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

 LAST UPDATE 12/30/08

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines, DAW, 1/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0532-8 1872 

Humorous fantasy has, alas, not done well in this country in recent years, with the notable exceptions of Piers Anthony, whose Xanth novels have been moving toward more serious territory, and Terry Pratchett, who has staked out a piece of territory uniquely his own.  This new novel by the author of an earlier semi-humorous trilogy about goblins tries his hand at it and comes up with a pretty good result.  Cinderella and her husband are sort of diplomats to our world when her wicked stepsisters reappear, angry about the death of their mother, which they blame on Cinderella.  Using newfound magical powers they kidnap Cinderellaís husband and carry him off to the magical alternate world.  Cinderella is off to the rescue, with a little assistance from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.  This could have been terminally cutesy but Hines keeps enough of a serious tone to avoid that pitfall and the end result is very entertaining. 12/30/08

The Gentling Box by Lisa Mannetti, Dark Hart, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-9787318-9-2 

During the 19th Century, gypsies in Europe were to a great degree untouched by events taking place among the greater population in terms of culture and technology.  This fantasy novel focuses on one gypsy, Imre, who is cursed both personally and through his family and friends by the witch, Anyeta.  As you might imagine, the story is mostly about Imreís development and implementation of a plan to defeat the witch and save whatís left of his life.  Although this comes from a small press, the writing is not bad at all and the historical setting is well constructed and interesting.  The dialogue is a bit choppy at times Ė very short, sometimes incomplete sentences, and doesnít always feel natural, but itís not a major problem. 12/14/08

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan, Scholastic, 2/09, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-545-05587-1

Yokaiden 1by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey, 2008, $10.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50327-5 

The first of these graphic fantasies is a delightful collection of short pieces, some of them stories, others just distinct images, most with a fantasy content.  Thereís a diminutive, inhuman exchange student, a wise buffalo, artificial pets, and other wonders.  The text is nicely done but itís the illustrations that bring the book to life.  They actually vary considerably in style from one tale to the next, but they also have a distinct flavor of their own.  One of the few graphic books which I also think of as literature.  The second title is a quest adventure in the world of Japanese mythology.  The young protagonist enters the spirit realm in order to find the person responsible for the death of his grandmother, and there he encounters a variety of magical creatures and situations.  Black and white throughout, and with that distinctive Japanese clarity of image.  This oneís pretty good as well. 12/12/08

Nation by Terry Pratchett, Harper, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-06-14430-16

Reviewed by Donnie Dalzell

As a warning, I am a Terry Pratchett fan. 
 
Nation is a really fine Pratchett which appears to me to have been written 
for a teen age to adult readership. 
 
The book does not take place in the Pratchett Disk world Universe but in 
an alternate Earth. The time corresponds to a somewhat condensed "Age of 
Discovery" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_exploration) in which the 
islands of the Great Pelagic Sea are still being discovered, the Royal 
Society of London exists, Issac Newton has already been recognized as one 
of the greatest scientific minds of all time and Charles Darwin is 
beginning to write about his theories. 
 
The principle characters are Ermintrude, an adolescent girl from England 
of aristocratic heritage, sent on a sailing ship to join her father who is 
governor of an "outpost of the empire" in the Great Pelagic Sea and Mau, 
an adolescent boy native to an island in the Great Pelagic Sea. 
 
Ermintrude (Daphne) is a young woman of intense intellectual curiosity who 
has gone with her father to meetings of the Royal Society and who has 
embraced the scientific method of hypothesis, observation and 
experimentation. 
 
A catastrophic tsunami, apparently caused by a Krakatoa equivalent 
volcanic eruption brings them together. The sailing ship carrying 
Ermintrude is swept far inland onto Mau's home island. Mau is the only 
survivor of his homeland because he was returning from his "manhood" 
voyage when the wave came. All his tribe was awaiting his homecoming on 
the beach and was wiped out. 
 
Enough of the story line. I do not want to retell Pratchett's story here. 
What I want to write about is why I think it should be given to young 
readers. 
 
First, when reading Pratchett's prose separated from the familiar 
characters and landscape of the Disk world, I was impressed by what a 
really good writer Pratchett is. This book moves along very well, the 
descriptive narrative of the world in which it occurs is well fleshed out. 
When I read a book that is fast paced and well described I tend to see the 
story as a movie in my mind. This is such a book. I generally only read 
for an hour or so before bed, but I spent considerably more time during 
each session reading Nation, it is a book that I found hard to put down, 
 
Secondly, in an era where much of the writing for young adults is in the 
magic and fantasy mode, this book is about two young people who master the 
great challenges that they face through science and rational thought! 
 
The solutions they must create are just as exciting and challenging as 
fantasy solutions involving the calling up of spirits and the banishing of 
demons. 
 
There are fantasy elements in the story, both Mau and Ermintrude 'hear' 
voices that may or may not come from "the ancestors" or may represent 
their own subconscious solutions to problems. Formal religion is sidelined 
in the story although there is reference to an initial Creator of the 
Universe who departs leaving his creations to work things out for 
themselves. 
 
And working things out for themselves is what Ermintrude and Mau are able 
to accomplish. 
 
Thirdly, Pratchett presents us with two strong characters for reader 
identification. The girl is not helpless, she is as much a source of 
strength as the boy (who is not automatically masterful and the leader). 
Both children contribute solving the challenges of the adventure. The 
interaction between the two of them, in which two people from very 
different cultures learn to understand and appreciate each other, is an 
important part of the tale. 
 
My recommendation is: buy this book for a teenager you know but read it 
before giving it to them! Alternatively buy 2 so you can keep one for yourself. 12/11/08

The Knight of the Red Beard by Andre Norton & Sasha Miller, Tor, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-0748-4 1860 

Here we have the fifth and apparently concluding volume of a series of novels posthumously crediting Andre Norton, although obviously Sasha Miller has done the actual writing.  After the travails and battles of the earlier books in the series, NordornLand has become relatively peaceful again and its benevolent rulers hope to lay the groundwork for a stable and productive future for their people.  If their plans were accomplished simply, there would not be much of a story.  The problem is that their children arenít necessarily going to share the values or priorities of their parents.  One of them is already trying to develop a personal power base at the age of thirteen while another runs away to sea and gets into hot water with astonishing quickness.  Although this is a pleasant enough adventure story, it seemed to me unfocused as well as too predictable. 12/11/08

Fast Ships, Black Sails edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Night Shade, 2008, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-59780-094-5  

This anthology could as easily be listed under SF or Other Fiction since it contains both as well as Fantays  Iíve loved pirate stories ever since Treasure Island and Captain Blood, so this collection was predestined to entertain me.  It opens with a collaboration between Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette aboard an organic spaceship run by pirates.  The ending is telegraphed but the background is fascinating enough to support a novel.  Rhys Hughes follows with a cute but non-fantastic tall story variation.  Kage Baker has a lively traditional pirate story, after which Howard Waldrop pokes fun at the conventions with a Gilbert and Sullivan inspired romp.  The next several are a mixed lot, a few fantasy, most not.  Carrie Vaughn has a nice story, as does Justin Howe, but the vignette by Michael Moorcock is minor and several other stories, though nicely presented, are aimed more at a literary audience rather than fans of high adventure, so readers attracted by the cover might be rather surprised at the contents. I really enjoyed the stories by Garth Nix and Naomi Novik, both of which are likely to satisfy both palates. 12/10/08

The Breath of God by Harry Turtledove, Tor, 12/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1711-7  1713 

Harry Turtledove continues his story of an alternate pre-historic human civilization in this sequel to Beyond the Gap, but itís fantasy rather than science fiction.  The breakup of the glaciers has provided an opening between two different civilizations and an exploring party from the good civilization sets out to find out what lies beyond, only to run into the Rulers, a decidedly unfriendly, repressive society that uses barbarian warriors, mammoths, and dark magic to further their ends.  Our heroes forge an alliance with another tribe, but even combined they may be unable to resist the onslaught from their enemies.  Barbarian fantasy has been largely confined to game tie-in novels in recent years, but Turtledove proves itís still fertile ground for a writer with more ambitious goals.  As a rule I'm not fond of prehistoric settings, but this one overcame my prejudices. 11/30/08

No Rest for the Wiccan by Madelyn Alt, Berkley, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22456-4

 As the title probable tells you, this is a mystery about modern day witchcraft.  You might suspect at first that it is just going to involve Wiccan lore, but itís actually a fantasy.  The protagonist is a witch with empathic powers who is part of an organization that investigates ghostly occurrences Ė genuine ones.   This is also the fourth in a series, and the first three are fantasy as well. The supernatural and magical stuff is woven into the setting rather than the mystery itself, which involves an apparently accidental death which our protagonist finds suspicious even if the police donít.  Her investigation, naturally, places herself in jeopardy.  I liked the one previous book in the series that Iíve read, and this one seemed a little better, but the mystery elements are pretty lightweight and youíre more likely to enjoy this if youíre fond of the lightly magical background. 11/30/08

Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke, Scholastic, 2008, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-439-86628-6 

It is usually very difficult to read, let alone review, the final volume in a trilogy when you havenít read the first two.  When this young adult fantasy showed up, I almost passed it by for that very reason, but the concept Ė people who enter the world of a book Ė has fascinated me ever since I first read De Camp & Prattís The Incomplete Enchanter, so I decided to give it a try.  I am happy to say it took minimal adjustment thanks in part to some brief introductory material and the essential stand alone nature of the book itself. Itís a fairy tale landscape, though troubled by evil magic, the possibility of an endless winter, and other bad things.  The prose is quite good, somewhere between fairy tale and contemporary young adult in tone.  The novel is obviously written primarily for younger readers but the plot is intelligent and comparatively dense, making this one a good candidate for more sophisticated readers as well. I'm frankly puzzled why this series isn't much more popular and better known, and I'll be looking for copies of the earlier titles.11/29/08

The Golden Elephant by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62132-3 

Another installment in the career of Annja Creed, archaeologist and treasure seeker in the Tomb Raider mode.  In this one, written by Victor Milan, she is beginning to have second thoughts about her dangerous and frustrating career choice, but sheís lured onto another quest by promises of a big financial reward.  So sheís off to Southeast Asia to locate the artifact Ė see the title Ė but as always she isnít the only one interested in finding it and, as always, the other parties are rather ruthless in their methods.  Yes, this is a formula story, but I happen to like this formula and so far the series has been surprisingly entertaining.  This one is right in the middle in quality terms, fun and fast paced and not entirely believable at times. 11/26/08

New Tricks by John Levitt, Ace, 12/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01656-3 

This is the second volume in another urban fantasy series, this one with a male protagonist.  Mason used to be one of a group who watched over the use of magic to make sure no one was abusing his or her power.  Now heís more or less retired, but heís in the game once more when a former girlfriend turns up in bad condition, apparently wracked by the effects of a failed attempt at possession.  Thatís definitely a no-no, so with his magical dog companion, Mason sets out to find out who, or what, is responsible and put an end to the shenanigans.  Much of this is the usual stuff, and at times I was reminded of Jim Butcherís Harry Dresden stories.  Mason occasionally comes across as a rather flat, lifeless character, but otherwise this was pretty good. 11/23/08 

The Crown by Deborah Chester, Ace, 12/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01657-0   

Chester brings her current fantasy series to an apparent conclusion with this volume.  The dynamic between the two main characters in the last couple of books has been quite interesting.  Lea is a princess who has been kidnapped by Lord Shadrael.  Although the two have bonded somewhat thanks to their various adventures together, Shadrael is hampered by his lack of a soul and therefore presumably cannot feel the strong human affection that might otherwise have been the case.  So he fulfills his duties and turns her over to the nasty religious fanatics who ordered him to abscond with her, for which service they have promised to return his soul.  Naturally they lied, and he narrowly escapes death when they try to eliminate any further problems on that score.  So he and Lea are on the run again, still without a soul, seriously wounded, and without a friend in the world.  Just the right buildup for a rousing ending.  I liked this primarily because of the way Chester develops the relationship between the two.  The other plot elements are a lot more predictable and less interesting. 11/23/08

The Lord-Protectorís Daughter by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 11/08, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2163-3  1578 

Although this is supposedly the latest in the Corean Chronicles series, it is actually pretty much a standalone.  The protagonist is Mykella, daughter of a prominent family and far brighter than most of the people around her.  Early in the story, she begins to suspect that someone is embezzling funds from the family treasury but her investigation is deferred when a visitation directs her to undertake a short quest and discover her true power.  Then she refocuses on the problem, and her questions alarm the hidden parties responsible, who respond with political maneuvers and thinly veiled physical attacks to protect themselves.  Obviously, Mykella is the one who will ultimately reveal the villains and save the day.   I actually think I would have enjoyed this even more if the magical elements had been omitted because a straightforward duel of wits would have suited the character better.  Even with that objection, I think this is probably the Modesitt fantasy novel Iíve enjoyed the most. 11/21/08 

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan, Macmillan Audio, 2008, $69.95, ISBN 978-1-4272-0508-7 

The eighth book in the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan, on 19 CDs.  If you havenít read the earlier volumes, donít try this one because youíll never keep things straight.  Thereís an invading army, a conspiracy among various factions, attempts to steal the throne, personal conflicts, a large number of characters, and a wealth of background detail.  I only listened to a portion of this one because I wasnít about to go back and re-read the first seven novels first, but it is well performed by Michael Cramer and Kate Reading.  The plot had started to slow down by volume 8 but it isnít really noticeable until the next in the series, Winterís Heart.  I was a fan of Jordan even when he was starting as part of the new Conan contingent, and it was a shame that he didnít long enough to wind up this panoramic series himself. 11/21/08

The Knights of the Cornerstone by James P. Blaylock, Ace, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01653-2 

Calvin Bryson has been living a rather reclusive life until he is asked to carry the supposedly haunted veil of one aunt to an aunt and uncle who live in a remote town in California.  Most of the town are members of the Knights of the Cornerstone, which seems to be a modern manifestation of the Knights Templar.  They are charged with protecting a number of holy relics.  Opposed to them are Bob Postum and his allies, who wish to obtain those same relics in order to exert power over the world at large.  There is mystery and murder and mayhem as the two sides edge toward a major confrontation, and Calvin has to decide not which side he is on but how strongly he is willing to commit to the Knights.  Blaylock has a distinct touch for this kind of contemporary fantasy that Iíve always found particularly appealing, and this is his best novel since The Paper Grail.  For all practical purposes I read this in one sitting, and I was very sorry to see it come to an end. 11/13/08 

Swordsmanís Legacy by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62133-0 

Michelle Hauf becomes the fourth writer to use the Alex Archer name for the Rogue Angel series.  Annja Creed is a Tomb Raider style archaeologist who found the sword of Joan of Arc, which appears magically when she needs it.  Sheís after another sword this time around, the one owned by DíArtagnan of the Three Musketeers.  This is actually quite plausible since Dumas based his character on a musketeer with that very name.  Anyway, the sword is the key to an even more valuable treasure and, as usual, Creed discovers that sheís not the only one looking for it, and that the other side has even fewer scruples than she does.  Unabashed light adventure with a moderate amount of violence Ė this is meant to be a menís adventure series Ė but one Iíve enjoyed from the outset, and Hauf does a good job with it. 11/13/08

The Gods Return by David Drake, Tor, 11/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1261-7  

Although I find David Drakeís SF to be superior to his fantasy, Iíve found the Isles series readable throughout.  This is the last of a second subordinate series, the Crown of Isles, and is set after a magical cataclysm has united most of the separate islands of the world under a single ruler, and combined the islands physically into a single continent.  This volume starts as a routine mopping up story, with our heroes traveling around to demand pledges of fealty from the various smaller rulers, subjugating anyone who refuses.  This is not a democracy, obviously.  The complete restructuring of the world has also affected the immortal realm and the old gods have been expunged.  Unfortunately, that doesnít mean that humans are now free to chart their own destiny.  Another pantheon of gods emerges, and these are far less benevolent.  And just when you think things canít possibly get any worse, they get worse.  A pretty good climax, but I wouldnít be surprised to see a return to the Isles sometime in the future, although theyíre not isles any more. 11/12/08

Thirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 11/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1700-1  1594 

What would happen if you took the basic premise of the Amber and other series Ė a group of people exiled to our Earth from a magical alternate reality Ė and added some exotic oriental atmosphere and a few other twists?  Well, you might end up with this new novel by Jane Lindskold, her best since The Buried Pyramid. The young protagonist believes herself to be a normal human, so sheís quite upset when she discovers that her father was one of a group of people who have hidden from their enemies by shifting to this reality.  And naturally the enemies have just caught on to the trick, and havenít forgotten their old animosity.  A violent attack forces her to change her perceptions pretty quickly.  As the battle shifts to our plane, she finds herself playing a pivotal role in a battle based in part on the structure of a mah-jong game.  As it happens, I play a lot of mah-jong on the computer, so I really enjoyed the set up.  The plot is fairly intricate, but the author makes sure we donít get hopelessly lost in the action.  Although complete in itself, this is almost certainly the first in a series. 11/10/08

Magic to the Bone by Devon Monk, Roc, 11/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46240-4  1631 

Iíd guess that this is the first in a series, sort of an urban fantasy although a bit toward the edge of that subgenre.  This is one of those where magic is accepted as a part of life, but thereís a down side.  Everything you receive magically must be compensated for with a loss somewhere else, so magic users displace their karmic debt by employing a kind of curse on others.  The protagonist is a feisty young female whose job is to track down those responsible for these nasty spells and adjust the balance accordingly.  Her latest case involves a troubled child, and the evidence indicates that his own father is responsible. So add maternal instincts to duty and you have one really riled up investigator.  The mix of corporate politics and magic works pretty well and the novel avoids a lot of the standard situations and devices of paranormal fantasy.  There arenít even tribes of vampires and werewolves!  I liked this one, but I fear it may get lost in the avalanche of similar titles. 11/9/08

The Golden Tower by Fiona Patton, DAW, 11/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0517-5  1650 

This is the second title in the Warriors of Estavia series.  It opens in a city that is magically protected from both mundane human enemies and the powerful and destructive supernatural forces that dwell outside the city walls.  Several children, subject of a typically unclear prophecy, have grown or are growing toward maturity, but none of them are really master of themselves or of the forces that swirl around them.  A crisis strikes the city and its continued existence, as well as the existence of the gods themselves, will depend upon their ability to adapt to the situation.  Like all of Pattonís novels, this is well written and makes use of a well imagined setting.  I did find the plot and the numerous characters a little bewildering at first, but thatís probably because I read the first in the series, The Silver Lake, about three years ago and couldnít remember much of it.  You might want to consider re-reading that first. 11/8/08

The Yearís Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: Twenty-First Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant, St Martins, 2008, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-312-38048-9 

I look forward to this venerable annual every year for a couple of reasons.  First of all, while I may not actively enjoy every story, I know that I wonít find any that are badly written or pedestrian.  Secondly, the editors have pored through magazines and anthologies that Iíve never seen, plucking out the good bits, sparing me the trouble of doing so Ė if I had time to do so, which I donít.  In fact, I had already read less than half of the stories this time, which is about normal. Iíve been dipping into it on and off for a couple of weeks and was sorry to reach the end.  Included also are the usual comprehensive summaries of events in both genres during the year 2007 and a substantial list of honorable mentions.  Iíve said this before but Iíll repeat Ė if you only read one anthology a year in fantasy and horror, this is the one to choose.  Over four hundred pages of fine fiction including stories this year by Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Fowler, Jeffrey Ford, Ted Chiang, William Browning Spencer, Lisa Tuttle, and many others. 11/3/08

The Engineís Child by Holly Phillips, Del Rey, 11/08, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-49965-3 1639 

Superficially this appears to be a conventional modern fantasy, set in a magical world that was settled by people who fled from another reality where the excesses of both magic and technology ruined the environment.  Most are content to make new lives for themselves in their new home.  A few, however, wish to return and perhaps claim the original world and to that end they have formed a secretive society.  There are also people who attitudes lie somewhere between the two extremes, as well as those prepared to take advantage of whatever situation might arise.  Thereís magic in this one, dark magic, and parts of the novel definitely deserve the title ďdark fantasyĒ.  The novel itself is, however, more about the characters than what happens to them, the schemers, the insecure, the ones who capitalize on whatever offers itself, and those who remain thoughtful about the consequences of what takes place.  Oh, thereís a good bit of adventure and suspense as well, of course, and readers looking for that level of entertainment wonít be disappointed, but thereís meat clinging to the bones, if your appetite runs for stronger fare. 11/1/08

Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, Small Beer, 2008, $16, ISBN 978-1-931520-54-6   

The premise for this amusing and original book sounds silly, but itís supposed to be humorous and itís actually a much more subtle humor than I expected.  Three men are forced to move out of their apartment after a minor natural disaster strikes.  This would seem like a fairly routine task, except that one of the three is a clairvoyant, maybe, and none of them are exactly successful in life, not even in the small things.  Part of the process is to move the couch of the title, but the couch reveals that it has a mind of its own, and doesnít want to be abandoned once it has been picked up.  Sounds a little like my cat.  This morphs into a convoluted, whimsical, but very witty quest story.  Is there a lost city in the middle of nowhere?  Can three perennial losers finally succeed?  I was reminded for some reason of Robert Nathan, if Robert Nathan were being channeled by Tim Powers or someone similar.  Quite a nice break from the usual contemporary fantasy. 10/31/08 

Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn by Michael Moorcock, Del Rey, 2008, $15, ISBN 978-0-345-49863-2

Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress by Michael Moorcock, Del Rey, 11/08, $14, ISBN 978-0-345-49864-9  1632/1635 

I read most of the stories included in these Ė the second and third volumes of a consolidated new edition of the Elric saga Ė way back in high school and college, and I reread most of them recently so I only read those unfamiliar to me this time through.  I had wondered if these were set to coincide with the rumored film, but thereís no evidence to that effect, and a quick look on the internet suggests that the project is, at best, under development.  Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and Fritz Leiber were the three most significant names in sword and sorcery, and Elric was his most popular character, although in later years he became another aspect of the Eternal Champion and much of his nature changed.  The first of these two titles consists primarily of short fiction, a few of which were new to me, but the real gems are the title story, ďThe Singing CitadelĒ, and ďThe Jade Manís Eyes.Ē  The second volume includes two complete novels, The Sleeping Sorceress and Elric of Melnibone, plus some reasonably interesting articles.  Revisiting these reminded me not only of how much I enjoyed them at the time, but also of  how good fantasy can be in the hands of a writer with both imagination and technical skill.   If you havenít read these, shame on you. 10/31/08

Cast in Fury by Michelle Sagara, Luna, 10/08, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80269-2 1634

Kaylin Neva returns in this romantic fantasy set in the world of Elantra.  A natural disaster strikes the country, but some believe it was decidedly unnatural, that it was created by a minority group of telepaths, even if there is no real evidence to that effect.  The ruler decides to cool simmering tensions by means of a kind of public relations campaign including a newly commissioned play by a prominent writer, but the playwright has some controversial ideas of his own.  Toss in a murder and some personal problems and Kaylin finds herself being torn in contradictory directions while the situation rapidly threatens to become a second disaster.  Sagara is one of the top writers contributing to the Luna line and this is one of her best. 10/28/08 

Blood for the Blood God by C.L. Werner, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-608-4 

C.L.Werner has written some of the better Warhammer sword and sorcery novels, but this one falls short of his usual standards. The backdrop is a primitive version of Earth that somewhat resembles that of Robert E. Howardís Conan series.   The story concerns the Skulltaker, a legendary warrior who has fallen under a curse by a bloodthirsty god.  He spends his time wandering around on the outskirts of civilized lands, killing anyone who gets in his way, attempting to lift the curse by shedding enough blood Ė hence the title.  Whether or not he is entirely responsible for his situation, he presents a menace that must be addressed, but where can a hero be found powerful enough to defeat him in single combat?  There is a good deal of violence in this one, but the plot has no surprises and more than a few clichťs.  For the most part it felt rushed and I found myself skimming the more predictable parts.  Iíll be watching for his next, but I canít recommend this one.  10/28/08

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, Berkley, 2007, $15, ISBN 978-0-425-21397-1 

I picked this up thinking it was a straightforward historical novel set in 13th Century France, but the frame story in the present suggests right from the outset that there is reincarnation involved and the main story, set during the suppression of the Albigensians, indicates that we are going to learnt the ďtrueĒ story of the Holy Grail.  In the frame, Alice is working with an archaeological team in France when she stumbles on the skeletons of two bodies in a cave, bodies obviously hundreds of years old although the police suspect that they may be those of two recently missing persons.  In the main story, a young woman discovers that her father, advisor to a French nobleman, is part of a secret society connected to the Grail.  In both, there are hints that a series of symbols Ė including a labyrinth Ė may be the key to the resolution of the mysteries involved.  In both time periods, a sinister group is attempting to steal the objects for their own uses, and killing anyone who gets in their way. Thereís more fantasy content, which I wonít describe since much of it is involved with plot twists.  An excellent thriller as well as a fantasy. 10/25/08

Foundation by Mercedes Lackey, audiobook, Brilliance, 2008, $32.99, ISBN 978-1-4233-0757-0

This is the unabridged audio version of Lackey's latest addition to the Valdemar saga, read by Nick Podehl.  The story involves a young man freed from virtual slavery in the mines to rise in the ranks of the Heralds.  I recently read and reviewed this novel HERE so you can go there and find out what I thought about the story.  As with all the audiobooks I've listened to from this particular publisher, it's well done, with a clear reading by Podehl - I believe the first time I've encountered him.  Nine compact discs and ten hours of listening, just the thing for a long commute.  10/24/08

Dungeon: Monstres Vol 2: The Dark Lord by Sfar, Trondheim, & Blanquet, NBM, 2008, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-56163-540-5

The latest in this full color, continuing series of fantasy adventures, originally published in Europe, I believe.  The world has been exploded into a variety of smaller ones and, in two separate adventures, our heroes attempt to find their way around.  And naturally there are villains who don't want them to get to the places they intend to go.  The stories are cute, the dialogue amusing, and as always the artwork is the best part.  In fact, I was more impressed with the visual content this time than in the past, some really clever looking critters and other goodies. These humorous adventures should appeal to fantasy fans as well as the graphic novel crowd.  10/24/08

Gabriel's Horn by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-52131-6

The Rogue Angel books are the only men's adventure series I still read with any regularity.  The protagonist, Annja Creed, is an archaeologist somewhere between Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones.  In her first adventure she found the sword of Joan of Arc, which magically appears in her hand but only when she needs it.  She and her elderly mentor, Roux, have been rescuing magical artifacts from the hands of villains for several volumes now, and that's the plot of this latest as well.  In this case, the object is the Holy Grail, which is the key to preventing the end of the world, or at least that's what Creed is told by a mysterious old man.  She had to act alone this time, because Roux has disappeared just when the stakes are raised higher than they've ever been before.  I've enjoyed, to various degrees, every book in this series.  Archer is a house name, used in this case by Mel Odom, who has written most of the best of Creed's adventures.  10/23/08

The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd, Pyr, 10/08, $15, ISBN 978-1-59102-693-8  

First in a series originally published in the UK.  The protagonist is a bit difficult to identify with.  Heís a kind of semi-superhuman living in a fairly typical fantasy world, but with his unusual strength and other abilities comes a predisposition to anger and violence, making him a kind of berserker, and not always admirable.  Predictably he looks forward to a future in his countryís army, but fate dictates otherwise and he finds himself cast in a more political role, a situation which he finds distasteful.  Apprenticed to another of his kind, he and his mentor find the situation mutually difficult, but the times are changing around them and they both may need to adapt if they are to survive.  Sets up the series well, but itís not complete in itself and unresolved personal issues left me with the feeling that Iíd been left hanging rather more than usual.  Hopefully the next, The Twilight Herald, will clear up some of these problems. 10/18/08

Gentleman Takes a Chance by Sarah A. Hoyt, Baen, 10/08, $23, ISBN 978-1-4165-5593-3

Heart and Soul by Sarah A. Hoyt, Spectra, 10/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59968-9  1637/1678 

      

Two new fantasies from one of the more interesting writers in the genre.  First up is a sequel to Draw One in the Dark.  Itís set in a version of our world where various types of shapeshifters Ė werelions, weredragons, etc. Ė exist secretly among us.  The protagonist is a werepanther involved in an uneasy love affair and frequently drafted to help investigate murders that are connected to the shapechanging community.  When someone appears to have launched a campaign to wipe out her kind, she finds herself right in the middle of trouble.  Well written, but the set up was a bit too chaotic for me and it took a long time to get immersed in the story.  The second title, third in what I believe is a trilogy, is much more up my line.  In an alternate Victorian world, an English adventurer undertakes a dangerous mission that could affect the course of history throughout the world.  His efforts to complete the job are complicated when he is captured by Chinese pirates.  Iíve enjoyed all three of the books in this series and despite my mild aversion to endless series, Iím kind of sorry to see this one come to an apparent end. 10/17/08

Dead Reign by T.A. Pratt, Spectra, 10/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59135-4

Marla Mason is back for her third adventure in what is probably one of my two or three favorite urban fantasies, although this one is different enough that Iím not sure it should be included in that category.  Mason is a sorceress, an official of the government of the city of Felport, and she is responsible for dealing with supernatural problems within the city.  Her latest adversary is literally the Adversary, because Death himself has decided to pay a little visit, and heís both powerful and patient.  How do you tell Death, or the Devil, to go back to Hell?  Thereís always a touch of humor in this series, but itís less evident in this one.  Or maybe I should qualify that and say that it is decidedly darker than usual. Death, unsurprisingly, makes for a pretty grim outlook.  Aided by Rondeau and her other cronies, Marla may this time face a challenge which even she canít overcome.  Unlike most other urban fantasy series, Iím actively looking forward to the next, Spell Games, but Iíll have to wait until next year. 10/15/08

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson, Tor, 10/08, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1689-7 

The Mistborn trilogy comes to an end with this volume, whose underlying message is that when you eliminate a really bad person/creature/situation, you are likely to discover that an even worse one is waiting to step onto the stage.  Our hero, Vin, in this case has vanquished the evil tyrant, but with his removal comes an upheaval in the natural, and unnatural, forces in the world.  Earthquakes and other disasters begin to roil the country and the mysterious and evil mists are seen abroad once again.  Vin has been transformed by victory and is now desperate to learn how to control and reverse the damage that threatens the entire human race.  Although the novelty of the first two volumes has dissipated as bit, Sanderson does a more than usually tight job of tying up loose ends, explaining things from earlier volumes that I hadnít even realized were significant.  Fantasy trilogies are so common that itís sometimes hard to decide which ones to recommend above the others.  I have no problem recommending this one. 10/13/08

Anchorwick by Jeffrey E. Barlough, Gresham & Doyle, 10/08, $14.95, ISBN 9780-9787634-1-1   

Although this is the fifth book in the loosely arranged Western Lights series, itís out of sequence and the novels are all free standing so you donít need to have read the others, although you probably should because theyíre quite good.  Barlough has created a fascinating fantasy world and his plots are all understated, subtle, and fascinating.  This one jumps back through time so we see the younger versions of some of the characters from the earlier books.  He presents us this time with a selection of quiet mysteries Ė an unsolved disappearance, a mysterious manifestation in an unused room that could be benevolent, or maybe not, and other strangeness.  The protagonist must solve all these problems, of course, but the investigation proceeds at a leisurely pace, much of the action muted and intellectual rather than through overt action.  This isnít the kind of book youíll read feverishly to reach the end but rather one which youíll savor for its details and the texture of its prose. 10/12/08

Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher, illustrated by Ardian Syaf, Del Rey, 2008, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50746-4

This graphic novel is a full color, Harry Dresden adventure.  Dresden is a practicing wizard living in what appears to be our world, although there are magic and supernatural menaces sprinkled about quite profusely.  The book consists of separate issues of the comic book series and is set chronologically earlier than any of the novels.  The central story involves a brutal murder at a zoo, which leads Dresden to suspect that the supernatural is involved although the police, predictably, are skeptical.  Before long he's in hot water, but obviously he lives to triumph at the climax.  The artwork and color are both excellent and the story isn't bad either.  There is also a selection of still portraits at the end of the book.  Murphy does not look anything like I imagined her, but that's half the fun.  10/7/08

Midnightís Daughter by Karen Chance, Onyx, 10/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41262-1  1561 

Iím surprised this novel wasnít called Draculaís Niece, because thatís what the protagonist is.  Dorina Basarab is half human, half vampire, and very dangerous.  Creatures of her kind are subject to uncontrollably rages and rarely live long, and she has only maintained her sanity by directing her anger toward rogue vampires and others who deserve to die.   Yes, sheís a kind of supernatural vigilante.  Dorina is minding her own business when she learns that her uncle, who is definitely not one of the benign vampires, has escaped imprisonment and is at large, threatening to bring about a new wave of terror.  She is induced to join in the effort to recapture him and has no illusions that it will be easy.  This is a break from the authorís Cassandra Palmer series about a clairvoyant who deals with vampires and other baddies, and it has a rather different feel, more clearly a horror novel than fantasy.  Thereís also a strong erotic component which, Iím afraid, did little more than disrupt the story flow since neither of the main participants is human.  That probably wonít bother some readers and the rest can just skip over it.  Chance delivers a good story, but not an exceptional one. 10/3/08 

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by Brad Strickland, Dial, 10/08, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-8037-3151-6   

Brad Strickland has been adding to the adventures of various characters created by the late John Bellairs.  This one features Lewis Barnavelt, who has saved the world and defeated magical evil several times in the past.  Heís trying to take some time off in this new outing, but there is a sinister figure following him around, and a series of odd events that suggest heís not going to have a vacation after all.  This is aimed at pre-teens and despite a few mildly spooky bits it doesnít hold a lot of interest for more sophisticated readers.  It is, however, a good way to introduce younger readers to the joys of magic and mystery.  10/3/08

The Twilight Zone: Walking Distance, Walker, 10/08, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-8027-9715-5

The Twilight Zone: After Hours, Walker, 10/08, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-8027-9716-2 

These are, I believe, the first two issues of a projected series of full color graphic adaptations of Twilight Zone scripts by Rod Serling.  Both of these episodes are ones I remember well, the first involves a visit through time by a man to his own childhood self.  The second is one of my favorites Ė Anne Francis discovering that manikins are alive.  Both of these are very well adapted and illustrated by Mark Kneece, Rebekah Isaacs, and Dove McHargue.  They reminded me of how much I enjoyed this program when I was a kid and how said it is that we donít have a similarly literate anthology program any more.  Maybe some day soon viewers will get tired of contrived reality programs and shows which have one continuous story and something like this will have a chance again. 10/1/08

Erratum by Walter Sorrells, Dutton, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-525-47832-4 1685

 This young adult novel is one of those that I donít want to tell you very much about because much of its charm is in the unfolding of the various little mysteries it contains.  A young girl finds a book that appears to be the story of her own life, except that it ends with her being murdered.  Forewarned, she avoids that fate, but when she re-reads the book, she discovers that the text has changed.  It seems that the book is a kind of blueprint for the universe, except that there are some misprints in it that have unpredictable consequences.  I donít recall ever reading anything by Sorrells before, but I will certainly be disposed to do so in the future.  The premise is clever, the prose is quite good, and thereís a satisfying ending.  Ignore the YA label and pick up a copy. 9/25/08

Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Harcourt, 9/08, $17, ISBN 978-0-15-206396-2

Yet another young adult fantasy, this time by a first novelist, and almost certainly the beginning of a series.  The positive thing Iíve seen in YA fantasy in recent years is the relative sophistication of the writing, which is often difficult to discern from adult fiction.  And thatís definitely a good thing because younger readers are far more sophistication than we, or marketing people, often realize.  The bad side is that much of it falls into the same old patterns of usurped thrones, evil sorcerers, quests, and coming of age stories with castles, dragons, unicorns, and the like.  Cashore makes use of some of these familiar devices, but she redeems herself considerably by the way in which she differentiates her characters.  One is a young girl who has such preternatural martial skills that she can overcome grown men without difficulty in unarmed combat.  She is pledged to a noble marriage, but she has an independent spirit and is unwilling to allow others to make decisions for her.  Naturally thereís a wicked ruler, and heís actually a pretty good villain as these things go, and equally naturally our heroine and others will unite to battle the throne for the future of their people.  If youíre not exhausted by the sheer volume of similar stories, keep this one in mind because it does turn over some fresh soil and it may be the harbinger of even better things to come. 9/24/08

Foundation by Mercedes Lackey, DAW, 10/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0524-3  1560 

Mercedes Lackey returns to the world of Valdemar and the Heralds in this, the first in the Collegium Chronicles.  Appropriately enough, itís also a coming-of-age story in which a young boy escapes virtual slavery in the mines to become an apprentice Herald when he is rescued by a band of outsiders.  At first it seems that everything is going his way now.  He is safe, valued, and there is a clear focus in his life.  But that turns out to be a veneer because there are new and larger and more sophisticated problems to face, including a breakdown of the training system and the possible overthrow of the government.  Fortunately, our hero is a born survivor with unusual traits that make him a player rather than just a pawn.  Obviously this is the first in a series so not everything gets resolved, although it does have an immediate climax to wind up one pressing issue.  Lackey seems more at ease in Valdemar than in most of her other created worlds, and once weíre out of the mines and into the collegiums, the story moves rapidly and smoothly. 9/20/08

Blackstaff Tower by Steven E. Schend, Wizards of the Coast, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4913-7

Mistshore by Jaleigh Johnson, Wizards of the Coast, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4966-3 

            

Since I donít get to bookstores as often as I once did, and since Wizards has stopped even sending me catalogs of their new releases, I never know whatís coming in advance and often I donít even see titles until theyíre fairly old.  These two attracted me because of their cover art, rather restrained for this publisher, and since they were more or less the first two in a series Ė although a subset of the umbrella Forgotten Realms universe Ė I decided to try them, particularly since neither author was particularly familiar to me.  The first is about a group of explorers who open ancient tombs looking for treasure, who then discover a plot against the rulers of their city.  Itís competently written but holds few surprises.  The second title is even more familiar, the woman trying to escape from an arranged marriage she doesnít favor, the awakening of magical powers.  On the other hand, I thought the prose in this case was rather better.  Both books were good enough to finish without being spectacular enough to recommend strongly. 9/18/08

City of Jade by Dennis L. McKiernan, Roc, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46231-2

Dennis McKiernan returns to his popular world of Mithgar for this new one, which is easily my favorite from this author to date.  The city in the title is a fabulous lost and possibly mythical city which has attracted treasure hunters for generations.  The protagonist is a sea captain who decides to try his hand and assembles the usual disparate crew of adventurers to help him look for it.  They succeed, after a series of wild and wooly adventures on the high seas and elsewhere.  For some reason I find maritime fantasies particularly appealing, perhaps because Iím a big fan of the Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts.  For whatever reason, I found myself reluctant to put this one down until I, and the characters, had completed our voyage.  It was also refreshing to have no armies of the undead, world dominating sorcerers, stolen thrones, or other current fads.  A simple, uncomplicated story skillfully told. 9/17/08

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce, Scholastic, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-05264-1 

It has been a while since Iíve read anything by Tamora Pierce, although she has been turning out young adult fantasy adventures with some regularity.  This appears to be a standalone novel, although it might be the first in a series.  The wizard Rosethorn is called to a remote island where the plants and animals seem to be succumbing to some possibly magical force.  He is accompanied by Evvy, his apprentice, who isnít entirely pleased with her situation.  It is Evvy, however, who proves instrumental in discovering and dealing with the source of the problem, a restive volcano and a kind of natural Manitou, a spirit of the Earth.  Itís a pleasant book with likeable characters and a fairly novel solution, but for some reason it seemed more lightweight than most of the authorís other books that Iíve read. 9/11/08

Nagash the Sorcerer by Mike Lee, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-556-8 

I believe this is the first solo Warhammer novel by this author, although he has collaborated on others.  Itís also one of the lengthier entries in that shared universe series, set in the sword and sorcery rather than military SF end of its spectrum.  Although the plot is based on a political battle between Nagash, a priest king who wishes to extend his rule indefinitely by achieving immortality as well as by vanquishing his enemies, a very large portion of the book is essentially military fantasy, describing battles between armies and individuals in sometimes excruciating detail.  Nagash isnít constrained by the Geneva Convention and raises an army of the undead to do his bidding, but we all know that zombie armies commanded by ambitious men always fail in the end, unless the ambition man is a good guy, of course.  The prose is okay but I started to get tired of the endless battles by the second half of the book.  9/7/08

The Soldier King by Violette Malan, DAW, 2008, $15, ISBN 978-0-7564-0516-8 

The sequel to The Sleeping God continues the adventures of two mercenaries, Dhulyn and Parno. This time theyíre faced with a difficult ethical question.  They were hired by one side in a local war, a battle they unexpectedly won, and in the process they accepted the surrender of a prominent nobleman from among their enemies.  The rules of war are such that prisoners are to be freed after the cessation of hostilities, but their employer has decided to violate that principle.  Our two protagonists decide that their personal honor takes precedence over their employment contract so they free their prisoner and, in his company, set out to escape from their former allies.  The capture, escape, and chase sequences are all well done and exciting, but as with similar books by Fritz Leiber, Jennifer Roberson, and Simon R. Green, the real joy in the book is the interplay between the two partners, in this case one male and one female.  There are prophetic visions, mysterious personal histories, a search for personal roots, and other peripheral elements to enrich the otherwise familiar story and differentiate it from the competition.  Easily the best of the authorís three novels to date. 9/6/08

Miranda by John R. Little, Bad Moon, 2008, $15, no ISBN 

Philip K. Dickís Counter Clock World introduced us to a culture which experiences time in the opposite direction of that with which we are familiar.  This short novel makes use of a variation of that device.  The protagonistís first memory is of his death, and he is subsequently living his life backward, at least from our point of view, although everyone else is experiencing it in the usual direction.  For obvious reasons, this makes it difficult for him to form lasting relationships with other people, and his only real companion is his dog, at least thatís the case until he meets Miranda, who changes his life.  A subtle, rather touching story, cleverly packaged and constructed.  Iíd read a couple of stories by this author before, which I donít recall at all, but Iíll remember this one. 9/6/08

The Gate of Days by Guillaume Prevost, Arthur Levine, 2008, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-88376-4 

This is the second in a series of young adult fantasies originally published in France.  The protagonist is a teenager who, in the first book, traveled through time with the aid of some magical artifacts.  His first adventure also resulted in his discovery that his missing father is imprisoned in Draculaís Castle in the 15th Century.  To rescue him, young Sam has to find an assortment of magical coins, to which end he travels to various places and eras throughout history.  He is, of course, pursued by his enemies and he meets various potential allies during his travels.  This is the middle volume of a trilogy, so obviously it ends short of success, but the author manages to keep his foot on the accelerator and sets the stage for the final confrontation.  Average or slightly better than average fantasy adventure for younger readers. 9/5/08

Curse of the Necrarch by Steven Savile, Black Library, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-553-7 

When the Warhammer novels first began appearing, I generally liked the space based stories better than those which were set in a more traditional sword and sorcery world.  Lately I have switched preferences, in part because the former have become fairly repetitive military SF stories with only occasional standouts, partly because I think the quality of the s&s adventures has improved considerably.  A case in point is this new, fairly longish one by Steven Savile.  A band of really nasty vampires have been living in a remote location, largely ignored because they stay away from civilized lands.  Then one of their number breaks the unspoken truce and stirs up the countryside, and a local soldier organizes an expedition to wipe them out.  Not only is it a good adventure story, with some refreshingly evil vampires, but the main character has considerably more depth than most other Warhammer heroes, a mix of strengths and weaknesses.  If youíre put off by tie-in labels, just ignore it because this is otherwise a standard, but better than average, example of its kind. 9/3/08

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip, Ace, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01630-3 

Patricia McKillip writes a kind of fantasy that is distinctly her own.  I think I would have guessed the author of this by the end of chapter one even if I hadnít already known, although thereís a touch of James P. Blaylock as well.  Sealey End is a small coastal town whose residents periodically hear the tolling of a mystical bell and there are other gentle manifestations of ancient magic.  But itís not the magic or the bell that makes this an interesting story, itís the cast of very real and appealing characters.  An elderly woman is slowly declining and her future, short as it might be, will be intertwined with the resolution of a romantic triangle among the prominent families of Sealey End.  Iím really not going to tell you much more about the story because (1) I donít want to spoil it, and (2) it is sufficiently intricate that a description would have to be extensive.  This is what might have resulted if Jane Austen had tried her hand at fantasy, or somehow managed to collaborate with William Morris.  It also proves that you donít need clashing armies, evil sorcerers, or stolen thrones to have a first rate other worlds fantasy. 9/1/08

 

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