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 LAST UPDATE 6/22/17

A Kiss Before Doomsday by Laurence MacNaughton, Pyr, 2017, $18, ISBN 978-1-63388-268-3

Sequel to It Happened One Doomsday, a kind of offbeat urban fantasy. A newly endowed sorceress is concerned when monstrous creatures begin appearing in Denver and abducting anyone with magical talents. It obviously is an organized program and she fears that someone may be in the process of fulfilling another apocalyptic prophecy. As if that wasn't bad enough, corpses are becoming reanimated and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. Her only hope is to find a missing half-demon, recruit the aid of a few friends, and uncover the source of the trouble before the entire world is consumed. Despite the apocalyptic tone, there is considerable wry humor in this one, which is every bit as good as its predecessor. 6/22/17

Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, & Lin Carter, Lancer, 1969

This collection of short Conan adventures has only a small amount of Robert Howard and contains none of his significant stories. "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" is a very minor vignette."The Curse of the Monolith" by de Camp and Carter is pretty good, but "The Castle of Terror" by the same authors is predictable and minor. "The Bloodstained God," a Howard story rewritten by de Camp to include Conan, is pretty good. Howard also wrote "Vale of Lost Women," which is just fair, and "Queen of the Black Coast," which is excellent. "The Snout in the Dark" is a Howard fragment completed by de Camp and Carter. It's not a bad story but the end is somewhat abrupt. 6/21/17

Conan the Warrior by Robert E. Howard & L. Sprague de Camp, Lancer, 1967

This collection includes a novella and two long stories. "Jewels of Ghawlur" concerns a trove of fabled jewels, a plot to impersonate a goddess, and Conan's counterplot and eventual disruption of a plan to bring down two kingdoms.  "Beyond the Black River" pits Conan against a Pictish sorcerer and an army of barbarians. "Red Nails" is the longest and best story in the collection. Conan and a female companion find themselves trapped in a city that is one large building inhabited by two warring tribes. 6/16/17

Conan the Adventurer by Robert E. Howard & L. Sprague de Camp, Lancer, 1966

Conan returns for four more adventures. "The Slithering Shadow" takes him to a remote city where the residents spend most of their time dreaming and a voracious god prowls their streets. "People of the Black Circle" is a novella in which Conan has to penetrate the fortress of a band of wizards to rescue the woman he stole and who was then stolen from him. "The Pool of the Black Ones" is a very good story in which Conan is a pirate who finds a ruined city inhabited by creatures who turn men into statues. "Drums of Tombalku" is two stories in one and is another that was completed by L. Sprague de Camp. A friend of Conan overcomes a demon in a lost city and then helps Conan survive a civil war in Tombalku. The first half is much better than the second. 6/14/17

Conan the Usurper by Robert E. Howard & L. Sprague de Camp, Lancer, 1967

Four sword and sorcery adventures, including "The Phoenix on the Sword," Conan's first appearance in print although it comes relatively late in his career. He has become king of Aquilonia but there is a plot to assassinate him. "The Scarlet Citadel" has King Conan betrayed by two rival rulers and a sorcerer, but eventually he outwits and outfights them all.  "The Treasure of Tranicos" is a very good story about the quest for a long lost treasure that results in a six sided brawl involving Conan, two rival pirates factions, an exiled nobleman and his entourage, a band of angry Picts, and a wizard with a grudge. "Wolves Beyond the Border" mentions Conan a few times, but he does not appear. It is a mild adventure on the Pictish border. 6/12/17

Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard, Lancer, 1967 (originally published in 1935) 

The only real book length novel Howard ever wrote is set relatively late in Conan's life. He has turned Aquilonia into a progressive kingdom, but his foreign and domestic enemies bring an ancient sorcerer back to life and overthrow his rule. He becomes a fugitive, but learns that a mysterious jewel is the key to the sorcerer's power and that if he can acquire it, there is a chance he may regain his throne. Howard was a superb story teller and his prose is much better than that of Edgar Rice Burroughs and most of his pulp writer peers.  The novel is episodic despite the unifying main plotline, and Conan himself plays a rather minor part at the climax. 6/10/17

Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 2017, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-338-14912-8

This is a graphic novel, part of the Adventures of John Blake. Blake is a young boy aboard a ship that has gotten unhooked from time and travels from century to century. They are being pursued by a villainous businessman who intends to destroy them and steal their scientific secrets. When they rescue a young girl, they promise to return her to her own time, but doing so will put them within reach of their enemies. Full color throughout, nicely drawn and scripted, but there is nothing in the story that is particularly visually impressive, so none of the individual artwork stands out. 5/6/17

Umberland by Wendy Spinale, Scholastic, 2017, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-83694-4

Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson, Scholastic, 2017, $17.99, ISBN 978-1338068696

Here we have a couple of young adult fantasies. The first is part of a series, so I had trouble following the story for quite a while. The young protagonists  have escaped from a magical place back to an England troubled by the imminent death of the queen and the rise of a strange new disease. They learn that a cure might be found in the middle of a labyrinth in Germany yes, this is explained reasonably well but there are creatures in the maze and they guard the treasure that the protagonist seeks.  Enjoyable but you really need to read the earlier book, Everland, first. The second title is a variation of the story of Swan Lake. A princess reaches the age where her magical powers are finally fully accessible. She hopes to be able to help her mother in her war against an evil rival kingdom. To do that, she has to perfect her shapeshifting powers but she may have put her trust in the wrong person to help her. This is the first of a two part story, so the story is not completely resolved. I liked this one as well, although it necessarily feels incomplete. 5/1/17

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge, Amulet, 2017, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-4197-2484-8

This very unusual fantasy novel was first published for young adults in the UK in 2012. The population of this fantasy world is divided into two. One group lives in a vast underground city where the local artisans can create a wide variety of unusual products. The others live on the surface, but they have a peculiar problem. Their faces all lack expression unless they hire a facesmith to teach them how to alter their faces to mimic actual emotions, even ones they do not actually feel. When a young woman appears whose face is so disturbing that she is forced to wear a mask at all times, it upsets the status quo despite the precautions taken to prevent that from happening. The story is very unusual and certainly makes a pleasant break from the usual runs of castles, sorcerers, rampaging barbarians, and dragons both good and bad. I found the young woman's personality grated on me at times, but otherwise this was a very interesting and entertaining outing. 4/13/17

The Gears of Faith by Gabrielle Harbowy, Tor, 2017, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8440-9

A Pathfinder tie-in novel, though that's pretty irrelevant. Basically this is traditional sword and sorcery set in a fairly standard fantasy world. This particular book has a female knight as its main protagonist. Her partner is a gnome woman - a healer of sorts - who is a somewhat atypical companion for a hero. The two are engaged in trying to figure out who stole a magical artifact so that they can recover it. They aren't the only ones looking for it either, and if there were oddsmakers in this world, they'd be far from favorites. But they have the author on their side. The tone is very light, although the main plot is serious enough. This was a good, competent fantasy adventure that is rather designedly predictable. 4/7/17

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