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Last Update 5/31/07

 

 

Worldbinder by David Farland, Tor, 9/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1665-3

David Farland (who used to write as Dave Wolverton) has fashioned a new career for himself with the Runelords series, of which this is the sixth.  If I hadn't already read the earlier books in the series, I would have been seriously inclined to pass it by because it incorporates many of the most overworked cliches in the field, the usurped throne, the disenfranchised heirs plotting revenge, dark magic opposed to the forces of light.  One of the reasons these elements recur so often is, obviously, that they are popular with readers.  We like being able to tell good from evil without worrying about gradations in between, and we like seeing the underdogs rising from defeat to outwit and outfight the villains and give them what they deserve.  The difference between those novels which succeed despite the familiarity and those that don't is in the writing. No surprise there. Farland gets a boost from his well constructed and unusual system of magic and the relationships among the Runelords, but loses a few points because of a plot that moves in fits and starts at times, though it's not a fatal wound.

This continues from Sons of the Oak with Fallon and Jaz marshalling their forces (when they're not fighting for their lives), waiting for the day when they can carry the battle to the enemy and reclaim their birthright.  There's plenty of action, battles and chases.  In fact, there was a bit too much for me this time.  I kept wanting the story to slow down a bit so I could process what was going on and maybe learn a bit more about how the characters were adjusting to their situation.  There were several times when I had difficulty even picturing the physical location or action because it went by so quickly.  Fans of the series should I enjoy it but I think it's a bit of a dip in the road despite the rousing ending.  5/31/07

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, Tor, 10/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1816-9

Collaborations are funny critters.  Some of them end up feeling much like the work of one of the co-authors, others are clearly a blend, and still others read like an entirely new voice.  Generally the last is the most successful, because it often means that the writers involved were able to recognize each other's strong points and take advantage of them.  Even so, most collaborations do not work as well s the best of the fiction produced by the authors individually.  There are exceptions, of course, like Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.  This particular partnership struck me as somewhat unusual.  Monette's three previous novels have been somewhat more literary than average variations on standard fantasy themes, but with an original setting and unusually strong characterization.  Bear's two fantasy novels have had contemporary settings with bridges to an alternate world of magic, and they have been considerably more overt, though no less well written.

The early stages of the plot superficially resemble some of Andre Norton's work.  The protagonist is a nobleman who has been chosen to telepathically bond herself to a wolf, so that together they can patrol the borders of the human settled portions of the world, defending against the incursions of trolls and goblins and other supernatural menaces.  The situation somewhat resembles that of George R.R. Martin's ongoing series in that the menace has receded to such a low level that the human authorities have become complacent and are not prepared for a sudden increase in infiltration by evil forces.  I'm not revealing any secrets by telling you that the protagonist rises to the occasion and the threat is turned back, eventually.  It's not surprising either that this is extremely well written, and more suspenseful than most contemporary fantasy I've read.  My only complaint - a minor one - is the large number of difficult to pronounce names (think Scandinavian sagas), which seriously impede those of us who still subvocalize when we read. 5/30/07

Cast in Secret by Michelle Sagara, Luna, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80280-7

Kaylin Neya returns for her third magical mystery investigation.  Crossovers between mystery and fantasy used to be rare - think Randall Garrett - because it was generally assumed that if you had magic, then it was too easy to cheat, and even if you didn't, readers would probably expect to be cheated.  It was never entirely true, because you can construct the magic system to make the rules clearcut, or you can can shape your mystery so that the magical element is almost irrelevant.  Several writers like Tamara Siler Jones and Martin Scott have found the hybrid mixture to be fertile ground, and Michelle Sagara has begun mining the same ore. In her first two outings, Kaylin discovered that the magical glyphs on her body could be both blessing and curse, solved the mystery of the murders of several children, and learned to handle herself in a tangle of court intrigue, personal ambition, and devious plots.

This time she's hoping her investigation into what appears to be a routine theft will be just that, with no magic, mayhem, or murder involved.  But the more she learns, the more she realizes that the missing property is more valuable than it appears and that she is in danger of getting in over her head again.  And echoing her first adventure, she is drawn to a mysterious young girl who apparently needs her help.  She has to resolve matters not only because that's her duty, but because everything that happens is tied in some way to her own personal destiny.  A satisfying mix of traditional fantasy, untraditional detective, and mild romance.  This will undoubtedly be shelved in the romance section of most bookstores, but general fantasy fans should make a side trip and check it out.  5/27/07

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, Bantam, 8/07, $23, ISBN 978-0-553-80468-3 and Gollancz, 6/07, £18.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07695-2

   Last year new writer Scott Lynch introduced us to his con man hero in The Lies of Locke Lamora, the latest in a small but honorable line of fantasy protagonists whose profession is theft.  He and his partner, Jean Tannen, aren't quite Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but their relationship is similarly entertaining.  There's a subtle difference as well, because both novels are caper novels, a kind of magical version of Oceans 11.  Their first caper succeeded but they end up persona non grata and have to find a new home, or at least, new hunting grounds.  That's where we find them in the sequel, the city state of Tal Verra. 

Tal Verra is the site of the most famous gambling house in the known world, the Sinspire.  The most rigidly enforced rule at the Sinspire is No Cheating, but that's exactly what the pair of adventurers intends to do, and they're pushed further in that direction by other forces.  The task would have been difficult enough in itself, but someone knows what they're planning and is determined to bring about their ruin.  This all sounds like an intellectual game of cat and mouse, but there's high adventure as well, including pirates, sea battles, and rousing battles.  This blend of high fantasy and the caper novel isn't new, but it has rarely been done so well or on such a grandiose scale.  After only two novels, Lynch is on my short list of writers to watch.  He should be on yours as well.  5/26/07

The Lost Scrolls by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-62124-8

This is the sixth in the Rogue Angel series, a pulpish men's adventure story featuring a macho female protagonist who mixes archaeology and martial arts, with a little assistance from Joan of Arc's sword, which appears magically whenever she needs it, thanks to her adventures in volume one.  So far the titles have alternated between Victor Milan and Mel Odom, and this is one of Milan's installments.  Annja Creed gets wind of some scrolls from Egypt that explain some of the secrets of Atlantis, including an energy source that would change the face of human civilization.  As with the previous volumes, she's soon dodging bullets and bombs as she's chased across Africa and later parts of Asia, pursued by the minions of an oil company that would like to see that information suppressed for another few ages.  This is unabashed comic book adventure so don't expect it to be consistently plausible, but it is a wild and amusing ride while it lasts.  Looking forward to the next.  5/23/07

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher, Hyperion, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-142310175-8

The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Hyperion, 2007, $17.99, ISBN 978-142310487-2

Finishing up this weekend's YA fantasy excursion are these two novels, the first and second novels in their respective series.  The cover copy says this is Fletcher's first novel for children, but as far as I can tell it's his first novel of any kind.  The protagonist is a twelve year boy living in contemporary London who, in a moment of rebellion or pique, breaks the head off a stone statue that turns out to be a magical artifact housing a powerful supernatural force.  Inanimate objects begin to move of their own volition, threatening him, but is that what's really happening or is it all an illusion.  Only his friend Edie sees what he sees.  All of the statues of London are waking up and they're arrayed in two warring camps, with our young friends right smack in the battlefield.  Each of the suddenly animate creatures is apparently based on a real statue in the city, which probably adds an extra bit of amusement to readers familiar with London.  The story isn't complete in itself, so we're left with the situation unresolved and the children wondering what they can do about it.  There are some pretty clever bits in this one and it's not badly written down.  A darkish kind of contemporary fairy tale.

  The second title is the follow-up to The Warrior Heir, published last year. In that one, a boy from the Midwest fails to take his medicine one day, and that leads to the revelation that he has superhuman powers. Not long after that, he's battling wizards and off to England to discover his true destiny.  This new title focuses on a new character, Seph, an orphaned teenager whose uncontrolled, untrained magical talent results in miniature disasters wherever he goes.  Even if he is not specifically identified as the cause, his disturbing presence results in his being shuttled from one place to another.  Eventually he ends up in a remote private school in Maine where the headmaster recognizes what is happening and offers to train him so that the magic will no longer cause unintended problems.  But it doesn't require a very sophisticated reader to realize that the sinister headmaster has reasons of his own for wanting to shape Seph's talents.  This is a sidequel rather than a sequel, a story set against the same backdrop but not directly related to the earlier title.  It's also a boy's school novel with some of the attributes of the Harry Potter books, though far less complexity and a comparatively small and less interesting cast of characters.  That said, and despite the transparency of some of the plot elements, it was an enjoyable if familiar story, a little more polished than its companion book but a little less original as well.  5/22/07

Gift of the Unmage by Alma Alexander, Eos, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-083955-0

Ocean Realm by Rebecca Moesta & Kevin J. Anderson, Little, Brown, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-316--01056-6

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan, Miramax, 2007, $$17.95, ISBN 978-142310145-1

I spent the weekend reading young adult fantasies, which seems to be almost as active as adult fantasy lately.  Young adult science fiction has pretty much disappeared as a category, but warriors, wizards, magic, and quest stories appear to be very popular with younger readers, perhaps at least in part due to the popularity of the Harry Potter series, although the first of these three is even remotely in that tradition.  These are all installments in ongoing series, which also reflects adult fantasy.  They're also of surprisingly high quality though they reflect the same reliance on overused plots that dominates the genre as a whole.

Alma Alexander has done a couple of adult fantasies.  This is the opening volume in the trilogy, set on a kind of alternate version of our world.  Thea is the seventh child of two seventh children and as such she is supposed to be heir to powerful magic.  As she grows older, however, it appears that just the opposite is true, that she has little or no talent at all, so she is sent to a school that is dedicated to those with no magic.  Even unsophisticated readers will know that things are not as they appear and that eventually she will discover a power of her own, magical or otherwise, and her meeting with a Native American confirms our suspicions; she is suppressing her talents unconsciously.  Fans of Harry Potter might find this of particular interest although it is much less inventive and rather slow paced.

Ocean Realm is the second in the Crystal Doors trilogy.  There's a lot more overt action in this one.  In the first book, two siblings found themselves in a magical alternate world that was on the brink of war, and found themselves pitted against a giant sea creature.  The victory is short lived, however, because the undersea people take them prisoner and carry them off to their submerged city.  There they uncover a sinister plot by the enemy ruler and a mysterious ally which could upset the balance of power and wreak havoc in the surface world.  The story is nothing special but the undersea realm is skillfully rendered and actually much more interesting than the surface world.  A bit obvious for older readers but with a nice, crisp, fast moving story. 

Third, and best of this group, is The Titan's Curse, third in the Olympians series. The young protagonist discovered in The Lightning Thief that he is the son of a Greek god, and by The Sea of Monsters mythological characters and creatures are popping up all over the place.  Things have settled down for Percy, but they don't stay that way for long and he has to resort to his trust sword, Riptide, and his magical friends for the latest battle.  There's a split among the gods, with the scheming Kronos leading a faction that hopes to upset the balance of power in their favor.  But Percy and his friends are about to foil his plans.  Although the plot sounds serious enough, Riordan delivers his story with a good deal of genuinely funny humor rather than farce, and sustains it throughout the story.  A cute plot would have been noteworthy enough, but the writing is consistently witty and inventive.  I look forward to more adventures of Percy Jackson and his friends.  5/21/07

Poltergeist by Kat Richardson, Roc, 8/07, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46150-9

Although there really aren't any completely new ideas in fiction, there are variations which feel different enough that readers respond favorably, which generates heavy sales, which usually leads to imitators and emulators.  Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is the most obvious recent example.  I draw a distinction between imitators and emulators.  The imitator looks at the successful work and decides that he or she can profit by writing something as close to the original as possible without actually plagiarizing it.  Emulators are a higher order of being.  An emulator looks at the original and says, hey, this author has something interesting here, but I think I can take some of the ideas here and rework them into something else, something similar and at least as good, maybe even better.   Much of the current crop of urban fantasy falls into these two categories, just as a few years back everyone was imitating or emulating J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. 

In this case, the original is Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake stories, not entirely groundbreaking in themselves, but very obviously successful.  The formula is fairly simple.  The setting is similar to our world except that magic and creatures like vampires are real, their existence either hidden or generally known.  The protagonist is almost always a highly competent young woman who solves mysteries and overcomes the villains.  Writers like Charlaine Harris (emulator) have tinkered with the formula to create genuinely interesting and original work.  Others have ranged from that general area to slavishly imitative.  Kat Richardson's Harper Blaine novels (this is the second) are at the high end of the scale.  Harper was a private investigator who was technically dead for a short period of time, and found herself with new abilities when she returned to life.  She is a Greywalker (the title of her first adventure), someone who can perceive and make use of the borderland between mundane reality and the supernatural.

The novel is in some ways  a straightforward murder mystery.  Harper is called in by a university official who believes that someone has been falsifying experimental results in an attempt to prove that they have successfully created a poltergeist.  Her preliminary investigation leads to the opposite conclusion, that the disembodied entity is real.  Then one of the researches is murdered under odd circumstances and the question becomes whether the poltergeist could and did commit the murder, or whether someone else is using the phenomenon to conceal a more sordid and mundane crime.  I'm obviously not going to tell you the answer.  The supporting characters are nicely done, the mystery is engaging, and the protagonist is a distinct individual. Because most people consider novels of this type fantasy , I've listed it that way but it's also supernatural horror.  Whatever you choose to call it, let's hope Harper Blaine returns for many more equally exciting exploits.  5/20/07

Deepwood by Jennifer Roberson, DAW, 7/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0418-5

I've been a fan of Jennifer Roberson's fantasy ever since the Cheysuli series back a good many years ago.  This is volume two in her newest series, sequel to Karavans, and probably her best novel to date.  A family of six have taken passage to a distant land with a caravan, but eventually choose a divergent path in order to arrive more quickly.  They are accompanied by only a single man, a man who is not altogether human.  The shortcut is dangerous because it approaches the borders of a vast, enchanted forest which is itself a kind of single, malevolent intelligence, inhabited by demonic creatures some of which were formerly perfectly ordinary but who fell under the influence of the twisted magic.

Their passage might have been uneventful, but the borders of the forest fluctuate and they inadvertently fall within its field of influence.  The forest has the power to physically transform its victims as well as kill them.  The party of travelers is overtaken and scattered.  The most significant victim is the mother, who is pregnant, and whose child would be a fine catch for the evil that dwells around her.  And she's going to discover that even the things she thought she knew are false and that she has to trust one who has lied to her if there is to be any chance of her escaping the forest and finding her family. 

It goes almost without saying that this is well written, but it also stands out because of the richly imagined world.  The haunted forest of Alisanos is a decidedly different kind of enchanted forest, suggesting Robert Holdstock or Paul Hazel rather than traditional fairy tales.  It's also a mighty fine story.  5/19/07

Pandora’s Closet edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg, DAW, 8/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0437-6 

Here we have a collection of fantasy stories about clothing, although the definition gets stretched a bit.  Timothy Zahn opens with a fairly good story about a cursed ring, followed by Christopher Pierson’s okay tale of a magical helmet that gives its wearer extraordinary powers, played for laughs.  Louise Marley looks at a grown up Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and what might be in store for her when next she dons her magic shoes.  By now I was detecting a trend.  Each article of clothing has a magical property.   

Most of the next few stories follow the same pattern, well told but unexceptional.  John Helfers provides a different setting – historical Japan – and his story stood out a bit, as does Linda Baker’s reminiscence about Janis Joplin.  Most of the remaining stories are light humor, cute but repetitious.  The best story in the collection is Jane Lindskold's "The Travails of Princess Stephen" and the most unusual is by Belle and Nancy Holder.  Peter Schweighofer has a good story about a cap that allows the Allies to eavesdrop on German radio traffic.  Elizabeth Vaughan and Sarah Zettel also have above average contributions.

There aren't any bad stories in the book, and several of them would probably have made a better impression if I hadn't read them all in close proximity.  In general, this falls prey to the narrow theme syndrome, and I suggest reading it in small increments rather than straight through.  5/17/07

The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks, Doubleday, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-385-51429-3

First of all, the hype.  This is supposedly the pseudonym of a writer whose identity is so closely guarded that even his agent and publisher don't know who he is.  He communicates by satellite phone, has dropped out of the modern world's information network, and lives in the US and the UK.  What a load of crap.  The idea that an agent would handle an unknown fantasy writer of average talent without knowing who he was, or that a publisher would send money without having a social security number, or for that matter that the writer himself could travel back and forth between the US and Europe without showing up on any records would indicate either that he was one of those secret masters he is supposedly trying to avoid, or that the whole thing is a fraud.  Take your pick.

Leaving aside that nonsense, this is the sequel to The Traveler, in which we learned that the entire world is secretly being managed by a group called the Tabula, a kind of Illuminati.  Opposed to them are the Travelers and their militant wing, the Harlequins, although both are a vanishing breed, on the verge of complete defeat in their eternal struggle for human independence.  Certain individuals are able to use their psychic powers to travel among realities.  Two of the main characters are brothers, one of whom fights for good, the other of whom has been turned to the dark side.  The action in this volume is their race to find their missing father, with an ensuing adventure beneath the streets of London and New York, and elsewhere.   The novel is a competently written adventure story, a kind of Dan Brown thriller with magic.  But there's nothing particularly special about it and the anti-technological subtext is mildly distracting.  The Tabula would no doubt urge you to buy it and the Travelers would tell you to steal a copy.  I'll just say wait for the paperback, or pick it up used.  5/16/07

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2007, $26, ISBN 978-0-618-89464-2

Who would have thought there'd be a new J.R.R. Tolkien book of fiction after all these years?  This is more of a history than a story, edited by Christopher Tolkien into a semblance of a single, continuous narrative.  The time is ages before the days of the Lord of the Rings, when humans are new in the world and the Big Bad is Morgoth, a kind of precursor to Sauron.  The armies of elves and men attempt to destroy him, but they are outgeneraled and defeated, retreating primarily to a hidden city while others of their host are killed or captured including Hurin.  One of the refugees is Turin, his son, who eventually takes refuge in a hidden elvish kingdom.  There he grows to manhood, always hoping to seek vengeance against Morgoth, but through a chain of happenstance and bad judgment, he is responsible for the death of one of the king's councilors, which doesn't make him particularly welcome there.

Although the title refers to "children", the book is primarily about Turin, who through mischance, bad luck, and most of all the evil curse of Morgoth becomes successively a refugee, an outlaw, a prisoner of the orcs, and the accidental killer of his closest friend. He changes names a half dozen times or so in the process.  Turin's sister takes center stage briefly toward the end as she and her mother seek Turin and run into big trouble instead.  She ends up with amnesia and eventually meets her brother, who doesn't recognize her since he has never seen her before.  They fall in love and eventually are married, obviously yet another effect of Morgoth's curse.

There is a strong narrative structure, but this is as much a history as a fiction.  It's a surprisingly unified and impressive work.  I had assumed that anything previously unpublished would be comparatively minor.  In addition to the text there are genealogies, miscellaneous background material, and an extensive list of proper names.   There are also some nifty tipped in full color paintings by Alan Lee. 5/15/07

The Gospel of the Knife by Will Shetterly, Tor, 7/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-312-86631-0

Ten years ago, Will Shetterly introduced us to the Nix family, progressives in a time of violent change, and possessors of magical secrets.  The family returns in this new novel for further adventures.  The time is 1969 and the place is the Deep South, a society torn between the past and the future.  Christopher Nix is a teenager who inclines toward the hippie look, and that makes him an obvious target for the less tolerant people in the community.  One day the Nix family receives an interesting offer.  A rich man offers to pay for Christopher's private schooling, supposedly to pay the family back because Christopher's grandfather saved the benefactor's life during World War I, although grandfather isn't around to confirm that story.  And story it is, as we find out in due course, because that's not the real reason at all.  There's a lot of great stuff in here, secret societies, legends, mysteries to resolve, questions of ethics and the role of religion, and much more.  Unfortunately, for this reader at least, the author's choice of an unusual narrative device was so distracting that I was often frustrated.  The book is written in second person present tense, and it felt so artificial to me that I was conscious of the author's presence (and heavy hand) through the entire book.  5/12/07

Natural Ordermage by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 9/07, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1813-X

The Recluce series reaches its fourteenth title with this one, which I think makes it the longest running high fantasy sequence since James Branch Cabell's Poictesme, unless you count the Xanth books by Piers Anthony.  And like Cabell, the series is united only by its setting, with different sets of characters in different subsets.   I confess that I have had mixed feelings about the earlier books in this series, which I found to be quite varied in effectiveness, and I thought his other sequence, the Corean Chronicles, was far better as well as more unified.  It was almost immediately obvious that this one would have only minimal relationship to the others.  Most of it is set in a land far from Recluce and follows the adventures, and misadventures, of Rahl, who is serving an apprenticeship to learn magic, but whose talents appear to vary significantly from the norm.  Rahl uses his magic inappropriately and eventually that gets him into so much trouble that he is exiled to a remote location where he has less opportunity to misuse his power.  But Rahl is more ingenious than they think, and impetuous as well.  It's a coming of age story, obviously, and in due course Rahl gains self control and earns some respect, becomes a mage guard, and starts to use his unique talents in more constructive ways.  Things don't go entirely his way, though, and the book actually ends with his star in apparent decline, although he is determined to repair the situation.  This is the first of two closely related novels, or more properly a novel in two volumes, so don't be surprised if there's not a strong finish.  5/10/07

Territory by Emma Bull, Tor, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-312-85735-6

I had two very strong motives for reading this book.  First and primary, I've never read anything by Emma Bull I didn't like, and she writes infrequently enough that it feels like every instance is a special occasion.  Second, this particular fantasy involves one of my favorite historical incidents, the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  I've probably watched the film a dozen times and the related episode of Star Trek was one of my favorites as well.  So I cleared up the paperwork on my desk, paid the bills, finished cataloguing the new arrivals, disposed of the empty soda cans, finished responding to my emails, and settled back to read her newest. 

Wisely, I think, the historical characters - Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton - are almost peripheral and we follow most of the story from the viewpoint of Jesse Fox, a young Easterner who has traveled to the old west where he is told that he has a hidden magical talent.  So does his new acquaintance, Doc Holliday, to say nothing of Wyatt Earp, a full fledged sorcerer.  The second major fictional character is Mildred Benjamin, a secretive writer working at the local newspaper, who also has paranormal abilities.  Eventually, the two of them will develop a powerful bond.  The surface conflict is the battle between law and order, but beneath the veneer we see a power struggle going on among various magic practitioners whose private agendas may have little to do with the law.  And I can't tell you much more than that without providing too many spoilers.  Bull has taken the old west and given it a rich, magical overcoat, but without changing what lies beneath.  It still reads like a western adventure, even if magic does work.  I was sorry to see this one end.  Let's hope her next novel isn't quite so long in coming.  5/6/07

When Bad Snakes Attack Good Children by Dan Greenburg, Harcourt, 2007, $9.95, ISBN 978-0-15-206056-5

This is the eighth volume in a series of fantasy novels for younger readers that follow the adventures of the Schluffmuffin children, whose father was converted to vampirism a few titles back and who have weathered a variety of dangers and adventures involving oversized sea creatures, curses, and so forth.  This time they've uncovered a plot involving a coup against the government of the US and set out to inform the FBI, but things predictably go awry.  First of all, their father - the vampire - doesn't want them traveling on public transportation without an adult companion.  Even worse, there's a little old lady following them who plans to assassinate them and she has some reptilian allies to help her along.  Despite the lively plot and nasty villains, these are basically light humor along the lines of some of the Goosebumps novels, although much better written.  5/6/07

Thief with No Shadow by Emily Gee, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-469-1

Most contemporary urban fantasies are recognizably set in our world, although a version which has been altered by the presence of magic, vampires, or some fantastic element.  The injection of that alien element into our world is what makes the story.  Emily Gee's first novel goes a bit further because it's not set in our world at all, but in some ways in evokes the same sense of conflicting realities and strangeness.  Her protagonist is Melke, who might seem human but who was a mystical power of invisibility.  A talent like that is likely to make someone into a pretty effect thief, and that's what she needs to be when her brother falls afoul of evil magic.  But it's not simply a case of sneaking into a well guarded house and making off with an amulet or some other magical artifact.  Her target is guarded by more than simple guards and locked doors, and she has enemies of her own who would like to see her dead.  Will she achieve her goal, save her brother, and find true love in the process?  Well, we all know the answer to that, don't we, although in this case it doesn't matter quite as much as with most similar novels, because the author presents us with an interesting world to explore.  The dialogue could use some work.  Everyone seems inclined to talk in unnaturally short, clipped sentences.  There's considerable potential in this imaginative adventure, but the mechanics need some practice.  Intertwined with the main story is her relationship with Bastian, who initially despises her and her kind, but finds his attitude changing as time passes.  There's also a talking, sort of, dog.  5/3/07  

The Hanging Mountains by Sean Williams, Pyr, 6/07, $$25, ISBN 978-1-59102-544-3

If you haven't read the first two books in this series, The Crooked Letter and The Blood Debt, you're probably going to be hopelessly confused very quickly.  Williams has created a quite original fantasy world - a far future Earth - for this series, initially fairly ordinary until we discover that it is linked to another reality that functions as the afterlife for the inhabitants of the first world, although it is also populated by some pretty scary monsters.  The link becomes more physical when one of a set of royal twins dies, making it possible to invade and conquer the other reality.  In the second volume, a homunculus is created with the power to recall souls from death, and the moderately large cast of characters begins to display conflicting and sometime cryptic motives and actions.

The third volume is in many ways a more conventional quest story with the goal a means to avert the terrible threat that has been brewing since book one.  There has also been a terrible flood and in the aftermath subsidiary conflicts are beginning to erupt on every side.  The Hanging Mountains of the title are the source of the flood, and some of the characters are headed there, hoping to remedy the situation.  They have various adventures which are quite well done although at times the pace of the narrative slows significantly and unnecessarily, almost as though the author wanted to flesh this one out so that he'd have enough story left to tell for the fourth and final installment.  The dialogue is particularly refreshing and some of the episodic sequences are outstanding.  More adventurous than the first two, but somewhat less suspenseful.  I'm looking forward to finding out how Williams ties up all the loose ends.  5/1/07

A Fate Worse Than Dragons by John Moore, Ace, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01495-8

John Moore is writing the closest thing to Unknown Magazine style fantasy that we see nowadays, and if he hasn't quite reached the level of L. Sprague de Camp, then at least he's moving in that direction.  Sir Terry is a rather mediocre knight who really wants to woo and wed the princess, but knows that his undistinguished record and nature are such that he is out of the running unless he can find a way to do something really outstanding, something that will command her attention.  So off he goes to battle a deadly dragon, and almost to his own surprise, he wins.  Everything should be coming up roses, right?  Well, think again, because Sir Terry made a basic error.  He didn't get his facts straight and the dragon in question was not, after all, the bane of the kingdom's existence.  It was the bane of someone else's existence, and its defeat really doesn't matter much to the people he hoped to impress.  The only thing working in his favor is that the Princess in question is actually quite fond of him, and she decides to fake her own kidnapping so that he can rescue her, become a more relevant hero, and win her hand.  But plans deceptively simple can often be distressingly complex, and you don't have to sneak a look into later chapters to know that things aren't going to go the way the two would-be lovers have planned.  Filled with anachronisms, slight jokes and a few not so slight, and a happy ending.  This is lightweight, obviously, but just what you need to balance the last six hundred page battle between a band of reckless heroes and the evil sorcerer who usurped their rightful throne. 

The Mirador by Sarah Monette, Ace, 8/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01500-9

The third installment of the adventures of Felix Harrowgate, a handsome but severely flawed magician, and his half brother, Mildmay the Fox, whom I actually have preferred as the protagonist in the first two books, although both characters have their problems, psychological as well as more straightforward ones.  Mildmay is a bit of a rogue, a one time burglar and killer, whose main hope of survival is his mystical as well as physical link to Felix.  After the events of the first two books, Felix is once again in a position of some power in the court of Melusine, but even if he was a more stable character to start with, his position would be less than secure.  He has made powerful enemies in the past and is not averse to making new ones in the present.  The Mirador gathers together a large number of like minded wizards, but it's not the only focus of magical power.  One of these rival groups has employed a spy to help them undermine the Mirador, which will not only crush the authority of their rivals but also bring devastation to Melusine. It is possible that the Mirador might be saved, but perhaps at the cost of Felix's life.  And will Mildmay stand aside calmly and allow that to happen?  Of course not.

Although Monette's plots are still squarely in the mainstream of fantasy, and are sometimes so predictable that there are few surprises, her ability to create complex characters is becoming much more obvious as the series progresses. I'm not sure that I really like either Felix or Mildmay, but I like reading about them.  They're far more credible and vivid than most of the high minded nobles, dedicated or evil wizards, and lovable but roguish thieves that populate most fictional fantasy worlds.  4/29/07

The Mirror of Worlds by David Drake, Tor, 7/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1260-0

This is the second volume in the Crown of Isles trilogy, which is itself a sequel to the earlier Lord of the Isles series.  In the first volume, The Fortress of Glass, we were introduced to a variety of sometimes bewildering plots.  Prince Garric attempts to help a potential ally in his battle against rogue wizards and finds himself in an alternate world with its own conflicts.  While all of this is taking place, there is a low key (at least initially) struggle to determine who should rule in Garric's stead until he returns, assuming that he ever does.  The multi-leveled plot left us with multiple cliffhangers, a device he uses frequently in his fantasy fiction.   This sequel pretty much follows the same formula.  There has been an upsurge in the potency of magic, so that even the inept find themselves directing dangerous power.  Events also conspire to keep Garric and his three main allies scattered or divided among themselves, almost as if the world itself wanted to keep them from consolidating their rule over the many islands of their world. Into this already wild mix, Drake adds so many new elements this time that your head may be spinning by the time you've absorbed them all.  The waters are receding and new lands are emerging, but with them comes a host of new creatures who are able to reach the world from the past and future as well as the present.  Now it's not just a battle to see who will direct the future of the human race, but a struggle to ensure that there will be any future at all.  And as if that wasn't enough, this installment ends with the introduction of an even greater force.  Presumably this will all be resolved in the next and last in the series, but matters are so complicated that a lengthy gap between the two may leave readers scratching their heads when they try to remember just who is who and what is what.  Plenty of adventure in this one, perhaps even a bit too much. 4/28/07

Worshipping Small Gods by Richard Parks, Prime Books, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-8095-5745-5 

I had previously read most of the stories in this collection in Realms of Fantasy magazine, and several of them felt like old friends revisited.  Many of Richard Parks’ short fantasies are based on classic mythology, sometimes recasting old stories in a new shape.  “Kallisti”, for example, describes the machinations among the gods that led to the Trojan war and “The Penultimate Riddle”, one of his best, describes an encounter between a sphinx and a most unusual man.  Parks draws on Asian mythology for many of his stories, including  “Yamabushi”, a deceptively quiet story about a man and a tengu, a kind of Japanese demon.  The title story involves a duel of patience between a saint and a god, changing both, and the border between death and life is blurred in “The Plum Blossom Lantern”.  Ghosts and other mysteries abound in “Fox Tails”, a somewhat darker story than most of the others in the collection.   "A Time for Heroes" involves demons and dwarves but it has more in common with Lord Dunsany than Tolkien or the Forgotten Realms. In "The Right God", deities begin manifesting themselves around the world in droves.  The final story in the collection, another original, describes a many leveled encounter between a man lacking purpose and a bag lady and the magic that comes to exist between them.

That doesn't mean Parks is a one note author.  "A Hint of Jasmine", "Voices in an Empty Room" and "Diva", and "Hanagan's Kiyomatsu, 1923" - the last two original in this book - have contemporary settings and a much more somber tone.  All three involve Eli, a modern day ghost hunter, who uncovers the truth in decaying mansions and other venues, using modern as well as traditional techniques.  Although in form these might be closer to horror fiction, the approach is more matter of fact and there is little actual menace, though certainly considerable mystery.  I liked "A Hint of Jasmine" and "Diva" the best of these.   The quality of the stories is consistently high throughout and evidence that no matter how moribund novel length fantasy may be, the shorter form continues to be lively and inventive. 4/27/07

Soul Song by Marjorie M. Liu, Leisure, 7/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5766-2

Although this is technically the fifth book in a series of paranormal romances, the Dirk & Steele series, each of the novels is completely independent and you don't need to read them in any particular order.  The current one involves a woman who has the ability to see into the future, although as you might expect the talent works when it is convenient to the story line and fails when at other times.  The author doesn't cheat, however; there are specific rules about the gift, or curse; it only gives previews of violent deaths.  Kitala Bell, the psychic, discovers the existence of magical beings living in the sea, most notably a handsome man, M'cal, to whom she is almost immediately drawn.  M'cal isn't entirely master of his own fate, however, and their mutual fate may be in the hands of a woman with ambitious and malicious plans.  There's shapeshifting as well in this wide ranging but oddly flat romance, which has its moments but which I found disappointingly unremarkable compared to the previous books I've read by this author. 4/27/07

Bone Song by John Meaney, Gollancz, 2007, £10.99, ISBN 978-0-575-07954-0

I had a very mixed reaction to this novel by British writer Meaney, whose previous books have all been science fiction.  On the one hand, it's extremely inventive.  The setting is an alternate world only superficially like our own.  It has technology and cities and the protagonist is in fact a police detective working for one of those series, currently detailed to protect the life of a visiting opera star.  She is considered in jeopardy because someone has been systematically murdering prominent artists and stealing their bodies.  Why steal the bodies?  Well, that's the crux of the story and the meaning behind the title.  The city - the civilization - is based on a kind of necromancy, the consumption of the bodies of the dead in order to provide the power that keeps a technological society functioning.  But there's another aspect as well.  By simply touching the remnants of the dead, a bone fragment for example, one can experience visions of unearthly beauty.  So it's not surprising that some individuals - and in this case an entire secret society - is interested in acquiring the bodies of the most accomplished artists in the world.    This conflict sets the stage for the main story, although the author explores an even wider range of subjects before he's done.

That's the good part.  Here's the bad.  Particularly in the early chapters, I was constantly aware of the author's intervention.  Revelations of details about the society and the characters were not smooth, and sometimes they're very artificial.  There was also a feeling that things were being hurried, that the author was presenting this information only because he thought it was necessary, and as soon as it was delivered he moved on to something else.  In this age of bloated fantasy novels, I feel awkward in saying this, but inside this 340 page, somewhat rushed fantasy there can be found the scrunched up form of a much better 500 page novel.  4/22/07

Year's Best Fantasy 7 edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, Tachyon, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-892391-50-6

Although novel length fantasy has for many years been dominated by a few themes and plots, shorter fantasies have always been more varied.  There has been some movement during the past couple of years to break up the domination of quasi-medieval adventures and imitations of Tolkien and Howard, with urban fantasy emerging as almost a sub-genre of its own.  You won't find much traditional fantasy in this collection of the best shorts from 2006, although in some cases there may be superficial resemblances.  The editors have looked at a wide range of sources to find their selections, including internet publications, anthologies, magazines, original stories in single author collections, and elsewhere. 

Gene Wolfe opens with a wry story about a very unusual teddy bear.  Charles Stross continues the contemporary trend with the very good "Pimpf", which mixes supernatural with the gaming world.  Peter S. Beagle adds four short fables with pointed teeth.  "The Potter's Daughter" by Martha Wells is more mainstream fantasy, featuring a protagonist who is half fairy, but the story isn't about magic or fairies as much as it is about knowing oneself and accepting the limitations of affection.  Howard Waldrop always writes as though he was sitting in an alternate world and just describing it rather than creating it, and "Thin, on the Ground", accomplishes the same results, a mildly dark adventure story set in Mexico, sort of.

"Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" by Geoff Ryman impressed me when I first read it some months ago.  It is one of the most emotionally powerful stories I've read in a long time.  Good stories follow by Greg Van Eekhout, Gavin Grant (a ghost story), and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, with one of the moody, low key fantasies that she has been doing so well and so often that I'm amazed she hasn't had at least a couple of short story collections published during the past few years.  Diana Wynne Jones has a cute piece about kids and the power of words.  Gene Wolfe's second contribution, "Bea and Her Bird Brother" is the better of the two, the story of a woman who has to accept that magic is real and, in her case, very personal.

Ian R. MacLeod's "The Bonny Boy" is probably one of my two favorites in the collection, a thoughtful story set in an alternate Victiorian England.  L.E. Modesitt Jr. writes a story peripherally related to his trilogy of novels set in an alternate world where North America is balkanized and a king of physical manifestation of ghosts is possible.  M. Rickert's "The Christmas Witch" is the second of my favorites, a contemporary story of the supernatural that reminded me at times of the best of early Ray Bradbury.  Rickert is a writer poised to become a major name and perhaps to transcend genre.  Michael Moorcock adds another quirky story of the Multiverse, with some of the trappings of sword and sorcery, but an entirely different texture.  Robert Reed's "Show Me Yours" reverts to a more contemporary setting and deals with magical revenge.

I've never read a Lucius Shepard story I didn't like, and "The Lepidopterist" did not break the string.  It's one of his Central American stories, subtle and intricate, with a setting so vivid it's a slight jolt when the story ends and you find yourself back in the mundane world.  Sharon Shinn's story is the closest to mainstream fantasy in the book, but if you've read Shinn before, you'll know that she isn't going to do the ordinary with even the most ordinary tools.  My third favorite in the book is the vaguely Lovecraftian "Hallucigenia" by Laird Barron, whose previous three or four stories have also been quite good.  The story ends with a lighter piece by Michael Swanwick, almost a fairy tale.  An exceptionally good collection overall with several stories that have a good chance of showing up on the Hugo and Nebula ballots this year.  4/21/07

King's Property by Morgan Howell, Del Rey, 8/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-49650-8

Despite the publicity release describing Morgan Howell as a first time author, the name appears to be the pseudonym of Will Hubbell, who published a couple of science fiction novels under his own name.  This is the first volume of a mildly Tolkien derived trilogy, filled with orcs and magic and associated plot elements, but with a quite different perspective.  Dar is a young woman who falls prey to her own family's treachery and becomes a slave in the army of King Kregant, who plots the conquest of a neighboring realm.  She is given to a company of orcs, but she refuses to be cowed by their brutal nature or frightful appearance.  Slowly she gains acceptance and even influence among them, and it's obvious long before the first volume ends that she is destined to achieve an even greater status in the volumes to come.  The series title alone suggests what is in store for her.  Dar's feisty character is the biggest asset of this otherwise standard sword and sorcery adventure with military overtones.  The author uses the kind of artificially proper dialogue that is common in fantasies like this, and which I find unnecessary and artificial, but it's not so heavy handed that you're likely to notice it very often.

A possibly interesting sidelight.  Based on the information on the copyright page, this book was originally supposed to have been called Queen's Shadow and the next in the series, Clan Daughter, was to have been Queen's Mark.  Apparently all three volumes were retitled somewhere late in the process. 4/20/07

The Heart of Stars by Kate Forsyth, Roc, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46144-5

The latest fantasy from Kate Forsyth is the third in her Rhiannon's Ride series, following The Tower of Ravens and The Shining City. Old animosities complicate what might otherwise have been just a routine story of rescuing the princess, or in this case the prince and princess.  Those two worthies have been abducted by an evil sorcerer as part of his plot to undermine the current ruler and establish his own family as the new rulers.  The protagonist is a semi-human female warrior, Rhiannon, who rides a winged horse and brooks no opposition.  Rhiannon's emotions and her sense of duty come into conflict this time because the princess is also her rival for the attention of the man they mutually admire and this is obviously an easy way to eliminate the opposition, particularly an opposition which has in the past shown no inclination to fight fairly.  But, as if we had any doubt, her obligations to the people and her dislike of the sorcerer sway her in the right direction.

The adventure is lively and dresses up familiar plot devices with fresh clothing.  Nothing out of the ordinary but certainly as well written enough for genre readers.  Some of the dialogue is written in a dialect that I found distracting but it wasn't a big problem.  The protagonist is well drawn although oddly I found her rival, Princess Olwynne, more interesting.  Some nice imagery, particularly during the early sequence when the court begins to respond to the outrage.  Forsyth is a solid, reliable stalwart of the field, although she has yet to produce anything close to a breakout novel.  4/18/07

Water Logic by Laurie J. Marks, Small Beer Press, 6/07, $16, ISBN 978-1-931520-23-2

There's been a considerable gap and a change of publisher since the second volume of the Elemental Logic series appeared, but it's here at last and the structure of the series is such that you won't have any difficulty picking up the thread of what's been happening.  The people of Shaftal were invaded and essentially conquered, but they've overthrown the invaders and cut them off from home, leading to a divisive situation in which the survivors must somehow be integrated into the society that they once dominated.  As the new government attempts to work out a fair, workable peace and development plan, other issues arise to interfere with their efforts.  Zanja, one of the new leaders of Shaftal, finds herself involved with a mystery involving a magical book and the origins of the citizens of both nations.  To resolve the problem, she must travel into parts of her own country which seem strange to her, deal with an idiosyncratic witch, discover the truth about a prominent military leader, and deal with several other problems.  One of the reasons I enjoy Marks' series is that, despite some superficial similarity to standard fantasy worlds, Shaftal has a distinct feel of its own, and the underlying magical theme - based on the elementals - gives it another interesting twist.  In a feel dominated with cloned books, it's always pleasant to encounter some originality. 4/15/07

A Distant Magic by Mary Jo Putney, Del Rey, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-345-47691-3

The borderline between fantasy romance and romantic fantasy has essentially ceased to exist, or if it's still there, it's moving back and forth constantly.  This new title could fall into either category although the author is more usually associated with the romance end of the spectrum.  The general background is similar to the one Irene Radford used in her Guardians series, and in fact the family of magical protectors in this one are referred to as the Guardians as well.  The protagonist, a young woman, is similarly gifted with magical powers, but hers are unreliable, inconsistent, and she avoids recourse to them unless there is not other alternative.  While visiting continental Europe, she meets a handsome sea captain who subsequently abducts her, citing an incident in his youth when her father and brother abandoned him to pirates.  Having nursed his resentment for years, he plans to make use of her as the instrument of his revenge by selling her into slavery.  But beneath that rough exterior lies a gentler heart, particularly when he begins to feel affection for her.  This actually feels more like an historical adventure story with a strong romantic element than a fantasy, and it does avoid the excesses that make some romance fiction overly sentimental.  The author also seems to have a good feel for the setting of her story, both in time and space.  4/12/07

The Summoning by Lynne Ewing, Hyperion, 2007, $9.99, ISBN 978-142310342-4

Lynne Ewing has previously done two short, contemporary fantasy series for young readers.  This is the opening volume of the third, Sisters of Isis, and it promises to be better than its predecessors.  The title refers to three teenaged girls living in Washington, D.C., who discover one day that they are not just ordinary teens.  A mysterious encounter reveals that the three of them are actually descendants of the ancient pharoahs of Egypt and that their heritage includes some magical powers that they were unaware of possessing.  Abdel, who reveals all of this, is there to help them realize their potential.  Predictably the central figure, Sudi, is skeptical of the whole thing, but events soon transpire to convince her of their reality.  A demon possesses her boyfriend, and is using him as the means by which to strike at the threesome, arch enemies of evil.  There's a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Charmed, but Ewing has her own take on the supernatural and no doubt has more surprises waiting for us in subsequent volumes.  This is lightweight, obviously, but it held my interest. 4/12/07

The Mathematics of Magic by L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt, NESFA, 2007, $26, ISBN 978-1-886778-65-8

The first two novels in the Harold Shea series, The Incomplete Enchanter and The Castle of Iron, were among the very first adult fantasy novels I ever read, and I never understood why Pyramid failed to publish the third volume, Wall of Serpents, which I didn't get to read until almost twenty years later.  All three of those novels are included here, although technically speaking only Castle is an actual novel.  The other two consist of two novellas each, and de Camp added two short stories by himself during the 1990s, both of which appeared in original fantasy anthologies.  Although the quality varies a bit from one story to the next - and "The Wall of Serpents" is a bit disappointing overall - these are still among my favorite fantasies.

The premise is that it is possible through abstruse mathematics to actually transport oneself into another world.  And not just any other world, but one of the traveler's choosing from among a selection of infinite worlds.  That means that if you want to visit a reality where Norse mythology is true, you can do so, or enter the world of The Faerie Queen or Orland Furioso or any other place you can imagine.  These were good humored, inventive, adventurous fantasies in the style we now link to Unknown, the shortlived but legendary fantasy magazine of the 1940s, which is where several of these tales first appeared. It's a device that Jasper Fforde has revived in his own work, which is many ways much more sophisticated than these early stories, but as enjoyable as they are, for me they lack the simple charm that de Camp and Pratt managed to evoke. 

There is some additional material including a reminiscence by de Camp, an introduction by Christopher Stasheff, an article by Jerry Pournelle, and a bibliography.  As with all NESFA publications it's handsomely packaged and, at the price, one of the smartest things you can do with your money. 4/11/07

The Wanderer's Tale by David Bilsborough, Tor, 7/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1867-1

I suspect that one of the reasons Tolkienesque fantasy remains popular is that readers enjoy being able to tell easily who is on the side of good and who is aligned with evil.  When a dark lord sits in his castle raising an army of deformed creatures to carry out his bidding, it's a pretty good bet that he's not a nice but misunderstood guy. There are only a few writers who can carry this off without stumbling, although there have been a few like Stephen R. Donaldson who have managed to produce quite substantial stories in the same tradition.  Too often the imitators churn out armies of orcs and magical duels but without evoking any of the real magical potential of such scenes.  And unfortunately, new writers who attempt such an ambitious project are almost inevitably going to be compared to Tolkien, and come out on the short end of the comparison.

A case in point is this first novel, volume one of the Annals of Lindormyn.  Centuries before the present story gets underway, the Peladanes (good guys) stormed the castle of Drauglir (the bad guy) and his supernatural minions, defeating them and destroying the chief villain.  Supposedly.  Something has begun to stir again.  Bizarre and nasty creatures have been seen prowling around for the first time in centuries.  Mysterious events are transpiring in the mountains.  Has ancient evil been somehow reborn and will the Peladanes have to fight a new war to preserve their freedom?  You betcha.  As you might guess from the title, most of the opening volume focuses on a single person traveling through this increasingly threatened landscape, introducing us to the peoples, places, and customs of Bilsborough's imagined world.  Most of this is well told, though very derivative.  If Tolkien had never written fantasy, this would be a very impressive work.  As it stands, it's a pretty good story, pretty well done, and certainly interesting enough for me to read more in the series when they're available.  But as I continue to read good imitations of Tolkien, I keep wondering if it would have been better if these authors were less directly influenced by a single tradition and more inclined to explore their own imagination.  4/11/07

Fantasy Magazine, Winter 2007, $5.95

This is the first issue I've seen of this new magazine, edited by Paul G. Tremblay and Sean Wallace, published by Wildside.  There's the usual features - interviews and book reviews - and the physical appearance and artwork are all just fine, but it's the fiction that makes or breaks magazines like this, so let's take a look at what we've got.  Almost all of the stories in this issue are by names unfamiliar to me.  The lead story is "Bear Lake" by Margaret Ronald.  It's one of those stories that is based on a single image or concept, examines it, perhaps draws a conclusion or makes a statement because of it, but doesn't actually reach a conclusion.  When done well, as in "The Drowned Giant" by J.G. Ballard, the results can be excellent.  When done poorly, the reader is left wondering what the author was trying to say.  "Bear Lake" lies somewhere between the two extremes, an intriguing concept - the protagonist is a walking dead man involved in staving off a flood - written well but with an inconclusive ending that felt as though a scene was missing.

"The Dead Girl's Wedding March" by Cat Rambo also involves a kind of zombie, but it has more of a fairy tale quality.  Zuleika is one of the many dead living in a magically interred city beneath a seaport.  A marriage proposal from a rat has momentous results.  There's another talking animals, a crow, in Leslie Claire Walker's "The Truth According to Margot Williams", the story of a woman facing Alzheimer's and determined to die with her mind intact.  Very good early on but this one strayed a bit too far toward sentimentality for my taste.  "Such a Lovely Shade of Green" by Samantha Henderson also involves animals, insects actually.  It's a bit of wish fulfillment fantasy about an abusive husband who tracks down his daughter and gets his just desserts.  Not badly written, but you could see the ending coming a long way off, and the villain is so stereotypical that he wasn't real enough for me to enjoy his comeuppance.

"The Words the Rain Wrote" by January Mortimer has some clever content.  The setting is an alternate version of our world where it is possible to get addicted to Faerie.  Nicely done up until the low key and inconclusive ending.  "A Garden in Hell" by Richard Parks is one of the two best stories in the issue, a philosophical debate of sorts between a soul in Hell and a demon.  Perhaps a bit long for its content, but up to the author's usual standards.  Leah Bobet's "Furnace Room Lullaby" is an interesting quasi-ghost story and quite good as well.  Amber Van Dyk's "Disquiet" and Alaya Dawn Johnson's "Among Their Bright Eyes" both do a very good job of evoking a mood, but again I felt as though the stories were truncated rather than concluded.  The prose in Erzebet Yellowboy's "At the Core" was the most impressive, and he also had one of the strongest plots.

My overall impression is that, based on this issue anyway, the magazine takes itself a bit too seriously.  The stories all tend toward the literary side and none of them have a particularly strong plot.  Neither is there much variety in theme or literary style.  If it happens to be the kind of voice you like to listen to, there's quite a bit here, but if you prefer more variation in your literary meals, you might be disappointed.  There is a tendency in modern fantasy fiction (including SF and horror) to concentrate so completely on prose and sophisticated literary values that sometimes writers forget that their first obligation is to tell a good story.  Either I've become an old fogey and have fallen completely out of step or most of the stories here, while technically excellent, fall short as entertainment.  4/11/07

The Man with the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green, Roc, 6/07, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46145-2 

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no one who’s consistently more entertaining writing that subset of contemporary fantasy that involves the wizards and creatures secretly living among us than Simon R. Green.  I’ve enjoyed all of the books in the Nightside series and this new novel, which I suspect may be the first in another sequence, is even better, with its blend of humor and high adventure.  The Droods are a family of magically empowered individuals whose secret duty is to guard you and I from the things that go thump in the night, or conjure in their basements, or whatever. But Eddie Drood – a nod to Charles Dickens – isn’t your everyday sorcerer or clandestine warrior.  And when he’s nearly killed by a demonic dog that no one bothered to tell him about, he’s understandably annoyed. 

His day is going to get rapidly worse.  First he learns that unprecedented, mysterious, and powerful attacks have been directed against the Droods recently. Second, his ongoing low level feud with other members of the family seems to be getting more serious, in part because of his unwillingness to conform to their usual standards of behavior.  Then he’s dispatched on a mission to Stonehenge that turns out to be more dangerous than expected, with hellhounds on his trail, and in the middle of it he discovers that his own family is determined to kill him. 4/7/07

Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin, Ace, 6/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01505-4 

Whenever I see a first novel by a new fantasy writer, I always wonder if this is going to be someone who is going to do something entirely new with the genre.  Usually I’m disappointed.  Once I realize that it’s going to be another variation of a familiar story, I wonder if this is going to be someone who can make the familiar seem fresh either by adding unusual twists, sparkling writing, or some other quality.  Usually I’m disappointed.  But not always.  This is one of the latter, a story that has a great deal of the feel of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, which is definitely a compliment. 

The chief protagonist is Raine Benares, a sorceress rather than a thief, although she comes from a family tradition of thievery and her powers often amount to little more than parlor tricks.  But she has a friend named Quentin Rand who IS a thief, a man with more skill than judgment.  He decides to steal a magical artifact from a local necromancer, a man with considerable more power than Raine, and succeeds, but only after a fashion.  The sorcerer and a great many other interested persons are interested in repossessing the amulet, which is the source of immense magical power.  So Quentin turns to Raine for help in evading his pursuers, and that means they’re both on the run, aided at times by a young Elf spellsinger, chased by various enemies including a gaggle of goblins.  And the longer Raine stays in proximity to the amulet, the more her own powers are increasing, and without training or time to reflect, she fears she may be losing control.  Nicely done throughout.  I actively enjoyed the characters and their banter, and although there’s nothing to indicate that this is the first in a series, I’d be very surprised if Raine isn’t back for a new adventure a few months from now.  I’ll be looking forward to visiting her again. 4/6/07

The Traitor King by Todd Mitchell, Scholastic, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-82788-1

Darren and Jackie Mananann are part of a fairly extensive family whose magical secrets they are just beginning to guess.  When one of their uncles disappears mysteriously, they decide to investigate themselves, using information acquired in part from an equally mysterious woman, Gertrude.  Almost by accident they find themselves in an alternate world where magic works, greeted by an impatient brownie who acts as their temporary tour guide.  There they find themselves caught up in preparations for a magic war which only they may have the power to stop.  Although the plot of this one resembles a good many adult novels, this one is definitely for younger readers.  The simplified prose and story line just don’t have enough weight to hold a more sophisticated reader’s interest, unlike other young adult fiction like the Harry Potter books or the work of Diana Wynne Jones.  It should be fine for the age group toward which its directed.

Whiskey and Water by Elizabeth Bear, 7/07, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46149-0

The second novel of the Promethean Age resumes Matthew's story after a gap of seven years.  Although his first adventure, Blood and Iron, ended with most of the people he valued either dying or proving themselves to be villains.  The foremost of the latter is Jane Andraste, who sought to destroy the land of Faerie despite her daughter's partial fey heritage.  Matthew has returned to our world where he endeavors to guard the city of New York from the darker side of magic and magical beings, although he is in many ways a broken man, worn out by his experiences and losses.  Jane, however, has resumed her ambitious plans, and this time there may not be a power great enough to stop her.  Their struggle becomes complicated, at least from Matthew's point of view, when he is framed for a murder he didn't commit and pursued by police who are convinced he is guilty.  Bear's magical creation is more complex than the usual story of the interface between our world and the land of Faery.  There are angels as well, and a kelpie stallion, and mysterious primal forces.  A rather large cast of characters people this exotic landscape, and the narrative is so replete with detail that readers should be prepared not to let their attention wander, because they might well get lost.  There's a lot going on, some of it subtle, some of it not.  I prefer contemporary fantasy to most other forms, but I am usually put off by stories in which fairies and humans interact, but Bear brings a whole new level of detail to the subject and her magical creatures are an interesting mix of familiar and unfamiliar traits.

Retribution by Steven Savile, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-293-2

Savile brings his Von Carstein trilogy to a close with this blend of sword and sorcery and horror.  The armies of civilization have managed to destroy two of the vampire lords, but the greatest of them all is still at work, Mannfred von Karstein.  He has raised an army of the undead with which to attack his enemies who, already wearied from fighting the rest of his kind, seem incapable of resisting yet another wave of almost invulnerable enemies.  As humans and dwarves seek to rally their forces, von Karstein moves to crush them.  What ensues is a series of skirmishes, pitched battles, chases, encounters, escapes, and so forth, with more brutal violence than you can shake a stick at, although it has a comic book style unreality that robs it of some of its bite - no pun intended.  This particular trilogy reminded me of the Ravenloft books that TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) published a few years back, the kind of story that puts the "dark" in "dark fantasy".

Blade of Fire by Stuart Hill, Scholastic, 2007, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-439-84122-1

This is the second in the Icemark Chronicles, the first of which - The Cry of the Icemark - I haven't seen.  The setting is a typical fantasy world, a beleaguered realm whose queen fears that the intermittent war with an external empire - very obviously patterned after Rome - will finally conquer her people. When the latest attack threatens to overwhelm her forces, she resorts to the mystical powers of certain children as well as an alliance with the Vampire Queen and, after extensive adventures, reversals, surprises, and battles, the allies eventually defeat the invaders and capture their leader.  At times the novel reads more like an historical adventure than a fantasy, but that's not surprisingly given the patterning of the various cultures on ones from our own history.  It's quite long for a young adult novel as well, perhaps an indirect legacy of the Harry Potter books.  What does surprise me somewhat is the bloodthirstiness of the story which involves an unusually large number of violent deaths, including the arbitrary and brutal murder of the captured enemy general by the supposedly benevolent queen, who refuses to grant him a fair trial.  I'm not sure I'd want to live in a land ruled by any of the major characters.  The jumps back and forth between the older and younger characters are sometimes jarring as well and the tone is generally more that of an adult novel.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey, Scholastic, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-439-67244-3 

The fairly striking cover on this one is designed to fit with the artwork on the two sequels, but it’s really not appropriate for the opening volume of this trilogy, originally published in the United Kingdom.  Readers expecting another Eragon are going to be surprised.  When David moves in with the Pennykettles, he is captivated by young Lucy’s collection of clay models, which can become animate under certain circumstances.  This is the beginning of his connection to the world of dragons, which will become much more dramatic in subsequent volumes, although in the first he only has to solve a relatively low key mystery.  Which doesn’t mean this isn’t enjoyable, although a bit under-written for mature audiences.  The author does more to deepen his characters than is usually the case in novels – particularly fantasy novels – aimed at younger teen readers, and there is considerable refinement and complexity to the plot.  It’s very light reading and goes quickly, but it should leave pleasant memories behind it.

The Cobra King of Kathmandu by P.B. Kerr, Orchard, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-670234

I would love to find the equivalent of young adult SF like Winston juveniles or the YA novels of early Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, but alas, there is very little of it published these days.  The amount of YA and young reader fantasy is, however, overwhelming and quite a bit of it - like Philip Pullman, J.R. Rowling, and Diana Wynne Jones to name a few - has an obvious large audience among adult readers as well.  Part of this is the appeal of fairy tales to all ages, of course, but part also reflects the shift in adult fantastic literature from SF to fantasy.  P.B. Kerr is also Philip Kerr, who has written at least two good thrillers, one of them clearly SF, but he writes in a very different voice in this series - Children of the Lamp - of which this is the third.  The two protagonists are twins and teens, but they are also descended from djinn or genies and as they reach adolescence, they begin to experience unusual powers.  In their first two outings, they learned something about their history and the nature of the djinn, as well as meeting the ghost of an ancient Egyptian ruler and solved the mystery of a missing book of magical spells.  This time the Gaunt twins are on a wild world tour to solve another mystery.

Another djinn, Dybbuk, needs their help to discover who poisoned a friend of his and they agree to help, but find themselves in hot water pretty quickly.  They have trespassed on the domain of a cult of assassins, and now they're likely to become the next target for elimination. They are eventually captured by their enemies and must use all their wits to escape.  This is a pretty light adventure story overall, and despite the violence, there's considerable humor as well.  The prose is great, not condescending at all, and Kerr keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace.  Nicely packaged as well, this book - and its predecessors - are as good as most recent adult fantasy.

Warrior Angel by Margaret Weis & Lizz Weis, Avon, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-083325-1

Margaret Weis, collaborating with her daughter, moves from high fantasy to paranormal romance with this, which is apparently intended to be the first in a series.  The protagonist is an angel who has dedicated his life -- make that his afterlife -- to fighting the forces of evil.  He is dispatched to Earth when a number of fallen angels begin operating there, specifically intending to protect a young woman from the advances of a charming man, who is actually one of the fallen.  Not surprisingly, given the genre, they fall in love, although I'm not sure just how that would work given their respective natures. 

There are some good things to be said about the book.  There aren't any of the usual artificial, formulaic sex scenes.  In fact, there's not much sex at all.  There is also a welcome absence of vampires, shapechangers, and the other spear carriers of modern urban fantasy.  Unfortunately, there is also a curious lack of action during the opening chapters that might have been tolerable if the characters had been more appealing or the prose scintillating.  Since neither was the case, I had to plod onward from a sense of duty rather than enjoyment, and although things picked up eventually, the prose seems to get rougher as the book progresses.  This was not my favorite book this week.

Changeling by Yasmine Galenorn, Berkley, 6/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-21629-3

This is the second in a series that obviously owes a great deal to the television series, Charmed, since it involves three sisters, each with her own supernatural powers.  They were introduced in Witchling and their debut was a pretty good one.  They fall into the category of paranormal romance, although the romantic element is comparatively slight and the paranormal is central.  One of the sisters is a witch, one a vampire, and one a shapechanger.  Each has a flaw as well; the witch's spells aren't always reliable, the vampire is just getting used to her new way of...er, um...life, and the shapeshifter isn't always in control of her talent.   It's the shapechanging that's the focus this time, because someone has been murdering the members of one such tribe, probably a demon or similar being commissioned by a rival clan.  That should have been straightforward work for the sisters to solve, but unfortunately nothing is ever as easy as it appears, at least not in novels of the paranormal.

Eventually the sisters unravel a rather complicated political struggle.  One of the chief demons, Shadow Wing, has subverted some of those supposedly loyal to his enemies, and he also commands at least some loyalty from the rival clan.  There's some rescuing to be done, a mystery to be solved, a villain to be foiled, and much more.  Although there are some pretty horrible things happening at the book, the tone is much lighter and there are even touches of humor to relieve the tension.  This is definitely at the fantasy end of the fantasy-horror spectrum, because there is very little semblance between the world Galenorn has created and the one we presently live in, which doesn't mean to say that she doesn't make it feel real while we're immersed in it.  I wasn't too impressed with the villain and this one, but I liked the characters just as in their first (and slightly better) book, and I'll be looking forward to the next one, Darkling, due out later this year.

Depths of Madness by Erik Scott de Bie, Wizards of the Coast, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4314-2

De Bie, whose first novel Ghostwalker was an okay sword & sorcery adventure, kicks off a new subset o the Forgotten Realms shared universe with this, the first of the "Dungeons" series, with at least three to follow, all by different authors.  The common theme, as you might expect, is dungeons and de Bie creates an interesting one as his setting.  The primary character is Twilight, a talented thief, who finds herself in a mysterious dungeon with six strangers, none of whom know one another, including a sorcerer, a demon worshipper, a swordsman, and so forth.  They quickly discover that the troll who guards them isn't the only bar to freedom; the dungeon itself seems alive, with passages and doorways changing to thwart their attempts to escape.  The fact that none of them seems to like any of the other members of the party doesn't help either.

I suspect that there are a lot of in-group references in this novel, which obviously draws heavily on Dungeons & Dragons, but paradoxically, by concentrating on the very circumscribed world of the dungeon and ignoring all of the political and social detail of the bulk of the Forgotten Realms novels, this actually has a considerably different feel and is more like mainstream sword & sorcery, what little of it still exists.  There's also some pretty heavy violence and bloodthirstiness, which occasionally clashes with the light humor.  It's considerably better than I expected and should draw an appreciative audience from outside the normal Wizards readership.

Sacrifice of the Widow by Lisa Smedman, Wizards of the Coast, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4250-3

Forge of the Mindslayers by Tim Waggoner, Wizards of the Coast, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4313-5

Although Wizards of the Coast occasionally published novels that weren't game related when they were still TSR, they seem to have abandoned that tactic completely.  The first of these two titles is part of the Forgotten Realms series, by far their largest subset, of which this is in turn a subset, the Lady Penitent trilogy, with all three volumes written by Lisa Smedman.  Most of the author's previous work has been tie-ins as well, but she's one of the more reliable and entertaining of those specializing in such things.  The opening volume of this trilogy has a slightly different feel than most of the related novels I've read and at times is quite well plotted, but the author overwhelms her story by introducing too many different characters too quickly, most of them with unpronounceable names, a device I find very irritating.  People would not have names that were difficult to say, would they?  So why introduce odd characters and spelling like Qilue and Q'arlynd and Iljrene?   The plot involves a female warrior who abandoned her faith in a kind of demon goddess and enlisted among the forces that oppose her, but only to discover that her former deity has evolved into a super-god, capable of enslaving her and turning her against her friends.  I'm a bit ambivalent about the book, because there were times when I was drawn into the story, but there were other times when it just didn't gell.

The Eberron series, based on another game system, has been added to the Wizards of the Coast book line comparatively recently.  Tim Waggoner, author of some very good horror novels and a few other fantasies adds here his second adventure of Diran, an assassin who repudiated his former life to become a wandering priest, and subsequently encounters and overcomes a variety of magical enemies.  Diran was introduced in  Thieves of Blood, one of the best of the Eberron titles, and returns this time to battle another foe.  Diran travels about with a group of friends, and his travels bring him to encounter with Asenka, a female warrior that reminded me a bit of Red Sonja.   The travelers learn that someone has found an ancient magical artifact and is going to use it to raise an army.  Diran may have given up his job as assassin, but he hasn't forsworn violence when it's called for, and he and his friends engage in predictable but entertaining steps to put down the menace.  Diran is a kind of gentler, more thoughtful, but nonetheless formidable version of Conan and I look forward to his next adventure, Sea of Death - alas, not scheduled to appear until early next year.

Forbidden City by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-62123-1

Annja Creed is the protagonist of the Rogue Angel adventure series of which is the fifth.  Alex Archer is a house pseudonym used so far by Mel Odom and Victor Milan, with Odom writing this present volume.  Annja is investigating a legend surrounding a site connected to the Chinese railroad workers in California when one of her co-workers attacks her, killing three other people in the process, and leaving her in possession of a belt that is connected to an ancient curse.  Meanwhile in China a young woman named Kelly Swan, a formidable martial artist, discovers that her father has been murdered and that her own life is in danger.  Eventually Creed and her mentor are in Shanghai and the two link up to battle off a small army of enemies, solve the mystery, and save the day.  Swan turns out to be a professional assassin recruited by the CIA.  Annja still has a bit of an edge; she found the sword of Joan of Arc back in volume one, a mystical weapon that appears in her hand only when she needs it, and she needs it a lot.  This is essentially a men's adventure series, but it's much more inventive and interesting than the other franchises Gold Eagle has been publishing for years.  Whether it can continue to be as fresh and interesting in the future remains to be seen, but Creed is relatively interesting character, and the low key rendition of Indiana Jones style adventure has so far proven to be very entertaining.

The Great White Wyrm by Peter Archer, Wizards of the Coast, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-4260-2

Over the years, the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms shared universes of TSR, now Wizards of the Coast, have evolved, but only slightly, filling in details of their imaginary worlds and constructing an elaborate history but not making much effort to evolve the kind of stories set within them.  In general they're somewhere between Tolkien and Howard, not as cute or literary as the former, usually not as brash or exciting as the latter.  A few of the authors working in this milieu have gone on to bigger and better things; most have not.  Archer, whose previously work has been confined to a collaboration, has taken on a rather ambitious project here, a fantastical transformation of the story of Moby Dick, although instead of a white whale it's a white dragon.

Ayshe is the only dwarf living in a human community.  Like his neighbors he is appalled, frightened, and mystified when a flying white dragon attacks their village.  Human strangers arrive shortly thereafter, and it is obvious that they know more than they are saying about the attack.  A short time later, Ayshe finds himself serving aboard a ship crewed by elves, and a long string of adventures ensues, leading inevitably to their confrontation with the white dragon. Given its inspiration, the story that unfolds is appealing and occasionally inventive, but I was impatient for the final confrontation a good way before the author managed to get his characters there.  I've never really understood why authors people their books with elves, fairies, dwarves, and such if they portray them as essentially human beings.  Why not just make them human beings?  Anyway, this was satisfying enough that I'll read Archer's next, but not so much that I'd suggest you run out and buy a copy.

Pirates of the Purple Dawn by Tony Abbott, Scholastic, 2007, $3.99, ISBN 978-0-439-90250-2

Ferno the Fire Dragon by Adam Blade, Scholastic, 2007, $4.99, ISBN 978-0-439-90651-2

Sepron the Sea Serpent by Adam Blade, Scholastic, 2007, $4.99, ISBN 978-0-439-90654-8

I have a big stack of young adult titles sitting on my desk, most of them short enough - like these - to be read in about half an hour.  The first of these has a nifty title and cover and is part of a series that I've seen a few of previously.  I've lost track but this must be around number thirty.  A pair of villainous pirates join forces and kidnap a princess who knows the location of a precious jewel.  Her friends have to mount a rescue before she is forced to tell them.  The story sounds like a good one, but this is written down to such a low reading level that it really doesn't have much appeal to an adult reader.

The other two titles are the first in another new series, Beast Quest, this one set in a kingdom where all of the creatures of legend have somehow been brought to life to devastate the countryside.  "Adam Blade" is, I believe, a house pseudonym for Stephen Cole and Cherith Baldry respectively.  Each book in the series apparently will feature a quest involving some kind of mythical beast, not limited to dragons based on the titles of the third and fourth.  In each of these, one or more youths are pivotal in the struggle against a dangerous creature.  In the first (Ferno is presumably a reference to Inferno) we are introduced to Tom, who sets off on a quest to defeat a fire breathing dragon.  In the second, which I thought was considerably better written, Tom and his friend have to deal with a giant sea serpent that begins raiding along the shore.  None of these will have much appeal for older audiences, but they seem likely to be successful with their target group.

Behold the Eyes of Light by Geoff Geauterre, Twilight Times, 2004, $16.95, ISBN 1-933353-26-0

Cynnador by Patrick Welch, Twilight Times, 2003, $16.95, ISBN 1-933353-76-7

These are two more older titles recently sent me by this small press publisher.  Both of these are fantasies, and it takes considerably more to get me excited about magical quests, stolen thrones, and the like than it does most other story lines.  Both of these looked interesting because they seem to vary considerably from mainstream fantasy and, frankly, they were short and I'd just finished a fairly length and rather dry non-fiction book, so these seemed like they might be a pleasant contrast.  Geauterre quickly accumulated two admittedly arbitrary strikes against him.  For one thing, he mixed mystical fantasy with interplanetary travel, a blend I always have difficulty absorbing.  Second, his protagonist is a feline humanoid, which I overdosed on some time back despite several fine novels using that premise including those by C.J. Cherryh and S. Andrew Swann.  The protagonist reaches a mystical plane where she is taken under the wing of an elder race, and with their help she survives encounters with a wide variety of mythological creatures from human legends, which also jarred a bit. It was well enough written that I finished it, but I often found my attention wandering.

The second title was more predictable and less engaging, although Welch has done a good job of creating a fabulous city and peopling it with interesting characters.  There is an overlap with science fiction here as well.  Unfortunately, there were too many characters and a bit too much going on for such a short book, and I felt rushed at times, confused at times, and dissatisfied at times.

Dungeon: A Dungeon Too Many by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, & Manu Larcenet, NBM, 2007, $9.95, ISBN 978-1-56163-495-8

NBM continues this series of graphic novels, originally published in French, which revolve around a small set of comical characters.  There are two separate stories here, whose main characters include a dragon who won't eat meat and and his best friend, a duck.  In the first, a student visits an immense dungeon, not a medieval torture chamber but a kind of magical amusement park for its clients, where each is matched to an appropriate quest.  The dungeon challenges our hero's livelihood and humorous mayhem follows.  The second and shorter piece involves a magic lamp with a single wish.  Both stories are vividly drawn and colored, some of the best graphic novel art I've ever seen, fully up to the standard set by the earlier volumes.   This is part of a series that appears about every six months, and they're pretty much my favorite series from this publisher.

Seraphs by Faith Hunter, Roc, 5/07, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-46147-6

The sequel to Bloodring continues the adventures of Thorn St. Croix, a woman living in a post-apocalyptic world, but it's a metaphysical rather than nuclear apocalypse.  There has been another ice age and in the aftermath, old magic has returned to the world, displacing technology, and bringing with it demons, fallen angels, magic, and semi-barbaric mayhem.  Thorn has a close group of friends, but they may be of little use to her in her second adventure, which involves a quest to rescue a fallen angel imprisoned by the minions of hell.  It looks like a straightforward mission, but it is actually an elaborate trap and it is Thorn who is the target of the operation. There were a couple of occasions where I had trouble following what was going on, primarily because I had some minor trouble differentiating among some of the characters.  The setting and story more than make up for any shortcomings.  Hunter has created an interesting variation of Christian mythology and her protagonist has some original tweaks.  Sword and sorcery with enough new twists to excite even the most jaded reader.

Coyote Dreams by C.E. Murphy, Luna, 5/07, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-373-80272-2

Fantasy fans should not be ignoring the Harlequin line of fantastic romances published under the Luna imprint.  For one thing, several well known fantasy writers have contributed titles, like Mercedes Lackey, Judith Tarr, and Catherine Asaro.  Additionally, writers more generally associated with romance fiction have contributed several novels that would not be out of place in the fantasy lines of other publishers, a few of them quite good ones.  One of the latter is C.E. Murphy, whose Walkers Papers series - this is the third - are urban fantasies with a strong female protagonist, a police officer who also has a talent for the magical.  She has already saved the world in a previous adventure, but this time her goal is a more modest one.  Other members of the police form have been falling into a kind of magical sleep, and the number of the afflicted is growing quickly. 

Walker has problems of her own.  Her usual connection to the spirit world doesn't seem to be working and she's been experiencing strange and disturbing dreams.  There's also the matter of her handsome boss, to whom she is increasingly drawn.  There are demonic forces at work, obviously, but just which ones and what is their ultimate purpose?  You'll have to read the book to find out.  This might be in the romance section of your bookstore, but it's a fast moving, pleasantly straightforward urban fantasy

Daughter of Independence by Simon Brown, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0430-7

Volume three of the Chronicles of Kydan.  There's a slightly different feel to this series despite the standard fantasy setting.  The land of Kydan is a comparatively recent settlement which is slowly building a commercial and political infrastructure and emerging as a significant national entity in a world dominated by powerful empires.  The leaders of Kydan are particularly concerned about the growing avariciousness of the Hamilayan Empire, whose repressive ruler uses sorcery to secure her reign, and might be considering turning her attention to the independent realm across the sea.  The evil empress is a bit of a caricature, but the other characters are well drawn and there's certainly no dearth of conflict.  An odd blend of political thriller and sword and sorcery.

The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers, Del Rey, 5/07, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49319-4

First novels have a unique kind of suspense to them; will this be just another midlist writer, something so awful that it's painful to read, or someone whose next book I'll be watching for.  You can't always tell by the subject matter because some of my favorite writers had first novels that might ordinarily not have appealed to me at all.  Repressed teenaged girl with psychic powers takes revenge on her classmates, for example, would never have led me to look forward to Stephen King's Carrie.  So I read the first few chapters of this new novel with some anxiety.  To my immense surprise and continuing pleasure, it is easily one of the best debut novels I've encountered, thoroughly gripping even though it dealt with subject matter that usually doesn't interest me.  Henry Lockrose was a promising medical student during the 19th Century who was caught in the war between Heaven and Hell and ended up as an effectively immortal minion, collected the souls of the innocent.  His efforts to gather the essence of Walter Witherspoon go awry thanks to the intervention of an apparently monstrous creature who merges with Walter, robbing Henry of his prey, and this combined new being then sets about protecting Walter's sister.  Full of original twists and turns, with a highly charged atmosphere, and crisp, intelligent prose.  This was originally published by Penguin in the UK way back in 2001 and I'm very surprised that I hadn't heard of it before now.

Harvest of Changelings by Warren Rochelle, Golden Gryphon, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-930846-46-3

I've never actually understood the interest in fairies in fantasy.  The kind that fly around and sprinkle magic dust are okay, but the ones who are simply human beings who live in an alternate dimension where they might be immortal and certainly have magic strike me as, frankly, just human beings who live in an alternate dimension with very long lives and magic.  As a consequence, I had some difficulty immersing myself in this one, even though the main focus is actually the young son of a librarian whose wife was from Faerie.  Their half blood son begins to display unusual attributes as he approaches adolescence, and his father realizes that unless he can draw upon the power of Faerie to help him, the boy will die.  The viewpoint jumps around a lot, a bit too much for my taste, and even though the prose is solid and the characters vivid, I just wasn't able to identify with their problems.

Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham, Doubleday, 6/07, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-385-50606-9

Although I haven't read any of this author's previous work, which includes two novels about the plight of minorities in 19th Century America plus an historical about Hannibal and his war against Rome, I do know that they're well regarded, and I started this - the first in a high fantasy series - with more than the usual curiosity about first authors.  Durham makes no attempt to reinvent the genre.  His setting and the basics of his plot are very familiar.  Acacia is a relatively peaceful, world spanning empire in some alternate reality, ruled over by a reasonably benevolent man who nonetheless has turned a blind eye to some of the more unsavory aspects of his realm, whose economy is based in part on the drug and slave trade.  The conflict starts when an agent of a remote people delivers a fatal wound just as a series of widespread attacks causes chaos and dissension throughout Acacia.  Dying, the ruler makes desperate arrangements to secure his four children, who will presumably be the multiple protagonists for the balance of the series as they seek to restore the throne, and perhaps address some of the tolerated sins in the process.

Although there is warfare throughout most of the novel, the battle scenes seem almost to be place markers, not inherently interesting in themselves but only as they illustrate the backdrop for the true tension, which is among the various characters, including rivalries and differences of opinion among the four Arakan children.  For obvious reasons, a variety of individuals and interest groups are determined to influence the future government of Acacia, including deciding who will sit on the throne, and the complexities and progress of that process are far too complex to summarize here.  One of the more promising facets of the novel, however, is that the issues are not as simplistic as in most similar fantasy fiction.  Durham seems to have considered the implications of each position carefully, and there are ethical issues as well as economic ones.  The novel, reasonably complete in itself, leaves numerous questions to be resolved in subsequent volumes.  The prose is first rate, clear and to the point, witty and intelligent without drawing attention to itself.  I've read quite a number of debut fantasies this year, most of which claim to be the advent of someone new and influential in the field.  This is one of the few times I've thought they were right.

The Spirit Stone by Katharine Kerr, DAW, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0433-8

Katharine Kerr has been chronicling the history of Deverry since the 1980s.  This is the second of a new subset of that world, the Silver Wyrm series, which began with The Gold Falcon, and which will be continued if not concluded in the forthcoming The Shadow Isle. In that book, we find Deverry once again under siege, both by outside forces and by pestilence from within.  The series is a variation of Celtic fantasy with a heavy infusion of Tolkienesque characters and situations.  The latest subset started off with a comparatively simple plotline but it will still be very bewildering at times if you start this novel without having read its predecessor.  In fact, I had to go back and glance through The Gold Falcon to orient myself, although the situation is straightforward enough once the story is underway.  Another war looms on the horizon and various forces are gathering, humans and dwarves and others, in preparation for what may be the final conflict, since this is supposed to be the concluding sequence in the Deverry series.  I enjoyed the characters, particularly that of Nevyn, but there seemed to be less urgency to the various conflicts than usual and I had the impression Kerr might be saving the big punch, understandably enough, for the final book in the series.  Well written fantasy adventure with moments of high tension, and the promise of more to come.

Shout for the Dead by James Barclay, Gollancz, 2007, £12.99, ISBN 0-575-07622-4

I'm not sure why James Barclay has not yet been picked up by a publisher in the US.  Although he's not going to be the next sensation like China Mieville, he's a solid center lane fantasy writer with a good grasp of political intrigue and some talent at creating characters and settings.  This is the second volume in his Ascendants of Estorea series, set in a familiar but convincingly imagined alternate world nation known as the Conquord.  In the opening volume, we were introduced to the aftermath of a great war and the installation of a new ruling clique essentially brought about by a group of teenagers.  Those characters are older now, and have started falling prey to the usual ravages of office, corruption, uncertainty, distrust, and fatigue.

Nor have their enemies simply vanished.  A powerful group still insists that they should be put to death, and there is the inevitable pressure from outside, in this case rumors that evil sorcery has made it possible to raise an army of the dead.  Against all this, we have a kidnapping, the usual political intrigues, insanity, obsession, and other tensions.  Before the battle is over, one of the characters we've been following from the outset will die and the future will become in some ways more rather than less uncertain.  You could actually enjoy this one without having read its predecessor, but Cry of the Newborn is also pretty good, and they should both be available through the UK site of Amazon if you can't find them anywhere else.

Kushiel's Justice by Jacqueline Carey, Warner, 6/07, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-446-50003-6

The first three volumes of this series were published by Tor, but Carey moved to Warner for the fourth and now fifth installment.  In the previous book, Kushiel's Scion, we were introduced to young Imriel, noble son of aristocratic parents who were also traitors.  Although ostensibly he is free of guilt, the circumstances of his parentage result in considerable apprehension about his plans, particularly as he matures.  His growing romance with his cousin Sidonie is in direct contradiction to his arranged marriage with Dorelei, but he eventually accedes to the arrangement, marries the woman he doesn't truly love, and travels to her homeland to make a new life for himself. 

Unfortunately, his enemies are unwilling to allow him such a gracious departure.  Assassins kill his pregnant wife, thereby forcing him to become less passive.  Enraged, he vows to avenge their deaths, which he does during the course of the book.  Although this is the middle volume of a trilogy, it is reasonably complete in itself, although I have no doubt that Imriel will have to face his enemies once again, and more forcefully, in the next installment.  Although quite enjoyable, the narrative loses momentum from time to time, generally when the first person narrator becomes reflective.  It's quite long, around 700 pages, although most of the time it feels like a much shorter book, and has a very large cast of characters, a few of which have annoyingly unpronounceable or overly long names.  It's a minor quibble in what is on balance a very respectable epic fantasy.

Warpsword by Dan Abnett and Mike Lee, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-184-3

The influence of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber on contemporary fantasy has been tempered in recent years by the rise of Tolkien influenced fantasy, quasi-medieval romances, and most recently the wild popularity of urban fantasies both in this genre and with romance readers.  Mighty thewed barbarian warriors battling monsters and evil wizards have given way to more refined knights, nobleman, thoughtful heroes, and self contemplative warriors.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there are times when nothing quite takes the place of a well written, violent romp through a crowd of villains.  The most consistent venue for such stories nowadays is the Warhammer series, actually the half of the Warhammer series that doesn't include space travel.  Although the quality of the books in this series varies considerably, the general tone is almost always close to that adopted by writers like Andrew J. Offutt, David Smith, and other Howard influenced writers of the past.

This new title is part four of a subset following the career of Malus Darkblade, a sort of darker version of Michael Moorcock's Elric.  Malus is an elf, one of the dark elves in fact, who are cruel and violent.  Malus is an exception, but only because he's exceptionally cruel and violent, thanks to being possessed by a demon.  The demon has set him a task.  Recover five magical artifacts or lose his soul forever.  Yes, it's another quest story, and not even a particularly original one, but there's a witch king to be placated, a war to be won, a secret to be uncovered, and a world to be, sort of, saved.  It's not Conan, but it certainly helps scratch that particular itch.

Army of the Fantastic edited by John Marco and John Helfers, DAW, 5/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0413-0

Places to Be, People to Kill edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Brittiany A. Koren, DAW, 6/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0417-8

The innate problem with theme anthologies, particularly if the theme is too specific, is that it is sometimes difficult to find a selection of stories that fit the theme without sounding like echoes of one another. Both of these new titles manage to do so reasonably successfully.  The first is clearly a reflection of the growing popularity of military themes in fantasy  There are thirteen original stories by such varied talents as Rick Hautala, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Alan Dean Foster, and Tanya Huff.  Many of them are set in alternate versions of our own world and deal with the adaptation of magical devices and creatures to national conflicts, similar to what Harry Turtledove did in his "Darkness" series.  Jean Rabe has the opening story, and it's the best thing I've ever read by her, a distorted view of World War II Germany.    Fairies intercede in human affairs in Rick Hautala's understated "Over the Top".  Fiona Patton evokes a magical alternate Hawaii.

Tim Waggoner sets his story in a more conventional alternate reality, as do Alan Dean Foster Russell Davis, and Tanya Huff, the latter describing an exciting encounter with a hostile sea serpent.  Fairies invade Iowa in Mickey Zucker Reichert's "Iowa Under Siege" and the invasion of a magical alternate reality runs into trouble in Bill Fawcett's "The Twain Shall Meet".  Jody Lynn Nye describes war among the elves as does James Barclay, with a somewhat darker filter in place.  Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes about centaur warriors and Michael Stackpole takes us to a strange alternate reality.  All in all, a fairly solid collection with no bad stories, but with the possible exception of Tanya Huff and Rick Hautala, nothing really stands out either.

Tanya Huff opens the second title with a light hearted adventure story featuring a professional assassin who doesn't worry overmuch about the moral issues in his profession.  Jim Hines follows with a much darker, but less interesting tale.  Jean Rabe has another good story, "Hang Ten", set in our world and featuring a female executioner, puns, and a rather morbid but deft sense of humor.  S. Andrew Swann adds an historical fantasy, followed by Cat Collins' longer, adventurous entry, which unfortunately has an uninteresting ending.  Sarah A. Hoyt's "While Horse and Hero Fell" is the best in the collection, a contemporary fantasy about a romance between a computer nerd and a witch.  Some genuinely funny twists despite the serious plotline. 

John Helfers' invokes the spirit of Fritz Leiber in "Deadhand", which it's written in the present tense, which always makes it difficult for me to immerse myself in the story.  There's dark sorcery as well as murder in Tim Waggoner's tale, and Bradley Sinor contributes a similar story.  The juxtaposition of these three is perhaps unfortunate, because they aren't dissimilar enough to have sharp distinctions from one to the next. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has the second best story, "Substitutions", a contemporary fantasy about a man who discovers that there is something important missing in his life.  Ed Gorman and editor Marco round out the collection with two above average stories, the first a conventional fantasy with a bit of a twist at the end, and the latter an interesting look into the world of the samurai.  The quality of the stories varies more in this collection, but some of that may because several were close enough in theme that they lacked freshness.

An Unexpected Apprentice by Jody Lynn Nye, Tor, 6/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31433-9

One of the blurbs for this new fantasy novel suggests that the protagonist, Tildi Summerbee, is a female version of Frodo Baggins, which isn't an entirely unreasonable comparison.  Tildi survives a deadly attack on the village where she lives with her halfling brothers, and in the aftermath she is left to manage her own affairs.  Unfortunately, the elder halflings decide to take matters into their own hands since Tildi is a female and therefore obviously incapable of providing for herself and making the necessary decisions about her life.  To ensure her security, they decide that she must marry someone who will provide for her and begin making the arrangements.  Tildi, understandably, objects to this cavalier attitude and asserts her intentions of looking after herself.  Unfortunately, the weight of the community is against her, so she disguises herself as one of her late brothers and heads off to distant lands to assume the apprenticeship that he had been offered.

In due course she finds herself in conflict with an embittered wizard who believes that he has been treated unfairly, and who has taken drastic countermeasures.  The few powers she has mastered seem totally inadequate to the task, but she has unexpected resources of her own.  This is a pleasant and not particularly violent fantasy adventure, a welcome respite from the obsession with clashing armies and evil sorcery that dominates the field, although not without doses of overt action to keep the reader awake and attentive.  Tildi's character is appealing and her determination enlists our sympathies right from the outset.  The comparison to Tolkien falters after the first few chapters, however.  This isn't a rewrite of the Lord of the Rings, neither in scale nor subject matter.  But it is a very good story.

Bertram of Butter Cross by Jeffrey E. Barlough, Gresham & Doyle, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9787634-0-4

This is the fourth novel I've read by Barlough, the first three of which I enjoyed very much.  He has a definite talent for creating worlds that are just a bit awry, familiar enough that the reader can slide into them without much effort, but with little elements that keep us constantly on edge.  That's true in his new book as well, but where the earlier ones matched the setting with a strong story, Bertram left me constantly wishing for a little more involvement.  The story involves a quasi-haunted wood, a mysterious place where unusual creatures live in secret, or sometimes not so secret.  The plot eventually incorporates a long missing man and a variety of exotic creatures.  The prose is excellent, the dialogue crisp and smooth, and the characters are interesting, but the story itself - despite the underlying mystery - was not sufficiently engaging. 

Burning Bridges by Laura Anne Gilman, Luna, 6/07, $14.95, ISBN 0-373-80274-9

Luna Books is technically a romance line, but many of their fantasies are virtually indistinguishable from titles being published by general publishers as genre fantasy.  Laura Anne Gilman's novels of the Retrievers, featuring private detective Wren Valere, are a case in point, borrowing some elements from the urban fantasy style of Laurell Hamilton and adding new elements of her own.  Most of the romantic tension is between Wren and her partner, but most of the real tension is in the plot itself.  Her world is very much like ours but magic works, is in fact a pervasive and powerful force, and it has become the focus of considerable conflict.  Not only are magical creatures looked upon with suspicion by ordinary humans, but even normal people who have some magical talent suddenly find themselves feared and hated.  This is of particular concern to Wren, who has more than a slight touch of magic herself.

There are also growing problems with her love life.  Her relationship with her partner and lover has never been easy and it seems to be getting worse by the day.  The crisis is twofold, but the two halves are related.  Can she find the courage to take a definite stand and become an active participant in events rather than an observer, and can she commit herself similarly with the man she loves.  Readers who shy away from romance fiction should rest easy.  Gilman avoids formulaic plot devices and sappy sentimentality; the emotions and problems that threatens the relationship are genuine and convincing.  Ignore the label and don't let it scare you away from a good read.

Maledicte by Lane Robins, Del Rey, 5/07, $14.95, ISBN 0-345-49573-X

There are few things worse than the wrath of a woman scorned.  Miranda is romantically involved with the son of a prominent noble in the kingdom of Antyre, but she comes from a humbler background and when it comes to marriage, the son submits to the will of his father.  Furious, Miranda resorts to dark sorcery and invokes the aid of a supernatural power, requesting revenge against the father and the restoration of her love.  To further her plan, she disguises herself as a man and undertakes training in the martial arts as well as the intricacies of court life.  She also has a mundane ally, a rival nobleman who would like nothing better than to see her succeed, although his sympathies are more a matter of convenience than actual conviction.

Any long term reader of fantasy or horror could have told her that there is always a more costly price to pay than it appears when one deals with the gods.  Miranda discovers eventually that she has unleashed powers over which she has little if any control, and that her relationship with her patron is even more one-sided than she realized.  She eventually learns her lesson, but the author makes it clear that complete happiness is beyond her grasp, that contentment and resignation is the best she can hope for.  Some original twists, and I enjoyed the darker tone.  The author has a good feel for interpersonal politics and character development.  A potentially significant new writer with an impressive debut.

Darkness of the Light by Peter David, Tor, 6/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31173-9

 Peter David introduces us to his newest fantasy world, which is very different indeed from the whimsical one of Sir Apropos.  The Damned World is a sort of alternate Earth home to a dozen species, each of whom has some resonance in the legends of our own world.  There are vampires and Cyclopes and other mythical creatures, and humans as well, although they have become a vanishing, despised, and hated minority.  The other races aren't much more benign to one another, and a powerful and frequently violent rivalry exists among them, although they are all in turn subordinate to a mysterious, higher power. 

The opening volume in what I presume will be a series introduces two strong threads.  The first is the effort by a minority of characters to bring an end to the constant bickering and fighting among the races, an effort which seems hopeless given the ingrained animosity of most of their fellows.  The second is a standard quest story, the search for the Orb of Light, which supposedly can redress all the ills of the world.  Since that would bring the series to an abrupt end, its true nature and location become central to the story, and I won't spoil things by telling you more about it.  There's a fairly large cast of characters - perhaps too large because I never really felt attached to any of the individuals, and my interest in their search was more academic than visceral.  David is a skilled storyteller and you won't feel cheated by reading this, but it's probably not a book you'll remember clearly a few weeks later.

Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg, Roc, 5/07, $15, ISBN 0-451-46088-X

Carol Berg's latest is a sort of male version of the fantasy novel in which a young woman flees her family to avoid being forced into an undesired marriage.  Valen comes from a family that has deep rooted traditions and which expects him to follow in the family business, subordinating whatever contrary feelings he might experience.  But Valen is a bit of a rebel  who has refused to conform to their expectations, and who rebels against a prophecy about his own death, even though it colors much of the way he interacts with the world.  His dissatisfaction is such that he makes dangerous choices in his own life, resorting to theft and a form of magic that acts like a drug, distorting his emotions and ultimately endangering his life.

Frankly, Valen's preoccupation with feeling sorry for himself put me off the character quite a bit in the early chapters, although he redeems himself somewhat later as the novel progresses into much more interesting territory.  A purloined book contains secrets not just of magic, but of secret societies, predictions of the future, and an imminent threat to the entire world.  Not surprisingly, our hero finds himself thrust into the role of savior of the world, a position he does not accept willingly, particularly given the likelihood that the dangers he must face will surely precipitate the unhappy death that has been predicted for him.  It moves much more assuredly than Berg's earlier novels, and has a more intricate setting, but I was taken by surprise when I discovered this was not after all a standalone novel but only the first half of the story, with the second part, Breath and Bone, not scheduled to appear until 2008.  I'm not sure the story was memorable enough for me to take it up easily after a gap of nearly a year, so you may want to buy this one and set it aside for awhile. 

Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Berkley, 5/07, $25, ISBN 0-425-21518-0

Veteran editors Dann & Dozois have put together another theme anthology, this one with a general enough subject matter - wizards - to provide some elbow room for the authors.  There are eighteen original stories here, and the contributors range from the literary end with Elizabeth Hand, Peter S. Beagle, and Gene Wolfe, through young adult writers like Eoin Colfer, Garth Nix, and Jane Yolen, to writers not generally associated with fantasy like Terry Bisson and Kage Baker, with a good selection of mainstream fantasy authors to fill the gaps. 

The collection opens with an excerpt from a new novel by Neil Gaiman, a bit of a tease actually.  Garth Nix, whose young adult fantasy has been generally quite impressive, follows with a story about conflicting magical systems and those caught in the middle.  Two more solid stories follow, a contemporary tale by Mary Rosenblum in which a young boy discovers a subtle truth and a more traditional piece by Kage Baker, in which the border between good and evil is blurred.  There's a nice twist in the ending.  Eoin Colfer adds one of the best in the collection, a sort of humorous fairy tale involving reincarnation and knavery.  It should have been longer.

Jane Yolen is also noted primarily for her young adult fare, but this is one of her very best stories. The prophet Elijah appears to a contemporary family, or at least one of them, who promptly wonders about her sanity.    There's hints of humor, particularly in the opening paragraphs, but the story is about something very serious indeed.  "The Stranger's Hands" by Tad Williams is a "Monkey's Paw" variation.  If you get what you wish for, you might discover that it's not what it's cracked up to be. "Naming Day" by Patricia A. McKillip is set in a school of thaumaturgy and is a short but effective coming-of-age story.

Elizabeth Hand's "Winter's Wife" is darker and less conventional.  A woman and her young son are lent a helping hand by a local man who has an extraordinary talent  for solving problems, but there is a larger problem looming on the horizon than any the narrator expects.  Andy Duncan's story provides a nice change of pace, an exciting adventure involving magic and ghosts, and it's followed by another darker story, this time by Peter S. Beagle.  Nancy Kress started as a fantasy writer and switched mostly to SF, but she demonstrates here that she hasn't lost her touch, although this short urban fantasy is very different from her early novels, which felt almost like fairy tales.

Jeffrey Ford's "The Manticore Spell" is about a wizard who hopes to preserve the life of one of the legendary creatures of the title.  Tanith Lee's "Zinder" demonstrates that you can't always rely on appearances.  Terry Bisson's story is light but amusing, an encounter with the Devil himself.  Terry Dowling poses a magical dilemma, Gene Wolfe takes an unusual look at fairies, and Orson Scott Card finishes the collection with another coming of age story, related to a new series of novels to begin appearing later this year.

Overall the quality is quite high, with outstanding stories by Jane Yolen, Elizabeth Hand, Eoin Colfer, and Jeffrey Ford.  The editors have selected a good cross section of common fantasy settings and themes, and have mixed the dark and serious with whimsical and straightforward adventure.  This is obviously not targeted toward a younger audience, but a surprisingly large percentage of the stories have children as protagonists.

  Shadowplay by Tad Williams, DAW, 3/07, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0358-4

Tad Williams has not been one of the more prolific fantasy writer during the twenty years of his career, but he has been one of the most consistent, and is among the very few who can write traditional high fantasy that feels like more than a formula adventure.  Part of the reason is certainly his ability to create a world that has depth and color, that feels like a real place, and of course a vivid and believable setting makes it that much easier for the reader to identify with the characters and accept the fantastic elements of the plot.  In the opening volume, we are shown the opening stages of a war between humans and a kind of fairy, the Twilight People, which was wrapped around a murder mystery.   There's a very large cast of characters and I was a bit confused this time until I took a break and browsed the appendix to refresh my memory.

With volume two (this is, inevitably, a trilogy) doom hovers over the land.  The king is dead and his heirs have either been killed or driven into hiding.  A rival king sees the chaos as an opportunity to expand his own power.   As if that wasn't bad enough, there are indications that other forces are at work, manipulating the situation from behind the scenes. One of the few people whom Williams suggest may hold the key to resolving the situation is preoccupied with problems of his own, not the least of which is a magical compulsion.  Lots of secrets get revealed, and many more are hinted at, but we'll have to wait for the concluding volume to learn what has really happened in the past, let alone what will follow.

Knight's Blood by Julian Lee, Ace, 3/07, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-01485-9

The follow up to Knight Tenebrae has the couple from our world returning to medieval Scotland when their son is kidnapped by one of the nasty elves who engineered their first trip back through time.  They return separately, the man resuming his position as a member of the nobility, the woman disguised as a knight.  The border between mainstream fantasy and romantic fantasy has virtually disappeared and this could quite easily have been published as a time travel romance.  Lee has a good feel for the period and I liked the characters, particularly the woman, but I'm not sure I completely believe how readily she is accepted by her fellows after her true identity is revealed.   The author has also written historical fantasies as J. Ardian Lee.

Wraith by Phaedra Weldon, Ace, 6/07, $14, ISBN 978-0-441-01497

The rise of urban fantasy has caused a problem for those of us who try to differentiate fantasy and horror fiction.  Traditionally, vampires and werewolves automatically moved a story into the latter category, unless the setting was clearly a fantasy world unlike our own.  The Anita Blake series and its many imitators muddied the waters considerably, and there are also arguments about whether marketing determines the genre, whether horror should include stories of the supernatural which are not intended to horrify, and so forth and so on.  I'm going to try to sort these as best I can, but our definitions may vary, and I may not always be consistent myself.  So it goes.

Phaedra Weldon's debut is not a clone of Anita Blake, although the novel shares some of the attitudes and situations of Laurell Hamilton's early work.  Her protagonist is Zoe Martinique, a tough minded private investigator whose greatest asset is her ability to experience out-of-body jaunts in which her invisible presence can travel about and spy on people.  This is obviously an asset in her job, but it turns into a liability when she witnesses a murder committed by a stranger who also has a talent for astral projection.  This is a variation of a familiar device in horror fiction, the psychic who eavesdrops on a killer and becomes his next target, but the treatment is very different and some of the subsidiary characters - like the gothic witch and Zoe's unusual mother - go a long way toward improving a story that might otherwise have been unremarkable.  There's still some unevenness, particularly in tone.  The sections that should be suspenseful falter occasionally, and the humorous interludes and wise cracking don't always ring true.  The mystery itself is well handled, and I'm certainly not sorry to hear that this is the first in a projected series.

Goblin Hero by Jim C. Hines, DAW, 5/07, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0442-0

In Goblin's Quest, we were introduced to Jig the Goblin, a sort of Hobbitlike version of goblins who survives a seirous of light, often humorous adventures, returning to become a hero among his people.  Well, one of the consequences of being a hero is that you pose something of a threat to the popularity of the non-heroes, specifically in this case the leader of the goblins.  So when an emissary arrives from the ogres requesting goblin aid in defeating the evil creature who is enslaving the ogres, it's a perfect excuse to send Jig off on a probably hopeless quest, removing him from the sight and eventually the memory of goblindom at large.  Naturally Jig doesn't want to go, since he's the classic reluctant hero, but the situation is rigged so that he really doesn't have much choice.  And naturally in due course he rises to the occasion.

Humorous fantasy has not thrived in the US in recent years, outside of Terry Pratchett and Piers Anthony.  Hines attempts, with some apparent success, to avoid this by wrapping his humor around a genuinely exciting adventure story.  As a spoof of mainstream fantasy, I thought it was amusing, entertaining, and at times bitingly satiric, but I suspect that most readers will try to take it at face value and either dismiss it as light humor or be frustrated because the author takes his adventures less than seriously.  Let's hope for more perspicacity.

 

  The Ninth Talisman by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Tor, 5/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31027-9

It has occurred to me in recent months that a large part of the reason that I generally find fantasy less rewarding than science fiction may be a function of the volume of stuff that I read.  For the most part, I find fantasy just as well written technically as SF, characterization may even average a bit better, settings not quite so good, but it all evens out.  My articulated complaint has always been that fantasy tends to be more homogeneous, using the same quasi-medieval or pre-technological settings, with kings or warlords, sorcerers or demons, and an overabundance of quests, magical artifacts, usurped thrones, orcs and fairies, and other trappings of the genre.  SF, on the other hand, ranges from travels in space to alien planets and cultures, to the far future and into times past as well as the present.  The result is that months after I’ve read a handful of fantasy novels, I have trouble remembering which was which, even if they were in general well written. 

Unfortunately, I read more than the average, and that might be part of the problem.  If I only read one epic fantasy a month, I’d have no trouble distinguishing among them, and I would probably follow only a handful of authors and become familiar with their created worlds.  There are exceptions, of course.  There are fantasy novels in this same vein by George R.R. Martin, Dave Duncan, China Mieville, and Mary Gentle which remain vivid in my memory, usually because the authors have found a way to give the familiar an unfamiliar twist, or simply because they are just such excellent writers that even the old seems new.  And one of those fantasy writers whose work I always look forward to is Lawrence Watt-Evans, whose latest is the second in the Chronicles of the Chosen, sequel to The Wizard Lord.  Mild spoilers follow.

As in the past, the author provides his own little twists into what might seem otherwise to be a standard fantasy world.  Everything in his world, even inanimate objects, are associated with ler, a kind of spirit like the Manitou.  Human communities live in virtual isolation, because while the local priests and priestesses have come to an accommodation with the ler within the community limits, the wild ones outside are less easily propitiated.  Travel from one place to another must be accomplished in the company of a professional guide, who knows how to find his way and appease the spirits at least well enough to get from one place to another.  Wizards are rare, but because it is possible for them to become rogues, a Wizard Lord is given authority over them all, and effectively over the world.  But if the Wizard Lord goes rogue, his power is balanced by a group of Chosen, each with a different attribute, who must decide whether or not his life is forfeit and then take it, if necessary.  One of the Chosen, Sword, is the chief protagonist of this story, which begins when the current Wizard Lord decides to build roads connecting the various villages.

The novel presents an interesting conflict, one in which there is, initially at least, no clear right or wrong.  The roadways are obviously beneficial in the sense that they make travel and intercourse easier, but at the same time they cause upheavals in the economy and endanger social stability.  The wild ler displaced by the road perish or become hostile, but new ler will presumably come into existence along the roadways who will be more obliging.   Sword sees both sides of the issue and is troubled by the possibility that the Wizard Lord’s actions are sufficiently malevolent to outweigh the good he accomplishes, and that therefore his duty is to end the man’s rule.  There is also a subsidiary theme about the pressure of duty.  Sword would prefer not to have to make these decisions, is much happier living in his home village and letting his sword rust away in a closet.  His ambivalence, and sense of entrapment by his role, is reflected when he is allowed to relive the memory of a long dead priestess who defeated a rogue wizard by pretending to feel enslaved by her role, a pretense which turned out to be reality.

The Wizard Lord and his chief advisor, a disgraced villain from the first volume, are clearly too good to be true, and it won’t be any surprise to the reader to discover that he has a sinister agenda.  The new Boss of the Chosen summons the others for a conference to decide whether or not the Wizard Lord has in fact broken his oath, whether he should be allowed to correct his mistakes, or removed from office.  When they compare notes, a disturbing pattern emerges.  The Wizard Lord has quite reasonably pointed out that magic appears to be diminishing in importance, that the wizards are dying out, and that the people of Barokan will lead happier and more fruitful lives if his technological innovations are implemented.  Unfortunately, he seems to have decided to accelerate the process by eliminating anyone with magic powers, including the Chosen themselves.  And there’s a subsidiary mystery because a ninth Chosen has been created this time, whose identity and location no one seems to know.

The two ostensible villains in the novel are more believable and interesting because their positions are not entirely unreasonable.  They are, in fact, more popular with the people of Barokan at large than are the Chosen, who find themselves in disarray following the eventual, inevitable confrontation.  Unlike the first in this series, the story is not complete in itself, and even then Sword is uncertain whether or not the Wizard Lord is entirely at fault.  I think I figured out the mystery of the ninth talisman, but I won’t know until the next book arrives.  But when it does, it will be jumped to the top of the pile.

 

  Logorrhea edited by John Klima, Bantam, 5/07, $13, ISBN 978-0-553-38433-8

This all original anthology has an interesting device; each story is linked to a particular relatively obscure word, usually located in the title, which is defined on the title page.  The collection opens with Hal Duncan’s very fine “The Chiaroscurist”, the story of an artist illuminating a church in a fantasy world whose nature we see only in hints and glimpses.  One of the local residents, a despite dwarf known as a Hobben, becomes the model for the artist’s depiction of the supreme being.  A quietly moving story delivered with Duncan’s usual fine feel for the language.  The following story is “Lyceum” by Liz Williams, which I think I would have moved elsewhere in the book simply because it in many ways echoes the first, a cloistered environment, an academic community, a disrupting violent incident.  It’s SF rather than fantasy, set on a university planet where an apparent murder takes place during a formal dinner.  The aliens are interesting, the prose is great, but I felt a bit cheated by the payoff, which involves coincidental insanities.

The next two stories also share some qualities, but neither of them struck me as entirely successful.  Clare Dudman’s protagonist is trying to cope with the death of his sister, to whom he was very close, and has strange encounters with three mysterious and perhaps inhuman women.   Some striking images but the story went on too long. The central character in David Prill’s story is a high school athlete who becomes partially disabled, which results in the loss of his former social status.  He becomes entranced by the sounds made by decomposing bodies, interpreting them as music, in this decidedly strange piece.

The middle section of the book is of very high quality. Alex Irvine's "Semaphore" is only marginally fantasy, another story of loss, in this case a young Jewish boy whose older brother dies during the war.  It is both genuine touching and occasionally quite funny.  Marly Youmans' tale of an encounter with an angel avoids become overly sentimental and generates some startling images.  Michael Moorcock follows with a low key but enjoyable story of Elric of Melnibone and his encounter with an unusual artist.  Daniel Abraham's "The Cambrist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" is one of the best stories I've read in months, and very difficult to describe.  A clerk and a dissolute nobleman have a series of encounters over economic issues, which sounds dreadfully dull but is actually fascinating.  I would be very surprised if this doesn't end up on the final ballot for at least one award this year.

Michelle Richmond's "Logorrhea" is one of the more unsettling stories in the collection.  A woman suffering from the disease (a tendency to talk incessantly) is spontaneously cured when she meets, falls in love with, and eventually marries a man whose body is so covered with scales that it is physically painful to embrace him.  Anna Tambour's entry just didn't catch my interest, but Tim Pratt's "From Around Here" is fascinating sort of urban fantasy about earth spirits who take on human form.  In a surprisingly short period of time, Pratt lays out a considerable mythology while telling a genuinely moving story wrapped around a mystery.  Another probable award contender.  And the run of good stories continues with Elizabeth Hand's enigmatic but fascinating "Vignette", set in a kind of surreal artists' colony.

The next couple of stories (by Alan DeNiro and Matthew Cheney) didn't work for me, although the first has some lovely, strange imagery.  Jay Caselberg's contribution was better, but the momentum didn't return until Paolo Bacigalupi's "Softer", which isn't fantasy at all.  The narrator murders his wife impulsively, has conflicting emotions afterward, and eventually embarks on a new life.  It sounds trite, but it's actually very effective.  Jay Lake's "Crossing the Seven" is even better, a genuinely funny story about a man who finds himself cast in the role of messenger from the heavens. Leslie What's story, not fantasy, is an impressive character study, not surprising given the quality of her previous work, but it's also pretty much of a downer, both in tone and subject matter.

Neil Williamson contributes a science fiction story, an odd one in which humans and aliens share a pooled lexicon and all new plant or animal species require an agreement about nomenclature.  I wasn't completely convinced that the system would work, but the story is certainly out of the ordinary.  Theodora Goss' subtle fantasy, "Singing of Mount Abora", went on a bit too long for me.  Jeff VanderMeer winds things up with a very impressive web of scenes, each related to one of the words central to the other stories in the collection.  The collection tends toward the literary ends of the spectrum, and several of the stories have minimal if any fantastic content, but that shouldn't stop you from reading a very fine collection.

Mainspring by Jay Lake, Tor, 6/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31708-7

The advanced copies of Jay Lake's first fantasy novel are labeled science fiction, but it is clearly a fantasy, set in an alternate universe where the Earth is a clockwork device and where angels intercede in human affairs.  The protagonist is Hethor Jacques, an apprentice clockmaker, who is visited one day by an angel who gives him the task of seeking the Key Perilous, thereby saving the world from some unspecified threat.  Hethor is a typical innocent, unprepared for the task, naive in his assumption that he can convince people that he's telling the truth, particularly when the one piece of physical evidence - an angel's feather - is taken from him.  In fact, if I had one real criticism of the novel it is that Hethor is just a bit too unsophisticated in the early chapters, although his gradual education and evolution of character are thereafter convincing. 

Hethor travels first to relate his story to the lay leader of the world, for which he is thrown into prison as a madman.  Only William of Ghent, a kind of sorcerer, seems to lend any credence to his story, and even he does not intercede directly.  Hethor eventually escapes and experiences a series of wild and quite original adventures among several very strange cultures on this alternate Earth and in many ways it is the oddness of the settings that captures the reader's interest even more than the protagonist's quest.  Lake has already proved to be an exceptional writer of short fiction, and this first novel promises to be the first of many fascinatingly idiosyncratic works.

The Thief Queen’s Daughter by Elizabeth Haydon, Tor, 7/07, $17.95, ISBN 0-765-31865-2

The explosive popularity of fantasy in recent years has not been confined to adult fiction.  Indeed, it was healthier in young adult literature for many years than on the bestseller lists, and the popularity of the Harry Potter books has certainly given a boost to an already reasonably robust industry.  Many of the classic fantasy for younger readers has come from writers in specialized in that market – L. Frank Baum, Alan Garner, Edward Eager, Mary Norton - and only a few like J.R.R. Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones, C.S. Lewis, and Jane Yolen have managed to successfully write for adult markets as well.   Elizabeth Haydon, who first appeared with her six volume Symphony series, looks to be the next author to successfully straddle that line.

Haydon introduced Ven Polypheme in The Floating Island, which was one of the best young adult fantasies – in fact, one of the best fantasies period – that I read last year.  Ven is back in this sequel, having been appointed Royal Reporter by the king, in gratitude for the services provided in his first adventure.  The honor is not as clear cut as it appears, however, because by receiving this post of notoriety, Ven has become something of a representative of the king, and therefore an obstacle to his enemies.   As if that wasn’t bad enough, the king has requested that Ven and some of his friends enter the famous Gated City, a feared place because sometimes new arrivals are forced to remain there forever.  Within the city, Ven is supposed to ferret out the secret of a possibly magical artifact which has come into the king’s possession.  

The plot gets more complicated as it progresses, because one member of Ven’s group is not who she seems and that leads to further conflict.  The band of adventurers are on the run almost from the moment they arrive.  Filled with interesting characters like the Rat King, the novel is every bit as good as its predecessor, and if you needed more good news, The Dragon’s Lair will continue his adventures in due course.   Most of the young adult mystery and even SF published in recent years has failed to reflect the quality of adult literature in the same genre.  Young adult fantasy has maintained a much higher average quality, and the best of it – like this series – should be just as appealing and entertaining to adult readers as the books aimed at them specifically.

 Night of the Daemon by Aaron Rosenberg, Black Library, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-367-9

Every once in a while, I indulge myself and read a few Robert E. Howard fantasy stories, and I am always surprised by how thoroughly he draws me into his imaginary worlds.  There was a time when fantasy was filled with writers inspired by Howard – David Smith, Andrew Offutt, Mike Sirota, Karl Edward Wagner, Lin Carter – but none of those writers are active today and most of the sword and sandal fantasy consists of tie-ins to one game system or another, everything from Warcraft to Might and Magic.  The most successful of these have been the various franchises of Wizards of the Coast (formerly TSR) and the Warhammer novels from Black Library, an imprint owned by Games Workshop.   The Warhammer universe has two arms.  One is set in the distant future and is essentially military SF, although sometimes the enemy is supernatural rather than alien.  The other is set in the Old World, which might be our own distant past or some barbaric future in which technology is primitive and magic is primary

The various authors writing for the Warhammer universe usually but not invariably confine themselves to one branch.  Within that branch, they may create recurring characters who have their own little subsidiary series.  That’s the case with Aaron Rosenberg, whose second novel is second in the Daemon Gates trilogy, set in the Old World.  His main characters are a pair of adventurers who in this installment turn treasure hunters when they acquire a map that supposedly will lead them to great riches.  Although the map warns that the treasure is guarded, our heroes believe themselves up to the task.  What they don’t realize is that by unearthing the treasure, they may set loose a menace dangerous not only to themselves, but to the world at large.

There’s nothing intricate or subtle about the book, which is straight forward, sometimes almost comic book style action.  It’s not going to be nominated for a Hugo, and a month after reading it, you’ll probably have trouble remembering as much of the plot as I’ve summarized above.  But while you’re reading it, you can escape into a world where good and evil are readily distinguished, where people are responsible for their acts and their consequences, and where the bad guy is always doomed to fail in the end. 

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, Gollancz, 4/07, ₤12.99, ISBN0-00-723217-8

The cover copy for this new fantasy compares it to Philip Pullman’s work, which isn’t entirely unreasonable, but Hunt’s story of two youngsters on the run in a magical world that somewhat resembles that of Charles Dickens is clever and original and the resemblances are mostly superficial.  An orphaned girl becomes a fugitive when she discovers that someone is willing to kill her and anyone else who might interfere, in order to prevent her from revealing knowledge detrimental to their interests.  In parallel, an unsophisticated boy from a farming family is also forced to run for his life when he is framed for a murder he did not commit.  Both must avoid their pursuers and solve the mysteries surrounding them.  And underneath it all lies the question of just what is the Court of the Air and why have they sent a representative to investigate the children?  Lots of fun in this one, which you might overlook if you’re put off by the young readers’ label. 

Wolf’s Blood by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 3/07, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-31480-0

Although I have enjoyed most of the novels I’ve read by Jane Lindskold, I have to confess that this particular series (of which this is the sixth book) would not show up on my list of her most entertaining work.  It’s technically well done, but I’ve long since tired of the relationship between the protagonist, a woman raised by intelligent wolves, and her new found human society, and I think I was overdosed on human/animal empathic bonds after reading too many of them by Andre Norton some years ago.  I also had considerable difficulty identifying with the protagonist, whose upbringing in the wild has given her personality some unusual kinks and twists.  In this volume, a virulent plague is spreading through the world and the consequences of inaction may require her to revise her opinion of the value of magic. Dark goings on ensue. If you’ve enjoyed the series, you should like this one as well, but I for one would like to see more along the lines of The Buried Pyramid.

Iris, Messenger by Sarah Deming, Harcourt, 5/07, $16, ISBN 0-15-205823-0

Please Don’t Eat the Children by Dan Greenberg, Harcourt, 2007, $9.95, ISBN 0-15-206047-2

Here’s a couple of recent young adult fantasies, neither of which have any ambitions to be taken too seriously.  The first is about a young girl who eschews her peers in favor of her imaginary friends, who themselves turn out not to be imaginary after all but actually the Greek gods, not very cleverly disguised in their attempt to insinuate themselves into the modern world.  Light fun.  More amusing is the Greenberg, seventh in the Dripping Fang series.  The main plot this time is that our young heroes are on the verge of being adopted by a family of ghouls with a taste for children.  Then there’s their old enemy the Jackal, some mysterious disappearances, the ant army, and a host of other recurring and new dangers.  Greenberg has a talent for mixing the absurd and the semi-serious.  This series is aimed at early teenagers and younger, but the twisted humor appeals to me.

 Paladins II: Knight Moves by Joel Rosenberg, Baen, 12/06, $25, ISBN 0-7434-9914-X

Joel Rosenberg returns to the alternate world  he created in Paladins where Mordred defeated Arthur and helped create what evolved into a global empire of magic.  The author has worked out the details of his society at considerable length, and this may be of interest to fans of alternate history as well as fantasy readers.  The existence of magic provides a convenient way to break the rules, however, and the laws governing its use aren’t so well defined here that I felt comfortable that I understood what was going on.  In due course, neither do the protagonists because, unfortunately, even magical swords prove inadequate when the dead rise against the living.  Dark sorcery is on the rise in remote corners of the earth and the old order may be changing once again.  Exciting and engrossing while I was reading it, and Rosenberg’s novels are always filled with considerable enthusiasm for the story, but when it was done I felt as though a very promising story line had been resolved rather too easily. 

Fortune’s Fool by Mercedes Lackey, Luna, 3/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-373-80266-1

Mercedes Lackey’s latest romantic fantasy is an updated version of a very familiar story.  The Princess Ekaterina is required by custom and the pressures of her family to marry a suitable member of the aristocracy.  Unfortunately, although she is romantically drawn to a prince from another family, the young man is generally frowned upon by his friends and family because of his refined tastes and lack of military bearing, which suggests he would be more suitable as a scholar or a cleric than a leader, military or political.  But when Ekaterina is kidnapped and held prisoner by a djinn, he is the one who has the wits and courage to come to her rescue.  No surprises but generally fun, and the obvious message that intelligence triumphs over brawn, and personal traits over physical appearance, is a welcome one.

 Troy: Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 3/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-345-47701-9

This is the middle volume of the late David Gemmell’s trilogy retelling the story of the siege and eventual fall of Troy.  Gemmell was a writer whose works I found very uneven in appeal, not because of ups and downs in his prose or story construction but rather because his settings and situations either grabbed me or bored me.  I’ve always been a fan of historical novels set in the ancient world – I’ve read De Camp’s five and all of Mary Renault a few times each – and the Trojan War and events surrounding it are obviously among the most interesting of them all.  Gemmell managed to hook me in the first volume, and even though the reader can foresee pretty much what must follow, he managed to develop a degree of suspense as well.  As this installment opens, the siege is well under way and Agamemnon’s forces are large, well established, but unable to force their way through the city’s defenses.  Among the assembled host is Odysseus, who dislikes his king and his methods but who is sworn to obedience.  You know the central story so I won’t recount it here, but Gemmell adds some new twists to the legend and develops the principal characters vividly and convincingly.

 Weavers of War by David B. Coe, Tor, 2/07, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-31246-8

The fifth and final volume of the Winds of the Forelands series provides the solutions and resolutions to all of the plot threads from the previous books.  The secretive conspiracies, political intrigues, and clandestine operations have fermented long enough and now erupt into open confrontation and conflict.  The leader of the rebels has made his identity known, confident that he is now untouchable, but perhaps over reaching his grasp.  Will anyone be able to stop his quest for ultimate power over the world or is it too late?  Swashbuckling adventure with lots of plots and counterplots. 

 The Quest for the Trilogy by Mel Odom, Tor, 3/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31517-3

Mel Odom continues his series about a magical library and the librarians who watch over it in this new novel, which is at heart a quest story.  Actually the plot involves a set of quests interwoven in a single adventure.  The trilogy mentioned in the title refers to three magical books which, if brought together, could impart magical power on an almost unimaginable scale, certainly enough to alter the power structure of the world forever.  Our librarian hero decides to locate and gain possession of the three books after a wizard warns him of an imminent threat to the world.  Only if the books are located, retrieved, and used in time can the danger be avoided.  Well written as always but I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was reading the earlier books, possibly because the imaginary world is no longer new, possibly because it is, essentially, just another search for the magic sword, even if the sword is a book.

.River of the World by Chaz Brenchley, Ace, 4/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-01478-X

 Chaz Brenchley gives another old fantasy plot a facelift in this story of two cities, magically linked to each other, one the dominant conqueror and the other the resentful and restless subject state.  A band of rebels from the latter, led by a man who has magical, but sharply limited powers, lurks in hiding, waiting for an opportunity to sever the mystical linkage and free their people, despite an overwhelming military superiority by their enemies.  When the daughter of a prominent member of the prevailing culture decides that her sympathies lie with the oppressed rather than her own people, opportunity seems to beckon at last, but it will be a long, dangerous, and convoluted journey before they reach their goal.  The setting bears some faint resemblance to the Ottoman Empire, and the paired cities vaguely reflect Asian and Europeans cultures.  The novel is first in a projected new series.

 Jango by William Nicholson, Harcourt, 6/07, $17. ISBN 0-15-206011-1

Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey, Harcourt, 4/07, $17, ISBN 0-15-205926-1

Neither of these two young adult fantasies will challenge the popularity of  the Harry Potter books, but they’re both quite well done.  The first is part two of a sequence in which a handful of young people who hope to use magical powers to defeat a threat against their entire people.  The plot is essentially that of many popular adult fantasies, with a younger cast and a few other concessions to the assumed relative lack of sophistication of its target audience.  It’s exciting and well written, but with few surprises.  Carey’s novel, the first I’ve read by her, is more like a fairy tale, and a pleasantly clever one.  The protagonist is a princess who was born with a dragon claw in place of one hand, which unfortunate disfigurement embarrasses her family so much that they require her to keep it gloved at all times.  The first half of the book reflects some of the unfortunate ways in which handicapped individuals are treated in our own world.  The second half of the book takes place when she is kidnapped by an intelligent dragon,  which eventually leads to the truth about a prophecy that surrounded her birth and explains the claw.  Nicely done.  I’d like to see more fantasy from this author, young adult or otherwise.

 White Night by Jim Butcher, Roc, 4/07, $23.95, ISBN 0-451-46140-1

With the Dresden Files television series now showing on the Sci-Fi Channel, it’s not surprising that Butcher would bring us a new adventure of Harry Dresden, practicing wizard and unofficial private investigator in an alternate version of our world.  Dresden has an uncomfortable relationship with the local police, despite the aid he’s provided to them in the past, and a propensity for getting into trouble.  His latest caper involves the murder of several of his fellow magic practitioners, the ones who can’t quite qualify for wizard status. His investigations take an unpleasantly personal turn, and that’s not even counting the vampires who object to some of his activities.  Butcher is occasionally inconsistent about Dresden’s powers and most of his characters are little more than caricatures, but the action is so fast and engrossing that most readers won’t notice the lapses until later, if ever.

 Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson, Tor, 4/07, $27.95, ISBN 0-765-31005-8

This is the fourth (a reader has pointed out to me that this is actually the FIFTH) novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, a sword and sorcery epic set in a primitive world enjoying a brief period of comparative peace after a long era of war and chaos.  The peace, unfortunately, is fragile and imperfect and ultimately short lived.  The rulers of a neighboring country have conceived visions of a great empire, and the unsettled situation across the border makes them a prime target for conquest.  At the same time old magic is stirring the pot, and it also appears that the various partners in the previous conflict are more interested in resuming the battle than ensuring a lasting peace. I haven’t really been drawn into this series, although it’s quite readable, probably because it cleaves too close to the mainstream of contemporary high fantasy and doesn’t establish itself as anything out of the ordinary. 

Lucy’s Blade by John Lambshead, Baen, 5/07, $24, ISBN 1-4165-2121-6

Here we have yet another first fantasy, this one set in a modified version of Elizabethan England.  The Lucy of the title is Lady Lucy Dennys, a young woman who is as handy with a sword as she is with a sewing needle, which skill serves her well when she is thrown into a mix of crusty old English privateers, the arcane studies of John Dee, and a subplot involving the supernatural.  It’s an unpretentious, reasonable well done historical fantasy with some welcome touches of humor, an appealing protagonist, and enough competing plot elements for an entire trilogy, although it is complete in itself.  There’s also a nice twist at the end.  A bit lightweight, but just fine for a relaxing evening’s reading.

 Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, 3/07, ₤17.99, ISBN 0-75287-429-6

Joe Abercrombie is one of several new fantasy writers to have debuted in the UK during the past few years, mining the fertile fields of mainstream fantasy.  The follow-up to his first novel, The Blade Itself , takes place in large part inside a city under siege. Glokta, an Inquistor, is troubled not only by the ravaging army outside the city, which will almost certainly massacre the defenders, but by sinister events within the walls, including the mysterious disappearance of a the last man to hold his title.  The situation isn’t improved any by the discovery that the army charged with defending the city is poorly trained and equipped and presents no real challenge to the invader, and that a faction has decided to surrender and throw themselves on the mercy of their enemies.  As you might expect, a small group of disparate characters set out on a quest to find the key to the salvation of their people, a magical artifact with great destructive potential.  Despite the hackneyed plot, the story is pretty good, and presumably there is more to come.

 The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, Gollancz, 2/07, £16.99, ISBN 0-575-07942-7

Tired of castles and dragons and quests and magical swords?  Here’s a title you’ll want to look up.  In Victorian London, a stage magician also pursues an avocation as an amateur detective, often with the assistance of his reticent companion, the Somnambulist.  His latest caper is a bit out of the ordinary, and could change the future of the entire British Empire through a realization of the dire prophecies of the poet, William Blake.  Glorious adventures and convoluted mysteries- none of it taken too seriously - laid out in a delightfully entertaining manner.  This one is squarely on the literary side of fantasy, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be caught up in the author’s mix of exotic characters and mysterious events.   I wonder how long it will take American publishers to snatch this one up.

 The Well of Shades by Juliet Marillier, Tor, 5/07, $26.95, ISBN 0-765-30997-1

This is volume three of the Bridei Chronicles, set in early Pictish England.  It is, frankly, a historical setting I have difficulty getting comfortable in, but Marillier does a better job than most and I’ve liked this series considerably better than her previous work.  King Bridei is still trying to consolidate his authority and bring peace to his people, but events continue to conspire against him.  The focus of volume three is on one of his underlings, a spy who, during the course of his latest mission, discovers as much about himself as he does about the king’s enemies.  I found the pace a bit too slow for my liking, but the prose is fine and the character’s sufficiently complex to be interesting in themselves. 

Ambergate by Patricia Elliott, Little Brown, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 0-316-01060-X

I really enjoyed the author’s previous young adult fantasy, Murkmere, to which this new book is related.  The blurb calls it a “gothic mystery” and there’s considerable truth to that.  The protagonist is a young girl, Scuff, who works as a simple kitchen maid, although she is concealing her true identity for reasons which are not immediately evident. It appears that she is guilty of some nameless crime and has become a fugitive.  In due course we discover that she has a magic amulet, but even magic might not be powerful enough to protect her from her enemies when she is forced by circumstances to confront the evils of her past.  Very smoothly written and without a missed step.  I enjoyed this more than most of the adult fantasy novels I’ve read recently.

 Mother of Lies by Dave Duncan, Tor, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31484-3

Here at last is the second half of the story that was begun in Children of Chaos.   Duncan is one of our more consistently interesting fantasy authors because he usually manages to insert some unusual twist or oddity of culture or setting into what might otherwise be simple variations of already familiar stories.  This duology, more accurately a single novel in two volumes, is set on a dodecahedral world, one with distinct corners and edges.  A barbaric army spilled over the edge from their homeland, overwhelmed a more peaceful nation, and carried off the children of the royal family to be hostages, raised separately among the conquerors so that they can never become the focus of a rebellion.  The children began to approach maturity in the first book, and in the second they’re on a collision course with destiny.  Not only must they decide whether or not to help free their people, but  even if they accomplish that task, serious problems face them.  Raised separately, they have little sense of family and view one another as rivals.  Once the conquerors have been driven back beyond their own borders, how will the survivors decide which one of their own number is the most suited to sit on the throne.  They have become such different people during the period of their separation that it seems unlikely they will ever be able to reach a compromise.  Exciting action scenes and serious interpersonal intrigue enhance an already well constructed plot.

 The Phantom Isles by Stephen Alter, Bloomsbury, 2/07, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-738-7

Silverboy by N.M. Browne, Bloomsbury, 3/07, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-780-6

Blaze of Silver by K.M. Grant, Bloomsbury, 4/07, $16.95, ISBN 0-8027-9625-7

Bloomsbury recently sent me a big box of young adult fantasies, of which this is my first sampling.  YA fantasy has always seemed to me better written, on average, than horror or SF aimed at the same age group, and the stories range in subject matter as much or more than does adult fantasy.  The quality in this particular group is a case in point and the originality of some of the plots and settings suggest that some adult fantasy writers might want to look here for fresh ideas.  The first of the titles listed above is in the most rewarding of this lot.  Three children read an incantation from a magical book, and discover that by doing so they have awakened the spirits of an entire extinct people, who have been confined within the pages of several library books and who once lived in a society where there was no discrete border between the living and the dead.  The waning chapters lack the strength of the opening but still hold up pretty well.  N.M. Browne’s book, the second I’ve read by this author, appears initially to be a more familiar story, dealing with a sorcerer’s apprentice who finds himself on the run after getting mixed up in matters he probably should have avoided.  The twist is that those who work with magic are physically affected by the proximity of that force, marking them indelibly.  Their skin becomes phosphorescent, which – as you might expect - makes it very difficult to stay out of sight for long when you’re a fugitive.  The last title, by K.M. Grant, is the most familiar, the third in a series set during the time of the late Crusades, and is only marginally fantasy.  King Richard is being held prisoner and the De Granvilles are determined to rescue him.  Readers will not be surprised to discover that an old enemy is going to interfere with their plans, nor will there be startled when he fails.  Okay, but not up to the caliber of the others.

 The Seal of Solomon by Rick Yancey, Bloomsbury, 5/07, $16.95, ISBN 1-59990-045-9

The Book of the Sword by A.J. Lake, Bloomsbury, 5/07, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-039-4

The Lost Cities by Dale Peck, Bloomsbury, 3/07, $16.95, ISBN 1-58234-859-6

Here’s the second half of a batch of young adult books I recently received from this publisher, all three of which are the second volumes in their respective series.  The first has a contemporary setting, and mixes super-technology with magic.  Alfred Kropp is a teenaged secret agent who has to battle one of his own kind gone bad, and who is currently seeking the Seal of Solomon which contains the souls of fallen angels.  Lots of action and the mix of magic and technology works pretty well.  Enjoyable, but lightweight even, I suspect, for the readers toward whom it is directed.  A.J. Lake’s follow up to Coming of Dragons continues the adventures of two youngsters who have been given magical powers to help them complete their quest to retrieve a magical sword.  Unremarkable but not unpleasant reading.  The last and most interesting of these is the second in the Drift House series.  Two youngsters and their uncle are staying on a houseboat when it becomes unhinged in time and space and takes them to various locales and eras in human history.  Episodic and a bit uneven, but likable, and with better characters than the other two. 

Titans of Chaos by John C. Wright, Tor, 4/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31648-X

This is the third and final installment of the Chronicles of Chaos.  We learned in the previous books that several children had been brought together from various alternate universes and raised in a very restricted environment, possibly for their own protection, possibly as a kind of exile.  As they grow older, they begin to master their various powers – which sometimes feel like a subset of the Marvel Comics universe,  Those powers are derived from the particular reality in which the individual children were born, and they  include everything from magic to an affinity for the nature of physical matter.  Their childhood is over now and  it is time for them to face – and defeat – their ultimate enemy.  Quite a bit more serious than the comic book allusion might suggest, but I had some of the same difficulties here that I have when I dip into the Marvel universe.  It always seems as though there must be some other power, or a different aspect of known powers, which will solve every problem, and that tends to drain some of the suspense out of the story.

 The Winter Knights by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, David Fickling, 2007, $12.99, ISBN 0-375-83741-8

Hugo Pepper by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, David Fickling, 2007, $14.99, ISBN 0-385-75092-9

Both of these books are for younger readers, but the first in particular should find a welcoming audience among adults as well.  The Winter Knights is the eighth, and one of the best, in the Edge Chronicles series.  Our hero is finally being trained in the art of storm chasing, a lofty profession through which those selected for that task harvest magical energy from storms, which in turn is used to sustain their city.  There are tensions in the academy reminiscent at times of Hogwarts, but the greater danger is in the sky, where a deadly force will eventually confront an apprentice knight.  Great illustrations accompany a very good story.  The second title is the third in a separate series, apparently with different characters in each volume, but the same setting.  I haven’t seen the first two so I don’t know for sure.  Hugo Pepper is a young boy whose parents were eaten by polar bears, but who subsequently discovers that his sled, which flies, also has a magical compass.  He has some amusing adventures and foils an aggressive businessman.  Not quite as much fun as the first, and considerably less plausible, but it has its moments. 

Forged by Fire by Janine Cross, Roc, 4/07, $14, ISBN 0-451-46128-2

This is the third in the Dragon Temple saga, and a step up from the first two.  The main character is a woman who was at one time addicted to dragon venom.  She assails tradition and aggravates her many enemies even further by daring to possess property, a privilege normally restricted to men.  When forces are raised against her, she is forced to flee, but instead of accepting defeat she seeks ancient knowledge associated with the use of dragon venom.  Eventually she acts to overthrow the repressive theocratic government and reassert her rights, and the rights of other women.  This volume moves much more briskly and clearly toward its goal than the middle volume in the trilogy, which lost much of the impetus from its predecessor. 

Night Rising by Chris Marie Green, Ace, 2007, $14, ISBN 0-441-01467-5

There is a growing subclass of novels for which the term “dark fantasy” might be most appropriate, a tradition that the Anita Blake novels by Laurell Hamilton first made popular.  The setting is generally our world, but vampires, werewolves, and other legendary creatures are real.  In some cases, society in general is aware of their existence and the novels essentially take place in an alternate reality; in others, the world is our own, but there are secret places and hidden societies about which most of us are unaware.  The former approach the fantasy end of the spectrum while the latter might be better associated with horror fiction, although there are novels spread all over the spectrum between the two.  Chris Marie Green takes some of the icons of horror, specifically vampires, and has her stuntwoman protagonist discover their existence in our world.  But these aren’t the lurking, disease ridden creatures of Bram Stoker and company.  They’re an exotic, hidden society living hidden – mostly – from ordinary humans.  When the stuntwoman’s father disappears mysteriously, her search takes her into this mysterious milieu, where she finds eroticism and revulsion intermixed.  This first novel shows considerably promise, and I did like the protagonist, but I never felt any urgency to the action.

Tempting Evil by Keri Arthur, Bantam Spectra, 3/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58847-7

Dangerous Games by Keri Arthur, Bantam Sepctra, 4/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58959-7

These are respectively the third and fourth novels in a series about Riley Jensen, who lives in a world similar to that of Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake series.  She works for an agency that monitors activities by vampires, werewolves, and the like, but she spends most of her time having sex with a wide variety of inhuman creatures.  Almost as a sidelight, she uncovers and foils plots by various groups although the plot sometimes seems like an afterthought.  These are pretty steamy even for romance novels, but the erotic elements begin to wear surprisingly quickly.  Jenson is uniquely qualified for her job because she is, in fact, a cross between two of those supernatural strains, and strain is definitely the word here.  Like Anita Blake and others in this sub-genre, she makes up the rules as she goes along, and there’s ample opportunity for that when she locks horns with a genuine mad scientist, a geneticist, who is trying to manipulate heredity for his own purposes.  She is also caught between two rival lovers, one vampire and one werewolf, and that makes for a potentially dynamite triangle.  If it wasn’t all so familiar, this would be an outstanding series.  Given the explosion of similar titles, I’d say it’s in the top third, with strong cross genre appeal.

Land of Mist and Snow by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald, Eos, 12/06, $7.99, ISBN 0-06-081919-7

I may have been prejudiced in this book’s favor by the fact that I’ve been reading naval histories of the Civil War recently, but I think I would have been enthusiastic about it anyway.  As the North and South wage war against one another, an evil presence takes form on the oceans, and a counterbalancing force – a ship propelled by unknown forces – sets out to track it down and destroy it.   Our protagonist is John Nevis, an officer aboard the ship representing the north as it seeks to engage a Confederate ship linked to blood sacrifices and dark magic.   High adventure, spookiness, and a nice evocation of the historical era.  I did wonder at times, however, why so few people seemed to notice that something rather out of the ordinary was going on. 

Warlord by Elizabeth Vaughan, Tor, 3/07, no price listed, ISBN 0-765-35266-4

Falling Upwards by Kassandra Sims, Tor, 4/07, no price listed, ISBN 0-765-35581-7

Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn, Warner, 4/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61874-8

One could spend a lot of time reading paranormal romances and nothing else lately; romantic or comic vampires, interplanetary lovers, mermaids, benevolent ghosts, psychics, and magical kingdoms seem to fill the romance section at the local bookstore.  These three are among the better titles I’ve sampled recently, and they are representative of some of the more popular trends.  Vaughan’s is the third in her sword and sorcery series, almost indistinguishable from mainstream fantasy.  The female protagonist must undergo a series of tests to be accepted by her lover’s people. More fantasy than romance, actually.  Somewhat more interesting is Kassandra Sims’ story of a contemporary woman who undertakes a magical quest to lift a curse.  The plot in this one is light hearted and almost whimsical at times, but the writing is quite solid.  Carrie Vaughn’s is certainly the best of the lot, also a third book in a series.  Kitty is a benevolent werewolf whose secret was publicly revealed during a television broadcast.  Now living in seclusion, she has to deal with a determined werewolf hunter, as well as the obvious upset to her life.  Widen your horizons.  Try some paranormal romance.  You might be surprised by what you find. 

Faerie Wars by Herbie Brennan, Tor, 1/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-35674-1

Originally published in 2003, this is the opening volume in a young adult fantasy series constructed along rather traditional lines.  The protagonist encounters a visitor from the land of Faerie who tells him of a terrible enemy threatening the other world, and eventually our hero crosses over to help turn the tide of battle.  Nothing out of the ordinary – in fact I had the sense several times that I was re-reading something else - but despite the lack of anything new or particularly clever, it was entertaining enough to keep me reading untilt he end.

Under Cover of Darkness edited by Julie E. Czerneda and Jana Paniccia, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 0-7564-0404-8

Most of the really good thematic fantasy anthologies are the ones in which the unifying concept is fairly general, which is the case with this new collection of fourteen stories.  The common thread is the secret masters, individuals or groups who work behind the scenes to foil the villain or advance the cause of righteousness, however that might be interpreted by the protagonist involved.  Assassins, secret agents, elves, thieves, good guys and bad, they all act in secret while the world at large goes on oblivious.  Good stories by Tanya Huff, Larry Niven, Esther Friesner, Russell Davis, and Janny Wurts, accompanied by lesser but still quite readable fare from several others. 

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews, Ace, 3/07, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01489-5

Kate Daniels is yet another semi-clone of Anita Blake, living in a world where the supernatural is taken for granted.  Her first adventure finds the feisty young woman engaged in an investigation into the death of her guardian.  She accepts that vampires, werewolves, and other shapechangers are a part of the natural world.  Most novels of this type are set in an alternate universe, but Andrew tells us that this novel, presumably first in a series, is set in the future, after what we think of as reality was changed radically by a resurgence of magic, followed by the reappearance of various supernatural critters.  Vampires can be controlled by sorcerers, and werewolves obey their pack leaders, so there is some semblance of order rather than complete chaos.  But recently someone or something has gotten out of control, and the results have been and still may be deadly to anyone who gets to close.  A promising start though the literary field set aside for this kind of story is starting to get rather crowded.

Solomon’s Jar by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2006, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-62120-5

The Spider Stone by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2006, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-62121-3

The Chosen by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2007, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-62122-1

I picked up the first in the Rogue Angel men’s adventure series because I’d heard that Mel Odom was writing it and I’ve enjoyed a lot of his other books.  The series involves a female scientist – think Tomb Raider – who gets involved with a variety of magical artifacts, and malevolent rivals.  Odom also wrote The Spider Stone, while the other two are by Victor Milan.  By no means are any of these great novels, but I thought they were a lot better, and more inventive, than the Deathlands, Outlanders, or most other similar series I’ve sampled.  In the first of these, she’s after a relic of Solomon which is supposed to hold imprisoned the souls of fallen angels. In the next, an ancient African artifact gets her in trouble with a local warlord, and in the last she deals with sea creatures, magical powers, and a sinister agent of the Vatican.  All three were good fun and it’s early enough in the series that they’re not getting repetitious, although I wonder what’s going to happen when all of the good legends have been used up.

 The Blood Red Harp by Elaine Cunningham, CDS, 2006, $6.99, ISBN 1-59315-224-6

Elaine Cunningham’s recent novels for Tor have proven that she can write some first class fantasy, but this computer game tie-in isn’t going to advance her reputation very far.  Not that it’s bad.  I actually enjoyed most of this story about a magical harp whose powers are hidden until a sufficiently talented musician can be found to play it.  The harp is contended for by a necromancer and a vampire elf, of all things.  There are signs of the author’s growing skill as a writer, but the story is so low key and overly familiar that they seem largely wasted.  If you enjoy Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, you should probably enjoy this as well. 

The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin, Solaris, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-468-3

The first fantasy from this new imprint, a new endeavor from the people who have been bring us the Warhammer novels for some years, is rather disappointing.  It’s not badly written, for a first novel, but it’s the first in the Chronicles of the Necromancer, and it starts off with the evil son murdering his father, usurping the throne, and driving his brother and a small band of followers into exile.  Where have we read this before?  There are magical powers in their ancestry as well, and the brother in hiding contemplates raising an army to his side that will include among their number the risen dead.  I would have thought the publisher would have wanted to launch a new line with a stronger title.  This is close enough to the Warhammer universe that it wouldn’t have required a lot of changes to place it there.

 Claimed by Shadow by Karen Chance, Roc, 4/07, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-46152-5

The second Cassandra Palmer story has our protagonist ensconced as the most important clairvoyant in the world, a world very much like our own but one where the creatures of legends are taken for granted.  Yes, it’s yet another Anita Blake clone.  There have been so many of these recently that they’re starting to blur together just as quests, stolen thrones, and wars with sorcery have been.  While potentially one of the more interesting ones, featuring a tough, kick ass heroine who isn’t impressed by nasty vampires or other supernatural evil, it fails to differentiate itself sufficiently for me to mark it as noteworthy, although I certainly found this enjoyable enough.  In this particular case, Cassandra finds herself under a magic compulsion inflicted by a powerful vampire, and decides to work off her resentment by roughing up those responsible.  Rousing stuff at times, with a touch of romance, and good enough to make me watch for the next, but I’m beginning to feel more than an occasional sense of deja vu. 

If I Were an Evil Warlord edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Russell Davis, DAW, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 0-7564-0384-3

I’d have to give this anthology bonus points for the title and concept.  We’re all familiar with stories in which the evil warlord/ruler/sorcerer/dictator/boss gets his just desserts in the end, thanks to our hero.  Too often they fail not because the opposition was so good, but because they were incompetent, or at least flawed.  But what if the bad guys were a little more savvy?  That’s what the fourteen original stories in this collection explore, with contributions from Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Esther Friesner, David Niall Wilson, Fiona Patton, and others.  The authors explore a variety of scenarios and settings, and the results range from serious to silly.  Some refreshingly different takes on standard situations, good to very good writing, and a diverse enough selection that you should be able to read this one through rather than breaking it up with something different.

 Warlord by Jennifer Fallon, Tor, 8/07, $26.95, ISBN 0-765-30991-2

This is the third book in the Wolfblade trilogy, which makes the sixth in the Hythrun Chronicles from Australian writer Jennifer Fallon.  In the first volume, Lady Marla Wolfblade went from ineffectual court lady to a powerful manipulator behind the scenes, with her own allies helping her affect the future of Hythrun.  In the second, she begins to cultivate her son Damin, whom she hopes to have elevated to the throne. Damin proves to be as formidable in his own way as is his mother, but like its predecessor, the second book was so steeped in intrigues, conspiracy, and political maneuvering that there was little room for physical action.  Marla’s plans are in jeopardy in the concluding volume, because her closest ally and advisor is dead, and her enemies have grown bolder and more threatening.  At the same time, a rival nation’s army is gathering on the border, preparing to invade.  While Damin believes that he can lead the forces of Hythria to victory, the interference of an incompetent and jealous throne undermines his efforts.  The action that was missing in the first two titles arrives at last, with battles both physical and intellectual dominating the story, old rivalries finally exposed and resolved, motives revealed and old debts paid.  If the first two books had been as exciting as the last, this would have been a remarkable trilogy instead of just an enjoyable one.

 The Silver Sword by David Zindell, Tor, 5/07, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31674-9

David Zindell, who has entertained me with his early SF novels, has turned to fantasy with this new series, which was introduced to US readers with The Lightstone, a well written but unfortunately very derivative fantasy adventure to which this is the sequel.  There’s a dark lord, though he’s not called that, who hopes to unite all the diverse peoples of the world under a single rule, his own of course.  He has superhuman powers, which seems to indicate that he cannot be defeated, although there is, of course, a magical artifact that can triumph over him.  The location of the magical artifact is, of course, uncertain.  As the armies of evil advance, many adventures are searching for the artifact, including Prince Valashu Elahad who, accompanied by a small group of companions, battles through a variety of obstacles, and finally seems to be within reach of the prize.  Sarcasm aside, this isn’t a bad book at all.  It’s exciting, fast paced, and the adventures are plausible.  They’re just so familiar!

 Oz in Perspective by Richard Tuerk, McFarland, 2007, $35, ISBN 0-7864-2899-6

L. Frank Baum wrote fourteen Oz books, all of which are discussed in this overview of his most famous fictional creation.  Some of his other books are also covered peripherally, and several of the original illustrations are included as well.  I read the Oz books so long ago that I didn’t remember much but the author provides ample plot descriptions along with his analysis.  He points out the occasional inconsistencies as well as the good points of the books, analyzes how Baum uses magic, the attitudes of the characters, and other issues.  Full of insights, well written and accessible to a non-academic audience, and pleasant to read.