Sunday, March 22, 2015

Theo and the Forbidden Language (The Forbidden Series Book 1)

Ansley, M. (2014). Theo and the Forbidden Language (The Forbidden Series Book 1). Self published.

YA / Adult / Fantasy

I gave this book 5 of 5 stars

This is an amazingly well written story with a unique premise: humans and animals were at one time truly equal and equally civilized - all were clothed, could speak, think, and read. All lived in communities with laws, trade and schooling, religion and marriage. In short, humans and animals lived separately, but similarly. At some point, written language became forbidden for all living creatures, and books were destroyed -- as were any humans or animals who could read them. Also, at some point, humans began to "pacify" the animals, poisoning them so that they lost their civilities and became mindless beasts to do labor for the humans.  

The main character, Theo, a seemingly unremarkable young rabbit, has been shown books and taught to read by his grandfather, Father Oaks. It is his knowledge of the forbidden language that, once discovered by his village, leads to his imprisonment; however, once discovered by outsiders, it is this forbidden knowledge that takes Theo on a quest that may ultimately preserve the animals' way of life and save them from the empire of Mankahar.  But as is the case with most quests, there is danger abounding and doubt about who is trustworthy. 

The world building is fantastic, reminiscent of landscapes and descriptions experienced in books by Tolkien and Lewis. Rich details and eloquent writing will have readers fully engaged with the various settings.  Also richly written are the characters, and whether human or animal, all characters have unique appearances, personalities, and quirks to make them thoroughly memorable. Author Melanie Ansley is a truly gifted writer who evokes a wide spectrum of emotions from readers, who will find themselves pondering some pretty heavy issues.  

Theo and the Forbidden Language works as a stand alone book and the ending happened at a perfect place, where readers had enough information to be satisfied and were ready to take a deep breath after some intense situations. Having said that, personally, I cannot wait for the next installment and MUST KNOW MORE! There are plenty of paths that could be followed in future books, though these loose ends aren't bothersome.  I have faith that the author will satisfy her readers' curiosity.

Sensitive readers be warned: war is a central theme to this book, and Ansley doesn't shy away from its graphic nature.  There are horrible deaths and destruction, fully detailed so that readers have a very clear picture of what is happening.  As such, I recommend this book for mature middle graders and older -- including adults. 

Thank you to the author, who provided to me a free eBook copy in exchange for my honest review -- the only kind I give.  


Melanie Ansley was born in Windsor, Ontario, then bundled off to China at the age of 5. Her fascination with mythical talking animals started in Shanghai, where she'd buy Chinese comics like "Journey to the West". In the 1980s she spent most of her lunch breaks in her Hong Kong primary school's library, where she developed an insatiable appetite for fantasy and historical fiction. She now splits her time between Beijing and Los Angeles, and has written several produced screenplays. "Theo and the Forbidden Language" is her first novel.

Melanie was kind enough to answer a few of my (serious and silly) questions! Enjoy!

Hall Ways: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?  
MA: I actually wanted to be He-Man's wife. Thankfully that phase ended quickly. Someone must have enlightened me that that wasn't a viable career. So of course I chose writing and filmmaking--which usually aren't viable either! 

Hall Ways: Ha! That's excellent. Based on Theo, I think readers will say you have found a viable career in writing. How would you describe your writing process? 
MA: Slow. I've learned I need to talk things out on the page. My first drafts consist of huge amounts of dialogue explaining what has and will happen. This is of course the anti-thesis to good writing, where you should show, not tell. But it's how I get the thoughts down and then from there I can shape the story. I have learned the painful lesson that I need to have at least a basic outline before I start writing--I usually ignore the outline and "pants" my way through the writing, but setting an outline at least keeps me within the ballpark. 
Hall Ways: This is not your typical talking animals book in that there is both violence and mature themes. When you were writing, who was your intended audience? Did it stay that way once you were finished? 
MA: When I wrote it, I didn't think beyond writing something that I knew I'd want to read--at age 13. This book first began as a few short adventures imagined in my teenage years, when I was most influenced by stories like Redwall, Watership Down, Animal Farm, and The Plague Dogs. I think reading these books introduced me to the idea that animal stories weren't just limited to innocent themes like Peter Rabbit or Black Beauty. They made me realize that animals could be metaphors, and that animal lives can be and are very brutal. We like to create soft fuzzy stories about animals, but the reality is that most of them live harsh, violent lives, whether in the wild or under human domestication. Theo's story started out more mildly, but once it became clear that he would be fighting against domestication, it got me thinking more and more about what that meant, what that process would look like to a sentient animal. And I realized it wasn't the stuff of Peter Rabbit, it was pretty volatile. 

Hall Ways: It really does make you think. Literacy, and the power it brings, plays a big role in the book. How did this originate? 
MA: This really stemmed from realizing that Theo was trying to stop the humans from farming animals. It made me think about what allows us to domesticate animals, dictate how and when they live, when they breed, when they die. And some would argue it's our higher intelligence, but I looked at it from another angle: would we domesticate animals if they had language and could express themselves? Which made me imagine a time where animals did have speech, but somehow lost it, and how as humans we've been able to shape the world to our designs hugely because we can communicate in complex ways. 

Hall Ways: You know, I'd like to say humans most certainly wouldn't treat animals the same if they could speak to us, but history shows humans dominate whatever/whoever can be dominated. It's shameful.  Please tell us in one sentence why we should read your book.
MA: Where else will you be entertained by warrior rabbits and axe wielding bears?

Hall Ways: I certainly can't think of any place, that's for sure.  This is part one of the series, any hints as to what’s next for Theo and his group? How long do we have to wait? 
MA: Theo's going to keep growing, I see him becoming increasingly assertive and “badass” to borrow a contemporary term. At the end of Book 1 he has just come to terms with who he is, and now he must learn what he will fight for. It's something we all have to learn about ourselves: where are our moral lines, when do we fight and when do we lie down? I also see the series as continuing to deal with dark themes that hopefully challenge our views of animals and how we treat them. As to wait time for the next installment, I'm aiming to publish "Theo and the Forbidden Library" by end of 2015, but in the meantime I'll be putting out a novella that tells the story of one of Theo's companions, Princess Indigo, and how she joined this quest. It’s been super fun writing something that is outside of Theo’s world, but ties in.    

Hall Ways: That sounds FABULOUS! I am so excited about the novella and that book two is coming sooner than later.  Thank you so much for answering my questions!  Finally, just for fun. . .
Sweet or Salty? Salty
Print or eBook? Both please. There is no such thing as too many books. 
Cats or Dogs? Don't make me choose! This is an unfair choice.
Desert or Ocean? Ocean.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee for writing, tea for reading.
Text or Talk? Depends: who's on the other end?

Connect to Melanie on her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, add the book to your Goodreads shelf, 
or buy it on Amazon.  

Congratulations to winners Lupe & Ann!

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