that arrive with the rockets. Colonists appear, most with ideas no more lofty than starting a hot-dog stand, and with no respect for the culture they’ve displaced. Bradbury’s quiet exploration of a future that looks so much like the past is sprinkled with lighter material. In “The Silent Towns,” the last man on Mars hears the phone ring and ends up on a comical blind date. But in most of these stories, Bradbury holds up a mirror to humanity that reflects a shameful treatment of “the other,” yielding, time after time, a harvest of loneliness and isolation. Yet the collection ends with hope for renewal, as a colonist family turns away from the demise of the Earth towards a new future on Mars. Bradbury is a master fantasist and The Martian Chronicles are an unforgettable work of art. –Blaise Selby

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Watership Down by Richard Adams (Audio Book)

September 30, 2008

Amazon review
Despite the fact that it’s often a hard sell at first, Richard Adams’ bunny-centric epic rarely fails to win the love and respect of anyone who reads it, regardless of age. Like most great novels, Watership Down is a rich story that can be read (and reread) on many different levels. The book is often praised as an allegory, with its analogues between human and rabbit culture (a fact sometimes used to goad skeptical teens, who resent the challenge that they won’t “get” it, into reading it), but it’s equally praiseworthy as just a corking good adventure.

The story follows a warren of Berkshire rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home by a land developer. As they search for a safe haven, skirting danger at every turn, we become acquainted with the band and its compelling culture and mythos. Adams has crafted a touching, involving world in the dirt and scrub of the English countryside, complete with its own folk history and language.As much about freedom, ethics and human nature as it is about a bunch of bunnies looking for a warm hidey-hole and some mates, Watership Down will continue to make the transition from classroom desk to bedside table for many generations to come.

Fiver could sense danger. Something terrible was going to happen to the warren – he felt sure of it. So did his brother Hazel, for Fiver’s sixth sense was never wrong. They had to leave immediately, and they had to persuade the other rabbits to join them. And so begins a long and perilous journey of a small band of rabbits in search of a safe home. Fiver’s vision finally leads them to Watership Down, but here they face their most difficult challenge of all…

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His Dark Materials, Book III:The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (Audio Book)

September 30, 2008

Amazon.com Review
From the very start of its very first scene, The Amber Spyglass will set hearts fluttering and minds racing. All we’ll say here is that we immediately discover who captured Lyra at the end of The Subtle Knife, though we’ve yet to discern whether this individual’s intent is good, evil, or somewhere in between. We also learn that Will still possesses the blade that allows him to cut between worlds, and has been joined by two winged companions who are determined to escort him to Lord Asriel’s mountain redoubt. The boy, however, has only one goal in mind–to rescue his friend and return to her the alethiometer, an instrument that has revealed so much to her and to readers of The Golden Compass and its follow-up. Within a short time, too, we get to experience the “tingle of the starlight” on Serafina Pekkala’s skin as she seeks out a famished Iorek Byrnison and enlists him in Lord Asriel’s crusade:

A complex web of thoughts was weaving itself in the bear king’s mind, with more strands in it than hunger and satisfaction. There was the memory of the little girl Lyra, whom he had named Silvertongue, and whom he had last seen crossing the fragile snow bridge across a crevasse in his own island of Svalbard. Then there was the agitation among the witches, the rumors of pacts and alliances and war; and then there was the surpassingly strange fact of this new world itself, and the witch’s insistence that there were many more such worlds, and that the fate of them all hung somehow on the fate of the child.

Meanwhile, two factions of the Church are vying to reach Lyra first. One is even prepared to give a priest “preemptive absolution” should he succeed in committing mortal sin. For these tyrants, killing this girl is no less than “a sacred task.”

In the final installment of his trilogy, Philip Pullman has set himself the highest hurdles. He must match its predecessors in terms of sheer action and originality and resolve the enigmas he already created. The good news is that there is no critical bad news–not that The Amber Spyglass doesn’t contain standoffs and close calls galore. (Who would have it otherwise?) But Pullman brings his audacious revision of Paradise Lost to a conclusion that is both serene and devastating. In prose that is transparent yet lyrical and 3-D, the author weaves in and out of his principals’ thoughts. He also offers up several additional worlds. In one, Dr. Mary Malone is welcomed into an apparently simple society. The environment of the mulefa (again, we’ll reveal nothing more) makes them rich in consciousness while their lives possess a slow and stately rhythm. These strange creatures can, however, be very fast on their feet (or on other things entirely) when necessary. Alas, they are on the verge of dying as Dust streams out of their idyllic landscape. Will the Oxford dark-matter researcher see her way to saving them, or does this require our young heroes? And while Mary is puzzling out a cure, Will and Lyra undertake a pilgrimage to a realm devoid of all light and hope, after having been forced into the cruelest of sacrifices–or betrayals.

Throughout his galvanizing epic, Pullman sustains scenes of fierce beauty and tenderness. He also allows us a moment or two of comic respite. At one point, for instance, Lyra’s mother bullies a series of ecclesiastical underlings: “The man bowed helplessly and led her away. The guard behind her blew out his cheeks with relief.” Needless to say, Mrs. Coulter is as intoxicating and fluid as ever. And can it be that we will come to admire her as she plays out her desperate endgame? In this respect, as in many others, The Amber Spyglass is truly a book of revelations, moving from darkness visible to radiant truth. –Kerry Fried

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His Dark Materials, Book II: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (Audio Book)

September 30, 2008

Amazon.com Review
With The Golden Compass Philip Pullman garnered every accolade under the sun. Critics lobbed around such superlatives as “elegant,” “awe-inspiring,” “grand,” and “glittering,” and used “magnificent” with gay abandon. Each reader had a favorite chapter–or, more likely, several–from the opening tour de force to Lyra’s close call at Bolvangar to the great armored-bear battle. And Pullman was no less profligate when it came to intellectual firepower or singular characters. The dæmons alone grant him a place in world literature. Could the second installment of his trilogy keep up this pitch, or had his heroine and her too, too sullied parents consumed him? And what of the belief system that pervaded his alternate universe, not to mention the mystery of Dust? More revelations and an equal number of wonders and new players were definitely in order.

The Subtle Knife offers everything we could have wished for, and more. For a start, there’s a young hero–from our world–who is a match for Lyra Silvertongue and whose destiny is every bit as shattering. Like Lyra, Will Parry has spent his childhood playing games. Unlike hers, though, his have been deadly serious. This 12-year-old long ago learned the art of invisibility: if he could erase himself, no one would discover his mother’s increasing instability and separate them.

As the novel opens, Will’s enemies will do anything for information about his missing father, a soldier and Arctic explorer who has been very much airbrushed from the official picture. Now Will must get his mother into safe seclusion and make his way toward Oxford, which may hold the key to John Parry’s disappearance. But en route and on the lam from both the police and his family’s tormentors, he comes upon a cat with more than a mouse on her mind: “She reached out a paw to pat something in the air in front of her, something quite invisible to Will.” What seems to him a patch of everyday Oxford conceals far more: “The cat stepped forward and vanished.” Will, too, scrambles through and into another oddly deserted landscape–one in which children rule and adults (and felines) are very much at risk. Here in this deathly silent city by the sea, he will soon have a dustup with a fierce, flinty little girl: “Her expression was a mixture of the very young–when she first tasted the cola–and a kind of deep, sad wariness.” Soon Will and Lyra (and, of course, her dæmon, Pantalaimon) uneasily embark on a great adventure and head into greater tragedy.

As Pullman moves between his young warriors and the witch Serafina Pekkala, the magnetic, ever-manipulative Mrs. Coulter, and Lee Scoresby and his hare dæmon, Hester, there are clear signs of approaching war and earthly chaos. There are new faces as well. The author introduces Oxford dark-matter researcher Mary Malone; the Latvian witch queen Ruta Skadi, who “had trafficked with spirits, and it showed”; Stanislaus Grumman, a shaman in search of a weapon crucial to the cause of Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father; and a serpentine old man whom Lyra and Pan can’t quite place. Also on hand are the Specters, beings that make cliff-ghasts look like rank amateurs.

Throughout, Pullman is in absolute control of his several worlds, his plot and pace equal to his inspiration. Any number of astonishing scenes–small- and large-scale–will have readers on edge, and many are cause for tears. “You think things have to be possible,” Will demands. “Things have to be true!” It is Philip Pullman’s gift to turn what quotidian minds would term the impossible into a reality that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. –Kerry Fried

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