Orcs by Stan Nicholls, Gollancz, 2004, $14, ISBN 0-575-07487-6

Here is the omnibus edition of the trilogy consisting of Bodyguard of Lightning, Legion of Thunder, and Warriors of the Tempest, plus a new short story.  The story tells of a band of orcs who decide that the rise of the human race is inevitable and that their future lies in founding a new place for themselves.  The predominant tone is military fantasy, but Nicholls is clever enough to keep the theme fresh, and his characters are certainly not your standard heroes.  This is a very welcome change of pace and should appeal to fans of Glen Cook as well as those who are just tired of handsome warriors and beautiful princesses.

The Wounded Hawk by Sara Douglass, Tor, 1/05, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30363-9

My reaction to the first novel in this series, The Nameless Day, was a bit lukewarm, but I found the main character, Thomas Neville, grew on me in the second volume.  The setting is Europe shortly after the Black Death.  Instead of peacefully recovering from the plague, the survivors have launched a new round of internecine fighting, which puzzles the protagonist, a priest, until he realizes that there are agents of Hell literally working behind the scenes, provoking and undermining the forces of good and fomenting the chaos.  These agents are capable of changing their appearance and are very difficult to identify, a talent Neville possesses and which he must use to unmask them.  The historical setting is colorfully evoked and the story becomes considerably more intense as it progresses.

Clabbernappers by Len Bailey, Starscape, 2/05, $17.95, ISBN 0-765-30981-5

Up until now, I believe the Starscape line has been exclusively reprint and always in paperback.  This title appears to be an original hardcover, targeted for age ten and up, and is a quest story with a teenaged hero, and liberal doses of humor.  The queen of Elidor has been kidnapped, and young Danny – who is more comfortable in a rodeo than on a quest – is the one chosen to rescue her.  Most of the book is a grand tour of the author's imagined world, some portions of which are quite original, and there is a wealth of interesting characters, although the narrative style is just a little bit too "Gosh wow!" for my taste.  But then again, I'm not a teenager any more.

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith, Tachyon, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 1-892391-19-8

This is a collection of short stories mixed with essays about James Tiptree the writer, about the award named in her honor, and includes a list of all the winners back to 1991, as well as runners up.  Although the stories are quite good – including work by Richard Calder, Kelly Link, and others – I actually found the essays equally interesting.  Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others provide a good variety of non-fiction, enlightening in addition to being well written.  Here's hoping this is just the first in an ongoing series of annual collections.

The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Harcourt, 2004, $17, ISBN 0-15-204616-X

This sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia is far superior, which was an accomplishment in itself, and is also one of the best fantasies I've read this year.  It's being marketed as a young adult novel, but this is a fantasy for everyone.  Cecilia and Kate are married now and they're on a grand tour whose greatest problems initially seem to be tedious waits and occasional seasickness.  But then they begin to notice things and pick up hints that maybe something mysterious and of international proportions is taking place around them.  I won't spoil this by revealing much of what follows, but this is a delightful light adventure story and great reading for almost any taste.

The Duke's Ballad by Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie, Tor, 1/05, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30636-0

I thought I had heard a while back that there were going to be no more Witch World novels, but fans of the series will be happy to know that the rumors were false.  This new addition follows the adventures of Aisling, a young witch who was driven from Kars by her brother, who turned to the dark side of the force and uses his powers for evil.  Now she and her younger brother are back, hiding from their brother, preparing to match her power against his.  Fairly standard fare, but the setting is an old favorite and the story moves quickly and plausibly.

Ordermaster by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 1/05, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-31213-1

Modesitt returns to the world of Recluce for the thirteenth time in this new adventure, although the hero promptly relocates to Nordla, a neighboring country, sent there on a mission by his king, who wants him to help prepare Nordla to defend itself against a mutual enemy.  When he arrives, he discovers that there are plots within plots, including an internal one that involves the local royal family.  This is the author's longest and most popular series, and although I prefer some of his other work, this is one of the better ones in this sequence, a nice mix of intrigue and overt action.  I wasn't really surprised much by anything that happened, but I was entertained throughout, and that is all I really was looking for.

Guardians of the Flame: To Home and Ehvenor by Joel Rosenberg, Baen, 11/04, $24, ISBN 0-7434-8858-X

This is the third omnibus of the Guardians of the Flames series, including the sixth and seventh novels, The Road to Ehvenor and The Road Home, originally published in 1991 and 1995 respectively.  Considerable time has passed since the events in the first five volumes, which made up an excellent fantasy series, but now the rift between our world and one where magic works has been disturbed again, and our friends are back to tackle slavers and other villains.  Unfortunately, I don't think Rosenberg recaptured the spirit of the earlier books completely, or perhaps it is just that so much similar fantasy has been published since then that the idea has lost its freshness.  In any case, these are durable, entertaining fantasy adventures, and it's good to see them preserved in hard covers and available once again.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Hyperion, 2004, $17.99, ISBN 0-7868-5445-6

The basic idea for this book is so obvious I'm surprised no one has thought to do it before.  It's the story of Peter Pan, before he was Peter and lived in Neverland.  It introduces some of the characters who appear in Barrie's original work, as well as several invented fresh by the authors.  It's a combination of light fantasy with old time sea adventure stories, written simply enough for pre-teens but entertainingly enough for us old fogies who still like a whiff of high adventure and the improbably adventures of an unlikely hero.  More fun than I thought it would be, and I had high hopes to start with.  Clever dialogue, amusing rifts on the classic story elements, a marvelous villain, and a perky heroine.  Much better than Harry Potter, though alas, not as likely to be successful.

No Time Like Show Time by Michael Hoeye, Putnam, 2004, $14.99, ISBN 0-399-23880-8

The Ratastrophe Catastrophe by David Lee Stone, Hyperion, 2004, $16.99, ISBN 0-7868-5128-7

There has been quite a bit of very good fantasy fiction for young adults this year, including these two.  The first is a talking animal story, with mice, although not quite in the same vein as the Miss Bianca stories.  The protagonist here, who apparently has appeared in previous titles.  He's a detective rodent and this time he answers a call from a fellow mouse who believes someone intends to kill him.  An amusing mix of humor and a detective story.  The second title is the first in the Illmoor Chronicles, which also has mice, or rather rats, because it's a retelling – with considerable humor – of the story of the Pied Piper, who steals a town's children when they refuse to pay him for his ratcatching services.  The latter book is for a slightly older audience, but still good fun for kids and adults alike.

Barbarians by Lynne Ewing, Volo, 2004, $9.99, ISBN 0-7868-1811-5

Escape by Lynne Ewing, Volo, 2004, $9.99, ISBN 0-7868-1812-3

These are the first two volumes of a new young adult series, published in small hardcover editions with no dustjacket.  The premise is that a group of teenagers from an alternate world where magic works have fled into our reality.  They have predictable and sometimes amusing problems blending in because they have magical abilities that would definitely make them outgroup with most teens.  They compete for girls with unfriendly school athletes, travel through time, resist the lure of beautiful but deadly young women, and escape the clutches of bounty hunters from their home reality.  The series, Sons of the Dark, has the potential to become another Roswell, with magic users instead of aliens, but there are some nice touches that suggest the author might be planning to vary the formula.  Later volumes will undoubtedly tell the tale.

The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud, Hyperion, 2004, $17.95, ISBN 0-7868-1860-3

The sequel to The Amulet of Samarkand is even more complex and exciting.  Bartimaeus is a genie summoned by young Nathaniel, who has magical powers, who accompanies him on a series of adventures in a magical alternate version of our world, this time taking him out of London and across into continental Europe, where he must discover the secrets of his homeland's enemies from the inside.  There are times when I thought the author was talking down to his audience a bit, a common problem in children's literature, but not so noticeably that it seriously interfered with my ability to enjoy the story, which is inventive, adventurous, and quite often suspenseful.  A considerable step up from the first volume and a good omen for the next and final book in the trilogy.

Fallen Angel by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Telos, 2004, $9.95, ISBN 1-903889-69-3

Here is a fantasy novel for those of us who are tired of court intrigues and endless barbarian battles.  Porsche Winter is an angel assigned to Earth, but who is deprived of almost all of her heavenly powers.  When she encounters a prominent female demon in a bar, she discovers that Hell itself is planning a major infiltration of the human world, but much to her surprise, the she-devil isn't entirely sympathetic to her master's plans.  There is a serious plot, but the author hasn't lost the sense of humor she displayed in the previous adventure of her angelic protagonist.  This is a pretty substantial trade paperback and one of the best buys for the money you'll find, as well as a refreshingly different fantasy novel.

Shifting Love by Constance O'Day-Flannery, Tor, 11/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-34889-6

I've read a few of this author's previous fantasies, most of which involved time travel, and have enjoyed them, but this new title is much better than anything she has done before.  The protagonist is a woman who is blessed and cursed with the ability to shapeshift, who feels herself doomed to live without love.  Then she meets an attractive, energetic business man who seems just possibly to be capable of accepting her for what she is, but before she can decide how to approach their relationship, she discovers that he is the target of a mysterious, quasi-occult group reminiscent of the Illuminati.  Yes, it's a romance novel, but there are some surprisingly good fantasy and supernatural novels appearing in that field lately, although for the most part the science fiction entrees have been less than outstanding.  This would be an excellent choice if you've been thinking about sampling what romance fiction has to offer.

Speaking of the Fantastic II compiled by Darrell Schweitzer, Wildside, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 0-8095-1072-3

Darrell Schweitzer follows up his previous series of interviews with another, these conducted between 1983 and 2002 and including such heavy weights as Peter S. Beagle, Philip Jose Farmer, Octavia Butler, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, and R.A. Lafferty among many others.  As always the interviewer does an excellent job of nudging the subjects into expanding on their ideas, sometimes at such length that it's almost an essay.  Although some of the older interviews might seem dated, they are actually quite insightful and enlightening even now.  I was particularly impressed by the interviews with Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, and Tim Powers.

Exile's Return by Raymond E. Feist, Eos, 4/05, $25.95, ISBN 0-380-97710-9

Kaspar, the despotic ruler who was relieved of his authority in the last volume of the Conclave of Shadows series, is sent into exile as punishment for his crimes.  At first it seems unlikely that he will survive, but he is befriended by a woman and her child and eventually finds employment as a soldier in a foreign land.  There he rebuilds his life, and some of his character, eventually uncovering a danger so great that even he must choose to ally himself with his old enemies.  Feist does an excellent job of rehabilitating his protagonist this time, against a background of high adventure and subtle mystery.  Another winner from a man with a whole shelf of them.

The Gate of Bones by Emily Drake, DAW, 2004, $21.95, ISBN 0-7564-0188-7

The fourth in the Magickers series ups the ante.  The land of Haven is finally stabilized as the refuge it was intended to be, but unfortunately the process of doing so allowed a sinister group of bad magicians to enter as well, and now the two forces are fighting for dominance in what was supposed to be a peaceful land.  The author avoids most of the clichιs of young adult fiction and tells a pretty good story, although it is still pretty tame by adult standards.

The Family Trade by Charles Stross, Tor, 12/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30929-7

Charles Stross has already made a name for himself writing hard science fiction, and now he's trying his hand at fantasy, very much in the style of Roger Zelazny.  The protagonist of this, which is likely to be the first of a series, is a woman who is in considerable danger in our world when she receives a magical item that allows her to escape into a parallel universe of magic.  But is it really an escape?  She finds herself caught up in a complex mesh of interpersonal squabbles and political maneuvering in a world strange to her from the outset.  Stross proves adept at this form as well, and will doubtless attract a whole new category of readers.

Dreams Made Flesh by Anne Bishop, Roc, 1/05, $16, ISBN 0-451-46013-8

Anne Bishop returns to the world of the Black Jewels series with this new novel, which relies more on the ways in which its characters interact than on physical conflict.  Jaenelle is the most powerful witch in the world, but that doesn't mean that she is in control.  There are three powerful males with whom she interacts, Saetan, Lucivar, and Daemon.  The names are significant, as they are all various of fallen angels, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily evil.  In fact, Jaenelle becomes romantically involved with one of them and emotionally dependent on the other two, one of whom becomes her mentor.  An intelligent, many layered, and refreshingly non-standard fantasy, and easily the author's best work to date.

Myrren's Gift by Fiona McIntosh, Eos, 3/05, $14.95, ISBN 0-06-074756-0

Wyl Thirsk is raised as companion to the prince, to whom he feels an obligation of loyalty even though they never become true friends.  There is something lacking in Prince Celimus, a barely hidden cruelty and an air of superiority that keeps a distance between himself and others.  When Celimus assumes the throne, Wyl becomes one of his most important supporters, a leader of the army, but there is still no true respect between them.  The situation worsens when Wyl witnesses some of the brutal excesses of the new ruler's regime, including the murder of an innocent witch, whose dying gift to him is a magical talent which proves vital to the later efforts to free the kingdom from his tyranny.  Newcomer McIntosh writes an engrossing story although I found Celimus to be too stereotypically evil to be entirely credible.

The Queen's Knight by Deborah Chester, Ace, 11/04, $7.99, ISBN 0-441-01225-6

The new queen of Mandria has more than her share of problems.  First she is kidnapped by her enemies, then rescued by one of her loyal retainers.  Unfortunately, by doing so, Sir Talmor was forced to reveal his ability to use magic, which is forbidden in Mandria, forcing her to reward him by sending him into exile.  She knows she will have need of his services in the future, and readers will know that his status will not remain unchanged as she battles a variety of conspiracies against the throne.  Nothing new but well written.

Paths of Evil by Richard C. White, Ibooks, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-9305-2

A group of warriors, with the usual variations among themselves but no really deeply drawn characteristics, set out to find the various portions of a magical artifact.  Once assembled it can be used to protect the land of Viridus from the magical menace confronting it.  Not badly written, but oh so familiar.  Although the story comes to a conclusion, it is obviously meant to be the first in a series, which is even less surprising.

Chill Factor by Rachel Caine, Roc, 1/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-46010-3

Joanne Baldwin died and was brought back to life in the form of a djinn in the second book in the Weather Warden series, but now she has been restored to human form for her third adventure.  It seems that with the leadership of the Wardens almost all dead, and the djinns out of control and threatening havoc, that things couldn't get worse, but of course they can, thanks to a mischievous teenager.  A secretive group tries to prod Joanne into taking direct action against the boy, perhaps for reasons of their own, and in any case, she is reluctant to risk being killed again.  A very unusual fantasy, which is praise in itself, and quite well done besides.

Ghosts in the Snow by Tamara Siler Jones, Bantam, 11/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58709-9

So much of modern fantasy uses similar plots that I often have difficulty differentiating good from average writers, or identifying retrospectively individual titles with authors.  For that reason, fantasies which step outside the familiar, even if only slightly, often resonate with me better than more sophisticated renditions of the same magical quest or stolen throne.  That's the case with this first novel, set in a castle beset by a mysterious, perhaps supernatural killer who is systematically slaughtering servant girls.  The protagonist is an investigator who has difficulty solving the crime even though he can see the ghosts of the victims.  Some original ideas, more than passable prose, and a pretty good mystery add up to a very pleasant debut.

Sister of the Dead by Barb & J.C Hendee, Roc, 1/05, $7.50, ISBN 0-451-46009-X

Here is the third in what is turning into a very good series indeed.  Magiere is half human, half vampire, and her mission in life is to track down the evil undead and return them to their grave.  Her companion is a half elf, who provides some interesting interaction when the action is on pause.  Like many fantasy heroes, she is seeking the secrets of her own past, trying to determine her true role in life, but as usual, the task isn't an easy one, and there are interested parties determined to keep their secrets.  The latest revelation comes at a high price, because a powerful evil force is wakened and must be dealt with, or the questions about her past might become academic.  Good sword and sorcery adventure with darker undertones.  It's not exactly Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Lord of the Rings as the blurbs imply, but the series is original enough to merit your serious attention.

Ghosts of Eden by T.M. Gray, Five Star, 1/05, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-304-8

Saxon Faraday returns to her home town after spending years in an insane asylum, but she is still convinced that a local house is somehow the locus of a terrible evil force.  That feeling is only reinforced by her return, and she soon finds herself with two unusual allies, on the brink of a battle against the Serpent, one of a race of evil beings who periodically shed their skin and menace the world.  During the battle, she will see a familiar landscape turn into a malformed, almost surreal world, and every bit of strength she possesses will be put to the test.  I found the dialogue a bit stiff at times, but the narrative itself is good and the story was sufficiently innovative to hold my interest.

The Two Swords by R.A. Salvatore, Wizards of the Coast, 10/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-7869-3360-7

R.A. Salvatore got his start writing game tie in novels for TSR, now Wizards of the Coast, and though he has now found a wider market, he still contributes to the Forgotten Realms series now and then.  Like many of the writers in that market, he has created his own subsets of the greater fantasy universe, and the most popular of these revolves around Drizzt, an elf with unusual abilities who frequently finds himself cast in the role of hero, or villain if things go awry.  This is the concluding volume of a trilogy involving Drizzt, the previous two being The Thousand Orcs and The Lone Drow.  Another major war has just ground to a close with one side victorious, but are the king's intentions good or not, and if not, can Drizzt find the courage to put aside his personal doubts and act against an imminent tyranny.  You won't doubt the outcome, but you should have fun getting there.

Midnight over Sanctaphrax by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, Fickling, 2004, $12.95, ISBN 0-385-75072-2

The Alchemist's Son by Martin Booth, Little Brown, 2004, $14.99, ISBN 0-31615575-6

The Edge Chronicles continue in the first of these two young adult titles.  Our recurring hero is sent on a perilous mission to avert disaster, but he suffers amnesia, loses his crew as well as his memories, and has various adventures before recovering himself.  I thought initially that this series was aimed at very young readers, but it is much more advanced than that and should appeal to fans of Harry Potter.  Very nice illustrations.  The second title is less intense but still quite suspenseful.  Two boys move into an old house with their family, where they encounter a boy recently wakened from a six century sleep who warns them that an evil alchemist has similarly wakened and is setting about his nefarious mission.  Young adult fantasy has shown definite signs of improvement since the advent of Harry Potter, and more mature readers should pay attention.

Smoke in the Wind by Wil Hanson, Five Star, 12/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-214-9

Magic works on the planet Cul, as Sam Guest learns when he arrives there on a business commission.  In due course he is told that he is actually fated to become a formidable magician in his own right, and he does exactly after that after a number of encounters with charmed horses, reptilian bad guys, and beautiful women.  The prose is occasionally uneven but the story is an amusing gone, although I had the same trouble with this as I did with several of Christopher Stasheff's books – I find it difficult to reconcile other world adventure with magic.  If you don't have the same problem, you should find this a light but enjoyable adventure.

Rogue's Hour by Scott Ciencin, CDS Books, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 1-59315-020-2

EverQuest is a computer game that has been around for about six years, and like many other fantasy role playing games, it has now spawned a novel, projected to be the first of many.  This one has more of the feel of a game than the others.  The protagonist is your typical mighty warrior with talents, but he is also an amnesiac, so we have to learn about the world right along with him.  His quest is to avoid a horde of enemies who want to prevent him from interfering with the wakening of a magical creature intent upon destroying the world.  Introduced by R.A. Salvatore.  Nothing special, but certainly readable.

The Croquet Player by H.G. Wells, Bison, 2004, $11.95, ISBN 0-8032-9542-0

Late in his career, Wells became even more bitter and pessimistic about the future of humanity, as is reflected in this short novel, which makes an effort to rationalize the fantastic element, although it is usually considered a fantasy.  The rather obnoxious protagonist encounters a doctor who tells him the story of a village suffering from a contagious mental illness which makes everyone become increasingly paranoid, irrational, and eventually inclined toward violence.  At first it seems like a supernatural curse, but eventually Wells reveals that it is a chronic condition which is about to spread beyond the village, a psychological disorder that arises from a basic flaw in human nature.  Interesting, but depressing.

The Hero Perseus by Robyn DiTocco and Tony DiTocco, Brainstorm, 2004, $11.95, ISBN 0-9723429-1-5

Although this children's book is self published, it was amusing enough that I read through to the end.  The authors do a pretty good job of interjecting a contemporary character, a young teenaged boy, into the world of Greek mythology, and some of his adventures are quite clever.  He proves to be quick witted enough to get himself out of trouble, a bit implausibly at times, but that's common in this type of book. The dialogue could use some work, but the rest isn't bad.  I can't avoid talking about the promotional literature which accompanied it, however, which I found rather offensive in its implication that the Harry Potter books are "dangerous" for young readers, so they should be directed to this book instead.  It implies a kind of intolerance that is exactly the kind of value we should not be teaching our children.

Mountain Magic by David Drake, Eric Flint, Ryk E. Spoor, and Henry Kuttner, Baen, 10/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-8856-3

I guess this is a kind of catch all anthology whose common theme is Appalachian settings.  It includes all four of Henry Kuttner's Hogben stories, which are worth the price of admission all by themselves, plus a reprint of David Drake's 1991 series of five stories previously published as Old Nathan, which pits a modern day magician against various evils, and a short novel by Flint and Spoor, new to this book, about underground spirits and their plot to unleash an earthquake that will devastate a large piece of the surface world. Drake's sequence is clever and the new novel is entertaining enough to round out the collection.

The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess, Tor, 12/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31214-X

Charles Vess provides graphic story versions of short stories by Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, Sharyn McCrumb, Jane Yolen, Emma Bull, and others in this new graphic collection from Tor.  Vess generally does an excellent job of compressing what might otherwise have been much longer works into their essential elements by using visual images in place of prose descriptions, and his artwork ranges from good to very good indeed.  The settings range from contemporary to historical, but almost always rural, and they are decidedly fantasy as they are all inspired by folk ballads or stories, some of them familiar to me, others not.  It's a picture book for adults. 

Trouble in the Forest by Trystam Kith, Five Star, 12/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-225-4

This is the second half of a two part novel whose interesting premise is that Robin Hood and his Merry Men are actually evil rather than merry, and that Sherwood Forest is dominated by supernatural forces.  The knight charged with cleaning up the problem realizes that the future of England is at stake, so he has to recruit some very unconventional allies when it becomes obvious that Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are not up to the task.  Kith's debut is quite impressive and I expect that we'll be seeing more from him in the future.

Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines, Five Star, 11/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-230-0

Here's a quest novel with a difference.  The protagonist is Jib, the goblin, and not a very prepossessing one.  When battle rages, he surrenders meekly, but that just gets him into more trouble because he is impressed into service as a guide for an expedition deep underground, where trolls and other frightening creatures exist.  Eventually he develops enough courage to act independently, so I guess that makes this a coming of goblin age story.  Although this first novel is pretty light weight, it's sufficiently entertaining to keep you reading, and the oddball hero is original enough to be memorable.  I wouldn't be at all surprised, or displeased, to see a sequel.

Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker, Joanna Cotler Books, 2004, $24.99, ISBN 0-06-029170-2

Clive Barker returns to his very strange world for the second in what apparently is going to be a four volume series, the Abarat Quartet.  It's a kind of Wizard of Oz with nastier inhabitants and greater mysteries, with Candy Quackenbush pursued by her enemies, helped by her friends, and threatened by an imminent war that could change the nature of that other universe forever.  More than one hundred full color illustrations are sprinkled through the text, which is technically a young adult novel, I suppose, although it certainly doesn't feel that way, and adult readers will enjoy it thoroughly.  I don't always like everything Barker writes, but he is constantly able to surprise me.

Children of the Rune edited by Sue Weinlein Cook, Malhavoc Press, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-846-X

This is a collection of all original fantasy stories based on the Unearthed Arcana game system, which I think is part of the Dungeons and Dragons umbrella system, which is a product of Wizards of the Coast, although this collection is distributed through White Wolf.  It resembles most such anthologies, and features some familiar names from other game tie-in collections like Ed Greenwood, Richard Lee Byers, Thomas Reid, and Jeff Grubb.  There are only one or two stories that I thought were actively bad, and only one or two that I thought were actively good – Greenwood and Byers – but the bulk of them are certainly readable enough to be worth the cover price.

Wartorn: Resurrection by Robert Asprin and Eric Del Carlo, Ace, 12/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01235-3

Robert Asprin has relied on humor for so much of his writing career that it is sometimes hard to remember that he has written some much more serious SF in the past.  Now he turns to mainstream fantasy with this, a collaborative series of adventure stories involving the efforts by an evil sorcerer to seize control of his world.  That desire seems to be genetically imprinted on evil sorcerers; they are never content with just amassing a fortune and abducted sex slaves.  Anyway, this particular sorcerer has brought back the personality of a long dead warlord, placed it in a new body, and is using him as the tool for his military conquest.  Fortunately, some of the good guys figure out what is going on, but can they find a way to defeat the gruesome twosome?   Future volumes will no doubt reveal the answer, although I feel reasonably confident that they will.

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey, DAW, 10/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-7564-0161-5

Lackey gives the Cinderella story a new twist in this suspenseful addition to her Elemental Masters series, and it's one of the best novels she has ever written.  Eleanor is a young woman who finds herself magically bound to the house of her stepmother after her father dies during World War I.  The stepmother is one of the masters who has reduced Eleanor to virtual slavery.  As the years pass, she almost gives up hope, but there is still a glimmer.  A dashing young man whom she once met has returned from the wars.  He is a master himself, but his experiences in combat have left him uncertain and bereft of his powers.  Can he save the day?  Can Eleanor find a way to summon him to help her?  You can probably guess the answers well in advance but it's a great ride getting to the destination.

The Faery Reel edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking, 2004, $19.99, ISBN 0-670-05914-5

The idea of an entire collection of stories about fairies might put some readers off, particularly if their image is of cute little tales about little people with wings.  There's not much of Tinkerbell in this collection of all original material, however.  The fairies are varied in nature and some of them are decidedly daunting.  My favorites were the contributions by Gregory Maguire, Patricia McKillip, and Charles De Lint, but there are good stories as well by Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Emma Bull, and others, and even the lesser stories are all quite readable.  I often read theme anthologies in fits and starts to prevent overdosing on a single concept, but this one I read straight through.

Enemies of Fortune edited by Lynn Abbey, Tor, 12/04, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-87490-1

The Thieves' World series is back with this second new collection of short stories.  Abbey has recruited a first rate group of contributors here, including the first new Andrew Offutt story I've seen in far too long.  C.J. Cherryh has a couple of good collaborative stories, and there are good tales by Mickey Zucker Reichert, Robin Wayne Bailey, Steven Brust, and others.  This was always the best and most interesting of the shared world fantasy series and these new volumes measure up favorably to the original set.

Magic Time: Ghostlands by Marc Scott Zicree and Robert Charles Wilson, Eos, 12/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-06-105070-9

Zicree collaborated with Barbara Hambly and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff for the first two volumes in this series, and now he teams up with Robert Charles Wilson for the third.  A mysterious catastrophe has virtually destroyed human civilization and brought magic into the world.  The first two books dealt with a group of survivors and their efforts to understand the new rules and survive the new dangers.  With volume three, they get more proactive, setting out to discover the cause of the change and, by understanding it, possibly change it back.  There's some very good writing here, and some excellent plotting, but even though it is the best in the series to date, I was sometimes confused by the large cast of characters, possibly because it has been quite a while since I read the previous volumes.  So you might want to hunt up the first two and read, or re-read, them before launching into the third.  It's worth the effort.

Houdini's Last Illusion by Steve Savile, Telos, 2004, $8.95, ISBN 1-903889-66-9

Alice's Journey Beyond the Moon by R.J. Carter, Telos, 2004, $7.95, ISBN 1-903889-76-6

Two fantasy novellas from two names, both unfamiliar to me.  The first is an interesting portrait of Harry Houdini, master magician, which assumes that he died during one of his death defying escapes, was magically resurrected because he possessed genuine powers, not just trickery.  Unfortunately, he senses that someone, or something, is following him, sending emissaries from the dead to track him down.  The story doesn't entirely come to life but has some chilling moments.  Much better is the second title, a "lost" Lewis Carroll manuscript in which Alice climbs through a telescope and emerges on the moon, where she meets the local queen, the man in the moon, and various others including the Mad Hatter and March Hare.  The story is liberally annotated and nicely illustrated and comes closer to capturing the tone of Carroll's original work much more than in any other similar work I've read.

Path of the Bold edited by James Lowder, Guardians of Order, 2004, $14.95, ISBN 1-894938-43-7

This is a collection of superhero stories set in Empire City, based on a game system, and part of a series of anthologies within that shared world.  The various characters are all new to me, and they're not as flamboyant as, say, the Marvel crew, but several of the stories are good reading, particularly the ones by Robert Weinberg and Stewart Wieck.  You won't find any Hugo contenders here, but there's plenty of fun to be had.

Shield of the Sky by Susan Krinard, Luna, 10/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80211-0

Rhenna is something akin to a pariah among her people, charged with a sacred duty to protect them from external forces, many of them supernatural, which lurk beyond the borders.  Her concerns deepen when she learns that several members of a tribe of shapeshifters, friends of her own kind, have disappeared mysteriously, amidst rumors of the coming of a new god, and not a benevolent one.  Her efforts result in the formation of a band of determined people from very different backgrounds, with whom of whom she begins to feel a strange and unsettling link.  Krinard has written more than a half dozen fantasy or supernatural romance novels, and she is one of the few who take the time to develop the story's background and the psychology of her characters beyond the rudimentary.  This new book was a bit overly familiar for my tastes, but it was undeniably well written and should find an attentive audience among mainstream fantasy fans as well as romance readers.

Death and Thraxas by Martin Scott, Baen, 9/04, $7.99, ISBN 0-7434-8850-4

The third and fourth adventures of Thraxas are bundled together here, Thraxas at the Races from 1999, in which he has a run of very bad luck, culminating in his becoming the prime suspect in a murder case, and Thraxas and the Elvish Isles from 2000, in which he travels to a distant location to help an old friend solve another murder, only to find himself in the middle of a variety of weird events.  As always, Scott finds a sure balance between seriousness and levity.  I'm rather surprised it has taken this long for the books to find an audience here, and hopefully Baen will continue to reprint the more recent titles in the series.

Mirror, Mirror... by Dotti Enderle, Llewellyn, 2004, $4.99, ISBN 0-7387-0436-9

I've only seen one previous volume in this series, the Fortune Tellers Club, and the one I saw made only a faint impression on me.  This one is considerably better.  The format is young adult fantasy occult, because the fortune tellers club sometimes use real magical powers.  The premise for this one is nicely eerie.  One of the girls wakes up one day and discovers that her reflection is unrecognizable.  Although she herself is unchanged, the image she and everyone else sees in the mirror is entirely different.  A pretty good mystery, neatly resolved.

Wild Kingdoms by Robert Earl, Black Library, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416-149-8

This new Warhammer fantasy novel is surprisingly light in tone, a sort of quest in which two companions travel across a barbaric empire looking for a young woman who disappeared somewhere within its borders.  Their quest takes them into the land of the Ogres before it is completed, and they have a variety of episodic adventures.  The first half of the novel is, alas, better than the second half, but it's not a bad story and the protagonists are occasionally amusing.

The Road to the Dark Tower by Bev Vincent, New American Library, 10/04, $14.95, ISBN 0-451-21304-1

This companion volume to the Dark Tower series by Stephen King bears his endorsement, so one must assume that she got things right.  That said, this is probably one of the most valuable companion books I've seen, because of the complexity and idiosyncratic nature of the original material.  There's also considerable discussion of the background, how King came to write the books and why it took so long, references to and comparisons against his other stories.  Fans of the series will want this guidebook on the shelf right beside it.

Iron Council by China Mieville, Del Rey, 7/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-345-46402-8

China Mieville returns to his fabulous magical city of New Crobuzon for another first rate, epic novel of the imagination.  The merchant class of that city state has become ever more powerful and their quest for wealth has led to the erosion of the human rights for the less fortunate citizens.  That leads to unrest which leads to rebellion, of course, and that in turn leads to the theft of a railroad train designed to become a way to cross the continent.  As the rebels flee, the authorities pursue, and we are given a grand tour of yet another part of Mieville's brilliant realized fantasy world.  Although his novels don't make up a single sustained story, New Crobuzon is destined to become a modern day equivalent of Cabell's Poictesme and other wondrous worlds of the literary past.

Treason Keep by Jennifer Fallon, Tor, 11/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30987-4

The second volume of the Hythrun Chronicles adds one complication after another.  One of the two rebels who overthrew the evil queen of Medalon has been fatally wounded, and her brother is forced to turn to magical sources if he is to save her life.  This distracts him from the current political and military situation, which is almost equally dour.  A foreign ruler has raised an army to invade, and still another is working behind the scenes politically to weaken the position of his potential rivals.  Can Tarja save his sister, form an alliance with a former enemy, and save the day?  We'll find out, but not necessarily this time either, as there is still at least one more title to come.  Well done but unexceptional fantasy fare, although I did think the annoying princess was a quite amusing character. 

The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson, Putnam, 10/04, $26.95, ISBN 0-399-15232-6

When the first chronicles of Thomas Covenant appeared back in 1977, it was a major event in the fantasy world, not only because of its scale and the quality of the prose, but because Donaldson took some of the elements of Tolkien's work and mixed it with his own ideas, which included a protagonist who doubted the reality of what was happening around him.  Although the second trilogy wasn't nearly as good, it was still head and shoulders above most of the other fantasy of the early 1980s, and when I heard that Donaldson was going to return to The Land for four more volumes, starting with this one, I was psyched.  So how do I feel after reading the first one?  Uncertain.  There's a lot of good stuff in here, and it was nice to return to a familiar fantasy world, although Lord  Foul is back and he's changed things more than ever this time.  The story opens with a long section in our world.  Covenant is dead and his wife confined in a sanitarium, but his son Roger has come of age and he stirs things up, kidnapping his mother, committing a grisly murder or two, and leading Dr. Linden Avery on a chase that takes her back into the Land.  My uncertainty is with the pacing.  Almost every scene seems to take about 50% longer than it should have, and I constantly had to resist the temptation to skip ahead impatiently.  Maybe I was just too anxious to find out what was going to happen next, but I think the first hundred pages in particular take too long to get up to speed, and I'm afraid that might discourage many readers from persevering until the faster paced stuff later on.

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 11/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30936-X

For reasons unclear to me, I have enjoyed this series much less than I have Lindskold's other work, perhaps because I have read too many stories where a human and an animal are bonded and have adventures together.  But I am happy to say that this one struck me as the best of the series, pitting Firekeeper – the young woman who was raised by wolves – and her four legged friend against an entire nation when they are kidnapped to a land whose rulers wish to communicate with the animals they have made into virtual slaves.  The society of the Liglimoshti is complex and plausibly constructed, given its fantastic premises, and Firekeeper emerges as a real person this time.  I still think she's much better with titles like the recent The Buried Pyramid, but reading her work is never a waste of time and at its best it can be highly entertaining.

One Soldier, One King by Alexander C. Irvine, Del Rey, 8/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-345-46696-9

What would you do if some complete stranger came up to you and announced that you were the Fisher King and that your duty was to protect the Holy Grail?  Ex-Korean War soldier Lance Porter has exactly that problem when a rather oddball poet announces that very destiny to him.  Initially skeptical, later convinced that he is an inadequate tool for the task, Porter becomes protector of that mystical object, sought after by numerous characters including famous poet Arthur Rimbaud.  Irvine sets this novel of mystical power within the various subcultures of New York and California during the late 1950s, and proves once again that there is no plot device so overly familiar that it can't be put to good use in the hands of a talented and imaginative writer.  As impressive as was his first novel, A Scattering of Jades, this one is even better.

The Secret of Shabaz by Jennifer Macaire, Medallion, 2004, $12.99, ISBN 1-932815-09-0

A long time ago, the unicorn Shabaz sacrificed his horn to save a child and her mother.  Years pass and the child grows up, orphaned, protected by Shabaz and an aging elf named Birchspring.  They have concealed much of her past and their nature from the little girl, now a teenager, but when a new sorcerer threatens to bring strife to the previously peaceful land, they can't hide the truth any longer.  This is, I believe, the author's first fantasy although she has done some previous young adult science fiction.  The story line doesn't offer anything new but it's not badly done and Macaire avoids writing down to her target audience.

The Mountain's Call by Caitlin Brennan, Luna, 2004, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80210-2

Valeria lives in a culture who knows the gods are real, that they reside in a nearby chain of mountains.  Some of their number are trained to ride horses and serve the gods, but long tradition and standing prejudice require that all of the riders be male.  Valeria wants to be the first woman to enter their ranks, so she disguises herself in order to compete for that honor, but when she wins, she is also exposed, and her right is denied by her own people.  The author's name was unfamiliar but it seemed too polished for a first novel, so I checked the copyright page and, sure enough, it appears to be Judith Tarr.  It also appears to be a well written fantasy, regardless of the name on the cover.

Industrial Magic by Kelley Armstrong, Bantam, 11/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58707-2

The second adventure of Paige Armstrong is a more complex and considerably darker one.  She has parted ways with the older coven of witches and is forming a new one with more modern ideas when she discovers that someone is killing the older children of a rival coven, one of the most powerful in the country.  She is drawn into the investigation, which is made more complex by the fact that a prominent member of that coven is someone with whom she has been previously romantically involved.  Armstrong's society of witches is believable and she develops her characters much more fully this time than in the previous novel, Dime Store Magic.  Hopefully Paige and her friends will be back for more adventures.

Prisoner of Haven by Nancy Varian Berberick, Wizards of the Coast, 6/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-3327-5

Dawn of Night by Paul S. Kemp, Wizards of the Coast, 6/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-3225-2

Wizards of the Coast hadn't sent me anything in a long time so I went looking the other day and found a handful of new titles.  My first impression was that they've upgraded the cover artwork quality quite a bit.  Having read a few of them, I'd say there has been some noticeable improvement in the average quality as well.  The first of these two is the story of a city under foreign occupation, and the effects on the inhabitants, particularly two women who were formerly rivals and now must seek an accommodation.  It was surprisingly restrained for this imprint, and has unusually strongly drawn characters.  The second is a more conventional sword and sorcery plot, the second adventure of Erevis Cale, and the story is quite well done, although you won't be particularly surprised by any of the plot twists.  And whoever edited the cover copy should be embarrassed for having misspelled "thieves".

The Fantastic Art of Luis Royo, NBM, 2004, $45, ISBN 1-56163-398-4

The Book of Schuiten, NBM, 2004, $45, ISBN 1-56163402-6

The Invisible Frontier by Schuiten and Peeters, NBM, 2004, $17.95, ISBN 1-56163-400-X

We have a selection of graphic titles this month from NBM, the most familiar of which to SF and fantasy readers should be the first, a cross selection of the best from Luis Royo's previous art books.  I actually found this a little disappointing.  In large chunks, Royo's work strikes me as very much alike, and the many full color plates here of semi-clad males and females, while individually often quite nicely done, becomes a bit repetitious after a while.  If you already have a large proportion of his previous seven collections, this would be redundant, but as a sampler of his work, it more than does the job.  Francois Schuiten is a graphics novel artist, and his work looks much more cartoony and less polished.  On the other hand, his subject matter is much more varied, and some of his imagery is quite unusual.  Several of the pieces of art here are drawn from the Cities of the Fantastic series of graphic novels he has been producing along with Benoit Peeters, of which the last title is a new addition, volume 2 of the Invisible Frontier set, the adventures of a mapmaker in a fantastic land, which is the most visually interesting of all the graphic novel series that I've yet seen.

Turn the Other Chick edited by Esther Friesner, Baen, 11/04, $20, ISBN 0-7434-8857-1

The latest volume in this series of generally very funny collections of stories about assertive women in various fantastic situations is a bit below its usual standards, but still contains a few notable stories.  Wen Spencer, K.D. Wentworth, Lee Martindale, Robin Wayne Bailey, and Harry Turtledove contribute some of the better stories about female warriors, although their weapons aren't always items we ordinarily think of in that fashion.  I particularly liked Martindale's "Combat Shopping". 

Master of the Cauldron by David Drake, Tor, 11/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-87496-0

This is the sixth in the series that started with Lord of the Isles. The various islands have been theoretically united under a single rule, but the local authorities still pretty much run things the way they want.  The ruler of one of these islands, Sandrakkan, is ready to submit to the authority of the new king and his party, but his wife is a more ambitious sort, and she's playing with dark sorcery as a way to further her husband's career.  That's not going to be good for her in the long run, as we no doubt would have told her had we had the opportunity, but she blindly pursues her personal path to doom, although she causes our heroes considerable difficulty in the process.  Drake writes this kind of fantasy adventure as well as anyone active in the field, and has a real gift for the intricacies of court intrigues.

Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey, Tor, 11/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30521-6

Here's a fantasy novel, opening volume of a series of course, that has a slightly different setting.  The world has been created by gods, one in particular, but is now divided between the two brother deities, who are no longer on good terms.  One of them, Satoris, has chosen a noble warrior as his primary defender, a man embittered by the losses he has experienced.  As alliances among the human population threaten to upset the balance of power and perhaps endanger Satoris' future existence, he orders his chief lieutenant to seize a prominent woman to prevent her from achieving her destiny.  Unfortunately, despite his supernatural transformation, he remains human enough to fall in love with the woman, and that is almost certainly the beginning of the end we will get to witness in a later volume.  An intriguing fantasy world with interesting characters and more than a touch of romance.

The Finest Creation by Jean Rabe, Tor, 11/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30820-7

If you like horses, you'll probably enjoy this new fantasy novel a lot more than I did.  The horses in this case are supernaturally created beings who are telepathic and bonded so firmly to good that you may find yourself growing impatient with them for that very reason.  They're just a little too good to be true.  Their purpose is to forge a bond with humans of extraordinary merit, to serve as guides and protectors for their lives.  This is the story of Gallant-Stallion and his charge and their adventures in a world where political intrigue is deadly and pervasive.  Rabe has written a number of enjoyable fantasy adventures and this one is technically every bit as good, but the premise and the story itself just never caught my interest.

The Shadow Roads by Sean Russell, Eos, 11/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-380-974916

What started as a comparatively simple conflict over the succession to the throne of Ayr is rapidly expanding to become a cataclysmic war that threatens the entire world.  Now a number of powerful sorcerers have become involved in the fray, and their hatred of each other is much more dangerous than a mere question of political arrangements.  Russell brings his story, final volume of the Swans' War trilogy,  to a satisfactory conclusion but only after subjecting his characters to another round of victories and defeats.  This author's early novels showed considerable promise, but he has yet to demonstrate that he can move on from standard fantasy to more ambitious projects.

The Lance Thrower by Jack Whyte, Forge, 9/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-86929-0

I discovered this series of novels about the life of the young Arthur Pendragon fairly late in the game, and I'm not particularly fond of Arthurian fiction anyway since the story has been told and retold so many times that it almost always feels as though I'm re-reading something, but Whyte manages something quite out of the ordinary.  For one thing, Arthur is not a bigger than life figure, and it's obvious that to some extent he's trapped by his own destiny.  In this particular volume, he is traveling with a young, scholarly type with whom he develops a close friendship and various adventures, and if you haven't figured it out by the title alone, yes, he eventually becomes Sir Lancelot.  Merlin's presence notwithstanding, this is a much more realistic portrayal of Arthur as an historical character, and it's also a thoroughly entertaining story.

The King of Ice Cream by Robert Wayne McCoy, Five Star, 9/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-148-7

This first novel straddles the borders between fantasy and horror, so I suppose it's best to call it a dark fantasy.  The setting is the contemporary world, a rural area where there is hidden an ancient artifact, and a potential power to transform the world.  In ancient times, a group of fallen angels disobeyed God and mated with humans, and their offspring were immortal and monstrous beings who were largely scourged from the world by the Flood.  Not all of them perished, however, and now there is a stirring of powers which modern man can only imagine.  McCoy does an excellent of building the atmosphere and suspense, and the pace slips only very slightly during the subsequent chapters.  A debut novel that suggests a successful future for the author and more good reading for the rest of us.

Demonstorm by James Barclay, Gollancz, 2004, £18.99, ISBN 0-575-07332-2

This is the sixth and apparently last in the second trilogy in Barclay's Raven series.  The armies of Tessaya have finally begun to get the upper hand in their struggle with those of Dystran, and it looks like the defeat of the latter is inevitable.  His only recourse is to call upon the most dangerous and powerful of his weapons, the magical force that regulates the interface between the alternate worlds of other dimensions.  But if Dystran resorts to this power, will he unleash a danger even greater than that offered by his mortal enemy?  A large and varied cast of characters rush toward the climactic confrontation in this exciting and occasionally quite surprising fantasy series.

Shadowmarch by Tad Williams, DAW, 11/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-7564-0219-0

This is the first half, presumably, of a new, very long fantasy adventure by Tad Williams.  The King of Southmarch has been imprisoned and his inexperienced family must run the kingdom without him.  That would have been difficult under the best of conditions, but their path is beset by even greater problems.  A rival human ruler has cast covetous eyes on their land and power, and potentially even worse, an inhuman race which has been kept insulated behind a mystical barrier has united behind an embodied demon and are close to breaking free.  As he has done in the past, Williams takes up the various threads of high fantasy and weaves them into an exciting and convincing tale, one in which magical events seem almost mundane as he tests his characters against situations designed to break their spirit.  The first volume will leave you impatient for the rest of the story.

Scabbard's Song by Kim Hunter, Orbit, 2004, $19.99, ISBN 1-84149-187-X

Here's the final volume of the Red Pavilions trilogy, a fantasy series by new writer Hunter.  The protagonist is a soldier who wakened in the first volume to find himself bereft of his memory, although he eventually has a very successful career, rising in rank until he commands entire armies.  Through it all he has had a secret enemy, and now the time has come for the masks to be lifted, from his memory and from his life.  Most of the adventure in this one is derived from internal political problems and familiar physical challenges.  I've never quite been able to identify with the Soldier, so the series has left me with no emotional involvement, although Hunter seems to have the potential to be a successful writer given the right story to tell.

The Secret of the Unicorn Queen by Josepha Sherman and Gwen Hansen, Del Rey, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 0-345-46849-X

This is an omnibus of the first two volumes in this series, Swept Away by Josepha Sherman, and Sun Blind by Gwen Hansen, both of which first appeared in 1988.  The protagonist is a young girl from our world who is transported to a magical realm where she becomes caught up in the battle against your standard evil ruler.  Sherman's opening volume is much the better of the two, and I believe she wrote some of the other titles in the series, which presumably will be reprinted in due course in the same format.  A pleasant but low key fantasy series aimed at younger readers.

Keaen by Till Noever, Edge, 2004, $14.95, ISBN 1-894063-08-2

The avalanche of new epic fantasies continues with this one, which is set in a world where two rival kingdoms edge uneasily toward a fresh outbreak of war.  Two young nobles have decided that they don't want to be bound by the pressures of their position and the expectations of their families, but it's more difficult to break with tradition than they expected.  The issue is complicated by home grown revolutionaries who wish to change their form of government, by force if necessary, even though that will only destabilize the situation even further.  Reasonably well written and decently plotted, but with nothing really new to say.

The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman, Tesseract, 2004, $14.95, ISBN 1-894063-22-8

Lisa Smedman's previous novels have been competently written but unexceptional tie-ins, but her first all original novel is quite another kettle of fish.  The setting is an alternate 19th Century Canada after the moon has been struck by a rogue body and magic has been released on the Earth.  When a minister disappears under mysterious circumstances, a Mountie with psychic powers is dispatched to investigate.  He finds much more than he counted on, including an effort by a native American shaman to finally cast the European invaders out of Indian lands.  Many of the characters are based on historical figures, and Smedman's evocation of that period of history – although with a magical overlay – is quite entertaining.  Here's hoping she continues to write in her own universes in the future.

The Magister's Mask by Deborah Fredericks, Dragon Moon Press, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 1-896944-16-7

Randall Garrett was one of the very first to successfully blend the traditional detective story with fantasy, a difficult task given the presence of magic and the temptation to cheat the reader.  Until recently, very few others attempted to mimic his feat, but there have been an increasing number of attempts in the past few years, some of them quite successful.  This, which I believe is a first novel, does so quite well.  The protagonist is a young woman who is just learning to use magic when a local lord if murdered.  His death sets off  a political struggle which threatens to swamp the investigation, but she is determined to prove her own abilities, as well as to ensure that an innocent person is not convicted of the crime.  The dialogue struck me as awkward occasionally, but for the most part this was a surprising good and entertaining story, and it didn't cheat either.

The Bloody Crown of Conan by Robert E. Howard, Del Rey, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 0-345-46152-5

Del Rey books is bringing selected works of Robert Howard back into print including this, the second volume of Conan stories.  This one contains three short novels, "The People of the Black Circle", "The Hour of the Dragon", and "A Witch Shall Be Born", which also happen to be three of the best in the series.  There is also a considerable body of peripheral material including synopses, notes, and a short essay on the creation of Conan's world.  Howard was far and away the best at writing this sort of story, and his many subsequent imitators have only occasionally rivaled his work.  If you're a fantasy fan and haven't already read Howard, here's a chance to fill an important gap.  If you're just someone looking for good storytelling, you won't be disappointed either.

The Sorcerer's Companion by Allan Zola Kronzek and Elizabeth Kronzek, Broadway Boos, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 0-7679-1944-0

Despite the lengthy disclaimer on the cover informing us that this is not an authorized Harry Potter tie in, it looks very much like a companion volume.  But rather than directly reflect on the fiction of J.R. Rowling, it is in fact a series of brief essays on various aspects of legend and literature which Rowling drew upon in part for her own work, covering such topics as invisibility, talismans, basilisks, broomsticks, flying carpets, trolls, and toads.  In another sense, it is a companion to most modern fantasy fiction, however, since one or more of the topics container herein can be found in most mainstream fantasy novels, and some of the material is even interesting for its own sake.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King, Donald Grant/Scribner, 9/04, $35, ISBN1880418-62-2

Well, he's finished it at last.  The seventh and final volume in the Dark Tower series brings Roland through another round of troubles and obstacles but he does in fact reach the Dark Tower and ascend to its secrets.  I'm not going to tell you what he finds there, because that would spoil the fun, but I suspect it will be the subject of considerable controversy among fans of the series.  "Stephen King" makes another visit as a character, as well, and the reader is invited to draw what parallels and insights he or she might wish to draw.  It's as episodic as most of what went before, and just as twisted and inventive.  I admit that I didn't like the series as well as I did his more conventional fiction, but it did seem to get much better in the later volumes and this one is sure to be a best seller.  Whether or not it really will be his final novel remains to be seen, but he certainly wouldn't be quitting on a sour note.

The White Rose by R. Garcia y Robertson, Forge, 10/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-86994-0

This is the third novel about Robyn Stafford, a woman from our era who finds herself back in the 15th Century.  The form is pretty much that of the standard time travel romance, but as with the previous two books in the series, the author elevates the form considerably thanks to his vividly realized setting and the intricacy with which his characters interact with one another.  There's more physical conflict in the offing this time as well.  Invaders from the continent have placed London in peril, and there is talk of civil war in the land at large.  Don't be put off by the romance label.  This is a first class time travel story, and a pretty good historical novel as well.

Shadows in the Darkness by Elaine Cunningham, Tor, 10/04, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-30970-X

Elaine Cunningham, whose previous work has been primarily standard fantasy adventure for the Wizards of the Coast/TSR line, has been expanding her writing horizons recently, and her latest is unlike anything she has done before.  The experiment, if that's what it was, proved very successful, since this is far and away her best, and most understated novel, a contemporary fantasy with a shade of the dark.  The protagonist is an unjustly  cashiered police officer who starts a private detective agency to support herself.  She is reasonably successful, until she gets involved with the disappearance of two young people, one of whom is found brutally murdered.  On the surface, it's a standard detective story, but there are undercurrents that grow more significant as the story progresses, revealing her affinity for ancient magical power still present, though concealed, in the modern world.  Here's hoping Cunningham continues to explore this kind of story in the future.

Paladins by Joel Rosenberg, Baen, 9/04, $24, ISBN 0-7434-8851-2

Father Cully is, or perhaps was, a member of a band of knights bound by a devout religion.  He has wandered a bit since those days, an exile which is brought to an end when two of his former associates find him in a tavern, and on the brink of trouble, of course.  They enlist his company in their subsequent exploits, which are rousing if rather familiar fantasy exploits, with derring do, fights, and the usual high adventure.  The characters are likeable enough to sustain the story even at its low points, although Rosenberg's recent lightly humorous adventures worked better for me.  This is the first in a projected series, so time will tell in which direction it ultimately turns.

Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris, Dragon Moon, 2004, $19.95, ISBN 1-896944-18-3

The title character notwithstanding, this really isn't a spoof of Tolkien's work, although it is a spoof.  Baddings is a dwarf living in an alternate version of Prohibition Era Chicago, where he works as a private investigator.  All of the elements of hardboiled detective fiction are here, generally exaggerated, and a fair number of puns and other broad humor.  Baddings' latest case is going to bring him perilously close to Al Capone and other dangerous characters, but he's stubborn and doesn't give up on a client.  Some of the humor is pretty predictable, but for the most part this is an amusing mix of the two genres, with some clever lampooning of both.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard, Del Rey, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 0-345-46150-9

I'm not sure just what it is about Howard's fantasy fiction that makes it so distinctive, and frankly still so much better and more imaginative than most of what is published under that label today.  The Solomon Kane stories are not generally numbered among his best, but they're still extremely effective and they age quite well.  This is a new collection of his complete adventures, including a variant version of one of the stories.  Kane was a bit more prim and proper than most of Howard's other heroes, but he traveled the world and encountered enough weirdness to satisfy the most adventurous soul, and the most jaded readers.  So set aside that latest best selling disguised medieval historical novel and try some real, classic fantasy for a change.

The Covenant Rising by Stan Nicholls, Eos, 1/05, $14.95, ISBN 0-06-073889-8

A few years ago, Stan Nicholls produced an interesting example of military fantasy, with orcs as his major characters.  His new series, Dreamtime, starts off in an entirely different direction.  In a world where fantasy is an intimate part of everyday life, one of the survivors of a race whose fellows were massacred is subject to fits of uncontrollable rage, which lowers his attractiveness as a companion, obviously.  He and a sorcerer's apprentice set off on a quest together, beset by the usual difficulties of supernatural menaces and purely human treachery and intrigue.  It's a competent and fairly well done opening volume, but it lacks the originality of perspective that made his previous series so memorable.

Blood of the Dragon by C.L. Werner, Black Library, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416-095-5

Sacred Flesh by Robin D. Laws, Black Library, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416-091-2

Two novels from the half of the Warhammer universe known as the Old World, a primitive Earth where magic holds sway and heroes carry swords and other edged weapons.  The individual authors writing within that framework sometimes create their own mini-series with recurring characters, and that's the case with the first of these, which features Brunner, a bounty hunter who usually gets more than he bargained for, this time a pretty good adventure story with him caught between warring human factions and a nasty dragon.  Next up is a longer story introducing another recurring character, a woman who makes a living harvesting materials left behind on battlefields, a commodity which her world has in sufficient supply.  Even so, she agrees to take a job escorting a party of pilgrims, and has to solve a murder mystery in the process.  The second title has a more interesting story, but the first one is somewhat better written.  Both are surprisingly high quality for game tie-in novels.

Elfquest: The Searcher and the Sword by Wendy & Richard Pini, DC Comics, 2004, $24.95, ISBN 1-4012-0183-0

The first new Elfquest title I've seen in a long time makes a very impressive graphic hardcover, full color throughout.  The theme this time is abusive relationships and the difficulty in escaping from them, and for a change, there are humans as the main characters.  The usual background is there as well, but this has a much more serious tone than the earlier titles I've read.  The artwork, however, is at least as good as in the past and this is overall a very attractive passage which should be particularly pleasing to long time fans of the series.

That Darn Squid God by Nick Pollotta and James Clay, Wildside, 2004, $24.95, ISBN 1-59224-097-6

The recent movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, was so badly done that it was almost a parody of the Victorian fantasy adventure.  Authors Pollotta and Clay do them one better with this deliberate slapstick treatment.  An ancient malevolent demon known as the Squid God has managed to reconstitute itself and alter the orbit of the moon to indicate its time has come.  Professor Einstein and Lord Carstairs desperately attempt to find the secret location of the evil creature's temple, dodging malevolent squid god worshippers along the way, in a madcap, zany, often very funny spoof of this type of story.  Filled with derring do, and some derring don'ts, a clandestine visit to the Vatican, artifacts from King Solomon's mines, and other goodies.  Don't expect anything subtle, and hang onto your hat.

The Green and the Gray by Timothy Zahn, Tor, 9/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30717-0

The latest Timothy Zahn novel is an unusually hybrid.  The plot involves secret aliens.  A handful of survivors from two separate but distinct races, each of which can pass for human visually, are secretly living in New York City, where their long standing animosity has resulted in an uneasy truce.  The two sides, Green and Gray, are rigid biologically determined caste systems in which different individuals have different powers.  The discovery that one young girl has a power which could alter the balance leads to a decision to sacrifice her to keep the piece, but dissidents intervene and the girl finds herself with two very confused human protectors.  The balance of the story involves their discovery of the details of the conflict and resolution of that as well as the immediate problem.  Despite the rationalization, this reads very much like a fantasy.  The history of the two races is fairy tale in flavor and very implausible and their various powers are essentially magic.  They can change the structure of their bodies and merge into trees, their weapons violate the laws of conservation of mass and energy, and their ability to blend into human society, eat our food, and so forth is completely unconvincing.  The story would have worked as well if not better if they had been two strains of fairies rather than aliens and I'm puzzled why it wasn't written that way from the outset.  Once you get past those implausibilities, it's an exciting and engaging book, but the premise was just too much for me.

The Nameless Day by Sara Douglass, Tor, 7/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30362-0

Although I have found this author's previous books very varied in appeal, this opening volume of the Crucible is definitely one of her better ones.  It's an historical, set during the Black Plague in Europe, and the main protagonist is a religious man, Brother Thomas Neville, who has a visitation from a being that represents itself as an angel.  As it happens, this is going to be only the first of his conversations with both angels and demons, both sides determined to sway his actions to suit their particular purposes.   It might seem like a pretty straightforward decision, but that assumes that Brother Thomas can determine which of his conversational partners is angelic and which is not.  Finely developed historical background, a many layered protagonist, and an excellent series of problems for him to confront.  This novel was previously published in Australia in 2000.

Twilight Rising, Serpent's Dream by Diana Marcellas, Tor, 8/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87482-0

Another fantasy trilogy comes to a close, this one concerning a woman who believes herself to be the last of a strain of witches who have been persecuted otherwise to complete extinction.  Her gift is for healing, and the compulsion to save people from pain has gotten her into trouble constantly in her first two adventures, and she's on the run again in the concluding volume.  Much to her surprise, although not to the reader's, she discovers that her people are not all dead after all.  Her reunion with them is not as happy as it might be, however, because some of them are understandably bitter about the way they have been treated and are determined to avenge themselves and their dead relatives.  It is up to Brierly to create a bridge between the two societies, or watch a new wave of conflict that will only further polarize them.  Entertainingly written, but like so much contemporary fantasy, there are few surprises in the plot.

The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Wright, Tor, 8/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-84871-4

Having inaugurated his career with a very innovative science fiction trilogy, John Wright turns his hand to fantasy with this, the opening volume of The War of the Dreaming.  For his fantasy, he takes a familiar device and gives it a twist to the side.  Humanity is unwittingly caught in the battle between dark and light, two forces who have been relatively quiescent behind a kind of barrier which is watched over by a line of watchman, of whom the latest is Gavin Waylock.  Waylock detects that the dark force is stirring, determined to impose its will over humanity, and logically he turns to the force of light to balance it.  To his dismay, he realizes that the light will impose an equally restrictive control over humans, for benevolent purposes but nonetheless stifling.  He decides instead that the battle should be fought without their intercession.  The opening volume sets up the situation and the first skirmishes, which understandably don't go the way that Waylock had hoped.  Can he muster sufficient force to hold the magical powers at bay?  We'll have to wait for the ensuing volumes to find out for sure.

A Cold Summer Night by Trystam Kith, Five Star, 8/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-224-6

The legend of Robin Hood has cropped up in fantastic fiction from time to time over the years, most notably in Parke Godwin's work although occasionally elsewhere.  This new title, and apparently a first novel, is the first half of a Robin Hood story like none you've ever seen before.  The protagonist is an ex-Crusader, now in the employ of a local lord whose citizens have been complaining about the criminal activity in Sherwood Forest. Hugh deSteny is ordered to root out the problem, but that proves more difficult than he expected because this isn't the heroic, well intentioned Robin with whom we're familiar, but rather a supernaturally powered creature of darkness, along with a band of similarly enchanted followers.  The dialogue could use a little work in parts, but the story is excellent and the reversal of the usual roles of good and evil is very effective.

The Return of Nightfall by Mickey Zucker Reichert, DAW, 9/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-7564-0201-8

Nightfall is a sorcerer thief character which Reichert introduced over a decade ago, and he's back at last for a new adventure.  This time he's on the side of law and order, bound to a king as adviser and something of a bodyguard, although he doesn't go with him when the king decides to visit one of his vassals, a powerful lord with no reason to love the king.  Nightfall attempts to dissuade him, unsuccessfully, and the king disappears, apparently kidnapped after his guards are slaughtered to the man.  The chief suspect is obvious, but our hero isn't going to have an easy time proving it or rescuing the king.  Before it's over, he's going to be branded a traitor, the king's reign is in jeopardy, the villain's identity is revealed, and everything is tied up nicely.  Zucker has always written satisfying fantasy adventures in the past and obviously doesn't intend to break the streak now.

The Dragon Circle by Irene Radford, DAW, 8/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0194-1

Three brothers took their starship to a remote planet to escape the attention of the authorities in the opening title in this series, The Hidden Dragon, but their refuge isn't going to protect them long.  Someone had planted a homing device aboard, and a ship full of heavies is on its way.  Not that things are going all that well locally.  Although they helped the human colonists, whose ancestors crashlanded generations earlier, overthrow a repressive theocracy that was supported by an indigenous dragonlike creature, but that danger isn't completely gone either.  Considering the author's previous novels, it's not surprising that with psychic powers, dragons, and a primitive society this feels very much like a fantasy despite the spaceships and high technology.  The marriage of the two forms is uneasy at times, but once you get used to the occasionally jarring mix, the base story is a good one.

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin, Harcourt, 9/04, $17, ISBN 0-15-205123-6

Le Guin's new fantasy novel is labeled for young adults, but seasoned readers won't notice any real difference in her style except the age of the protagonists.  This one is set in a village, each of whose occupants possesses one or another magical talent.  The fact that these powers are so common place helps to prevent any one individual or faction from gaining influence over the others, a balance of power that probably is meant to reflect our own international politics.  Unfortunately for the status quo, two teenagers decide to buck the system, refusing to use their abilities despite the insistence by friends and foes alike that this will destabilize the system and lead inevitably to a more violent power struggle.  It's an interesting parable, skillfully constructed and narrated, and speaks to all ages.

Dragon's Treasure by Elizabeth Lynn, Ace, 9/04, $23.95, ISBN 0-441-01196-9

Although Elizabeth Lynn's new fantasy novels have all the trappings of mainstream fantasy, to a degree that's deceptive because the true focus of the book is the relationships among the characters, particularly the weredragon who rules a small kingdom and the healer from a humble background who proves to be his match in subtle but nonetheless real ways.  Conquering the strain of insanity that has accompanied the ability to change into dragon form in previous generations, Karadur finds external conflict just as frustrating.  Lynn's infrequent novels are always something special.

The Charnel Prince by Greg Keyes, Del Rey, 8/04, $23.95, ISBN 0-345-44067-6

The sequel to The Briar King stirs the pot to a boil.  With that legendary being awakening, a wave of insanity is beginning to sweep across the land, threatening to bring instability to more settled regions.  There are also rumored sighting of impossible creatures moving in the shadows of the forest.  The crisis becomes critical when the queen disappears under mysterious circumstances and a desperate mission is launched to rescue her.  I was mildly disappointed in the opening volume of this trilogy, which didn't seem to measure up to Keyes' previous work, but the second installment gathers steam rapidly and left me impatient to find out what was going to happen next.

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher, Ace, 10/04, $23.95, ISBN 0-441-01199-3

Jim Butcher's newest is the opening volume of a more conventional fantasy series than his Dresden Files sequence.  This one is set in a typical fantasy realm which is sore beset by its enemies, not all of whom are human.  Their generations long struggle has become increasingly desperate and the fact that their current ruler is aging and has no clear successor adds to the tension.  In a remote village, a young boy befriends a woman he believes to be a runaway slave, only to discover later that she is actually a spy for the throne sent to discover the identity of disloyal elements.  Their fates become intertwined when civil war adds to the dangers facing their people, a fate which will presumably be revealed in volumes yet to come.

Beyond the Deep Woods by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, David Fickling, 2004, $12.95, ISBN 0-385-75068-4

Stormchaser by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, David Fickling, 2004, $12.95, ISBN 0-385-75070-6

Given the popularity of the Harry Potter books, it's not surprising that publishers are looking for similar properties, or taking a new look at old ones.  These are the first two books in the Edge series, first published in England in 1997 and 1998.  The hero is Twig, raised by trolls, eventually discovering that he is adopted and setting out to find the truth about his origin in the opening volume, in which he meets a variety of fanciful creatures as we are introduced to the land of the Edge.  His adventures continue in the second volume, as he boards a magical flying ship for a brief life as a sky pirate.  There is at least one more volume that I know of, and probably more to come.  These don't have the depth of the Potter books, or the smooth prose of Diana Wynne Jones, but they are nicely told stories which should delight children, and those of us adults who occasionally like to be reminded what it was to be a child.

Rite of Conquest by Judith Tarr, Roc, 10/04, $16, ISBN 0-451-46002-2

There's no other writing producing such a steady stream of high quality, historical fantasy fiction than Judith Tarr.  Her latest follows the life of William the Conqueror, adding an unusual twist.  The young William is put in the care of Mathilda, a woman with magical powers who recognizes the same potential in her charge and helps him to develop his abilities.  The first part of the book establishes the relationship between young William and Mathilda, his awakening power and the effect it has on his personality.  Later we see him as an adult, the events leading up to and including the invasion of the British Isles in 1066.  Tarr delivers this all in a package that is historically detailed, so realistic that it makes the fantastic elements seem perfectly reasonable and believable. 

The First Stone by Mark Anthony, Bantam, 8/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58334-4

The sixth and apparently final volume of the Last Rune series brings things to another boil. Our hero has traveled between our reality and a parallel world where magic works, but he's weary of battling evil sorcery and wants to retire to less troubled regions.  Unfortunately, there is an old form of magic, lost for generations, its secret concealed in a lost city that is the goal of a group with less than benevolent plans for both worlds.  So he and his companion decide to make a pre-emptive foray and recover the secret themselves, so that it can be safeguarded and kept from the hands of their enemies.  Anthony doesn't leave any dangling loose ends so this one tidies everything up quite nicely and with his usual action focused style of storytelling.

Heroics for Beginners by John Moore, Ace, 8/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01193-4

Although humorous fantasy doesn't generally do well in the US unless the author's name is Pratchett, there are occasional exceptions.  John Moore's new novel has a clever idea which he exploits quite well, although some of the divergences like the Harry Potter references aren't a comfortable fit.  The land of Deserae is in danger because a powerful magical artifact has gone missing.  It must be retrieved from the villain's fortress, and Prince Kevin, a dubious hero, is forced to step up to the task despite his many shortcomings.  Fortunately, he has a handbook that tells him just exactly what to do in every situation, or at least, almost every situation.   And sometimes it's harder to follow the advice than it might appear.  There's a bucket full of good laughs in this one.

Freedom's Gate by Naomi Kritzer, Bantam, 7/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-4553-58673-4

Fantasy and espionage haven't mixed that often in the past, but this third novel by new writer Kritzer fills in some of the gap.  The protagonist is an intelligent, competent, and courageous woman who has been serving as a kind of jack of all trades to a military officer serving one of the civilized lands in her world.  His sources believe that a neighboring tribe of comparative barbarians is planning to renounce the uneasy peace between the two peoples and begin pillaging, but he needs more specific information before he can move against them.  So he sends her to infiltrate one of their camps, impersonating a slave woman, a job for which she proves well suited, although in the process of spying on the supposed enemy, she will eventually learn that the people employing her aren't as guiltless as they've led her to believe.  A touch of romance, a liberal sprinkling of adventure, and a dollop of intrigue add up to an above average fantasy adventure with just enough novelty to make up for the overly familiar plot.

Raven's Shadow by Patricia Briggs, Ace, 8/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01187-X

This is the first half of a two part novel whose premise is that a group of sorcerers managed to imprison but not destroy an evil, supernatural being known as the Stalker, who is still able to exert some influence on the minds of those outside his prison.  The surviving wizards created a loose organization to battle the Stalker, but magic has become a feared property in the world, and those who practice it have largely gone into hiding.  That's true of the protagonist, who prefers to stay with her husband and not get involved even though there are signs that the Stalker may have found a way to breach the walls of his prison.  When her husband disappears, she is finally forced to confront her destiny, although we' re not going to see the results until the second half is published.  I'm reasonably confident that the Stalker will be defeated, but it will still be fun finding out how it comes about.

The Nimble Man by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski, Ace, 10/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01215-9

This opening novel in a new supernatural series is quite obviously influenced by the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, although it handles the idea of an ensemble cast much more effectively.  Rather than famous literary figures, the authors have recruited a handful of archetypes, a master vampire, a fairy princess, and others.  They are part of the Menagerie, an organization that gathers only when the world is menaced by a more than usual threat, in the opener to prevent a fanatical organization from using the powers of an eminent wizard to unleash the ravages of a fallen angel upon the world.  Some good chemistry among the characters, clever story telling, and the interesting premise add up to a promising start for what I imagine is an open ended series.

Kindling by Mick Farren, Tor, 8/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30656-5

I've been a fan of Mick Farren's work since before he had a regular American publisher, and his recent novels from Tor have been his most impressive to date.  The latest is this innovative alternate history fantasy novel in which Europe and Asia are dominated by a barbarian horde directed by a religious caste who can actually control supernatural creatures and use them as weapons of war.  Not content with the territory it already controls, the empire begins its conquest of the New World, which is already on the brink of complete defeat.  But even as it seems that no power on Earth can stand against them, an unlikely group of people from a very different North America find the power within themselves to alter the course of their world's history.  Lots of dark horror, exotic settings, derring do, and just plain excellent story telling in this unusual but very satisfying fantasy adventure.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 9/04, $27.95, ISBN 1-58234-416-7

Just a few years ago, China Mieville proved that it is possible to write a highly literate fantasy adventure that contained elements of mainstream fantasy without being yet another derivative and all too familiar work.  Now new writer Susanna Clarke reinforces that point with this alternate history set in early 19th Century Europe.  Although the practice of genuine magic has become rare, Mr. Norrell seems to have mastered it well enough to help defeat the armies of Napoleon and fascinate the world.  A second magician, Jonathan Strange, becomes his informal apprentice and the two are initially quite an amiable pair, but Strange has greater ambitions, and an unhealthy interest in the darker side of magic.  And we all know where that leads.  As good as the story is, and it is very good indeed, I was even more impressed by the prose.  This is a very long book, almost eight hundred pages, but the plot unrolls so smoothly and the text is so entertaining that I became completely immersed and only stirred to answer the call of nature or unflex very cramped muscles.  This is certainly going to be under major consideration when award time comes around this year.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant, St Martin's Griffin, 8/04, $35, ISBN 0-312-32928-8

There is a great deal more diversity in short fantasy fiction than in novel length works, and the short story has always struck me as the most normal form for horror stories, so it should come as no surprise that I consistently find this annual volume to be my favorite anthology of fantasy and horror, particularly since the editors draw so much of their work from sources that I would otherwise have overlooked.  Icing on the cake is the accompanying essays, which examine various facets of the market, films, publishing, and other associated material.  The stories, of which there are over forty this year, tend toward the literary but without sacrificing good storytelling.  Some of the best this year are from Lucius Shepard, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Brian Hodge, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kelly Link, and Michael Marshall Smith.  Not every story was exactly to my taste, but every one of them was well written.  An indispensable volume for serious fans of either genre.

Prisoner of the Iron Tower by Sarah Ash, Bantam, 8/04, $23, ISBN 0-553-38211-X

The sequel to Lord of Snow and Shadows takes the story in a new direction.  Freed of the demonic creature that possessed him and drove him to commit terrible acts, Gavril Nagarian finds himself imprisoned in an asylum, primarily at the behest of the man chiefly responsible for the defeat of his former dire plans.  But his one time enemy is concerned not so much with justice as he is with acquiring power for himself, even if that means dealing with the supernatural entity that caused so much harm in the past.  The earlier books that I have read by this author have been competent but unexceptional fantasies.  This new series provides a noticeably more ambitious and compelling story to go along with her usual well drawn set of characters.

A Hat Full of  Sky by Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins, 2004, $16.99, ISBN 0-04-058660-5

The latest Discworld novel is another one aimed at younger readers, but like the others in that vein, it's funny enough and clever enough that adults won't notice much of a difference.  Tiffany Aching is having a hard time in the early stages of her apprenticeship as a witch, stuck doing household chores and other boring duties rather than learning to cast spells and work magic.  That's enough strain in itself, but her life gets even more complicated when a mysterious entity begins following her around.  The Wee Free Men are back as well in this whimsical, witty, and well written young adult fantasy.

In Lands That Never Were edited by Gordon Van Gelder, Thunder's Mouth Press, 9/04, $16.95, ISBN 1-56858-314-1

Although The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has never been much of a haven for sword and sorcery stories, a few of them have appeared over the years, and their very scarcity suggests, correctly, that the quality of those few are generally very high indeed.  Gordon Van Gelder has culled a dozen of the best of the best from the pages of that magazine, collected here in a strong testimony to the fact that sword and sorcery doesn't have to be thud and blunder adventure.  There's a Conan story, of course, a posthumous collaboration between Robert Howard and L. Sprague de Camp, but Howard was always a cut above almost all of the imitative stories which followed his career.  Other contributors demonstrate an even more literary style, notably Ursula K. Le Guin, R Garcia y Robertson, and Jeffrey Ford, but there's high spirited, well written adventure by  Fritz Leiber, Ellen Kushner, Pat Murphy, and others as well.  Ideal for those who have avoided the genre because they don't want to pick through all of the chaff to find the gems.

Snow-Walker by Catherine Fisher, Greenwillow, 9/04, $17.99, ISBN 0-06-072474-9

This is an omnibus edition of a young adult fantasy trilogy originally published between 1994 and 1996.  The plot is the usual quest adventure.  A group of varied characters sets out to find a way to defend their people from Gudrun, a magically aided enemy who wants to rule the world.  The setting is particularly rich and I found myself mentally shivering in the blizzard along with the protagonists.  Although targeted at a younger audience, you won't notice that when reading it, and the Celtic and Norse mythology is quite effectively woven into the story.  As usual, the middle volume tends to be the weakest, but not as badly as I've seen from other writers, and the characters are likeable, except for those you aren't supposed to like. 

Staying Dead by Laura Anne Gilman, Luna, 8/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80209-9

On Fire's Wings by Christie Golden, Luna, 7/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80208-0

There has been an increasing number of romance novels in recent years which use fantasy devices, mostly in contemporary settings, but it was always clear that they were romances first and fantasies second.  The balance is considerably closer to even in this new line of fantastic romances, and the writing is considerably better.  Laura Ann Gilman's fantasy debut is the story of a private detective with a knack of finding lost things, working as a private investigator in a New York City that closely resembles the real one.  When she's hired to track down a missing magical artifact, she finds more than she bargained for, both in the case at hand and in her personal life.  Smooth storytelling, unobtrusive romance, and an appealing protagonist.  Christie Golden is no stranger to fantasy and she provides a more traditional story.  A woman with possibly prescient dreams is enlisted in the cause of saving a magical realm from subjugation by the usual array of evil forces.  The plot isn't quite as interesting, but the story is entertaining, and Golden also managed to avoid letting the romantic elements overpower the story.

Seraphim by Michele Hauf, Luna, 5/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80206-4

Silver's Edge by Anne Kelleher, Luna, 6/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80207-2

Both of these are fantasy romances.  The first is an historical set shortly after the death of Joan of Arc. France is being ravaged by the evil Lucifer de Morte and his band of villains, aided according to rumor by the use of dark magic.  Opposed to them is mysterious knight who seems determined to singlehandedly defeat them.  The reader is in on the secret though.  The knight is actually Seraphim D'Ange, a young woman whose family fell victim to the marauders and who seeks revenge on them all.  She functions as a kind of female Zorro, but manages to find time to fall in love along the way.  The fantasy element isn't as strong here as in the other titles I've seen from this new imprint.  That's not true of the second title, which is set along the borders between our world and that of the Sidhe.  There's another evil conspiracy here, one designed to undermine the stability of both realities.  Ranged on the other side are three very different women, who will within themselves find the courage to stand up to the enemies of their people.  This one's a pretty good fantasy and if, as I suspect, Anne Kelleher is also Anne Kelleher Bush, then I'm not surprised.

Strange Cargo by Jeffrey E. Barlough, Ace, 8/04, $14.95, ISBN 0-441-01169-8

Barlough's third novel is an alternate history fantasy whose basic premise is that the last ice age didn't end, so that civilization was confined primarily to coastal regions.  The society is basically Victorian, with sailing vessels carrying passengers across the still unfrozen oceans.  The passengers on one such ship are a varied and interesting lot.  One is learning the art of magic, and has already stumbled upon a mystery.  Another is a woman who conceals a magical artifact that is the source of great evil and great danger, hoping to find someone who can help destroy its power.  Still another is on a quest to meet the previously unknown heir to a family fortune.  Their paths will all cross, and their destinies become intertwined.  Barlough continues to display a genuine talent for creating worlds that are almost recognizable but not quite, plausible settings with fascinating bits of detail, and peopled with bizarre and convoluted characters.  This is far and away the best of his three novels.

The Three Sisters by Rebecca Locksley, Eos, 4/04, $7.99, ISBN 0-380-81400-5

This long first novel by Australian author Locksley is a fairly typical fantasy with some interesting twists.  As usual, the peaceful land of Yarmar has been invaded and effectively conquered by outside forces, who are now engaged in fighting over the spoils, among which is the hand of a beautiful woman.  Unfortunately for their plans, the woman has two sisters – one a determined warrior, the other a powerful sorceress – who come to the rescue of their sister and their homeland.  The interplay among the sisters occasionally rises above the overly familiar subject matter, but the story didn't provide enough novelty to make this one stand out from the ever growing crowd of similar fantasies.

Little Red Riding Hood in the Big Bad City edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, DAW, 7/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0233-6

The parade of theme anthologies continues, although this one is offbeat and general enough not to fall into the trap of collecting very similar stories.  The premise here is that you take a familiar character from classic fairy tales and drop them into an unfamiliar setting, hence the title.  Writers including Pamela Sargent, Irene Radford, Tanya Huff, Michelle West, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman explore the theme, moving Jack away from his traditional beanstalk, transporting Puss in Boots to the seat of modern capitalism, inserting Faust into the film industry, and showing us many other familiar figures dealing with quite novel circumstances.  One of the more amusing and successful ideas for an anthology.

A Day As Dark As Night by Carl Bowen, White Wolf, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-859-3

The Fifth Dawn by Cory J. Herndon, Wizards of the Coast, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-3205-8

Most science fiction readers avoid novels inspired by and tied to role playing and other games, and usually with some justification.  Even those which are well written tend to cater to a specific taste and often require the reader to have at least a passing familiarity with the game.  These two don't fall into that trap.  The first is based on the Exalted game system, which I confess I had not previously heard of, so I can't judge how closely it is related, but it appears to be a fairly generic fantasy world.  In this one, a female warrior endowed with unusual powers is on a quest to discover the secrets of her own past.  What follows rarely contains surprises but is reasonably well written sword and sorcery.  The second is based on the Magic: The Gathering card game, and it's a first novel.  This one involves a quest also, as a small group of individuals of various races travel across the face of their world searching for allies against a common enemy.  Other than some occasional minor awkwardness in the prose, it's readable enough, though unremarkable.

The Jaguar Knights by Dave Duncan, Eos, 10/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-06-055511-4

I have enjoyed Dave Duncan's fantasy novels for quite some time, but the King's Blades series has from the outset been much better than his previous already satisfying work, and the latest in this loose sequence is probably the best yet.  Lord Wolf is one of the Blades, magically bonded to a king who hates him and whom he despises.  When a mysterious band of humans and nonhumans attacks a remote outpost and kidnaps a prominent though currently out of favor woman, he and a young female inquisitor are sent to conduct an investigation.  Their initial mutual distaste softens and becomes affection as they endure a series of adventures, which takes them across the sea to a distant and barely known land whose inhabitants are patterned after the Aztecs, their magic dependent upon the mass sacrifice of human captives.  At the same time, Wolf's brother Lynx has donned a magical gem that is slowly stealing his humanity as he searches for the missing woman, eventually making him a focus of a struggle among that people between progressives and traditionalists.  There's dark magic and light, captures and escapes, devious plots and light humor, and best of all a story that moves quickly and convincingly toward its perhaps somewhat unexpected climax.  Thoroughly good stuff in the spirit of Dumas and Sabatini.

Crossroads edited by F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan, Forge, 9/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30813-4

This collection is a mix of new and reprinted stories, all by Southern writers, reflecting that region's take on the fantastic, both magic realism and occasionally a touch of light horror.  The new stories are by authors both familiar and unfamiliar, the former including Jack McDevitt, Scott Edelman, James Sallis, Michael Swanwick, and Don Webb, but the newer names provide good tales as well, particularly those by Marian Carcache and Kalamu ya Salaam.  The reprints include good tales John Kessel, Ian McDowell, Michael Bishop, Gene Wolfe, and Kelly Link.  There are brief introductions to each story.  The collection does a particularly good job of mixing themes and styles and generally does convey something of a sense of regionalism, although I might not have noticed if it hadn't been pointed out in the introduction.

The Firebird's Vengeance by Sarah Zettle, Tor, 8/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30812-6

Zettel returns to the land of Isavalta for her latest, a continuation of the story that began with A Sorcerer's Treason.  Bridget Lederle was transported from our world to a magical realm where not only does magic work, but she herself is capable of a form of sorcery.  In the previous volumes, she proved instrumental in resolving the struggle for the local throne, but her own problems remain to trouble her.  Her daughter, previously thought lost, is alive and reasonably well, but that just creates a new round of problems as she becomes a pawn in an international power play.  Most of the subsequent action involves other characters as they engage in a complex array of plots, escapes, battles, and magical battles.  I didn't think this one measured up to its predecessors, but it was good enough to hold my interest throughout.

Sinner by Sara Douglass, Tor, 9/04, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-87046-9

Although I've enjoyed the novels by Sara Douglass that were not in the Wayfarer Redemption series, the first three volumes in that set never managed to grab me.  Unfortunately this, the fourth in the series, is not the exception.  The major crisis from the previous books is past and the superhuman SunSoar family has settled down to administer the world now saved from a supernatural menace.  Unfortunately, they don't agree about how that is to be accomplished, and at least one of their number is considerably less inclined to give up personal power.  There's a subplot that includes a murder mystery, the usual court intrigues, some overt conflict, but I never really felt involved with the characters, possibly because it was difficult to identify with people who are nearly invulnerable.

Clovermead by David Randall, McElderry, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 0-689-86639-9

Luna by Julie Anne Peters, Little, Brown, 2004, $16.95, ISBN 0-316-73369-5

Perhaps in a vain attempt to recapture my youth, I sit down with a stack of young adult novels every once in a while and work my way through.  A depressingly large proportion of these are written in such a patronizing or substanceless fashion that I suspect the target audience is generally insulted, but sometimes that's not the case.  I believe both of these titles are first fantasy novels, and although they represent two very different types of fantasy, they are both examples of how to do young adult fiction right.  The first makes use of a typical fantasy world setting.  The protagonist is a young girl who always believed herself to be an orphan, but who discovers evidence that the stories of her mother's death might be fabricated.  The situation gets resolved against the backdrop of a war waged by an evil man who uses sorcery to bolster his power.  Somewhat tame by adult standards but a very enjoyable light tale of fantasy adventure.  The second title is a contemporary story about a young boy who is magically transformed by moonlight, becoming a beautiful young girl in which guise he takes a different name.  Initially he and his sister keep the transformation a secret, but when he decides to reveal the truth, things get very interesting indeed. 

The Scrolls of the Ancients by Robert Newcomb, Del Rey, 2004, $26.95, ISBN 0-345-44896-0

Volume three of the Chronicles of Blood and Stone moves a bit further away from being a Tolkien clone.  The twins, one male and one female, are acknowledged as the Chosen Ones, destined to save and rule the land of Eutracia.  With the collapse of their enemies in the previous volume, they should have been able to look forward to a time of relative peace, but that wouldn't make much of a story.  They're off on another quest, this time to track down a person who unwittingly possesses the potential for great magic, a potential that could turn to evil as easily as good.  But that means that other parties, those interested in perverting the force of magic for their own gain, are intent upon beating them to their quarry.  The sequences involving pirates and battles at sea are the high point of the novel, which is otherwise a well written but very derivative quest adventure.

The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins, Gollancz, 2004, £17.99, ISBN 0-575-07573-2

Some of my favorite fantasy novels are those which involve the interface between our world and another where magic works.  Novels like Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock and The War for the Oaks by Emma Bull manage to describe the interaction between the two realities in a convincing fashion, although many other such novels are unconvincing and inconsistent.  Kim Wilkins, who has previously written primarily horror fiction, turns to contemporary fantasy for his newest, first in the Europa Suite series.  The primary setting is Berlin, where an invalid woman lives within a colony of artists, where she meets a childhood friend who turns out to be the ruler of a magical other world.  What makes the novel work is a set of matching conflicts.  The invalid wants to live in the world of magic, where she will not be troubled by her physical problems, and the Queen of the fairy world longs for the world of mortals, where she doesn't have to constantly be aware of her position and responsibilities.  As the two friends try to deal with the tensions that join them and simultaneously draw them apart, they are also tangled in the sinister web of a rich but unprincipled sculptor, who wishes to steal both their magics.   There's some seriously intricate plotting here and well above average characterization to boot

How to Train Your Dragon by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown, 2004, $10.95, ISBN 0-316-73737-2

This sometimes charming little fantasy is aimed at the 8-12 age group, but at its best it should entertain more sophisticated readers.  It purports to be the first volume of the memoirs of Hiccup Haddock, his comical adventures in a typical fantasy world, dispensing gems about the identification, care and feeding of dragons in the process.  The occasional black and white illustrations are less than fascinating, however, and this isn't going to be a rival for the Lemony Snicket books.

The Glasswright's Master by Mindy L. Klasky, Roc, 6/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-45982-2

The first in this series was also a first novel, and I thought then that Klasky promised to be one of the more interesting new fantasy writers.  With volume five, her sixth novel, I still think she has a great deal of unrealized potential, but I'm starting to get tired of the further adventures of Rani Trader and would like to see the author move on to something new.  She's still on the outs with her guild but still in the good graces of the king, although he's in exile now, searching for allies to help him drive out the invaders who have seized his country.  Trader is an interesting character, but her more recent challenges are not as gripping as those in the first two books in the series, and the switch to a different setting doesn't bring enough freshness to offset the sense that we're reading yet another installment in an open ended series that has already revealed its strongest assets.

The Burning Shore by Robert Earl, Black Library, 2004, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-129-3

Grey Knights by Ben Counter, Black Library, 2004, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416087-4

Two more titles from the Warhammer universe.  First up is the story of a disgraced nobleman who decides to better his life by organizing a band of mercenaries and taking them to a distant land dominated by a hostile forest in an attempt to find an honorable occupation for himself.  He does so, of course, in what amounts to a pretty good sword and sorcery adventure, except that there are firearms as well as edged weapons.  The second title is set at the other end of the Warhammer universe, a distant future where bands of spaceborn mercenaries invade planets occupied by the minions of demonic forces in their effort to rid the universe of supernatural evil.  This one is representative of the type, with lots of battles and action with little time to reflect.  I still have trouble reconciling demons and starships in the same story and found my attention wandering constantly.

Changeover by Diana Wynne Jones, Moondust, 2004, £9.99, ISBN 0-9547498-0-4

Back in the 1960s, before Diana Wynne Jones began producing a steady stream of entertaining and often very funny fantasy novels, she tried her hand at a comic mainstream novel inspired by the divestiture by England of its overseas colonies.  The mythical African nation of Nmkwami is about to become independent, and no one quite understands how the transition is going to occur, although the arrival of a mysterious character named Mark Changeover becomes the focus of the project.  Not at all dated despite its theme, the novel suggests a lot of the comic devices Jones used later on, and is an amusing, if non-fantastical, romp in itself, out of print since its original publication in 1970.  More than just her ardent fans should enjoy this one.

Masters of Fantasy edited by Bill Fawcett, Baen, 7/04, $25, ISBN 0-7434-8822-9

Following in the footsteps of the Legends anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg, this new anthology is a collection of new stories set in the recurring fantasy worlds of their respective authors.  Mercedes Lackey takes up back to Valdemar, Alan Dean Foster adds to the Spellsinger saga, Christopher Stasheff returns to the planet where magic works for a new Warlock tale, and Andre Norton revisits Witch World.  Other contributors include Robert Lynn Asprin, Mike Resnick, David Weber, Janny Wurts, and others.  Most of these aren't as well known as those in the Silverberg anthologies, but the stories are generally quite good, and Resnick, Norton, Wurts, and Reichert are particularly good.

Ancestors of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson, Viking, 2004, $25.95, ISBN 0-470-03314-6

Just as Deborah Ross has been continuing the Darkover books, so now does Diana Paxson add to the Avalon series by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Following the destruction of Atlantis, some of its people managed to escape to the British Isles, living in seclusion for the most part, aided by their technology and magic.  That doesn't mean their lives are without conflict, however.  Some have become separated from love ones, and all have had their destinies altered irrevocably, including one woman who suddenly finds herself thrust into a position of power.  Paxson is an excellent choice as successor to Bradley for this series.  Her style and the details of the plot retain the sense of the mysterious past and the feminist awareness that was an underlying theme in the originals.

Windrider's Oath by David Weber, Baen, 5/04, $26, ISBN 0-7434-8821-0

Weber's third chronicle of the adventure of Bahzell Bahnakson, is the first that I've actively enjoyed, although it is at times a bit busy with a bewildering array of characters and sometimes interconnected plot elements.  He's function as a diplomat part of the time in this volume, attempting to preserve the peace between his own people and their former enemies.  Old wrongs hang around, however, and there are people from his own side who would prefer to return to the old way of doing things.  There's a wide variety of supernatural menaces as well, and a species of magically enhanced horses who bear grudges.  The persnickety teenaged girl is the most interesting character, and the book might have been better yet if Weber had spent more time developing her and less time with some of the other subsidiary elements.  It's still one of his best books though.

Muggles and Magic by George Beahm, Hampton Roads, 2004, $15.95, ISBN 1-57174-412-6

As you might expect from the title, this is a companion volume to the Harry Potter books, and to a lesser extent the movies.  It contains more than you'll probably want to know, opening with a section about the real world of the author, J.K. Rowling.  That's followed by a generic section on how a writer works and the business of publishing, with some familiar hints about how to pursue a career as a writer.  There's a brief entry about efforts to censor or ban Rowling's work.  There's a brief section on the movies, and a more extensive one about the books, plus additional material on tie in products, websites, and other odds and ends.  This is intended for a young adult audience and is written in a familiar, chatty style that I found occasionally irritating but which probably won't bother most younger readers.

Foxmask by Judith Marillier, Tor, 8/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30674-3

Although there are moments of magic in this novel, sequel to the author's earlier Wolfskin, it feels more like an historical novel than a fantasy.  The setting is the Orkney Islands of the distant past, settled by Scandinavian explorers who have settled into a fairly peaceful co-existence with the locals.  Creidhe is a young woman caught between two men, and the complexity and depth of her feelings toward them, which evolve during the course of the story, are the core of the plot and the conflict.  Eventually the two men will be pitted against one another in a yet more distant land, and the outcome of that battle will determine her future and perhaps that of their entire people. 

Redeeming the Lost by Elizabeth Kerner, Tor, 7/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-89065-6

Elizabeth Kerner brings her saga of Lanen Kaelar to an apparent close with this new title.  The world was once ruled by a race of powerful and more or less benevolent dragons who left for another reality.  Now they have returned, and they find that humans have made quite a mess of things with their constant wars, dabbling with dangerous magics, and their subjugation of those dragons who remained behind, where they are treated as little more than dumb animals.  Kaelar can't do much about it either despite her magical talents, because she has been abducted and imprisoned by an ambitious man who has allied himself with demonic forces in his obsessive quest for power.  Kerner uses an unusual narrative style that I occasionally found to be intrusive, but for the most part the story flows smoothly and excitingly toward its inevitable conclusion.

The Silent House by Ed Greenwood, Tor, 6/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30817-7

Ed Greenwood returns to Aglirta, the setting for his Band of Four fantasy adventure series, this time for a very different kind of book.  Instead of a single narrative, this is a series of episodes each featuring a different member of the Silvertree family, over the course of many generations.  Some of their kind were simple nobles who met an early fate, rightly or wrongly.   Some were involved in sorcery or other evil doings which eventually brought about their death and/or damnation.  Filled with magical characters and mystical doings, shape changers and sorcerers.  Several of the episodes have an almost Edgar Allen Poe feel of brooding horror superimposed on the fantasy setting.  The episodes are not of equal quality, but several of them are quite good.

The Fairies of Bladderwhack Pond by Debbie Bishop, Angel Gate, 2003, $19.99, ISBN 1-93243-101-2

This is a children's book about a community of fairies, each of which has a very distinctive personality.  Three teenaged pixies set out to earn enough money to help rebuild their town, ravaged by a natural disaster.  The story, which is generally lightly humorous, is almost irrelevant.  The full color illustrations are quite nice, much better than the text, which reads quite naturally like a child's cartoon.  This one is for the kiddies, but they should like it just fine.

The Wild Reel by Paul Brandon, Tor, 6/04, $14.95, ISBN 0-765-30880-0

Fairies have been portrayed in a variety of ways in fantasy fiction.  Some of them are the good natured, even comical type who play tricks and are often infuriating, but are not menacing.  Others are twisted grotesquely so that they become evil beings akin to orcs.  Lying somewhere in between is their portrayal as people, but somehow different from us, with an air of superiority that supports their intervention in the world of humanity.  That's the story this time, as a young artist working in a remote part of Ireland arouses the interest of the king of the Fairies.  Finvarra is determined to make her his next queen, regardless of her feelings in the matter.  Brandon's evocation of the misty reality that falls between the two worlds is particularly effective, and I really liked the protagonist.  I believe this is a first novel, and it's a very good one.

Destiny of Eden by Kevin Howe, Firelight, 2004, no price listed, ISBN 0-9707206-5-3

This is the first of the Tomes of Alder Bedweer, set in a rather familiar fantasy world with most of the usual Medieval trappings.  There is unrest afoot, mercenaries are gathering behind those who seek power, villagers are organizing in defense of their homes.  A small cast of characters experience a range of low key adventures and intrigues in a story that is reasonably well resolved, although it is obviously going to be continued directly in the sequel.  The writing is for the most part quite solid, although at times the dialogue feels rather artificial, possibly by intention.  The characters are nicely differentiated and the setting quite well presented, and the author avoids most of the obvious clichιs of the genre.  Not great perhaps, but good enough to watch for the next installment.  The author's previous novel, Bone Walk, was also quite good.

Understanding the Lord of the Rings edited by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs, Houghton Mifflin, 7/04, $25, ISBN 0-618-42251-X

The editors have collected here some of the very best essays on Tolkien's famous fantasty trilogy, including work by poet W.S. Auden, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.S. Lewis, Verlyn Flieger, Tom Shippey, and others.  The Shippey piece is original to the collection; the others have all appeared previously.  They are generally friendly in tone, and vary considerably in style, although they avoid the kind of excessive literary vernacular that makes much literary criticism so difficult for outsiders to read.  If you are going to have one book of Tolkien criticism in your library, this would be the one you want.

The Destruction of the Books by Mel Odom, Tor, 7/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30723-5

The hero of The Rover is back, now in his new role as librarian in charge of a repository of books, many of which contain considerable magical power.  This time he is largely supplanted in his adventures by young Juhg, a young man who hasn't quite decided about his own future.  The two are quickly put to the test as a sinister force conspires against the library and the people who protect it.  And despite the apparent willingness of the evil force to destroy all the books, there is one in particular which it wants to acquire.  Odom has a nice, straightforward narrative style that is always a pleasure to read, and using what are essentially librarians as the heroes in this adventure story is a pleasant twist.

The Buried Pyramid by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 5/04, $26.95, ISBN 0-765-30260-8

Jane Lindskold's latest fantasy has the feel of the recent Mummy films, with a more logical plot and better characters.  The protagonist is a young American girl who accompanies an expedition to Cairo to investigate a tomb that may contain the remains of the Biblical Moses.  Their party soon has a rival, a well financed group led by a mysterious and somewhat nefarious young woman who has hidden motives for wanting to explore the tomb.  Events soon exceed everyone's expectations, however, as Ra manifests his power, and some of the explorers find themselves traveling through time in search of answers.  A nice mix of serious and thoughtful writing with fast paced action, and certainly featuring the author's most engaging protagonist to date.

Alosha by Christopher Pike, Tor, 7/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31098-8

Christopher Pike, who was for a time a major writer of young adult horror novels, turns his hand to fantasy for the same market, a contemporary fantasy in this case.  Ali Warner is a typical California teenager, or at least that's what she believes until she learns one day that she is actually heir to the throne of the world of fairies.  Even more startling is the existence of trolls, elves, dwarves, and other magical creatures, many of whom are opposed to her taking the throne, and are prepared to invade our world to prevent her from fulfilling her destiny.  The initial set up is entertaining but the story begins to bog down in predictable sequences once she and her friends set off on their inevitable quest, and I had lost most of my interest in the story by the time she finally confronts the hostile army of her enemies.  The dialogue also seemed forced at times and thin at others. It's not an actively bad book, but has very little to actively recommend it.

Scepters by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 7/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-31042-2

The career of Alucius, sometimes warrior, sometimes simple citizen, takes another turn in the third and apparently final installment of the Corean Chronicles.  Although he has set aside the implements of war in favor of a simpler life, Alucius must take up arms again when a new force of evil enemies threatens the peace of Corus.  The battles and the various plots and intrigues leading up to them are quite good, and I enjoyed this a great deal, but despite the rousing climax, it didn't seem up to the quality of the first two books in the series, which I liked much better than any of Modesitt's previous fantasies.  You'll certainly get your money's worth and more, but I still felt a trifle disappointed.  On the other hand, I'm looking forward to finding out what the author will try next.

Olympic Games by Leslie What, Tachyon, 8/04, $14.95, ISBN 1-892391-10-4

Not since The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith have the Greek gods been so amusingly portrayed.  Leslie What's first novel shows what happens when Hera finally gets fed up with indulging her majestic husband, Zeus, and also what happens when a band of unlikely mortals decides to take on the gods themselves.  Although there is a strong element of humor throughout the story, What's tone is often surprisingly serious.  What has a particular gift for economically creating believable characters, and some of the personalities who inhabit these pages will linger in your mind even after the jokes fade and the story line loses its focus in your memories.  This is the kind of fantasy that often appears as a mainstream novel, and it's certainly good enough to attract a diverse group of appreciative  readers.

Cartomancy by Mary Gentle, Gollancz, 2004, £6.99, ISBN 0-575-07532-5

Mary Gentle's very distinctive fantasy novels and stories have been appearing for several years now, and I was frankly surprised to discover that this is only her selection collection, neither of which has found an American publisher.  There are better than a dozen stories here, and every single one of them is good to excellent.  "The Logistics of Carthage", a novella, is the most impressive single piece, but "The Harvest of Wolves", "The Road to Jerusalem", and "A Shadow Under the Sea" are also extraordinarily good.  Less than half of the stories have been available in the US as far as I know, and this would be a great acquisition for a publisher on this side of the Atlantic, but since this wouldn't be the first great book to be overlooked, you might want to try the UK version of Amazon.com if you can't find it any other way.

Sword of the White Rose by J. Ardian Lee, Ace, 7/04, $14, ISBN 0-441-01171-3

Dylan Matheson fought his way through Lee's first three books, and now his son Ciaran takes up the task for the next one.  The series consists of historical fantasies mixing time travel with the battle between the English and the Irish, with hints of predestination.  Dylan learned the hard way that even with magical allies, there was little he could to do alter the course of history and prevent the British from becoming ascendant.  Toward the end of his life, he turned to negotiation, hoping to win at the table part of what he sought for in battle.  His son is advised to follow the same path, but the young are always over confident, and Ciaran decides that the invaders can still be defeated if he is smart enough and his allies strong enough to fight them back.  Despite the magical content, these are still more historical novels than anything else.  Like its predecessors, the story is well written, but lacks any single element to make it outstanding.

Taking Time by Lynn Abbey, Ace, 4/04, $6.50, ISBN 0-441-01153-5

This is the third adventure of Emma Merrigan, a woman with the power to travel into a sort of past time, where she hunts down the causes of mystical curses that afflict people in the contemporary age.  Although there are others of her kind active, Emma has remained separate from the official organization of curse hunters, although this time she's going to have some contact with them whether she wants to or not.  The novels have much of the structure of a detective story beneath the magical overlay, but there's also a hint of the historical romance, a touch of the supernatural, and a large wallop of good story telling.  I found the first two in the series mildly interesting, but Emma is developed much more intensely as a character this time around.

Lord of the Shadows by Jennifer Fallon, Bantam, 6/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58670-X

The third and final volume of the Seconds Sons trilogy gathers up all the loose ends.  The protagonist has apparently burnt all his bridges behind him, betraying his friends to join enemies who don't trust him either. It's all part of his devious plan, of course, although for a long time it looks as though he has outsmarted himself.  Meanwhile the other story threads also seem headed toward disaster for the good guys, either through personal danger or because they are pursuing goals chosen for the wrong reasons.  Fallon manages to draw the various plots back together for a rousing climax in this sometimes a bit too long final volume.

Ill Met by Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt, read by Jason Carter, Buzzy Multimedia Audio, 2004, $47.95, ISBN 0-9657255-3-7

This is a recording on CD running about ten hours and including the complete text of the first of Sarah Hoyt's novels about Shakespeare, originally published in 2001.  Shakespeare's family is kidnapped into the world of the fairies and he has to cross into that magical realm to rescue them and return to our reality.  The novel was strikingly well done for a first effort and there have been two sequels both nearly as good.  Jason Carter, who played Marcus on Babylon 5, has the perfect voice and accent for the narration and does an admirable job. 

Three Men Seeking Monsters by Nick Redfern, Pocket, 4/04, $14, ISBN 0-7434-8254-9

This is an amusing account of a journey across England in search of various mythical creatures.  The authors were supposedly looking for evidence of the Loch Ness monster and other fabled creatures, but actually this is about their encounter with the people who believe, or at least claim to believe, in their existence.  The characters they meet are sometimes fascinating, and the good humored narrative style is engaging enough to be worth a look.

Innocents Abroad by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 6/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30790-1

It seems as though more and more of Gene Wolfe's recent short fiction has been fantasy, but that shouldn't be a surprise because even much of his early science fiction felt like contemporary fantasy.  His stories are of such invariably high quality that it doesn't matter to most readers what he writes about, so long as he just continues to write.  This latest collection contains twenty-two stories, and a more uniformly excellent selection it would be hard to imagine, even though some of the entries originally appeared in very obscure places.  They plots vary immensely.  There's a grail story, for example, and a Christmas story.  There's horror of the lighter variety and humor of the ethereal sort.  There are stories set in the distant past and stories set in worlds that never were.  My favorites were "A Traveler in Desert Lands" and "A Fish Story", but that's today.  Tomorrow I might well remember others more fondly.  Wolfe's fiction has a tendency to stick around in your memory and rearrange itself at times.

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston, Gollancz, 2004, £9.99, ISBN 0-575-07005-6

My biggest complaint about contemporary fantasy is that so much of it follows basically the same pattern that even the good novels seem to blend into the background noise.  A few writers have chosen to break with that mold, and sometimes they stand out even though they aren't as skillfully written.  And then there are a few, like China Mieville, who write original stuff and write it brilliantly.  This first novel doesn't mark the debut of the next China Mieville necessarily, but Swainston appears to be operating in the same neighborhood.  His fantastic world has just enough similarities to our own to allow us to identify with the characters and situations, while being strange and different enough to engage our attention.  The dominant race is human, although many of their number have become immortal and not quite the same as you or I.  The protagonist, in fact, is the one man in the world who can fly, and he is employed as a messenger by the emperor for that very reason.  The world is beset by troubles though, primarily in the form of a race of giant insects who are rapidly displacing humanity and threatening to drive the race to extinction, immortality notwithstanding.  Filled with fascinating characters, written in a distinctive but accessible style, this could be one of the sleeper novels of the year.

Flights edited by Al Sarrantonio, Roc, 6/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-451-45977-6

Al Sarrantonio has edited some very fine all original horror and science fiction anthologies in recent years, and his latest is an equally impressive fantasy collection.  Non-themed anthologies avoid the pitfalls of theme anthologies – specifically the diminished variation in plots – and when the contributors are drawn from some of the best writers in the field as well, the results are always promising.  Sarrantonio has stories here from Larry Niven, Robert Silverberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Disch, Jeffrey Ford, and many others no less prominent, and the results are extraordinarily good.  Best in the collection are tales by Disch, Hand, Oates, Neal Barrett Jr., and Gene Wolfe, but it's a minor crime to single them out from such a distinguished field.  The stories vary enough that some readers may not enjoy everything in the book, but they are good enough that everyone will find a few to rave over and almost everyone should enjoy the vast majority.  It would be nice if theme anthologists would note how much better this is and diversify their contents a bit more.

Take No Prisoners by John Grant, Willowgate Press, 5/04, $13.95, ISBN 1-930008-09-0

Daydreams Undertaken by Stephen L. Antczak, Marietta Publishing, 6/04, $14.99, ISBN 1-892669-25-0

When I first started reading science fiction, the divisions between that form and those of fantasy and horror were much less well marked.  It was not unusual to pick up a single author collection that contained work in all three areas, and writers like Fritz Leiber and others seemed equally at ease no matter what hat they were wearing.  That's not really the case now, although there are rare exceptions, including these two collections by relatively new writers.  John Grant tends to write fantasy, with a slight lean toward science fiction, in this selection of fifteen tales, which range from comic fantasy to surreal to virtual reality.  A few original stories are scattered among reprints, most from sources you're not likely to have seen.  Best in the collection are "The Machine It Was That Cried" and "A Case of Four Fingers", although I also liked "The Dead Monkey Puzzle".  Stephen Antczak also writes fantasy, with a tendency toward horror, or the nebulous dark fantasy.  His stories involve vampires and haunted houses as well Rod Serling style science fiction and even a superhero adventure.  "The Monster Lab" and "Captain Asimov" were my favorites here, and I liked the collection overall somewhat better, but that may be because my tastes run more to the kind of stories Antczak chooses to write.  You won't go wrong with either of these, but neither will they fit into an easy classification.

To Weave a Web of Magic, edited anonymously, Berkley, 7/04, $12, ISBN 0-425-19615-1

Although this is a collection of romance novelettes, SF and fantasy fans should not turn up their noses, because two of the contributors are well known to us, Sharon Shinn and Patricia McKillip.  The four stories are set in very disparate time periods and other than the romantic content have little in common.  Claire Delacroix retells the story of Melusine from a somewhat different viewpoint, after which Lynn Kurland presents us with a familiar medieval world, except that it is one where magic actually does work.  McKillip's contemporary romance, the best selection in the book, involves an artist seeking a new inspiration, and finally Sharon Shinn takes us into the future.  None of the stories are badly written, and Lynn Kurland's is also surprisingly good.  Not your standard anthology at all, but won worth a second look.   I did wonder, however, why the stories were not arranged chronologically.

The Dark-Haired Man by Robert Reginald, Ariadne, 2004, $$24.95, ISBN 1-57241-124-4

The setting for this long, unusual fantasy novel is an alternate version of early 13th Century Europe.  Most of the region is divided into two major kingdoms, but the political intrigues become more complex thanks to the existence of the mysterious figure of the title.  The story is filled with chess allusions and is in fact in many ways an elaborate political chess game.  The dialogue is occasionally a bit awkward, and the cast of characters is way too big – there's a lengthy reference list of names and geographic locations at the end of the book – but the intrigues are often clever and the elaborate manipulations are generally engrossing.

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher, Roc, 8/04, $5.99, ISBN 0-451-45987-3

The sixth adventure of Harry Dresden, a wizard in an alternate version of contemporary America where magic and the supernatural are taken for granted, is one of his best.  This time he has to infiltrate the world of pornographic film making to investigate what might be a curse, a malevolent force that has already claimed some victims and threatens many more.  His investigations will take him to a family of more or less friendly vampires and ultimately to a megademon who might be the greatest challenge he has ever faced.  Strongly delineated characters and an increasingly complex background setting make this one stand out.  Sufficiently scary for horror fans, but not so much to frighten away fantasy fans., and well written enough for both.

Heat Stroke by Rachel Caine, Roc, 8/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-45984-9

The second adventure of the Weather Wardens takes a strange new turn.  In the opener, a young woman with a magical ability to control the weather is unjustly accused of a murder, for which supposed crime she eventually loses her life, although she is posthumously declared innocent.  Now she's back, in the form of a kind of djinn, in which form she must find a way to ensure her continued independence of action before she can become bonded by human magic.  And as if that wasn't enough of a challenge, she senses a strange new magical power threatening the Earth.  The mixture of Arabic legendary and an alternate version of contemporary America works surprisingly well.  I had a little difficulty identifying with a character who has transcended human form for a while, but it wasn't long before I was caught up in the new plot, which has a few surprises lying in wait.  Caine promises to be an interesting new writer, particularly if her future work continues to explore new territory.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher, read by James Marsters, Buzzy Multimedia Audio, 2004, $47.95, ISBN 096572550-2

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, read by James Marsters, Buzzy Multimedia Audio, 2004, $47.95, ISBN 096572550-2

These are audio books on CD of the first two volumes of the Dresden Files, first published in 2000 and 2001 respectively.  The series bears some superficial resemblance to the Anita Blake series by Laurell Hamilton, in that it's set in a variant of our world in which people take the existence of vampires and magic for granted.  Harry Dresden is a professional wizard who accepts a job as consultant to the police investigating a series of magical murders, a job which puts his own life at risk.  In the sequel, Dresden immerses himself in the hidden world of werewolves, organized crime, and other dangers.  The later volumes in the series were noticeably better as the author gained confidence and his world took shape, but the first two are well told stories as well, and Marsters does an excellent job with the text.  Each novel runs slightly over eight hours.  Note that both of these items bear the same ISBN number, which I presume is some kind of packaging error.  I did have some slight problems because of strange alterations in accepted police procedure that seem to have been glossed over in order to advance the plots, but otherwise there were only minor bumps in the road.

The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader edited by David E. Smith, Cold Spring Press, 4/04, $14.95, ISBN 1-59360-011-9

Want to know where Tolkien got his ideas?  This is a collection of verse and prose with which Tolkien was certainly familiar, and which may have inspired one aspect or another of the Ring trilogy and other works.  There are selections from the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the story of Beowulf, the battle of Maldon, Finnish, Norse, and Celtic literature, and Arthurian legendry.  This was all put together by the mind behind TheOneRing.net, a prominent Tolkien website.  An interesting work for Tolkien fans, but also a nice selection of some of the world's classic literature.

The Ships of Air by Martha Wells, Eos, 7/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-380-97789-3

The sequel to The Wizard Hunters cranks the action up a notch or two.  The people of Ile-Rien have faced adversity in the past, but never anything to match that of the encroaching army which has overpowered but not completely subdued the land.  Armed with a magical protection, a small group leave on a perilous mission into another reality in search of the means by which to expel the invader, but instead they find themselves caught between their enemies and an even more frighteningly evil force.  There are a few surprises mixed in with what is otherwise a well written, exciting, but essentially formulaic fantasy adventure.  Wells writes as well as many authors who are far better known.

Firethorn by Sarah Micklem, Scribner, 6/04, $25, ISBN 0-7432-4794-9

Whenever I notice a first novel by a fantasy writer, I wonder if it's going to be another innovative debut like that of China Mieville, or just another variation of the usurped throne/quest for the magic sword/coming of age novel.  A glance at the blurb of this dimmed my hopes, because it's the first volume of a trilogy, but I was subsequently more pleasantly surprised by the text itself.  Micklem has not written a radically new fantasy, but neither is her first novel a cookie cutter variation of a fantasy world.  The protagonist is a young woman living in a world where males are dominant.  When a god imbues her with a magical power, she is no longer content to be treated as somehow less than a man, she becomes romantically involved with a knight, who unfortunately proves to be a product of his environment, and only slightly less prejudiced than the other males in her life.  The feminist theme is handled intelligently and unobtrusively.  If Micklem can sustain this level of writing through the remainder of her trilogy, it might indeed mark an exciting new debut.

Lost Lands of Witch World by Andre Norton, Tor, 7/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30052-4

The popularity of the early Witch World books took many of us by surprise, and the sequels came very quickly.  This is an omnibus edition of the fourth through sixth novels.  Three Against the Witch World features the children of Simon Tregarth and Jaelithe, who flee to a distant land after refusing to join the ruling class.  Warlock of the Witch World and Sorceress of the Witch World then continue with their individual adventures, involving a quest, and a temporary loss of magical powers.  The three novels originally appeared between 1965 and 1968, and while I never thought they mirrored the quality of the first three, they are still interesting adventure tales.

The Moon Pool by A. Merritt, Wesleyan University Press, 7/04, $65, ISBN 0-8195-6706-X

Since I've always believed that A. Merritt deserves a more prominent reputation, I was very pleased to see this, one of my favorites, reappearing in a new hardcover edition, as well as a lower priced trade paperback edition.  Merritt's lost world novels sometimes blurred the border between fantasy and science fiction, but this one – first published in 1919 – comes down squarely on the SF side, as does its not quite as successful sequel, The Metal Monster.  A group of explorers stumble into an underground civilization that exists in an uneasy balance of power with an intelligent, antediluvian species.  Their arrival sparks a new crisis that alters that balance irreparably.  Lost world adventures appear to be coming back into vogue among mainstream thriller writers, so maybe Merritt will find a larger audience with this generation.

The Swords of Night and Day by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 3/ 04, $24.95, ISBN 0-345-45833-8

David Gemmell, who writes a brand of fantasy adventure distinctly his own, returns to the land of Drenai for his latest, the second in a subset about the return to life of Skilgannon, a larger than life hero whose destiny is to aid his people.  In the previous volume, Skilgannon found his plans complicated by the presence of a second hero, and the clash of their two personalities before they became reconciled and eventually comrades was particularly entertaining.  Now Skilgannon is back again, this time opposing the machinations of a malevolent sorceress whose minions have been forged from both human and bestial stock into formidable servants of evil.  Swordfights, mysteries revealed, chases and escapes, and a touch of dark magic all follow in an exciting, imaginative adventure that avoids most of the conventions of the genre in favor of straightforward and fast paced storytelling.

Sethra Lavode by Steven Brust, Tor, 5/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-85581-8

Once again Steven Brust carries us off to the magical land of the Dragaeran Empire, the final volume – at least for now – in the history of the world first introduced in The Phoenix Guards back in 1991.  The large cast of characters from the previous book is back, this time about to have their affairs further scrambled by the reappearance of the title character, an ageless sorceress returned from a long absence.  Lots of high pitched action this time building toward a really spectacular climax in which the succession to the throne and other issues are finally resolved.  If Alexander Dumas was alive today, he'd probably be writing stories very much like this.  Brust is one of the few contemporary fantasy writers whose stories, despite modern sensibilities, often read as though they were written during the age of Talbot Mundy and H. Rider Haggard.

The Wizard's Ward by Deborah Hale, Luna Books, 4/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80205-6

A young woman is told by a wizard that she is heir to the throne of her country, which is currently beset by barbarian invaders.  The catch is that in order to achieve her destiny, she must first find the Waiting King, the man destined to be her husband, although even he may be unaware of his role.  She sets out to find him, accompanied by a less than charming outlaw who nevertheless proves loyal, capable, and eventually lovable, as readers will no doubt have long guessed since this is a romance line.  The story was pretty cute and the characters likable enough, even if I did see things coming long before they did.

Imaginings: After the Myths Went Home edited by Stefan Rudnicki, Frog Ltd, 2004, $14.95, ISBN 1-58394-094-4

This is the first in a projected series of three anthologies, each of which is designed to examine some of the major recurring themes in science fiction and fantasy, like robots and aliens.  The contributors therefore vary from Robert Silverberg to Euripides, from  John Crowley to Walt Whitman, from R.A. Lafferty to Guy de Maupassant.  I'm not sure any collection this small could even begin to scratch the surface, but the editor has made a good start and the juxtaposition of genre and non-genre writers might help make people think about the stories in different ways. 

Two Shades Darker Than the Sky by Scott T. Wilson, 1st Books, 2004, $20.95, ISBN 1-4107-7245-4

Sometimes a coming of age story takes a lot longer than you'd think.  The protagonist of this first novel was chosen by a goddess to run a few errands for her, a few errands that take almost two thousand years to perform, although the boy doesn't age and is in fact moved through time by magical means.  When everything is accomplished, he returns home, after a passage in terms of that land of only a little more than a decade.  But Chath has changed immeasurably while he was gone, as they are about to discover.  Almost the entire story is told in the form of very short clips of dialogue, which gives the book a very strange feel.  I'd have to say the results are uneven.  Some of the sections are enjoyable and others seem awkward.  The book passes very quickly, but at times I felt as though something had been left out.  I suspect individual reaction will depend on your response to the prose style.

Island Dreams edited by Claude Lalumiere, Vehicule Press, 2003, $12.95, ISBN 1-55065-171-4

This is a collection of original short stories by Montreal writers of fantasy and science fiction, all but two of whom were unknown to me.  The two best stories are Yves Menard's story of inexplicable alien activities and Glenn Grant's robot detective story, reminiscent of Asimov.  Mark Shainblum's contribution is entertaining at times, although the villains are painted a bit too black to be entirely credible in anything but a satire, which this is not.  Dora Knez and Laura Dyduk both have entertaining stories as well.  Some of the other stories struck me as quite minor, particularly the vignettes, but overall the quality of the collection is surprisingly high given the absence of major names.

The Queen of Sinister by Mark Chadbourn, Gollancz, 2004, £10.99, ISBN 0-575-07276-8

Volume two of the Dark Age series continues the story of a future Earth where magic and superstition have replaced science and rationality.  In the opening volume, The Devil in Green, a mercenary agrees to work with the Knights Templar for the defense of the crumbling Christian religion.  In the sequel, a new plague is devastating Great Britain, and a healer is granted the right to cross into a mystical other realm in search of a cure.  Her journey of discovery allows the reader to go on a grand tour of the magical homeland of the ancient gods.  Although at times a bit slowly paced, for the most part the story and the setting are both interesting enough to hold your attention, although I don't think this is nearly as good as its predecessor.  The new series is a follow up to the earlier Age of Misrule trilogy.

Dime Store Magic by Kelley Armstrong, Bantam, 5/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58706-4

It has surprised me for a while how little contemporary fantasy or horror deals with witchcraft, given the popularity of the television series Charmed.  Kelley Armstrong, who has used witches and werewolves in her previous novels, does just that with this new, suspenseful title.  Paige Winterbourne is a witch, member of a vast national coven with whom her relations are not always smooth.  Paige gets involved with a teenaged girl who has almost unprecedented magical powers, and whose personality inclines her toward the dark side, a dark side that is all too willing to enlist her aid and warp her mind even further.  Can Paige save the girl's soul?  Can she even save her own life?  A quite thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Nightingale's Lament by Simon R. Green, Ace, 5/04, $6.50, ISBN 0-441-01163-2

The third installment in Green's mix of hard detective fiction and fantasy has John Taylor investigating the reasons why a prominent singer has suddenly stopped performing and refuses to see her friends.  It appears that she is under a curse, and that the sound of her voice can be fatal.  Taylor has to uncover the secret, then deal with its cause.  Mike Resnick and Glen Cook have both done this sort of thing before, but Green's series is every bit as good.  Filled with supernatural creatures of various sorts, the action leavened by occasional bits of dry humor, the Taylor series has proven to be a welcome break from the endless quasi-medieval intrigues that dominate contemporary fantasy.

New Skies edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor, 1/ 04, $19.95, ISBN 0-765-30015-X

Although fantasy fiction has become much more popular during the last twenty years than it had ever been previously, most of what has been published has been novel length.  Patrick Nielsen Hayden has take the time to go through the smaller and harder to find crop of short fiction to find a book full of noteworthy modern fantasies, and the result is not only high in quality but diverse in subject matter.  There's everything here from shared world universes to the quest for the Holy Grail, from werewolves to knights in armor, from contemporary tales to other worlds.  The contributors include Ursula K. LeGuin, Ellen Kusher, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, and many others.  A fantasy collection for connoisseurs, or for people who just want to sample the best of what the genre has to offer.

The One True Prince by Thomas Brennan, Five Star, 5/04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-139-8

Thomas Brennan's first novel is a fantasy set in a nicely done setting, a sort of future England where cloning and sorcery are equally at home, although the story is mostly a complex and action filled mystery.  The dying king had himself cloned to ensure that the succession would go smoothly, but someone acts pre-emptively, using assassination and other measures to disrupt things.  The surviving members of the royal family go into hiding, and two of them attempt to figure out who is responsible, although suspicion ranges from a secret society to rivals among the potential heirs themselves.  Brennan proves himself adequate to the task he has set himself, and the setting is sufficiently diverse to keep the novel from blending in with scores of similar tales of court intrigue. 

The Wanderer by Cherry Wilder and Katya Reimann, Tor, 5/04, $27.95, ISBN 0-312-87405-7

At the time of her death, Cherry Wilder left behind an uncompleted novel in her Hylor series, recently completed by Katya Reimann.  The story follows the career of a young woman who successfully manages to enlist in the army of her country, locked in a complex round of wars with some of its neighbors.  She proves to have a different destiny, however, because she possesses magical talents that no one, not even she herself, recognizes, but which are detected by a fairylike people who share her world.  I confess I was never a big fan of this series, but the final novel is an exciting mix of standard fantasy themes.

In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales by Lord Dunsany, Penguin, 3/ 04, $14, ISBN 0-14-243776-X

Here's a handsomely produced, major cross section of the short fiction of Lord Dunsany, including everything from his fairy tale like Pegana stories to his classic detective story "The Two Bottles of Relish" to more traditional fantasy.  There are extensive annotations for each of the stories and some of them, particularly the Jorkens tales, have been very hard to find.  Possibly this new selection will stir some interest and lead to reprints of Dunsany's other short fiction.  Several of his most famous stories are included as well, and the combination should please both the novice and those readers already familiar with the author's work.

In Camelot's Shadow by Sarah Zettel, Luna, 03/ 04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80204-8

Luna's new romantic fantasy line has opened with quite a few strong entries, of which this is far from the least impressive.  Risa is on the run, betrayed by her own father who hoped to trade her life to a sorcerer in return from great power.  While traveling, she encounters Sir Gawain, who offers her sanctuary in Camelot.  There she tries to make a new life for herself, growing increasingly attracted to Gawain, but also troubled by a vague feeling of uneasiness that resolves itself only when she discovers that she hasn't completely escaped her doom, that a curse hangs over her that could endanger Camelot itself.

Ravenor by Dan Abnett, Black Library, 2004, $19.99, ISBN 1-84416-072-6

Magestorm by Jonathan Green, Black Library, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416074-2

Witch Hunter by C.L. Werner, Black Library, 2004, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-071-8

The latest batch of Warhammer novels are a very disparate lot.  The first is one set in the far future, by an author who has done several military style novels in this setting.  This one's a little different, following the activities of a psychic super agent whose assistants are investigating a region of space where the forces of evil may be influencing the minds of ordinary people.  Some of Abnett's space operas have been entertaining, but this one lost me early on and never held my interest after that.  The characters just never came to life and the situation was too abstract.  The other two are set in the Old World, essentially a sword and sorcery venue.  Green's novel is about a sorcerer on the side of good whose battles against evil are complicated by his own personal problems.  It's a fair sword and sorcery adventure but nothing to write home about.  Best of the lot is the last, the story of a professional witch hunter whose investigation into a series of deaths in a small village uncovers something a lot more dangerous than simple witchcraft.  Werner's previous books were not unpleasant, but this one's actively entertaining.

Devlin's Justice by Patricia Bray, Bantam, 4/04, $6.50, ISBN 0-553-58477-4

Our hero retrieved the magical sword that establishes his identity as the prophesized warrior who will save the world.  Unfortunately, while he was off on a mission, there were considerable changes within the court.  A well intention ruler has forged an alliance with an old enemy, an unwise bond that could well backfire.  When Devlin returns, he is imprisoned and rumors of his death spread across the country.  In his absence, his friends attempt to protect their land from outside invaders, but unless he escapes to fulfill the prophesy, they may well be doomed.  This series has gotten better as it progressed and its hero is more fallible and believable that is the case with most similar adventure series.

The Boy Who Couldn't Die by William Sleator, Amulet, 2004, $16.95, ISBN 0-8109-4824-9

William Sleator, who has written some of my favorite young adult SF, turns to horror with his latest.  The protagonist is a teenager who decides that he is too valuable to die.  In short order he finds a woman who offers to make him magically immortal in exchange for a trifling sum of money, but he is soon troubled by dreams in which he apparently is committing evil acts.  Eventually he and his girlfriend discover that his soul is being held in thrall and used to perform evil acts, so the two of them have to engage in a battle on the astral plane to recover his soul before it is hopelessly tainted.  Definitely has its creepy moments, although I couldn't help wondering how the main character could have been stupid enough to be fooled in the first place.

This Scepter'd Isle by Mercedes Lackey and Roberta Gellis, Baen, 2/04, $25, ISBN 0-7434-7156-3

Historical fantasies set in the not too distant past tend to hold my interest better than those set in completely imagined novels for some reason, so this collaborative novel had an advantage before I even opened it.  Then I noticed it was about elves and fairies, and it slid a ways backward and sat around for a while before I decided to try it in earnest.  As it happens, I shouldn't have waited, because it's actually quite good, the best title I've seen from either author in a while.  The time is that of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the future of the world is being watched over by the inhabitants of a world unknown to most of humanity.  Complex and generally rewarding, although there are just a few too many characters, I thought.

The Dragon Quintet edited by Marvin Kaye, Tor, 4/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31035-X

I believe that this collection of five original fantasy novelettes was originally a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, now released to the general public.  The contributors are Michael Swanwick, Elizabeth Moon, Orson Scott Card, Tanith Lee, and Mercedes Lackey, and all five are unusually good in a genre that produces surprisingly little outstanding fiction short of book length.  Each of the stories involves a dragon of some sort, although they aren't always traditional ones.  Card's dragon, for example, exists as a sort of metaphysical dragon within another structure, and Michael Swanwick's is as much a product of technology as magic.  The remaining three tend to follow more familiar patterns, although all of the stories – particularly the one by Tanith Lee – are quite good. 

The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams, Amlet, 3/ 04, $16.95, ISBN 0-8109-4823-0

Every once in a while a children's book comes along that seems to speak almost as much to adults as it does to its target audience.  The Harry Potter series is the most obvious example, but there have been others along the way, including the Mary Poppins series, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Wind in the Willows.  I'm not ready to claim that this first novel is quite in that class, but it's certainly a good one, reminding me of Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit and even a bit of C.S. Lewis.  A handful of children in a crumbling old hotel discover that within its walls they can find gateways to other times and places.  Fun for all ages, and quietly thoughtful as well.

Mystic Warrior by Tracy and Laura Hickman, Warner, 3/ 03, $24.95, ISBN 0-446-53105-7

This first volume in a new fantasy trilogy has enough odd things going on to keep even the most experienced reader wondering what's going to happen next.  The primary character is a blacksmith who is having very odd visions.  He hallucinates – or does he? – that everyday objects are speaking to him, conveying warnings about things to come.  Judged insane, he is sent to live among the mad, and there he finds himself elevated to a new position.  But his dreams seem to be much more than that and begin to effect events in the real world.  The explanation, which we are privy to, is that a cataclysmic joining of three very separate realities is about to change the rules in all three.  I had some trouble with the names, many of which are semi-pronounceable, but if you're not bothered by that, this seems likely to be a more distinctive trilogy than most of the others appearing lately.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, Tor, 6/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31001-5

It is unfortunate that so much epic fantasy is written using the same devices and situations, because that means that the really unusually good ones are often lost in the mob.  Hopefully that won't be the case with this first novel, and first in a series naturally, set in a magical world that has been bled dry by many years of warfare, with imperial forces, evil sorcerers, and gallant warriors battling back and forth inconclusively.  Although Erikson's plot is composed of many familiar elements, he assembles it in an unusually clever fashion, and I really enjoyed several of his characters, particularly the ordinary soldiers caught up in the turmoil.  This one reads more like George R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkien, but is different enough from both to be entertaining all on its own.

Demon's Gate by Steve White, Baen, 1/ 04, $24, ISBN 0-7434-7176-8

Space opera writer White takes a turn at sword and sorcery this time around, and the result is a light weight inoffensive story that makes use of familiar genre themes in an entertaining but undemanding fashion.  A typical nobleman warrior discovers that a mysterious sorcerer has not died as was widely reported but has actually gone incognito so that no one will suspect that he is investigating the possibility that demonic forces are preparing to invade and conquer the world.  His suspicions are, of course, correct, and action is taken in the nick of time.  This one won't tax your mind at all, but it's a pleasant diversion.

Alta by Mercedes Lackey, DAW, 3/ 04, $24.95, ISBN 0-7564-0216-6

In Joust, Lackey introduced us to a world in which an army supported by dragon riders was able to conquer its neighbors.  The protagonist was a survivor from one of the conquered lands who is befriended by one of the conquerors, who eventually learns part of the secret to harnessing the power of these powerful creatures, and who steals an egg and bonds with a dragon of his own so that he can fly to the lands still controlled by his nation and help them develop their own corps of dragon riders.  Unfortunately, as we learn in this, the second in the series, things aren't that simple.  There are forces even among his own people who have a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict.  The best scenes in the novel are those in which humans and dragons are learning to interact.  Lackey uses a brisk, straightforward prose style that is perfectly suited to this series, which promises to be among her very best.

The Charmed Sphere by Catherine Asaro, Luna, 2/04, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80203-X

For her first fantasy, a romance, Catherine Asaro has created an orderly system of magic that is in fact color coded.  A fairly large cast of significant characters are involved in efforts to shore up the magical state of the kingdom, including Iris, a young woman who may not be able to fully control her magic, and Muller, who is the only magician known to be able to draw magic from imperfect sources, although his spells are frequently twisted as well in their results.  When Iris wakens the heir to the throne from a prolonged coma, the question in many minds is whether or not the new ruler is sane enough to run the kingdom.  Asaro obviously writes a more complex story than is usual in romance novels, and she has also done a good job of creating a structured background that makes her imagined world feel more like a real place.

Shadowgod by Michael Cobley, Pocket Books UK, £6.99, ISBN 0-7434-1600-7

This is the middle volume of the Shadowkings trilogy, a well written but basically derivative fantasy adventure involving the battles in a magical land between the forces of light and those of darkness.  Cobley makes use of a fairly large cast of principle characters, and his greatest strength is the way in which he evokes a rich atmosphere, although the tone this time is more of doom and gloom than high adventure.  Everything is set for the climax, with the outcome in serious doubt in terms of the story, although we all know that the good guys will triumph in the end.

The Highwayman by R.A. Salvatore, CDS Books, 2004, $25.95, ISBN 1-59315-016-4

R.A. Salvatore is probably the best writer to emerge from the TSR/Wizards of the Coast group, and he has been a consistently more interesting writer since he has started creating his own worlds.  This one is set in Corona, which he has used previously, but it's a step back through time.  A monk returns from an extended visit in a distant land, armed with a new form of wisdom and accompanied by a mysterious but attentive wife.  Unfortunately, he finds his homeland changed, swept by violence, and rather than proselytize, he and his wife are instead forced to go into hiding.  This is all a lead in to the second part of the story, the emergence of a mysterious swordsman who bears some similarity to Zorro.  Salvatore writes as rousing an adventure as anyone, and he's gotten progressively more skilled at refining his plots and peopling them with interesting characters.

Medalon by Jennifer Fallon, Tor, 5/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30986-6

Jennifer Fallon is a new name in the US, but she is the author of several fantasy novels in Australia.  This one, first published in 2000, is the first in the Hythrun Chronicles series.  The protagonists are a brother and sister who have to run for the hills when they discover their evil mother's rule involves exploiting them.  They join the rebellion, which fails to accomplish much, and they don't fit in there very well either.  Then they uncover evidence that seems to indicate that the sister may not be entirely human, and that her very existence might be a threat to the whole world.  As you would expect, the opening volume raises a lot of questions and doesn't provide a lot of answers.  Fallon writes agreeably and her characters are convincing.  Not a towering new talent but certainly a skillful and entertaining one.

The First Heroes edited by Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle, Tor, 5/04, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30286-1

This collection of fourteen original stories set during the Bronze Age is labeled fantasy, but the contents are as much science fiction as fantasy.  It's also a pretty good collection, good enough to overcome my comparative disinterest in this particular period of history.  There are very good stories by Poul Anderson, Greg Feeley, Lois Tilton, Judith Tarr, Gene Wolfe, and Josepha Sherman, and pretty good stories from most of the remaining contributors.  Some of the stories involve the ancient gods, and some of the others show us the ancient world from the point of view of a time traveler.  The mix of two genres works surprisingly well, providing much more variety to what might otherwise have been a rather repetitive collection.

Silverlock by John Myers Myers, NESFA, 2004, $26, ISBN 1-886778-52-3

I have to confess that I've never much compared for this "classic" fantasy novel, although I think I understand its appeal.  The protagonist is shipwrecked in an imaginary land where he has a variety of episodic adventures that feature cameo appearances by real and imaginary people like Robin Hood, Pegasus, and Beowulf, although their identities are usually masked and you might easily miss them.  But fear not, the Silverlock Companion is included.  Essays and guides identify all the characters, placing them in their proper context, so you don't have to be an expert on mythology to figure out who's who.  Handsomely packaged as well.

A Horse's Tale by Mark Twain, Wildside, 2003, $12.95, ISBN 0-8095-3350-2

Many years back, I went on a Mark Twain binge and read pretty much everything available, and this novelette was probably in there somewhere, although I don't remember it.  It's a story about Buffalo Bill, but it's told from a unique perspective; the narrator is Buffalo Bill's favorite horse.  The story chronicles several amusing adventures.  It's not one of Twain's best pieces, but it's amusing and curious and you'll rarely find a more original viewpoint character.

The Blessing of Pan by Lord Dunsany, Wildside, 2003, $17.50, ISBN 0-8095-3075-9

This was a pleasant little surprise, a Lord Dunsany fantasy novel, first published in 1926, with a contemporary setting, a small English village that is about to experience a marvelous series of events.  Rural fantasies of this sort were very popular in England for a time, but their reception in the US hasn't been as enthusiastic.  In this particular case, many of the local citizens fall under the influence of an old, pagan religion, that turns out not to be just a matter of superstition.  It's somewhat slow paced for modern readers, relying more on atmosphere than on action, but if you have the patience for this sort of thing, the novel is ultimately quite rewarding.

Sword of Zalgan by Clark Ashton Smith, Hippocampus, 2004, $15, ISBN 0-9721644-5-6-

This is the second volume of Smith's non-fantasy to appear from this imprint, the first being an Arabian Nights style adventure written when Clark was a teenager.  The largest portion of this new title is another story in a similar vein, crudely written compared to Smith's other work, but far in advance of what you might expect from someone as young as he was when he wrote this.  The short novel is accompanied by a selection of poems, short stories, and fragments of unfinished manuscripts, and although there are no overlooked classics here, several of the shorts in particular are entertaining, and for historical purposes if no other reason it's good to have them available.

Nightmare Logic by Larry Segriff, Five Star, 3/ 04, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-037-5

I generally like contemporary fantasy more than those set in created universes, and a touch of dark suspense appeals to my fondness for horror fiction, so this sequel to last year's Wizardspawn has just the right mixture for me.  The protagonist thought that he had forsworn the use of magic forever, but that comes to a halt when he becomes the target of a new enemy.  First he's unjustly accused of murder, then his wife is killed under mysterious circumstances.  With no other choice, and determined to avenge his wife, he turns to magic once again.  Suspenseful, mysterious, and just the right balance of fantasy to reality.

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand, Morrow, 7/04, $24.95, ISBN 0-06-105170-5

Elizabeth Hand's new novel is such a step forward from her previous work that it reads almost as though it was written by someone else entirely.  What makes it difficult to review is that I'm reluctant to say too much about the plot, which unfolds so gradually and gracefully that it would be a shame to reveal too much about the plot here.  Suffice it to say that the story alternates among several perspectives, the main one being that of an American writer in England to do research for a scholarly work on the legend of Tristan and Iseult.  He encounters a strangely compelling woman with a secret past, and it's that past, and that woman, that makes this such a superb fantasy.  Rich in historical allusions and genuinely inventive, it's an early contender for best fantasy novel of the year.

The Hunt Begins by Robert Jordan, Starscape, 1/ 04, $5.99,  ISBN 0-765-34843-8

New Threads in the Pattern by Robert Jordan, Starscape, 1/ 04, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-34844-6

These two books together make up the complete text of The Great Hunt, the second book in Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  In fact, it's probably my favorite in the entire sequence.  A mystical sword supposedly has the power to raise the dead, but someone has stolen it and a fairly typical quest follows, with a protagonist who eventually finds himself as well as the missing artifact.  This new packaging is designed to move the book with young adult audiences, apparently because it is felt that smaller volumes will have a better chance.  Given the success of the last two Harry Potter books, I wouldn't think that would be necessary, but what do I know?  In any case, this is a less expensive buy than a trade paperback edition, so if you're still looking for a copy of this 1991 fantasy adventure, here's your chance.

Monument by Ian Graham, Ace, 3/ 04, $14, ISBN 0-441-01135-7

This first fantasy novel was previously published in England and gathered some good notices.  The story focuses on an unlikely hero, a homeless and disreputable vagrant who is befriended by a religious official, whom he subsequently betrays by stealing a sacred artifact.  Unfortunately for his plans, the artifact is a source of great power, and it isn't long before he's being pursued by decidedly unfriendly forces.  Fortunately, the very possession of the artifact begins to work a change on the man.  I wasn't really impressed with the opening chapters, but once Ballas is off and running, the story begins to move more smoothly and the character rapidly becomes more interesting.

A Bowl of Fruit, A Whale in the Woods by Russell Like, Brunswick Galaxy, 2003, $13.95, ISBN 0-9661039-1-2

I had never heard of this author before, although I've subsequently read a 1998 SF novel that is equally funny.  This one involves a man who finds an instrument that opens gateways to other worlds, but the catch is that they are the worlds found in famous paintings.  Shades of Harold Shea!  After several amusing adventures, he finds himself in direr straits, a German impressionist painting that masks a world ruled by an evil and ambitious man who wants to conquer all of the other realities.  I'd call this one fantasy rather than SF despite the effort at rationalization, and I'd call it funny whatever category you want to put it in.  Like may not be the next Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but he does have a knack for creating amusing situations.  If his dialogue becomes a little livelier, he might encroach on their territory in the future.

Mask of the Sorcerer by Darrell Schweitzer, Wildside, 2003, $19.95, ISBN 0-8095-3281-6

Surprisingly, this quite good fantasy adventure has never had a previous US edition that I am aware of, although it has appeared in the UK almost ten years ago.  The opening chapters appeared separately and was a World Fantasy Award nominee.  The protagonist kills a sorcerer, as a consequence of which he absorbs some of the other man's powers, as well as the powers that the dead man acquired in similar fashion.  The gift turns out to be a mixed blessing.  The fantasy world isn't just a copy of one of the standard ones and there is actually depth to the characters.  Take a break from the latest pseudo-Medieval fantasy series and read something truly inventive and fantastical.

The Silken Shroud by Elizabeth Gilligan, DAW, 4/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0179-8

Here's the second volume that misses gypsy lore with fairies and black magic in a mix that doesn't quite gel for me.  A young woman's dead body is stolen by a fairly typical villainous sorcerer  who wants to use her spiritual power to further his nefarious plans.  There are times when the story drew me in, but others when I just didn't care what happened to the characters.  I think the problem is that I was never able to accept the setting as real for this one.

Glass Dragons by Sean McMullen, Tor, 3/ 04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30797-9

The sequel to Voyage of the Shadowmoon sees our travelers finally arriving at a distant land where each hopes to pursue his or her particular interests.  Unfortunately, their plans are about to be altered, because there is something taking place locally that is about to affect all of them, and perhaps the entire world.  McMullen has a nice touch for fantasy.  His settings feel fresh and interesting, his characters are more solid than are a lot of otherwise similar characters in other fantasies, and his plots tend to move in more quirky and unpredictable directions.  This one is much better than its predecessor, which was pretty good itself, and suddenly McMullen is threatening to emerge as one of the leading names in fantasy.

Out of the Darkness by Harry Turtledove, Tor, 3/ 04, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-30438-4

Here at last is the sixth and final installment of Turtledove's massive fantasy war novel.  If you haven't read the previous volumes, it's analogous to World War II, with dragons as bombers and other magical artifacts filling in for artillery, tanks, etc.  The multi-sided war is finally approaching its climactic battle, but behind the scenes, the political leaders of the various nations are already maneuvering in preparation for the real battle, the shaping of the peace to follow the overt conflict.  And naturally it's the common people who are going to have little to say in their own future.  The conclusion is satisfying enough, although I think it should have come two or three volumes earlier.

Daughter of Exile by Isabel Glass, Tor, 03/ 04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30745-6

Here's another fantasy debut, and one worth noting as well.  The protagonist of the story is the self possessed and indignant daughter of an exiled noble who travels back to the capital city to demand an investigation of her father's murder.  I was expecting the usual palace intrigues and I got them, but with some new wrinkles and convolutions.  The king is under a spell, and the newly arrived visitor turns out to be the key to his deliverance.  Likeable characters turn an otherwise standard quest novel into a genuinely pleasant reading experience, and there's plenty of magic to distinguish this from the flood of thinly disguised historical novels that currently dominate the book shelves.

The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker, Simon & Schuster UK, 3/ 04, £10.99, ISBN unknown

Another debut fantasy novel and another opening volume of a series, this one called the Prince of Nothing.  It's pretty much the usual fantasy world, with the usual conflicts.  A reclusive sorcerer believes that an ancient evil force is awake and plotting against the world of humankind.  A brilliant military officer is planning to build an army that will be able to dominate the world.  Elsewhere a barbarian warrior seeks revenge for an offense against his family and a religious leader seeks to extend the influence of his followers.  That's just to set the stage for the return of a supernatural entity and the struggles which will presumably follow in later volumes.  The prose is competent without being distinctive and the story engaging without being engrossing.

Beastslayer by William King, Black Library, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416-052-1

Mark of Heresy by James Wallis, Black Library, 2003, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-049-1

Two more Warhammer novels, both of these in the barbarian adventure mode.  The first is a further adventure of King's recurring characters, Gotrek and Felix.  This time they're stuck in a city about to fall to the besieging forces of a formidable army, but the twosome proves to be pretty formidable as well.  This is far and away the best of King's series about the pair of adventurers.  The second title is the second in Wallis' series, which bears some similarities – an imminent war, a people in peril, a lone warrior who might turn the tide.  It's much more serious in tone, and the scale is larger, but I liked King's novel better.

Fantasy Life by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Pocket Star, 11/03, $7.99, ISBN 0-7434-5631-9

I found this almost by accident at a flea market; it hasn't showed up in local bookstores as far as I can tell.  The set up is not new.  The survivors of the days when magical creatures roamed the Earth are confined to a small, enchanted area in the US, watched over by a family that has performed that function for generations.  The current steward, Lyssa, tried to run away from her responsibilities, but now she's back, and her enemy is a lot more malevolent than just the inevitable spread of modern civilization.  Rusch does her usual artful job with this, mixing light contemporary fantasy with suspense and even a tinge of horror.  It's worth searching for, even if your local bookstore doesn't have it.

The Darksteel Eye by Jess Lebow, Wizards of the Coast, 1/ 04, $6.99, ISBN 0-7869-3140-X

I've only read a handful of the Magic the Gathering tie-in novels, of which this is one, and they've all been pretty standard fantasy adventures, much like this one, which involves a kind of reverse quest.  The three primary characters, an elf, a goblin, and a golem, are running away from something rather than toward it, the something being a relentless enemy.  Although their adventures aren't anything out of the ordinary, the characters are often amusing, particularly the rather unconventional golem.  Lots of swordplay, chases, escapes, and magical enemies, but not much in the way of deep characterization or intricate backgrounds.

The Art of the Return of the King by Gary Russell, Houghton Mifflin, 2004, $35, ISBN 0-618-43029-6

This tie-in was as inevitable as sunrise, given the fact that we've already seen collections of the artwork from the first two thirds of the trilogy.  The text is pretty much confined to captions for the more than six hundred illustrations included, everything from line drawings to full color paintings.  Some of it is quite striking as artwork, and some of it is primarily of interest because it shows how the concepts were created and sometimes altered before the final product was produced.  Excellent layout makes the book even more attractive than its inherent qualities would have been even less well presented.