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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914

 LAST UPDATE  6/28/21

Stormrider by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2002 

The final Rigante novel has the spirit of a dead inhuman threatening to destroy humanity by causing yet more wars and strife. Two heroes of earlier books, who are on opposite sides, get drawn into the conflict and become allies. One of them ultimately gives his life to save humanity. There are some very strong and complex characters in this one and while it had a much darker tone than usual with this author, it ends on an upbeat if somewhat bittersweet note. The battle sequences are vivid as always. A lot of characters from earlier books in the series die this time in a kind of muted Ragnarok. 6/28/21

Ravenheart by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2001 

The third Rigante novel is set several centuries after the previous book, when the Rigante have been conquered by the Varlish, who brutally suppress any remnants of the old tribal identity. This one is largely a coming of age story about a young man whose people have been conquered so thoroughly that their cultural heritage is being destroyed. It’s also about racism, corruption, and how ethical issues are important even among relatively undeveloped people. There is no war in this one, no large scale battle, which is atypical based on the dozen or so Gemmell novels I’ve previously read. But a civil war is looming and there is still another novel in the Rigante series, next on the stack. 6/23/21

For the Good of the Realm by Nancy Jane Moore, Aqueduct, 2021, $19, ISBN 978-1-61976-187-2

Two female guards of the royal family have a series of swashbuckling adventures in this mix of magic, intrigue, and wild adventure. Although witchcraft is technically illegal, they even resort to that under the stress of espionage and intrigue. There is a constant threat of a devastating war, magically empowered enemies, and mundane dangers. This clearly draws on the work of Dumas for some of its inspiration, but most of the main characters are female, which provides an interesting new twist. Our heroes are not afraid to use their swords when that is called for. Entertainingly written, fast paced, and occasionally even thought provoking. 6/19/21

Midnight Falcon by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2000 

Second in the Rigante series. The illegitimate son of Connavar, the king, has been ostracized unfairly by his family. Now he is a man and he has various adventures abroad and at home before finally getting caught up in a war that will eventually lead to a kind of reconciliation with his father. Gemmell is very skilled at characterization  and the interplays among the various people in the story is as interesting as the full scale war that takes place during the final few chapters. And it is obviously a set up for the continuing adventures of Bane, the protagonist. The magical elements are a bit more prominent in this one than in most of his other novels/  6/13/21

Where the Evil Dwells by Clifford D. Simak, 1982 

Routine fantasy quest set in an alternate Europe. A band of unlikely heroes penetrates the Empty Lands where they are plagued by unicorns, dragons, trolls, ogres, goblins, banshees, and so forth. Each member of the group has a separate reason for making the journey.  There are some magical deus ex machina plot twists and not a lot that is memorable or even particularly entertaining. Simak never seemed to really understand fantasy and often mixed it into his SF. 6/9/21

Sword in the Storm by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1999  

First in the Rigante series. This is a surprisingly slow moving novel for Gemmell. It introduces a number of characters and develops them at length, as well as presenting several new cultures. The Rigante have a kind of informal military structure which deals primarily with periodic feuds and raids by their neighbors. But across the sea, the various tribes are more organized militarily, and it is inevitable that they will eventually decide to invade. The chief protagonist undergoes several tribulations. He loses his first love because she is unfaithful and his second is accidentally killed in a skirmish. He spends some time as a mercentary, is nearly killed by a bear, is presented with a magical knife, and eventually trains his people to fight a  more formal war, which is thrust upon them in the closing chapters. A bit of a slog at times. 6/3/21

The Swords of Night and Day by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2004   

The final Drenai novel has Skilgannon reborn in his far future, along with the queen he once loved and who is now the ruler of much of the world. A kind of magical clone of Druss returns as well. There are a lot of characters in this novel, which I believe is the longest in the series. There is a quest mixed with a prophecy mixed with a lengthy chase scene, all wrapped around court intrigues and magical rivalries. The half human Joinings are back, including a couple of new variations and even a Joining sorcerer. There are really no slow parts in this one, with treachery, battle scenes, mixed allegiances, visions, rival magicians, murder, twisted romances and others that are straightforward but sometimes doomed. Had Gemmell lived longer, this might not have been the final installment, but it’s a worthy one anyway. 5/29/21

White Wolf by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2003 

Although Druss returns as a character in this one, the focus is on another warrior, Skilgannon the Damned. The two of them spend most of the story protecting refugees fleeing from the chaotic multi-sided war that has disrupted much of the world. Skilgannon is being pursued by an old enemy who was virtually brought back from the dead. Druss is aging and has slowed down considerably. The closing chapters involve a revenge plot, a kidnapping, and encounters with the Joinings, magical meldings of humans and animals to create super soldiers. One of Gemmell’s better books, in part because it looks at war from the victims’ point of view. 5/25/21

The Fellowship of the Talisman by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1978

This is a tedious, preachy, derivative novel set in an alternate world where the Dark Ages never ended due to the interference of period attacks by hordes of demons. The Christian church somehow exists even though it does not know much about a minor prophet named Jesus. The hero is entrusted with a supposed summary of his teachings and must travel across England to have it authenticated. His companions include a ghost, a banshee, a witch, a hermit, and others. Most of the time nothing much happens, and since this was Simak’s longest novel, that’s not a good thing. I was tempted to give up on this one but forced myself to finish it. 5/23/21

Hero in the Shadows by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 2000 

Waylander’s last adventure finds him wealthy and settled far from the lands of the Drenai. He is also older and slower, but just as determined. This time he is one of a group of people who have to prevent a race of demons from creating a portal into our world and invading. They already have agents who undercut the local government in order to facilitate their incursion and subsequent takeover. As always, Gemmell creates some very interesting characters. The middle third of the novel is a bit slow, but the final third includes some of his best writing and involves multiple viewpoint characters whose fates all eventually converge. Although Waylander is from Drenan, that land and people are only peripherally mentioned in the story. 5/17/21

Winter Warriors by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1997 

Three aging warriors find themselves protecting a fugitive queen and her newborn child when a race of demons from another reality begin possessing key figures in the human world in an attempt to fulfill a prophecy that requires the death of the infant. Lesser demons cause mass murders and general chaos and the loyalties of various people are tested. There is more magic in this than in the previous Drenai books, not to mention a virtual army of inhuman creatures. Gemmell was very good at this sort of story, but he also stayed pretty close to established tropes throughout his career. 5/13/21

Enchanted Pilgrimage by Clifford D. Simak, Berkley, 1975 

Simak’s first open fantasy is a parade of cliches. A scholar in some vaguely described fantasy world finds a manuscript that sets him on a quest, accompanied by a goblin, armed with a magical sword, and pursued by various villains. They have a series of familiar and not very interesting adventures before finally finding the land of the Old Ones, after which there is an attempt to rationalize all of this by positing an alien race watching humanity and all the other species are just aliens or are genetically altered. This was painful to read. 5/5/21

The Legend of Deathwalker by David Gemmell, Del Rey,  1996

Another volume about Druss, this one set after he recovers his wife but grows restless working as a farmer. He is fighting in an arena when his prospective opponent – whom he actively likes – is seriously wounded saving Druss’ life. So Druss has to venture into dangerous territory to retrieve some magical gems that can cure any wound. But recovery of the jewels is part of a prophecy that will unite scores of barbarian tribes into a single unit that will overrun much of the world in another book.  Big chunks of the story do not involve Druss at all and there is an unusually long section in which almost nothing at all happens. The first of the author’s books which I had to struggle to finish. Hopefully, it will be the only one. 5/4/21

The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1993 

The origin story for Druss, the axe wielding hero of Legend. He is a woodcutter in a small village until raiders seize his wife, and he spends the rest of the novel tracking her down. This leads him into a war complicated by plague, pirates, sorcery, and other pitfalls. He almost dies a couple of times, spends some months in a dungeon, and kills a lot of people. His wife, meanwhile, has lost all memories of her early life, as well as her telepathic abilities. It’s a standard quest story, though better written than most, and the downbeat ending is telegraphed and its partial reversal a bit too contrived for my taste. 4/30/21

In the Realm of the Wolf by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1992

Waylander – the heroic warrior - is not dead after all, and when one of his adopted daughters is murdered by the son of the current ruler, a large number of assassins set out to collect the bounty money placed on Waylander’s head to keep him from exacting vengeance. But Waylander has aged well and still manages to kill a great many of them with sometimes unconvincing ease. Most of the rest of the  story is his effort to counter Zhu Chao, a sorcerer from a distant land who has a clever plan to unite three nations under his clandestine rule. The sorcerer loses control of a demon he summons at the end – a device used in all too many fantasy adventures. 4/25/21

The Silences of Ararat by L. Timmel Duchamp, Aqueduct, 2021, $12, ISBN 978-1-61976-208-4

This novella is rather out of the ordinary. The king is quite obviously insane, dangerously so. The queen was more of a political accommodation than anything else and whatever affection might have existed between them is swamped by his madness and paranoia. He decides that she has been unfaithful to him and sentences her to be executed. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it. But there is a sculptor in the castle who has decided to being about a happier ending. The story is mostly about the sculptor, her history and interactions, as she quietly sets about change the course of events. Understated and non-melodramatic, which makes a nice change. One could make the argument that this is not even really fantastic. It is certainly a welcome change of pace. 4/18/21

Quest for Lost Heroes by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1990 

As the title suggests, this is a quest story. Four aging heroes find themselves helping a young man track down the girl he thinks he loves. She was abducted by slavers. But the months long journey gets more complicated when the girl ends up as wife to the ruler of a barbarian empire, a reclusive sorcerer plots revenge for the murder of the man he served, a ghost decides to return to the land of the living by possessing a baby, and a foreign diplomat survives a treacherous attack and vows to murder the man who ordered it. As always, Gemmell fills his story with diverse and well drawn characters, the battle scenes are exciting, and the outcome comes as something of a surprise. 4/14/21

Waylander by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1986

The Drenai have nearly been conquered by fanatics from a bordering country. Waylander is an assassin who finds himself reluctantly protecting a priest, a young woman, and three children on a trip across the devastated countryside to safety. After several adventures he undertakes a probably suicidal quest to retrieve some armor that would serve as a rallying point for the Drenai and help them defeat the invaders. There is a subplot about the siege of a fortress, a bit of romance for Waylander, a priest who decides that pacifism is not his cup of tea, and some nice battle sequences. I was mildly disappointed by the ending, which involves a deus ex machina and then a not very convincing quasi-reversal. 4/7/21

The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes, Tor, 2021, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-250-23534-0  

The blurbs on this one suggest openly that the story is inspired in part by the Black Guard from the Game of Thrones series. There is something called the Divide on the edge of the universe, and a small group of misfits – disgraced aristocrats, criminals, and misfits in general – are assigned to keep watch. That sinecure becomes more of a challenge when the Divide begins to collapse, heralded unknown chaos. The characters are reasonably well done and there is some nice sense of wonder atmosphere, but although I enjoyed the story, I had a nagging feeling of something missing. It was only after I finished that I realized the prose was very heavily dialogue and only a few scenes were vivid in my memory. First in a series. 4/2/21

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020    

This is one of those novels where the story is not the primary focus. The narrator is one of two people living in an enormous – possibly infinite – building consisting of halls full of statuary. There are actual storms on the upper floors, and the lowermost are largely underwater and provide most of the food they need. Both of the characters are more than slightly idiosyncratic. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and some strangely evocative settings, but readers who prefer a strongly defined plot are likely to get restless. 3/29/21

The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1995 (originally published in 1985)

The second in the Drenai series takes place several generations after the first book. The Drenai have fallen under the sway of an insane tyrant who uses a newly discovered technology to make warriors of humans who have been blended with animals. The protagonist is a soldier of the previous regime who decides to avenge the treacherous murder of his former comrades. At first he just plans assassination, but as he picks up followers here and there, it seems more useful to actually overthrow the tyrant. There are some well written battle scenes - although I could have done without the magical confrontations in a kind of dream realm - and several reasonably well drawn characters. The ending comes as no surprise, but the writing is quite good. 3/25/21

Legend by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1994 

The first of the Drenai series, originally published in 1984 as Against the Horde. A legendary warrior has to come out of retirement to lead the defense of a fortress against an enemy that outnumbers the defenders fifty to one. The story breaks no new ground in fantasy, but it is very well written and enjoys some solid characterization and an intelligent understanding of the mechanics of siege warfare. This is really not among the types of novels that I generally enjoy, but there are always exceptions. There is occasional reference to sorcery, but it is always in the background and has a limited effect on the main plot.  I don’t think I ever read this before – the first edition was from a marginal publisher and it was years later before I found a copy. The ending is a bit weak – the siege ends for external reasons – but not awful. The book on the whole is pretty good. 3/19/21

The White Sybil by Clark Ashton Smith, Wildside, 2005  

This is a collection of some of the lesser known work of Smith, including a couple of prose poems that have no plot. About half the book is fantasy, and all but one of these stories have appeared in other collections. The exception is “The Ghost of Mohammed Din,” which is a traditional ghost story, although set in India. Several of the otherwise uncollected stories are also set in India, and none of them have any fantastic content. They mostly involve murder, treachery, and adventure. One short piece, “Something New,” is one of the most sexist short stories I have ever read. 2/23/21

Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1970 

A series of loosely related stories set under a dying sun in a far future Earth where magic has returned. Although these stories doubtless influenced other writers like Jack Vance, I found that reading them over the course of the day made them feel repetitive and in some cases there was really not much of a plot. Smith’s strength was his depiction of strange settings and bizarre events, often using colorful language, but story telling was less important to him. The best story in the collection is “The Dark Eidolon.”  I am more convinced than ever that Smith should be read in small doses. 2/6/21

Xiccarph by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1972 

The best stories in this varied collection are the three set on Mars, most notably “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” which involves parasitic creatures entombed in an abandoned city. The others include dying planets, worlds ruled by malevolent flowers, an entire star system run by a sorcerer who turns women into statues and men into apes. Generally speaking these are a bit more conventional in prose and plotting than the more typical Smith stories. 1/31/21

Poseidonis by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1973   

The first third of this collection consists of stories relating to Atlantis, or rather the surviving remnant known as Poseidonis. The others have random locations including Asia, Lemuria, and the South Pacific. “The Double Shadow,” “The Last Incantation,” and “A Vintage from Atlantis” are probably the best known, but “An Offering to the Moon” was the one I liked best. Included are some poems and prose-poems, and some commentary by Lin Carter. Smith does not age quite as well as I had expected but he is still readable. 1/25/21

Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith, Ballantine, 1971 

This collects all of the author’s stories of Hyperborea, which are unrelated except for the common setting, and the four stories from the World’s Rim series. Some of his most famous and best work is included, like “The Testament of Athammous,” “Ubbo-Sathla,” and “The Abominations of Yondo.” The stories are filled with strange, inhuman gods and a variety of monsters that are of more mortal nature. There are wizards and soldiers and executioners and moneylenders as protagonists, all resident of a lost continent where dinosaurs, saber toothed tigers, and horrid crossbreeds all live. Most of the stories do not turn out well for their protagonists. Smith used an ornate poetic style and a depth of physical description that is no longer popular. 1/8/21

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, Tor, 2019 

Mixing a detective story with fantasy is kind of tricky, since magic contradicts the rational world and mysteries are generally solved rationally. That hasn’t stopped people from doing it, and sometimes doing it well. This contemporary fantasy does it well. The private investigator is hired to investigate a gruesome murder at the school for magicians where her sister works as an instructor. Ivy isn’t all that fond of magic, and the crime is months old before she even learns about it, buy she’s game and competent and works her way through an intriguing and entertaining mystery in an interesting setting. I suppose this is technically an urban fantasy but that label has become meaningless. 1/2/21