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

 LAST UPDATE 3/31/18

Blood of Wolves by Loren L. Coleman, Ace, 2005 

First in the Legends of Kern trilogy, set in Conan’s Hyborian age. Kern is sent into exile by the new clan leader, but raids from the hostile Vanir keep him involved with his friends and busy with battles against raiders and dire wolves. After various adventures he hears of Grimnir, a possibly more than human leader of the raiders who is also accompanied by a wizard. Although not a skilled fighter, Kern rises above his limitations and demonstrates leadership skills as well. Although well written, this sword and sorcery adventure is a bit bland. Conan does not appear in the story, but it is mentioned that he is currently king of Aquilonia. 3/31/18

The Black Wheel by A. Merritt and Hannes Bok, Avon  

It is unclear how much of this was by Merritt, who died without completing it. The story opens with an overworked doctor, the narrator, agreeing to take a temporary job as ship’s physician on a luxury clipper touring the Caribbean. A hurricane forces them to land on an uncharted island for repairs. There they discover a derelict ship whose steering wheel – see title – is the focus for supernatural powers which invade dreams and aggravate already tense relations.  Tensions rise, there is a mutiny, a counter mutiny, two hurricanes, ghostly intervention, and insanity which may be possession. Much too long for its story with tedious arguments about the reality of ghosts and the history of various legends. 3/28/18

Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard, Thomas Dunne, 2015 

This is a mixture of Lovecraft and a private eye thriller. The protagonist is an ex-cop who was shaken by his partner’s mysterious suicide following the apprehension of a child killer. Now a PI, he is surprised to discover that he has inherited a bookstore from a man he never heard of. The store is being managed by a woman who is the last descendant of H.P. Lovecraft. When he receives a phone call, supposedly from a man seeking help, he responds out of curiosity and finds that the man was already dead when the call was made. This eventually leads him to a mathematics graduate student who had a grudge against the dead man and who has been acting very strangely. In due course we find out about a secretive neighborhood in Providence whose inhabitants may not be human, a reality altering phenomenon created by HPL and his friend, Randolph Carter, and a plot against reality. This was a lot of fun and a nice twist on Lovecraft, though it is obvious that the author has never visited Providence. I have the sequel and am looking forward to it. 3/22/18

Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt, Avon, 1932  

This was Merritt’s final lost race novel. An American explorer in Asia participates in a ceremony that suggests he is possessed by the spirit of an ancient warrior. Three years later he and a friend find a lost world hidden by a mirage that contains two races.  One worships the same octopoidal creature as the Asians. Our hero sides with the others – the good guys – but the odds are formidable. Neither side really trusts him, and at times Dwayanu’s influence makes him doubt even himself. A multi-sided war ensues before the gateway through which an evil creature enters our world is destroyed, the villains are all killed, and the good guy goes off with the beautiful young woman. Competently done, but I suspect Merritt had tired of the lost world format by this point. His heart doesn't seem to be in it. 3/15/18

Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt, Avon, 1931

This is one of my two favorites by Merritt, another lost race novel.  A mining engineer unwisely joins three men of questionable character on a treasure hunt in South America. They stumbled into a lost land where the ruling class is immortal and some of them are from a pre-human civilization including the Snake Mother, half woman half snake, and Nimir, a godlike being imprisoned in stone but capable of projecting his personality into humans. There are ancient artifacts, a beautiful young woman, lusty warriors, arrogant villains, magical battles, terrible deaths, a love affair, betrayal, confusion, and a sign that an era is about to come to an end. Much better paced than his previous novels and the descriptions, while colorful, do not go on endlessly. 3/11/18

 Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt, Avon, 1928

I'm not sure this belongs in fantasy although it's generally considered to be one. Except for a brief moment that might be telepathy, everything is explained rationally. The closest to the fantastic is the existence of a vast international crime syndicate run by a man who calls himself Satan. The protagonist falls into his clutches and is tricked into committing a major crime for him, but he is actually more intent about rescuing the woman he loves from the villain's clutches. The first half moves well, but there is a long slow section before things begin to resolve themselves. I've always thought this was rather overrated and I'm not changing my opinion. 3/7/18

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tess Gratton, Tor, 2018, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-9246-6

This is the first adult fantasy novel by a writer whose previous work has been for young adults. In case the title didn't give you a hint, it's inspired by Shakespeare's King Lear, which happens to be my favorite of his plays, which prejudiced me in the book's favor right from the start. The king of a fantasy realm is fading in competence and sanity and while he acknowledges that it is time to choose a successor, he insists that it be delayed until a particular, not too imminent date. His three daughters are convinced that the crisis cannot wait that long, and naturally each assumes that they are best suited to choose the proper succession. The three sisters are very well portrayed and differentiated, each having different strengths and weaknesses. It was perhaps a bit too obvious which of them was going to prevail but otherwise the plot was well designed and paced, although there was less overt conflict than I expected (although enough to satisfy the bloodthirsty). Covert conflict was another matter entirely, between as well as within individuals. Nor is there a clear good and evil. Some of the choices are nicely complicated and the challenges faced by the characters reveals their personalities. This appears to be a standalone, although there is always room for sequels. 3/5/18

The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt, Avon, 1951 (originally published in 1924)  

An American examining an ancient artifact is magically transported to a ship in a fantasy world. The ship has a barrier. On one side are the adherents of Ishtar, on the other those of Nergal. Good and evil, sort of. Neither side trusts him but he is the only one who can cross the barrier. Eventually he overthrows the priests of Nergal, but his relationship with the priestess of Ishtar is also fraught. She is kidnapped and our hero and his friends have to go ashore to rescue her, but this part of the story is sometimes tediously prolonged by lengthy descriptions of rituals and interruptions for not very good poetry. The first half, however, is excellent. 3/4/18

The Metal Monster by A. Merritt, Avon, 1949  

The survivor of the adventure in The Moon Pool is off to Tibet where he and his companions run into another lost civilization, this one descended from ancient Persians, who are battling a form of sentient metal life which potentially could become a threat to the entire world. The pace of the novel is ponderous at times and some of the descriptive passages go on far too long. There is the usual evil priestess and her subhuman subjects. The metal life is, for some reason, vulnerable to sunlight but our heroes, who are captives in the metal city see no practical way to take advantage of this fact. The conflict between two warring components of the metal life eventually results in the death of the Persians and the priestess, and the outsiders escape back to civilization. It was a mild struggle at times to stick to this one.  2/27/18

The Terrible Puppets by Paul W. Fairman, Armchair, 2018 (originally published in 1951)

What we have here is a minor but decently written novella. The protagonist fulfills a dream by purchasing the theater that once belonged to his family, even though both his father and grandfather died under mysterious circumstances. He discovers a walled up room and when he enters he is told by a mysterious voice that he has been chosen to become a brilliant actor. His new wife has previously spoken to the voice and knows that every remarkable work of art produced by the human race was actually the product of the little people, known variously as fairies or leprechauns. The little people hate humans but use them as tools to advance their own projects. Predictably the hero gets caught up in it, predictably he later regrets having done so, and ultimately they kill him to preserve the secret of their existence. Not very plausible but mild fun. 2/23/18

The Moon Pool by A. Merritt, Avon, 1951 (originally published in 1919) 

Although Merritt’s richly descriptive style may be offputting to some modern readers, his imaginative creation of a secret world beneath a Pacific island is marvelously well done. There is something that emerges from the hidden city when the moon is full, a creature made of light that kidnaps the living. Four explorers find their way in and get involved in a three sided battle among the inhabitants of Muria, who possess an ancient superscience that could challenge the upper world. But they are relatively few in number, divided by personal rivalries, and opposed by the Silent Ones, a mysterious third force that prefers peace and justice to warfare and tyranny. The lost world plot is overly familiar now but it was relatively fresh when this first appeared. 2/22/18

The Fox Woman by A. Merritt, Avon, 1949

Abraham Merritt was not a prolific writer and this collected all of his short fiction except his contributions to a couple of multi-author serials. The title story, set in a remote Chinese temple where women can turn into foxes, was supposed to be the fuirst part of a novel, but Merritt never completed it. Hannes Bok later wrote a sequel. "The People of the Pit" is a fairly creepy story about a lost, nonhuman civilization in the Yukon. "Through the Dragon Glass" is a visit to an alternate reality. "The Drone" is a very minor piece about shapechangers. "The Last Poet and the Robots" is a pretty awful excursion into SF. "Three Lines of Old French" is an overly sentimental story whose popularity I have never understood. "The White Road" is a fragment of an uncompleted story with no plot. "When Old Gods Wake" was also a fragment, possibly intended as the opening of a novel. "The Women of the Wood" suggests that it's not nice to abuse mother nature. Not as impressive as his novels but still worth while. 2/18/18

Blade and Bone by Jon Sprunk, Pyr, 2018, $18, ISBN 978-1-63388-269-0

Everything comes to a boil in the third book in this series. A slave rebellion threatens to completely reorder the power structure of a fantasy world. The protagonist is an ex-slave who, way back in the opening volume, discovered that he had magical talents which eventually led to his leadership role in overthrowing the slave owners. But he's not the only one in the world who can use magic. His allies are involved in managing the more practical aspects of a major uprising, but despite initial successes, the enemy is far from defeated. Not the least of them is a mysterious sorcerer who can and has raised an army of the undead and who appears poised to reverse everything that has been accomplished, and perhaps make things even worse than they were before. This is not a trilogy, so we don't get all the answers. A nice blend of intrigue, adventure, and suspense on a large scale and against a nicely constructed backdrop. 2/16/18

The Fall of the House of Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, Thomas Dunne, 2016

The fifth adventure of Johannes Cabal, Necromancer, is somewhat episodic and revisits events from the first four books. There is a suggestion that this is the end of the series, but there are loose ends and other indications that the author is keeping his options open. Cabal and his vampire brother team up with a were-spider devil, a witch, and an old sometimes adversary on a quest to solve a riddle that requires them to confront situations in five different realities. His old enemy, the queen of Mirkarvia, is back and becomes his nemesis once again, or does she? I have constantly been reminded of James Branch Cabell while reading this series and wonder if the choice of Cabal's name is a conscious nod in that direction. Dark humor, inventive situations, wild adventure, over the top violence, and a very unusual visit to Hell can all be found here. I recommend the entire series. 2/3/18

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King, Scribner, 2017,  $32.50, ISBN 978-1-5011-6340-1

This strange novel never really caught fire for me. Women all over the world begin to fall into mysterious sleeping states during which their bodies eventually become cocooned. Disturbing them leads to violent confrontations. They are actually conscious in another, probably better world. The characters in general did not engage me and the message was very heavy handed, while the storytelling was often uninteresting. There are some very good parts, particular some set in a women's prison, but after two hundred pages of not caring about the people in the story, I really mostly drifted through the rest of the novel. 1/21/18

Child of a Mad God by R.A. Salvatore, Tor, 2018, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-9527-6

Back in the days of TSR/Wizards of the Coast tie in novels, there were only two of their regular writers whom I almost always enjoyed. R.A. Salvatore was one of them, and his subsequent move to other publishers was not only no surprise, but his expansion into worlds of his own creation made his work even better. An unhappy young woman living among a primitive tribe discovers that her magical powers are much greater than those of the official tribal witches. Unfortunately, they are in fact significant enough to attract unwanted attention not only from the tribe's leader and jealous rivals but are also enough to warrant the interest of a demon who lives nearby. Although she has a friend and ally in her struggles, ultimately everything will depend on her own actions. Eventually this will lead to a confrontation that will determine just how skillful and powerful she really is. Nothing particularly new or surprising in terms of plot, but good storytelling and characters that are somewhat better drawn than is usual in epic fantasies. 1/19/18

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard, Thomas Dunne, 2014  

Horst Cabal, the vampire brother of Johannes the necromancer, is restored to unlife by a group of financiers that want to organize a rebellion by supernatural creatures as an investment. Although he prides himself on never having taken a life, he feels strangely demonic urges in this stage of his existence. He also distrusts the three men providing the money, dislikes the head of an army of shapeshifters, and is puzzled by the presence of a female necromancer whose motives he cannot fathom. The story eventually becomes a supernatural war with creatures from other dimensions and doppelgangers added to the mix. Unlike the first three books, this one ends with a mild cliffhanger. Howard has become one of my favorite authors and I’m avidly looking forward to the next in the series. 1/10/18

Wychwood by George Mann, Titan, 2017,  $14.95, ISBN 978-1783294091    

Although this is technically fantasy, the fantastic content is very minor and could have been left out entirely without dramatically changing the story. A woman who recently broke up with her long term boyfriend returns to her mother’s house in the country just in time to become involved in the career of a serial killer who patterns his murders after those in a famous local legend about the Carrion King. An old friend is a detective working the case and she is soon accompanying him to interviews and sharing speculations – and some of this is a bit contrived to keep her on the scene, though not egregiously so. I guessed the killer’s identity rather early but otherwise this was well above average, mysterious if not suspenseful, and the stories from the Carrion King mythos are interesting in their own right. Mystery and fantasy fans should both enjoy this one. 1/8/18

Ink by Alice Broadway, Scholastic, 2018, $17.99, ISBN 978-1338196393

I once wrote a story in which an alien race chronicles each individual's life by etching his or her bones. This debut young adult novel has a more practical method. Each event is tattooed onto the individual while they are still alive. A young woman who loved her father is astonished to discover after his death that one of those tattoos indicates that he once committed a horrible crime. Before she can process this, the secret is out, reflecting badly on her as well as her father and leading to her efforts to uncover the truth. A variation of the predictable story follows, not badly done, but ruined for me because of the intrusive first person present tense narration. 1/6/18

 

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