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

 LAST UPDATE 3/31/14

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies by Clark Ashton Smith, Penguin, 2014, $16, ISBN 978-0-14-310738-5   

A new selection of Clark Ashton Smith’s distinctive fantasy stories selected by S.T. Joshi. Most of his best stories are included here, including the opening “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, in which two would-be thieves encounter an amorphous monster in an abandoned temple. Another of my favorites is “The Devotee of Evil,” wherein a man seeks purified evil. There’s a strange island culture in “The Uncharted Isle,” one of the few I hadn’t read before. Classic pieces include “Ubbo Sathlas,: “The Vault of Yoh-Vombis,” “Xeethra,” “Genius Loci,” and the title story but all of them are quite good. Smith was one of the most evocative writers working in the pulps and his imagery remains vivid today even if his language might seem archaically formal at times.  Not a bad story in the book, and there are notes by Joshi about some of the content.  There is also a selection of prose poems, that is, fragments and brief images that aren’t really stories, some of which are very effective, and another selection of actual poetry. Smith is one of the few fantasy writers whose poetry I actually find genuinely entertaining. 3/31/14

The Stone Boatmen by Sarah Tolmie, Aqueduct, 2014, $20, ISBN 978-1-61976-027-1

I believe this unusual fantasy is a first novel by an author previously known for her poetry. The setting is a world where three island cities have lost contact with one another for many generations. Each city has a special predilection - dreams, rituals, and poetry - and their societies have thus diverged significantly. The isolation is about to end, however, as one of the cities is the base for a series of exploratory voyages which will bring them back together. The cover blurb suggests that this will not appeal to general fantasy readers - a marketing device I would have avoided - because of its concentration on prose and situation rather than action. There's an element of truth to that because most of the conflict is a conflict of ideas and values rather than physical. I'd describe the story as restful but that suggests that it was dull or slow moving, neither of which is the case. It's an odd sort of book which I enjoyed without getting excited, and which I might well find myself remembering more distinctly than many another more rousing story. 3/22/14

Irenicon by Aidan Harte, Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-1623650391

Here's an unusual fantasy that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. The first volume in the Wave Trilogy is set in the equivalent of a 14th Century European city which has managed to defeat an aggressive empire. The city, Rasenna, is divided into two parts by a massive river. Sounds pretty standard, right? Well, the twist is that the river itself has somehow become a living thing and it is not particularly well disposed toward humans. As if the inimical river wasn't enough, the society in Rasenna is spiraling toward self destruction thanks to a culture which pits elements against one another even long after the cause of the conflict is removed. A project to build a bridge across the river seems to be the best chance of getting the various factions to pull together, which is necessary not only to improve conditions within Rasenna, but because the defeated empire has not accepted its defeat gladly and  as we all know the empire always strikes back. It's a first novel but it doesn't show the occasional clunkiness often found in debuts. I've long since grown tired of trilogies, but that doesn't mean there aren't still good ones appearing from time to time. 3/21/14

The Door by Andy Marino, Scholastic, 2014, 17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-55137-3

The doorway to other worlds can be found both in adult and young adult fantasy, but it seems particularly popular in the latter. This is another variant, centering on a lighthouse, where a young girl opens the gateway after two mysterious strangers show up. Hannah has a kind of extrasensory perception which she mostly conceals, but when her mother is murdered, the crisis causes her to look at the world in a different way. The world in which she finds herself is familiar in some ways, but very different in others. This is an odd sort of story about which I can't say too much without spoiling the effect of the novel itself. Hannah explores the new world, makes new friends, acquires a family of sorts, and has several low key adventures. It's more reflective than most YA fantasy I've read and has a mildly ambiguous ending that is also unusual. 3/15/14

River of Nightmares by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2014, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62167-5  1713

Alex Archer is a house pseudonym for this series, in this instance concealing the identity of Jean Rabe, who has written several previous adventures as well as a number of fantasies under her own name. Annja Creed is back in the Amazon filming an episode of her television program about legends and oddities across the world when she hears of a tribe that uses a mysterious drug to experience things impossible to everyone else. The temptation to investigate is irresistible as well as necessary to the plot, but this time our protagonist may have stuck her nose into something with which even she can't deal. Except that since this is an ongoing series, we know she's going to prove capable eventually. I'm not sure just what it is about this series that I find enjoyable but I've read a few dozen of them now and still find them entertaining. 3/14/14

The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas, Atria, 2014, $16, ISBN 978-1-4516-6024-1

Not a first novel but a name new to me, and sequel to Something Red, which I haven't seen. Both are set in a magical version of 13th Century England. There's a creepy presence in a local castle that may or may not be connected to the disappearance of several people, each of which turn up dead and apparently very quickly aged. There's a young woman with healing powers, a troubled aristocratic family, a curse, and lots of mysterious comings and goings. This isn't a period of history which I usually find appealing to read about, but Nicholas has a fluid, engaging style that got its hooks into me quite quickly. The novel seems much shorter than it is and I was sad to see it end, but at least I know now that I have to track down the first in the series. 3/11/14

The Raven's Shadow by Elspeth Cooper, Tor, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3167-0

Things begin to disintegrate on ever front in the third volume of the Wild Hunt series, which is fairly traditional high fantasy though with occasionally interesting variations. There have been glimmerings of war across the border between worlds in the earlier volumes but now it seems that it is imminent if not inevitable. The main protagonist, who makes use of a kind of musically derived magic, has been traumatized by his experiences up to now and is presently obsessed with a desire for revenge and an abhorrence for what he has seen. This emotional turmoil has also interfered with his magical talents. As violence breaks out and old enmities cause new problems. This is the most exciting volume in the series so far - and no, it does not end here - but it's slightly less interesting creatively because the action sequences become the main focus. Open ended series with no clearly defined destination are not my favorite thing but Cooper will keep me reading at least for a while longer. 3/10/14

The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue, Washington Square, 2014, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-8889-4

There are some interesting twists in this otherwise conventional fantasy novel by a writer whose name is unfamiliar to me, although she's had other work published, not in the fantasy genre. The protagonist is a cartographer in an alternate fantasy world who sets out to map the lesser known lands around her kingdom where she encounters a wealthy little land whose inhabitants claim they are guarding a great unknown treasure. When she tells people back home, she is appalled to discover that the peaceful people are officially listed as a threat by avaricious officials who want their wealth. Exiled, she returns to the land she discovered and tries to make a life for herself.  This is an oddly structured fantasy which will surprise you primarily because it doesn't follow the usual plot paths. It's also very well written and the de-emphasis on physical conflict and the other tropes of contemporary fantasy provides a welcome break. 3/8/14

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan, Tor, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3197-7

A Lady Trent novel. One of the signs of a good writer is someone who can make me look forward to a subject area that I don't usually find interesting. As a general rule, the presence of dragons in a book is likely to make me queasy in advance (elves and fairies have the same effect except even stronger). The protagonist of this and the previous Lady Trent novel, The Natural History of Dragons, is a naturalist in a fantasy world whose specialty should be obvious from the title. In order to pursue her researches, she has to travel to remote and often dangerous parts of her world, and studying dragons is in itself a somewhat risky business. Her latest jaunt is into a region which has recently been devastated by war and whose aftermath is less than reassuring. In addition to the usual dangers inherent in traveling through unsettled territory with unknown aspects, she has to deal with her companions, who include a runaway heiress among their number. And all of that is merely the prelude to the real adventure. It's always nice to see someone do something a little different, particularly when they do it this well. 3/5/14

Age of Godpunk by James Lovegrove, Solaris, 2013, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-78108-129-7

This loose series of deity related gods dominating humans comes to an apparent close with this collection of three novelettes. Each of the three deals with a different god. In the first case, an African trickster god chooses an ordinary man to compete in a battle of wits. In the second - my favorite of the three - a disgruntled student calls for Satan's aid, which naturally has lasting consequences he did not foresee. The last, and weakest, involves an exploiting businessman who ignores the ecology of the world until he meets a journalist whose career is founded on the idea that humanity should live in harmony with the world. These appear to have been previously published but I don't know where. All three are well worth your time. 3/4/14

The Finisher by David Baldacci, Scholastic, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-65220-9

Thriller novelist David Baldacci turns his hand to young adult fantasy for his new book, which reminded me a bit of the movie, The Village. The protagonist is a young girl who lives in Wormwood, a village surrounded by the Quag, which is effective impenetrable, or so says the common wisdom. When one of her friends disappears, she discovers that he left clues about what happened to him, and as she unravels the clues she discovers that what she thought was true about her world just isn't so. Ultimately, the village itself is just as deadly in its own fashion as is the menacing forest around it. This was kind of fun, and I grew to like the protagonist, but it never really became a world that I believed could be real, and therefore the adventures had a kind of artificial undertaste that wouldn't go away. Certainly worth reading, but it felt as though some essential element had been left out. 2/26/14

The Barrow by Mark Smylie, Pyr, 2014, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-891-1

If you're in the mood for an epic quest story, this should be on your shopping list. The opening chapters of the story only hint at the complexity to come. The discovery of a map supposedly showing the location of a hoard left by a dead wizard attracts a group of the usual varied characters for a treasure hunt. Unfortunately, the map is under a magic spell and is subsequently destroyed before they can take advantage of it. Or is it? The map reappears and the hunt is back on, but now it's obviously a more complex process than it initially appeared to be. The characters are all typical fantasy stereotypes but this is a kind of hybrid between high fantasy and sword and sorcery, so all bets are off. There are a few places where an editor should have intervened - frequent word repetitions, etc. - but it's all small stuff and it's not likely to bother most readers much if at all. The story is pretty long, although not excessively so given the parameters of plot and character, and there's a glossary for those who have trouble remembering who is who. An interesting debut novel though not an innovative one. 2/23/14

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk, Pyr, 2014, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-893-5

First volume of The Book of the Black Earth. Sprunk's debut trilogy was reasonably good although I thought it showed some of the uncertainties of the new writer. This opening volume of a new sequence feels more controlled. A soldier engaged for a mixture of reasons in a war against another nation is shipwrecked and finds himself at the mercy of those he came to kill. Initially enslaved, he finds his status altered when his captors discover that he has some magic abilities he did not himself suspect. Elevated although still not free, he makes alliances with a couple of other characters as part of a plot to undermine the status quo, free the slaves, bring the war to the end, and so forth. It's a rather ambitious premise and I'm not sure how the author is going to go about all this without straining credulity, but I'm prepared to be enlightened in the second volume. 2/22/14

The Dream Detective by Sax Rohmer, 1925

This is a collection of stories about Moris Klaw, an antiques dealer who, with his daughter Isis, solves various problems that generally appear to be occult in nature, but which are usually not. He explains mysterious deaths, recovers stolen property, brings ax murderers to justice, and so forth and so on. There is some fantastic content. Among other things Klaw can induce some kind of undefined psychic visions in some of his cases. The stories get a bit monotonous as each includes a diversion into Klaw’s idiosyncrasies that are rarely interesting and generally detract from the smooth flow of the plot. Interesting enough that I read to the end, but not something I’d recommend. 2/19/14

The Clockwork Wolf by Lynn Viehl, Pocket, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-2237-5   

Charmian Kittredge returns for a new adventure in a steampunkish alternate America where magic is real. Her latest client is a woman terrified that her husband will be identified as a shapechanging killer, and despite Kittredge’s reservations about the woman, she agrees to take the case. She investigates the series of attacks and concludes that there are multiple assailants and that they are part of a more complex conspiracy. Once again she has to deal with a potentially catastrophic outbreak of evil magic while simultaneously avoiding the overbearing attentions of two powerful men who are both in love with her. Not quite as good as the first one but still quite good overall. I hope this series lasts a while. 2/7/14

The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich, Paizo, 2014, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-614-0

A tie-in novel to the Pathfinder game system, although you don't need to know anything about that to read the novel. A young man studying to be a bard leads a secret life because he is also in training to become a professional assassin and spy. He is sent into action when a mysterious form of magic starts turning small groups of people into murderous maniacs. Obviously someone is behind it, but their identity and motives are both well hidden although the fact that the incidents tend to happen along the border between two realms is suggestive. Although this is a fairly long book, the prose is rather spare and there were times when I wanted a bit more description to help me visualize what was happening. That said, the style also promotes a sense of momentum and the story certainly races along for most of its length, and the mystery within a fantasy adventure format is nicely done. It's hard to put this one down once the story begins to roll. 1/31/14

The Sorcerer’s Widow by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Wildside, 2013, $11.99, ISBN 978-1-4344-4175-1 

Two not very successful thieves arrive in a small village hoping to acquire, openly or deviously, the magical artifacts left by a recently deceased wizard. She sees through them immediately and she has some magical talents of her own, so she decides to make use of them as escorts as she brings her late husband’s magical artifacts to Ethshar to be sold to other magicians. When one of the thieves inadvertently activates an artifact that repairs broken magic, it wanders off on its own and they have to pursue it to regain control. Watt-Evans always excelled at comparatively light fantasy, stories set in typical fantasy worlds but usually more concerned with ordinary people than knights and wizards and princesses. That particular style seems to have dwindled in popularity but he hasn’t lost his gift for creating them. 1/28/14

Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein, Roc, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41635-3

I believe this is a first novel although there's a second in the Fated Blades series already out. I found this one used and I've never even seen a copy of the other. Technically I suppose these are urban fantasy. They even have a feisty female protagonist and a magic sword. But the texture is very different. The novel is set mostly in Tokyo and involves a female detective who is assigned what is supposed to be a minor case, the attempted theft of an antique sword. She is fated to wield the sword obviously, but like Moorcock's Elric she discovers that a magical weapon is at least as much a curse as it is an advantage. The tone of this is very much that of an Asian noir detective story, an unusual combination that works remarkably well. I'll be looking for the follow up novel. 1/26/14

Treasure of Lima by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2014, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62166-8

This is number 46 in the adventures of Annja Creed, an archaeologist with a magical sword, who thwarts villainous rivals who want to exploit artifacts for their own purposes. While vacationing in Costa Rica, she catches wind of a rumored treasure in an area which has already swallowed up more than two dozen expeditions. Despite some fantasy elements, this is mostly just a contemporary adventure story, but it's quite entertaining, one of the best of the series, which is not surprising since it was ghostwritten by Joseph Nassise (Alex Archer is a house pseudonym).  Pulp hero magazines may have disappeared but their spirit lives on in the paperback adventure series, of which this is my favorite. 1/24/14

The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Scholastic, 2014, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-28417-2

It's very difficult to review the third volume in a trilogy when you've never seen the previous books, or even heard of them. This is the conclusion of the Ascendance trilogy and all I know about the first two is what I was able to read from Amazon. The young protagonist is trying to unite a land torn by war and political intrigue, and his friends have been scattered all over the place for individual adventures in the earlier volume. Now all the threads have to be tied together. The prose is quite good, not written down noticeably, and I was actually able to follow most of the separate subplots despite missing the earlier books. I suspect I would have liked it better if they hadn't been missing. It's well above average for a young adult fantasy, although the plot breaks no new ground. 1/20/14

Rex Regis by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3634-7

L.E. Modesitt is one of the few writers whose fantasy works I prefer to his SF. He is also one of the few writers who seems to get better with each series. The imager sequence, of which this is the eighth, is a case in point. The fantastic setting is convincing and interesting, the political intrigues plausible, the characters well differentiated and with some depth, and there's an overall sense that the author knows what he's doing and does it well. This installment in the series comes as the consolidation of various smaller states into one continental power is nearing its final stage. The last holdout is considering peacefully joining with the rest, although the decision is not certain. Just as it seems that our main protagonist is about to fulfill his life's ambition, perfidy and plotting within and without the government combine to place the entire future of his personal endeavors and the world as a whole into deadly jeopardy. This might be the final volume in the series since it ties up so many plotlines. If it is, I look forward to entering whatever world the author chooses to reveal to us next time. 1/18/13

He Drank, and Saw the Spider by Alex Bledsoe, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3414-5

The fifth Eddie LaCrosse novel continues its blend of tough detective story and magical fantasy world. Many years before his current round of adventures, he saved a young girl from a wild animal and left her with a family to raise. Now she's all grown up and caught in the crossfire between two belligerent rulers. There are lots of royal family secrets to be uncovered, to say nothing of dark sorcery and an inhuman creature. Aided by his companion Liz, Eddie has to ride to the rescue once more, risking his life in a gritty, magic fueled adventure.  There have been other writers who have tried this blend of genres with some success, but Bledsoe's books have a distinct flavor that makes them stand out. His protagonist is interesting as a person rather than just as a hero, and the subsidiary characters almost always come to vivid life. This is sword and sorcery the way it was meant to be written. 1/9/14