to Fantasy Reviews  

  of Fantasy Reviews
 

Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

 LAST UPDATE 8/31/07

Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin, Harcourt, 9/07, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-205770-1

The third novel in the Western Shore trilogy, young adult fantasy, follows the adventures of yet another young person from that mythical realm.  Gavir is a slave and has known no other life, so he is content with his lot.  His biggest problem is his intermittent ability to foresee future events, a talent which he considers more curse than gift and which, on the advice of his older sister and his own sense of survival, he carefully conceals from others.  But then a hostile force attacks the city and in due course Gavir finds himself bewildered and without purpose, essentially set on a quest whose goal he doesn't know himself.  Should he use his powers, and how best employ them?  Should he try to find his original people - a people he has never known, or should he seek a new master who will make these decisions for him.  It should be unnecessary to say that the story is expertly written and reads smoothly and quickly without sacrificing thoughtfulness and necessary detail.  I  have found this loosely linked series to be considerably more intelligent than other young adult (and a lot of adult) fantasy.  The characters are nicely drawn and the setting is a good one.  My only quibble is that they seem a bit low on imagination.  This one in particular seems a lot closer to mainstream fantasy than most of Le Guin's previous work.  8/31/07

Once Upon a Dreadful Time by Dennis L. McKiernan, Roc, 10/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46172-8

This is the fifth in this series of novels by Dennis McKiernan, set in a version of our world which impinges on Faery, and vice versa, a setting that I usually find less than scintillating.  He's one of the few writers who can hold my interest, at least most of the time, and I've had a very uneven reaction to the previous books in this sequence, which might be the books or might be me.  The problem this time is that a nasty witch has decided to free an even nastier sorcerer from his magical prison, a development which could potentially cause great damage to both worlds.  Opposed to her is a group of heroic characters, human and otherwise, who like things just the way they are, thank you, and no interfering witches or sorcerers are going to get away with changing the status quo.  Hopefully.  The first few chapters really didn't sink their talons into me and I even set it aside for a while and read something else.  But when I came back to it, I found it much more interesting and there are some clever tricks with time and magic that were more than usually amusing. I've frequently thought McKiernan's writing was better than his plots might indicate, and this is a perfect example.  8/28/07

Crimson Shadows by Robert E. Howard, Del Rey, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49018-6

As it happens I recently re-read the bulk of Howard's non-Conan and Kull stories so almost everything in this, the first volume of "The Best of Robert E. Howard", was familiar.  This is a pretty good sampling, everything from action to horror to humor.  It includes "The Shadow Kingdom", often cited as the first sword and sorcery story, "Red Shadows", "The Dark Man", "People of the Black Circle", and many others, including some poetry.  This is a big book, five hundred pages, and an excellent introduction to the range of Howard's work.  Nice illustrations by Jim & Ruth Keegan add to the attractiveness of the packaging.  The more I read Howard the more convinced I am that despite his weaknesses, he was one of the more significant writers of the 1930s, and it still amazes me how much work he produced in a relatively short career.  8/25/07

The Coyote Road edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Viking, 2007, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-670-06194-5

I've been nibbling at this collection of Trickster fantasy stories for a while.  For one thing, I'm really not a big fan of that particular type of fantasy, and for another, theme anthologies like this often end up with multiple variations of similar stories.  I should have known that these two editors would not fall into that trap, and the result is surprisingly diverse, both in tone, plot, and every other aspect.  More than two dozen stories are gathered here, by newcomers as well as old hands like Jane Yolen, Jeffrey Ford, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Patricia McKillip, Ellen Kushner, Charles De Lint, and others.  A simple scan through the list of contributors should be enough to merit special attention.  More than 500 pages of stories, plus a nice list of additional reading for those who just can't get enough.

The Trickster is a recurring character in myth systems, most frequently represented by an animal like the coyote.  There is also an extended introductory essay about the Trickster legend drawn from multiple mythologies, which provides a solid context in which to read the stories and poems that follow. This could quite easily have been just a collection of gimmick stories or light, humorous fantasy, and there is genuine humor here, often distinctly wry but humor nonetheless.  But it's not all fun and games.  Some of the stories are decidedly serious as well.  They also draw on a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.  There were a few that resonated with me more than others - the stories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Christopher Barzak, Delia Sherman, Charles De Lint, Ellen Kushner, Kelly Link, and Kij Johnson were all very enjoyable, and most of the others were nearly as good.  I do recommend reading this a little bit at a time though, not because the stories are alike, but because the faster you read it, the sooner you're done, and this is one of those books you want to last for a while.  8/24/07

The Princes of the Golden Gate by Nathalie Mallet, Night Shade, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-090-7

This is a double debut of sorts.  For one thing, it's a first novel.  For another it is - I believe - the first mass market paperback from Night Shade Books, which looks to be expanding its market in this direction.  I wish them the best of luck, and the author as well.  The book itself is an Arabian Nights style fantasy, which is a plus for me because it has yet to be done to death like other familiar fantasy settings.  The protagonist is a prince, but he's one of a hundred or so siblings, all of whom are essentially prisoners in the royal palace where they will remain until at some point in the future one is chosen to replace their father.  Amir decides to become a scholar, and his habit of investigating arcane lore gets him into trouble when someone starts killing off his brothers, methodically and relentlessly, and by magical means.  What better suspect than the one knowledgeable about the subject who stands to benefit greatly if he is the sole survivor?

You can pretty much guess where the story is going from there.  Amir has to figure out who is really responsible and prove it before he ends up in an even stricter prison, or dead.  Adding to his difficulties is the fact that he unwisely fell in love with a visiting princess, destined to marry the next Sultan, which just makes his motive look stronger than ever.  This one's not a world beater, but it's a very solid, satisfying fantasy/mystery with pretty good characterizations and a well developed setting and backdrop. One of the best first fantasy novels of the year. 8/21/07

The Elves of Cintra by Terry Brooks, Del Rey, 2007, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-345-48411-6 plus Audiobook, Brilliance Audio, read by Phil Gigante, 2007, $38.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-2265-8

I've never particularly been a fan of the Shannara series, but I've found Brooks' other novels, like the Knights of the Wyrd series, worth following.  So naturally he crosses me up and merges the two series, starting with Armageddon's Children, continuing into  the present volume.  It's the near future and civilization has pretty much gone to pieces thanks to the arrival of an army of demonic creatures, the return of magic, and the opening of a bridge between our world and Shannara, a Tolkienesque fantasy realm.  All of this has been pretty chaotic in the first few books, and gets even more so this time around, with multiple quests going on.  Let's see if I can sort some of this out.

One quest is static, that is, the protagonist has been sent to defend a particular community and more specifically an unusual being whose survival is essential if humanity is to prevail.  The second is more pro-active, a journey to a magical place where the Elves of the title have managed to avoid getting overrun by the minions of evil.  But both quests eventually involve sub-quests, a search and rescue operation and the inevitable search for a magical talisman of great power and import.  Predictably, given my predilections, I liked the parts of the book set in the Seattle area pretty well, and equally predictably, I found the quest for the talisman and the land of the elves pretty humdrum.  There is a danger here in that in an effort to appeal to both worlds, Brooks may ultimately satisfy neither.  I only listed to a sampling of the audiobook since I'd just read the novel, but it sounded competently done.  8/15/07

Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning, Dell, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24098-3

This author's name is familiar but I don't think I've read any of her previous books.  Darkfever is the first novel in a series set in a version of our world where the borders between our reality and the world of fairy magic have dropped and the two sides intermix.  The story opens with the discovery of the murder of a college student in Ireland, and her sister MacKayla - who has unusual powers vis-a-vis the sidhe, decides to investigate.  She runs into a dark, handsome, and not particularly pleasant man who is clearly trying to get her to turn around and go home.  Whether this is for her protection or not is not clear and, frankly, I didn't care for him at all even though I suspect he is going to turn out to be her romantic partner.  They get involved in a quest to find an artifact of power sought by the evil fairies, and MacKayla is in jeopardy on several occasions.  I found her character to be only moderately more appealing because even though she is on the side of good, she's so immature at times that it grated. Presumably the characters will grow as the series progresses, but I think it may have been a tactical error not to have made them more appealing in the opening volume.  8/13/07

Dark Warrior Rising by Ed Greenwood, Tor, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1765-0

The first novel of Niflheim has, as you might expect, a distinctly Norse flavor, although it is not specifically based on any Norse legends that I've heard of.  The protagonist is Orivon Firefist (hate the name!), who is kidnapped by dark elves when only a child, enslaved and mistreated for years, and as a young man is scarred and bitter but still determined to one day win his freedom.  He does eventually make a new home for himself, though this might not be the end of his story, and succeeds only after navigating a difficult course among mighty warriors and, even more perilously, ambitious and cruel aristocratic elven women. 

Greenwood almost always tells a good story, or in this case retells one, since the basic plot is hardly a new one.  I thought he did a particularly good job with the characterizations of the female characters but, oddly enough, not with his protagonist.  I also kept stumbling over unpronounceable proper names, which I find increasingly annoying.  Fortunately, there's only a few of them here.  Good enough to keep me reading, but I liked his earlier series for Tor considerably better.  8/9/07

The Phoenix Unchained by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, Tor, 9/07, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1593-0

Readers who enjoyed the Obsidian trilogy by this collaborative team will be pleased to know that the authors are returning to that setting for a new set of three novels.  There' s nothing shockingly new here.  Humans and a couple of inhuman races have been living together peacefully for longer than living memory.  Elves and dragons have left, and with them has gone most of the knowledge of magic.  Although there are still occasional instances, the world has pretty much learned to live without spells and curses and so forth.  But the times they are a-changing.  One of the few skilled magicians has decided that this is wrong, and he wants to alter the nature of the world and bring magic back into the center.  Almost simultaneously, a nobleman discovers the potency of the lost knowledge and talks a friend into visiting the distant elves to find out what they can tell him.  He also attracts the unwelcome attention of the ambitious magician, who has been thwarted so far in his endeavors. A quest/voyage of discovery follows with some very nice episodic encounters, but naturally there's no real resolution of any of the conflicts involved.  Above average prose, but very average plot.  8/7/07

The Half-Haunted Saloon by Richard Shattuck, Simon & Schuster, 1945 

Sometimes – more often than you might think – I try reading something away from the genre only to find that it’s SF or fantasy.  An article by Anthony Boucher steered me to this novel, which I thought might be a mystery.  It involves the Carey family, uptight father, slightly dotty mother, and three grown daughters of various dispositions.  The Careys inherit Dizzy’s Place, a saloon, from Mr. Carey’s brother, a bequest which they hope to sell at the earliest opportunity.  That proves more difficult than expected, however, because it is believed that the saloon is haunted, which is not surprising since it’s situated between a cemetery and a crematorium. 

The ghost story arises from an affair that was exposed in the saloon a few years earlier.  A woman found her husband and his lover, sat down with them, and poisoned herself, but that very same woman periodically comes into the bar as though looking for someone, occasionally orders a drink, never pays and leaves.  The Carey family women, to the dismay of Mr. Carey, adopt the saloon whole heartedly, serving sandwiches, performing puppet shows, and generally confusing the patrons and the barkeepers.  As strange as the Carey family is, their customers are even stranger, including a psychiatrist haunted by multiple personalities of the same woman.  For a long time I thought the ghosts were just imaginary, but eventually it becomes obvious that they are real, and prone to practical jokes like making a dog meow.  Creaks a bit around the joints but basically a pretty funny book which is probably very difficult to locate nowadays. 8/5/07

Slaves of the Shinar by Justin Allen, Overlook, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-58567-916-4

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I'm not at all sure that the fantasy label is appropriate.  The book is essentially an historical, featuring an African warrior and thief who gets partnered with a slave who escaped from Niphilim, a fictional country.  Both of them find themselves searching for the city of Ur, supposedly a place of incomparable riches.  The world is on the brink of a potentially great change, because the Nephilim are not only the most prepossessing soldiers in the world, but they have recently developed iron weapons, which makes them an even more formidable force.  Our two heroes get involved in efforts to raise an army to stop them, and therein lies the story, which is about battles and organization and dedication, but also about the brutal effects of warfare and the impact of technology on history.  The author has researched this era thoroughly and there is a feeling of reality about it missing even in most historical fiction, let alone fantasy.  It's also a pretty gripping story.  Call it fantasy or call it historical, but read it if you possibly can.  8/4/07

Heart of Stone by C.E. Murphy, Luna, 11/07, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80292-0

This author's earlier Urban Shaman trilogy is certainly among the best contemporary fantasy romances I've read, so I was pleased to see a new title, even if it doesn't continue that series but starts a new one, the Negotiator.  Margrit Knight is a successful attorney whose life takes a sudden turn when she unwisely decides to go jogging in Central Park one night, and finds a dying woman and a man who isn't a man at all but actually a gargoyle, one of many inhumans who live secretly on the fringes of human society.  It appears that he might be the killer, but he tells her he didn't do it and enlists her aid in finding out who was really responsible.  Despite her reservations, she agrees to help, which only brings her further into the strange and potentially dangerous world of the supernatural.  The blend of mystery, fantasy, and romance is handled with great skill.  The chemistry between the two primary characters wasn't consistently convincing, but I think that's in part because Knight is such an interesting character that Alban seems pale in comparison.  8/4/07

The Cipher by Diana Pharaoh Francis, Roc, 11/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46179-7

The protagonist of this new fantasy title is Lucy Trenton, a young woman who has the unusual ability to sense the presence of magical artifacts or practitioners.  This is an ability she has long kept secret because it would cause a scandal within her aristocratic family, but she is occasionally careless and when she uses her talent to locate the artifact mentioned in the title, she may have embroiled herself, and everyone else in Crosspointe, in events which could lead to a magical debacle.  Nor is the Cipher itself without its dangers. Now the risk of discovery may be the least of her problems.  The setting is a bit less unsettled than in the author's previous books, and intrigue is more dangerous than open battles.  That doesn't make the danger any less.  Francis throws in a touch of romance in the form of an irascible sea captain, whose cooperation Trenton courts as her difficulties develop.  The author's next book does not appear to be a sequel although it may be set in the same imaginary world.  I liked this considerably more than I did her earlier trilogy.  The dialogue was particularly convincing and I had a better sense of the world where everything was happening.  8/3/07

Garden of the Purple Dragon by Carole Wilkinson, Hyperion, 2007,  $16.99, ISBN 978-142310338-7

Into the Mist by Patrick Carman, Scholastic, 9/07, $11.99, ISBN 978-0-439-89952-4

Both of these are fantasies for younger readers and both are, not surprisingly, installments in a series.  Wilkinson has the more ambitious of the two, the follow up to Dragon Keeper in which our hero, Ping, and the magical Han dynasty of historical China are introduced.  Ping was an orphan and a slave but she escaped in the first book, with a little magical assistance, but the arms of the empire are long and she's back in trouble pretty quickly.  That hampers her ability to watch over a baby dragon that has been left in her charge. Even inside the supposedly protective walls of the palace, danger and enemies are not unknown.  Written on a reasonably sophisticated level, this series has so far been well above average, and the slightly altered historical setting is remarkably well evoked. 

Carman's series started with The Dark Hills Divide back in 2005, and this is the fourth, but clearly not the last installment, since I thought the third, Tenth City, had pretty much wound things up.  Actually, it's a prequel set well before the events in the original trilogy, and it features two young boys as protagonists rather than a girl.  The boys are brothers, orphans, and they venture out into the mysterious forest in part to discover the truth about their own past.  This is for a somewhat younger audience and holds less interest for adult readers, but it's certainly well enough written to recommend to your young friends, regardless of how old they are.  8/2/07

God's Demon by Wayne Barlowe, Tor, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0985-3

There once was a war in Heaven and the losing side were exiled to Hell, where they all serve under Beelzebub, perhaps the most important of the fallen angels.  And that's how it's going to be for all eternity, right?  Well, maybe not.  The premise of this offbeat novel is that one of Satan's lieutenants is not content with the status quo.  He still remembers what it was like to live in Heaven and he want to go back.  Hell is a strict hierarchy with a privileged class, those less fortunate, and at the bottom the souls of the damned.  It's a stable society and most are content with the situation, although there are court intrigues to rival that of any human government. 

Sargatanus is the malcontent, never resigned to the defeat he suffered, determined to renew the old struggle.  He feels anger and regret, and then a single incident serves as the spark to drive him to rebellion.  Now he is determined to regain his old glory, and lead a host of like minded demons and damned souls along with him.  He may not succeed, but Hell will never be the same by the time he's done. I've read a handful of books set in Hell itself over the years, but I don't recall any that made it seem like such a real place.  Barlowe, an esteemed artist, transfers the images in his mind to those of his readers without benefit of canvas this time, and he does a remarkably effective job of it.   7/31/07

Coyote Season by Michael Bergey, Five Star, 11/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-610-7

This is the sequel to Bergey's earlier New Coyote, which mixes humorous contemporary fantasy with Native American legends.  Coyote, you may recall, is a kind of Trickster figure, prone to practical jokes, and some not so practical.  This is an episodic adventure of that character, in the form of a talking coyote, whose attempts to demonstrate magic to humans invariably leads to chaos.  His presence was exposed in the first book, but naturally everyone thinks that was all just an elaborate hoax.  Coyote begins experimenting with this new form of magic that people refer to as science, with interesting - and frequently very funny consequences.  Of course, all of this strange activity attracts the attention of the government, specifically the CIA  The lisping dialogue from one character gets old pretty fast, but if you ignore that, you should have some fun.  Bergey has a nice touch with the expanding complications from a single magical intervention.  The story isn't entirely humorous either, and the Trickster is an engaging if sometimes frustrating character.  7/31/07

God of Thunder by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-62125-5

This series quickly became my favorite men's adventure series, probably because Alex Archer is alternately Mel Odom and Victor Milan, both of whom know how to tell a good story.  The premise is that Annja Creed, an archaeologist who more than slightly resembles Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider games and movies, crossed with the short lived television series, Witchblade.  In her first adventure, she stumbled upon the sword of Joan of Arc, a magical blade which appears in her hand only when she needs it.  In subsequent volumes she chased down many more legendary artifacts, usually fighting off legions of wrongdoers who want to recover them for evil reasons. 

This, the seventh, follows the same pattern. She receives a package from a colleague whom she discovers has been murdered, but only after nearly getting herself killed.  He was searching for the original hammer of Thor, which he had linked to a remote part of Latvia, so she's off to find it in a race against time with a bunch of nefarious mercenaries hired by a nasty and avaricious German nobleman.  The usual hijinx ensue.  I know this is formula stuff and sooner or later the books are going to feel hopelessly repetitious, but so far I'm having fun with them, and they're considerably better thought out that the latest Deathlands novel.  7/30/07

The Twilight Herald by Tom Lloyd, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07729-4

The followup to The Stormcaller involves the further spread of a kind of contagious madness.  In that book, a fantasy world descended into near chaos as a magical conflict spread.  In this one, several refugees from that turmoil have taken refugee in the relatively minor city of Scree, an otherwise uninteresting place that is suddenly a major problem because of a threatening ruler, a hodge podge of mercenary groups, an unusual drought, and an ever more pervasive attitude of cruelty and violence that is poisoning the minds of the residents.  Something malevolent is at work behind the scenes, and it may be more than the future of a single city that is stake in the long run. 

This is on the dark side of heroic fantasy.  There's even a vampire.  I didn't think much of the first book, although it wasn't bad.  This was is consistently better, tighter plotting, nice conflict, a convoluted but comprehensible plot, and some nice little embroideries along the way.  I'm not ready to start wondering why these haven't been picked up by a publisher in the US, but I suspect that Lloyd will reach that point before too much longer.  7/28/07

The Sorcerers' Plague by David B. Coe, Tor, 12/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1638-2

The five volumes of the Winds of the Forelands series chronicled the deteriorating situation in a world where most practitioners of magic were killed or driven into hiding by people who feared or were jealous of their powers.  Naturally when war breaks out, it turns out that there were evil supernatural forces involved in one camp, and our hero practically saves the day singlehanded by fighting them.  Unfortunately, by doing so he revealed his own magical talents, so now that the war is over and things are settling down, he and his family are forced into exile because people still don't trust magic.  And now they even have some justification for feeling that way.  So Grinsa and his family pack their bags and head to new territory in this, the beginning of a new series, the Blood of the Southlands.  I hadn't read more than the cover copy before I knew that their new refuge wasn't going to be any more peaceful than the old one.

For one thing, the people here don't like magic users either.  For another, even when they aren't fighting with people who use sorcery, they're squabbling among themselves.  And as if that wasn't enough, even within Grinsa's own party there are individuals who have private agendas.  Add to that mix the arrival of a new plague, possibly intentionally disseminated by a  mysterious figure, and you have the set up for what is likely to be another series of tense, complex stories involving intrigue, violence magical and otherwise, and personal heroism.  Among Coe's strong points are his ability to create plausible and interesting primitive societies, which he has done here as well as in any of his previous books, and with more enhancements certain to follow in the rest of the series.  Coe provides a good compromise between high fantasy and sword and sorcery in somewhat the fashion of David Gemmell.  This looks to be a genuine treat for his fans.  7/27/07

Lord of the Fading Lands by C.L. Wilson, Leisure, 10/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5977-2

Dorchester/Leisure Books usually publishes its paranormal romances as Love Spell books, but this one is apparently coming out under the Leisure imprint, perhaps hoping to place it in fantasy as well as romance sections of your local book store.  Unfortunately the cover art - at least on the advance copy - is pretty awful, which probably won't help sales.  This is apparently a first novel, and it feels much more like fantasy than romance.  A thousand years have passed since Rain Tairen Soul wreaked havoc on much of the world in order to save it from domination by evil power.  But now another ancient evil is stirring, so he's brought back to defend the forces of good again, this time able to achieve his destiny only by finding the woman he is fated to love. 

The common flaws of first novels have pretty much been eliminated here.  The names are pronounceable, the characters don't speak in archaic prose forms, and the magic system and the background is plausible and consistent.  It's one of the better fantasy romances I've read recently, but not one of the better fantasy epics, although the occasional light humor is a nice touch.  The love scenes are a bit much at times, but that's probably what the romance audience demands.  Of some interest to general fantasy readers, but don't make a special trip to find it.  7/27/07

Thin Air by Rachel Caine, Roc, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46163-6

In most cases, the difference between a "ho-hum" and an "ah-hah!" in fantasy fiction boils down to whether or not the author has found a new shtick.  The vast majority of fantasy novels - and the same holds true of other genres as well - are reasonably well written, competently plotted, and potentially entertaining.  But if you read a lot in any one field, there is a tendency for that big glut of books in the middle of the spectrum to get blurred together, and if you read enough of them, they start to feel stale and unsatisfying.  That's not really the fault of the authors, and since the turnover of readers is presumably self sustaining, there will always be some component of the audience that won't be as jaded.  On the other hand, for those of us who read quite a bit, what really sticks in our memories alongside the really great few are those from that fall just behind, but which exhibit something new or interesting.

Caine introduce Joanne Baldwin in Ill Wind back in 2003.  Baldwin is a weather warden, that is, she is one of a group of people who have magical control of the weather.  In the previous books, she battled djinn and other dangers, and most recently saved the world, losing her memories in the process.  Now suffering from amnesia, she finds herself in the company of two odd men, and with a magical power she doesn't quite know how to use, and unless she finds a way to restore her memories, she's going to be particularly vulnerable to her enemies.  Caine has consistently added new details to the background and characters in this series, one of my favorites.  7/26/07

Exodus by Mel Odom, Pocket, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-2579-0

I don't really like tie-in novels.  They tend to restrict the writer's ability to play with the plot, particularly those that involve recurring characters like Star Trek.  Some of the other series, mostly fantasy like Warhammer and Diablo, offer a looser structure and some of the entries in those series have been genuinely interesting sword and sorcery, in a market where high fantasy tends to be dominant.  There are a few people working this turf whose work I almost always enjoy, and high on that list is Mel Odom (whose Hunters of the Dark Sea is among my very favorite books) who has yet to disappoint me.  This is the first of a trilogy of novels he is writing based on a new role playing game, Hellgate: London

The premise - unsurprisingly - is that around thirty years from now, demons invade the world and reduce civilization to chaos.  In the game, presumably, one explores the ruins of London, killing demons and finding assets.  The novel explores the basic situation, with a small core of people using both magic and high tech weaponry in their quest to regain control of the planet.  This is not really a complete story in itself, and it's mostly a "smash and run" story, but it's a pretty long novel and the author has added a lot of detail that I doubt you'll find in the game.  Good enough for me to look forward to the remaining two installments.  I might even check out the game.  7/26/07

Cave of the Dark Wind by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Hyperion, 2007, $9.99, ISBN 978-078683790-8

Barry and Pearson have written two excellent young adult fantasies about an alternate interpretation of the Peter Pan story, plus two shorter books for a slightly younger audience, associated with but not part of the main story line.  This is the second of those, a story of the Lost Boys, the youngsters who followed Peter on his journey to a mysterious and magical island.  Peter is off on another adventure in this one, so the Lost Boys decide to explore the island in more detail, starting with a cave that they are warned away from by the native islanders because it is supposedly the home of a creature called the Goat Taker.  There are rumors of a hidden treasure, naturally, which overcomes their hesitation but also attracts the attention of the nefarious Captain Hook and his band.  Some nice illustrations by Greg Call help along this exciting but simple minded adventure.  It just wet my appetite for the next in the main series, due out later this year.  7/25/07

Dead Easy by William Mark Simmons, Baen, 2007, $23, ISBN 978-1-4165-2132-7

This is the fourth in what is now being called the "Almost a Vampire" series, which started with One Foot in the Grave quite a few years back now.  I'm tempted to characterize them as the dark fantasy equivalent of Xanth books, because the brand of humor they employ - puns, absurd situations, farce - are common to both.  But where the Xanth books are often recapitulations of one another, each of the books in this series is distinctly separate. Christopher Csejthe (I have no idea how this is pronounced and my eyes stumble over it every time) is undead, sort of, but not exactly. 

Alienated from his friends, Chris is hardly the person to be cast in the role of savior of the world, but that's what's about to happen.  There's a monstrous squid god (think Lovecraft), ghosts, werewolves, vampires, zombies, a supernatural storm, ancient mysteries, and present dangers.  As with the previous books in the series, there are lots of references to other books, movies, and so forth, and picking them out is fun in itself.  The tone in this is considerably darker, an odd contrast to the puns, witticisms, and jokes, but somehow it all manages to work.  If Simmons was more prolific, he'd be a best selling author, but if he was more prolific, he probably wouldn't be as good.  7/24/07

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, 2007, $34.99, ISBN 978-0-545-01022-1

With the publication of this book, an era of sorts comes to an end.  Whether there will be a successor to rival its popularity, at least in the short term, seems unlikely indeed.  Reviewing it also creates a bit of a problem because most people don't want to know who lives and who dies and how Voldemort is finally defeated (assuming that he is).  So I'm going to be pretty vague here, and try not to include any significant spoilers.  If you don't want even a rumor of a hint of a preview, then read no further.  And to set the record straight, although I've enjoyed the series very much, I am not among those who think they're the greatest thing since sliced cake.  I was appalled when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix won the Hugo, but then again, I'm usually appalled at what wins the Hugo. Nor am I among the opposite group who believe her popularity suggests a decline of literary and a retreat into infantilism.  I simply think they're a well above average young adult fantasy series, not nearly as literate as Susan Cooper but far better written than Narnia or Oz.

So, that said, what's the last book about?  Harry is in hiding, along with Hermione and Ron, protected as best they can by the Order of the Phoenix.  Voldemort is on the ascendant, most opposition is frightened into quiescence, and the Death Eaters are tracking down the rebels.  Voldemort has dire plans for his enemies, as well as the world of muggles - that is, those of us who don't have magical powers.  Harry and company need to find and destroy certain magical artifacts, without getting caught, and with Harry still having mixed feelings about Ron's sister.  Most of the first half of the novel concentrates on these core characters and their plight.  Bits and pieces of the novel (the wedding, for example) seem far longer than necessary without contributing much to the progress of the plot.  Other bits and pieces are borrowed rather heavily from other fantasy.  Kreacher reminded me of Gollum even before the present volume, and the comparison gets even stronger here. 

The Deathly Hallows are three magical objects whose existence is revealed to the threesome, adding to their original quest.  There's a fair amount of convolution before everything gets sorted out, and some of it is a bit contrived, but then with magic, contrivance is almost a prerequisite.  There are some deaths of familiar characters, and I guessed wrong about whom they'd be, but I was pretty close to right in my interpretation of Snape's murder of Dumbledore.  Fans of the series should be happy with the way everything is wound up.  The Potter books obviously aren't literary masterpieces, but I very much suspect they will become enduring children's classics.  7/23/07

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik, Del Rey, 10/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-49687-4

This is the fourth in the Temeraire series.  If you're not familiar with the previous volumes, the setting is an alternate version of our history in which the Napoleonic Wars are being fought in part in the air, thanks to the existence of dragons, which are used by both sides.  Temeraire is the dragon we're concerned with, partnered with Will Laurence, an officer in her majesty's army.  Their previous adventures have taken them to various parts of the world, including Asia.  This new one turns south, moving to Africa.  The flying squadrons of England are suffering from a dire problem.  A mysterious disease is affecting the dragons, and if a cure isn't found quickly, the nation will be helpless in the face of its enemies.  So Will Laurence and Temeraire are off to Africa to find the solution.

I like this series very much, although I thought volume three flagged a bit.  I had hoped the new setting for this one would stir some fresh life.  Actually, it is a better book, but not because of the setting, which never really came alive for me.  The interplay between Laurence and Temeraire is still interesting at times, but there's a feeling as though the author was struggling to find something new to say given the basic situation.  I regret to say I think it's time for Novik to wind this series up and explore some fresh ground.  7/22/07

A Sword from Red Ice by J.V. Jones, Tor, 10/07, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0634-4

There has been quite a gap since the second book in this series, but the author provides a comprehensive summary of the events in the first two books.  Readers who haven't read A Cavern of Black Ice and A Fortress of Grey Ice ought to, but if you haven't and you want to move forward with this one, the recapitulation will bring you up to speed, although it barely hints at the complexity of the world Jones has created, or the intricacies of her characters.  Old hands will have their memories refreshed in time for a new set of adventures as Raif Severance, a man outlawed by his clan for disloyalty and hated by their rivals for involvement in a crime he didn't commit, and Ash March, a sort of sorceress who is similarly on the run, thread their stories through those of a large number of supporting characters.

The various clans are locked in mindless, endless enmity reminiscent of certain current nation states, refusing to cooperate even in the face of a more deadly menace that threatens them all.  Something is threatening to break through into our world, and someone has to do something about it.  A simple plot summary is a bit unfair to this novel, because superficially it is very much like a dozen or so other fantasy novels published recently.  The difference is that Jones is a more thoughtful, skillful writer than most, and she is able to make even the most extraordinary events seem ordinary.  Her world isn't a cheery one, and things aren't always going to work out the way you might think, but they'll always work out in a way you can believe.  7/19/07

Song of Silver by Laura Underwood, Dark Regions, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-888-993-44-8

I believe this is Laura Underwood's second volume of stories about her recurring character, a magical bard name Baldomyre.  Baldomyre can perform magic through the power of his music, and uses it in his various adventures in an otherwise fairly typical fantasy world.  The characters he meets are mostly out of traditional legends, and they tend to be less inimical than in most such series, although that doesn't mean that there isn't conflict, sometimes violent conflict.  Six of the eight stories collected here are appearing for their first time anywhere, and the other two weren't widely distributed either.  I had read only one of them. 

The stories vary considerably in theme, but despite some dire events, there's an undercurrent of good humor that often manifests itself in the interaction between the protagonist and his sentient harp.  The quality is pretty uniform here, but I'd pick the title story, "Earth's Song", and "The Shadow Wraith" as the best of them.  Underwood's short fiction is consistently satisfying and in a better world they would be more widely available.  Alas, due to the poor future for single author collections, she's relegated to the small press.  On the other hand, that's a plus for publishers like Dark Regions.  7/16/07

Moon in the Mirror by P.R. Frost, DAW, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0424-6

Hounding the Moon introduced Tess Noncoire, a fantasy writer who is secretly engaged in battling demons, with the assistance of her magical powers and a sidekick imp who provides some comic relief.  Her adventures are, in fact, the fodder from which she constructs her novels.  Frost - who has previously written notable books as Phyllis Ann Karr and Irene Radford - takes on contemporary urban fantasy with both sleeves rolled up, and with the second volume in the series she has clearly moved into a commanding position rivaling Laurell Hamilton and Charlaine Harris.  The imp sidekick, Scrap, gets larger and more powerful every time they defeat a rival, and her string of victories has helped make him a considerably more imposing figure.

Tess is hoping for a little break from the action, and a chance to write up her latest encounter with the supernatural, but naturally things don't turn out that way.  It'd be a pretty dull book if they did.  First of all, some of her acquaintances are not exactly as they represent themselves, and she suspects that at least one of them may not even be a human  being.  Then evil forces, disguised as garden gnomes, make an abortive attempt on her life.  The possibilities for comedy implicit in this are obvious, but it's also a reasonably scary sequence.  Tess begins to wonder if she's finally in over her head, and that's not even counting the demonic wendigo spirit that's after her.  The book nicely balances humor and adventure, with a touch of romance and more than a touch of mystery.  Of all of the current crop of heroic females in contemporary fantasy, there's none whose career interests me more than Tess Noncoire.  7/15/07

The Modern World by Steph Swainston, Gollancz, 2007, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07007-3

British fantasy writer Steph Swainston provides volume three in her series about the Fourlands, an alternate world where magic is real and it is possible to be immortal, if you don't get yourself killed first.  Comparisons to China Mieville and Mary Gentle are inevitable, but Swainston is definitely working in territory all her own.  She introduced us to the Fourlands in the excellent The Year of Our War, and expanded our view into the alternate worlds impinging upon it in No Present Like Time.  It would seem that she had no more major surprises in store for us, but volume three proves that wrong. 

The war with the giant intelligent insects who have invaded the Fourlands continues in pretty much a stalemate.  The defenders hope to create some stability by erecting a gigantic artificial and natural barrier to contain the expansion of the invaders, and at least buy some time.  The fight is led by the ruler and his corps of immortals, one of whom can visit parallel worlds by means of drug induced trances.  He has discovered already that it is from one of these alternate realities that the insects have come.  Meanwhile, a teenager has disappeared in a mysterious city, and history suggests that she doesn't really want to be found.  Jant, our immortal hero, has to track her down, but without actually touching her since that would be fatal to him.  This mix of an ostensibly familiar plot with so many inventive and sometimes even bizarre details creates an imaginary world that stands out from the competition.  And as if things weren't bad enough, the plans to contain the invaders contain a fatal flaw.  Very much recommended.  Swainston makes the familiar new and fresh, and the unfamiliar exciting.  7/15/07

The Merchants' War by Charles Stross, Tor, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1671-4

Although this is the fourth in the Merchant Princes series, it stands pretty well by itself, although you'll enjoy it more if you've read the previous volumes and have a deeper commitment to the protagonist, Miriam Beckstein.  Miriam is a financial expert in our world when she discovers that she is related to a family from an alternate reality who have a psychic ability to move between worlds, a power which has enabled them to establish a commercial empire based on smuggling and trade.  She is targeted by a team of assassins, gets involved in an attempted revolution, and then survives some political maneuvering within the Clan, the extended family that runs the enterprise.

The fourth book has her on the run again, caught between the Clan - which has factions within itself - and its ruthless rivals.  She manages to escape to yet another reality, but her enemies are in hot pursuit.  As if she didn't have enough surprises in her life, there are more in store for her this time around, in a steady sequence of fast paced action, intrigue, and unraveling secrets.  Stross has this type of story honed down to a reliable formula, and introduces enough surprises to keep the series feeling fresh and new.  I sometimes think Miriam is a bit slow on the uptake, but it never bothers me for long.  One of the more refreshingly straightforward current fantasy series.  7/12/07

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, Gollancz, 2007, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07782-9

Danushia Stok translated this novel by a popular Polish fantasy writer into English.  It is, I understand, part of a series, although apparently not the first adventure of Geralt, a kind of roaming bounty hunter in a fantasy world who hunts down monsters and villains, but only if he's getting paid.  The tone is light hearted and some of the episodes in this book are quite humorous, and even the darker ones aren't particularly dark.  I don't know if the individual adventures in this one were published previously, but it reads much more like a short story collection than a novel.  Although the background bears some similarity to standard fantasy worlds, there are enough differences to make it interesting, and the author drops hints here and there that gradually meld into a coherent setting.  Geralt is a larger than life character, but not completely unbelievable, and it's nice to see that he uses his wits as much as his weapons to carry the day.  There are occasional hiccoughs in the prose, all of them slight, and the story moves surprisingly quickly.  I was finished with the book just as I felt I was getting into the thick of it.  7/11/07

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, Scholastic, 10/07, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-92550-1

Brandon Sanderson is, of course, best known for his three - to date - epic fantasies from Tor books.  This one is a change of pace, for young adults, and it's a lighthearted fantasy adventure for all ages.  Alcatraz is your typical clutzy young adult hero, a bit of a loner, prone to breaking things, and naturally at the center of a sinister plot to take over the world.  On the day he becomes a teenager, Alcatraz is given a bag of apparently innocuous sand, but if it's so mundane, why is it promptly stolen by a gang of nasty librarians and what are they going to do with it? 

The plot proceeds predictably.  Alcatraz gains allies, learns something of the truth, infiltrates a library stronghold, discovers a nest of inhuman creatures, battles, escapes, discovers, and prevails.  There's nothing out of the ordinary in the plot - although some of the twists are particularly amusing and inventive - but the characters are delightfully done and the balance of humor and adventure is managed exceedingly well.  I wouldn't mind seeing Alcatraz return again, perhaps to battle Perfidious Publishers or Wicked Waitresses or Malevolent Mailmen.  7/10/07

The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet edited by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, Del Rey, 8/07, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49913-4

This is a retrospective best collection from one of the small literary magazines that most people never get to see.  They concentrate on what I suppose we should call slipstream or interstitial fiction nowadays, but which I still think of as quirky contemporary fantasy along the lines of Donald Barthelme or Slawomir Mrozek a few years back.  Some of the stories are more straightforward and conventional, but not many.  The fiction is interspersed with verse, mini-essays, and a few short pieces that are a kind of combination of several of the above.  Surrealism is not out of bounds either, and the stories are clearly designed to appeal primarily to the literarily inclined end of the reader spectrum.  The contents are diverse enough that it is unlikely that any reader will like everything in the book, and equally unlikely that any reader will like nothing.

Some of the better stories include Kelly Link's evocation of the Snow Queen, Margaret Muirhead's tale of corporate sponsorship taken to the extreme, Ray Vukcevich's story of atheists and ghosts, and Karen Joy Fowler's brief trip to a tourist oriented Oz.  Jeffrey Ford has an interesting story about a woman who can predict the outcome of horse races, sort of, Sarah Monette provides a bittersweet story of a woman seduced by the Queen of Elfland, Theodore Goss takes an unusual stab at politics, and Jan Lars Jensen has one of my personal favorites, a series of class reunions with Happy Days as the theme.  Gavin Grant provides a brief but biting satire of current events, James Sallis considers a world where common people are the subject of biographies, and John Kessel has a clever take on phone sex.  Two of my favorites come late in the book and are from authors with whom I'm unfamiliar.  John Brown's "Bright Waters" can only be described as a western, but I promise you it's not what you think.  I was also very impressed by Deborah Roggie's "The Mushroom Duchess".

Since the current issue arrived while I was reading the collection, it seems appropriate to cover it here as well.  The contents are just as varied.  Anil Menon's "Invisible Hand" is a parable in which the Hindu gods upset their own applecart.  Steven Bratman's "Under the Skin" is impossible to describe, a very strange story of tolerance, intolerance, and other matters.  Karen Joy Fowler has a very good story as well.  These are definitely not to everyone's taste, but if you like fiction that's smart and not quite like what you'll read elsewhere, I strongly suggest you at least sample these. 7/9/07

Sex and the Immortal Bad Boy by Stephanie Rowe, Forever, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61902-7

I've read two previous fantasy romances by Rowe, including the fairly amusing Must Love Dragons.  This new one is related to He Loves Me, He Loves Me Hot, which I haven't seen, and frankly I'm not crazy about the titles of either book, although the contents of this one at least aren't bad at all.  Paige Darlington is a minion of Satan, her soul forfeit.  Although the terms of her employment have expired, she knows that when she dies she's heading straight downstairs.  To avoid this fate, she decides to sneak into Heaven and get her soul cleansed, but unfortunately this is neither easily said nor easily done.  There's no way she can do it on her own.

She decides to get some help, but where I was expecting her to find some handsome angel to fall in love with and inveigle into helping her, instead she gets involved with another minion of Satan, a handsome hellraiser who has no interest in going to Heaven under any circumstances.  On the other hand, he's very much drawn to his reluctant ex-co-worker.  You can pretty well figure out where the story is going from there, although Rowe does provide enough minor twists and turns to keep you guessing at least some of the time.  A pleasant, though perhaps morally questionable, light romance.  7/9/07

The Garden of Eve by K.L. Going, Harcourt, 10/07, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-205986-6

I believe that this young adult fantasy is a first novel.  It starts off a bit dark.  The young protagonist has recently lost her mother and she and her father have relocated to a rural area in northern New York.  Their new property includes an apple orchard, but none of the trees have borne fruit in years, and the townspeople believe it's cursed.  Young Evie and her father don't believe in such nonsense, of course, or at least she doesn't until she meets a boy her own age who claims that he's a kind of revenant.  The boy gives her a magical seed which almost instantaneous grows into a tree, although the tree itself is actually just a portal between our world and another reality.  This is a pleasant enough story and reasonably well told, but the emotional content never seemed entirely real to me.  Evie's grieving for her mother isn't vivid enough to draw me into the story.  Some of the scene setting is quite nicely done, but I think the author's reach exceeded grasp in this case.   On the other hand, it's better to reach too far and fall short, than not to reach at all. 7/9/07

The Fox by Sherwood Smith, DAW, 8/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0421-5

A few years back, when a whole crowd of authors were collaborating with Andre Norton to extend her old series, the only one that I thought consistently kept the flavor of the originals was Sherwood Smith.  I was impressed enough that I read some of his young adult fantasy, which I thought was okay but not quite as good, and then I read Inda, an adult fantasy novel which I hadn't realized at the time was going to be the beginning of a series.  This is the second volume, and a rousing and welcome extension of the original story.  Inda is a young man of royal birth who was trained in the military but not the political arts, which complicated his life when he was recalled to the court just as turmoil began to upset the kingdom.

In this sequel, Inda has been trapped into going into exile to avoid compromising his ideals and admitting to a crime he didn't commit, or telling the truth and perhaps exacerbating an incipient civil war.  Unfortunately, he has to change plans again when he is captured by pirates and forced into a life among them, although his quick wits and training soon turn the tables in his favor.  Even then he is not free of the intrigues he thought to have left behind.  New characters, new settings, and new situations, but the same crisp, adventurous writing as before and a much more rousing story this time, with plenty of buckles to be swashed.  Young adult fiction's loss is adult fiction's gain and I hope for more like this to follow soon.  7/6/07

A Murder in Marienburg by David Bishop, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-474-5

David Bishop is one of the better writers working the media tie-in portion of the market, and I almost always enjoy his stuff, even if it is set in a pre-established and sometimes not very realistic world.  This is set in the barbarian sword and sorcery end of the Warhammer spectrum, which frankly works better for me because I have trouble reconciling spaceships and demonic forces in the same context.  Anyway, this one features a man who has recently been promoted within the ranks of a the police force in the city of the title, an honor that is not entirely without its problems.  In addition to the usual dangers of fighting crime in the dark cities of a world where magic works, he also has to deal with subordinates who don't seem much better than the criminals they are supposed to be watching.

Then a prominent elf is found murdered and guess who is handed the task of discovering who is responsible?  A mix of murder mystery, police procedural, sword and sorcery adventure, and a few other bits and pieces thrown in for fun.  This is hardly an epic fantasy, but it's a nice, restrained crossover and one of the best novels in the now quite large Warhammer series.  7/6/07

Hunter's Moon by David Devereux, Gollancz, 2007, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07985-4

A quick take on this debut fantasy novel is that it's James Bond with magic.  Jack, the protagonist, is not a nice guy.  He was doing magic for his own sake for a while, but the government found out about it and decided that they could make use of him.  His latest - and for us his first - case is to confound the efforts of the Enlightened Sisterhood, a secretive organization that is plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister.  He accepts the assignment rather unconcernedly and clearly has no emotional commitment other than to his own success.  Fortunately, he is eventually teamed with Annie, who is the girl who will finally teach him the true meaning of love.

Yeah, it's corny, but there's not a lot of time devoted to explaining all that.  Annie eventually gets kidnapped by the villains and placed under mental control, but Jack continues to care for her even when she tries to kill him.  The subplot is more distraction than anything else, an excuse for Jack to be particularly brutal in his efforts to wipe out the Sisterhood, theoretically to rescue Annie. There is a considerable amount of violence. The story more than flirts with misogyny, although it sometimes appears that the author intends this and meant to be critical of it.  The plot moves very quickly and there are no glaring flaws with the writing, but I never much cared about Jack, and sometimes found myself being sympathetic to the Sisterhood.  I would not be surprised if this is meant to be the first in an ongoing series. 6/30/07

The New World by Michael A. Stackpole, Bantam, 7/07, $15, ISBN 978-0-553-38239-6

The final volume of the Age of Discovery series - which is without question the best work Stackpole has done - continues the adventures premised on the power that cartography, mapmaking, has to reshape the physical world and our perceptions of it.  The author adds in the usual villains, an insane god, an undead sorcerer plotting to seize the throne, but somehow even the cliches have a different feel in this series.  And there's certainly no lack of action to keep your pulses pounding.  There's a bit of military fantasy here, lots of sword and sorcery, some dark sections that approach the intensity of horror fiction, and naturally a heroic quest or three.

Stackpole tells his story from three separate viewpoints, three siblings who strive to protect their people, though not always in the same way.  This allows him to intertwine three separate and relatively distinct narratives, a ploy common in fantasy epics, but effective even if it has been done to death.  I still think the first volume in the series, A Secret Atlas, is its high point, but I certainly didn't feel disappointed by the subsequent volumes.  Much of the author's previous fiction has consisted of media tie-ins, but there's no question that he's ready to move on to more serious work. 6/28/07

Interfictions edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, Interstitial Arts Press, 2007, $18, ISBN 978-1-931520-24-9 

The title refers to the kinds of stories that are either crossovers between genres or fall somewhere in between.  There is an opening essay by Heinz Insu Fenkl which discusses this, and quite properly laments the fate of books which are either marketed in the wrong category, or which defy category marketing altogether.  Unfortunately, the essay is written in the artificially stilted style we’ve come to identify with academics, and I suspect most readers will skip right past the discussions of liminal states, “willfully transgressive” writing, and so forth.  Fenkl suggests that many such works miss their real audience, but it’s not clear what his strategy is  here if the purpose of the book is to present interstitial fiction to a general audience. 

Nor is it clear to me what the editors mean by the term, based on the stories they’ve selected.  The opening tale by Christopher Barzak is a well written, traditional ghost story.  The only oddity is that it is broken up into very short chapters, with headings, but that was true of some 19th Century ghost stories as well.  If the implication is that the story falls between horror fiction and literary fiction, then it suggests unfamiliarity with, say, “The Turn of the Screw” or “The Beckoning Fair One”.  The editors even discuss this in a short piece at the end of book and say they selected it because it challenges the conventions of ghost stories by not saying who the ghost’s are.  That’s hardly challenging the conventions, since there are a good many where that’s the case.  But it’s a good story.  So is the one that follows, by Leslie What, and this one seems to better fit their definitions.  It’s an absurdist comedy of sorts in which the ignored, knocked up girlfriend mails herself to her lover.  Anna Tambour follows with a very short allegory that reminded me slightly of Donald Barthelme. 

Joy Marchand has a longer story, a contemporary tale with sprinkles of classic legend.  Jon Singer follows with a much shorter piece, what we used to call a prose poem with no real plot, just interesting images.  K. Tempest Bradford’s contribution is clearly surreal, and I found it rather more opaque than the other stories in the collection.  It is nicely written, however, and I could enjoy many of the paragraphs as distinct from the story as a whole.  Csilla Kleinheincz has a more accessible story, but the artificial style of the dialogue – probably intentional – grated.  Michael DeLuca has one of the best stories in the book, a quietly understated tale with a hint of magic.  He describes his own story as “magic realism”, which works for me. 

The stories continue in much the same vein, varying from the very experimental piece by Karen Jordan Allen to the more conventional one by Rachel Pollack, the latter another of the top few in the collection.  Veronica Schanoes provides a clever little variation of the traditional fairy tale format.  Mikal Trimm’s story is also very good, and would not have been out of place in F&SF.  So is Colin Greenland’s fable of a cat that turns into a human being.  The next several stories struck me as readable but unmemorable, and Lea Sihol’s was at times impenetrable.  The final two stories, by Catherynne Valente and Holly Phillips are both excellent. 

I’m not sure why the editors (or anyone else) needed to come up with the term “interstitial” for these stories.  I’ve heard them called slipstream and most of them could just as easily be called “magic realism” or “surrealism”.  The majority actually all are in a single genre, literary fiction, which flourished for a while in the literary and college magazines but which has receded along with short fiction in general.  Several would not be out of place in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, others could even have appeared in Weird Tales.  If stories like this have trouble finding a market, it’s not because they fall between genres, but because the American reading public simply does not have a strong component who enjoy literary fiction, although they might enjoy fiction that is literary.  I doubt that anyone will enjoy all the stories in the book, but I think almost everyone will enjoy some of them. 6/26/07

The Sea Change by Patricia Bray, Bantam Spectra, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58877-4

Patricia Bray mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar, or at least less familiar, in this new fantasy adventure.  A man who led a quiet, retiring life finds that his personality has been transplanted into the body of a prince, and not just any prince but the one who unsuccessfully led a rebellion against the legitimate rulers of the kingdom.  As if that isn't bad enough, he realizes that the former tenant's personality has not been erased, is waking up, and may be ready to battle for control of the body.  Clearly this does not bode well for a quiet, contemplative life style.  But wait, things are going to get even more unpleasant.  Someone finally does successfully wipe out the ruling family, leaving our jointly tenanted body as technically the next line for the throne.  That's clearly a good motive for murder and he/they find themselves being accused of having arranged for the abrupt succession. 

Although there's nothing indicating it on my copy, I'm sure that this is the beginning of a series.  Josan/Lucius undergoes a dramatic personality/personalities change during the course of the book and has begun to assert himself by the final chapters, is in fact concocting rather ambitious plans for the future.  Bray does this kind of adventure story as good as almost everyone else writing contemporary fantasy, and this time she's come up with an interesting premise to provide some distance from the rest of the kingdom-in-rebellion fantasies in the bookstores, without getting so far away that she loses her audience.  I liked her Devlin trilogy better, but this was pretty good too.  6/26/07

Divine by Blood by P.C. Cast, Luna, 9/07, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80291-3

This is the third romance in a series that formerly featured Shannon Parker, a woman from our world who found herself in a magical alternate reality where she came to be regarded as a goddess.  This time the story revolves around her daughter, Morrigan. Her life has been relatively normal for eighteen years, growing up in Oklahoma, where no one knows that she was born from a tree rather than in the normal way.  When Morrigan discovers the truth, she is understandably upset, and the emotional storm that follows proves sufficient to rend the gap between realities again.  Suddenly she finds herself in her mother's second universe, but the welcome she receives is not at all what she expects.  After initial rejection, she discovers that she is a Light Bringer, and is taught some of what she needs to know by a shaman warrior who also happens to be a centaur.

The usual mixture of adventure and romance follows, although there is less happening on a physical level this time.  Through Morrigan's eyes we are introduced to more aspects of the magical world, and through her eyes also some of the denizens of that realm learn about life in our world.  This one generally feels more like a fantasy novel than a romance.  The centaurs add a hint of naughtiness to the romance.  6/24/07

 

Betwixt by Tara Bray Smith, Little, Brown, 9/07, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-06033-2

I believe this is a first novel, a contemporary fantasy for young adults, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the opening volume in a series.  The premise is a variation of the television show, Charmed, except that the three teenage girls in this case aren't sisters.  They do, however, each have a magical talent, although they're considerably more problematic than in the television show.  One of them can tell by looking at people whether or not they will die soon, a talent that does not at first seem to be much of an advantage.  The second can instill animation in animate objects, specifically paintings, which seems even less useful.  The third doesn't even know the nature of her power, nor do we for some time, but she wakens in the morning with clear evidence that she has been outside during the night, and involved in some violent activity.  It is only when the three meet at a party and become aware of each other's strangeness that they begin to figure out what's going on.

The solution to all these mysteries involves a secret civilization living hidden within our own, and the resolution includes magical earth tremors and a battle of wits and talents.  The ending, though complete, leaves more than enough room for further adventures.  The prose is surprisingly crisp and sophisticated for young adult fantasy, and the characters even have considerable individuality.  One of the better YA books I've seen this year.  6/20/07

Divine One by Lynne Ewing, Hyperion, 2007, $9.99, ISBN 978-1423109343-1

This is the second in the Sisters of Isis series, designed for young adults and published in inexpensive hardcover editions.  The first, The Summoning, introduced the main characters and the premise, that a group of teenagers discover that they are actually the reincarnations of ancient Egyptian sorcerers and that they still retain their magical powers in some form.  As if being a teenager wasn't already hard enough.  Meri has always been something of a nonconformist, but she feels an obligation to serve as a member of the Sisters of Isis.  Unfortunately, her family wants her to fit in to their image, which means a school where she is forced to wear a uniform, and pressure to avoid embarrassing her mother, currently a Senator, and about to become an announced Presidential candidate.  It's kind of hard to perform magic in privacy under those circumstances.

The author proceeds to pile Pelion upon Ossa.  There's a sinister, magical cult which has also survived since ancient times, and they're determined to destroy the Sisters, who might otherwise oppose their secret agenda for the world.  To that end they create a demon, and Meri's life gets very complicated indeed.  This was actually quite a bit of fun.  It's obviously not designed to test your intellectual muscles or explain the true meaning of life, but it's a well told story with likable characters and a pretty clear distinction between good and evil.  Buy it for your kids and read it when they're not looking.  6/19/07

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 11/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1878-7 

A new novel by Gene Wolfe is always a bit of a mystery because he’s one of the least predictable authors writing today.  His latest is a pirate fantasy, but that label hardly does justice to what he’s written.  It happens to have arrived just after I finished reading a bunch of pirate memoirs and histories, so it resonated more than usual. It’s also a coming of age story in which we follow the adventures of Chris, a young boy who travels to a post-Communist Cuba, spends some years in a monastery due to the apparent neglect of his family, then emerges after deciding he has no vocation to find that he has regressed through time.  Havana is a primitive town rather than a modern city, and the technology he remembers from his childhood exists only in his mind.  

He takes a berth on a small Spanish merchant ship, has generally unpleasant experiences aboard, and learns of the existence of pirates, and eventually an involuntary member of a pirate crew, in fact, captain of a prize ship thanks to his rudimentary knowledge of navigation.  The narration includes references both to his life in the 20th Century as a child, and his later life – following his career among the pirates – which appears to be back in his original timeline.  This might sound complicated but it’s actually quite smoothly handled.  Would you expect anything less?  Chris is troubled by the slaves in the hold of the ship he commands, but can think of no viable alternative to following his original orders. 

As the years pass, his reluctance is overcome, generally because he sees no other viable choices.  He becomes a pirate captain, sells slaves, executes a man to demonstrate his authority, surviving aboard ship and on land and under a variety of circumstances including battle and imprisonment. His relationship with Novia, who is at one time or another his girlfriend's boss, his lover, his prisoner, his second in command, and eventually his wife, is one of the best parts of the novel, and she is certainly it's most interesting character after the protagonist. I’m not entirely sure why Wolfe surrounded his story of piracy and survival with the fantasy frame, the time travel element.  Even without it, the core story is an excellent pirate adventure, but one solidly based on the reality of the period and not Hollywood’s more melodramatic interpretations.  It's also one of the best things I've read recently. 6/14/07

As Fate Decrees by Denyse Bridger, Edge, 8/07, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-41-8

It has always rather puzzled me that we don't see more of the ancient Greek and Roman gods in modern fantasy.  They make up a complex, pre-set fantasy world with the interactions all laid out, and writers can either use historical or contemporary settings.  But for some reason such novels have been few and far between. This is one of those few, not technically a first novel, but the first to appear in non-electronic form and the first fantasy by this particular writer.  She has chosen the ancient world for her initial setting, and the gods are very much in evidence.

Her protagonist is Amarantha, a slave girl, who makes a very interesting discovery about her new master. Instead of using her as a servant, he seems intent upon educating her, particularly in the military arts, and readers might well be ahead of the protagonist in suspecting that he is Ares, the god of war.  Ares is all too human as well as godlike, and Amarantha becomes romantically attracted to him as well as captivated by his plans for her, which are designed to fulfill an ancient prophecy and alter the balance of power among the gods.   But just when we're getting acclimated to her world, she and we are both torn out of it.  Some gods hope to disrupt Ares' plan, some merely wish to meddle.  Whatever the cause, Amarantha finds herself in a strange new world - the 21st Century.  There everything she has been taught will have to become focused, because she is locked in battle with an enemy who is determined to rewrite the past. 

Romance, adventure, time travel, magic, and conspiracy theories all get intertwined in this one, which sets its sights reasonably high and reaches most of them.  I think this would have to have been a much longer novel to succeed completely, and Amarantha's adjustment - such as it is - to the contemporary world is not entirely successful.  She is an interesting character, however, as is her relationship to Ares.  The melodramatic conflict in the latter half of the book actually seemed almost a distraction from the earlier and more cohesive story, though everything does get resolved reasonably well.  A strong but not entirely smooth debut.  6/14/07

 

 

The Sleeping God by Violette Malan, DAW, 8/07, $15, ISBN 978-0-7564-0446-8

The two protagonists of this projected series are members of a mercenary group that bears a strong resemblance to the French Foreign Legion.  There's also a passing resemblance to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, although one of the pair, Dhulyn, is female and experiences psychic visions that often result in their next mission.  She's the last of her people and her partner, Parno, is far from his own homeland, where he apparently was a person of some considerable prestige, although he never talks about his past.

They're both drawn into a situation that seems likely to be beyond their powers when they aid a man with magical powers, and earn the enmity of a gang of criminals in the process.  These aren't ordinary criminals but the minions of a mysterious deity known as the Sleeping God.  They decide that the area is a bit too hot for them and set out for a remote area, hoping to find refuge until interest in their fate dies down.  To pay their way, they accept a job as escorts for a rich woman, and manage to overcome minor obstacles during the course of their journey.  Unfortunately, they may have jumped out of the proverbial frying pan.  Past and future come together when they reach their destination. 

This is a standalone adventure, for a change, so the story is complete.  The plot is much the usual, and it's tolerably well written.  I enjoy buddy stories and the interaction in this one is okay, though not outstanding.  Time will tell if Malan can develop this into a more interesting body of work.  6/12/07

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson, Tor, 8/07, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1688-2

The sequel to Mistborn takes up where the first left off. The opening volume of this inevitable trilogy assumed that the good guys didn't triumph after all, and their evil enemy enjoyed the fruits of his labors for quite some time.  Eventually his iron rule is undermined not by the loyal rebels or the shining hero but by a gang of thieves and other criminals.  Now the brutal ruler has been vanquished at last, but the leader of the rebellion has died as well and that obviously leaves a power vacuum.  That leaves the woman who was closest to him more or less in charge, and she seeks to establish a more benevolent government with help from a sympathetic member of the nobility.

As you would expect, things don't go quite so smoothly, and even her well meaning admirers are causing troublesome changes in the culture, particularly by their insistence on incorporating her into the new religion they're designing.  She also discovers that, bad as he might have been, the former ruler held in check a mysterious magical force that now seems to be unencumbered and with a healthy interest in her personally.  And on top of those extraordinary challenges are the very ordinary but no less daunting ones of figuring out how to administer the legal, social, and economic aspects of the society they are now trying to lead.  The answers to at least some of their questions may lie in the perhaps mythical Well of Ascension.  If it's real.  If the stories about it are true.  If they can find it.    The second installment is a bit less innovative than the first.  We're already familiar with the setting and how things work there, and it's obviously impractical to make radical changes in that part of the story.  So part of this one is a quest, but part of it is also an examination of what it might really be like to bring down an absolute ruler, and try to substitute a functional, more responsive leadership.  Not your ordinary fantasy.  6/9/07

Daemon Eyes by Camille Bacon-Smith, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0445-1

This is the revised omnibus edition of two novels originally published during the mid to late 1990s, Eye of the Daemon and Eyes of the Empress.  The author was ahead of the readers on this one, because stories of supernatural creatures living among us are now very popular.  The creatures in this case are demons, some good and some evil, and some half human.  The first novel involves some of the good ones, posing as private investigators, specializing in cases involving the occult.  I enjoyed these when they first came out, and since the revisions are described as simply updates to the technology and other bits to make it more contemporary, I am sure that their original charm remains.  When they first appeared, I predicted that the author would soon make it to the front ranks of fantasy writers but, alas, she stopped after three books.  Hopefully this reissue, and the resurgent popularity of similar titles, will lead to a fulfillment of my prophecy, if somewhat belatedly.  6/9/07

A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham, Tor, 8/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-765-31341-3

This is the second in a projected four part series.  I was favorably impressed by the first title, A Shadow in Summer, which presents a world in which poets actually have the power of physical creation.  Magic is such an integral part of this world, even in little ways, that the entire economy is dependent upon its smooth operation.  The sharply defined and generally fascinating characterization that made it such an impressive debut novel is in evidence in the sequel as well, ample evidence that the author is not going to be a one-shot wonder.  If anything, this one is even more dependent upon its imagined people and their emotional as well as physical well being.

The plot, initially at least, seems straightforward.  The protagonist, Otah Machi, is a son of a powerful ruler who was sent into exile when he was very young and who was not expected ever to return.  The political situation has changed along with much else in the world since then, and when the heir to the throne is killed and his father is clearly on the verge of dying as well, his status abruptly changes, compelling him to return to a birthright he never expected to share.  Unfortunately, if somewhat predictably, Otah is accused of being involved with the assassination plot, just one more element in a complex plan by foreign agents to make their conquest easier.  He also develops a new relationship with his sister, who may be more involved in the political maneuvering than is readily apparent.  The narrative is smoothly and compellingly written, the author's prose never distracting as it creates in words places and people that we can almost see.  Abraham is one of the best of the newest crop of fantasy writers and I look forward to An Autumn War and many others to follow.  6/6/07

Embraced by Darkness by Keri Arthur, Bantam, 7/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58961-0

Riley Jenson returns for her fifth adventure, this one reminding me much more of the early Laurell Hamilton than the previous ones in the series.  I'm calling this series fantasy rather than horror, despite werewolves and vampires, because it's clearly not set in our world.  The supernatural is accepted as part of life in this alternate reality.  Jenson is a woman with unusual arcane powers of her own, and she's also a police officer.  She's also a member of a pack of werewolves although she also has vampire blood in her veins, a kind of supernatural melting pot.  But she fights on the side of good, not evil, and in fact one of the better points in this series is that the distinction isn't always clear.  She also gets involved in a variety of erotic situations, which can be easily skipped over if you're not fond of that sort of thing. 

This time she's coerced into searching for a missing girl, and the results could have some very personal consequences for her own life. The disappearance turns out to be only the first in a series, and pretty soon we have a serial killer, an overbearing lover, clairvoyance, speaking to the dead, and other complications in the mix.  There's a mysterious night club where strange things happen, a potentially contested will, and a climactic battle of wills.  Arthur tells an exceptionally good story, though I would like to see her try something that doesn't conform to the usual devices of paranormal romance.  6/5/07

The Book of Time by Guillaume Prevost, Arthur Levine Books, 9/07, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-88375-7

A time travel adventure for young adults, 10 to 14 according to the publisher.  Sam Faulkner's father has mysteriously disappeared.  Sam decides to track him down, and his search leads him to a secret room, a mysterious coin, and a magical statue that transports him back through time to ancient Scotland.  To get home, he has to find the equivalent items there, but his route home isn't as direct as he might have hoped.  First he has to visit several historical periods, including the battle of Verdun, ancient Thebes, and even a brief stop at Dracula's castle.  The author has taken pains to get his historical details accurate, although there's obviously not room for a lot of detail.

Sam's journey is just beginning, obviously.  He hasn't found his father, and he doesn't understand the mystery of the magical statues.  This is projected to be the opening volume of a trilogy, so we probably won't have any of the important answers until volume three.  The dialogue is a bit simplistic for adult readers, but the narrative is a lot of fun.  Not destined to be a classic, but certainly an enjoyable book for younger readers, and some not quite so young. 6/4/07

The Awakening by Joy Nash, Love Spell, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52695-3

Moongazer by Marianne Mancusi, Shomi, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52695-7

   Although both of these novels are being marketed as romance novels, the boundaries with other genres are pretty well eroded in both cases.  The first title is part of a four book series - although technically they're shared world and independent of one another - with the other authors being Robin T. Popp and Jennifer Ashley.  The premise is that there is a race of mystical warriors charged with protecting the human race from evil - hardly original in this series, obviously, but an easy and potentially interesting set up.  The three authors are free to manipulate those ideas somewhat, and based on the descriptions (I haven't read the others) Popp treats it as contemporary horror while Ashley and Nash veer more toward fantastic romance.  This one's set in an ancient castle whose tenant is one of those warriors, although he lives a quiet life as an artist.  When a mysterious woman appears and tries to recruit him into a more active fight against evil, he is engaged in a quiet battle of his own, because the spirit of a Sidhe is trying to deprive him of his powers.  The romantic content is pretty thick for those put off by such stuff, but the rest is pretty well done.  Skip the sighs and clinches if you're so inclined.

The second title is potentially more interesting.  It's the second book in a line from the same publisher (Dorchester) which blends romance with anime, the Japanese graphic art form.  The cover is in that style.  This one also blends elements of fantasy and science fiction.  The protagonist is a woman who has serial dreams of a brutal, post-apocalyptic future where she is a warrior in a battle against oppressive forces.  Some interesting bits, but the jumps between present and past tense were distracting and the dialogue could use some work.  6/3/07

Ravens of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson, Viking, 8/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-670-03870-1

Way back in 1982, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote The Mists of Avalon, which is probably the single work for which she will be most remembered, even more significant than her length and popular series about the planet Darkover.  Her feminist interpretation of the story of early Britain, with infusions of legends from Atlantis, struck a resonant chord even then.  Bradley went on to write a prequel, The Forest House, which featured a love affair between a Celtic woman and a Roman citizen, and then Lady of Avalon, which portrayed the early Roman invasion of the islands and the clashes between two very different civilizations.  Neither of these received the acclaim of the first, although the first in particular was of similar quality.  A posthumous collaboration, Priestess of Avalon, was based on Bradley's notes and conversations with Paxson, who has now gone on to add two novels entirely her own to the presumably ongoing saga.  There was also an anthology of stories, Out of Avalon.

Ancestors of Avalon is a kind of bridge between Bradley's The Fall of Atlantis sequence and the Avalon books, showing how the survivors of that lost land reached the British Isles and made themselves a haven, including events leading up to those which occur in The Forest House.  This new installment is set in that same time period and retells the story of Boudica, an actual historical figure who led a bloody but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation.  Boudica is married to a ruler who has acquiesced to Roman domination, but that doesn't protect his wife and children from their despoliation, and Boudica harbors a bitter and lasting hatred against the intruders.  The other major character is Lhiannon, a priestess of the druids who is opposed to collaboration with the Romans from the outset.  The story is by necessity a very violent and brutal one, but Paxson also manages to work in a wealth of historical detail and an authentic feel for the time period.  Nor does she portray the conflict as a simple battle between black and white despite her obvious sympathy for the Celts.  This is as much an historical novel as a fantasy, and an impressive novel regardless of which category you assign it to.  6/2/07

Heroes in Training edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Jim C. Hines, DAW, 9/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0438-3

Another theme fantasy anthology, this one with a premise that struck me as narrow enough to pose some problems for authors trying to write something that stands out.  The idea is to show the early life of heroes of one sort or another, how they prepared for their jobs.  This actually might have worked better for a science fiction anthology where the role of hero is somewhat less narrowly defined, but for fantasy it suggests limited possibilities - warriors, wizards, and so forth.  There is some variety in main character - everything from princes to commoners, witches to wizards, reluctant humans to shapeshifting adventurers.  The action is generally light hearted and there are more than slight touches of humor in many of the stories.

The contributors include Esther Friesner, with one of the best stories, Sherwood Smith, Robin Wayne Bailey, Ed Greenwood, Julie E. Czerneda, Peter David, and James Lowder.  Michael Burstein, Czerneda, and Lowder all have good stories as well.  I'd grade this one as slightly above average over all, but it's another where I'd suggest reading a few at a time to avoid the feeling of deja vu.  6/1/07

MORE FANTASY REVIEWS