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 LAST UPDATE 6/28/13

Requiem by Ken Scholes, Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2130-5

Fourth in the Named Lands series, although I've only seen one of the previous books if memory serves. It has several elements I enjoy, including some dark and complex political maneuverings both formal and informal, some of it conducted by an assertive and clever woman and her bodyguard, who is more than he seems. There's also a war more or less going on for control of the countryside, a magical quest, and a whole host of other characters.  The story is innovative and very well written but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd read the earlier books because I was frequently confused, sometimes irretrievably lost in the intricacies of the plot, and I had that constant feeling that I was missing something obvious - which I probably was. One of the shortcomings of epic fantasy series is that it's very difficult to pick up a volume at random and figure out what is going on. That's particularly the case where the author has created such a complex world and filled it with a relatively large number of characters whose adventures we're supposed to keep track of. 6/28/13.

Wild Born by Brandon Mull, Scholastic, 2013, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-545-52255-7

First in a multi-author fantasy series which assumes that some people have spirit animals, creatures to which they are bonded, the existence of which gives the individual unusual powers. Four children manage to invoke their spirit animals which appear to accompany them on a quest. The story is pretty standard for YA fare, but this is one of those books which wants you to go to a website and interact with the fantasy world there as well in the book, making it almost as much a game as a novel. Although that may be a clever idea, I always wonder what happens ten years from now when someone picks up the book and discovers that the website has long since disappeared. There's not much here for adult readers either, but you might want to recommend it to someone younger. 6/27/13

Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3413-8

This is the sequel to The Hum and the Shiver, which was somewhat darker and which I liked a lot. It reminded me a bit of Manly Wade Wellman's novels of Appalachia.  It's also a quest story but an unusual one. The protagonist is searching for a supposed magical song which has the power to soothe grief and he has just experienced a deep personal tragedy. This leads him to the Tufa, a clannish group whose history is wrapped in legends. His personal quest has complications, however, both for him and the people he encounters. Some events perhaps peripheral to his story have darker overtones, suggesting that not all magic is gentle and serene. There's kindness and cruelty, open handedness and deep secrecy, simple actions and others more complex, and our hero may be the catalyst for more than he ever imagined. Not quite as good as its predecessor, but still very good indeed. There have been only a handful of writers who have been able to do this kind of fantasy this well. 6/23/13

The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby, Angry Robot, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-85766-290-3

I believe this is a sequel to The Corpse-Rat King, which I have never seen. Angry Robot books do not show up in the local B&N very often. Marius, whom I assume was the hero of the first book, has done all the deeds that a hero should do, and seems ready to live happily ever after. Except that he's bored, as one might expect. Fortunately, a new challenge arises. For some reason when people die, they pretty much continue to walk around. It seems that the king of the dead has decided to conquer the world of the living. So Marius and a small number of quasi-friends set out to restore the natural order of things. The book feels a little bit like Terry Pratchett but darker in tone. It was good enough that I'm looking for its predecessor. 6/13/14

The Seventh Man by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (originally published in 1921)   

The third and final Dan Barry novel. Since the last book, Whistling Dan has become somewhat domesticated. Heís living with the woman who loves him and they have a daughter (who will appear in a later novel). Unfortunately his effort to help a fugitive Ė about whom I have mixed feelings since he is supposedly a man of honor even though he deliberately provoked a fight with and killed someone who had done him no harm Ė lands him in trouble and he ends up killing a member of the posse. That makes him an outlaw and, even worse, he reverts from his human side to the pagan nature that has always made it difficult for him to stay in one place. The real conflict starts when Dan decides to take his daughter with him, but the girlís mother has different ideas. Not your typical western or your typical fantasy. My least favorite in the trilogy. 6/8/13

Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont, Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2997-4 

The co-creator of the Malazan series, best known as by Steve Erickson, has been producing his own novels set in that fantasy world, of which this is the latest. Esslemont tends to be somewhat more martial in his plots and the characters are darker. This one involves in part the effort by the wizards of the civilized lands to overcome the magic of a jungle/forest that might not be entirely of their world. While they are preoccupied with this project, a charismatic leader organizes a group of barbarians for a major incursion. A young brother and sister are caught up in the two pronged conflict but prove key to resolving things. I liked this one a lot more than the authorís previous novels, which were competently done but uninspired fantasy adventures. There is more of a sense of strangeness this time and I found the characters generally more convincing. 5/29/13

In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell, Pyr, 2013, $28, ISBN 978-1-61614-774-7    

Somewhere between traditional fantasy and steampunk we can find worlds where magic and science (or at least technology) co-exist. The earliest I can remember is the original Witch World novel by Andre Norton and there have been several since. This, the first in a new series, involves the Iron Kingdoms, where automatic weapons and dangerous spells are both weapons in a war that threatens to engulf the known world. Why is it that fantasy worlds are almost always at war?  The blend doesnít always work well, but Marmell brings his richly detailed and rather gritty world to life, with a likeable hero and plenty of villainous activity to keep him busy. Promises to be an interesting series. I've found Marmell to be one of the more consistently entertaining of the most recent crop of new fantasy adventure writers. 5/27/13

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3314-8   

I put off starting this one because the premise sounded silly. A young woman makes friends with a kraken which is captured and put into a circus. The woman then consummates a deal with a witch in an effort to free her friend. There follows a quest during which the protagonist must satisfy the desires of a number of varied characters in very different ways before achieving her goal. Despite what sounds like an unpromising plot, I found myself caught up in Lillyís adventures and ended up reading this one in a single sitting. I did sometimes think that some of the dialogue was a bit too stiff and formal, but it was a transient problem and not a major one. This is a first novel, and a notable one, although perhaps not for every taste. The original twists and details transform what might otherwise have been a fairly shallow plot. 5/24/13

The World of the End by Ofir Touche Gafla, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3356-8 

This is a decidedly peculiar book that I canít do justice to with a description of the plot. Itís a fantasy about a man who kills himself following the death of his wife, hoping to find her in the afterlife. Well, he does wake up in another reality, one that bears little resemblance to any of the traditional versions, and he encounters a variety of unusual people. But for some reason, the woman he is looking for isnít there. The novel was originally published in Israel in Hebrew, but the translation seems quite smooth. Iíd have to admit that this is not a theme I found particularly appealing, but the treatment was unusual enough that my attention was engaged through the end. It was not, however, something I would have chosen to read if I had known what it was going to be before I got sucked in, but this was more because of my personal taste than any failing in the book. 5/20/13

The Night Horseman by Max Brand, Pocket, 1954 (originally published 1920)   

The second Dan Barry novel, in which the fantasy element is still minor although more pronounced than in the first. Danís adopted father is dying of grief because of Danís long absence - he has been called by the wilderness - so one of his friends goes looking for the elusive man Ė whom we know from the previous book is not exactly a man. Barry meanwhile has been forced into a gunfight and, naturally, outshot his opponent who may be mortally wounded. The latterís older brother, who is even meaner and faster with a gun, shows up intent upon revenge. Dan Barry is less of a hero and more a force of nature in this one. He feels very little resembling human emotion and his responses to appeals of friendship and obligation are vague or nonexistent. His only loyalty is to his wolf and his horse. Uncharacteristically, the bad guy decides that he was wrong. The Barry trilogy is right near the top of Brand's work even though they were among the very first westerns he wrote. 5/15/13

The Untamed by Max Brand, Pocket, 1970  (originally published in 1919)   

This was the first adventure of Whistling Dan Barry and although itís a western, itís also a fantasy, though a subtle one. Barry was found wandering the desert as a child and he has grown into an enigmatic man who can apparently speak to animals, keeps a pet wolf, has an uncanny ability with guns even though heíd never touched one before, and is no little threat even unarmed. There are clear hints that he is the son of Pan. His path crosses with that of Jim Silent, a larger than life villain and when Silent picks a fight with him, Dan finally loses his innocence. Thereís also a legendary lawman, Tex Calder, who wants to bring Silent to justice and a member of Silentís gang who is basically a good man who falls in love with the girl who is in turn in love with Dan. The romantic triangle is complicated by the usual misunderstandings and people failing to talk to one another. Sounds complicated but it all unfolds smoothly. This should be considered one of the classic westerns but for some reason it doesnít seem to have ever found its audience. 5/11/13

Never by K.D. McEntire, Pyr, 2013, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-771-6

Third and last in the Reaper series, which is an urban fantasy of sorts mostly for young adults that bore some resemblance to The Ghost Whisperer initially but is now much more abstract.  The Never is an other world where the spirits of the dead and other things exist, and its stability has been shaken by events in the previous two books. The protagonist, though deprived of much of her supernatural power, must see things through to the end, deal with some romantic subplots, and find herself in the process. Should have some appeal for adult readers as well although I found the conclusion mildly disappointing after the first two in the series. Perhaps things became a trifle too abstract for my taste. 5/4/13

Shield of Sea and Space by Erin Hoffman, Pyr, 2013, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-769-3

Third and final installment in the Chaos Knights series. There's a magical war underway, although it's not the traditional fantasy war between rival kingdoms. The protagonist opened a gateway between realities earlier in the series and that allows the introduction of a host of magical and mechanical wonders from other worlds including shapechangers and automatons. The situation deteriorates quickly for the good guys who have to resort to desperate measures to prevent genocidal warfare and the rise to power of a repressive clique who want to monopolize magic. The concluding book is rather more focused that the earlier ones, which I found mildly encumbered by too many subplots, but it all works out well in the end. This should not be read as a standalone, however. There is too much information presented earlier that you really need to know to understand the conclusion. 5/3/13

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, Small Beer, 2013, $16, ISBN 978-1-931520-76-8

Superficially the plot of this first novel sounds all too familiar. A naive young man goes on a journey and gets caught between opposing sides as a war simmers towards a boil. It's an accurate description that is also completely inaccurate, because the story is actually quite original. The protagonist is a young boy who has finally gotten an opportunity to travel to exotic - for him - new lands but along the way he encounters a persistent ghost whose presence disturbs him so much that he appeals for help to the local priests, only to be swept up in other matters beyond his control or understanding. The setting is wonderfully described and protagonist's awakening is excellently portrayed. The novel is in part about the joy of reading which would almost make it worthwhile on that basis alone. The best first novel I've read so far this year. 5/2/13

The Elixir by Robert Nathan, Knopf, 1971 

This is another of Nathanís fantasies about encounters with women who arenít what they seem. An American tourist in England runs into a mysterious woman who keeps changing the story of her life and doesnít seem to have any friends or family, as well as making many references to ancient history that makes him confuse her with Nimue, the witch who trapped Merlin. Our hero gets hijacked by Arab terrorists and falls in love with the girl, whose magical powers are never quite explicitly stated. Light and amusing but not Nathanís best. 4/24/13

Stonecliff by Robert Nathan, Popular Library, 1967   

A short novel about a phantom lover. The protagonist visits the remote estate of an aging author in order to gather material for an authorized biography.  During his visit he meets an enchanting young woman named Nina shortly after the author claims that by creating characters in his books he is bringing them to life. The visitor falls in love with Nina and wonders why the authorís wife is absent. There are also several incidents in which the writer has encounters with people who appear to be characters in his new book.  The reader will figure out what is going on well before the protagonist does. Nicely done. One of Nathan's more underrated novels.  4/23/13

Pirate's Honor by Chris A. Jackson, Paizo, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-523-5

A Pathfinder game tie-in novel, although as with most sword and sorcery type games, no familiarity with the game is necessary. This is essentially just a generic fantasy adventure with the occasional nod to the game system. In this one a group of thieves are hired to steal a valuable artifact, but the thieves are pirates and that necessarily involves adventures at sea as well as on the land. The plot is lively and the prose competent, but even though it's a fairly long book, I rarely had a strong feel for the setting and even less so for the characters. It's a pretty good light adventure but not one you'll remember a week later. 4/22/13

The Village Sang to the Sea by Bruce McAllister, Aeon, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9534784-9-1

Bruce McAllister's new book is both a novel and a short story collection, much of it previously published in shorter form, which makes the structure necessarily episodic. It deals with a young boy growing up in a small village in Italy within reach of a number of places that possess a kind of magic. He learns things there not taught ins schools - that witches might have human feelings, why the inhabitants of a small village make doors barely large enough to accommodate them, the mystery of a child's cries where no child should be, and others. Each of the protagonist's adventures makes sense on a purely narrative level but they are also illustrative of things he learns about the nature of living. They are parables as much as stories. At times amusing, at other times creepy, but always filled with a sense of wonder about the world, this slim little book is a welcome break from clashing swords and evil empires. 4/21/13

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear, Tor, 2013, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2755-0

The sequel to Range of Ghosts is another fantasy world suffering from turmoil. There's a war pitting one faction against another, an evil sorcerer who wants to rule the world, a kidnapped woman who needs to be rescued, a good wizard to offer sage advice, a plague, a neighboring empire teetering on the brink of dissolution, magic and malign supernatural forces, etc. You really need to read the first book or you'll find the first half of this rough going. Bear has an engaging prose style and there were parts of the novel that I found very impressive,  but when I finished it I had the feeling that I had just reread a novel that I'd read several times before. I suppose this is a consequence of reading so much heroic fantasy but I'd much prefer to read about a fantasy world that had a stable social order for a change. The formula gets wearing even in the hands of the field's better writers. 4/20/13

The Devil With Love by Robert Nathan, Knopf, 1963 

This charming little fantasy concerns the devilís decision to try to win the heart rather than the soul of a prospective client. To that end, one of his minions sets up shop as a doctor in a small town and hires as receptionist a teenager who is the object of an older manís obsession.  He then makes a deal with the admirer to make him young and get him the girl in exchange for his heart. The girl, contrarily, becomes infatuated with her employer, the devil. The local priest gets involved and the plans of both sides go awry. A very nice story told with Nathanís usual skill. 4/19/13

The Watchers by Jon Steele, Signet, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41679-7

I actually read this very long novel - and first in a trilogy - in three gulps with other books sandwiched between. This wasn't because I lost interest, but this is definitely a winter novel. The first third of the book moves at a surprisingly leisurely pace, although it holds the reader's interest. The focus is a cathedral in Switzerland and the drawing together of three disparate characters including a detective, a prostitute, and a watchman. Each of them becomes aware of something out of the ordinary happening in the world, the "bad shadows". One could argue that this is horror but  it feels more like an epic contemporary fantasy. I will be very interested to see where this one goes next.  4/18/13

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3415-2

This is the third adventure of Jane and David Vincent, who live in an alternate regency England where magic is an accepted part of life. They have two problems to contend with as they set out on what was supposed to be a kind of vacation. The lesser one involves the romantic life of one of their close friends. The more significant one is a nationwide crisis surrounding the rising popularity of the Luddite movement, laborers who see their jobs disappearing in the face of modern innovation and react with violence. Although this isn't a period of history of which I am particularly fond, it's refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn't involve a great deal of overt violence. Much of the charm in the book derives from the setting and little touches that don't direct involve the main plots.  It's the kind of book you relax with while reading rather than one that gets you stirred up. 4/16/13

Antiagon Fire by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3457-2 

The Imager series is probably the best and certainly my favor series by this author, who has been producing good to very good fantasy adventures for many years now.  This is a satisfying continuation with a blend of the military adventure of the previous volume and a new series of settings in which the story can unfold further. Having proven himself in the field, the protagonist is now assigned a diplomatic position to convince a rival ruler to help in the uniting in response to a common enemy. To do so he must lead an army as well, survive traveling through dangerous and hostile territory, beat off attacks by rival imagers, and carry his mission to a conclusion despite resistance from potential friends as well as foes. Moves quite quickly for a fairly long novel. Youíll have to pause occasionally to catch your breath. 4/14/13

So Love Returns by Robert Nathan, Popular Library, 1958 

You would never guess that this one is a fantasy based on the cover but it is. The protagonist of this very short novel is a recently widowed writer with two very young children who lives on a beach where he is writing a childrenís book about a seawitch. The family has two brief encounters with a mysterious woman who was apparently swimming nearby, although no one else in the area has any idea whom she might be. She becomes more a part of their lives, but she only gives a first name and wonít say where she lives. She comes and goes mysteriously, always by way of the beach. Although Nathan is not too specific, she seems to be an amalgamation of his seawitch character, his dead wife, and some abstract principle that love is eternal. Itís a very sentimental story and I shouldnít have liked it very much, but as usual Nathan has a way of getting away with things that other writers wouldnít even attempt. 4/13/13

Sir Henry by Robert Nathan, Borgo, 1979 (originally published in 1955)   

A gentle spoof of heroic fantasy, and written in a style that varies slightly from Nathanís usual. Sir Henry is an ambitious knight who slays a dragon almost entirely by accident, rescues a fair maiden whom he feels obligated to marry, and carries her off for a series of low key adventures. Parts of the story are told from the point of view of his horse and his dog. At times it feels amore like a prolonged joke than a novel but the treatment seems appropriate for the subject matter. Nathanís deft touch is obvious throughout and while the jokes arenít going to have you rolling on the floor they should keep a smile on your face. Or put one there. 4/9/13

The End of All Seasons by Russell Davis, Wildside, 2013, $14.99, ISBN 9781434441713

Putting this in fantasy is somewhat arbitrary since the stories collected here range across several genres, including science fiction and even westerns. I have a soft spot for westerns as that was the first genre I ever read way back in prehistoric times. The stories, and a few poems, are arranged by season of the year rather than genre or theme. There are retellings of fairy tales, stories of technology and magic, stories of the Old West and future. The science fiction - which is normally my preferred genre - are actually my least favorites this time around. Davis has a gift for short fantasy fiction - rare in my experience among even the more competent fantasy novelists - and imbues most of his stories with some genuine emotional content, also a rarity. If I had to pick favorites, I'd mention "The Angel Chamber", "When I Look to the Sky," and "The End of Summer". You'll enjoy this best if you forget about worrying about genre and just look forward to some good fiction. 4/8/13

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay, Roc, 2013, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46397-2   

This is set more or less in the same world as Under Heaven, although several centuries have passed. The society is based on ancient China and has two main protagonists, one a warrior who has an ambivalent attitude toward the court and the other an educated young woman whose successes bring her both admirers and enemies. There is external pressure in the form of a possible war with a powerful neighbor, as well as an array of internal rivalries. Kay has never disappointed me in the past and he doesnít break the string now. Since Iím particularly fond of oriental fantasies, that outcome would have been unlikely in any case. His characters are both deeply drawn and appealing, the novel is filled with inventive situations, and the prose is a joy to read. He is particularly effective at creating a fully realized other world and introducing characters who make sense in that context without being alien to those of us living in more mundane conditions. Kay is one of the most reliably entertaining fantasy writers currently practicing. 4/1/13

 

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