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 LAST UPDATE 12/29/13

Thimble Down by Peter Prown, Createspace, 2013, $13.63, ISBN 978-1482510383

Although I don't generally read self published books, this one looked interesting, a blend of fantasy and detective story. It's written for young adults, but I suspect it's too low key for that particular audience. One of the inhabitants of a small village in a fantasy world has come upon a treasure in ways about which he is less than forthcoming. The treasure, however, seems virtually cursed because evil deeds soon follow. Our hero - a halfling for whom further adventures are promised - investigates with the assistance of some younger locals and eventually figures out who is responsible and why. The prose is fine and the mystery element isn't bad at all. There are no epic adventures or anything along those lines but sometimes a quieter adventure is just what you're looking for. 12/29/13

Disenchanted & Co. by Lynn Viehl, Pocket, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-2235-1 

Lynn Viehl has written a long vampire series under that name and quite a few SF novels as S.L. Viehl. This is, as far as I know, her first fantasy series, set in a steampunkish alternate America where magic works. The protagonist is Charmian Kittredge, a businesswoman who solves magical crimes and puzzles. Her work is complicated by the attentions of a malevolent magician and the professional objections of the local chief of police, both of whom are also interested in her romantically. And her latest case could have repercussions for the entire city.  This is quite a long novel but it doesnít feel that way. I liked this more than anything I had previously read by the author, and that despite a mild case of steampunk overdosing. The sequel is high on my unread pile. 12/12/13

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne, Solaris, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-78108-173-7

I suppose you could call this urban fantasy because it's a fantasy set in a city, an alternate magical London in fact, but that's not what the term "urban fantasy" really means any more. This one resembles the cityscape in the movie, Dark City, in that it is in a state of flux, constantly changing elements of its nature. The protagonist is employed to find out who or what is behind the sudden and continuing transformation, and his investigation is naturally hampered by the fact that the physical city and the personalities of its inhabitants are no longer a constant. Before it's over, he may have to raise an army to restore control to the inhabitants. Deftly written, sprinkled with genuinely weird scenes and situations, and with a nice mystery element that is perhaps revealed a bit too soon but which is nevertheless more than satisfactory.  12/11/13

Dangerous Women edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, Tor, 2013, $32.50, ISBN 978-0-7653-3206-6

A flurry of anthologies and collections has had me on a short story spree for some time now and just as I thought it was ending, the biggest and best of the lot comes along - over 700 pages of good to very good indeed short fiction. The title should convey the premise. Fans of Martin's epic fantasy series will be pleased by a novella set in Westeros, although not during the same historical period, and it's excellent - which almost goes without saying. There are additional excellent stories by Pat Cadigan, Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Cecelia Holland, along with merely very good ones by Carrie Vaughn, Jim Butcher, Nancy Kress, and several others. This is certainly the best fantasy anthology of 2013, and given that fantasy fiction does not seem to do well at shorter length, possibly the best of its kind I've ever read. Not a bad story in the book either. 12/5/13

Lost Covenant by Ari Marmell, Pyr, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-61614-811-9  

Third in this nominally young adult fantasy series featuring a female thief who comes over to the good side. This time she is investigating the rivalry between two prominent families, one of whom may be planning a dastardly assault on the other. Her quest takes her to a small town and forces her to get involved with a local criminal organization, but it also introduces her to several characters, some odd, and one of whom becomes her low key romantic interest. Although lighter fare than the authorís adult fantasy, itís not by an order of magnitude and this series is not going to insult the intelligence of readers of any age. Should provide your ration of fun for the day. 11/25/13

Beyond the Tempest Gate by Jeff Suwak, Vabella, 2013, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-938230-44-8   

This fantasy novella follows the adventures of a young man who knows that his destiny will be a great one. After successfully defeating a host of mundane enemies, he sets his sights on the demon who lives beyond a magical gate. It compresses what might have been an entire trilogy into a few dozen pages. Itís more sword and sorcery than epic fantasy though with lots of personal battles but not much character develop or world building. Pleasant light reading but you wonít remember it a month later. 11/25/13

Sunken Pyramid by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2013, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62165-1

Time for my guilty pleasure men's adventure novel. This is the latest - #45 if I counted correctly - adventure of Annja Creed, an archaeologist with a magical sword who spends most of her time beating the bad guys to lost treasures, most of which have some fantastical properties. This time the murder of a friend leads her to investigate some mysterious Mayan artifacts and an apparent Mayan outpost in Wisconsin. The fantastic element is largely window dressing as this is basically just a fast paced adventure story, although the mystery element is more  prevalent than usual. This is actually one of the best in the series, actually written by Jean Rabe under the house pseudonym.  11/19/13

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 2013, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-861-4

Doc Holliday and friends return again in author Resnick's fantastic version of the Old West. I suppose this is arguably steampunk although it doesn't really feel like it. Holliday has hung up his guns and retired to a sanitorium where he is found by Geronimo, who needs help handling some renegades from his own tribe who are threatening to undermine a treaty signed recently with the US government. This involves two scientists - palenontologists in fact - who are in more danger from each other than they are from the hostile dissenters from Geronimo's tribe. But as if that wasn't bad enough, it turns out that dinosaurs aren't entirely extinct, but they are hungry. Taken alone, this is really SF rather than fantasy, but earlier volumes in the series dabbled with magic and the supernatural, so take your pick. Resnick always tells a good story, regardless of what genre label is attached.  11/18/13

Four Summoner's Tales edited anonymously, Gallery, 2013, $16, ISBN 978-1-4516-9668-4

Four novelettes whose common thread is that it is possible for certain people to bring the dead back to the world of the living. The theme is common but setting and characters are not. I was actually rather disappointed in this one. The only story I actively liked was by David Liss, whose story is set in England who twists the theme around a bit. Jonathan Maberry's story features his recurring character, Joe Ledger, but the story was too long for its plot, and confusing at times. Christopher Golden's was almost quite good, set in a small Texas town involving vengeance, zombies, and drug lords. Kelley Armstrong's contribution starts out well, but it was also too long and I lost interest about mid way through. This might have been an interesting project but it just never seemed to come to life, no pun intended.  11/13/13

Mistress of the Solstice by Anna Kashina, Dragonwell, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-9838320-4-1

I believe this is based on an actual fairy tale. A young woman is held as prisoner by her evil father who sacrifices the lives of virgins to magically extend his own life. She is not sympathetic to her father but has been browbeaten into accepting what appears to be the inevitable. A young hero appears who is determined to bring the sacrifices to an end and rescue the fair maiden, but in order to do so he has to survive and solve a series of puzzles, which make up the bulk of the story and some of which are quite cleverly done. At the same time, the woman he hopes to save is using her magical talents to oppose him, despite her contradictory feelings. Feels much like a fairy tale itself, and the story just flies by. Quite good. 11/10/13

The Blood of Whisperers by Devin Madson, Cloudburst, 2013, ISBN 978-0-9923059-0-1

Amazon only lists the ebook version of this so I'm not sure what the price of the trade paperback might be. This is the first in a trilogy, and it had a slight advantage with me because oriental style fantasies are still rare enough that they have a slight aura of specialness even before they're read. The setting is a medieval Japanese kingdom, though I'm not sure how historically accurate it might be, when a controversial commoner has assumed the throne. The protagonist is a kind of wandering warrior/sorcerer, the latter chiefly involving his ability to read the emotions of other people. He is also the legitimate heir to the throne, although that isn't common knowledge. Much derring do ensues and the story ends with a cliffhanger. Volume two is due out shortly. Nicely written, particularly for a first novel, with only a couple of minor rough spots. You might have to hunt for a hard copy but the ebook is readily available. 11/2/13

Esrever Doom by Piers Anthony, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3136-6

I hadn't read a Xanth novel in quite a while and I was in the mood for some fantasy in a lighter vein. This one features a visitor from our world who is the only person in Xanth not affected by a magical spell that makes beautiful things look ugly and vice versa. And naturally that means that he's the only one who can break the spell and return things to normal - the title spelled backward is Reverse Mood. Our hero is off on a quest during which he meets the usual handful of wacky companions, reaches a mysterious palace, uncovers the truth about the spell, and saves the day, also providing himself with a way to return to his own world. As with most of the Xanth novels, the fun is not in the destination but in the journey. Some of the anecdotal adventures are clever and amusing, others less so, but the novel has a light touch even for this series and it's a nice relief from the usual round of angst ridden adventurers and apocalyptic battles. 10/28/13

Bravado's House of Blues by J.A. Pitts, Fairwood, 2013, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-41-5

This is a collection of mostly fantasy fiction by one of the more interesting new fantasy writers. Most contemporary fantasy fiction is written at much longer length, as opposed to science fiction and horror, which have a long tradition with short stories. The author's novels mix contemporary with traditional fantasy tropes, so it's not surprising to see that pattern repeated in many of the stories here. So the stories here include soldiers both from modern America and ancient Rome, stories set in the historic past and in the unforseeable future. Some of the latter are SF, although they rarely feel that way despite robots and catastrophic collapses of civilization. Three of the stories feature the protagonist of her novels, a female blacksmith turned adventurer, and they are among the best in the collection. I enjoyed almost all of these and wish that more fantasy writers would try working at shorter length, although the scarcity of single author collections suggest this might not be a strong career move. 10/25/13

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3595-1   

I have been a big fan of Gene Wolfe for many years, but Iím afraid his latest just didnít impress me. The prose is of course impeccable and smooth, but the story is slow moving and nonsensical Ė the latter at least deliberately so in what is usually described as Kafkaesque. The protagonist is a travel writer who journeys to a reclusive imaginary European country where he is promptly deprived of his passport by guards who then arrest him not having a passport. His imprisonment is to be quartered in a private home where he is told that if he escapes, his host will be executed. The hostís wife takes a fancy to him and then things really start to get strange, ultimately suggesting that fantastic forces are at work behind the scenes. This probably would have worked at shorter length but stretched out to a novel it lost me after about a hundred pages. 10/24/13

Stalking the Beast by Howard Andrew Jones, Paizo, 2013, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-572-3

A tie-in novel to the Pathfinder role playing game, although as with earlier novels in this series, you wouldn't know about the game connection if you weren't told. An unusual and destructive creature is raiding villages so the populace calls upon an elf and his orc partner to confront the critter. They recruit a few others and much of the novel consists of the interplay among them as they try to track down the monster, which also turns out not to be exactly what they were expecting. Or even approximately. This is I believe the author's second novel but I've never seen his first, also in this series.. The characters are reasonably well rounded despite it being an adventure story and there the prose is quite readable. The plot was interesting, the mystery reasonably obscure, and the climax is satisfying. Can't ask for much more than that in a sword and sorcery novel. 10/21/13

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel, Scholastic, 2013, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-52254-0

Sorrowís Knot by Erin Bow, Scholastic, 2013, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-16666-9   

Both of these are young adult fantasies and the first is by an author new to me. It's also the darker of the two. A young girl lives with her family who run a company that makes grave stones. They have recently hired a strange man who disturbs her, even more so when she discovers a manís picture in his cottage, the day before the man in question dies. It turns out that the man is carving headstones for people just before they die, which leads to the question of whether heís predicting them or causing them. Aimed at younger readers and the prose is rather sparse, but itís actually a pretty good puzzle. The second title is longer and more ambitious, but has a somewhat similar theme. The female protagonist lives in a primitive society where she is training to be one of the handful of people who can control the dead, or perhaps I should call them undead. Her story runs parallel to that of two other youngsters, one who wants to be a scout, the other a storyteller. The three will have to pool their resources when it becomes evident that a charismatic dead man might be able to alter the balance of power. I liked both of these, particularly the first, although the second is somewhat better written. 10/16/13

The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd, Pyr, 2013, $18, ISBN 978-1-61614-859-1 

This is a collection of short stories set in the same world as the Twilight Reign series by the same author. None of them appear to have been previously published. They peripherally involve some of the major events in the novels, but generally donít seem to make use of the same characters. Theyíre all well enough written, but I find that this kind of setting rarely works well at short length. Some of that is ameliorated by the common setting and what I remember from the novels, but that still means that as individual pieces of fiction, these tales are necessarily limited in their appeal. There just isnít room to introduce an entire created land within a few pages. Readable but not as memorable as the novels. 10/15/13

The Enchanter Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Hyperion, 2013, $18.99, ISBN 978-142314434-2

Latest in a young adult fantasy series, the fourth I believe.  The protagonist is a survivor of the terrible massacre of his village, now an accomplished assassin with magical talents. He crosses paths with a young girl recently left on her own with a warning that her life might be in danger, although there's little information about who might wish her harm. When prominent members of the wizards' guild start turning up dead, their suspicion naturally turns to the organization of assassins, but both sides might be the subject of manipulation by a third party. As with its predecessors, this one entertained me and succeeds as an adult novel despite its young adult aspects. 10/13/13

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone, Tor, 2013, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3312-4   

Sequel to Three Parts Dead. The setting is a steampunkish fantasy world where in this case the local city reservoir has become contaminated by demonic spirits. The protagonist is employed to clean up the mess and render the water safe to drink but his job is rendered more difficult by his discovery that his own father Ė a rogue wizard Ė was involved in some way with the original contamination. Nor is the demon involved content to simply be dispossessed.  The plot is good but it seems almost secondary at times to the setting and the culture, which blends some familiar tropes and some innovative touches and rearranges them in a way I havenít quite encountered before. The author mixes subgenres skillfully and creatively. 10/2/13

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