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 LAST UPDATE 8/26/08

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, Viking, 10/08, $19.99, ISBN 978-0670010905 

If this is not the best single author collection of fantasy stories I’ve ever read, it has to be right close to the top.  I certainly can’t think of a better one off hand.  There are nine stories, one original to the collection, including stories that have won Nebulas, Locus Awards, and World Fantasy Awards.  I sometimes can say that I’ve read a collection with no bad stories, but this time I can say there are no merely good ones either.  The best in the collection is “Magic for Beginners”, which was the story I read that immediately convinced me that Link is a great writer.  I was particularly surprised to discover that Viking is publishing this as for young adults, which I hope will not discourage adult readers because the stories transcend age.  The book opens with “The Wrong Grave”, which I’d call the weakest story in the book except that the word “weak” is inappropriate here.  “The Wizards of Perfil” is sort of a traditional fantasy quest, but only if you stretch the definition beyond reason.  “Magic for Beginners” is worth the price of the book all by itself.  “The Faery Handbag” invents an entire people, who have hidden themselves inside a magical handbag entrusted to one of their number who lives in our world.  “The Specialist’s Hat” is a story about a mythical (?) monster and “Monster” is about one who is definitely real, and darkly funny.  “The Surfer” is the most downbeat in the book, and the only SF story, set in a future when pandemics rage across a world much changed from our own.  “The Constable of Abal” involves ghosts and goddesses and the title story, appearing here for the first time, is the first werewolf story I’ve enjoyed in years.  Very few authors generate this many great stories over the course of an entire career. 8/26/08

The Night Bird by Catherine Asaro, Luna, 2008, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80268-5 

Catherine Asaro returns to the world of the Aronsdale series for her latest fantasy romance.  Her heroine this time is a young woman whose life is altered when a party of barbaric raiders invades the country and carries her off as a prisoner.  She attracts the attention of one of the most prepossessing members of that group and is soon his personal prize.  Although he is as brutal, egocentric, and inconsiderate as you might expect from someone with that background, she finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to him.  Not so much that she is willing to become a traitor to her people, but perhaps she can find some middle ground.  Although the behavior of the protagonist makes sense in the context in which it is presented, I’m rather troubled by the overall tone, which could be interpreted as suggesting that forced sex, even rape, might in some circumstances lead to a genuine romantic attachment.  I don’t deny the possibility, or the fact that it fits with the setting and characters as established, but portraying it in relatively positive terms does trouble me a bit.  At least when Thomas Covenant committed rape in Lord Foul’s Bane, he thought it was all happening in his imagination. 8/22/08

Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-59102-649-5

Some years back, I read what is probably still my favorite blend of fantasy, private eye story, and humor, Stalking the Unicorn.  Now, after a very long gap, Mike Resnick brings us the second full length adventure of John Justin Mallory, whose partner starts acting very strange one day and displays toothmarks on her neck.  That leads him to the visiting nephew, who is under the influence of a European vampire recently arrived in the country.  When the nephew is murdered, Mallory and a handful of very oddball companions have to discover just what is going on.  This could have been a very serious book, but it's actually a broad farce with clever banter, running jokes, and bizarre and entertaining situations.  My recollection is that the first book was considerably more serious, but in 2008, a spoof of urban fantasy is very welcome.  Resnick's rare excursions into fantasy are always memorable.  8/17/08

The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks, Audiobook, Brilliance, 2008, $33.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-2274-0

An unabridged, 15 hour version of the latest Shannara book, read by Phil Gigante.  It seems that Shannara is actually future Earth where civilization has collapsed thanks to the usual array of ecological, political, and military disasters.  Our chances of recovering were demolished when demonic forces entered the fray, obviously not on our side.  A handful of people using good magic decide to beat back the forces of evil, and I imagine you can pretty much fill in the blanks from this point on.  I enjoyed the Knights of the Wyrd books a lot better than the Shannara ones, so I obviously wasn't thrilled at the prospect of the two series being brought together.  There are some nice episodes in this one, but other parts seem unnecessarily drawn out.  Apocalyptic horror meets elvish fantasy.  8/15/08

The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem, Harcourt, 10/08, $16, ISBN 978-0-15-206368-9

Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce, Harcourt, 9/08, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-205427-4 

The first of these was a very pleasant surprise, a well written young adult fantasy that has a clever message that isn’t overwhelming.  Medford is the only inhabitant of Island whose name isn’t entirely practical.  Everything on Island is named for its purpose, everything has a purpose, and frivolity and spontaneity are looked upon with suspicion.  Medford’s life changes even more with the arrival of the Goatman, a magical creature who is most decidedly not going along with the spirit of the Islanders.  The second title is the sequel to Flora Segunda and continues the adventures of young Flora, a clever child in a magical land.  This time she has to defeat a sea monster and save a friend from a murderer, despite being confined to her room by her father.  Although this is actually slightly better written than the first title, I liked Boordem’s story more.  It’s only a comparative fault, however, because both were among the better young adult fantasies I’ve read this year, and they are thankfully free of simple quests, evil sorcerers, and enchanted castles.  Sometimes I think many adult fantasy writers ought to be stealing from YA fiction instead from one another. 8/14/08

The Wyrmling Horde by David Farland, Tor, 9/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1666-0 

Runelords, book seven, is the latest in a fantasy epic whose previous volumes I have found to vary quite a bit in quality.  I should probably qualify that because it’s not the writing itself that varies.  Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) has always been able to turn out impressive prose.  The plots, however, have not always been as well considered and some elements in this one have been so frequently used that I have had trouble staying interested even when the prose itself is entertaining.  I also found the level of violence in this one to be rather overwhelming.  On the other hand, some of the settings are fascinating.  The previous book in this series, which I remember only hazily, ended with something of a cliffhanger.  Two separate universes have been bonded together and the results are not good.  The only man with the power to set them adrift and restore normality has been taken prisoner by an evil force.  Now his friends must unite to free him so that he can save both universes from being overrun by minions of a rather standard supervillain and the hordes he has recruited from multiple planets.  The central quest is well done but the background felt too chaotic to me and ultimately I didn’t care much who won or lost.  I’ve always thought that Farland/Wolverton was better at SF than fantasy, but that might be my own prejudices speaking. 8/13/08

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, Del Rey, 9/08, ISBN 978-0-345-50116-5

Here’s one of those novels that blurs the distinction between fantasy and horror, although in this case I don’t mind at all.  First novelist Daryl Gregory creates an alternate version of our world where many people are troubled by possession.  The entities responsible are generally referred to as demons, but there is considerable disagreement about their actual origin.  Rather than supernatural beings, they may be creations of the collective consciousness of the human race because each of them is a kind of mini-archetype.  Some of them even appear to be forces of good, although the consequences of their acts might not be.  Truth, for example, punishes falsehoods no matter what the justification.  The protagonist was possessed as a child, but supposedly freed.  Many years later, the entity is back, a creature reminiscent of the Trickster from various legends, but with a nasty streak and a desire to change the rules of the game.  Our hero then consults various people, and entities, including one which possesses a science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick.  This one is not just a lot of fun, it’s also an impressively written novel.  This one may be the debut novel of the year. 8/11/08

The Long Look by Richard Parks, Five Star, 9/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-704-3 

I have very much enjoyed the short fiction of Richard Parks over the last few years, so I was very interested in seeing what he would do at book length.  This is a fantasy novel that mixes adventure and mystery with an undercoating of wry humor.  Tymon is an evil magician, although he doesn’t really think of himself that way.  He experiences prescient dreams in which he sees the sometimes horrible consequences of otherwise unremarkable and inoffensive events taking place in the present.  Sometimes he takes action to prevent those horrible things from happening, and sometimes that involves nasty things happening to people who appear to be totally innocent.  So his arbitrariness affects his reputation and he is thought of as “evil”.  In that context, we watch him deal with a number of problems, preventing a war, dispatching an evil supernatural being, saving one man, consoling a princess, fomenting a marriage, and all of this while training his apprentice to help out.  The story seems at times to be accelerating out of control but Parks keeps his hands firmly on the controls and brings it home safely.  I found this to be thoroughly pleasant and refreshingly light. 8/9/08

The House of the Stag by Kage Baker, Tor, 9/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1745-2 

Kage Baker is best known for her stories of the Company, an SF series that seems to have ended with the last volume.  Baker tried fantasy once more, The Anvil of the World, which shares a setting with this new book.  The Yendri are a peaceful people who refuse to resist violently when their land was conquered.  The one exception is a half demon member of the tribe, who conducts a one man – one half man at least – guerilla war, which infuriates both the conquerors and the conquered.  He learns the hard way that there are repercussions and finds himself homeless and alone and then enslaved.  It is there that he begins to grow up, to discover that there are more subtle ways of fighting the oppressor.  This knowledge will lead to his freedom, his vengeance, and eventually to a better life for himself.  How he accomplishes all of this is, of course, what the story is about.  Baker approaches the coming-of-age story obliquely, mixing it with a quest for revenge, and other plot elements and the result is a nice distillation of separate, if familiar, fantasy elements which have a degree of freshness thanks to their new arrangement.  I still like her SF better, but this was a good read.  8/7/08

Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez, Tor, 9/08, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-5458-7 

Funny fantasy had a brief moment of popularity some years ago, but except for Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony, it hasn’t done well in the US for some time.  A. Lee Martinez does his best to reverse that trend and his newest is actually very funny indeed.  A powerful wizard defeated a host of enemies during his career, cursing each and transforming them into harmless exhibits within his immense castle where they are dusted, presumably, by Nessy, his housekeeper.  But one day the wizard dies and with his death the curses begin to wear off, freeing one after another of his fallen opponents.  Some of these are less than threatening, but others are quite nasty.  They threaten to run rampant but, fortunately, Nessy has a strong sense of duty and is determined to maintain order in the castle.  To do so she has to call on the strangest array of uncanny allies in all of fantasy fiction.  Very much recommended, particularly if you need cheering up. 8/6/08

Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks, audiobook read by Dick Hill, Brilliance, 2008, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-5048-4

I read this, the fifth of the Magic Kingdom of Landover novels, more than ten years ago.  It was not at all bad of its type then, but it seems even less extraordinary now.  Landover has triumphed over a number of challengers, but an invading army threatens to undue all of its successes.  And there's a kidnapped girl to be rescued.  The familiar quests and perils, told tongue in cheek.  I liked these better than the Shannara books, but not as much as some of the author's other work.  This unabridged version runs eleven hours on nine CDs.  8/6/08

The Larion Senators by Robert Scott & Jay Gordon, Gollancz, 2008, £8.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08282-5 

The third and final volume of this trilogy comes with a sad note.  Jay Gordon passed away before it was completed.  The series itself is a rather standard high fantasy adventure set in the land of Eldarn.  The evil sorcerer was defeated in volume two, but the power that influenced his decisions was not destroyed and is still malevolent and scheming.  Various characters set out on multiple quests in order to find the weapons and knowledge with which to defeat it as well and finally restore peace to the world.  Their adventures are predictable but enjoyable and there are moments when the characters take on interesting depth.  The series is undistinguished only because there are so many competing ones of roughly equal quality and with very similar plots. 8/5/08 

Gordath Wood by Patrice Sarath, Ace, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01641-9 

Lynn Romano decides to take a shortcut through a mysterious stand of forest.  Now you know that can’t be a good thing.  She ends up in an alternate world stuck with a medieval civilization where women are decidedly second class citizens and a war interferes with her efforts to find someone who can help her find her way back to her own world.  Meanwhile, back in the mundane world, the police think she’s been murdered or abducted.  The crossover novel is a standard device in fantasy, and an obviously useful one because it allows the author to introduce the new world through the eyes of a character to whom it is all a revelation, which makes it easier for the reader to identify with the character and situation.  Unfortunately, it has been seriously over used in recent years and feels a bit awkward, even though in this case the author tells a pretty good story.  This is one of those first novels that is not momentous in itself but which makes you wonder if there’s something much better coming under that byline in the near future. 8/5/08 

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, Bantam, 2008, $23, ISBN 978-0-553-58982-5 

It’s always a treat to find an interesting first novel, particularly one that is well written.  The setting for this is an alternate world that bears some resemblance to our own Victorian era, though with obvious differences.  Ivy Lockwell is one of three sisters who have become increasingly disturbed by their father’s sudden obsessive reclusiveness.  They are ill prepared for a crisis because they have been sheltered from a world about which they know very little.  The blurbs on this compare it to Jane Austen, which is a fair comparison because social customs are as much a problem as the magical ones, and the two are intertwined in a fashion that you’ll have to read the book to discover.  Ivy’s explorations of the world when she seeks outside employment lead her to revelation after revelation about the darker, more mysterious elements in her environment.  At least one sequel is planned.  I’ll be watching for it. 8/5/08 

Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 8/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01615-0 

Patricia Briggs has progressed from writing mid-range conventional fantasy to above average contemporary fantasy, and the Mercy Thompson novels are among the best of the current series of novels featuring a feisty female protagonist, shapechangers and vampires, and a touch of romance.  This is the first in the Alpha and Omega series, set in that same universe, concentrating on werecreatures.  Anna is a recently converted werewolf who is ushered to a remote location by a more experienced shapechanger in order to control her violent impulses and teach her to deal with her new self.  She is, it turns out, one of a rare strand of werewolf with unusual significance to the clan into which she is being adopted.  Romance and jealousy fuel the story as a rogue threatens to undermine the purpose of the community.  This was an okay book, but it lacked the charm of the Mercy Thompson novels, and the plot was so familiar that I felt like I was re-reading an earlier book.  8/5/08 

The Last Angel by Natasha Rhodes, Solaris, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-577-3 

Here’s another novel that you could call horror or fantasy, depending on your personal preference.  Kayla Steele is a new member of the group that secretly fights monsters and she takes a personal interest when an angel is found murdered on a city street.  The upsurge in paranormal activity gives her hope that she will finally find a way to bring her dead lover back to life, a goal which makes her decidedly odd even for a dark fantasy heroine.  The action is fast and furious and my only quasi-complaint is that the supernatural forces – when finally confronted directly – seem a bit prosaic, but then again, I’m not sure they could have lived up to their reputation in any case.  Dead lover aside, I imagine this should appeal to fans of paranormal romance as well as more genre oriented contemporary urban fantasy readers. 8/5/08

Underground by Kat Richardson, Roc, 8/08, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46212-1 

The Harper Blaine novels, of which this is number three, are among my favorite of the current wave of urban fantasies.  Blaine was dead for a while, and when she was resuscitated, she discovered that she could now see the supernatural creatures that are invisible to the rest of us, a device reminiscent of Sunglasses After Dark by Nancy Collins.  Blaine is a private detective and this new talent results in her being chosen by a number of strange clients for a number of strange cases.  This time around she is approached by a man who tells her that there are large numbers of zombies moving around in the sewer system beneath the city.  That’s bad enough to start with, but his problem is that he believes that he may be held responsible for their existence.  Blaine takes the case, with some trepidation, and appeals to the local vampires for information about their undead neighbors.  Alas, the request falls on dead ears.  Pun intended.  The vampires are scared of the creature that is actually responsible, and before the story ends, Blaine understands why.  This one’s really good, folks.  The best single novel in this category I’ve read so far this year. 7/30/08

Runefang by C.L. Werner, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-548-3

 Heldenhammer by Graham McNeill, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-538-4

 Knight Errant by Anthony Reynolds, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-551-3

       

 Today felt like a good day to read old fashioned sword and sorcery, and the Warhammer universe provides the bulk of it being published lately.  First up is one of the contributors to this series whom I always have found entertaining.  Werner seems to find little niches the others overlook, and his books usually involve some original twists.  This one is a little closer to the standard line, a quest for a magical artifact to defeat the evil that threatens the world.  Not as strikingly different as his other books, but just as well written.  McNeill has always struck me as more comfortable with the military SF brand of the Warhammer world, but this is one of his occasional barbaric adventure stories.  It’s also the first in a series within the greater series, a chronicle of the life of Sigrid Heldenhammer, who recurs in other books.  This is his early life, his ascent to heroic status after proving himself in a series of physical challenges.  It was okay, but only mildly interesting.  Finally we have a comparative newcomer to the form.  Reynolds tells the story of two princes who have to lead the armies of their nation after their father, the king, dies.  An army of goblins is invading, and even worse, they’re just the front for an even more frightening force.  The action scenes are pretty well done but the characterization is rather primitive.  I even confused the two protagonists from time to time.  The Werner is easily the best, but I expected that before I even started. 7/29/08

King’s Shield by Sherwood Smith, DAW, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0500-7 

Starting with its first volume, the Inda series has provided well above average fantasy adventure, and with the third, it has gotten better than ever.  Inda went into exile while still a child in order to avoid provoking a crisis at home.  He returns in his late teens, having become a brilliant naval strategist thanks to his time of service among pirates.  He finds his childhood playmate on the throne, and the country itself on the brink of a war it is not prepared to fight.  The young ruler, Evred, wants Inda to help lead the nation’s armies to victory but Inda’s problem is that his military training all involves ships, not large armies on land.  Fortunately, he proves to be adaptable and a quick learner.  Naturally he rises to the occasion, but even though we know where he’s going, we’re carried along for a very well conceived journey.  Nor is the chronicle of his adventures ended here, so I have at least one more book to look forward to. 7/28/08

Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley, Orbit, 2008, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-316-06770-6

The sequel to Winterbirth continues this Norselike fantasy series set in a frigid landscape.  Since I was sweltering when I read it, the psychological cooling effect was welcome.  In the opening volume, we saw a small conflict among the various clans escalate into warfare on an increasing scale, sucking more and more into its jaws.  As the second opens, our hero is one of the few survivors of his clan, and he is more determined than ever to turn the tide of battle and drive back the enemy.  There is hope, because there are indications that the enemy is not as unified as it at first appears, but on the other hand, the defenders are quarreling among themselves as well, reluctant to commit, reluctant to give up any of their own authority, at odds about tactics.  Like most second volumes, the author stirs the pot considerably, adding a kind of obsessed sorcerer and hinting at the intervention of yet another power. The near chaotic mix is realistic, if a bit confusing at times.  Presumably this will all be sorted out in Fall of Thanes, the final volume in the series.  I like the barbaric setting, but the main conflict is old hat. 7/27/08

The Wild Road by Marjorie Liu, Leisure, 8/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5939-0

 Marjorie Liu is one of the better romance novelists I’ve sampled, and she seems to be specializing in paranormal stories.  This is, I believe, the sixth in a loosely organized series.  The protagonist, Lannes, is a kind of angel, though not a traditional variety, one of several created to protect the human race from demonic powers.  He becomes involved this time with a woman suffering from amnesia whose first memory is of regaining consciousness in a room full of dead bodies.  She knows that she’s in danger, but cannot initially identify the source.  Lannes decides to help her and, since this is a romance novel, his interest becomes rather personal.  The best romances are the ones that never allow the romantic element to swallow up the plot, and Liu has always in my experience avoided that pitfall as she does here.  The story moves quickly, if anything too quickly, and if you didn’t see the cover copy you might not even realize it was intended to be a romance. 7/26/08

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, Gollancz, 8/08, £9.99, ISBN 978-0-7528-9150-7 

Richard Morgan has already made a name for himself with his gritty, cyberpunkish SF novels.  Now he tries his hand at fantasy but, as you might expect, the familiar devices have undergone a bit of a transformation.  As with much of high fantasy, there are multiple protagonists who will eventually meet and interact in the main plot.  The first of these is an apparently degenerate and self destructive ex-soldier who has never managed to free himself of the anger he felt after being involved in a senseless, violent war.  Next we have a member of a nomadic tribe who is having some self image problems of his own, and finally a government adviser whose own people have all died as a result of the wars.  The present royal family inspires none of these three with confidence, but at the same time, they don’t want to see their homeland destroyed by enemies, internal or external.  There is a faint hint of early Moorcock fantasy in these self examining, sometimes self indulgent characters, but with an extra layer of realism.  I would not have thought that Morgan’s writing style would work with heroic fantasy.  Shows how much I know. 7/25/08

Gale Force by Rachel Caine, Roc, 8/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46223-7

Joanna Baldwin, the weather warden, is back again.  She is one of an elite corps who use their magical power over the weather to protect the world from supernatural enemies.  Baldwin has gone through a number of changes in her life, but she’s back to something like normal when this one opens, firmly ensconced with David, her lover, who is also a Djinn.  But there’s more than one Djinn in her life, and no shortage of enemies.  The danger this time is heralded by a peculiar earthquake that causes devastation in Florida, a disaster which appears to have been consciously directed.  So Baldwin is off to find out who and how, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  This series is established enough that I felt comfortable with the characters from the outset, but I have to say that her seventh adventure did not hold my attention as firmly as did the previous six.  It may be that it’s all starting to seem too familiar, or it may be that I was just in the wrong mood, but it’s also possible that the possibilities from this set up are limited and that the series may have begun to repeat itself in subtle ways.  Not that this is a bad book because it’s not, but I had a nagging feeling that it needed a bit more oomph. 7/23/08

Soul of Fire by Sarah A. Hoyt, Bantam, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58967-2

 Sarah Hoyt’s fantasies about the time of William Shakespeare made an immediate, positive impression.  Now she moves forward to the Victorian era and, if anything, this promises to be even better, although I have some difficulty accepting a protagonist who can shapeshift into the form of a dragon.  Peter Farewell is an English gentleman who is traveling in India, secretly searching for a magical jewel.  That specific gem happens to be part of the dowry of a very unwilling bride, a young woman who flees rather than accept an unwelcome marriage.  Naturally their paths cross, and naturally they are subject to the machinations of other parties who seek to control the power of magic, as well as the young woman.  Despite my qualms about the hero’s powers, I found this one to be quite enjoyable, although I think it would have been even better with a more conventional protagonist. 7/22/08

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish, Putnam, 2008, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-399-24639-5

 

This is, most decidedly, a fantasy novel for children.  It’s also a fantasy novel for anyone who hasn’t let the child inside die completely away.  The protagonist is a young boy who has been sent to learn the craft of the Lamplighters, a group whose job is to keep the roadways illuminated so that travelers will be – relatively – safe from the monsters and other creatures abroad at night.  Shortly after he takes up this new career, a young girl is similarly assigned, but she has very firm ideas of her own and our young hero finds himself on the verge of trouble because of his involvement with her.  The characters are appealing but the real charm of the novel is the setting and minor characters, which are invariably rich in detail and funny. It’s quite long, and has a very long appendix, and is the sequel to the almost equally entertaining Foundling, first book in the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy. 7/21/08

Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville, Scholastic, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-590-45951-8 

Another young adult novel, and third in a trilogy that started way back in 1994.  It’s a quest story with a young protagonist who travels to the land of the unicorns – who are intelligent and capable of speech.  The unicorns have long been at war with the delvers, although the reason for the conflict is either lost or being concealed.  Cara sets out to find out what caused the war and, if possible, bring it to an end.  Her quest in the fantasy world is parallel to her father’s mission in our world’s India, where his wife has been taken captive and is being held prisoner in a hidden fortress.  This is, I believe, Coville’s longest novel and almost certainly his best, sacrificing no literary assets in order to cater to what is too often perceived as an unsophisticated readership.  I wonder if we have J.K. Rowling to thank for the fact that there are more and more young adult fantasy novels with full adult sensibilities. 7/16/08 

Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost, Del Rey, 2008, $14, ISBN 978-0-345-49759-8 

I can’t really say that this is a sequel to Shadowbridge because it is actually just the second half of a longish fantasy novel, a practice that crops up from time to time.  Frost’s world is a fascinating one consisting of thousands of interlocking bridges, reminiscent faintly of Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  The protagonist is the daughter of an itinerant entertainer who is on a quest to discover the secret of her father’s past.  He was in the same profession, but some crisis occurred which altered his entire life.  Now, accompanied by a musician and the family’s business manager, she shapes her route to investigate that crisis, and by doing so precipitates a new one.  By following her father’s path to success, she invites the unwanted attention of Lord Tophet, a god of sorts, who decides to have her killed.  Beautifully written, with a quite unique world.  Frost is one of the least prolific of fantasy writers, which is really a shame. 7/16/08

Ill Met in the Arena by Dave Duncan, Tor, 8/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1687-5

 Dave Duncan is one of the few fantasy writers whose new books I always welcome because even when he’s working an otherwise familiar theme, he almost always manages to provide a new twist in setting, character, plot, or other intangibles that makes his work memorable.  This one’s no exception and the background is fascinating.  Duncan’s fabulous world is filled with women who have psychic powers including telepathy, which leads to their domination of society, although men have super strength and the ability to teleport, which makes them physically superior.  The men complete in gladiatorial contests to impress the women, naturally.  This story concerns two of these gladiators, a young man who has created quite a stir because of his unusually well developed skills in combat, and an older man who appears to be competing for the first time, although his performance suggests that he is highly experienced.  The two move into each other’s orbit and a collision is inevitable.  The plot has quite a few surprises, the characters are fully differentiated and realistic, and as always the writing is crisp, clear, and clever. 7/15/08

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Hyperion, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310921-1

I guess you could call this horror as well as fantasy.  There is an amusing film called My Boyfriend’s Back in which a teenager returns from the dead and tries to resume his normal life, even though he is starting to fall apart, literally, and doesn’t smell so good.  This young adult novel makes use of a very similar theme, though the humor is a bit less farcical.  All over the country, teenagers are dying but then coming back to life, returning to school despite the fact that they are no longer breathing.  This is not cool and they are definitely not part of the popular clique.  When one of the living girls gets romantically involved with one of the dead guys, the results aren’t always predictable, particularly since she has a living jock who is interested in her as well.  Witty, savagely funny, inventive, and best of all, a really good story.  YA or not, this is a fun read for all. 7/14/08

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, Hyperion, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 978-142310146-8

It seemed like a good day for young adult fantasy and I had just received three in one package, all parts of series which I had been reading. I picked this one up first because I recalled its predecessors most clearly of the three.  The Olympians series, of which this is the fourth,  involves a group of teenagers who find themselves caught up in a war among the gods, or demi-gods, of ancient Greek mythology.  There are touches of humor - the demon cheerleaders and the waddling monsters - but it's mostly a light adventure story , in this case involving an exciting sequence in a maze and other goodies.  The style is transparent and unsophisticated - this is for really young teens - but it was kind of fun.  And at least there were no dethroned princes and evil sorcerers.  I'll take what novelty I can find. 7/8/08

Ironhand by Charlie Fletcher, Hyperion, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310177-2

The sequel to Stoneheart drew me in almost immediately and I suddenly remembered how much I had liked the first in this series.  A young boy discovers that most or all of the statues in London are actually living creatures, hiding from humanity, divided into two sides battling for the fate of the world.  As this installment opens, our young protagonist is deprived of his friends and allies and has to rely on his own wits to bring about a rescue and save the day.  A nice set of villains and a comparatively sophisticated story help this along, and while the writing is still somewhat simplified and lacking in depth, I only noticed that in retrospect.  As it happens, I collect gargoyles, so I was predisposed to like this one, but I'm quite sure I would have done so in any case if only because it's an unusual premise.  One of the best novels for this age group I've read in a while.

Dragon Moon by Carole Wilkinson, Hyperion, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-142311143-6

I am predisposed to like oriental fantasies, but I confess that I found this one a bit flat even though I'd enjoyed its two predecessors.  Ping is an orphan girl in ancient China who has become a dragon keeper.  Kai, the dragon she has bonded with, is in danger so Ping decides to set out on a perilous and uncertain journey to a rumored safe haven for dragons.  Alas, their enemies are determined to ensure that they never arrive.  I'm not quite sure why this one didn't work for me.  I think it was in part because a lot of the text is delivered in short, choppy sentences that made the novel appear to be aimed at a younger audience than is the case.  It may also have been because Ping never really acquired much depth. I have a sneaking suspicion this one might work better if it was read aloud.  7/8/08

The Final Sacrifice by Patricia Bray, Bantam, 7/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58878-1

This is the final volume of an unnamed trilogy consisting of The First Betrayal and Sea Change.  Our hero is Josan, an undistinguished monk who becomes distinguished when a magical spell takes him out of his body and lodges him in the body of the emperor.  The two personalities do not like one another, and like sharing a body even less, but they’re stuck with each other unless they can cooperate, travel to a distant land, and find a way to reverse the process.  This is rendered trebly dangerous because not only are they taking a perilous journey, but their situation is threatening their sanity, and the empire itself is growing increasingly unstable, reflecting in a sense the mind of its ruler.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough in itself, there’s someone else interested in the outcome of their journey, and it’s not someone who wants them to succeed.   The unusual situation which grips the two protagonists provides some interesting twists and Bray resolves things nicely.  A solid, middle of the road fantasy adventure. 6/25/08

Dragon Wytch by Yasmine Galenorn, Berkley, 7/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22239-3 

Fans of the Charmed television series should be on the watch for this, the fourth in the D’Artigo sisters series.  Each of the three has different powers – one is a witch, one a shapechanger, and one a vampire, and they combine to solve supernatural mysteries.  In this case they are dealing with a number of individually minor difficulties, most of them involving magic, and some of them verge on the comical, though not necessarily amusing to the sister concerned.  Then they become aware of the stirring of the predictable ancient evil power and the plot starts to pick up rapidly.  There is nothing out of the ordinary in this urban fantasy but the author has a good sense of timing and the plot moves briskly and purposefully toward its conclusion. 6/23/08

Ink & Steel by Elizabeth Bear, Roc, 7/08, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46209-1 

Elizabeth Bear continues to develop the background of her Promethean Age fantasy series with this, the third in the series.  The setting is the Elizabethan era, but Elizabeth is magically linked to Queen Mab, who rules the land of Faery.  Christopher Marley, who served as a spy for the throne and possessed some magical talents of his own, has been killed and the realm is in danger. He was allied with the Prometheus Club, a sort of legion of white magicians opposed to dark sorcery.  William Shakespeare is selected to be Marley’s replacement but, alas, his talent does not seem sufficient to maintain the balance of power, let alone forge a victory.  The only hope may lie with Marley, who has been resurrected in the land of Faery and now serves Mab.  Is the link between the worlds strong enough that he will be able to help his former queen discover the saboteur within her own ranks?  The archaic language was a bit of  a stumble for me but otherwise this was a suspenseful historical fantasy. 6/22/08

Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett, Bantam, 7/08, $22, ISBN 978-0-553-80696-0 

This collaborative fantasy is a first novel for both authors.  Their fantasy world is one which is vaguely reminiscent of Michael Swanwick’s recent fantasy, where mechanical dragons are used to wage war and for other endeavors.  The city of Volstov in particular is defended by a corps of these flying war machines, but their recent successes may be reversed because of a scandal that threatens to tear the corps apart.  As a crucial battle becomes imminent, a small group sets out on a quest – yes, it’s one of those stories – to clear the air, salvage the corps, defeat the enemy, and so forth and so on.  Despite my griping about the all too familiar plot, I liked large chunks of this and would certainly like to see the authors do more, although perhaps with a bit more originality in the story line. 6/22/08

Jhegaala by Steven Brust, Forge, 7/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0147-5

Despite having one of the all time worst titles I’ve ever encountered, this new installment in the career of Vlad Taltos is a good one.  During the course of the last few books he has made a few – actually quite a few – enemies in his homeland, enough so that he thinks it might be time to take a prolonged vacation until they cool down a bit.  This leads him to look up a branch of the family with whom he has lost touch, in a remote town known as Burz.  Oddly enough, no one there is able, or perhaps willing, to tell him anything about his missing relatives, a resistance that only makes him more determined to discover just what is going on.  While investigating, he notes a number of other peculiarities about the town, and begins to realize that they are hiding something, something significant.  The plot reminded me of a number of contemporary thrillers and SF novels in which one protagonist must overcome an entire community, but Brust transforms it into a very interesting and suspenseful fantasy story.  I was a bit ahead of Taltos in figuring out what was going on, but not so far that it spoiled the revelations as they occurred.  One of the best in a consistently rewarding series. 6/21/08

An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham, Tor, 7/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1342-3

 Third in the Long Price Quartet, one of the most impressive debut series in fantasy in quite some time.  The set-up and bones of the plot are going to seem very familiar.  An aggressive empire has been gobbling up smaller states, overwhelming them not only with superior military force but by means of a secret which drains the defensive magic away from their enemies, leaving them virtually undefended.  Their latest target is an unlikely focus of resistance, a city which is more interested in the literary than the military arts.  But when the two forces clash, the quirky local leader and his followers demonstrate that there is more than one way to fight a war.  The story itself is sufficiently novel to be interesting but the real treat for me is the prose and the characters.  The people in the book seem at times ready to leap off the page and, despite the fantastic setting, their struggles are surprisingly engrossing.  Abraham is emerging as one of my favorites. 6/20/08

The Iron Hunt by Marjorie M. Lie, Ace, 7/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01606-8

 Marjorie Liu has written some of the more interesting paranormal fantasies I’ve read during the past couple of years, and she brings that form to Ace’s fantasy line with this, which doesn’t say it’s a series but which almost certainly is.  The protagonist is Maxine Kiss, whose job is to protect the human race from incursions from the world of demons.  Yes, it’s another urban fantasy, but there is a clever new element in this one.  Kiss has tattoos all over her body which can detach and form into magical creatures to help her in her magical battles, and the creatures have distinct personalities.  She is also romantically involved with a man despite her conviction that this is a bad idea, and that makes her vulnerable in a way that was not true before.  If you’re looking for a new contemporary fantasy series to try, this one should be near the top of the list. 6/19/08

Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik, Del Rey, 7/08, $25, ISBN 978-0-345-49688-1 

I was not as impressed by the third and fourth in this series as I had been by the first two , but I was pleasantly surprised to find my interest rekindled with the fifth.  The premise, as you may know, is that in an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars, magic is used by both sides.  The protagonists are Will Laurence, a British officer currently incarcerated unfairly for treason, and Temeraire, the intelligent dragon with whom he has been partnered.  As the French armies mass in preparation for an invasion of the British Isles, neither of our heroes seems to be in a position to do anything about it.  Then the attack comes, Will escapes in the aftermath, and Temeraire organizes an irregular force to resist the invasion.  Battles and chases ensue before the two are reunited, prove pivotal in defeating the enemy forces, leaving the government with an awkward situation on its hands.  High adventure, an unusual setting, a nice dose of light humor, and some very memorable characters.  There’s still life in this series, obviously, and I expect more to come. 6/17/08

Mage-Guard of Hamor by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 7/08, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1927-2

 The fifteenth novel of Recluce continues the story of Rahl, a troublesome apprentice sorcerer we first met in Natural Ordermage and who has now reached maturity and the mastery of some at least of his powers.  Despite that maturity, this is still a coming of age story in which Rahl continues his exile in Hamor, where a new war gives the young sorcerer a chance to exercise his abilities, both magical and martial.  His adventures are competently done and sometimes exciting, but they fall into a familiar pattern and seem to be recycled from earlier novels.  Hamor is so different from Recluce that I’m a bit puzzled why he bothered to make the connection rather than start a new series, unless it was purely a marketing decision.  I do wonder why it is that there is almost never a fantasy world that is enjoying relative peace and quiet.  Not all fictional conflict has to be on the battlefield.  Fans of the series will find this a return to familiar territory.  For those not familiar with the series, this one is perfectly accessible and requires no previous familiarity with the series, although reading its immediate predecessor will help. 6/11/08

The Fire Eternal by Chris D’Lacey, Orchard, 7/08, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-05163-7 

This is the fourth in an above average young adult fantasy series, first published in the UK.  The earlier books slowly developed the theme of dragons and magic re-emerging on Earth, specifically in the Arctic where someone attempted to bring an evil dragon back to life.  Now that part of the world is changing dramatically and magic has displaced the more rational environment. If the process continues, the ice caps will melt and the world will be devastated.  Conventional force is ineffective against the threat, but a teenager might have a more effective strategy.  As with the earlier books in the series, I was impressed by the writing, which is rapid paced and flows easily from one incident to the next.  There’s a few unconventional bits in this as well, and the characters are somewhat more vivid than in most similar books.  I’d be curious to see what the author did if he tried an adult novel. 6/7/08

Hocus Pocus by Paul Kieve, Scholastic, 2008, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-545-07179-6 

Although the story element in this young adult book isn’t particularly interesting, it really isn’t meant to be.  A young performer of magic tricks has magical visits from some of the greatest magicians in history, each of whom performs and explains a famous illusion.  As such it feels more like a narrated bit of non-fiction than a fantasy novel, although technically I suppose it’s both.  The author was the magic consultant for the Harry Potter movies, so obviously he’s an authority on the subject.  Lots of simple black and white illustrations.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of young readers didn’t try out some of the tricks, although they probably aren’t as easy as the author makes them appear. 6/7/08

Sky Realm by Rebecca Moesta & Kevin J. Anderson, Little Brown, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316-01054-2 

Final volume in the Crystal Doors trilogy.  A pair of teenagers have been battling an evil wizard in a magical world.  The first two confrontations were on land and at sea, so not surprisingly their final meeting comes in the air, or more specifically on a floating island.  This is a familiar fantasy plot, toned down a bit for younger readers but not annoying so, and there’s an Arabian Nights atmosphere to this one that I quite enjoyed.  One of the big pluses in this series for me is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously without descending into outright farce.  The kids are reasonably individualized, the villain doesn’t lose through his own stupidity, and some of the minor characters and situations are cleverly done. 6/6/08

The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks, read by Dick Hill, Briliance Audio, 2008, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-5039-2 

This is the fourth in the Magic Kingdom of Landover series, first published in 1994, a light hearted fantasy adventure in which an evil spirit is inadvertently released in a land where a lawyer from our world is supposed to be running things.  The big bad uses a confidence trickster and other ploys in an attempt to take over the country while various other characters attempt to escape, engage in quests, or prepare to give birth under difficult circumstances.  The humor is particularly sparse in this one and not as even as in the earlier volumes.  There are a few good sequences, mostly involving the con man, but a large part of the book is very slow going.  The story was so fresh in my mind that I only listened to a portion of the audio version, which is ably read by Dick Hill, as always.  This is unabridged on 10 CDs, and runs about 12 hours.  6/6/08

The Books of the South by Glen Cook, Tor, 2008, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2066-7

I didn't re-read these three novels of the Black Company, but I wanted to mention that this new omnibus edition was out because when they first appeared back in the early 1990s I actively enjoyed them.  The Black Company is a group of mercenaries who, in these three volumes, battle the Shadowmasters, a typical but lively evil force.  The novels included in this edition are Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel, and The Silver Spike.  They were among the very first military style fantasy novels and were even more appealing at the time because they were quite different than most other fantasy being published.   Cook has added to their saga occasionally since, but I still think that the first six books - these are the second set of three - were livelier and in many ways more interesting than the later volumes.  It's good to see them reappear for, hopefully, a new generation of readers. 5/30/08

Gypsy Blood by Steve Vernon, Five Star, 7/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-706-7 - 1149 

Volume one in the Carnival Cycle, although it appears that each volume will stand on its own.  Carnival is a kind of Ghostbuster who deals with mummies, banshees, and other creatures as well as troublesome ghosts.  As if his life wasn’t already complicated enough, his girlfriend is a vampire.  To most people, though, he’s just another gypsy, if a rather eccentric one.  His solutions to supernatural problems are innovative, clever, and sometimes quite funny.  Some of the humor is very very funny indeed.  The adventure story that forms the main plot is exciting, although the constant joking stole much of the potential sense of urgency.  We know everything is going to turn out right in the end, after all.  I enjoyed this, but I found myself being put off by the use of short, choppy sentences and paragraphs, particularly in the closing chapters.  I suspect it was meant to suggest a faster pace and a rush toward the climax, but it draws too much attention to itself and dropped me in and out of the story. 5/24/08

The One Right Thing by Bruce Coville, NESFA, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-886778-72-6

I became a fan of Bruce Coville's fantasy novels for younger readers when I first read Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, and several of his other books in a similar vein remain vivid in my memory.  It's not just because he tells a good story, which he does, but because his viewpoint is essentially optimistic and almost all of his fiction demonstrates that we are all capable of goodness and courage.  This selection of his short fiction sometimes seems deceptively light because of the good humor inherent in each story - some of it quite funny - but beneath that veneer there is some serious exploration of how we should deal with responsibility, how courage manifests itself, and how good should always trump the alternative.  Not all of his characters are human beings, of course, but whether they are unicorns, aliens, ogres, or ghosts, they are all people.  Picking out favorites isn't easy.  "With His Head Tucked Underneath His Arm" is one of mine, and so are "The Stinky Princess" and "The World's Worst Fairy Godmother."  Like the best of fairy tales, these are stories that appeal to adults as well as children, and since none of these have appeared in the prozines or in general anthologies, most are likely to be newly discovered gems for those who open the cover of this, one of the best of NESFA presses collections.  5/23/08

The Brass Bed by Jennifer Stevenson, Ballantine, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-48668-4

The Velvet Chair by Jennifer Stevenson, Ballantine, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-48669-1

If Thorne Smith had been a lot more explicit, the results might have been something like these two books, which appear to be part of a series - I couldn't find a description of The Bearskin Rug but I think it involves the same characters.  The premise is that an early 19th Century rogue displeased his mistress in bed, so she turned him into a sex demon.  He is trapped there until he successfully pleases one hundred women.  The bed becomes the main prop for a shady sex therapist, and the woman investigating his operation becomes bedmate #100, ending the curse on the appropriately named Randy.  Randy is free, sort of, but now insists that he's Jewel's permanent sex slave.  In the second book, the duo investigates another apparently fraudulent scheme, a device that improves one's sexual appeal.  Of course, they have to fit the investigation into their frantic lovemaking schedule.  Both books are cute, but also quite explicit so be warned.  These are casual, light fantasies but they're not for those with inhibitions on the subject. Stevenson writes well enough for the subject matter.  I'd rate the first rather better than the second, where the novelty value had dissipated.  It's also nice to have a paranormal romance that didn't involve vampires and shapechangers.  5/20/08

The Dark Ferryman by Jenna Rhodes, DAW, 6/08, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0521-2

Jenna Rhodes is the latest incarnation of R.A.V. Salsitz, who has published fantasy under a number of names.  This is the sequel to The Four Forges, set in a world where the magic has been expunged following a devastating war.  Then mysterious characters appeared wielding a new kind of magic, and the conflict starts up all over again.  Two lovers find themselves in hot water, accused of treason and driven into virtual exile, but separately, even though they are convinced that their lives are inevitably intertwined.  Someone else thinks the same apparently because the Dark Ferryman, a mysterious figure, appears to each of them.  There's a nice element of suspense and the unknown in this one that helps make the otherwise familiar plot seem a bit fresher than usual.  But naturally this isn't the end of the story so you'll be left necessarily feeling unsatisfied.  This is actually rather better than most of her earlier work but it's still a bit to familiar to really excite me.  5/15/08

The Dragon Done It edited by Eric Flint & Mike Resnick, Baen, 2008, $24, ISBN 978-1-4165-5528-5

Mystery and detection are difficult to do well in fantasy because the presence of magic provides an obvious way to cheat that hangs in the air even when the author avoids such shenanigans.  It is possible, however, and Flint and Resnick have done a good job of finding stories that fill the bill.  There's a blend here of seasoned authors and new names and a nice blend of settings as well, contemporary to traditional fantasy, with humans, inhumans, supernatural and magical, and a few that blur the lines of distinction.  The best stories are those by Ron Goulart, Gene Wolfe, editor Resnick, Tanya Huff, Richard Parks, and Esther Friesner.  A couple of the stories are original but most are reprints of stories that have appeared relatively recently, plus an older piece by William Hope Hodgson. There's quite a bit of incidental humor as well.  An entertaining collection with a few genuinely interesting mysteries. 5/15/08

The Born Queen by Greg Keyes, Del Rey, 2008, $26, ISBN 978-0-345-44069-3

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series comes to a conclusion in this, the fourth volume.  The backdrop is almost painfully familiar, a series of wars in a fantasy realm, an ancient evil revived, heroes rising to the occasion.  The death of the magical Briar King has contributed to the collapse of the world into despair and disaster.  The new ruler has a precarious grip on the throne, our recurring hero is wounded and discouraged, the religious establishment has been corrupted and turned against the government, and the evil presence still hasn't been defeated.  One of the familiar elements in fantasy series is the "it's always darkest before the dawn" syndrome and that's the case here, although we can be sure that everything - or almost everything - will turn out right in the end.  This isn't, wasn't, a bad series but I was disappointed because so much of Keyes' earlier fantasy was quirky and memorable.  I still remember Newton's Cannon and Waterborn years after reading them, but I doubt I'll be able to distinguish this from half a dozen other fantasy epics a month from now.  5/13/08

The Sellsword by Cam Banks, Wizards of the Coast, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4722-5

There's a touch of Elric in this first novel, part of the Dragonlance shared universe series.  Vanderjack is a mercenary who, in the aftermath of a series of devastating wars, finds that there is still no shortage of evil tyrants.  He gets caught up in the struggle against one of these rulers, his life complicated by the fact that his sword is haunted.  The action is otherwise quite routine, not badly written but undistinguished by any real attempt to innovate. I thought the dialogue was above average, avoiding the artificialities that mar many similar novels.  Fans of this extensive series won't be disappointed, but it's sufficiently self contained to serve as mainstream sword and sorcery as well. 5/13/08

Provenance by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62129-3

The eleventh adventure of Annja Creed, an archaeologist reminiscent of Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider games and movies, takes her to Panama and the South China Sea.  She's after another magical artifact, of course, this one supposedly guarded by an ancient, secret order of knights, although it is presently in the hands of a modern day pirate lord.  The knights want her to recover it and return it to them, but the government official she has to deal with has a personal agenda and Creed has to decide whether or not it might be better to destroy it and deny him the power to affect the entire world.  Nicely paced adventure, but I didn't think it was quite as crisp as her earlier adventures.  Archer, incidentally, is a house pseudonym used to date by Victor Milan, Mel Odom, and Jon Merz, this one being one of Milan's.  5/12/08

Obsidian Ridge by Jess Lebow, Wizards of the Coast, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4785-0

This is one of the more unusual Dragonlance novels I've seen, reminding me a bit of one of the later journeys of Gulliver.  The wizard Xeries is initially rebuffed at his demands upon the kingdom of Erlkazar, but he's back with a mysterious floating mountain, a legendary place not seen in generations.  From his airborne fortress, Xeries presses his demands and the defenders below have to figure out how to deal with an enemy who is quite literally out of reach.  Dark magic and derring do follow, some of it quite good, some of it quite routine.  The shared universe elements are kept in the background for the most part, and the result is a somewhat unusual, occasionally surprising fantasy adventure.  One of the better recent offerings from this publisher.  5/12/08

One Foot in the Grave by Jeaniene Frost, Avon, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-124509-1

The sequel to One Foot in the Grave continues the adventures of Cat Crawfield, who acts as a kind of expediter of dangerous things whose job is to wipe out rogue vampires, as opposed to those who obey the law.  She teams up with an equally rough and ready partner to track down the bad guys and avoid retribution by their friends and family.  And naturally they find time to get sexually involved with each other as well.  The narrative sections are pretty good.  The sexual encounters sometimes verge on being silly.  Did I mention that our heroine is half vampire as well, a kind of female Blade?  It has its moments, but too few to make me excited about the prospect of more visits to this intermittently interesting fantastic version of our world.  5/9/08

Dungeon Monstres: The Crying Giant by Johann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, NBM, 2008, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-56163-525-2

As near as I can tell, this is a spin off from another graphic story series, consisting of two short fantasy tales by artists Mazan and Menu.  The first is the title story in which a wizard goes on a short quest to help a sad giant whose tears are threatening to cause a flood.  The second involves a group of disreputable characters who invade a castle.  Both are full color throughout.  The first story is quite cute and well written.  The second didn't appeal to me as much.  Similarly I liked the artwork in the first one better than the second, although it's quite nicely done in both cases.  This was originally published in France.  5/5/08

Empire in Chaos by Anthony Reynolds, Black Library, 2008, $7.9, ISBN 978-1-84416-527-8

Sword and sorcery in the Warhammer universe, in this case involving the inevitable battle between order and chaos.  The protagonist is a young woman who becomes a refugee after barbarians and mutants overrun her home village.  She and an elf who befriends her take refuge among the armies of the empire, who are being driven back by the chaos directed hordes, and end up helping to stem the tide of disaster.  Not badly written, but there's not a whole lot to say about this one, which follows a familiar formula with thrills that feel very familiar at times.  I don't think anyone has ever done this consistently well for me since Michael Moorcock was doing straightforward fantasy adventure.  5/3/08

Rogue by Rachel Vincent, Mira, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7783-2555-0

This is the second in a series about shapechangers, cat people essentially, which was introduced by Stray. The protagonist is the first female of her kind to be given police authority over werecriminals, and her transition to that position has apparently been a rocky one – I haven’t read the first in the series so it took a while to pick up on various clues in the second. Anyway, human women are disappearing and male cat people are turning up dead. She smells a connection. The conflict is predictable but there are quite a few interesting twists and turns both in the background set up and the plot, and the romance element – though present – is not as overwhelming as is sometimes the case. Shapeshifters seem to be replacing vampires as the paranormal lover of choice in the romance genre. 5/1/08

Hawkspar by Holly Lisle, Tor, 6/08, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0994-5

 Holly Lisle’s fantasy novels have seemed to me to be growing darker and more complex almost with each succeeding volume, and I confess I preferred her earlier work like Bones of the Past and Sympathy for the Devil. That said, this is probably her most ambitious and intricate novel, and despite being set in a fairly traditional fantasy world, it is itself quite a bit out of the ordinary. The specific setting is an Oracle, a kind of temple that provides prophecies to those willing to pay the price. The Eyes of the Oracle recruit attendants by enslaving young women, and one of them has become Hawkspar, the primary seer. But as Hawkspar grows older, the time approaches when she must be replaced by one of the other slaves. Unfortunately, this particular seer has used her powers to examine her keepers, and to plot their destruction. To that end, she manipulates things so that a particular slave will be chosen, a young woman who has never surrendered her independent spirit despite her enslavement. The narrative is excellent, the characterization well above average, and the plotting is superior. If I had a quibble at all, it’s that the story shares a common fault of fantasy fiction, a tendency to make the dialogue unnaturally formal and stiff. There are only a few occasions where this is noticeable, but they jar. 5/1/08

Noman by William Nicholson, Harcourt, 6/08, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-206005-3

This is the third and presumably final book in the Noble Warriors series, an ambitious young adult fantasy. Seeker After Truth and his fellow students find themselves at loose ends when their refuge and training facility is closed and they are ordered to disband. That leaves some of them vulnerable to the enticements of Noman, a newcomer who preaches peace and pacifism so convincingly that even one of Seeker’s closest friends is swayed. Seeker is still convinced that they must take concrete, violent action against their nemesis, and this puts him into an obviously adversarial relationship with some of his fellows. It all works out, however, although I’m not entirely sure I’m easy with the implications of the conflict between pacifism and violence. Nicholson doesn’t write down to his audience and is careful to avoid making his characters too good or too evil. He’s one of the best of the new crop of young adult sword and sorcery writers. 5/1/08

A Fire in the North by David Bilsborough, Tor, 6/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1893-0

The Annals of Lindormyn are unabashed Tolkien imitations. The first volume, The Wanderer’s Tale, struck me as okay but derivative. The second is equally derivative, but also suffers from some of the most flowery writing I’ve read in a long time. I don’t recall this being the case with its predecessor, but it really stands out here. I will quote one sentence to illustrate: “Out of a bottomless ocean of blackness, Bolldhe swam, up through the shallow waters of nausea and disorientation, to find himself spluttering and heaving upon the lonely strand of wakefulness.” Okay, I like metaphors and similes but this is carrying things just too far. The story involves a fellowship… a band of heroes who set off toward Mordor… the north to confront Sauron…a supernaturally powerful ruler defeated generations earlier. One of their number, the Wanderer, will face a personal test in the next volume. Sounds vaguely familiar. The story isn’t bad at all, but the artificially elaborate prose style is just underwhelming. 5/1/08

Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey, Grand Central, 6/08, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-446-50004-3
Another long running series comes to an end with this, the sixth volume. Imriel and Sidonie are in love, but the circumstances of their romance infuriate large segments of the population and the queen conditionally disinherits Sidonie and charges Imriel with searching for and apprehending his missing mother, so that she can be tried for treason against the throne. The two lovers are caught in yet another emotional crisis, but this time outside forces intercede in the form of a terrible menace that could sweep over the entire kingdom. Although I’ve found this series a bit slow paced in the past, it picks up pretty well in the concluding volume and a fairly long story goes by with surprising speed. Carey has become much more adept at storytelling since the first volume appeared several years back, and her prose feels much more crisp and concise than in the past. It’s kind of ironic that the series ends when it reaches its high point, but hopefully that means the author’s next project will be even better. 5/1/08

Tigerheart by Peter David, Del Rey, 6/08, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50159-2

Peter David takes a stab at re-imagining the story of Peter Pan in his latest. Paul Dear is a young boy who walks a path between reality and fantasy, until the day that a personal tragedy causes him to take desperate measures to correct things. He crosses into the Anyplace, a version of Neverland, where he meets The Boy, never named but analogous to Peter Pan, Captain Slash the pirate, and others. His subsequent adventures are very much in the Peter Pan mode, with wild animals, pirates, and other dangers. David’s style is perfectly suited for this kind of light hearted adventure story. I had previously thought his best work was his mildly satiric fantasy like Sir Apropos of Nothing, but I’d say this was a decided step up, and sufficiently different from everything else being published to merit some special attention. I would not be surprised if this proved to be his most successful novel. It's certainly the one I enjoyed the most. 5/1/08

Daemons Are Forever by Simon R. Green, Roc, 6/08, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46208-4

The sequel to The Man with the Golden Torc tells us more about the Drood family, a group who have been secretly protecting us from a kind of demonic race called the Loathly Ones ever since World War II. Actually, it’s kind of their fault that we have the problem to start with, since they invoked them in order to battle another brand of demon employed by the Nazis. Anyway, Edwin “Eddie” Drood got promoted to top dog in their organization in the first book, but his tenure there is cast in doubt almost from the outset in this adventure. For one thing, he’s not sure that there aren’t traitors among the ranks. For another, he’s not sure about his own ability to manage things. Green has created an amusing and entertaining mythos for this series, full of magical peoples and things. The hero is likable if not particularly memorable, indecisive but committed, and naturally we know that he’s going to end up on top of things. The journey in this case is more important than the destination, and Green provides his usual light but effective style throughout. Not the least of its advantages is the fact that the series is still new enough to hold some surprises. 5/1/08

Spectre by Phaedra Weldon, Ace, 6/08, $14, ISBN 978-0-441-01593-1

This is the second adventure of Zoe Martinique, an urban fantasy hero whose distinguishing power is that she can astrally project herself. Comes in handy for certain types of investigation, I would think. In the first book, she discovered that she had some other psychic talents as well, ones she didn’t entirely understand or master, but they were enough to throw a wrench into her love life as well as her peace of mind. Her latest case is a serial killer who takes away certain body parts, a grisly if not particularly unfamiliar detail, whom she hopes to identify using her special talents without drawing her boyfriend’s attention to same. But there is something peculiarly personal about this particular crime spree, which manifests itself with the disappearance of Zoe’s mother. A fairly enjoyable mystery follows, although the bad guys are a bit of a disappointment and the ending – which asks as many questions as it answers – seemed rushed. There is obviously a third book on its way which will presumably tie up some of the loose ends. I had a bit of a problem with the premise. The astral projection not only seems potentially far more useful than the protagonist ever realizes, and the rules governing it appear to be changing. Hopefully Weldon will lay things out a bit more straight forwardly in the next. 5/1/08

CodeSpell by Kelly McCullough, Ace, 6/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01603-7

Third in a series about Ravirn, or Raven, who is both a computer expert and a sorcerer in a multiverse that is operated by a gigantic, self aware computer named Necessity. Ravirn has gained considerable power during his first two adventures and is rather more than human, though less than godlike. He could use a few godlike powers this time since Necessity has been infected by a computer virus that could endanger all of magical reality. Ravirn must figure out who is responsible as well as reversing the deterioration of Necessity’s functions. I really liked the concept of Necessity and how it functions, but the analogy seems a bit strained this time and the story diverges far enough from a recognizable reality that I had trouble staying immersed a few times. I think McCullough may have pretty well exhausted the possibilities of this story line. 5/1/08

Night Child by Jes Battis, Ace, 6/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01602-0

First in yet another urban fantasy series, this one with slightly darker overtones than most. Tess Corday is a member of the Occult Special Investigations division of the Vancouver police force. Her debut adventure opens with the discovery of a dead vampire – sort of a redundancy there – and that leads to a wider ranging investigation that includes a sorcerer, a woman in thrall to the undead or perhaps a demon, and other odd and sometimes distorted characters. Like most urban fantasy protagonists, Tess decides to break the rules and entertain her personal interest in one of the individuals involved in the case. This seems to be a nearly universal trope of current urban fantasy – the need to step outside the law, or procedure, to establish that the protagonist is a maverick rather than a team player. I have nothing against mavericks, but sometimes the rules are there for valid and valuable reasons and even though the authors always contrive circumstances to support the decision to ignore them, the implication for the reader is troublesome to me. One of the reasons I enjoy C.S.I. (the Las Vegas flavor) is that whenever the operatives break the rule, they face consequences, sometimes unpleasant ones. That moral lesson seems to be lost in most urban fantasy. End of lecture. Otherwise, this is an interesting debut novel though of a rather familiar form. 5/1/08

The Summer Palace by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Tor, 6/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1028-6

The third and final volume in the Annals of the Chosen has a very different tone from its two predecessors. The Red Wizard is still engaged in his campaign to expunge magic from the world and kill the last of the Chosen, superhumanly equipped heroes whose job is to keep ruling wizards under control. We don't see anything of him until very near the end, however, when Sword – the protagonist – finally gets his chance to kill the popular tyrant. Most of the novel consists of Sword's attempts to survive in the Uplands, an area outside the Red Wizard's control. Since he's alone for much of this time, there's not much dialogue and while his adventures are interesting, his reminiscing and recapitulations of the situation are mildly bloated, restating established facts on several occasions. This tends to slow down the action as we should be building toward the climax which includes a surprise I had no trouble guessing in advance. I liked the first two in this series immensely, but the final volume never really came to life.  4/30/08

The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott, Delacorte, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-0-385-34010-6

Inevitably a new novel involving ancient legends, codes concealed in historical documents, and high adventure is going to be compared to The Da Vinci Code. This falls into that category, but it's a very different story, involving a variety of magical events and legends that, unlike in the Dan Brown novel, are invented largely from whole cloth rather than re-interpretations of actual ones. Simply stated, this is about a woman who finds and is bonded to one of thirteen magical skulls which must be reunited to save the world from being destroyed in 2012. Some people support her and others oppose her, preferring to destroy the skull, and it's not always clear who is who and for what reasons. The plot moves well, alternating with a recounting of an earlier owner's adventures in the 16th Century in the New World. There are, however, some parts of the story I found implausible. For one thing, an awful lot of highly educated people accept magic and the imminent end of the world with virtually no supporting evidence and adjust to the existence of a magical skull almost instantaneously. Less significant is the refusal of the crippled husband of the protagonist to accept healing by means of the stone, claiming that he doesn't want to be cured by her intervention because that would cast a shadow over their entire lives. If she was about to step in front of a moving car, would he refrain from reaching out and hauling her back because to do so would make her beholden to him from then on? Poppycock. 4/30/08

Voices from Hades by Jeffrey Thomas, Dark Regions, 2008, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-55-4

This is a follow up, though not a sequel to, the author's earlier Letters from Hades. It consists of a series of short stories, that are related only by context in that they are all set in a version of Hell. It's also one of those collections which, for me at least, works better if not read straight through because of a degree of similarity that is necessary given the context. I also have a bit of trouble getting involved with most of the characters, since presumably they weren't nice people to start with, which is why they ended up in the Netherworld. On the other hand, Thomas provides an usual vision of the afterlife, which in many ways reflects real life. In one, a woman discovers that it is possible to adjust to anything and even gains the approximation of normal family life. It is even possible to get bored. The stories are set in sprawling cities, in macabre castles, and on bizarre oceans. Sometimes angels come to visit, and interact socially with the demons. There are even bookshops and restaurants. The book will introduce you to an afterlife that is an odd and fascinating mixture of traditional views of hell and some very untraditional ones indeed. 4/30/08

The Ghost and The Femme Fatale by Alice Kimberly, Berkely, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21838-9

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was the obvious inspiration for this mystery series. The protagonist owns a bookshop that is haunted by the ghost of a 1940s private investigator who can only leave the premises if she takes his lucky coin with her. Together they solve mysteries and at times she is able to briefly visit his era, adding a touch of romance. The mystery this time involves an aging actress whom the detective knew when she was younger, and who is now the target of several apparent murder attempts. The investigation plays second fiddle to the interactions between the two main characters, but unfortunately I was never able to believe in the ghostly detective and even though this is potentially a clever idea, that potential is not – in this second volume anyway – brought to fruition. 4/30/08

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 9/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2133-6

Gene Wolfe's new novel is quite unlike anything else he's written, and quite unlike anything else I've read. It's set on Earth a century from now, although except for having space travel it feels very much like our Earth much of the time. The chief protagonist is Gideon, a private detective and possible wizard. Yes, this is as much fantasy as science fiction, and horror as well. Gideon, who knows of a living mountain, recruits a struggling actress, making her a star overnight through some undescribed magical process, to use her as bait to capture Reis, who appears to be a spy with an uncanny power to bypass Earth's various security systems. A complicated, three sides struggle ensues. Although this is deftly written, almost a given, the subject matter and tone are quite unusual. As the blurbs indicate, it has much of the feel of an old style pulp thriller, but the mix of alien worlds, shapechangers, magic realism, and other elements may not sit well with those who like their genres well differentiated. 4/30/08

 

The following are replacements for reviews which somehow got corrupted during my hard drive crash.  They are not what I originally said, but alas this is the only file that somehow wasn't backed up properly. 

The Magician and the Fool by Barth Anderson, Bantam, 2008, $13, ISBN 978-0-553-38359-1

I thought his was much better than the author's previous, The Patron Saint of Plagues, which I also enjoyed. The story involves the search for the very first Tarot deck, and some of the hunters aren't human. There are some extraordinarily unusual characters, a nicely developed mystery, and overall good writing. The exotic settings didn't hurt any either.  Very sophisticated and understated. One of my favorite fantasies so far in 2008.

The Demon and the City by Liz Williams, Night Shade, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-111-9

This is the second adventure of Detective Inspector Chen, who specializes in cases involving the supernatural in an alternate version of Singapore. Actually, this one is more about his partner, a demon, who is investigating the murder of an heiress when he begins to feel romantically drawn toward one of the prime suspects, a prominent businesswoman. The original setting adds a great deal to what, in another context, would be a mainstream paranormal fantasy. Williams writes better than most working in that genre as well.

Plague Monkey by Steve Vernon, Bad Moon Books, 2008

A novella rather than a novel, and one which is almost a sendup of itself. The protagonist reads some spam and that precipitates involvement with various magical creatures. I enjoyed this until something over half way through, but it began to seem overly long at that point and I was impatient for it to finish. I suspect some of the jokes were idiosyncratic and opaque to me.  I've liked most other things I've read by Vernon so this was mildly disappointing.

The Time of New Weather by Sean Murphy, Dell, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58679-4

Although this appeared in hardcover back in 2005, I never stumbled across it until now. Murphy is a new name to me so I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised. The protagonist can work miracles, but only very inconsequential ones. He becomes part of a small band of oddly talented people who embark on a journey of discovery that ultimately affects the fate of the entire country. I suppose this is magic realism but it reminded me of Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock - exceptionally good company, and the prose is a genuine pleasure to read.
 

In the Small by Michael Hague, Little, Brown, 2008, $19.99, ISBN 978-0316013239

The premise of this graphic novel is that one night every human being in the world shrinks to approximately six inches tall. There follows a rather predictable story about some of the survivors and how they make do against animals who are now formidable enemies and the complete loss of technology. The artwork was okay but unmemorable and the story was about the same. Apparently this is going to be the basis of a motion picture.
 

Escapement by Jay Lake, Tor, 6/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0765317094

The sequel to Mainspring introduces us to more wonders of the clockwork world.  I suppose you could call this steampunk because it has that feel even though it is definitely not our world.  The young femasle protagonist is lively and appealing, and her journey of discovery through one very strange environment is the major appeal of the book, with the actual plot almost secondary.  Lake has a decided gift for making the most unlikely things seem inevitable, and a powerful imagination capable of creating images that will resonate and remain in your memory.  Certainly one of the best fantasies of 2008.
 

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse by Thomas E. Sniegoski, Roc, 2008, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46205-3

The protagonist of this hardboiled fantasy novel is a man of various talents including the ability to converse with animals. Not surprising, since he's an angel rather than a human being. Although he has pretty much cut his ties to Heaven, some of his angel buddies come looking for his help when the Angel of Death disappears under mysterious circumstances. An entertaining and sometimes quite clever detective story follows. My favorite book to date by this author.

Puddlejumpers by Mark Jean and Christopher C. Carlson, Hyperion, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310759-0

A thirteen year old boy, abandoned and unaware of his past, has led a difficult and troublesome life. Almost certainly destined to end up in juvenile detention, he is given one last chance, transfer to a farm on a trial basis. There he discovers a mystery involving a disappearing baby, meets a young girl to whom he feels an unusual bond, investigates mysterious stories about a place in the woods, and discovers a magical hidden world which will reveal secrets about his own origins. Nothing particularly new or interesting, but well written and moderately entertaining for all ages.

The Midas Box by G.P. Taylor, Putnam, 5/08, $17.99, ISBN 978-0399243479

Mariah Mundi is the young protagonist of this steampunkish fantasy.  She has recently accepted a position as assistant to a magician living in a picturesque hotel, but what is supposed to be casual work turns out to be livelier and more dangerous than expected.  There's an evil plot afoot, there are secret places in and beneath the hotel, and secret occupants as well.  Stage magic and real magic get mixed together, legendary creatures turn out to be real, and a sinister mystery must be solved.  A very good young adult novel, for adults as wells.

 

 

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