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 LAST UPDATE 9/30/13

Dark Talisman by Steven M. Booth, Azimuth, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-615-79725-0    

The protagonist of this fantasy novel is a female elf who has, for reasons never explained to her, been forced into exile where she is pursued by a bunch of professional killers. She has also stolen a fabulous gem which any number of other people want to possess for themselves, and some of them are capable of summoning the services of magical creatures. So weíre off to the races with lots of chases, near misses, and encounters with the unusual in this, the first in a projected series. The dialog is a bit tinny at times but the story moves pretty well. Aimed at young adults. 9/30/13

The Lost Prince by Edward Lazellari, Tor, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2788-8

Sequel to Awakenings, which I liked. The protagonists discovered in the first book that they have enemies in an alternate world where magic works. That's their original world but they lost their memories when they fled to this one. Now they are reconstructing their past including the discovery that they were protecting a young prince, now missing. The prince is now an adult but unaware of his heritage, and he's caught in the battle between the two opposing groups. The story line in this one is much improved and less predictable and the prose is pleasantly crisp. This series reminds me of Paul Park's Roumania series and it's nearly as well written. 9/20/13

Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein, Avon, 1963    

Heinleinís full length fantasy novel was not one of my favorites when I first read it, but this time I was surprised to discover that prosewise itís better written than many of his other novels, even though itís clear that he did not understand how the military worked in Vietnam. His protagonistís early adventures there are just not plausible, but theyíre only a backdrop to the real story. He is recruited by a beautiful woman as her hero in an alternate world where magic works. He travels with her and a glorified servant who has a box that can be folded out perhaps limitlessly, providing storage space for an armory, provisions, a variety of clothing, and various other pieces of equipment, but which weighs almost nothing when it is folded back up.  Itís a sendup of fantasies and very episodic, which means the plot doesnít move very well, and the chauvinism and adolescent giggling at female body parts is so offensive that I almost stopped about a third of the way through. A couple of good bits but still one of his least successful novels, and unfortunately a hint of what was to come. I think his satire of fantasy is at least partly due to the fact that he didn't understand fantasy or its appeal.  9/16/13

Blood Cursed by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2013, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-52164-4

A Rogue Angel novel, this time with Michele Hauf hovering under the house pseudonym. This is a men's adventure series that has had more than forty previous volumes written by half a dozen different writers. They vary from wildly fantastic to much more mundane action thrillers, but all are within the genre because the protagonist is an archaeologist who can summon the magical sword of Joan of Arc whenever she needs it. The uncovering of a mysterious human skull in Bavaria attracts her attention, but the locals shun outsiders whom they fear will resurrect the blood drinking vampires of legend. When a child disappears, it seems their fears are warranted but the protagonist suspects that there is a far more mundane if no less evil explanation. A good entry in the series. 9/14/13

Mageís Blood by David Hair, Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, $26.95, ISBN 978-1-62365-014-8    

Very long fantasy novels have been a staple of the genre for a while, and publishers will take a chance on a new writer in this format than in almost any other genre. This is a first novel which presents two separate and very distinct societies Ė one primitive and one comparatively highly advanced Ė who can only interact every few years when an underwater bridge rises temporarily to the surface. But the sorcerous rulers of the advanced world have been trying for a long time to conquer the other during their brief periods of contact, and this time theyíre determined to finish the battle. The free peoples in the other land, however, are just as determined not to be subjugated by the foreign invaders. This isnít going to attract as much attention as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss but itís a well constructed, often gripping, and consistently engaging story, though as predictable as most of its type. 9/12/13

Monsters of the Earth by David Drake, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2080-3 

Third in the Books of the Elements series, set in a world that has much of the look and feel of ancient Rome. Visions of gigantic worms destroying the world might be interpreted as hallucinations, but the man who experiences them has accurately predicted supernatural events in the past. This leads to the discovery of a duel of magic and wits between two powerful sorcerers, one of whom wants to destroy the world and the other to save it. Should be an easy choice for our protagonists, but it isnít always clear just who is intending what. Drake writes straightforward fantasy, usually quite good, but I think heís at his best whether using the actual historical world, or in this case one close enough that it feels like a time that might really have existed. Thereís a pretty good element of mystery in this one as well. 9/8/13

The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby, Scholastic, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 9780-545-53956-2 

Scare Scape by Sam Fisher, Scholastic, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-52160-4 

Two young adult fantasies here. The first is set in an alternate version of America somewhat resembling steampunk. The young protagonist is to accompany his father on a trip to the American West to find a lost kingdom that might hold a secret that could affect the balance of power in a war involving the European nations. The expedition runs into troubles because of hostile forces chasing them, a traitor among their number, and the usual and unusual dangers of travel in a primitive environment far from help. Iíve enjoyed Kirbyís other YA stuff but this one is his best yet, good enough to appeal to adults as well as its target audience. The second title isnít as good and is designed for younger readers. Three siblings discover a magic statue that leads to the revelation that a variety of sometimes silly monsters featured in a comic book are actually real. Nothing here for older readers. 9/7/13

Jack Cloudie by Stephen Hunt, Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3320-9   

Previously published in 2011, this is the fifth in Huntís steampunk series. A failed bank robber finds himself impressed into service in the airborne navy of his kingdom, which leads in due course to a series of battles in the sky, some of them quite enthralling. His personal circumstances are particularly gloomy since heís on a badly run ship with a commander who might well be insane. We also get to see the culture of the opposing force, a caliphate, through the eyes of a young soldier, who will eventually find himself allied with the other protagonist to uncover a dangerous secret. Quite good but definitely aimed at male readers. 9/6/13

The Fall of the Angel Nathalie by James Brindle, Bedlam, 2013, $11.95, ISBN 9781939065216  

This falls somewhere between fantasy and horror. Angels and demons are real and they are both present on Earth, interfering in human affairs and trying to win over souls to their respective sides. Intervention has a flexible definition and Nathalie, an angel, is bound by certain rules that prevent her from acting more overtly to influence the outcome when an individual is tempted toward great evil. This becomes a real problem when she is matched against a charming demon who seems to have unusually strong powers to tempt sinners into greater misdeeds. Not badly written, but I had problems figuring out just what the supernatural beings were allowed to do and what they were not, and itís difficult to understand what ďfree willĒ means in some of the situations described. 9/5/13

The Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich, Pyr, 2013, $17, ISBN 978-1-61614-813-3 

I believe this fantasy is a first novel as well as adding to a long standing tradition of thieves as protagonists. In this case Gaunt and Bone are lovers as well as partners in crime. They are successful enough to have developed a cast of dangerous enemies and when Gaunt gets pregnant, theyíre on the run to distant parts of the world to avoid falling prey to a troupe of assassins, who unfortunately get on their trail pretty quickly. Chases and near misses ensue. The adventure parts are pretty well done but I didnít sense any real chemistry between the two main characters, which is usually what distinguishes the good from the merely okay in this subgenre. 9/4/13

Under a Spell by Hannah Jayne, Kensington, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7582-8112-8   

Fifth in the Underworld Detection Agency series. Sophie Lawson is an agent of that organization, who in this installment revisits her old high school, in this case to investigate a missing person. Lawsonís special ability is that she is immune to magic, although not to its consequences. She is also juggling her attraction to two different men, her boss and her quasi-mentor. The apparently relatively minor mystery is actually a mask for a plot with far more wide reaching consequences including a minor apocalyptic confrontation. Now that there are fewer of these urban fantasy series around, the new ones donít feel quite as derivative and repetitive, and I found this pretty entertaining. 8/30/13

Billy Moon by Douglas Lain, Tor, 2013, $24,99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2172-5 

Thereís an unusual setting for this one. The protagonist is the son of A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Despite his fatherís connection to children through his books, he actually wasnít that great a father and his son has been left with psychological bruises that affect his relationships with others. He travels to France to witness the student revolt of 1968 and falls into the company of someone who can tap into alternate realities and show him various different ways that his life, and the world itself, could have developed. Very understated despite the sometimes dramatic events taking place in the background. This is a first novel and one of the more impressive ones Iíve read in years.  This is a name Iíll be watching for. 8/29/13

6xH by Robert A. Heinlein, Pyramid, 1961   

Most of this collection consists of the novella, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", an early fantasy and one of the best things Heinlein ever wrote.  Hoag only remembers what happens at night and has no idea what he does during the day, although he always ends up with dirty fingernails. So he hires a private detective to find out. The detective and his wife encounter a number of problems including a dreamlike trip through a mirror, the mysterious Sons of the Bird, hallucinations, and the apparent ability of their quarry to be in two places at the same time. The detective believes his encounters with the mirror world are dreams until it becomes impossible not to accept their reality. "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" is also fantasy, about a lonely widower who visits an enormous fair which turns out to be the afterlife. "All You Zombies" is a very intricately plotted time travel story about a man who, thanks to a time loop and a sex change, is his own father and mother. "They" is about a paranoid who thinks he's the only real person in the word other than a small group of people propping up the enormous faÁade, and it turns out that he's right. "Our Fair City" is a silly little fantasy about an intelligent whirlwind, but "And He Built a Crooked House" is a clever piece about a house built as a tesseract, larger on the inside than on the outside. Probably Heinlein's strongest collection. 8/25/13

King of Chaos by Dave Gross, Paizo, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-558-7

A Pathfinder Tales tie-in novel. The gateway between realities has been opened and demons are abroad in the land, spreading death and destruction wherever they wander. Our hero and his companions are on a quest to find the magical artifact that opened the gate, which also possesses the power to close it. In order to succeed, they have to gather a powerful enough force to resist the attacks of the monsters, but that means allying with some whose motives and methods are questionable. It also appears to have provided the focus for the bad guys, particularly a vampire with a bad case of megalomania. Traditional sword and sorcery with perhaps a slightly darker tone than average, delivered with decent prose and a logically constructed if unambitious plot. 8/10/13

Blue Canoe by T.M. Wright, PS, 2009 

There is a style of writing that I generally enjoy although I know that many readers find it confusing or even overly indulgent. The narrator jumps back and forth in time so that there is no clear plot development, and in this case his story is inconsistent since he might well be insane, or senile, or seeing a different truth than the rest of the world. Sometimes he is confined, sometimes he is out and about with his stolen/borrowed canoe, and sometimes it isnít clear where he is. You have to enjoy language for its own sake to enjoy this kind of writing, so  Iíd have to say that this isnít the book to pick up if you like your fiction to go from point A to point B with a reasonably clear chain of cause and effect. But if you can cast loose from that structure, you might enjoy this. 8/6/13

Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge, Pyr, 2013, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-781-5 

I have to say that this is one of the worst titles for a fantasy novel I've encountered in some time, but don't let that put you off. It's the fifth adventure of Morlock Ambrosius, set early in his life. The plot is almost inconsequential. He travels through strange lands, encounters strange people and events, overcomes them all, learns something about himself, and survives to have another adventure. The prose and story reminded me a lot this time of Michael Moorcock's Elric stories, which may have been intentional, although the prose is denser and the tone not quite so dark. Enge uses proper names that are often difficult to pronounce, which is a personal hangup of mine, but otherwise this is yet another of his well done but not outstanding sword and sorcery adventures. 8/4/13

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine, Pyr, 2013, $19, ISBN 978-1-61614-779-2

Sequel to Hunter and Fox, which I liked not exclusively because of its unusual setting, a world where the landscape is constantly in flux. As with most second novels in a series, it has a tendency to be a place holder advancing the stories of the individual characters without reaching a true climax. On the other hand, the world is just as fascinating as it was in the first book and the characters are deepened. One story line follows a man searching for his lost brother while the second while the other concerns a woman who is troubled by contradictory emotions and who finds herself torn between two possible but probably contradictory courses of action. Finally we have the lost brother whose quest is perhaps more exciting than that of the others but who struck me as a slightly less well developed and hence not quite as interesting character. More revelations will presumably be forthcoming. A promising series that has so far lived up to its premise. 8/2/13

The Luminous Depths by David Herter, PS, 2008   933

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park, PS, 2013   934

Two more novellas from PS press, both of them very unusual fantasies. The first is a sort of sequel to the author's On the Overgrown Path and is set in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. A composer investigating old legends discovers that they have an actual basis and that an ancient magical entity is stirring, perhaps foreshadowing the rise of the Nazis. Karel Capek, the sometimes SF writer, and other historical characters appear. Although the fantasy is relatively abstruse, the story is quite straightforward and enjoyable. Park's short novel is a little more difficult although it appears equally simple in construction. It's a kind of alternate history of the Park family complete with photographs and documents, but it also involves a devastating plague. The plot is less important in this, but like the Herter title, the prose is superb. 7/31/13

Vault of Deeds by James Barclay, PS, 2008 

On the Overgrown Path by David Herter, PS, 2006 

Two very different fantasy novellas. The first makes sport of fantasy tropes and is a lot of fun. Itís set in a land where good always triumphs over evil and an academy has been founded to train heroes as well as scribes and bards to accompany them and report their victories. Except something is going wrong. The bad guys are starting to win. Are the standards falling? Is someone sabotaging the program? Is evil indeed stronger than good? Best humorous fantasy Iíve read in a while. The second involves the experiences of a famous historical figure, a Czech composer, who misses his train during a layover and is stranded in a small village where he discovers a dead woman lying in the snow. Her death seems inexplicable. At the same time, the composerís quest for local folk music seems to have an eerie connection. This was reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood or Robert Aickman and might almost be called horror. Itís heavy on atmosphere and character and requires some thought to follow the plot. 7/26/13

Clockwork Doomsday by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2013, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62163-7

The latest Rogue Angel novel, this one actually by Mel Odom. Annja Creed is a an archaeologist who has a magic sword and who battles various different groups of bad guys, usually for possession of ancient artifacts most of which have at least some mystical significance. In this case she's looking for a robot minotaur that was lost in ancient times but which might still exist. Bad guys want all the good stuff, including the magic sword, but they have to get past our heroine first. And, naturally, they don't. These stories are all written to a formula but it's a good formula and I've been enjoying it for a few years now. This is actually one of the better titles in the series, adding to my pleasure. 7/17/13

Storm Riders by Margaret Weis & Robert Krammes, Tor, 2013, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3349-0

I'm going to say right up front that the kind of fantasy adventure that Margaret Weis and her various collaborators produce is generally not to my liking. This doesn't mean she writes badly, because she doesn't, or that she doesn't have a well defined audience for these stories, which she does. They almost always involve two or more generic political units involved in or about to become embroiled in physical conflict. There are frequently dragons. There is almost always some variation of the quest story, often a magical artifact, and a secret which, if uncovered, could affect the balance of power one way or the other. This longish adventure includes all those elements along with the group of mismatched heroes, secret conspiracies, and plenty of action. If you haven't overdosed on the formula, this is as good or better than most. But it won't offer you anything new. 7/15/13

The Wizard's Mask by Ed Greenwood, Paizo, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-530-3

A Pathfinder novel. The world is constantly at war, which seems to be the case in almost all fantasy worlds. One wonders how they keep refilling the ranks. Anyway, The protagonist is the Masked, a man laboring under a curse that makes him keep his face hidden. He and a companion are coerced into searching for yet another magical artifact that could tip the balance in the current war. That said, some of the adventures are quite exciting and the plot moves sturdily and quickly along. Some of the characters have unpronounceable names, which I always find irritating, and it's a little more bloodthirsty than most tie in novels, but Greenwood has been doing this for a while and he knows how to tell an interesting story. 7/8/13

Sea of Sorrows by Ree Soesbee, Pocket, 2013, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-8962-4

A Guild Wars tie in novel. An ancient city rises from beneath the waves and another is drowned in its place. One of the survivors from the latter is the protagonist of this sword and sorcery adventure. The zombie craze has taken root here as well because the minions of evil are the undead from beneath the sea who raid and ravage any settlement close enough to the seacoast. There is a good deal of swordplay on land and sea, the raising of a fleet to combat the bad guys, internal rivalries, personal and personnel problems, and the usual accouterments of the genre. I don't know how much any of this has to do with the game which supposedly inspired it, but the story is actually pretty good, mixing action with mild suspense and a dose of intrigue. I recall liking some of the author's previous work for Wizards of the Coast and it's obvious he hasn't lost his touch. 7/6/13

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder, Pyr, 2013, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-777-8

The popularity of steampunk seems to be waning slightly. This is the first new one I've seen in a while. It's the latest Burton and Swinburne adventure set in an alternate Victorian world, and the title refers to a hoax apparently perpetrated by Sir Richard Burton in our real history in which he wrote a long poem attributed to Abdu El Yezdi, but probably wrote it himself. In Hodder's world, Queen Victoria was assassinated and the subsequent rulers have been guided in part by communications from the world of the dead facilitated by the spirit of Abdu El Yezdi. That abruptly changes when it appears that the valuable mystic has changed sides, and prominent members of the British government begin disappearing on the brink of an important international treaty. Our hero must follow a complex path through a tangle of mundane political and ethereal other worldly plots and counterplots. Well written as always in this series, but I didn't care for the plot as much as I did in the earlier volumes. 7/5/13

Vol'Jin by Michael A. Stackpole, Gallery, 2013, $26, ISBN 978-1-4165-5067-9

A World of Warcraft tie-in novel. Although I prefer his original work, Stackpole always does a good job with his media related novels and this one is no exception, although I hate the title. There's a war going on - you might have guessed that - and the protagonist has an ambivalent role in the outcome. He is theoretically the leader of one of the tribes, but his situation has become ambiguous when he is wounded and evacuated and he doesn't know what role he is destined to play. Then a rival group of trolls invades, our hero has to deal with treachery as well as overt dangers, and that's not to mention the disturbing visions that trouble him at awkward times. Lots of action, lots of trolls, but there's not a lot of meat on the bones of the plot. Good for light reading but I hope Stackpole returns to original work soon. 7/2/13

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