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

 LAST UPDATE 12/31/07

Exile by Kathryn Lasky, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-88808-0

Moon Magic by Tony Abbott, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-90255-7

    Both of these are titles in long running young adult fantasy series.  I've read a couple of the earlier Abbott books in the Secrets of Droon series, but none of the previous Guardians of Ga'hoole novels by Lasky.  Moon Magic, like its predecessors, is barely a novelet and seems to be targeted at quite young readers.  A group of kids are traveling through time and space, having magical adventures, and extricating themselves from unlikely scenarios.  It was kind of fun but definitely light weight.  Lasky's book is aimed at a slightly older audience.  The characters are owls who are tied to a magical tree that appears to have a mind of its own.  I had some difficulty following this one because I hadn't read the earlier books in the series, but the owls provide a very different type of protagonist and there are some interesting tidbits mixed in with this story of magical mind control and other wonders.  Exile has more meat on its bones, but Moon Magic is more accessible.  12/31/07

The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick, Gollancz, 2/08, £18.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08176-5

Another debut fantasy and first volume of the Chathrand Voyage trilogy.  It is also one of those books about which I have ambivalent feelings.  The plot is interesting and out of the ordinary, with most of the story set aboard the sailing ship Chathrand, which carries almost a thousand people and is a bit of a world in and of itself.  The ship - which belongs to an otherwise not atypical fantasy empire - is the pride of the nation and the emperor isn't happy when it turns up missing.  But it's not missing to the people on board whose story - part of which at least - we learn in this opening third.  There's quite a variety on the ship, everything from spies and assassins to spoiled aristocrats and humble apprentices.  There's actually a pretty large cast of characters and, as you might expect, we don't learn a whole lot about any of them.  There's a good deal of tension and action, conspiracies and revelations, and some of it is cleverly done.  I should have liked this a lot more than I did because it's not a cookie cutter setting and story.  What bothered me was the style, which consists of short, choppy sentences and paragraphs that do help to keep the story moving, but without providing any real substance.  Everybody talks in simple, declarative sentences or sentence fragments and at times I had trouble telling who was speaking.  A very interesting near miss at being a very good book, and one of the better fantasies of the year, but still not entirely a hit with this reader.  12/30/07

Twice Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris, Harcourt, 5/08, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-206382-5

Back a few years ago, Jean Ferris brought us Once Upon a Marigold, the story of a young boy raised by trolls who falls in love with a princess, annoys an evil queen, and carries the day, a humorous quasi-sendup of fairy tales.  It ended, appropriately enough, with them living happily ever after.  Or did they?  The premise of this new sequel is that the wicked queen might not be dead after all.  As it happens, she survived but without her memories, which have now been restored.  So she's back, with the help of Lazy Susan - a clever touch since she's the sister of Sleeping Beauty - she returns to reclaim her throne, currently occupied by our heroes.  Some of the jokes are predictable, some are quite clever.  It's been a while since I read the first but I suspect that the follow up is actually a lot better.  It's not necessary to read the original book first, but it's worthwhile. 12/28/07

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson, Tor, 2/08, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1007-1

Volume seven of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is very long, very complex, and advances several of the separate plot elements from the last couple of books in this series.  The Empire is not doing well.  The emperor is weak, gullible, and not entirely in his right mind.  There's an invasion fleet en route carrying a powerful army.  Another group are engaged on a perilous quest to achieve a magical goal.  There are traitors and rebels among each group of characters, as well as external enemies.  Throw in some repressive imperial agents, a supernatural entity has been deprived of much of its power, and there are numerous other, peripheral issues and conflicts to take up the slack.  A very large cast of characters, most of whom thankfully have pronounceable names, and a very busy story line.  I actually started reading this a while ago, but it was too much like the last couple of fantasy epics I'd read and I lost interest.  I tried again a week later and made it most of the way through, but only got around to finishing it yesterday.  You might expect from that admission that I thought the story was boring, which is rather unfair because it's really not.  It is, however, relentlessly generic high fantasy and for some reason it seemed to me somewhat hastily written, lacking some of the detail and texture of the earlier novels in the series.  I also think I've become overdosed on multi-volume fantasy series that continue by adding new enemies and dangers to replace the ones from the previous volume.  It's a bit like the television series 24.  Every season they feel obligated to introduced events on a large scale than ever, and the result is a loss of focus, a drift from deeper characterization, and a growing sense of implausibility.  12/24/07

Unquiet Dreams by Mark Del Franco, Ace, 2/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01569-6

The follow up to Unshapely Things is a much better book.  The protagonist, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, is a druid who acts as an occasional consultant to the Boston Police Department.  The reason for this is that he has insight into the ongoing troubles between among the fairies and elves who live in some of the more obscure metropolitan areas.  The latest crisis is kicked off by a pair of murders, which have considerable and serious ramifications including a major gang war between the two magical races.  There is also a new drug on the streets that accelerates things until the human population of the city finds itself caught between two powerful and deadly hostile forces.  And Boston is just the start!  Connor Grey takes on some substance this time, although the melodramatic plot remains the book's primary focus.  It's an urban fantasy, and there are lots of them out there, but this would should be able to stand up to the competition.  And I'm sure there are further adventures to come.  12/23/07

Keepers of the Flame by Robin D. Owens, Luna, 1/08, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80262-3

This is the fourth in a series of fantasy romance novels in which women from our world are transported into an alternate world of magic in order to fulfill some destiny or another.  When the magic is used to summon a fourth, there's a surprise - twin sisters find themselves in another reality.  Both of the sisters have magical healing powers, although one of them is in denial.  They are perfectly suited for the present task, however, because the latest menace to the peace and tranquility is a sorcerous plague.  Of course, this being a romance novel, there are a couple of interesting men to distract them.  Owens writes pretty well and the fantasy elements are strong and central to the plot, unlike a lot of fantasy romance that just uses them as window dressing.  They're fairly formulaic, but not offensively so.  It appears that the next volume will be the last in this series.  12/20/07

Darkling by Yasmine Galenorn, Berkley, 1/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21893-8

Although this series about the D'Artigo sisters bears a more than casual resemblance to the television show Charmed, it is definitely an upgrade.  The three sisters are variously a vampire, a shapechanger, and a witch, though none of the three are entirely in control of their powers.  Somehow they manage to muddle through and beat the bad guy so I wasn't expecting any surprises in their third adventure.  The top villain in this case is a rogue vampire, always good for some evil events, but he might be in an alliance with a demon for good measure.  The series is essentially urban fantasy, although the characters do cross over into a completely alternate fantasy world at times.  The author has an easy, entertaining style that makes even the very predictable developments in the novel feel relatively fresh.  I've sampled the author's mystery novels (as India Ink) and her fantasies are a lot better.  When the urban fantasy market collapses, I'd bet on this series as being among the survivors.  12/19/07

Airs and Graces by Toby Bishop, Ace, 1/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01556-6

The first novel in this series, Airs Beneath the Moon, one of those coming-of-age while attending the training-school novels, was also this author's debut.  It was an inoffensive, unassuming story that kept me reading but which I'd already forgotten completely when I started the sequel.  The story this time is a little more complex.  The protagonist is a young woman who should never have been entitled to bond with one of the magical flying horses, but she did and they had to let her into the training program.  The situation is about to take a turn for the worse.  The local ruler always wanted to bond himself, but never made the grade.  He opposed the young girl's acceptance before coming to power and now he's in a better position to strike back.  His obsession has, however, led him to the brink of insanity and there is unrest at his inattention to other problems, like the hostile army just beyond the border.  It's a more ambitious novel, and therefore more interesting, although it stays strictly with standard fantasy motifs.  Although this one is complete in itself, I'd not be surprised to find that things have taken a turn for the worse when Bishop next returns to the series.  12/19/07

The Unnatural Inquirer by Simon R. Green, Ace, 1/08, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01556-0

The sudden wide popularity of urban fantasy, paranormal romances, whatever label you choose to use, has resulted in what are essentially stories of tough private detectives who have to deal with magic as well as more mundane mayhem.  Some of them are excellent, quite a few are pretty good.  But the best of the bunch is the Nightside series by Simon R. Green, now in its eighth volume and just as good as it was when it first started.  John Taylor works those shadowy areas where our world and the world of magic overlap, and he does so with style, clever dialogue, and a wealth of imagination.  His latest has him working for the publisher of a kind of borderland tabloid, who wants to track down a man who claims to have found absolute proof that an afterlife exists.  Mystical parasites, a menacing rival in the search, and an exciting finish.  It's always nice to pick up a book knowing you're going to enjoy it, and not be disappointed.  12/16/07

Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 1/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01566-5

Mercy Thompson is a shape shifter and she needs that ability to solve her problems in this, her third adventure.  It's a familiar set up.  One of her friends - actually her former boss - is framed for a crime he didn't commit and no one else seems interested in clearing his name, so Mercy finds herself playing detective again.  This is in addition to her own problems, that include among other things two randy male werewolves who want her to take one of them as her lover.  Her exclusive lover.  Fey magic, a man who is not what he appears to be, sinister intrigue, and a happy ending.  Not quite as good as the previous volume, Blood Bound, but still better than most of the other recent urban fantasies I've read.  12/16/07

In a Time of Treason by David Keck, Tor, 2/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1321-8

The sequel to In the Eye of Heaven continues the story of Durand Col, who helped suppress a rebellion against the rightful ruler in that debut novel.  It was a standard but reasonably interesting novel that had some stylistic kinks that I found annoying.  That's mostly cleared up in this volume which is far and away a better book. Although the immediate threat was quelled, as is the case in most high fantasy, the brooding enemies of order cannot be long denied.  The defeated aristocrats would not be patient under the best of conditions, and the economic woes of the kingdom undermine the will of even the most loyal.  Even worse, the king seems to have gone insane and he's alienating his supporters and giving comfort to his own enemies.  Chaos threatens as a rebellion breaks out in one area and an invading army is on the move elsewhere.  Our hero is soon questioning his own loyalties even as he battles for his life.  Does everything get resolved?  Of course not, because there's at least one more book to come.  Readers who weren't enthused by the first in the series might want to consider giving it another shot because there's dramatic improvement in this one. 12/13/07

Fellowship Fantastic edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Kerrie Hughes, DAW, 1/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0465-9

As usual with theme anthologies, I read this piecemeal over a week or so.  The theme this time is pretty general, a group of people confront a problem together.  It opens with a generic short by Paul Genesse that has a little bit too much chortling and gnashing for my taste.  Donald Bingle follows with a group of shared world game players facing a real life problem.  Jody Lynn Nye has a better story, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman an even better.  Chris Pierson adds an okay quest story, after which Alan Dean Foster has an entertaining contemporary fantasy about an animate cloud with a cute ending. The stories by Brenda Cooper and Russell Davis are both pretty good, and the one by Steven Schend provides a nice variation of a fairly standard plot.  Fiona Patton has one of the better pieces and S. Andrew Swann contributes my favorite in the collection, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, sort of.  Brad Beaulieu and Alexander Potter finish up with average stories.  Slightly above average overall, with the Hoffman, Patton, and Swann stories leading the way.  12/11/07

Breath and Bone by Carol Berg, Roc, 2008, $15, ISBN 978-0-451-46186-5

The first half of this novel, Flesh and Spirit, was published last year and described Valen's battle to escape his family's influence, his discovery of a magical book, his apparently pre-ordained doom, and introduced a fairly large and varied cast of characters.  Things aren't looking up as the second half opens, with civil war threatening to escalate the level of violence, and other auguries of evil to come.  There are also a host of people looking for our hero, most of whom don't wish him well, or at a minimum want to make use of his potential for their own purposes.  Valen is, however addicted to a strange magic, and entangled in a number of promises he has made and commitments he feels obligated to keep.  So he's on the run, pursued on every side, and subject to self doubts and fears for his own future as well as that of his country.  Valen is more introspective than most fantasy heroes.  He seemed to be feeling sorry for himself a great deal in book number one, but there's a welcomechange as the story moves toward its climax. This was probably Berg's most ambitious effort to date and there are a lot of good things in the book - which is imaginative and intelligent - and my only complaint is that the author uses that formal, stilted form of dialogue that crops up in a distressing amount of modern fantasy.  12/10/07

Child of a Dead God by Barb & J.C. Hendee, Roc, 2008, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46187-2

I've enjoyed this fantasy series ever since the first volume.  It sometimes has the appearance of high fantasy but I'd call this sword and sorcery of the best sort.  The two protagonists are halflings - one is half elf, the other half vampire - and they make a fascinating team vaguely reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, although the characters bare few actual similarities.  The female half of the partnership also has a half brother - there are lots of halves, obviously - who is of late the recurring bad guy.  During the course of the first five books, they gradually accumulated a handful of companions, so there's quite a company of them by now.  Their mission at the moment is to prevent a powerful magical artifact from falling the hands of the villain, but in order to do that, they have to figure out where it is first.  Which means they're off on a quest to find it.  They succeed, of course, but the battle isn't over yet.  Other than dealing with a handful of unpronounceable names - one of my pet peeves about many fantasy novels - I enjoyed this from beginning to end.  Proof, if we needed it, that sword and sorcery is about more than bulging thews and bloody blades.  12/9/07

The Vacant Throne by Joshua Palmatier, DAW, 1/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0462-8

The setting for this high fantasy series is the city of Amenkor, a major trading center in a fairly typical alternate world, a city which has survived major disasters in the past but which is reeling after the latest crisis.  The city has an unusual ruler, a former assassin with unusual powers who isn't entirely happy wielding authority. She also has a psychic talent that warns her of future possibilities, and the possibility looming on the horizon at the moment is an even greater trail and possible destruction.  There is no way to avoid that fate, however, and soon the city is being overwhelmed by an invading army.  Desperate, our hero calls upon an uneasy ally, another city whose loyalty is dubious, and which might be no better fit to defeat the enemy.  The trilogy has gotten progressively more interesting even though it follows the familiar pattern of ever more serious obstacles that seem to make victory by the protagonist increasingly unlikely.  One nagging problem I had, however, was that I never really was able to picture much of anything that was happening - the settings, sometimes even the action.  That gave the story a rather flat quality that might have been eliminated with a few descriptive passages to set the frame for what was happening.  12/8/07

Warrior Spirit by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-62127-9

I really have been enjoying this fast paced, light fantasy adventure series from an imprint that specializes in men's adventure.  The protagonist is an archaeologist - think Tomb Raider - who found the magical sword of Joan of Arc in the first volume, which materializes whenever she is in danger.  Anna Creed, aided at times by her irascible mentor, travels around the world retrieving magical artifacts and preventing them from falling into the wrong hands.  This is the ninth in the series, the first written by John Merz - the previous volumes alternated between Victor Milan and Mel Odom - so I was interested to see if the tone would change at all.  It's another stolen artifact, this time belonging to a Japanese family that believes its restoration is essential to the family's good fortune.  They travel into a remote part of Japan where they have to compete with assassins and other villains before achieving their goal.  I am happy to say that there's no drop in quality.  Admittedly these are comic book style adventures and not "serious" fiction, whatever that is, but it's a good example of that genre, provides an exciting story, and the series is not yet so lengthy that it has begun to be annoyingly repetitive.  12/06/07

Queen of Dragons by Shana Abe, Bantam, 2007, $18, ISBN 978-0-553-80528-4

I enjoyed both of Shana Abe's first two novels of the drakon, a race of shapeshifters who live secretly, primarily in a remote part of the British Isles during the 18th Century.  This is the third in the series, in the first two of which they retrieved a magical artifact and dealt with one of their number who had turned to a life of crime.  Now they receive a mysterious message from Transylvania which suggests they may not be the only ones of their kind, that another tribe may have survived somewhere in southern Europe.  Obviously the chance is worth risking an investigation, and the very fact that someone outside their circle knows of their existence poses a threat that cannot be ignored.  Their efforts to discover the truth must be accelerated when someone begins murdering members of the tribe, someone who obviously has knowledge they thought closely held, and possibly the ability to use paranormal powers to advance their sinister and deadly agenda.  A touch of romance, a nicely drawn historical setting, and a pretty suspenseful plot this time around.  Reading the previous two books is not necessary, but it is  recommended.  12/6/07

Thunderer by Felix Gilman, Bantam, 2007, $24, ISBN 978-0-553-80676-2

I would be very surprised indeed if this debut novel was not a strong contender for an award this year. It has all the qualities that should make it appeal to the majority of fantasy readers - magic, a quest, a hint of coming of age, villains and heroes, exotic landscapes - and most of the things that appeal to readers who prefer something out of the ordinary.  The setting is unusual - a possibly infinite city, a labyrinth so intricate that no one has ever been able to draw a useful map - filled with clever imaginative details.  The prose is well above average, the characters interesting, and the details of the plot extraordinary.  In fulfillment of a prophecy, a mystical bird returns to the city, presumably linked to a god.  But which god?  And for what purposes?  And when someone finds a way to harness the magical powers of the bird - which can literally alter the physical world - are their intentions good, evil, or just misguided?  What's more, it's not the first volume in a trilogy and might not be the start of a series. What a novel idea for a fantasy!  All kidding aside, this is almost certainly going to be one of the half dozen most important fantasies of the year, and Gilman is likely to be mentioned alongside China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Mary Gentle, and writers of similar stature.  12/5/07

The Fall of the Templar by Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis, Orchard, 2007, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-439-83776-7

The third in the Grey Griffins series has our young heroes - who have become the de facto defenders of the world - allying themselves with the Knights Templar, who still secretly exist.  Their enemy is another coalition consisting of Morgan La Fay, who is still alive, and the equally evil Lord Sumner.  They plot to seize magical control of the world by means of a mystical artifact known as the Spear of Ragnarok.  Talk about mixing up your mythologies!  The actual story isn't bad, though it's a bit simple minded.  My only real complaint about the book is that the dialogue sounds dreadfully artificial much of the time.  I don't think kids really talk this way but I suppose it might be different in England.  Reasonably good magical adventure for young adults but not much to offer more sophisticated readers.  12/4/07

The Day of the Djinn Warriors by P.B. Kerr, Orchard, 2007, $17.99, ISBN 978--0-439-93214-1

Book four in the young adult Children of the Lamp series, which has two youngsters who are descended from djinn, or genies, as the primary protagonists.  There are three interlocked plots in this one, one involving the premature aging of their father, one the unwelcome fate of their mother, and the third linked to the theft of a number of ancient artifacts.  Their chief opposition this time comes from a bunch of animated statues which have been taken over by evil spirits who want their mission to fail.  The very future of the world hangs in the balance.  I've thoroughly enjoyed this series to date.  Kerr mixes light (and sometimes not so light) adventure with a good sense of humor and some powerful imaginative sequences.  He also avoids writing down to his audience, which means that adult readers are likely to find the books as much a treat as will their kids.  This isn't the next Harry Potter by any means, but it's a solid, likeable, and well construted series that should appeal to a fairly wide audience.  11/29/07

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher, Ace, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01527-6

Fourth in the Codex Alera series, set in a fairly typical magical alternate world, which has a touch of uniqueness in that the forces of nature manifest themselves physical here, notably the Furies, hence the titles in the series.  The last two in the series have mixed elements of military fantasy, traditional fantasy realm politics, and more than a little bit of espionage.  This new title advances things using another standard fantasy ploy.  Although the bellicose invaders have been pretty much defeated now, there's a surprise in store for our heroes just as they are ready to relax a bit.  It seems that the reason for the attacks is that they were being pushed forward by another, even worse militaristic peoples, and the latter aren't done with their demands for territorial expansion.  Politics makes strange bedfellows, of course, so this time it's a case of turning one's former enemies into allies against the bigger, badder mutual foe.  Unfortunately, even if it's possible to talk the displaced warriors into an alliance, there are powerful factions that want to wipe them out instead, playing on old animosities, and predicting that they will turn adversarial again as soon as it is in their best interests to do so.  So our hero has little chance at more than a very limited success, but by the end of this installment - and there are obviously more to come - he has laid the groundwork for the realignment that we all know quite well is coming somewhere along the line.  Butcher has a comfortable prose style and a good ear for dialogue.  The bits about the elementals are probably the best parts of the book, and I'd like to have seen that aspect explored more fully.  Maybe in volume five.  11/26/07

Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold by Terry Brooks, Brilliance Audio, 2007, 29.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-5012-5

Here we have a belated audiobook version of the first of the Magic Kingdom of Landover novels from Terry Brooks, first published way back in 1986.  I liked this series a lot better than the Shannara books by Brooks, but not as much as some of his later books.  Our hero answers an advertisement and actually buys a bankrupt magical kingdom, but forgets the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  In addition to its financial woes it has a nasty witch and a destructive dragon to contend with.  Having invested his money, he invests a good deal more, battling demons and other critters to nudge his new property out of the red and into the black.  Lightweight but frequently amusing fantasy that I read long enough ago that I remembered very little of the plot, though most of it came back to me as I progressed through this recording.  Dick Hill does his usual very fine job reading the text, which runs fourteen hours unabridged on twelve CDs.  I imagine the other titles in the series will follow in due course.  11/25/07

The Metatemporal Detective by Michael Moorcock, Pyr, 2007, $25, ISBN 978-1-59102-596-2

Moorcock has written a number of pastiches of other writers over the years, most of them stories set in his multiverse setting.  This is a collection of some of the shorter pieces, most written since 1990, emulating tough detectives, westerns, and Sherlock Holmes, among others.  Most of the stories feature Seaton Begg, a kind of private investigator and adventurer who solves crimes in a variety of alternate worlds.  His usual enemy is some version of Elric of Melnibone, or Ulrich, but although Begg is the hero and Elric - or  Count Zenith - is described as a fallen angel and clearly has supernatural powers and a soul drinking sword - this isn't a fight between good and evil as such, but more a conflict between Order and Chaos.  We are also told that the two antagonists are actually distantly related.  Most of the stories employ a spare, playful style that skips elements you might expect to find there, includes oddly amusing side trips, and often makes

"The Affair of the Seven Virgins" is a kind of Ruritanian adventure story in a small, obscure European country.  "Crimson Eyes" feels more like a place holder, without much of a plot, but it helps develop the contrast between the two contenders.  "The Ghost Warriors" is a western pastiche in which Elric opens a route to the hidden world inside the Earth.  Moorcock takes on the tough detective story in "The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade".  The client in "The Case of the Nazi Canary" is Adolf Hitler, who is being blackmailed.  "Sir Milk and Blood" it is a short piece about terrorists and retribution.  "The Mystery of the Texas Twister", one of the best in the collection, is set in an independent Texan nation and draws together some of the characters from the other stories and elsewhere in Moorcocks work.  "London Flesh" never came alive for me. "The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius" is one of two stories from the 1960s, a good one, and it is followed by two more recent tales, both of which seemed a bit repetitive.  It's always fun trying to follow as Moorcock picks his way through literary influences and quasi-historical settings.  11/21/07

Foundling by D.M. Cornish, Speak, 2007, $8.99, ISBN 9780-14-240913-8

The last couple of months seem to have been very strong for young adult fantasy. This is one of half a dozen books I've read recently that look like they could be big hits, though none strike me as likely to provide much competition for Harry Potter.  Cornish is, however, as close as we're likely to come for a while, mixing a good story, an inventive imagination, and a witty and entertaining prose style.  His hero is Rossamunde Bookchild and his profession is lamplighter.  The lamplighters are a kind of special servant to the emperor, their duties being to protect the roadways from danger, much of which is monstrous or magical or both.  It's a coming of age story mixed with a mini-quest as he has a series of episodic encounters with various people and beings, including humans with superhuman powers, or with a very human capacity for evil, and creatures about which he had only dreamed in the past.  There are extensive maps, a very large glossary, and assorted other peripheral materials designed to make the world seem more realistic, and it is quite clear that this is meant to be the first in a series.  I was reminded at times of Philip Pullman, but Cornish has created a world very much his own.  This one has the potential to be a real hit, depending on the vagaries of readers' tastes.  11/17/07

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon & Brian Williams, Scholastic, 1/08, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-439-87177-8

Apparently this is expected to be the next Harry Potter, at least by the publicists.  I don't think it has anything like that kind of potential but it is pretty good, one of those books for younger readers that should also attract a sizeable adult audience.  The young hero is the son of an archaeologist - appropriately named Burrows - who has been doing his own dig in London, and he has found something very unusual.  At the same time his father has become puzzled by the appearance of some strangely garbed characters in the area. Things don't really start to get interesting though until we find the hidden world underground, which is actually a pretty nasty place at times, much more violent than the world of Harry Potter.  On the one hand, the writing is at a reasonably adult level and does not talk down to the target readers, but the characters never really come to life and some of them are such distorted caricatures that they aren't believable at all. I'd call this one an interesting attempt, particularly for a first novel (it was previously self published and, like Eragon, picked up after the fact by a major publisher anxious to find the next J.K. Rowling), but it's not going to become a children's classic unless the sequels (which seem inevitable) are a great deal better. 11/16/07

Hex Marks the Spot by Madelyn Alt, Berkley, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21870-9

Although this is packaged as a mystery, which it is, the protagonist/narrator has empathic powers, which makes it fantasy or science fiction as well, depending on your definition.  You can pretty much tell by the title that this one isn't going to be entirely serious. Maggie, our heroine, works in a kind of magic shop when she isn't solving murders, of which there have been more than her share recently.  When she accompanies a friend to a crafts fair, she meets a ruggedly handsome man, but before anything romantic can happen, he turns up dead, murdered.  The police naturally are looking for an entirely mundane solution, but Maggie suspects that witchcraft, real or otherwise, is intimately involved, and there wouldn't be much of a story if she wasn't right.

Dragon Mage by Andre Norton and Jean Rabe, Tor, 1/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1650-2

First of all, let's dispense with the illusion.  This is not a collaboration between the late Andre Norton and Jean Rabe.  It is a novel by the latter based in part upon work by the former.  This kind of posthumous collaboration is questionable when it is based on existing notes or outlines and frankly deceptive advertising when the novel is, at best, inspired by the earlier work.  That said, Rabe has written some interesting fantasy of her own, but this is, I think, her first novel with a contemporary setting, although we're whisked off to a fantasy world so early that it probably doesn't count.  The protagonist is a young girl who assembles some magical puzzles and finds that solving them transports her to a kind of alternate fantastic Babylon where she is involved with dragons and has various adventures.  As a young adult fantasy, it's not at all bad.  It does not, however, read even remotely like an Andre Norton novel.  11/15/07

Queen Ferris by S.C. Butler, Tor, 2007, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1478-9

I was reasonably impressed by the first volume of this trilogy, Reiffen's Choice, not because of the plot, which is an old standby, the usurped throne and all that, but because of the depth in the characterization of the central character and by the relative complexity of the choices he faces during the course of that novel.  He has more difficult choices to make in this one.  Reiffen has voluntarily chosen to leave his friends and return to the stronghold commanded by the evil wizards.  His plan is to convince them that he has turned to the dark side.  Unfortunately, in order to be persuasive, he has to prove himself by performing some pretty nasty actions of his own, and the threat is that he might allow his inner nature to be so contaminated by this misuse of power that he becomes the very thing that he hates and wishes to destroy.  There's some interesting speculation about the meaning of good and evil, the balance of the means and the ends, and the price that such a moral quandary exacts on those involved.  A much better book than its already interesting predecessor, and proof that even the hoariest old plot can still entertain when it's done with a fresh perspective and a skilled writer. 11/13/07

Secret of the Slaves by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-62126-2

The eighth adventure of Annja Creed, who possesses the magical sword of Joan of Arc, is a lost world adventure set in South America.  She is hired to find a legendary hidden city in Brazil where the inhabitants are rumored to have found the secret of eternal life.  The perils of the jungle are bad enough, but there are also interested parties who do not want her to reach her destination.  This is a men's adventure series despite the female protagonist, so there are action scenes in almost every chapter.  I probably shouldn't enjoy this series as much as I do, but these are the closest things to the old pulp that are around nowadays and the people writing under the Alex Archer umbrella (it's Victor Milan for this one) are more accomplished authors than many of those writing in the 1930s, so they keep the best of the form without sacrificing good prose and reasonable plausibility.  If you're a fan of Doc Savage, this is an example of what they might have been like if Lester Dent and company had been better at their craft.  11/12/07

Dancing with Werewolves by Carole Nelson Douglas, Juno, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8095-7203-8 

Cute title, although it seems to me someone used it a while back for a short story (actually I just remembered that it was an article about horror films).  This is the first book by Douglas I've read in quite a while, one of those stories set in a version of Earth in which the creatures of legends - witches, werewolves, etc. - have come out of the closet, so to speak, and revealed themselves to the world.  Delilah Street, in her first adventure, is a television reporter who has come to take the new situation in stride.  Her latest assignment takes her to Las Vegas, which is in the grip of a werewolf mob, which puts quite a new twist on the traditional crime story.  Douglas is the author of dozens of previous novels and her experience shows in this, one of the smoothest and most satisfying of the current flood of contemporary paranormal romances or whatever the category is calling itself these days.  A second adventure is already in the works and I'm sure it will be a good one.  I am concerned, however, that the inevitable collapse following the glut of these will take some of the goods series, like this one, along with the weaker ones.  11/11/07

Dragon Outcast by E.E. Knight, Roc, 2007, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46185-8

E.E. Knight is probably best known so far for his Vampire Earth series in which an alien race of humanoids that drink human blood invade the Earth, resulting in some quasi-military SF.  This particular title is the third in his first fantasy series, which gets strong points for not falling into the usual patterns.  The protagonists of all three novels are dragons in a world where the race of dragons is rapidly vanishing.  A copper dragon is the main character this time, crippled while still in the next during a battle for dominance with another hatchling.  As a consequence, he becomes an outcast even among his own species.  Rejected, he gets into more trouble and saves his own life by betraying his own kind, which only serves to worsen his alienation from other dragons.  So he flees his homeland, eventually finding a greater civilization of dragons, only to discover that he needs to earn a place among them, overcoming their prejudices against his maimed body to do so.  My only real complaint about the series is that the dragons are essentially human beings.  Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw really stood out because the personality of its characters was shaped in part by the fact that they were dragons and not human.  There's not enough of this differentiation in Knight's series, which is otherwise well conceived and written. 

The Devil Inside by Jenna Black, Bantam, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59044-9

First in another new urban dark fantasy series hovering on the borderline between fantasy and horror.  Since this doesn't appear to be set in our world, just one very much like it, I'm going to call this one a fantasy.  The protagonist is Morgan Kingsley, a professional exorcist who finally meets a demon she can't dispose of easily.  It seems there are good demons and bad demons and demon politics as well, and Morgan's newest supernatural acquaintance is involved in a power struggle among his kind.  Before it's over, the fate of the entire world might be dependent upon her.  I've liked a couple of earlier books by this author and this is certainly as good as most of the other similar urban fantasy out there, but the market must be getting close to the saturation point. It will be interesting to see which of these series survive the inevitable collapse.  11/7/08

Manslayer by Nathan Long, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-509-4

More sword and sorcery from the Warhammer universe, this one involving a Fafhrd & Gray Mouser pair named Gotrek and Felix, who have appeared in books by at least one other writer in this shared world series.  This time they're off to help battle a horde of barbaric invaders, but they have more potent weapons than sword and bow.  There's an airship and some comparatively modern artillery which could be just the thing to tip the balance in their favor.  Unfortunately, a string of "accidents" suggests that someone within their company is determined to keep the ordinance from reaching the battlefield.  Just the kind of puzzle they're ready to solve.  A bit of mystery twisted around a typical fantasy set up and outside of some really corny dialogue ("My axe thirsts.") the writing isn't bad.  An unprepossessing but mostly satisfying adventure story.  11/4/07

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, Tor, 1/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1950-0

Michael Swanwick doesn't produce a lot of fantasy, but when he does, he points out the greatest shortcoming of modern fantasy, by not doing what everyone is doing, even though it might seem as though he is on a superficial level.  The setting for this novel, which shares the setting of his earlier The Iron Dragon's Daughter, is a kind of industrialized version of faery.  Dragons are sentient because they're built that way, and they need to keep their batteries charged or they'll stop working.  A disabled dragon crawls into a small village in this one and Will, the young protagonist, is chosen as his spokesperson.  But the dragon virtually enslaves the village and Will is shunned as the face of that repression, so eventually he finds a way to escape and sets off for a combination of quest and coming of age story.  His encounters include giants, a centaur, and a job working for a military leader, but even though Swanwick has filled his book with fascinating characters, it is still the details of his created world that are the most memorable.  Constantly surprising, marvelously inventive, and entertaining from first to last, and delivered with his usual smooth and intelligent prose.  Quite possibly the best fantasy novel of the year, even if it is only a January title.  11/2/07

The Fade by Chris Wooding, Gollancz, 2007, £10.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07699-0

I had great difficulty in getting into this book, in large part because it is written in present tense, which I invariably find distracting.  That's a shame because the setting was one I really enjoyed, a subterranean world that is brought to vivid - or maybe I should say murky - life.  There's an entire civilization there, which inevitably leads to conflict on a large scale, including warfare. They remain below the surface because the light above is believed to be accompanied by death and destruction. The protagonist is a kind of spy, recently captured, who possesses information whose implications go far beyond the outcome of the present conflict.  Through his and other eyes we see the story unfold, but frankly it was the unusual civilization and culture that held the most interest for me.  The more melodramatic parts of the plot weren't anything out of the ordinary, and not particularly surprising either, but the details were fascinating.  Wooding has written several novels now that hovered on the brink of being excellent.  I imagine it's just a matter of time until he crosses over.  11/1/07

Dark Lord by Ed Greenwood, Brilliance, 2007, $34.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-4891-7

Dark Lord by Ed Greenwood, Solaris, 2007, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-519-3 

The audiobook and hardcover both arrived the same day, and Iíd just finished the last audiobook Iíd been listening to so I opted for that choice.  Greenwood opens the story with a bang, a writer of fantasy who discovers that his imagined world is real Ė apparently the creation of himself and all of his readers Ė when a dying winged woman falls out of his dream into his bed and tells him he is the Dark Lord who has cursed their world.  The problem with such an immediate jump into the action is that we never see the protagonist except under stress, and his reaction ranges from disbelief to brutality, which made me disinclined to like him right from the outset.    The story itself is overly familiar.  He has to go into his creation in disguise and have a number of adventures, preparing to counteract the dire influences of the company that created the computerized version of his fantasy world. Itís all a little too black and white, and relentlessly and unrealistically violent, to hold my attention.  Greenwood has done some interesting books in the past, but this isnít one of them.  11/1/07

Kitty and the Silver Bullet by Carrie Vaughn, Grand Central, 1/08, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61875-6

Kitty the werewolf returns for her fourth adventure.  If you've read the previous books in the series, you know that Kitty is a werewolf in a society that accepts such things as a matter of course.  She even has her own radio show.  This is one of those series that straddles fantasy and horror, and makes classification difficult, but I've finally decided that if werewolves and vampires exist in our world, it's a horror story, but if it's in a world just like ours except that everyone knows magic and the supernatural are real, then it's fantasy.  This definition probably won't work for everyone but there it is.  Anyway, Kitty's life has been improving lately.  She has a boyfriend, a successful career, and no one has tried to kill her recently, with a silver bullet or otherwise.  But if things kept going smoothly, there wouldn't be much of a story.  And so we have conflict.  Her mother gets sick and Kitty goes home to help, but that puts her within range of a pack of nasty werewolves, and the local vampire population is splitting into two factions as well.  Kitty just wants to nurse Mom and avoid trouble, but things just don't work out that way and she's up to her furry neck in trouble very quickly.  This is a kind of supernatural chick-lit, not quite paranormal romance, not quite contemporary fantasy.  Whatever label you care to apply, it's a pretty good romp.  10/27/07

The Longevity Thesis by Jennifer Rahn, DragonMoon, 2007, $15.95, ISBN 089-1896944371

This is apparently a first novel and it suffers from some of the usual awkwardness associated with first novels, but the premise and background are actually rather interesting.  It's a very atypical fantasy world that almost but doesn't quite come to life, set in a vast underground civilization.  The protagonist, Antronos, was born on the surface, which makes him a kind of second class citizen.  He perseveres, graduates from college, and begins to work with a man who is studying ways to prolong human life.  The problem is that his new boss is making use of a corrupt nobleman with psychic powers to steal the life force from others.  Antronos gets caught, not exactly in the middle, and it's not clear whether he will become an involuntary life donor, a co-conspirator, or the man who saves the nobleman from being exploited by the evil scientist. The narrative portions are generally well written, but the dialogue is often quite artificial and awkward.  I'd call this one an interesting misfire, and hope that the author develops the writing skill to match her obviously creative imagination.  10/27/07

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Hyperion, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310033-1

Following some vague atomic accident in the not too distant future, Earth's civilization has been completely transformed. Although technology has continued to develop, there have been parallel changes, chiefly the re-introduction into the world of magic.  It's the same general set up we've seen in a number of recent adult fantasies, as well as the Weathermonger books by Peter Dickinson for young adults a few years back.  There are differences though, not the least of which is the setting, because this takes place in West Africa.  The protagonist is a young girl who discovers that she possesses magical, or at least mystical, powers and isn't sure if she wants them, or how to use them.  She is accompanying a group on a dangerous trek across the Sahara desert in what turns out to be a mix of coming-of-age and quest story.  They encounter a number of challenges, not the least of which is a malevolent force ranged against them.  Their encounters draw heavily on what I presume is African folklore, some of which is quite imaginative and novel.  Some of the conversations seemed a little bit stiff to me, but for the most part this flows smoothly and logically toward its very unusual conclusion.  10/26/07

Rise of the Blood Royal by Robert Newcomb, Del Rey, 12/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-345-47711-8

Although this is labeled the third in the Destinies of Blood and Stone trilogy, it's actually just the sixth volume in the overall series about Prince Tristan and his various battles against the evil threatening his world.  In previous volumes, Tristan defeated a variety of enemies including his own half brother, but now it seems that he and his allies are finally on the verge of being overpowered.  The reason is that where he thought he was battling a discrete enemy, the opposition was actually considerably more nebulous, and his only chance is to find a way to meld the forces of both good and evil magic, since one cannot exist without the other.  Sounds a bit like Amber.  Like its predecessors, the series is not badly written and occasionally is even innovative, but for the most part it's another standard good vs evil slugfest, despite the metaphysical mixing of powers at the end.  I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but the details were already fading quickly when I sat down to write this review.  Newcomb's story telling is good enough that I'd like to see him do something that wasn't quite so derivative, particularly if he's going to spend his time writing a series of six pretty hefty books.  10/23/07

Lord of Ruin by Dan Abnett and Mike Lee, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-195-9

The saga of Malus Darkblade, a dark elf, continues in this new Warhammer novel.  In the previous four novels, Darkblade was coerced into searching the world for a series of magical artifacts in order to reclaim his soul from a malevolent demon.  He has one to go before he can say he has accomplished his task, but after gathering the last object and before returning, he has to consider the possibility of further treachery on the part of his master, to say nothing of his inclination to seek vengeance for the period of involuntary servitude.  Abnett has always been one of the more interesting of the Warhammer novelists, particularly when he is doing sword and sorcery rather than the military SF side of the series.  This subsidiary sequence with Mike Lee has been particularly good.  Don't let the game tie-in label dissuade you.   This is an action packed adventure that reminds me faintly of the early Elric stories.  10/22/07

The Pearls by Deborah Chester, Ace, 11/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01548-1

Deborah Chester launches a new fantasy series, The Pearls and the Crown, with this unusual first installment.  The story deals primarily with the interaction between two characters.  The first is Lady Lea, a noble woman with some unusual attributes, including an ability to eavesdrop on the innermost feelings of others.  Her tears also have magical properties.  A rival kingdom arranges to kidnap a member of the royal family, and Lea has the misfortune to be the one chosen.  Unfortunately for the man he abducts her, he discovers that her nature is such that is is undermining his resolve.  The two of them survive a series of adventures but Lea has a new problem.  Her powers of insight have told her that no matter what path she chooses to follow, her actions will lead to a tragedy.  It is up to her only to decide which of the potential tragedies will take place, but we'll have to wait until the next volume, at least, to find out what's going to happen.  As always, Chester provides a well written, standard fantasy adventure, although in this case the depth of the characters is a definite plus.  10/22/07

Bloodfever by Karen Marie Moning, Brilliance Audiobook, 2007, $34.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-4193-2

This paranormal romance is the sequel to Darkfever.  That title established the protagonist Ė a young woman from Georgia who travels to Dublin to investigate her sisterís murder - as a sidhe seer, capable of seeing the Unseelie as they really are, and I strongly recommend reading that one first.  It's possible to follow the story anyway, but considerably more difficult because there are lots of references to the earlier book.  She is recovering from wounds she received fighting a vampire and is living in a bookstore owned by a mysterious man who knows more about the fey than he should.  The author spends most of the first chapter referring to earlier events, but the reminiscences go on for too long and donít explain several things which remain confusing through most of the book.  I also had problems with her mentor, who is somewhat ambiguously portrayed but who is unpleasant enough often enough that I really couldnít invest much interest in his success.  The plot hinges constantly on things that they donít tell each other, and while some of this is fair play, thereís so much of it this time that it began to feel contrived.  All that said, I never lost interest in the story, which ran about nine hours of driving time.  There's a complex background about the Unseelie invasion of our reality, a variety of nasty villains, and the protagonist is an interesting character, though some of her ramblings go on for a bit too long.  And naturally the story ends without even the hint of a climax.  In fact, there's a new mystery in the closing pages, and looking back, the story really didn't advance many of the subplots very far.  I'll look for the next in the series, but I hope the author doesn't drag things out for too long and lose her audience.  10/21/07

Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost, Del Rey, 12/07, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49758-1

Gregory Frost writes entirely too infrequently for my taste.  The half dozen or so books of his that I've read over the years have all been more entertaining than most of the other fantasy I read, and this new one is no exception, although readers should be warned that this is the first half of a duology, so they'll have to wait until next year to find out how everything works out.  The protagonist is a traveling story teller in a work that reminded me slightly of The Bridge by Iain Banks, that is, the world consists of countless interlocking bridges crossing an ocean of indeterminate size.  The novelty of the setting alone predisposed me to like this one.  Leodora, the story teller, travels from one community to the next, gathering stories and folk tales, adapting them to her act, and performing versions of them elsewhere, which makes her profession as close to journalism as exists there.  Since she's very good at what she does, she begins to acquire a considerable reputation, which is not without its drawbacks.  Leodora has enemies from the past, and old grudges die hard in the world of bridges just as they do here.  A pair of nicely depicted supporting characters helps elevate this one even further, although it's a bit frustrating that - given this installment is not prohibitively long - the publisher chose to split it into two titles.  Unfortunately, this is a growing trend in both fantasy and science fiction.  10/20/07

Troy: Fall of Kings by David Gemmell & Stella Gemmell, Del Rey, 12/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-345-44703-3

The late David Gemmell had reported written 70,000 words of this novel at the time of his death, and his wife has completed the manuscript and the saga.  It's a retelling of the story of the siege of Troy, probably the most ambitious version since Homer's version.  Gemmell's previous fiction has often featured larger than life characters, so this is a natural progression to perhaps the greatest story of warriors and kings ever told.  All of the familiar characters are here - Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hector, Priam, etc - and even though the story is a very familiar one, Gemmell had managed to bring it to vivid life again.  He also introduced new embellishments and even a few genuine surprises.  I'm not entirely sure that you can call this fantasy rather than historical fiction, but it doesn't matter what you call it.  It's still an epic work, and quite possibly the series for which he will be most remembered.  10/19/07

Set the Seas on Fire by Chris Roberson, Solaris, 2007, $15, ISBN 978-1-84416-488-2

I normally shake my head in disappointment when I see another SF writer moving to fantasy, but if they were all as interesting as this one, I wouldn't mind at all.  Hieronymus Bonaventure is an officer aboard a British frigate in 1808 that is dismasted and forced into unknown waters somewhere in the South Pacific.  They come upon a Spanish boat whose crew is dead or dying. One of the survivors tells them they landed on a deserted island and all but three of their number were mysteriously changed so that they had no wish to leave and eventually drove the dissenters out.  They themselves encounter an inhabited island whose natives appear to welcome them.  Bonaventure is somewhat suspicious of the local witch doctor, of course, whose monopoly on magic seems in danger of succumbing to the new competition.  He also meets one of the young females, Pelani, which complicates his emotional state.  And when he disregards her warning and approaches a strange flying creature from another island, he discovers that things are a lot more dangerous than he ever suspected.

Eventually they visit the mysterious island, where the Spanish have now become mindless wild things, which their native guides insist are demons.  The secret is to be found in the island's caves, and you'll have to read the book to learn what they find there.  This is an old fashioned, lost world adventure story, deliberately paced, and it even has a volcano in it.  It's a form I've always loved, but it's hard to find new ones nowadays.  The cover blurbs compare it to Lovecraft but it felt much more like William Hope Hodgson to me.  And that's definitely a compliment.  10/16/07

Reserved for the Cat by Mercedes Lackey, DAW, 11/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0362-1

Mercedes Lackey continues her loosely connected Elemental Masters series with this new title.  The opening sequences had some of the feel of Phantom of the Opera, but the story soon diverges. Ninette is a ballerina who worked her way out of poverty but who turns out to be so good that she draws jealous looks from the reigning star who arranges for her to lose her job.  With no other sources of income, poor Ninette seems doomed to become a prostitute or worse.  Just as everything seems to be going wrong, she has a strange encounter with a stray cat, a cat who is able to speak to her telepathically, and who expresses the desire to help her.  She might have been pardoned for thinking herself insane at that point, but actually the cat is just the physical manifestation of a magical spirit that has been sent to help protect her.  His attention has its drawbacks, however, because the new role in which she finds herself attracts the attention of a nastier minded spirit.  I almost always like Lackey's historical or contemporary fantasies better than her high fantasy and this follows that pattern.  Ninette is an interesting character, I liked the setting and the supporting cast, and the conflict - though low key - is accompanied by a good bit of mystery.  One of her best.  10/15/07

Blood Engines by T.A. Pratt, Bantam, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-58998-6

The flood of urban fantasies continues, but if they're as good as this one - which I think is also a first novel - then I won't mind.  It's set in our world, sort of, except that sorcerers and sorceresses are sprinkled through the cities and not all of them are nice people.  The protagonist is one of the good ones.  Marla Mason has a problem, however.  One of her peers is plotting against her and seems to have the magical advantage.  To even the game, Marla must travel to San Francisco and retrieve a magical artifact.  Unfortunately, she arrives in the midst of a serial killing spree, except that all of the victims are users of magic.  And naturally she soon falls under suspicion and has to fend off both friend and foe.  There's a lot of clever detail in this one - I particularly liked the killer hummingbirds.  No indication that it's the first in a series, but I'm sure there are further adventures on their way.  There are so many of these urban fantasies nowadays that I'm afraid the market will be saturated and many of them will fall by the wayside.  Let's hope the good ones aren't among the casualties. 10/13/07

The Red Queen's Daughter by Jacqueline Kolosov, Hyperion, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310797-2

It is always refreshing to read a fantasy that is ostensibly for young adults that is actually intelligently written, non patronizing, and an interesting story.  This first novel meets all of those criteria.  The protagonist is a young woman in the court of Queen Elizabeth whose own mother met an early end in part because of her unfortunate choice of a lover.  Mary is, as a consequence, determined not to fall into the same trap, so when she is offered the chance to become a good magician serving the Queen, a position which precludes marriage, so she accepts, gets a magical animal companion as a sort of familiar, and begins to train for her new profession.  In due course she becomes a young lady in waiting and her service is to begin, although she really isn't expecting anything particularly dramatic to result from it.  Mary gets into a quandary when her emotions are put to the test.  One of the court intriguers is a sorcerer himself, but inclined toward the black arts and disinclined to be loyal to the queen.  That should make him an enemy of sorts, but Mary also feels attracted to him because of his sympathetic demeanor.  There's even a sophisticated, fairly complex ending wrapped around the concepts of good and evil and their dependence upon one another.  A very nice historical fantasy that won't put off the experienced adult reader  10/13/07

Dog Days by John Levitt, Ace, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01553-5

The new wave of contemporary or parallel universe urban fantasies has, up to now, featured female protagonists almost exclusively.  I suspect that this is because of an overlap with paranormal romance.  The authors have also been predominantly female, with the exception of Rob Thurman and, if you count it as part of the same phenomenon, the Nightside stories by Simon R. Green.  This first fantasy novel - the author has previously written mysteries - is clearly the first in another series and, despite some window dressing, the protagonist is clearly a male witch named Mason, complete with familiar, in this case his dog Louie, or what passes for a dog.  He's actually considerably more than that.   But hence the title.  Mason is - or rather was - a kind of magical policeman, not that he uses magic to solve ordinary crimes, but that he solves crimes involving magic.  That kind of occupation is bound to make you some enemies, of course.

Even though Mason has retired, and even though Louie is supposed to be able to warn him in advance when trouble brews, he is still taken by surprise when he is assaulted one night, particularly because his enemy is clearly not a human.  The story proceeds about as I expected from this point on. Mason eventually figures out who is after him, and there's a reasonably exciting and pretty violent climax.  The narrative is interspersed with moments of light humor, mostly in the form of wry remarks or observations.  No world beater, obviously, but not bad at all.  10/12/07

Reader and Raelynx by Sharon Shinn, Ace, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01469-9

Sharon Shinn continues her Twelve Houses series with this, the fourth and concluding volume.  The background is a fairly typical fantasy world, one in which the use of magic automatically makes one suspect of nefarious deeds and taking unfair advantage.  Many people, particularly those in power, wish to make use of these talents despite the reservations of their subjects.  The protagonist this time is a kind of living lie detector who can read the intentions and motives of others.  When it comes time to marry off the Princess, he is brought to the castle to vet the various suitors and decide which ones are worthy of her hand.  This is not likely to make him popular with suitors, obviously, but it does make him friendly with the Princess, who may have magical powers of her own, including the ability to prevent him from reading her own intentions.  The two of them, predictably, fall in love, but he's a commoner and can't hope to win her hand.  All of this becomes potentially moot, however, when the long simmering rebellion we saw hints of in the earlier books finally boils over.  Shinn is one of the few fantasy writers who can make familiar situations and settings seem new and interesting, to a great extent because she creates so many believable characters.  Fans of the series will not be disappointed by the way in which she winds things up.  10/9/07

Swimming Without a Net by MaryJanice Davidson, Jove, 12/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-515-14381-2

MaryJanice Davidson has become my favorite writer of humorous fantasy romances.  She won me over with her Undead vampire series, and the Fred the Mermaid series - of which this is the second - is almost as good.  Fred is not particularly even tempered or modest and in her earlier adventure, Sleeping with the Fishes, she solved the mystery of some oddly toxic sea water while getting romantically involved with a handsome marine scientist.  Although she is technically subject to the ruler of the mer-people, Fred basically doesn't care for life in the ocean, but she is required to travel to the royal court so off she goes to the Cayman Islands, accompanied by her hunky boyfriend from the first book.  She plans to leave as soon as possible, but then she finds herself torn between two handsome men as well as two very different ways of life.  Slightly more serious in tone than the first one, and I found it a bit slower and less engaging, though still a lot of fun.  10/9/07

Grimpow: The Invisible Road by Rafael Abalos, Delacorte, 2007, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-385-73374-8

This young adult fantasy is apparently quite popular in Europe.  It was first written in Spanish, translated recently into English.  Grimpow is a young boy in 14th Century who discovers a magical stone among the possessions of a dead man, a stone which will transform his life.  It's a quest story with most of the usual plot elements, and the underlying premise - that knowledge is more valuable than gold and jewels - is refreshingly intelligent.  He has various adventures, learns as much about himself as about the stone, and eventually is rewarded with a happy ending.  The historical setting is well rendered and in general it's surprisingly sophisticated for a book supposedly aimed at younger readers.  The prose seems at times a trifle too formal but otherwise it's one of the better YA fantasies I've read in some time.

Finding Magic by Tanya Huff, ISFiC, 2007, $30.00, ISBN 978-0-9759156-4-3

If you're going to Windycon this year, you probably already know that this is the book being prepared for the convention.  Tanya Huff has provided some of the more entertaining fantasies of the past few years, and I still like her urban fantasies better than most of the newcomers in the field.  This is a collection of seventeen of her short stories, almost all of which I had previously read, although a couple of them may be original in this collection.  "After School Specials," "Slow Poison," and "Blood in the Water" were the ones I find most memorable.  Huff has a deceptively casual, unforced style that is very difficult to do well, and she does it as well as anyone.  A couple of the stories were a little too cute for my taste, but there's a considerable range here and they were strongly outnumbered by ones I did find enjoyable.  This is probably going to have a relatively small print run so you should shake a leg if you want to be sure of getting a copy.  10/8/07

Talebones 35, Summer 2007, $7.00

Fantasy Magazine, Spring 2007, $5.95

I never know exactly which category to put this magazine in because the contents range from SF to horror to surreal fantasy.  The majority this time incline toward fantasy this time so here it is, but the next issue might drip with supernatural horror.  This one opens with horror, in fact, a slightly offbeat werewolf story by William F. Nolan.  I guessed the surprise ending, but only just before it was revealed.  Michael Canfield has the most overtly SF tale, about a bank robber and killer whose daughter is a famous astronaut.  Clever situation, and handled pretty well.  Jack Skillingstead also has an SF story, about the resurrection of man by machines. Darrell Schweitzer has an amusing story in which we once again examine the possibility that famous works of literature might have had different authors than those to whom they are credited.   

James Glass introduces us to a woman with a most unusual rose garden, after which Mary Robinette Kowal provides the best story in the issue, a nicely bizarre period piece about an elixir that restores the dead to life.  Sort of.  There are also less interesting but still readable stories by Patricia Russo, Andrew Tisbert, and Hayden Trenholm.  A small letter column, editorial, and some poems fill out the issue. I'd call this one average for the magazine or slightly better.

Fantasy Magazine has a very distinct style that gives each issue a kind of atmospheric unity, but unfortunately that means that if you don't care for that particular type of story, you may not like what you find.  The stories tend to be well written - a couple of them extremely well written - but they employ non-traditional or minimal plots, favoring ambience and characters. The two that stand out this time are the contributions by Bruce McAllister and Marly Youmans.  The former is a kind of magical snapshot, while the latter is a much longer, semi-traditional narrative that I found fascinating.  Lisa Mantchev's story was a close runner up.  The remaining stories were less interesting, nice prose pictures with hints of a good idea, but none of them really developed any momentum.  This seems to be a popular strategy in genre fiction, but I still think that it doesn't matter how well you speak if you have very little to say.  10/8/07

A Rush of Wings by Adrian Phoenix, Pocket, 1/08, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-4144-8 

Another dark urban fantasy series gets underway with this story of Heather Wallace, a typical assertive female FBI agent who is on the trail of a sadistic serial killer.  She follows him to New Orleans where she meets Dante, a rock star who is also a vampire.  Really original.  Anyway, Dante might seem to be the prime candidate as killer, but heís actually more likely to be the next victim.  She is romantically attracted to Dante.  Really original.  The government is running secret experiments in human behavior that have unintended consequences.  Really original.  Despite the snarkish remarks about the plot, this actually isnít bad at all.  The story moves quickly but smoothly, the characters are quite well fleshed in, and itís fairly suspenseful throughout, though perhaps a trifle overly melodramatic, particularly when the fallen angels are on stage.  An interesting, potentially rewarding opening, but Iíll need to see the next in the series before I decide whether or not this oneís a keeper.  10/6/07

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh, Hyperion, 2007, $17.99, ISBN 978-142310689-0

Although this is a novel for young adults, and is written in the spare, somewhat simplified style that is often employed for that audience, there are parts of it that suggest Marsh might want to try for a more sophisticated audience next time.  The plot is a simple one.  Jack is the protagonist, a young boy living with his father, who takes a trip to the city and encounters someone who introduces him to a mysterious, magical world beneath the city streets.  What follows is a pretty straightforward adventure mixed with a kind of ghost story, but it's also a retake on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the plotting is interesting enough that I found myself wishing the author had tried for a more textured, detailed, and ambitious novel.  I believe this is a first novel, so it will be interesting to see which direction the author moves in with her next book.  10/4/07

Enchantress by Lynne Ewing, Hyperion, 2007, $9.99, ISBN 978-142310684-5

The third book in the Sisters of Isis series felt a bit repetitive.  The series title refers to a group of teenaged girls who discover that they can manipulate magic, and much to few readers' surprise, there turns out to be a down side to doing so.  This volume focuses on the third of the three girls, a somewhat reclusive one who has been home schooled and is rather lacking in social skills.  Her initial delight at being able to cast spells dims quickly when she makes a mistake that could have disastrous results.  Ewing always writes a good story so you needn't worry about it being a clunker, and her prose has enough depth to satisfy mature readers as well, but I had the feeling that she was running out of ideas this time.  It ends with a sort of mild cliffhanger, so there are presumably more installments on their way. 10/4/07

Hercules My Shipmate by Robert Graves, 1945 (also known as The Golden Fleece)

There was a time when I gobbled up everything I could find on Greek and Roman mythology, including the works of Robert Graves, which include this very long, very detailed, fascinating retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the golden fleece sacred to Zeus.  Graves opens with considerable background, and the story of the evolution of religious belief in ancient Greece is interesting in itself, the battle between adherents of the Triple Goddess and the male oriented gods like Zeus.  Graves is somewhat ambiguous in this as to whether the gods are real.  If so, they seem to have been created out of the mass consciousness of humans rather than the other way around.

In any case, Jason gathers his crew, including Hercules, whom Graves disapproves of.  He portrays the hero as a drunken lout, a braggart, not particularly bright, prone to having sex with male children and apt to kill his friends with little if any provocation.  Hercules leaves the Argonauts before they reach Colchis, and they seem quite relieved.  Jason fares better, but not a whole lot better.  He's an indifferent leader, treacherous when it suits him, and unsure of himself.  He is tricked into the quest in the first place, and only succeeds because Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis, falls in love with him.  The pursuit back to Greece is my favorite part of the novel, which ends with brief descriptions of some of what happens to the now disbanded Argonauts.  Graves invents things to fill in holes, and varies from the traditional interpretations at times, but he tells an excellent story.  The fantastic elements are explained in mundane terms - the harpies are bats, for example - but the ambiguous nature of the gods leads me to call this one a fantasy nonetheless.  10/3/07

Lu-Tze's Yearbook of Enlightenment 2008 by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07724-9

Terry Pratchett's Discworld Calendar 2008, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08044-7

It's time for the annual tie-in items for the ever popular Discword series. The first of these is a yearly planner with some textual material added to give it some flavor.  The text is mildly amusing and the planner itself is what you would expect.  It would be amusing to see the looks on the faces of your co-workers if you pulled this out to check an appointment though.  The illustrations are by Paul Kidby.  The second item is, surprise, a calendar.  It features twelve full color paintings illustrating scenes from Discworld.  They're cute and quite varied in subject matter.  Just the thing to have on your office wall when you whip out your Lu-Tze daily planner. 10/1/07

The King and the Fire Chanter by Arran Wend, Antiquity, 2006, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9793284-0-4

I had never even heard of this publisher before, so there's always the possibility that it's a vanity press.  This is the first in the Runes of Medarya series, yet another traditional high fantasy adventure.  It's also for younger readers, the story of two children seeking to escape their enemies and restore a peaceful kingdom.  There's the mandatory nasty evil sorcerer and other dangers.  The text is okay but written down to the perceived level of its target readers, and is consequently a bit frustrating for adults.  The interior illustrations run the gamut from okay to interesting.  A nicely manufactured book with decent cover art as well.  10/1/07

The High King's Tomb by Kristen Britain, DAW, 11/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0266-2

Although I've read the first two novels in this series, it was a while ago and I remembered very little other than it featured a young woman who became a member of a group of couriers who had magical powers, with an otherwise standard fantasy world background.  Her world is bordered by a magically reinforced wall, erected after an old war and, predictably, with the passage of time, the secrets of just how the wards operate has been forgotten.  The wall has been partially breached and evil magic was featured prominently in those earlier volumes, and now it's getting worse.  Just to make things more complicated, a sorcerer long believed dead has revived, and he holds a grudge.  So naturally the seepage through the wall gets worse and the protagonist and her fellows recognize that something has to be done before the situation becomes irreversible.

One twist in this is that magic can be used to cause a kind of time travel.  The possibilities there were intriguing, but most of the book consists of more mundane fantasy, the quest for ancient documents that might plug the holes in the wall, rebuff the old enemy whose soldiers want a second chance at conquest.  For the most part this is quite well written.  Every once in a while the dialogue lapses into this exaggeratedly formal style that fantasy writers seem to love, and which just makes the characters sound stilted and stiff.  But generally the author avoids this and the result is a nice, middle tier fantasy adventure.  9/22/07

Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson, 1904

I needed to re-read this for a project I'm working on.  I had only the vaguest memories of it from having read it back in the 1960s.  Hudson was a professional naturalist, so the lengthy and evocative descriptions of plants and animals comes as now surprise.  It's the story of a young Venezuelan who flees into the interior after a failed revolution, living with a primitive tribe until he encounters Rima, a strange girl who can apparently communicate with animals.  Rima speaks Spanish only other protest, preferring to communicate in a musical language peculiar to herself.  Abel - the Green Mansions are obviously a reference to the Garden of Eden - falls in love with her and is desperate to discover her origins.  The local natives, on the other hand, fear her as a supernatural creature and try to convince him to murder her. They eventually set out to find the land of her origin.

The pace is very slow, the plot proceeding by tiny increments rather than major encounters.  The last few chapters accelerate the pace.  Rima discovers that her mother's people no longer exist.  She disappears and Abel returns to the tribesmen, only to discover that they trapped and killed Rima when she returned.  Furious, he betrays the tribe to their enemies and they are all killed.  It is only years later that he regrets the choices he made.  A very unusual, often haunting book.  9/22/07

Lady of Light and Shadows by C.L. Wilson, Leisure, 11/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5978-9

Over Hexed by Vicki Lewis Thompson, Onyx, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41248-5

Time to look at a couple of paranormal fantasy romances. The first is the sequel to Lord of the Fading Lands, a not bad traditional high fantasy.  A woman with magical powers is matched with an ancient warrior who has recovered from a period of near insanity in which he became a destructive force in the world.  The opening volume had some interesting ideas but the romance was a bit intrusive at times, interfering with the story flow, and as the opening volume in the series, it obviously had to spend considerable time establishing the background, characters, etc.  So this one is quite a bit more adventurous, with magical battles and such, but it never really came to life for me, I think in large part because there's so much attention paid to the two main characters that the minor ones have little depth.

The second title is a contemporary fantasy by a writer new to me, although apparently she has written several dozen previous novels.  This one is pretty light in tone, but has an original premise and some clever humor.  The two protagonists formerly worked as match makers within the wizard community, but they were naughty and have been exiled to a small town in rural America.  So they decide to pursue their old vocation in this new setting.  Comical entanglements ensue.  This is the first in a projected series, but I'm not sure that it's fertile enough ground to support many additional stories.  9/18/07

The Spriggan Mirror by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Cosmos, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5907-9

Lawrence Watt-Evans has been doing intelligent, light fantasy adventures for many years now, and while I've liked some of his books better than others, I almost always feel that the time reading them is well spent.  His latest is a perfect example.  Someone tried a magic spell that was a bit too advanced and it backfired, creating a mirror which produces diminutive, froglike humanoids who are constantly getting into trouble, breaking things, and generally making pests of themselves.  These are the spriggans.  Our hero, who specializes in procuring magical artifacts and supplies, is hired by the Wizards guild to find the mirror, which was spirited away by the spriggans, because it creates new ones at a rate of about one every two hours, apparently unceasingly. And sooner or later, they'll overrun the world.

Armed with a magic carpet, assisted by a handful of companions, Gresh is off on his quest despite his misgivings, tempted by the possibility of eternal youth as his reward if he is successful.  Lots of logic puzzles based on the magical systems of Ethshar, some humor, lots of light adventure, and a comfortable, enjoyable prose style that makes all these outlandish things seem perfectly ordinary.  Recommended as a particularly rewarding break from all those angst laden fantasy series.  9/13/07

Pirates of the Relentless Desert by Jay Amory, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 978-0-575-08032-4

We were introduced to Az Gabrielson, a wingless boy in a fantasy world where most people can fly, in The Fledging of Az Gabrielson (2006).  Az has the misfortune of having no wings in a fantasy world where most of his people do, which puts him at a disadvantage, for obvious reasons.  It also makes him an object of contempt for some, and when he succeeds despite his handicap, the object of envy and even hatred.  The flying people were once believed to be gods, and those that couldn't fly, the Groundlings, made offerings to them.  Now the times are more enlightened and the tribute has stopped, so elements among the flying population turn to piracy, raiding the Groundling installations to steal what they are no longer given freely.

So there's an expedition to attack the sky pirates using flying machines, and Az is a leader in the early attack, despite the animosity of some of the people who report to him.  His story is alternated with that of a young girl whose family business is disrupted by the growing tension between the two civilizations.  This is ostensibly for young adults, I believe, but it isn't labeled as such, and I doubt many adult readers are going to notice much difference.  Amory is a pseudonym for James Lovegrove, whose previous novels include a good many excellent novels, so it's not surprise that this one is polished and professional.  9/10/07

Heaven's Net Is Wide by Lian Hearn, Riverhead, 2007, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59448-953-2

No, this isn't exactly the fifth book in a four book series.  It's actually a prequel to the other four Tales of the Otori.  The novel is set in a fantastical version of feudal Japan, and involves a secret society of assassins and protectors of the helpless who sometimes make use of supernatural powers to achieve their ends.  The series followed the adventures of Takeo, who was introduced into the mysterious "Tribe" and who had various adventures involving political intrigue as well as battles.  The series was particularly appealing because of the author's beautifully described settings and ability to create the feeling that her society was a real one, magic or not.  The original sequence was, I believe, supposed to be a trilogy, but the author - actually Gillian Rubinstein - added a fourth in which we get a glimpse of the next generation.

This time we travel back further into the past.  This time the story focuses on Otori Shigeru, head of the Tribe, explaining how he assumed the position of leadership and held it despite the efforts of his rivals to replace him.  Although there are some action sequences, the best parts of the novel involve the intricate political maneuverings and the interpersonal relationships among the characters.  I don't remember reading anything along these lines that was as good since Jessica Amanda Salmonson wrote her Tomoe Gozen trilogy back in the early 1980s.  Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for those jaded with European based fantasy worlds.  9/6/07

Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley, Orbit, 2007, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-316-06769-0

I had read that the British publishing house, Orbit, was going to start a line distributed in the US, but this is the first actual title I've seen from them.  The author is new to me as well, so I'm guessing this is a first novel.  At first glance, it looked like just another epic fantasy and I'd been skipping over it, particularly since it is quite long and apparently the opening volume of the inevitable trilogy.  When I finally got around to trying it, I was quite pleasantly surprised, because in a sense it is just that, but at the same time it isn't.  For one thing, there is effectively no magic.  The gods have gone away and while there is religion, a pretty nasty one, there are no wizards or sorceresses lurking in the background. 

For another thing, I've always liked settings involving ice ages and deep winter, and this is one of them, as you might have guessed from the title.  For yet another, the story is told in a much more realistic fashion than most fantasy, with characters who aren't quite larger than life despite occasional heroic deeds.  And if I needed another reason, it's also very well written.  It didn't feel nearly as long as it actually was.  The plot?  Well, there's a war underway because the new religion isn't particularly tolerant - no surprise there - and the protagonists are actually trying to get out of their way as much as confront them.  But if they managed that, there wouldn't be much story, now would there?  When the book stores are filled with well written but unmemorable fantasies, it's nice to find one that you know you're going to remember vividly months if not years after you've finished it.  9/4/07

Fate Fantastic edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt, DAW, 10/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0440-6

Another in a long string of themed fantasy anthologies, this one dealing with destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it.  This is sometimes a tricky thing to work with because predestination and free will are subjects that can often turn into an awkward plot device, either making the reader cry "Cheat!" or lamenting the fact that the hero didn't really have a chance to succeed.  For the most part, the stories collected here have steered clear of the obvious pitfalls, and several of them are actually quite good.  The others, though not bad, are less inspiring, and I interrupted this a couple of times to read something different.  My favorites are the collaboration between Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, and stories by Jay Lake, Irene Radford, Esther Friesner, and Alan Dean Foster.  Generally entertaining fare, but with nothing that reaches out and grabs you.  9/1/07