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

 LAST UPDATE  4/7/21

Waylander by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1986

The Drenai have nearly been conquered by fanatics from a bordering country. Waylander is an assassin who finds himself reluctantly protecting a priest, a young woman, and three children on a trip across the devastated countryside to safety. After several adventures he undertakes a probably suicidal quest to retrieve some armor that would serve as a rallying point for the Drenai and help them defeat the invaders. There is a subplot about the siege of a fortress, a bit of romance for Waylander, a priest who decides that pacifism is not his cup of tea, and some nice battle sequences. I was mildly disappointed by the ending, which involves a deus ex machina and then a not very convincing quasi-reversal. 4/7/21

The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes, Tor, 2021, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-250-23534-0  

The blurbs on this one suggest openly that the story is inspired in part by the Black Guard from the Game of Thrones series. There is something called the Divide on the edge of the universe, and a small group of misfits – disgraced aristocrats, criminals, and misfits in general – are assigned to keep watch. That sinecure becomes more of a challenge when the Divide begins to collapse, heralded unknown chaos. The characters are reasonably well done and there is some nice sense of wonder atmosphere, but although I enjoyed the story, I had a nagging feeling of something missing. It was only after I finished that I realized the prose was very heavily dialogue and only a few scenes were vivid in my memory. First in a series. 4/2/21

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020    

This is one of those novels where the story is not the primary focus. The narrator is one of two people living in an enormous – possibly infinite – building consisting of halls full of statuary. There are actual storms on the upper floors, and the lowermost are largely underwater and provide most of the food they need. Both of the characters are more than slightly idiosyncratic. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and some strangely evocative settings, but readers who prefer a strongly defined plot are likely to get restless. 3/29/21

The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1995 (originally published in 1985)

The second in the Drenai series takes place several generations after the first book. The Drenai have fallen under the sway of an insane tyrant who uses a newly discovered technology to make warriors of humans who have been blended with animals. The protagonist is a soldier of the previous regime who decides to avenge the treacherous murder of his former comrades. At first he just plans assassination, but as he picks up followers here and there, it seems more useful to actually overthrow the tyrant. There are some well written battle scenes - although I could have done without the magical confrontations in a kind of dream realm - and several reasonably well drawn characters. The ending comes as no surprise, but the writing is quite good. 3/25/21

Legend by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1994 

The first of the Drenai series, originally published in 1984 as Against the Horde. A legendary warrior has to come out of retirement to lead the defense of a fortress against an enemy that outnumbers the defenders fifty to one. The story breaks no new ground in fantasy, but it is very well written and enjoys some solid characterization and an intelligent understanding of the mechanics of siege warfare. This is really not among the types of novels that I generally enjoy, but there are always exceptions. There is occasional reference to sorcery, but it is always in the background and has a limited effect on the main plot.  I don’t think I ever read this before – the first edition was from a marginal publisher and it was years later before I found a copy. The ending is a bit weak – the siege ends for external reasons – but not awful. The book on the whole is pretty good. 3/19/21

The White Sybil by Clark Ashton Smith, Wildside, 2005  

This is a collection of some of the lesser known work of Smith, including a couple of prose poems that have no plot. About half the book is fantasy, and all but one of these stories have appeared in other collections. The exception is “The Ghost of Mohammed Din,” which is a traditional ghost story, although set in India. Several of the otherwise uncollected stories are also set in India, and none of them have any fantastic content. They mostly involve murder, treachery, and adventure. One short piece, “Something New,” is one of the most sexist short stories I have ever read. 2/23/21

Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1970 

A series of loosely related stories set under a dying sun in a far future Earth where magic has returned. Although these stories doubtless influenced other writers like Jack Vance, I found that reading them over the course of the day made them feel repetitive and in some cases there was really not much of a plot. Smith’s strength was his depiction of strange settings and bizarre events, often using colorful language, but story telling was less important to him. The best story in the collection is “The Dark Eidolon.”  I am more convinced than ever that Smith should be read in small doses. 2/6/21

Xiccarph by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1972 

The best stories in this varied collection are the three set on Mars, most notably “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” which involves parasitic creatures entombed in an abandoned city. The others include dying planets, worlds ruled by malevolent flowers, an entire star system run by a sorcerer who turns women into statues and men into apes. Generally speaking these are a bit more conventional in prose and plotting than the more typical Smith stories. 1/31/21

Poseidonis by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1973   

The first third of this collection consists of stories relating to Atlantis, or rather the surviving remnant known as Poseidonis. The others have random locations including Asia, Lemuria, and the South Pacific. “The Double Shadow,” “The Last Incantation,” and “A Vintage from Atlantis” are probably the best known, but “An Offering to the Moon” was the one I liked best. Included are some poems and prose-poems, and some commentary by Lin Carter. Smith does not age quite as well as I had expected but he is still readable. 1/25/21

Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1971 

This collects all of the author’s stories of Hyperborea, which are unrelated except for the common setting, and the four stories from the World’s Rim series. Some of his most famous and best work is included, like “The Testament of Athammous,” “Ubbo-Sathla,” and “The Abominations of Yondo.” The stories are filled with strange, inhuman gods and a variety of monsters that are of more mortal nature. There are wizards and soldiers and executioners and moneylenders as protagonists, all resident of a lost continent where dinosaurs, saber toothed tigers, and horrid crossbreeds all live. Most of the stories do not turn out well for their protagonists. Smith used an ornate poetic style and a depth of physical description that is no longer popular. 1/8/21

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, Tor, 2019 

Mixing a detective story with fantasy is kind of tricky, since magic contradicts the rational world and mysteries are generally solved rationally. That hasn’t stopped people from doing it, and sometimes doing it well. This contemporary fantasy does it well. The private investigator is hired to investigate a gruesome murder at the school for magicians where her sister works as an instructor. Ivy isn’t all that fond of magic, and the crime is months old before she even learns about it, buy she’s game and competent and works her way through an intriguing and entertaining mystery in an interesting setting. I suppose this is technically an urban fantasy but that label has become meaningless. 1/2/21

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