The Usurper's Crown by Sarah Zettel, Tor, 4/03, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87442-1

After producing several very interesting SF novels, Sarah Zettel has switched – at least temporarily – to fantasy.  This is the second in her Isavalta series, which makes use of an old standby, the protagonist from our world who crosses into an alternate universe where magic works.  The ruler of Isavalta has discovered that her husband is scheming to take control of her mind, and with it become the most powerful man in the land.  She needs the assistant of a sorcerer, but he was exiled into our universe, and when he is recalled, he brings with him the woman with whom he is romantically involved.  It should be no surprise to the reader that she is in fact the key to winning the battle, but it's still a lot of fun to see how she accomplishes it.  A lot of the background detail in this has been drawn from various myths, all pieced together into a consistent new whole.  Zettel seems to be just as adept at fantasy as she has already proven herself in science fiction.

The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott, DAW, 2/03, $24.95, ISBN 0-7564-0119-4

The fifth and penultimate book in the Crown of Stars series is, I believe, the longest single book I've read this year.  Clearly events are moving toward a climax.  The belligerent Aoi, exiled from the world in times past, have somehow managed to get around the magical spell and their return is imminent.  One of the many protagonists is raising an army, another is a sorceress determined to recreate the original spell, and others are scattered about as well, each trying to survive.  There's enough going on in this one for an entire series of novels – battles, plots and counterplots, mysteries solved and secrets revealed, romance, suspense, and political maneuverings.  Elliott has created a world with depth and color and peopled it with a large cast of characters, all poised on the brink of a cataclysmic conclusion.  Don't start this one unless you have lots of time, because once you're caught up in the story, you're going to spend many pleasant hours before you reach the conclusion.

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo, Orchard, 3/03, $9.95, ISBN 0-439-47429-9

This is the opening volume in a new fantasy series for younger readers, set in more or less our own contemporary world.  Charlie Bone is the descendant of the mysterious red king and should have inherited magical powers, but he seems completely ordinary, much to the disappointment of his aunts.  Then one day he discovers that he can listen in on the thoughts of figures in photographs, a strange ability that will eventually prove its value as he negotiates the mysteries to be found at Bloor Academy.  I suppose this could be considered derivative of Harry Potter, but it actually has a flavor and style distinctly its own and I found it light but very enjoyable.

Divine Hammer by Chris Pierson, Wizards of the Coast, 12/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2807-7

Sands of the Soul by Veronica Whitney-Robinson, Wizards of the Coast, 12/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2813-1

Although the Forgotten Realms books are technically tied in to the role playing game system, they've taken on a life of their own over the years, with subsets by a single author or a group of authors.  The first title above is the second in a sub-series by Chris Pierson, the Kingpriest trilogy, which chronicles events surrounding the accession to the throne of Beldinas, a kingpriest, whose benign rule is about to be threatened by a plot involving evil sorcery.  The second title is sixth in the multi-author Sembia series, and is the author's first solo novel.  Pierson is a reliable writer who delivers another enjoyable if not particularly original story.  Whitney-Robinson's story is about a young woman recovering from psychological as well as physical damage who undertakes a perilous quest in a foreign city and in a desert wilderness, rediscovering herself as well as accomplishing her other goals.  Both the plot and the characters are less complex, but it's an enjoyable light adventure.

The Sword of the Land by Noel-Anne Brennan, Ace, 2/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01031-8

Rilsin was only a child when a rebellion changed the order of succession to the throne.  As a young woman, she pledges loyalty to her cousin, Sithli, a girl who may have good intentions but whose abilities as a leader are sorely lacking.  The government is corrupt, the population ill treated, and relations with foreign nations are growing increasingly strained.  Ultimately Rilsin must decide to renounce her oath and help organize a rebellion.  Another fantasy about palace intrigues with much of the feel of an historical novel.  Brennan's characters are neither all good nor all evil, which makes them more interesting, and their story that much more entertaining.

Paper Mage by Leah R. Cutter, Roc, 3/03, $6.50, ISBN 0-451-45917-2

Oriental fantasies have been few and far between in recent years, and of those which have appeared, most have only a superficial resemblance to the ancient world.  This first novel is one of the happy exceptions, the story of a young world who has learned the art of paper folding, which seems innocuous until you realize it is the source of a powerful magic.  Although she wishes only to live a quiet life in her small village, Xiao Yen is drawn by duty into one mission after another, including one in which a goddess recruits her to help defeat an ambitious warlord.  Through it all, she never seems to realize the extent of her own power to change the world.  Her adventures are original and interesting, and even though I think the world is burdened by too many fantasy series at the moment, I would really like to read more about Xiao Yen and her world.

Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist,  Avon Eos, 4/03, $24.95, ISBN 0-380-97708-7

Raymond Feist starts off a new subset in his Midkemia series with this, opening volume of the Conclave of Shadows.  It's also one of his strongest books, and even though incomplete, it ends with an interim climax that's quite satisfying, although I'll be waiting impatiently for the next two books.  The protagonist is a young boy who is the sole survivor of his people, slaughtered by soldiers from a more developed kingdom in combination with a band of mercenaries, part of a political maneuver that he can barely understand.  His life is saved by Robert, a member of the Conclave of Shadows, an organization of magicians and adventurers who oppose the efforts of evil and chaos to splinter the world.  Most of this initial book is about his training and early exploits, and one might think that it would be essentially a rehash of similar books.  Not so.  The years of his youth are so interesting that I never once wanted the author to "get on with things", although he eventually does, setting Talon loose to save another threatened village, become a local champion, kill two of his major enemies, and finally comprehend his role in things.  Feist has always written very engaging fantasy, but this new novel shows that he's getting better and better as he goes along.  It's early going yet, but this is sure to be one of the best fantasies of the year.

Drum into Silence by Jo Clayton and Kevin Andrew Murphy, Tor, 12/02, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-86120-6

Jo Clayton passed away before the third volume in this series could be completed, and Kevin Andrew Murphy has used her outline and notes to complete the remaining chapters.  The setting is a pair of fantasy worlds which periodically intersect, allowing people and other beings to pass back and forth between them.  One of the two protagonists is off to rescue his lover, who has been transformed into a bird during the previous volume.  Although it's fairly standard fantasy fare, the setting is more interesting than most and it's good to have the story finally reach its resolution.  The twosome are eventually reunited, of course, but only after going through various trials and tribulations. 

The Far-Enough Window by John Grant, BeWrite Books, 9/02, $15.35, ISBN 1-904224-79-2

The best way I can describe this new fantasy novel is that it's what you'd get if someone with a good feel for the original was trying to write a variant of Alice in Wonderland for adults.  The protagonist is a young girl who finds herself in Fairyland, but not quite the one she or the readers expected.  Accompanied by Mr. Dogg, she encounters Robin Goodfellow, who isn't all that good,  and others just as unlikely.  The style and content are not at all childish, however.  The vocabulary and complexity are quite mature, although more sophisticated younger readers should have no problem with it.  Young Joanna's journey, her encounters, and her discovery of her destiny are all neatly tied up.  This is definitely not your ordinary fantasy, for children or adults.  It is also very nicely illustrated by Ron Tiner. 

The Standing Dead by Ricardo Pinto, Tor, 3/03, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87209-7

I was very impressed with Pinto's debut novel, which took a standard fantasy world and gave it some unique attributes, as well as one of the more interesting protagonists in recent heroic fantasy fiction.  Carnelian returns in this one, still determined to undermine the repressive government of his homeland.  But much to his surprise, he falls in love instead, and the couple are soon playing capture and escape with an ambitious ruler and a band of barbarians.  This one's a little more conventional than its predecessor, but it's a good adventure story, although readers should be prepared for the fact that it's a transitional volume and stops rather than ends.  I'll be looking forward to volume three.

The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton, Overlook, 2002, $35, ISBN 1-58567-241-6

When I read The Island of the Mighty back in the early 1970s, I was immediately impressed by the skillful portrayal of a magical past time in the partial retelling of the Welsh Mabinogion.  The novel had previously appeared in 1936, and spurred by its new edition, Walton went on to write three more novels, The Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, and The Song of Rhiannon, all excellent as well although none of them were the equal of the first.  They've been out of print for a long time now, unaccountably since they are among the best fantasy ever written, but at last Overlook Press has reprinted them in one very large hardcover edition.  Return to a time when heroes walked the Earth, as did the gods, when good and evil were sharply defined, and when great deeds and mysterious magic were more common than they are today.

The Holy by Daniel Quinn, Context, 2002, $24, ISBN 1-893956-30-X

The premise of this contemporary fantasy is that a secret race of shapeshifters has been living among the human race throughout history.  Variously interpreted as werewolves, angels, and other supernatural beings, they are no longer considered real by most people, but that doesn't mean they aren’t still influencing the world.  And unfortunately they have been moving toward the opinion that the human race is essentially anti-life and that the planet would perhaps be better off without us.  Ultimately the balance is shifted in our favor, but only after the protagonist goes through a physical and spiritual journey that will alter his life forever.  Well written and engaging, but occasionally a bit preachy.

Cat in Glass by Nancy Etchemendy, Cricket Books, 2002, $15.95, ISBN 0-8126-2674-5

Nancy Etchemendy has contributed a number of quietly creepy and amusingly quirky stories to various magazines and anthologies in the past, eight of which are collected in this new volume.  Whether it's a sculpture with some unusual properties, and abilities, time travel, young people spirited away in balloons, or more conventional themes, her work is full of very real people about whose lives the reader can take a genuine interest, and her terrors and dangers are more effective because we have such insight into the emotions of the people involved.  Although this is labeled for "12 and up", don't be put off.  The stories are very mature in their concepts and realizations.

Trial of Fire by Kate Jacoby, Gollancz, 2002, £10.99, ISBN 0-575-06889-2

The fifth novel of Elita has things coming to a head.  The people of Lusara are finally on the brink of rebelling against their villainous ruler.  Robert Douglas, the sorcerer who acquired two powerful magical artifacts in earlier volumes, is now pitted against a mysterious order determined to prevent him from achieving the pre-eminence he desires.  Unfortunately, they have another problem, an implacable enemy who might make it impossible for them to win the day.  Fairly typical sword and sorcery although better written than most, with a nice array of battles, mysteries, escapes, and magical conflicts.

City of Fire by T.H. Lain, Wizards of the Coast, 9/02, $5.99, ISBN 0-7869-2854=9

This is the fourth in a series of Dungeons and Dragons related fantasy adventures, each fairly short.  In this one, a renegade has teamed up with an army of inhuman gnolls and set out to retrieve a magical artifact which will give him tremendous power.  Arrayed against him are our heroes, four unlikely characters who nonetheless save the day.  This is comic book style fantasy, not particularly realistic, but fun as long as you're not too demanding. 

Turning the Storm by Naomi Kritzer, Bantam, 1/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58550-9

Eliana, the rebel heroine of Fires of the Faithful, returns for a new round of adventures in this sequel.  The religious caste that dominates the world has not been able to defeat her army, which in fact is growing as more disaffected flee into the wilderness to take up arms against their former masters.  But they cannot ultimately win unless they have some idea what the enemy is planning, so Eliana and a close ally decide to deal with the problem by infiltrating their largest city and spying out the priesthood's plans.  Her disguise as a young man doesn't work too well, but fortunately a combination of luck, ingenuity, and a few friends inside the city work to her advantage.  It's a pretty good adventure story with a more likable and human than usual protagonist.

Dragonhenge by Bob Eggleton and John Grant, Paper Tiger, 2002, $29.95, ISBN 1-85585-972-6

This is half art book, half fantasy collection.  The premise is that a civilization of dragons existed before the age of man, and the stories are set in that ancient and very different setting.  The text is by John Grant and the illustrations, ranging from sketches to full color paintings, are by Bob Eggleton.  In some cases the art inspired the fiction, and in others the fiction came first.  The stories have a fairy tale like quality and some of them stand quite well on their own, but it is the artwork that really leaps off the page.

Lady Robyn by R. Garcia y Robertson, Forge, 2/03, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-86995-9

Together with its predecessor, Knight Errant, this new novel proves that a talented writer can take even an overdone theme and use it to advantage.  Both novels are essentially time travel romances, but where most romance writers use the device simply as a plot element quickly forgotten, Garcia y Robertson does a much better job of drawing characters who are truly products of their respective times.  Robyn, the woman from our time, has a romanticized view of court politics which quickly crumbles in the face of the nastiness, intrigues, and outright violence of the 15th Century.  Her adjustment and her impact on the time in which she finds herself are engrossing and convincing.

Magical Beginnings edited by Steven H. Silver and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW, 2/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0121-6

This is a collection of first stories of well known fantasy writers, which necessarily means that in some cases the stories are not representative of the quality of the authors' later work.  In compensation, we have brief introductions by the authors, which are often as interesting as the tales themselves.  Among the authors included are Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, Charles De Lint, Peter Beagle, Esther Friesner, and Tanya Huff.  Surprisingly, the collection is of pretty good quality despite the neophyte status of the stories, particularly those by Beagle, Susan Shwartz, and Ellen Kushner.

Time Portal by Roger Kipfer, Royal Fireworks, 2002, $9.99, ISBN 0-88092-568-X

Corranda's Crown by Lee Edward Fodi, Royal Fireworks, 2002, $9.99, ISBN 0-88092-573-6

Royal Fireworks specializes in books for younger readers, a large portion of which has been SF and fantasy.  Here we have two of the latter.  In Time Portal a youngster has to save the day following a disappearance and a trip through time.  The writing is okay but the story is so predictable I suspect even the target audience will find it boring.  The second title is somewhat better.  A young girl finds a magic pipe that lets her communicate with the natural world and find allies in her battle against an evil sorcerous.  Some of the humor is really juvenile, but that's the kind of reader the author is appealing to.  I wouldn't recommend either of these for older readers, but youngsters should find them enjoyable. 

The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poems of Clark Ashton Smith edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Hippocampus, 10/02, $15, ISBN 0-9673215-5-7

Most fantasy poetry seems to me overblown, concentrating so much on evoking an exotic setting that it overlooks the need to have content.  That's not so with Clark Ashton Smith, much of whose poetry I have enjoyed in the past.  This nice little volume from Hippocampus contains 170 pages of his poetry, along with a glossary, title index, first line index, bibliography, introductory essay, and a few pieces of art.  The poems are sometimes narrative, often not.  I hadn't realized how extensive his verse output had been, because this is not a thin little book.  You'll get quantity as well as quality with this one.

The Paths of the Dead by Steven Brust, Tor, 12/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-86478-7

Steven Brust returns to the chronicles that began with The Phoenix Guards and continued in Five Hundred Years After.  This new adventure has a very different feel to it.  The dialogue has a distinct artificial style to it that reminded me vaguely of Jack Vance, although it's entirely Brust's own.  A major magical disaster has disrupted the world and left it without its traditional cultural center.  The immediate story involves a magician in training who discovers that he's also an elf, but only after pledging himself to the cause of a mysterious goddess, and various other characters who accompany or collide with him along the way.  Although it's a lot of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it, the novel has a very different feel than its two precedessors, both of which I liked even better.  In those earlier books, the characters were much more active; in this one, they are much more loquacious.  You'll still get more than your money's worth, but it might not be the kind of reading experience you're expecting.

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin, Gollancz, 10/02, £9.99, ISBN 0-575-07313-6

Here's the perfect antidote to the flood of serious fantasy novels involving stolen thrones, evil sorcerers, and quests for magical artifacts.  This is a tough detective story set in a city of toys, with a troubled teddy bear trying to track down the serial killer who has already killed Humpty Dumpty and Little Boy Blue.  Eddie Bear isn't even a proper detective.  He's the assistant to a private eye who vanished under mysterious circumstances.  What follows is a glorious spoof of the detective genre, and a refreshingly different fantasy somewhat reminiscent of Gary Wolf's Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, but with it's own weird take on reality.  It gets a little bit silly at times, but with a premise like this, what would you expect?

A Shortcut in Time by Charles Dickinson, Forge, 1/03, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30579-8

Josh Winkler is an artist living in a small town in the Midwest.  He's very familiar with the town because he spends a lot of time walking, but one day he discovers that he has somehow slipped back a few minutes in time.  Even more intriguing is his meeting with a young girl who claims to have stepped into his time from the middle of 1908.  Constance isn't sure she wants to go back, even if it's possible, because of problems in her own time, and Josh must solve a mystery from an earlier day in order to resolve things.  This is a very quiet, relaxed fantasy reminiscent of Jack Finney, filled with characters who seem to live independently of the page, a tightly written and smoothly resolved plot, and a general mood of good nature and optimism.  It's the kind of book that will cheer you up after a bad day at work.

Hades' Daughter by Sara Douglass, Tor, 1/03, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30540-2

Did you ever wonder what happened to all the Trojans who survived the fall of their city?  Well, Sara Douglass is about to show you.  Although they have been scattered and their numbers drastically reduced, the Trojans still have a warrior king named Brutus to lead them on a quest for a new home.  He organizes their departure to a distant land, influenced by visions which aren't necessarily as benevolent as he thinks. For Brutus and his people have been caught up in a game among the gods, contested in the physical world we know as well as in the magical one known as the Labyrinth.  Epic adventure, heroes and heroines, villains and gods, victories and defeats, battles and intrigues – this new novel has it all, and it's only the beginning in a new sequence.  I found this one much more appealing than the general run of other worlds sorcery epics.

The Assassins of Tamurin by S.D. Tower, Avon Eos, 1/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-380-97803-2

S.D. Tower is the joint pseudonym of a husband and wife writing team, half of which has previously been published in the thriller genre.  Their first fantasy is surprisingly good.  Lale was orphaned as a young girl and placed in a special training school where, in addition to more conventional subjects, she learned to be an expert assassin.  Magically subordinates to an evil woman, she is sent to a neighboring kingdom to assassinate a young nobleman, a job she pursues by getting him romantically interested in her, but then she falls in love with him and her love conflicts with the magical chains requiring her to submit to her mistress.  How she resolves the issue and the consequences make up the rest of the novel, which moves along rapidly and cleanly.  No sign that this is the first in a series, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Fifth Life of the Cat Woman by Kathleen Dexter, Berkley, 2002, $13, ISBN 0-425-18618-0

I'm tempted to call this a magical love story as opposed to a romance novel, because it involves the wakening love between a man and a very strange woman, and there's some romance in it, but there's little in common between this quietly effective novel and what you'll find behind the covers of the latest bodice ripper.  The protagonist is a woman who quite literally talks to cats and gets answers, but she has retreated from the rest of the world.  Now a new man in her life has talked her out of her refuge, only to expose her to prejudice and fear of the quality that makes her so different.  This is a quietly effective, very moving story about being true to one's self, about how fear and uncertainty can turn us against one another, and about the power of love to heal even great wounds. 

Dhampir by Barb and J.C. Hendee, Roc, 1/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-451-45906-7

Take Anita Blake, vampire hunter, and drop her into a standard fantasy world and you might end up with something like this exciting first novel.  Magiere is a vampire hunter who, along with her half elf companion Leesil, has decided to retire from the profession and pursue a quiet life in a small village.  Their plans don't quite work out that way, naturally, or we wouldn't have a story.  Three particularly nasty vampires who have mastered the art of passing for human among other talents aren't convinced that she will really stay out of the game, so they decide to make sure she is sidelined permanently.  A well conceived imagined world, some nasty villains, and a very engaging hero move this one into the winners' column.

Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 12/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01008-3

This sequel to Dragon Bones is a craftsmanlike, entertaining, but not particularly new or surprising sword and sorcery adventure.  Ward intends to rule his portion of the Five Kingdoms fairly and justly, but he's suspicious of the intentions of the High King Jakoven, whose ongoing battle with a rebel movement is growing increasingly rancorous.  Ward finally decides to side with the opposition, particularly when the king decides to harvest Ward's magically endowed blood to use as a weapon against his enemies.  Some thrills and chills along the way to an unsurprising climax.

Fourteen Fantasies from a Shop Called Imagination by Ken Wisman, Dark Regions, 2002, $12.95, ISBN 1-888993-26-X

Tangled Webs and Other Imaginary Weaving by Laura J. Underwood, Dark Regions, 2002, $12.95, ISBN 1-888993-34-0

It's very difficult for writers to make a significant reputation without producing novels, particularly now that publishers seem to have largely abandoned the single author collection.  The small press is filling the gap at the moment, and these two collections contain workmanlike stories from two writers you might otherwise overlook.  Ken Wisman's quirky stories tend toward the dark side of the horror spectrum, although some of those contained here are distinctly humorous.  "The Finder-Keeper" and "Straw Goat" are the two best here, but if you have an antipathy to horror, you might find his fantasy a bit strong for your liking.  Underwood writes more traditional mainstream fantasy, swords, castles, dark magic, princesses, spells, and the like.  The title story is the best of these, about one third of which are original to this collection, and some of which contain common characters.  I find that this form of fantasy doesn't work well at shorter lengths, but other readers might like a break from multi-volume series novels for a few shorter, and generally lighter adventures.

Fitcher's Brides by Gregory Frost, Tor, 12/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30194-6

Gregory Frost, whose byline I haven't seen in far too long, adds the most recent title to the series of novel length versions of classic fairy tales edited by Terri Windling.  This one is a bit out of the ordinary and is actually loosely based on the story of Bluebeard, the man who murdered his wives when he got tired of them and wanted a new one.  That part is taken in this case by Reverend Elias Fitcher, head of an end of the world cult in upstate New York during the 19th Century.  Fitcher has convinced his followers that the end is imminent, including a family consisting of a widowed mother and three daughters.  When Fitcher marries one of those daughters, she begins to hear of previous marriages and the disappearance of those earlier wives, to say nothing of the mysterious voices that seem to emanate from the house itself.  Darkly suspenseful, and with a very nasty villain.

The Ogre's Wife by Richard Parks, Obscura Press, 2002, $18.95, ISBN 0-9659569-5-4

Until I read this collection, I hadn't realized how many stories I had already read by Richard Parks, most of which I quite thoroughly enjoyed.  Everything here was first published within the last seven years, including one original to the volume.  They are predominantly fantasy, as you might expect from the title, and involve elves, doppelgangers, magic, supernatural beings, and the like.  The settings are varied, including traditional fantasy worlds and contemporary locations, the stories are predominantly serious but often have humorous undertones.  "The God of Children" and "A Place to Begin" were my two personal favorites.  I'm not sure how available this title is but you can probably order it from the publisher at PO Box 1992, Ames, IA 50010.  You won't be wasting your time by doing so; Parks' take on fantasy is sufficiently different to be worth noting. 

Geomancer by Ian Irvine, Orbit, 2002, £11.99, ISBN 1-84149-209-4

Ian Irvine starts his new Well of Echoes series off with a bang, a big new fantasy epic with an unusual setting.  The Charon retreated to the world of Santhenar during a great battle with beings from another reality.  Santhenar was a world of humans, who weren't prepared for such a terrible conflict.  Although the enemy was turned back, it is about to strike again with renewed vigor and the outcome is in doubt.  But a young artisan is about to discover that she's the master of a strange power, one which could tip the balance in the favor of her people.  The prose and much of the plot in this is pretty standard fantasy fare, but Irvine develops characters that don't quite fit the standard mold for heroic fantasy and provides enough plot twists and interesting details to make this one stand out from among its fellows.  His first sequence of books was well received in the US and I have no doubt that this new series – at least based on the opening volume – will be even more popular.

Vengeance Fantastic edited by Denise Little, DAW, 10/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0084-8

Although this is technically a theme anthology, the concept of vengeance is so wide that it might just as well have been unthemed, which means readers won't feel as though they're reading variations of the same story.  There is quite a wide range, from stories set among the gods, or in historical settings, or in the Garden of Eden, or in entirely invented worlds.  My favorites included the entries by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Michelle West, and Mel Odom, and I actively enjoyed most of the others as well.

Assassin's Edge by Juliet E. McKenna, Orbit, 2002, £6.99, ISBN 1-84149-124-1

This is the fifth tale of Einarinn, although technically it takes place outside that land in a new colony.  The colonists have been experiencing the expected difficulties and the protagonist is, by and large, growing uninterested in remaining there.  Plans to expand might change her mind, but something else is about to happen which will alter her plans completely.  A resupply ship fails to show up, and there is other evidence that something is interfering with communications outside the colony.  Before it's over, she'll have to limber up her old skills as an assassin.  Routine sword and sorcery, and not up to the standards of the previous books in the series.

Apprentice Fantastic edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis, DAW, 11/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0093-7

Apprentices have had an honored place in fantasy, probably ever since Mickey Mouse let the brooms loose.  Here are thirteen stories celebrating the trainee, although in most cases the profession isn't sorcery.  Whether they're trying to master strange powers, emulate the devil, acquiring skill with the arts, military skills, or some other talent, they all encounter problems that have to be overcome if they are to succeed.  The contributors include Esther Friesner, Jane Lindskold, Sarah A. Hoyt, Michelle West, and others.  There's a good assortment of themes and settings for this theme anthology, with particularly good entries by Charles De Lint, Esther Friesner, Sarah Hoyt, and Tanya Huff.  The cover on this one is rather unattractive, but don't let that dissuade you from trying the contents.

The Art of Rowena, text by Doris Vallejo, Paper Tiger, 2002, $21.95, ISBN 1-85585-963-7

This collection of Rowena's work is drawn almost entirely from her work in fantasy illustration.  Its subject matter covers the traditional subject matters, including a preponderance of scantily clad women.  I've often wondered why this should be the case since the audience for fantasy fiction tends to be female, but maybe art directors are predominantly male.  In any case, her work is realistic, at least in the sense that they are meant to illustrate scenes from the works with which they are associated, and make use of bright, crisp colors.  In most cases there's little effort made to fill in background detail, but that's probably a function of the fact that this is commercial illustration and time is money.  Her fans will like this book, previously published in England in 2000, and the accompanying text is occasionally interesting.

Meditations on Middle Earth edited by Karen Haber, St Martins, 10/02, $13.95, ISBN 0-312-30290-8

This is a collection of brand new essays on the subject of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The list of contributors is impressive, including Poul Anderson, Esther Friesner, Lisa Goldstein, Charles De Lint, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. LeGuin, Michael Swanwick, George R.R. Martin, and others.  The quality of the essays is extraordinarily high and the subject matter is quite varied.  A few of the entries were of no particular interest to me, but the quality of the writing was sufficiently high that I read things I might not have otherwise.  The hardcover edition was a Hugo nominee for non-fiction, and this trade paperback is sure to find a welcoming audience.

Cybele, with Bluebonnets by Charles L. Harness, NESFA Press, 7/02, $21, ISBN 1-886778-41-8

Charles L. Harness turns to what is essentially a very gentle ghost story for this new, short novel.  The protagonist and narrator is a young man with a crush on his unconventional high school teacher, who meets her again after graduation.  They become lovers, but not for long.  She contracts cancer and dies before they ever get married, leaving behind a demand that he be happy.  Although he is determined to be loyal to her memory, her voice comes to him from time to time afterward, shaping his life and eventually leading him to a new love.  This is a quietly effective, very moving work, one that could well find a substantial mainstream audience as well as one within the genre.

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Harcourt, 2002, $17, ISBN 0-15-204560-0

This author of young adult fantasies returns to one of the more familiar recent plots, the player trapped in the video game, and manages to blend both SF and fantasy.  Since the game is set in a world where magic works, much of the book involves working out the rules of that world, solving problems, and avoiding death.  It's of particular interest to the young female protagonist, because anti-fantasy activists have sabotaged the virtual reality equipment of the future, trapping her inside, and if she dies in the imaginary world, her real heart may stop as well.  It's a pretty standard and predictable story, but the author is one of those few in young adult fiction who does not patronize her readers, and the story therefore is intelligent and pleasant enough to make entertaining reading for adult audiences as well.

Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Tor, 12/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30012-5

Lawrence Watt-Evans returns to Ethshar for this new humorous adventure fantasy.  The wizard Ithanalin is interrupted at a crucial point while concocting a spell and his personality is dispersed into all the furniture in the room, animating it.  The chance arrival of a visitor results in their escape, and his apprentice, Kilisha, has to figure out how to recover all of the scattered fragments of her master before she can restore him to his original body.  She also has a time limit, because another spell is hovering on the brink of completion, and she has no idea what the consequences might be if the wizard isn't on hand to deal with it.  Through her own ingenuity and the assistance of various people, she's able to recover most of the furniture, but things continue to grow more complicated and less cooperative as the deadline approaches.  Rewarding fun, a likable protagonist, and some clever touches make this one of the best of recent light fantasies.  And for an extra laugh, pronounce the wizard's name with accents on the first and third syllables.

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis, Harcourt, 10/02, $16, ISBN 0-15-216752-8

A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane, Harcourt, 10/02, $17, ISBN 0-15-204562-7

Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris, Harcourt, 10/02, $17, ISBN 0-15-216791-9

Tree Girl by T.A. Barron, Ace, 10/02, $5.99, ISBN 0-441-00994-8

It felt like a day to read young adult fiction, and I found four pretty good ones.  Jarvis has had several previous fantasy novels, but I've never seen any of them.  This one, the first in a trilogy previously published in England, make me regret that.  It's a sort of blend of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling.  The protagonist is a young werling whose first year in a new school gets him involved in various adventures involving magic, rival students, ogres, and the like.  It was a lot of fun.  Diane Duane's sixth adventure of Nita and Kit is a good one too.  Kit is off to investigate the disappearance of an unusual young wizard while Kit tries to decipher mysterious messages received through toys.  Jean Ferris provides a mildly humorous fairy tale.  A young boy adopted by a troll falls in love with a princess and gets into all sorts of trouble.  Finally, the most series of the set is Barron's story of a young orphan girl who braves a haunted wood to find out the secret of her origin.  All four were well enough written to hold the interest of this jaded adult reader, so they should find an audience beyond their target readership.

Crawling Between Heaven and Earth by Sarah A. Hoyt, Dark Regions, 2002, $11.95, ISBN 1-888993-29-4

Sarah Hoyt has gained considerable attention for her first two novels, which feature William Shakespeare and the world of faerie.  This is a collection of her short work, some of it original including a short set in that same sequence and not included in the novels.  The others cover a wide variety of themes, vampires, ghosts, the creation of artificial life, shapechangers, immortality, the cyclic nature of time, even the deification of Elvis Presley.  The settings are equally varied, the future, Shakespeare's England, ancient Rome, the Civil War.  The only thing the stories have in common is that they are all good ones.  My favorite was "Trafalgar Square", an alternate history story in which Asia is democratic and Europe totalitarian, with the ghost story "Songs" a close second.  Taken as a whole, the stories demonstrate the wide range of Hoyt's talent, and promise more delights in the future.

L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz by Katharine M. Rogers, St Martins, 10/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-30174-X

I've read biographies of Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, and other authors of noted children's fantasies, but I've never even seen mention of any similar work about L. Frank Baum, creator of the Oz books.  That problem has now been remedied in this quite interesting work about a moderately interesting man.  Like many writers, Baum led an undistinguished and mostly unsuccessful life until he turned to writing.  The early publishing history of the Oz books and Baum's interest in feminism were the two most interesting parts of the book for me.  It's well written, well researched, and fills a wide gap in my collection of literary biography.

City of Masks by Mary Hoffman, Bloomsbury, 10/02, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-791-3

The Named by Marianne Curley, Bloomsbury, 10/02, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-779-4

Warriors of Alavna by N.M. Browne, Bloomsbury, 9/02, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-775-1

I spent a recent rainy day reading young adult fiction with predictably mixed results.  These three titles from a publisher new to me also share a common theme, teenagers escaping from the everyday world either through time, dimensions, or into secret worlds lying hidden within our own.  The first and best is the opening volume of a trilogy.  The young protagonist is dying of cancer, but while he is unconscious he visits an alternate world that is a kind of magical version of historical Venice.  Initially he is more wraith than substance, casting no shadow, but he interacts with the local people and gets involved in a minor crisis there, as his body grows weaker in the "real" world.  Hoffman's story is complex, the characters believable, and she does a good job evoking her fantasy world.  The second one is also the first in a trilogy, and involves teenagers who use magic secretly to combat evil forces who wish to change the course of history. The young hero is saddled with an apprentice, a fifteen year old girl who proves more of an asset than he expected.  The story is compelling at times, but I never really became immersed in the mysterious events surrounding the plot, at least partly because it is written in present tense, which I find wearing at novel length.  The third is a magical time travel novel.  Two teens from our time are magically summoned back to 1st Century England, where one becomes a warrior and the other a sorceress of sorts.  The opening chapters almost put me off completely, since the newcomers are able to converse in modern, if halting, English.  It would have been far simpler and more convincing, given the magic summoning, to imbue them with the local language.   Once I got past my irritation, however, I found the story to be pleasantly engaging and filled with historical detail. 

Hand of Fire by Ed Greenwood, Wizards of the Coast, 9/02, $14.95, ISBN 0-7869-2760-7

Most of the fantasy novels that come out of this publisher read very much alike.  The majority of their writers are competent, sometimes interesting, but not particularly memorable.  A few have matured into better novelists – R.A. Salvatore, Troy Denning, and J. Robert King for example – and we should add to that short list Ed Greenwood.  This is the third novel in Shandril's Saga, which falls under the general category of Forgotten Realms novels.  Shandril is a quite engaging female hero who, in this case, has managed to get possession of a form of magic but rare and powerful.  Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily work to her benefit, since it attracts the attention of a crowd of sorcerers, wizards, rogues, and adventurers, who want the magic, called spellfire, for themselves and don't care what they have to do to get it.  So Shandril finds herself fleeing for her life again.  Well above average fantasy adventure.

Lightland by H.L. McCutchen, Orchard, 11/02, $16.95, ISBN 0-439-39565-8

Lera of Tymoria: The Dragonmage by Elizabeth A. Romey, Royal Fireworks, 2002, $9.99, ISBN 0-88092-570-1

Both of these are fantasy adventures for younger readers.  The first transports two children into an interesting alternate reality that is fueled by the memories of people from our world.  The Lightland is ruled, however, by an evil king, and certainly to no reader's surprise, the children are going to be instrumental in ending his reign of terror.  Although there are few surprises here, the setting is quite interesting and the writing elevated enough to satisfy even adult tastes.  The second title is not nearly as satisfying, although it is not without interest.  Lera is the only girl in an academy training young wizards.  She ignores the taunting of the boys, and is eventually apprenticed to a powerful master, under whose tutelage she will gain the confidence with which to oppose an evil sorceress.  Younger readers should enjoy this while waiting for the next Harry Potter, but older readers will be less entertained by its standard plot and devices.

Onslaught by J. Robert King, Wizards of the Coast, 9/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2801-8

Hazezon by Clayton Emery, Wizards of the Coast, 8/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2792-5

Some tie-in novels are slavish imitations of the original subject matter.  Others have only the most tenuous of ties.  Since the Magic the Gathering cardgame is largely based on traditional mainstream sword and sorcery, it should be no surprise that novels supposedly based on the card game should turn out to be traditional mainstream sword and sorcery.  These two are no exceptions.  The first features the usual pairing of a wizard and a warrior, although their partnership in this case has some unusual aspects that make it more interesting than most.  There's also another character on a quest to find his sister, whom he wronged and who is in terrible danger.  The two plotlines cross and the usual high adventure ensues.  The second sets us down in the middle of a barbaric war for control of the world, with the bad guys using magic and the good guys quarreling among themselves until the last possible minute.  King is the better writer of the two, and his plot is more complex, but the Emery is enjoyable as long as you aren't expecting anything particularly new or original.

Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles De Lint, Tor, 11/02, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-87401-4

Charles De Lint has quietly been chronicling the history of Newford, his imaginary contemporary American town, a place where the supernatural and magical are so much a part of everyday life that they're almost taken for granted.  The stories in this collection involve a variety of plots – some of which are more commonly found in horror than fantasy, like malevolent ghosts, werewolves, and vampires – but others involve Arthurian magic, spells, witchcraft, and unclassifiable themes.  De Lint has a particular talent for understatement, and often the impact of the stories isn't obvious until later, when you think back and realize how much you were affected, or how much you remember.  There are eighteen of them here, ranging from good to very good, and not a clunker in the bunch.

The Apocalypse Door by James D. MacDonald, Tor, 11/02, $22.95, ISBN 0-312-86988-6

I'd be very surprised if this isn't the opening volume in a series, although it doesn't say so.  Peter Crossman is a modern day Knight Templar, for real.  He's part of a secret order that combats magical and supernatural evils in the world.  His latest assignment is to look into the disappearance of some United Nations peacekeepers, but it isn't long before he's investigating a man known to have been too extreme for Satanists, and learns of an ancient artifact that might recently have been unearthed.  It's a pretty straightforward adventure story and short enough to read in a single sitting.  I found the protagonist pretty uninteresting, but his companion Mary "Maggie" Magdalene is intriguing.  The action is low key and understated, but well handled.

Tides of Darkness by Judith Tarr, Tor, 10/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-87615-7

Judith Tarr's four previous Avaryan novels are among my favorites of their type, and it was good to see her return to that world for this new book.  A new magical menace is threatening the Golden Empire, and its ruler seems powerless to protect her people.  She enlists in her cause the young man with whom she is romantically involved, a mage of sorts, but one whose talents seem totally unsuited to the task at hand.  But just as things look their darkest, there's a turn of events that gives them a chance after all.  Tarr isn't going to surprise you much with the plot this time around, but as with all of her books there is a depth and texture to her imagined worlds that makes them seem real to the reader, drawing us closer to her characters.  A worthy continuation to one of the best fantasy sequences around.

Legacies by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 10/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30561-5

I've never really been able to get involved with Modesitt's fantasy novels, although his SF is quite good, perhaps because Cyador never seemed particular real to me.  But this new fantasy novel, first of the Corean Chronicles, is set in an entirely different fantasy world, and it has enough novelty in it that I found myself immersed after only a few chapters.  It's a blend of familiar elements.  The protagonist is a young boy raised on a sheep ranch who has magical abilities which he conceals in order to avoid becoming a pawn in the hand of powerful interests.  That works fine until his country is invaded by brutal outsiders, who capture him, also unaware of his powers.  They've bitten off more than they can chew, as you might imagine, and Alucius is about to strike back against the enemy.  Not much gets resolved, since this is the opening volume, but it was exciting enough to have me watching for the sequel.

All Night Awake by Sarah A. Hoyt, Ace, 10/02, $21.95, ISBN 0-441-00973-5

Sarah Hoyt continues her magical recreation of young William Shakespeare in her second novel.  Young Will has been so affected by his direct contact with the world of fairies that he can never be the same.  He attempts to turn to writing, ultimately learning that his chief rival at the art, Christopher Marlowe, shared a similar experience.  They share something else – the love of Lady Silver, the beautiful faerie woman – which causes complications when she shows up in London warning of a malevolent creature who plans to rule both realities.  Hoyt has a deceptively clear and easy style that might mislead you into thinking her work is slight.  The truth is that they are finely polished.  Her characters, historical and magical, are deftly drawn and completely believable.  You'll share their anguish and their happiness, and that's a neat trick for any writer to bring off.

A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ace, 11/02, $23.95, ISBN 0-441-00975-1

Gypsum LaZelle is resigned to her fate, the only unmagical child in a family that conceals its magical powers in contemporary California.  Then one night she undergoes the change that should have happened in childhood, but instead of feeling joy in her magic, she feels sickened, as though part of her personality had been sheered off.  Her magical talent is for laying curses, an unkind gift which she would rather not have received.  Even worse, she must exercise her talent or become increasingly ill herself, but how can she bring herself to wish misfortune on others?  Contemporary fantasies make a nice break from sword and sorcery epics even under ordinary circumstances.  When the book is as unflaggingly entertaining as this one, it's an absolute joy to read.

The Summer Country by James A. Hetley, Ace, 10/02, $14, ISBN 0-441-00972-7

Maureen Pierce manages to get buy if not thrive in rural Maine, working in a menial job and ignoring the odd looks she receives because of her habit of talking to trees.  Then two men enter her life.  One warns her that she is descended from people who once used magical powers, the other a more than human figure who wants to lure her into a magical other world and make her one of his pawns in a bid for power.  This contemporary fantasy has Arthurian overtones and could quite easily have slipped into the niche of gentle fantasy adventures, but it has a harder edge.  The villain has a decidedly nasty cast, a cruelty that isn't the comic book evil we see so often in the genre, but is so much more realistic that it seems even worse.  A very promising debut novel in a genre that has seen too many tired retellings of a few familiar stories.

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, New English Library, 2002, 6.99 pounds, ISBN 0-340-73357-8

I haven't heard that Jasper Fforde has found a publisher in the US yet, but it's only a matter of time.  This is the sequel to his first novel, The Eyre Affair, and provides an even stranger adventure of Thursday Next, literary detective.  Thursday has recently been married, but no one remembers her missing husband, who supposedly died many years before.  Her investigation leads her into the works of Charles Dickens, and she unravels things – more or less – in the company of Mrs. Havisham and others, while avoiding the nastiness directed toward her by an old rival, Jack Schitt.  If you don't know Jack Schitt, you should read the first novel.  Actually, you should read the first novel anyway.  Inspired zaniness, an original voice, genuinely funny sequences – what more could you ask?

Second Chance by Chet Williamson, Leisure, 8/02, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5060-9

Here's an unusual novel for you, originally published in 1995 according to the copyright, although I've never seen it before.  The bare plot sounds very familiar – a group of college friends get together for a reunion, but two of those who show up are dead, and not pleased about it.  Suddenly the entire group is somehow sent back through time and the course of history is altered, resulting in a present in which they are all targets for revenge. I've never read a bad novel by Williamson, and this one's no exception.  The interplay among the characters is particularly well done and the ending includes a very clever twist that I won't tell you.  You'll just have to go out and buy the book.

Welcome to the Wildsidhe by Patrick Thomas, Padwolf, 8/02, $7.99, ISBN 1-890092-12-1

Double Cross by Patrick Thomas, Padwolf, 9/02, $7.99, ISBN 1-890096-14-8

Dark Proposal by Judith Tracy, Padwolf, 10/02, $7.99, ISBN 1-890096-15-6

Legacy by Judith Tracy, Padwolf, 11/02, $7.99, ISBN 1-890096-16-4

These are the opening four volumes of at least six in a new young adult fantasy series.  The premise is pretty simple.  The lords of the world of fairy steal a portion of the town of Sparta, Pennsylvania, including a large number of children, the latter of whom have various adventures while disrupting the plans of their captors.  In the early volumes, some of the children discover they have magical talents of their own, and others have to outwit the sly plans of Queen Morna and the insidious Asgar.  The children avoid an attempt to force a marriage, and then are assisted when the grandmother of one of them manages to cross into the world of magic, where she proves more than a match for the lords of that land.  This is a good natured, competently written, occasionally humorous fantasy adventure series for younger readers, well enough plotted and developed to hold the interest of a more sophisticated audience as well.   I'm not sure how much distribution this publisher gets, but it would be worth your while to hunt them down, particularly if you have young friends you want to entertain.

The Steel Throne by Edward Bolme, Wizards of the Coast, 3/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2712-7

Wind of Honor by Ree Soesbee, Wizards of the Coast, 8/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2755-0

I'm particularly fond of oriental style fantasies, so I actively looked for this series.  The first few volumes that appeared were quite interesting, but as the series progressed, they seemed to lose much of the Oriental style and become just another heroic fantasy series with odd sounding names.  These two volumes don't reverse that trend.  These are the first two volumes of the Four Winds saga, a continuation of the Legend of the Five Rings series.  In the first, a warrior king struggles to hold his nation together despite various factions among his own people, and an invading horde of demonic creatures.  In the second, which is somewhat better written, the throne is empty and the battle for succession goes through a series of twists and turns.  Both of these are readable and okay if you're not demanding too much of your reading, but they offer nothing to make you go out of your way and, alas, they aren't even particularly Oriental.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, Harper, 11/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-06-001311-7

The latest visit to Discworld reads like a funny version of the film Time After Time.  Sam Vimes is a commander in the city constabulary who is locked in battle with an arch criminal.  Just as it seems he is about to win, the two of them are cast back through time.  The bad guy escapes and Vimes is after him, under an assumed identity, but he's worried that by capturing the man before he commits other crimes which Vimes himself remembers from history, he might change the nature of his world.  Fewer laughs than ususal, but a more complex and in many ways more interesting story line.

Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones, Greenwillow, 9/02, $16.99, ISBN 0-06-029888-X

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones, Greenwillow, 9/02, $16.99, ISBN 0-06-029887-1

Witch's Business by Diana Wynne Jones, Greenwillow, 9/02, $15.99, ISBN 0-06-008782-X

Greenwillow is reprinting Diana Wynne Jones' splendid young adult fantasies in new hardcover editions, almost certainly hoping to attract Harry Potter fans.  Those who do make the leap won't be disappointed, as Jones has been producing absolutely first rate novels of this type for more than twenty years, and like the Potter books, they're creative and intelligent enough to captivate adult audiences as well.  I had read two of these previously.  Hexwood is set on a small farm near London where a series of bizarre events reverberates throughout the universe.  It’s amusing, but not as tightly written as most of Jones' other novels.  The Time of the Ghost is much better, the story of a young ghost with amnesia, desperately trying to communicate with the living, and hoping to discover the secret of her own identity.  This is one of my favorites of her novels, and I read it a second time with the same pleasure as before.  Finally there's the one I'd never read before, Witch's Business, published in England as Wilkins' Tooth.  Two youngsters set up a revenge business to earn some money, but by doing so they attract the unwanted attention of a local witch, who had previously held a corner on the revenge market.  A nice, mid-range Jones novel, and one I'm glad to have finally had a chance to read.

The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, Bantam, 11/02, $13.95, ISBN 0-553-38184-9

I thoroughly enjoyed Ellen Kusher's Swordspoint several years ago, so I was happy to see her return to that richly textured world in her new collaborative fantasy.  The age of kings has ended, and although history records that the kings ruled with the aid of powerful wizards, they are largely considered to have been fakes now that their power is no longer in evidence.  Theron Campion is a young man studying history, whose collaboration with one of his teachers uncovers a very different story, and implications that the monarchy is not as somnolent as it appears.  I could almost have enjoyed this one without a plot.  The complex interplay of the characters is a delight in itself, and the authors have accomplished the most difficult task in fantasy – they have created a world of magic that feels authentic.  Here's a fantasy novel that won't insult your intelligence, and which almost demands re-reading to catch all the nuances you miss the first time.

The Lioness by Nancy Varian Berberick, Wizards of the Coast, 8/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2752-6

The vast majority of Dragonlance novels strike me as even more repetitive than is heroic fantasy as a whole, but occasionally there appears a volume that has enough individual personality to be interesting to readers who aren't devoted to this particular sub-genre.  Nancy Varian Berberick is a rare contributor to the ongoing saga, but in this case she's also one of the better ones, providing a story that has some of the feel of historical swashbucklers like Rafael Sabatini and Alexander Dumas.  The Lioness is the secret identity of Kerian, the lover of the king of Qualinesti, when she is out fighting against the enemies of the kingdom.  Chief of those enemies is the dragon Beryl, who demands tribute and punishes those who oppose him.   A nicely paced and generally satisfying adventure story in the Age of Mortals subseries.

The Kingdom of Shadow by Richard A. Knaak, Pocket, 8/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-2692-4

This novel is loosely set in the world of the computer game Diablo, but other than a bit of namedropping, it has no real connection.  A sorcerer learns how to gain access to an ancient city, supposedly abandoned, and decides to enter and steal its secrets.  He hires a band of mercenaries, whose enthusiasm begins to waver when their leader begins to receive strange warnings of danger to come, and threats natural and not so natural begin to take a toll among their number.  Knaak is an old hand at sword and sorcery adventure stories, and this is one of his better efforts, although he never really made his characters seem very real to me.  Lots of spookiness and plenty of action; you won't drift off to sleep reading this one.

Speaking of the Fantastic conducted by Darrell Schweitzer, Wildside, 7/02, $16, ISBN1-59224-001-1

Eleven interviews with noted SF writers Terry Bisson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Brunner, Jonathan Carroll, Robert Holdstock, Ellen Kushner, Ursula K. LeGuin, Fritz Leiber, Ray Nelson, Frederik Pohl, Dan Simmons, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Gene Wolfe.  The most interesting to me were those with Carroll, Kusnher, Bradley, Pohl, and Simmons.  Schweitzer mixes questions and focus frequently enough to make them readable and non-repetitive, and usually manages to draw his interviewees out into longer responses.  Some of the side comments are among the most interesting parts in fact.  One caveat – in my copy at least the Bisson interview is truncated.

A Crown Disowned by Andre Norton and Sasha Miller, Tor, 10/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-87338-7

In a land where the people are divided into four clans, their current queen has been ignoring the threat from outside their borders in order to play one faction against another.  Time is running out now, however, as the front runners of the invaders begin attacking her people.  She has no choice but to reverse course and forge her subjects into a single army, but how can she manage that when she has spent so long teaching them to distrust one another?  This is an entertainingly written but rather predictable fantasy adventure.  I found the dialogue distracting at times – it tends to be very formal and stilted and not entirely convincing.  The characters are adequately drawn but lack any real depth, and despite the climactic battles, I found it something of a letdown from the previous volumes in the series. 

The Dark Lord by Thomas Harlan, Tor, 7/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-86560-0

The fourth and concluding novel in the Oath of Empire series is a real page turner.  The eastern empire has fallen to an invading army that is assisted by magic and augmented by the undead.  Rome, which has managed to survive into the 7th Century, is reeling from the defeat, and faces other enemies as well.  The best chance they have is to employ sorcery of their own against the invaders, and enlist the aid of human allies as well.  Harlan builds layer after layer into this story, with a large cast of characters, an intricate web of conspiracy, and enough high adventure to hold you in your seat.  I thought the previous volume had faltered a bit, but he picks up the pace this time and brings the series to a rousing conclusion.

The Angel Factory by Terence Blacker, Simon & Schuster, 9/02, $16.95, ISBN 0-689-85171-5

Thomas Wisdom is leading a perfect life, almost too perfect.  One day he and a friend hack into his father's computer and find references to an organization called Seraph, Inc.  Later he uncovers evidence that he was adopted, and his further investigations lead to the revelation – pun intended – that his putative parents are actually a special breed of angel created to help humankind survive its current crisis.  Thomas himself becomes a key element in their plan, but will he help or hinder their great purpose?  This gentle novel is apparently aimed at early teens.  I'm happy to say that it is not dumbed down like so many books targeted at this age group.  Unfortunately, I suspect it also contains very little of the tension that holds the attention of younger readers.  There's not a whole lot going on, and the mystery is apparent so early that it robs the story of any hint of suspense.  It's not a bad book, but I'm not convinced it's up to the task it addresses.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fifteenth Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, St Martin's, 8/02, $19.95, ISBN 0-312-29069-1

My short story reading has grown very spotty during the past several years, and I always wonder if I've missed a real classic through oversight.  But each year this and the similar Dozois edited best of SF appear, and I'm able to run through the contents pages and pick out likely candidates, and I almost always discover that their choices are stories I'd have been unhappy to have missed.  There's well over five hundred pages here, including more than forty stories, plus the usual fine essays on the state of each genre, and a very useful and comprehensive list of honorable mentions.  The contributors include Jeffrey Ford, Charles de Lint, Kelly Link, Jane Yolen, Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Palwick, James P. Blaylock, and many many others.  I've probably said this before, but I'll say it again.  If you only buy one fantasy or horror anthology this year, it should be this one.

Elvenborn by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey, Tor, 8/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-312-86456-6

Readers looking for a continuation of the story in the first two volumes in this collaborative series, Elvenbane and Elvenblood, are in for a mild surprise.  This new volume is set in the same world, but it has a noticeably different feel and story line.  The elvenlords still dominate the world, cruelly repressing humans and elves alike, but the new generation has developed a bit of a social conscience, and their criticism turns into open rebellion.  Our hero is one of the lords, a commander of the army who initially seems inclined to suppress the rebellion.  But as time passes, he begins to feel some sympathy for the other side, and eventually he will have to conduct a personal quest in order to resolve things.  It's a thankless task trying to decide who wrote which parts of a collaboration, but in general this one feels much more like Mercedes Lackey than it does Andre Norton.  It's a well told adventure, but there are very few surprises for the reader.

Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 8/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87426-X

It's almost a given that sequels are rarely the equal of their predecessors, but the new novel by Jane Lindskold proves an exception to the rule.  In Through Wolf's Eyes, we saw the early career of Firekeeper, a young woman raised by intelligent wolves, and the formation of a new, strong nation of Hawk Haven.  Now we learn the consequences of those events.  Neighboring nations aren't happy with the perturbations in the delicate balance of local power.  They are also jealous of the store of magical items which Hawk Haven holds, and which help guarantee its independence.  Foreigners aren't the only jealous ones, however, and a prominent noblewoman seeks control of them to advance her own agenda.  Once again Firekeeper is called upon to help save the fledgeling kingdom.  This is a very long, very densely packed novel, and is without question the best I've seen from this author.  The interplay among the factions and characters is rich and complex, the story is well plotted, and Hawk Haven is a more credible setting than most fantasy worlds.  By all means read the prequel first, but the real meat is in volume two.

Lord Darcy by Randall Garrett, Baen, 7/02, $18, ISBN 0-7434-3548-6

Back in 1983, there was a hardcover omnibus of the three Lord Darcy books, Too Many Magicians, Murder and Magic, and Lord Darcy Investigates.  This brought most of the Lord Darcy stories into a single collection, but this new edition adds those that had not previously been collected.  The result is more than 650 pages of some of the finest fantasy ever written.  Mixing magic and murder is difficult to do well, because it provides the author unique opportunities to cheat, but Garrett was one of the few who were able to carry it off consistently.  "The Muddle of the Woad", "A Case of Identity", and "Too Many Magicians" are my favorites.  The Darcy stories are almost certainly the best things Garrett ever wrote, and will certainly guarantee him a lasting place in the genre.

Through the Drinking Glass by Patrick Thomas, Padwolf, 9/02, $14, ISBN 1-890096-19-9

The third volume of stories from Bulfinche's Pub lives up to the reputation of its predecessors.  In the tradition of Gavagan's Bar, the White Hart, Callahan's, and Cowboy Feng's, this is a wild and woolly selection of fantasy adventures involving the Devil, hockey players, confidence tricks, body snatchers, vampires, the government, dragons, and other likely and unlikely characters and situations.  The common thread is the bar where they meet to exchange adventures. "Pink Elephants" and "Repossessed" were my favorites.  There is some variation in quality, but for the most part these are very well done lightly humorous adventure stories with fantastic twists.  At least one more volume is in the offing, and I'll be looking forward to that one as well.

Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly,Warner, 8/02, $13.95, ISBN 0-446-67704-3

Over the course of the last several years, Barbara Hambly has given us a selection of fantasy novels that have varied in theme and treatment, but consistent in their high quality.  This one's somewhat inconsistent, because it's considerably better than all but one or two of those preceding it.  In the Yellow City, magic has traditionally been the province of men, but suddenly all of that changes.  Former sorcerers can no longer make their powers work, and women with no magical vocation are just as suddenly potential sorceresses.  Naturally the transition is the source of great resentment, and most of the men are unwilling to accept the change gracefully.  The story follows the exploits of some of those involved, and the ultimate battle against the powers of a djinn.  It's a fine adventure story, but it also seems rather more serious than Hambly's previous work.

Devil's Bargain by Judith Tarr, Roc, 10/02, $16, ISBN 0-451-45896-6

King Richard the Lionhearted is leading the armies of Europe in a crusade against the Sultan Saladin, but the military campaign is not going as well as had been hoped.  The king's mother makes a deal with a sorcerer to help him, unaware that by doing so she has put Richard at risk of losing his soul.  The story centers around Richard's illegitimate half sister Sioned, who has considerable magic powers of her own, as well as the ability to form an uneasy alliance with djinn.  Tarr is one of the leading writers of historical fantasy, and her latest is the best I've read by her in several years.  Sioned's adventures are exciting, convincing, and different enough to make this one stand out.  Filled with historical detail and superior characterization.

Farseer by William King, Black Library, 6/02, $6.95, ISBN 0-7434-4306-3

Plague Daemon by Brian Craig, Black Library, 6/02, $6.95, ISBN 0-7434-4317-9

The Laughter of Dark Gods edited by David Pringle, Black Library, 6/02, $6.95, ISBN 0-7434-4309-8

The Warhammer universe has always been a difficult read for me because the mix of space travels, demons, and magic seems a bit too kitchen sinkish.  But there are individual books that have worked just fine.  The first of these is not one of those.  An interplanetary trader gets himself into hotwater when he is caught between factions seeking possession of a powerful artifact, one of which is a nasty demon.  This one would have been a much better novel if the demonic forces had been left out.  On the other hand, Brian Craig (aka Brian Stableford) relies on a more traditional fantasy setting, and the novel is much more successful.  Previously published in 1990, it's the story of a soldier trying to protect his people from recurring barbarian invasions.  Ultimately he has to track down the source of the problem, an evil force that is driving the invaders into abandoning their lands to conquer new ones.  The third volume is a collection of original Warhammer stories, and they're generally loosely related at best.  The quality is above average for the series, although a bit uneven, with the best efforts coming from Brian Craig, Nicola Griffiths, Steve Baxter, and Sean Flynn.

The Merchant of Death by D.J. MacHale, Aladdin, 9/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-3731-4

Young Bobby Pendragon doesn't realize that he is anything other than an ordinary boy until his Uncle Press takes him on a magical journey to Denduron, an alternate world where magic works.  There he discovers an oppressed people who want to revolt against their masters, but whose success is dependent upon his own willingness to help.  This is the opening volume in a new young adult series, which will probably see Bobby visiting other realities for further adventures.  It's a pretty good story, and somewhat ambitious for a young adult book, but the success of Harry Potter probably means that publishers are finally realizing that kids are more sophisticated readers than they previously believed.  I was annoyed by the interruptions of material about a friend of the protagonist reading about his adventures, however; they disturb the pace of the story and really don't add anything.  Hopefully they won't continue in future volumes.

The Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede, Starscape, 9/02, $5.99, ISBN 0-765-34248-0

Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish, Starscape, 9/02, $5.99, ISBN 0-765-34244-8

The latest two novels to be reprinted as Young Adult offerings, even though they'd previously been released as adult fiction, are both a step away from mainstream fantasy.  Wrede's novel, first published in 1997, is the better one.  A woman has to solve a magical mystery in an alternate London.  It was one of my favorite of Wrede's novels, and I'm happy to see it will have a chance to find a new audience.  The second is from 1982, the author's only fantasy.  King Arthur's influence has stretched through the centuries, helping defend Britain from supernatural enemies whenever necessary, always using an ally from the proper time period.  A new danger arises in the present, and the latest hero is an unlikely one.  The plot is a nifty one and the book is a quite pleasant read, but I found it a bit flat twenty years ago, and age hasn't changed my opinion.

The Veil of a Thousand Tears by Eric Van Lustbader, Tor, 7/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87236-4

The sequel to The Ring of Five Dragons takes up where that Arabian Nights style fantasy adventure left off.  The protagonist and her friends have possession of the fabled ring, but not everything went as they had expected.  Two personalities have merged in fulfillment of a prophecy, but they did not gain access to the ancient magic for which they had hoped.  Instead they have set loose a horde of demons who, predictably, act demonically, taking possession of the living and engaging in other nastiness.  So our hero must set off on another quest for another magical object, for the nature of which, please see title above.  Kundala is a well realized society, and the author builds his characters well enough, although other than the setting I found a great deal of this a bit too familiar to keep me riveted to the book.  But I got caught up in Riane's adventures enough to follow them to the end and even cared if she succeeded, and there are an awful lot of fantasy novels of recent date about which I can't say the same.   

Conan the Swordsman by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Bjorn Nyberg, Tor, 12/02, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-30069-9

Robert E. Howard's Conan is without doubt the archetypal barbarian fantasy hero, the one against whom all others must be measured.  Howard's original stories remain the best examples of that form, a body of consistently high quality stories that retain their popularity with each new generation of readers.  Dozens of authors have added to the saga, most notably Robert Jordan and L. Sprague de Camp.  This is an early collection of short pieces written by De Camp, some in collaboration with Lin Carter, others with Bjorn Nyberg.  There are several good stories here, most notably "The People of the Summit" and "Shadows in the Dark", as well as a very extensive index to Hyborian names and an essay on the saga, both by De Camp.  This is the first hardcover edition of one of the earliest add-ons to Howard's work, and contains some of the best examples of stories inspired by the unchallenged master of the form.

The Dawn of Amber by John Betancourt, Ibooks, 8/02, $25, ISBN 0-7434-5240-2

Ibooks launches a new trilogy set in the universe of Roger Zelazny's Amber novels, which will as a body detail events prior to those in the original series, explaining the origin of the battle with Chaos and other matters.  In the opener, which has strong echoes of the first Amber novel, Oberon is recalled from his life in a shadow world by his honorary uncle and brought to Juniper, a reality in which he meets various other members of the nobility of Amber.  The rivalries, plots, and adventures are very much in the style of the original series, and Betancourt does a fine job of capturing the feel of the original books.  It ends with a cliffhanger, but at a logical breaking point.  I think Zelazny would have approved of this add on, and Amber fans should jump at the chance to return to that reality, escorted by a writer who knows how to evoke its unique atmosphere.

Scarred Lands: Forsaken by Richard Lee Byers, White Wolf, 6/02, $6.50, ISBN 1-58846-809-7

This is the opening volume of the "Dead God" trilogy set within the shared Scarred Lands universe, which I believe is a game system from the same publisher.  The blurbs and cover did not make me hopeful about this.  In the aftermath of a great war, a religious leader decides to resurrect a dead god to restore the spirit of his people, and one step of that procedure involves starting a religious war.  To my surprise, I was quite caught up in the story, and subsequently frustrated when it ends without resolution, since there are two volumes to go.  I'll be watching for them though, and that's something I don't say about most fantasy series.

Paragon Lost by Dave Duncan, Avon Eos, 10/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-380-97896-2

Duncan's latest novel of the King's Blades is easily the best novel he's done to date, a clever, exciting, absorbing fantasy adventure right up there with The Three Musketeers.  Beau was expelled from the King's Blades – an order of bodyguards magically linked to their masters – after he was sent on a mission to escort the new queen back to Chivial from her distant homeland.  The job is more difficult than it seems, because the Czar of Skyrria is an insane tyrant who becomes obsessed with the desire to have Blades of his own, and who really isn't worried about the niceties of diplomatic immunity.  During the original mission, presented in a flashback that makes up the bulk of the novel, Beau and two other Blades were given to an elderly nobleman who undertakes to lead the mission.  They have various adventures along the way, but none to rival the plotting and danger in Skyrria itself.  Beau accomplishes the mission in a devious fashion, but there is enough scandal to annoy the king and result in his dishonor.  But now the situation has changed, because in the frame story we discover that someone has managed to fraudulently gain control of a Blade, and Beau may be the only one who can revert a tragic end.  He treads carefully through a web of political intrigue and physical danger to accomplish his goal.  Great stuff with never a dull moment, nasty villains, witty heroes, and an intriguingly complex social structure. 

Warhammer: Beasts in Velvet by Jack Yeovil, Black Library, 2002, $6.95, ISBN 1-84154-235-0

Warhammer: Zaragoz by Brian Craig, Black Library, 2002, $6.95, ISBN 0-7434-4303-9

Warhammer: Zavant by Gordon Rennie, Black Library, 2002, $6.95, ISBN 0-7434-1174-9

The Warhammer game system has spawned a series of novels, some fantasy, some science fiction, based on its elaborate and not particularly consistent setting.  Games Workshop published a series of tie-in novels back in the 1980s and 1990s, attracting contributions by such well known names as Ian Watson, Kim Newman, and Brian Stableford.  Jack Yeovil is Newman and Brian Craig is Stableford, and two of their novels have recently reappeared under this new imprint.  Newman's novel is a murder mystery set in a decadent city in an elaborate post-collapse magical society.  His talent elevates this considerably above the level of most tie-ins, as does Stableford in his contribution, the first in a subset about Orfeo.  Orfeo is a minstrel who finds himself up to his lute strings in magical conflicts, evil sorcery, and nefarious doings.  Forget the tie-in label – this is just a very good fantasy.  The third title is brand new, and apparently a first novel as well.  Like the Yeovil, it deals with a mysterious brutal murder in a fantasy world.  It's not up to the caliber of the Yeovil, but it's still a surprisingly solid tale with only a few awkward moments.  If you aren't totally blocked against reading tie-ins, you ought to give these a try.  Knowledge of the game system is not necessary.

A Walking Tour of the Shambles by Gene Wolfe & Neil Gaiman, American Fantasy, 2002, $15, ISBN 096103526-9

This delightful little book is a spoof of guidebooks, conducting us through the Shambles, a part of Chicago filled with ghosts, cannibals, and other delights.  There's a shop that sells wax fruit and even wax fruit flies, a tree stump still smoldering from the Chicago Fire, the tallest underground building in the world, a house of most unusual clocks, and other wonders.  Amusingly illustrated and quite clever.  It's less than sixty pages long, but packs a lot of humor into a small space.

White Apples by Jonathan Carroll, Tor, 10/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30388-4

Jonathan Carroll's latest is his strangest yet.  Vincent Ettrich doesn't remember dying, and none of his friends and acquaintances seem to either.  But he definitely died and was brought back to life by some mysterious force, or at least so he is told by Coco Hallis, a strange woman he meets who seems to have powers quite beyond the ordinary.  He is also reunited with his some times lover Isabelle Neucor, who is carrying his child.  The child communicates with her, sometimes manifesting itself externally, and is the focus of a strange force that could change the world.  Carrroll weaves this all into a fascinating whole with his usual deft touch and superior prose.  It's not quite up to the quality of The Wooden Sea, but that still puts it leagues ahead of most of the other fantasy that will see print this year.

The King by David Feintuch, Ace, 8/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-00902-6

When David Feintuch's The Still appeared a few years ago, I had mixed feelings about it.  I was interested to see what he would do outside of his ongoing SF series, and a traditional fantasy was sufficiently distant to provide contrast.  Unfortunately, the young heir to the throne protagonist bore more than a slight resemblance to the younger Nicholas Seafort, and the situations and relationships were very similar.  Now we have the sequel, and the similarities are even more obvious.  Rodrigo has a host of problems.  His usurping uncle is defeated but still maintains a power base.  The foreign enemy who has invaded their land seems to be able to move and strike with impunity.  Rodrigo has even more difficulty controlling his own tendency to cruelty and rage, and has a stormy relationship with Rustin, his young mentor.  This time the incidents designed to show his flaws and develop his character just seem repetitive and unnecessary, and I was ready to take up arms on behalf of his enemies by halfway through the book.  The more overt plot doesn't fare well either.  After a long string of reversals, there's a sudden victory in the last few pages that seems rushed and implausible.  Hopefully with his next book Feintuch will return to the things that he does well.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories by Jeffrey Ford, Golden Gryphon, 6/02, $23.95, ISBN 1-930846-10-X

Jeffrey Ford has one of the most original voices in modern fantasy, a strange way of looking at the world and making his readers share those warped visions.  This first collection of shorter works is highlighted by the title story, a clever, amusing, and very original variation of the characters-coming-to-life theme.  The protagonist hires an assistant because he is losing his vision of his created fantasy world, but his actions are actually directed by the characters themselves.  Several of the other stories are outstanding as well, including one in which a woman compulsively counts everything in her environment, a strange tale of zombie assassins, a gripping story of precognition, and one in which insectlike aliens become obsessed with human created films.  The least of these stories are worth your attention, and the best of them demand it.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Harper, 2002, $15.99, ISBN 0-380-97778-8

Neil Gaiman tries his hand at a children's fantasy, and this is definitely one of the stranger ones you're likely to read.  Young Coraline is exploring the new apartment building where she and her family have recently moved, when she discovers that the door leading to a brick wall is sometimes a gateway to another world.  There she finds an alternate set of parents and a variety of talking animals, and eventually has to rescue her real parents when they're imprisoned in another reality.  Despite the talking animals, this is a frequently creepy and disturbing story, and will definitely resonate with older readers as well as the young.

Orthe: Chronicles of Carrick V by Mary Gentle, Gollancz, 4/02, 9.99 pounds, ISBN 0-575-07287-3

Here we have a combined edition of Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, two novels accompanied by a related shorter piece, dealing with the planet Orthe, now home to a comparatively primitive civilization, once the seat of a mighty empire.  In the first, a visitor discovers a secret about the planet and finds herself the object of a deadly conspiracy.  In the sequel, she returns to negotiate for purchase of some of the artifacts of an ancient super-technology, and finds herself once again enmeshed in the politics of a bizarre world.  Gentle has a particular talent for creating high original and fascinating societies, and that ability is showcased at its best in these two novels.  Almost a thousand pages of some of the best SF of the past few years.

The Warslayer by Rosemary Edghill, Baen, 5/02, $7.99, ISBN 0-7434-3536-2

Glory McArdle plays the part of Vixen the Slayer, a Xena like television character.  That hardly prepares her for abduction into an alternate universe where magic works, and certainly isn't sufficient training to give her a chance against a mysterious monster that is ravaging the land of Erchanen.  But her kidnappers refuse to believe her, and in due course she proves them right and herself wrong, after a series of lightly humorous adventures and a handful of interesting plot twists.  This is an old theme, of course, but Edghill proves that there's still life in it, and she provides us with some lively entertainment.  There's even an appendix with plot descriptions and commentary on the various episodes of her television show, and it appears that this may be the first in a series.  Bring on more of Vixen; she's a refreshing change from the deadly serious fantasy that dominates the field at the moment.

The Scar by China Mieville, Del Rey, 7/02, $18.95, ISBN 0-345-44438-8

With Perdito Street Station, China Mieville already secured his place as a major new writer of fantasy.  The Scar should establish him as the most original and talented voice to appear in several years.  It's set in the same world as the previous novel, but in an entirely different setting.  The protagonist is a young woman who gets into political trouble in her own city, and decides to accept a five year position as a linguist and translator in a distant land and wait for things to die down at home.  Her trip takes an unexpected turn when their ship is captured by a fleet of pirates whose home base is a gigantic floating city consisting of linked hulls of various ships.  Involuntarily pressed into being a citizen of this rogue world, she runs into a secret agent from her homeland who enlists her aid in reporting a quite independent military threat, although it appears that he is less than forthright with her.  Dominating everything is the plan by the rulers of the pirate city to harness an unimaginably large and powerful denizen of another world to provide new power for their domain.  The settings are exotic and brilliant evoked, and there's a good sized cast of remarkable and eccentric characters.  This is without question the best fantasy novel I've read so far this year.

The Paradise War by Stephen Lawhead, Lion, 2001, $7.95, ISBN 0-7459-2466-2

The Silver Hand by Stephen Lawhead, Lion, 2001, $7.95, ISBN 0-7459-2510-3

The Endless Knot by Stephen Lawhead, Lion, 2001, $7.95, ISBN 0-7459-2783-1

The "Song of Albion" trilogy originally appeared over a decade ago, but I think this is the first mass market edition.  While vacationing in Scotland, a man from our world finds himself crossing a rift to the world of Albion, a fantasy realm existing parallel to our own world.  Eventually he becomes involved in the struggle for succession when the ruling king dies.  Although not quite as polished as Lawhead's more recent work, this early series shows that his strong story telling skills emerged early.  Now you can get the entire trilogy for the price of one hardcover, and you'll probably enjoy this more than most of the current crop of fantasy epochs.

Seven Touches of Music by Zoran Zivkovic, Polaris, 2001, no price or ISBN listed.

The Writer by Zoran Zivkovic, Polaris, 1999, no price or ISBN listed

The first of these two slender little volumes is a collection of short fantasies, translated quite fluidly from the original Serbian, is probably very hard to find, which is a shame because the stories are very good.  The opener is about a man teaching a class full of autistic children who discovers that certain musical pieces elicit very strange and wonderful responses.  In the second, a woman has a mystical vision of the Great Library of Alexandria.  This is followed by a magical music box that bridges time, precognitive visions of death inspired by an organ grinder's playing, the problems of extraterrestrial life, a deathbed vision, and a mysterious suicide.  Zivkovic's fantasy is subtle but quietly effective.  I'm surprised that none of these fine stories have surfaced in this country before now.  The second title is a long story and it really isn't SF or fantasy, although it involves writing SF.  The narrator is a writer who has one of those friends who knows how to run your life better than you do, is better at everything than you are, and makes sure you know it.  The interplay between the two climaxes when the narrator writes a pointed SF story because his friend hates the genre.  Writers are going to enjoy this even more than most readers.

The Alchemist's Door by Lisa Goldstein, Tor, 8/02, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-30150-4

One thing I know for certain when I pick up a new book by Lisa Goldstein is that it's not going to be anything like what I expected.  Her newest is an historical fantasy.  John Dee, pursued by debts he cannot pay, packs up his wife and travels to Prague seeking a new patron.  There, after various disappointments, he makes the acquaintance of Rabbi Judah Loew, and helps him to create a working golem.  Goldstein's greatest strength is that she can take imagined worlds and make them real enough for us to believe in them, and this one's no exception.  The atmosphere of magic and mystery is so palpable that it seems perfectly logical that a living creature could be created this way.  But there's always a price to be paid when using magic.  Literate, imaginative, thoughtful, and emotionally charged, this is likely to be one of the top fantasy novels of the year.

The Emperor of Dreams by Clark Ashton Smith, Gollancz, 2002, 7.99 pounds, ISBN 0-575-07373-X

Clark Ashton Smith has been cross collected so many times that it's hard to recommend new volumes to readers who already have some of the old.  That said, here we have forty five of his best, nearly six hundred pages, plus some non-fiction material, all bound very handsomely into large paperback format.  Although this volume has not been announced in the US, readers may want to exert themselves to get it if they don't already have a substantial portion of Smith's work under other titles. He remains one of the few distinct masters of the exotic setting in fantasy.

Completely Smitten by Kristine Grayson, Zebra, 5/02, $6.50, ISBN 0-8271-7147-7

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been writing light contemporary romantic fantasies under this name recently – this is the third.  Fear not, if you've been avoiding romance novels on general principles, because this one at least is light on romance and concentrates on the light fantasy.  This one involves the continuing presence of the Greek gods, Cupid and his assistants, as you might expect.  One of them rescues a girl when she has an accident and nearly falls to her death, and discovers that he himself has been smitten.  Capable of changing his appearance, he involves himself in her life in various amusing and entertaining ways.  It's much lighter than the fiction Rusch publishes under her own name, but it's a kind of low key Thorne Smith ideal for a hot summer afternoon by the pool.

Diablo: The Black Road by Mel Odom, Pocket, 4/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-2691-6

Diablo is a popular computer game based on the standard dungeon adventure format.  The protagonist explores a series of underground mazes, each level more difficult, finding treasures and weapons and gaining experience points by defeating the various monsters that lurk beneath the quiet village.  The game was immensely popular, spawned a sequel, and now a series of novels, although there's only superficial similarity between the books and the game.  In this one, a wandering hero returns to his home town and finds it has fallen under the sway of an evil force.  Predictably, and after various sword and sorcery style encounters, he saves them all.  Odom does a reasonably good job with a somewhat overdone theme.

The Black Diamonds by Clark Ashton Smith, Hippocampus Press, 2002, $15, ISBN 0-9673215-2-2

This is a full length, Arabian nights style novel written by Clark Ashton Smith when he was only fourteen, and never previously published.  The story involves the battle between a professional thief and a wealthy Arab family over possession of two jewels, and there really isn't any fantasy involved other than an ambiguous reference to a lake which might possibly have magical properties.  The story is surprisingly well written considering the author's age, and reads smoothly and with considerable merit.  It's not likely to enhance Smith's reputation but it's good enough to be more than just a curiosity.

A Scattering of Jades by Alexander Irvine, Tor, 7/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30116-4

In 1835, a devastating fire destroyed much of city of New York.  That's the opening scene in this dark fantasy.  Archie Prescott believes that his family died in the fire, but years later he will discover that his daughter survived, kidnapped by a group of people who are trying to summon a powerful supernatural entity whose advent could literally destroy the world.  Once he knows that she's alive, he sets out to rescue her while plots and counterplots and dangers both mundane and supernatural buffet him from every side.  This is a surprisingly mature first novel which skillfully evokes the historical setting and peoples it with genuinely interesting characters and an entertainingly sinister plot.  A very strong debut and a very pleasant reading experience.

Dreams of the Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian, Wildside, 5/02, $39.95, ISBN 1-58715-584-2

Although there are recurring characters in this unusual fantasy novel, the story is largely episodic and non-linear.  It's set in a world equally vague, with vast deserts and occasional cities, and although it uses many of the trappings of traditional heroic fantasy, the elements are assembled in a unique fashion.  Often the conflict is dark and foreboding, with characters battling against unkind fate or more immediate and physical challenges to their freedom.  Nazarian's prose is well constructed and her exotic settings are vivid and realistic.  There's almost a fairy tale quality to the book, and it differs enough from the usual array of usurped thrones and quest stories to warrant your time.

Storm of Wings by Chris Bunch, Orbit, 2002, 9.99 pounds, ISBN 1-84149-104-7

Here's the opening volume of a new fantasy series, not yet available in the US to my knowledge.  The protagonist is a young man who was fascinated with dragons and learned to ride them while still a child.  Now the world has erupted into warfare, and the dragons are a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled rider.  That makes him a valuable asset to his own people but it also makes him a very attractive target for their enemies.  Bunch always does a good job of making his fantasy worlds come alive, and this one's no exception.  So saddle up your own dragon and go along for the ride.

The Bagpiper's Ghost by Jane Yolen, Harcourt, 4/02, $16, ISBN 0-15-202310-0

This is the third in the Tartan Magic series for younger readers.  The protagonists are a pair of twins with psychic powers who are visiting a graveyard in Scotland when they observe a pair of ghosts who have been separated.  Their attempts to help backfire and the boy is possessed by a long dead spirit.  This short little novel moves very quickly to resolve its issues, and it's a little light for most mature readers, but younger ones should find it delightful.

The Tomb of Horrors by Keith Francis Strohm, Wizards of the Coast, 2/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2702-X

The Jewel of Turmish by Mel Odom, Wizards of the Coast, 2/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-2698-8

There's a pretty dark vein running through these two new titles from Wizards of the Coast.  The first, which is also a first novel, is set in the Greyhawk series.  A pair of down in their luck adventurers make common cause with a group that wants to retrieve a valuable magical artifact from the tomb of a sorcerer.  What looks like a relatively easy job is anything but, because the tomb is home to a number of unspeakable horrors.  Mel Odom's latest is in the Cities subset of the Forgotten Realms universe, and it features a zombie sorcerer.  He's back from the dead to raise a new army of conquest, and killing him in conventional ways doesn't help because he has the power to return again if need be.  Odom is one of two or three best of Wizard's regular contributors, and he always manages to deliver an exciting book that is also accessible to people who haven't read any of the preceding dozens of books in this informal series.

Angry Lead Skies by Glen Cook, Roc, 4/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-45875-3

One of the hardest cross genre blends to pull off well is fantasy and mystery, because the existence of magic invariably makes the reader suspect that the author is going to cheat even if that isn't the case.  When anything at all can happen, it's not surprising when anything does.  A few writers have managed to consummate the marriage, usually as in this case in the form of a tradition tough detective story.  The latest adventure of  Cook's Garrett P.I. has him accepting a job as bodyguard to a young man who claims he has been targeted for mayhem at the hands, or other limbs, of mysterious supernatural entities.  They don't actually want him, but rather a pair of mysterious friends.  Unfortunately for Garrett, his client is abducted before he can find out any details, and it appears that the theoretical friends might not even exist.  As with the previous volumes in the series, Cook makes this all work, and provides an interesting and varied cast of subordinate characters to flesh out his plot.  It's a nice break from the seemingly endless parade of usurped kingdoms and megalomaniacal sorcerers that dominate so much of contemporary fantasy.

The Magic Never Ends by John Ryan Duncan, W Publishing Group, 12/01, $22.99, ISBN 0-8499-1718-2

C.S. Lewis seems to have awakened some fresh interest lately, and if rumors that the Narnia books are being considered as the basis for a series of major films are true, he may end up in the spotlight more than ever.  This brief book profiles his life and some of his work, and is illustrated with some excellent photographs.  Oddly enough, the Lewis here is portrayed as a very different person than in the last biography I read, so different that they sound like two different men.  In one view, he was a querulous, stubborn, academic elitist who irritated most people around him.  In this new book, he is described as having many friends and delighting in talking to "ordinary" people.  The truth, I would imagine, is somewhere between the two extremes.

The Boy Who Could Fly Without a Motor by Theodore Taylor, Harcourt, 5/02, $15, ISBN 0-15-216529-0

Young Jon Jeffers is living on an island off the coast of California in 1935 with his parents, who are tending a lighthouse.  Bored and lonely, he explores various paranormal activities until a ghost appears, a magician who will teach him how to fly in exchange for some peace and quiet.  Jon learns to levitate, but one of his secret flights is witnessed by some sailors, which precipitates a small panic among government authorities. Should he confess and cooperate, or will that just make matters worse? Aimed at younger readers, but amusing for casual adult reading as well.

Paint by Magic by Kathryn Reiss, Harcourt, 5/02, $17, ISBN 0-15-216361-1

A Circle of Time by Marisa Montes, Harcourt, 5/02, $17, ISBN 0-15-202626-6

Magical time travel stories seem to be making a comeback in young adult literature, and these two novels are good examples.  In the first and better of the two, a teenager is puzzled and disturbed by changes in his mother's behavior.  As the odd lapses grow more intense, he is suddenly transported back through time and into the presence of an artist obsessed with painting his mother's portrait.  The second is a more typical story.  The protagonist in this case is a young girl who, while in a coma, is mentally dragged back to 1906 where she must solve a problem before returning to her own body.  Both are well written, though aimed at young adult audiences.

Sanctuary by Lynn Abbey, Tor, 6/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87491-X

It has been quite a few years since I last saw a Thieves' World novel, but Lynn Abbey returns to that fabulous city for this new adventure.  The events of the previous volumes are all far in the past and the heroes have all seemed to disappear into the closed books of time.  Only Molin Torchholder remembers those days, and he is old, ailing, and pursued by killers whose enmity dates from the distant past.  He knows that he cannot survive them forever and looks around for younger hands to carry on the battle against the hidden, sorcerous evils that threaten Sanctuary.  Although this is primarily an adventure story, and a pretty good one at that, it is also a richer and more detailed novel than I've seen from this writer in the past, and the book is both more ambitious and more rewarding than most similar fantasy adventures, as well as providing a nostalgic return to the Thieves' World.  If you've overlooked Abbey's previous novels, you should give this one a second glance.

Fire Logic by Laurie Marks, Tor, 5/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-87887-7

It's been almost ten years since the last Laurie Marks novel appeared, which is entirely too long.  The setting for this one is the nation of Shaftal, which has been conquered by an invading army and struggles under foreign rule.  The old royal family is extinct and there is no one to assume the throne even in absentia.  Although a resistance movement has been fighting all along, the results have been less than rewarding, and the expense and effort required is beginning to be too much of a strain.  Within that context, three disparate individuals are about to discover that they have a unique power to alter the course of events and free their people.  I've enjoyed all of Marks' previous novels, so it's no surprise that I liked this one as well.  It's more than just another battle of swords and sorcery, and unlike most similarly plotted fantasy novels, I actually cared what happened to the characters.  No verbal pyrotechnics, but a good solid narrative.

Witchblade: Talons by John DeChancie, Ibooks, 2/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-3501-X

I watched the premiere of this series a while back and was not particularly impressed.  The premise is that a female police officer possesses a magical sword which makes her virtually invulnerable, with which she mows down the bad guys before sending it back into some mystical realm so that no one can explain what happened.  Her success rate and the high body count attract the not particularly pleasant regard of her superiors, and in this tie-in adventure, they also suspect her of other illegal activities.  That cramps her style as she attempts to investigate a series of murders which appear to be the work of an organized crime ring, but which have an oddness about them that makes her suspect otherwise.  DeChancie does a good job with the unpromising premise.

Sword-Sworn by Jennifer Roberson, DAW, 2/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-88677-954-5

Jennifer Roberson brings her saga of Del and Tiger to an end in this, the sixth volume in the series.  Tiger has gotten himself into fresh trouble in the process of rescuing Del, and now the two are fugitives.  They travel to the land of Skandi, which turns out to be Tiger's homeland, possibly holding the secret of his origin.  Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a band of nefarious sorcerers, and even after they escape and start to establish new lives for themselves, they find new enemies, as well as the problems that arise when Tiger begins to experience visions.  What elevates this series above most similar fantasy adventures is skillful development of the two protagonist and the interactions between them.  I'm sorry to see Del and Tiger's careers come to an end, but they certainly go out with a bang.

A Sorcerer's Treason by Sarah Zettel, Tor, 4/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87441-3

Sarah Zettel has produced five very solid SF novels during the past few years, and now she turns her hand to fantasy.  The protagonist is a lighthouse keeper in 1899 Wisconsin who is recruited into visiting a magical alternate world.  There she finds herself in the middle of a struggle that involves the Empress Ananda and the Dowager Empress Medeoan as they jockey for influence over control of the throne of Isavalta.  The protagonist feels lost at first, but she finds herself more attuned to this new reality when she discovers that she has latent magical abilities of her own.  Although not a particularly inventive new plot, the novel is very strong in its characterization and the complexity of her imaginary world's politics and culture.  This appears to be the opening volume in a series.

The Lady of the Sorrows by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Warner, 4/02, $24.95, ISBN 0-446-52803-X

Cecilia Dart-Thornton returns to Bitterbynde, the world she introduced in The Ill-Made Mute, for another magical adventure.  A female warrior travels under an assumed identity to the seat of government bearing a message for the king, although she is equally interested in looking up a ranger with whom she is falling in love.  She discovers that both men are absent, out battling an army of magical beings who have invaded the land.  Then a series of supernatural events occurs in the city itself, and she realizes that she is being hunted by Huon for some mysterious purpose.  Ultimately she must deal with another magical entity to find out why she has been chosen.  A very intelligently written novel that draws heavily on legend, filled with fairies and other creatures of wonder.

Wizard's Funeral by Kim Hunter, Orbit, 2002, 9.99 pounds, ISBN 1-84149-097-0

Soldier has no other name, although he might have once in the past before he wakened with no memory.  Now he is highly regarded in the realm, but the death of the king has left a power vacuum.  Possession of the throne brings a gift of magic which is necessary to stave off the evil armies outside the borders of Zamerkand, but Soldier's efforts to help install the rightful heir run into trouble when factions among the nobility begin jockeying for position, some intending to put one of their own on the throne in the young ruler's place.  Predictable but well written fantasy adventure, with lots of swordplay and sorcery and court intrigues.

A Caress of Twilight by Laurell K. Hamilton, Ballantine, 4/02, $23.95, ISBN 0-345-43527-3

This is the second volume in the story of Princess Meredith, a half fairy princess who spent several years posing as human and working in a detective agency.  Now her identity is known and she's right in the middle of the politics of Faerie, which in this series is a place whose existence is accepted among humans.  Meredith has to bear a child, which is trickier than it sounds despite the rather monotonous series of sexual encounters she has during the course of the novel, and avoid the machinations of a rival prince, who wants to replace her as next in line for the throne.  There's also a string of brutal murders to add spice to the story.  I found this much improved over the first volume, with a lot more story.  This is designed to appeal to fans of erotic fantasy, so if you're so inclined, you should like this, because Hamilton is a very skillful writer.  But as with the first, I thought there was too much of a good thing, and after a while I wanted to rush through the sex scenes to get back to the real story.

Spirit of Independence by Keith Rommel, Barclay, 2001, $14.95, ISBN 1-931402-07-8

This is the first in a projected series of at least four novels featuring Travis Winter, a man murdered during World War II and transformed into a sort of militant angel.  Winter is kidnapped to Hell to hear the Devil's side of the story of the conflict with God, rejects it, is subsequently rescued and sent to Earth.  Under the faηade of an adventure story, the author unveils his new interpretation of the nature of Heaven and Hell, but for the most part it's too heavy handed for my taste.  The plot stumbles along at an uneven pace and I had real difficult maintaining my interest once it was obvious how things were going.  Perhaps they'll pick up in volume two now that the author has delivered his message, but somehow I fear it will be more of the same.

Expecting Beowulf by Tom Holt, NESFA, 2/02, $16, ISBN 1-886778-36-1.

Here's an omnibus edition of Tom Holt's two early humorous fantasy novels.  In Expecting Someone Taller, a contemporary man stumbles across a magic ring that once belonged to the Norse gods.  They want it back, and what ensues is inspired farce.  Who's Afraid of Beowulf? also involved Vikings, in this case a group of Vintage warriors who find themselves in the contemporary world, uniquely qualified to battle an ancient evil risen again.  Both books are quite amusing, and hopefully this new edition will inspire some enterprising publisher to start reprinting Holt's other novels, which continue to appear with regularity and amuse the British reading public.

Bone Walk: The Journey of Thomas Shepard by Kevin Howe, Firelight, 12/01, $15.50, ISBN 0-9707206-2-9

This small press paperback doesn't look like fantasy, so you might have to search for awhile to find it, or better yet, order it online.  It's a first novel, set in a rural fantasy world wherein an adviser to the ruler, one Lord Varden, has been dabbling secretly in magic, which might explain why unusual objects have been appearing mysteriously, and why people have been dying.  He has enlisted agents in the past to explore the Western Woods, but none have been successful, and now he turns to an inoffensive accountant in his latest effort to obtain arcane knowledge.  Very low key, but well written, with a smooth narrative style and some original twists to his setting and background.  This probably isn't a novel you'll get excited about, but on the other hand, you'll probably remember bits and pieces of it long after you've closed the covers.  A promising debut; a name we'll probably hear of again.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, read by the author and by Harlan Ellison, Fantastic Audio, 2002, $25, ISBN 1-57453-421-1

Although this is listed as being read by LeGuin and Ellison, LeGuin does just a token passage at each end.  The majority is read in rather spirited fashion by Harlan Ellison.  He has excellent material to work with.  This was the first story of Earthsea, following the career of the magician Ged who releases an evil entity after giving in to an unwise impulse and spends years paying for it before finally confronting his shadow and becoming complete once again.  It's a rich world, but more importantly, the story is rich in character and a triumph of storytelling, a novel which lends itself superbly to audio translation.  This is an unabridged version on four cassettes in a handsomely designed and sturdy package.  Unequivocally recommended.

The Eyes of God by John Marco, DAW, 1/ 02, $24.95, ISBN 0-7564-0047-3

The kingdoms of Liiria and Reec have long been at war, and the new king of Liiria decides to negotiate a peace.  He travels to his rival's capital, accompanied by his personal bodyguards headed by a man who has misgivings about the proposed treaty but who is unswervingly loyal to his liege.  To seal the bargain, Akeela of Liiria must marry the daughter of his rival, but she has contracted a terminal illness, which can only be cured if he undertakes a lengthy and dangerous quest.  And by doing so, he may also unleash a magic that could shake the entire world.  And that's were the story begins, of course, in this opening volume in a new heroic fantasy cycle.  Marco does this stuff quite well, better than most of his rivals in fact, and in this book in particular I found his characters a lot more compelling than the usual stereotypes in most similar novels.  It's quite long and quite engrossing, but as with all books of this type, the reader is warned that there won't be a completely satisfying ending, because the story will be continued in subsequent volumes.

Rules of Ascension by David B. Coe, Tor, 3/01, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87807-9

David Coe kicks off the "Winds of the Forelands" series with this new, longish fantasy novel.  Several generations before the beginning of this story, a terrible war resulted in the death of most members of a race of magic users who had previously lived in peace with their neighbors.  Now the survivors are scattered among the various small states in the Forelands, often concealing their abilities.  When an assassin kills the man who was spearheading a new alliance, it alters the political landscape and threatens to engulf the region in a new series of wars.  A large cast of characters are caught up in the turmoil including young members of the nobility, the assassin, and others.  Coe's world is much more intricate than that of most similar fantasy writers, and he seems to have a deeper grasp than most of the complexities of interhuman relationships.  There's plenty of action as well in this promising opening sequence.

A Dragon's Ascension by Ed Greenwood, Tor, 3/02, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30222-5

In the first two books in this series, adventurers seek to restore their king to power.  He has been trapped in a magical sleep which can only be broken by the use of magical artifacts.  The protagonists recovered them, wakened the king, and restored him to the throne in those earlier volumes, but that doesn't finish their task.  There's an evil wizard (there's almost always an evil wizard) who isn't happy about the restoration, to say nothing of a rival warlord  (there's usually one of these as well) who would prefer to rule Aglirta himself.  Good natured, standard fantasy adventure fare from one of its steadiest practitioners.

Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R. Green, Gollancz, 12/01, 9.99 pounds, ISBN 0-575-07246-6 and Roc, 2/02, $14, ISBN 0-451-45867-2

Simon R. Green has established himself as a reliable writer of both space opera and heroic fantasy.  His new novel explores somewhat different ground.  It's a contemporary fantasy, at times, involving a man who follows a beautiful woman through a gateway into the parallel world of magic that coexists with ours.  The woman turns out to be a little more than human, and some of the inhabitants of the alternate world more than human figures, including a con man and a very daunting private detective. There's nothing really new about the plot, nor with his subsequent critical role in a battle against a supernatural evil that wishes to dominate both realities, but Green adds to the list of similar books with a likable hero, some clever new but minor takes on the set up, and his usual highly polished adventure format.  There's nothing indicating this is the beginning of a series, but you never know, and I wouldn't mind another trip to the worlds of Veritie and Mysterie.

The Merriest Knight by Theodore Goodridge Roberts, Green Knight, 12/01, $17.95, ISBN 1-928999-18-2

Back during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Canadian poet Theodore Roberts wrote a series of short stories about Sir Dinadan , one of the least known but probably the most practical and worldly of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.  Those fourteen stories plus one that has never been previously published have been collected here by Mike Ashley in a large addition to the growing library of Arthurian derived fiction.  I found the stories more interesting than many similar ones, if only because they avoided must of the overused standards of the form and explored new characters, situations, and attitudes, but at the same time I must admit that I didn't think any of the stories were particularly memorable, although as a whole the book was certainly a pleasant enough reading experience.

Wanderers and Islanders by Steve Cockayne, Orbit, 2002, 9.99 pounds, ISBN 1-84149-120-9

This first novel is also the opening volume of a new light fantasy series, the Legends of the Land.  The Land is very much like rural England of the last century, although magic is real and the country is at war with a distant power.  The opening volume serves primarily to introduce the setting and a variety of characters, including a young boy's encounter with a mysterious girl, an elderly man's strange communications from an unseen sponsor, the training of a young member of the nobility, and the activities of a magician who has invented the ultimate spying device, a machine that allows him to look all around the world at will.  Cockayne has a pleasant, relaxed narrative style and he does a good job of developing his cast of characters.  It may be a bit slow paced for those who like their magic more center stage or melodramatic, but for the less impatient readers, it promises rewarding reading to come.

Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 2/02, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-00916-6

Patricia Briggs' new fantasy adventure has an interesting premise.  Young Ward of Hurog feared that his father would kill him to eliminate a possible challenge to the throne, so he spent his youth pretending to be mentally defective.  Then his father dies and he assumes the throne, but naturally his people are less than confident in his ability, and some of the nobles want to replace him with another, more competent ruler.  Ward has to prove himself somehow, but his choices are limited.  There's a war brewing on the border, and some ancient magic stirring in the basement of his castle.  He's got to get his act together real fast, or it will be disaster for himself and for the people he hopes to rule.  A lightweight but still satisfying fantasy adventure story, a nice break from the heavy weight multi-volume epics that dominate the genre.

Skating on the Edge by D.G. K. Goldberg, IPublish, 2001, $13.95, ISBN 0759550050. Also available in various ebook formats.

Goldberg is a new writer whose other published novel is horror.  This one's a fantasy, and it's noticeable better.  It's set in a sort of contemporary America, but when were magic and various fantastic creatures are real.  It's a quest story, or more properly a sendup of the quest story.  Of particular note is the vampire who has an eating disorder, one of the funniest touches, with the incompetent shapechanger a close second.  They kill a bunch of baddies, encounter a number of famous dead people, and have a series of comical adventures guaranteed to make you grin if not laugh outright.  This is certainly one of the best print on demand original novels I've read, and I'm surprised it didn't find a home with a more conventional publisher.

Shadowsinger by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 2/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30358-2

The fifth book in the Spellsong series brings that series to an apparent end.  Secca and her apprentice sorceress Richina have been successful in avoiding the conquest of their people by destroying an invasion fleet before it could land.  This buys them time but not a final victory.  The enemy is already raising a new army when they travel across the ocean and magically create a natural catastrophe to destroy the threat, but even after all this destruction, she still has to face a veritable army of wizards allied with her enemies.  Secca's extended and successful career is a bit too implausible for me at times, but there's no question that Modesitt can keep the action going at a breakneck pace, and this climax isn't likely to disappoint his fans.

Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey, Tor, 4/02, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87239-9

Epic fantasies consisting of very long novels appear to be very popular with readers, and Tor is providing the lion's share of the better entries, being particularly good at discovering new writers.  This sequel to Kushiel's Dart is another intricate and mostly satisfying novel of dark magic, court intrigue, good versus evil, and all set in a fantasy world that is at least distinguishable from the standard setting of so many inferior novels.  The protagonist, Phedre no Delaunay, has progressed from being a slave to being a spy, but her old enemy Melisande lost a battle, not the war, and is back for a fresh round of plots and counterplots.  The very large cast of characters, many of whom have similar names, is occasionally confusing, but with a little patience you'll be able to straighten them all out and enjoy the exciting ride that follows.

Hortishland by Margaret Lloyd, Hampton Roads, 12/01, $13.95, ISBN 1-57174-233-6

The premise of this fantasy novel is that at one time Earth was linked with another reality and humans inhabited both, but that the crossing points became more obscure with the passage of time, and people on our side forgot about the existence of the other world.  They did not forget about us, however, and seeing Earth heading for disaster, residents of the other reality decide to cross over and help us to save ourselves.  One family attempts to do so by performing a quest and undergoing a mystical experience.  This is a bit too new ageish for me, although the prose was readable enough for me to get through to the end. 

Forgotten Realms: Black Wolf by Dave Gross, Wizards of the Coast, 12/01, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-1901-9

Wizards of the Coast has expanded the range of series and sub-series in their line of fantasy novels tied in to their role playing games, and one of the most interesting of these is the Sembia series.  Dave Gross is, I believe, a first time novelist, although this dark fantasy doesn't read like a debut novel.  The story itself is fairly formulaic, a series of magical adventures featuring a protagonist who is a shapechanger, but who is torn between the need to use his wolfish powers to protect his family and the desire to suppress the ability to avoid discovery and banishment, or worse.  His prose is above average for this publisher, and his evocation of the culture of the imagined land is also quite well done.  Readers who have dismissed this imprint as simply a line of tie-ins should perhaps reappraise.

The Alchemist by Donna Boyd, Del Rey, 1/ 02, $22.95, ISBN 0-345-44114-1

This fantasy is a first novel, and it reads a little bit like Interview with the Vampire meets Highlander.  A modern day psychiatrist has a new client who claims to be an immortal alchemist who received his magical training in ancient Egypt.  He and two friends, one of whom is Nefertiti, survive the destruction of the school where they were trained.  As the ages pass, they go their separate ways, particularly after jealousy causes friction among the threesome.  The woman eventually develops a thirst for power and a desire to dominate the world, which ultimately provokes the protagonist, who once loved her, to seek her destruction.  Most of the novel is set in the past, although there's a surprise ending that I saw coming well in advance.  It's not badly written but frankly I kept waiting for the real story to begin, and for me at least, it never did.  The plot is just so slow paced and predictable that it seemed more like back story than central theme.  Boyd shows some promise, but not enough to lift this one above the ordinary.

Empress of the Endless Dream by Tom Arden, Gollancz, 12/01, 17.99 pounds, ISBN 0-575-06374-2

This is the fifth and apparently final volume in Arden's heroic fantasy epic known as the Orokon.  The set up is a familiar one.  The forces of evil have almost completed their conquest of the world.  The heroes have become separated, and although they have completed part of their quest to gather the magical crystals which can save the day, there is still some doubt about whether or not they will succeed.  Much of the story is predictable, but there are some nice twists – particularly those involving allies whose help turns out to be a hindrance – and Arden has an engaging narrative style. You can actually probably read this without having read the previous volumes because the situation is so familiar, but you're better off starting at the beginning and building up to this quite satisfying climax.

Winter Shadows and Other Tales by Mary Soon Lee, Dark Regions Press, 2001, $11.95, ISBN 1-888993-23-5

The first collection of Mary Soon Lee short stories is a formidable little book.  Far and away my favorite is "Cause and Consequence" in which an admirer of Jane Austen travels back to visit her during her youth, becomes romantically involved, and nearly destroys her career.  The other stories, predominantly fantasy, cover a wide variety of subjects including witchcraft, a very peculiar mailbox, heroic adventures, ghosts of various kinds, a talking box, a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a puppet who believes itself to be alive, and other things.  Her stories tend to be quite short – there are twenty of them here in less than one hundred and fifty pages – but they almost always carry a punch out of proportion to their size.  This one's worth your time and hard earned money.

The Crystal Desert by Julia Gray, Orbit, 2001, 6.99 pounds, ISBN 1-84149-093-8

There is quite a bit of mainstream British fantasy that doesn't make it to this side of the ocean, even though much of it is reasonably good – most notably Freda Warrington.  Another writer whose work would probably get a welcome reception here is Julia Gray, and this, the third book in her ongoing Guardian series, is her best since Ice Mage.  The protagonist is wandering across his world, visiting different lands in each book, and this time he arrives in the desert country of Misrah, peopled with nomads and menacing magic.  But our hero has magic talents of his own, and he uses them to good effect in this atmospheric but adventurous story.  A fourth title has already been announced, and I'm looking forward to it already.

I Am Mordred by Nancy Springer, Firebird, 1/ 02, $5.99, ISBN 0-698-11841-3

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander, Firebird, 1/ 02, $5.99, ISBN 0-14-131068-5

Firebird is a new imprint from Penguin Putnam which appears to be aimed primarily at young adult audiences. These are two of their first four titles, all reprints, and each is the opening volume in a series which will be continued by Firebird in the months to come.  As you can probably tell from the title, the Springer series consists of Arthurian fantasies.  This one concentrates on Mordred, Arthur's son, who grows up knowing that prophecy says he will kill his father.  Despite the dictates of destiny, he seeks approval and love from Arthur, and although he ultimately fails, it is as much a tragedy for Mordred as it is for his father.  Alexander's series is more light hearted and adventurous.  A printer's apprentice and a group of dubious characters become unwitting pawns in the battle between a devious aristocrat and the current king.  Alexander is best known for his Prydian series, but the Westmark stories are nearly as good.