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

 LAST UPDATE  12/31/21

Lord of the Lamia by Otis Adelbert Kline, Armchair, 2021 (originally published in 1935) 

I was surprised by this one, probably the best novel – novella actually – by Kline that I’ve read. A visitor to Egypt rents a house and finds himself drawn into a plot to seize control of a magical snake woman who has been asleep for thousands of years. Through chance, he becomes her master, and has to fend off multiple criminals who want to usurp his place. Horribly dated, of course, but urprisingly entertaining despite that handicap. 12/31/21

Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz, Ballantine, 1970 

First in the long running series. Most of the story involves court intrigues when the king of Gwynedd is poisoned and his son is set to take the throne. His chief adviser is half-Deryni, a race despised for its magical powers and history as oppressive rulers. A sorceress is determined to steal the throne – she was the poisoner – and there is at least one traitor among the king’s counsellors. The retiring queen also hates the Deryni, even though she has some of their blood in her ancestry. The conflict is finally resolved by a magical duel. There are at least three instances where people discover they have unsuspected powers, always at a critical moment when they need them, which is rather contrived. 12/30/21

Forced Perspectives by Tim Powers, Baen, 2020 

Sequel to Alternate Routes. The two protagonists from the first book reunite when an obsessed man tries to use magical objects in order to unite millions of people into a single entity which will resemble a god. Lots of adventure but the real grabber for me is the constant thread of invention, little details that do not necessarily directly affect the plot but which make the world of ghosts – not exactly traditional ghosts – and other magical and supernatural events seem somehow authentic. There is a third in the series coming out in a few months and I’m looking forward to it. 12/21/21

Infinity Dreams by Glen Hirshberg, CD Publications, 2021, $16

I was tempted to call this horror because it contains elements of that genre. This is what might be called a fix-up novel - several short stories woven together - although in this case I don't think the individual stories were published separately and the frame story is more than just a convenience. Two people collect other people who have odd and generally fantastic elements in their lives. Several examples provide the plots for the subordinate stories, which involve ancient secrets, a kind of curse, views of imaginary places, and other bits of magic and the supernatural. A couple of the stories really impressed me. The others were entertaining but not quite as intense. The characters are all skillfully portrayed and the plotting is careful and smooth. Although I have enjoyed two novels by Hirshberg, I like his short fiction better and this present volume provides the best of both worlds. 12/17/21

The Chemickal Marriage by Gordon Dahlquist, Viking, 2012 

Concluding volume in the Glass Books trilogy. The title is borrowed from a 15th Century alchemical manuscript that really exists. The surviving members of the magical glass cabal are still split into factions, one of which has organized itself into a cult. The powers of the glass are till not fully understood. Our heroes are somehow able to tolerate being poisoned but some of the villains seem to have undergone weird personality distortions. This is all resolved in a series of confrontations – and not a few deaths – while the country as a whole falls into chaos thanks to the disruption of the top levels of government. Enjoyable enough, but neither of the sequels was remotely as good as the first book. 12/10/21

The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist, Bantam, 2009

Sequel to The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. This take up the story immediately following the survival of our heroes after an airship crash. They are each going their separate way thanks to unusual circumstances. The chief female villain has survived against all odds, and the various underlings from the first book have now promoted themselves to the leadership, although they are similarly divided. There are more captures and escapes, alliances and treacheries, and the same basic format of having the three protagonists each pursue their own story lines before reconverging. It is not, however, as good as its predecessor. The adventures are less imaginative and sometimes almost dull. The villains are not nearly as menacing and the best of them is off stage most of the time. Stiill quite pleasant but the length feels a bit arduous this time. 12/1/21

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist, Bantam, 2006

First in a trilogy set in an alternate Victorian England. A young woman is jilted without explanation and decides to spy on her former fiancé to find out what is going on. This leads her into the discovery of a vast alchemical conspiracy, a process which converts people against their will to loyalty to the organization - although it turns out there are factions within that group. Her allies are a professional assassin and a Prussian military doctor, and the three of them survive a long series of captures and escapes, killing several of the villains in the process. The glass books are a kind of record of people's memories and experiences which can also be used to hypnotize and control other people. The complexity of the story defies easy description but it is filled with action sequences and a very large cast of colorful characters. I had forgotten how good this was and spent nearly two full days re-experiencing the adventure. 11/18/21

Polyphemus by Michael Shea, Arkham House, 1987 

An excellent collection of stories. “The Angel of Death” is an encounter between an insane serial killer and an alien observer disguised as a human. The title story is about colonists encountering a bizarre and dangerous life form. Both of these are excellent. There is a short adventure of Niff the Lean, incorporated into one of the novels, the short that became the basis for his novel, The Extra, and an encounter with an insect that also disguises itself as a human. “Uncle Tuggs” is a brutal story of revenge from beyond the grave. This is a superb collection. Shea’s short fiction was far superior to his also excellent novels. The stories blend all three strains of speculative fiction. 11/14/21

Rain Music by Patrick Swenson, Fairwood, 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-17-0

The protagonist of this contemporary fantasy is a composer who has suddenly lost his muse. He and a few other well drawn characters are all affected in one way or another by a mystical forest, and also by a dangerous new drug that appears linked to the magic of that place. One of the others has arcane knowledge and wants to restore his dead mother to life. When the protagonist regains his creative faculties and creates a new symphony, it becomes the focal point for a struggle on both physical and metaphysical grounds. This is a nicely sophisticated and mostly understated story, and I really like well written contemporary fantasy a lot more than dragons and barbarian hordes and such, so this was a very pleasant companion for a couple of nights. 11/10/21

A'Rak by Michael Shea, Baen, 2000 

The third Nifft the Lean novel has him traveling to a rich city whose inhabitants have pledged themselves to a spider god in return for riches. The catch, of course, is that they have to produce a steady stream of human sacrifices. Nifft plans to outwit the priesthood, but the spider god and its off spring can sense the presence of a thief, which complicates his plans. He takes a job as a guard on a merchant ship, but the crew is engaged in a forbidden transfer of a body, which puts them in jeopardy as well. Witty and darkly humorous, this series is somewhere between Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard.  This was, however, Nifft’s final outing. 10/18/21

The Mines of Behemoth by Michael Shea, Baen, 1997  

Nifft the Lean returns, but for a less interesting adventure. He and his partner have been hired to secure some fluid from the queen of a nest of giant ants. This involves a number of perils that end up being a bit repetitious, and a plot that would have been a great novelette is strung out to novel length. There are some good passages in which they get an unofficial tour of the mines and a few good scenes interacting with the ants, but it is far less memorable than his previous adventures. 10/15/21

In Yana, the Touch of Undying by Michael Shea, DAW,  1985 

This is a humorous fantasy adventure somewhat in the vein of Jack Vance’s later Dying Earth stories, although Shea does not mimic his style this time. Supposedly the secret of immortality can be found in the city of Yana, if you can find the city in the first place. The protagonist is a student of the occult who is tricked by a rich woman and forced to leave his home city. His journey to Yana includes encounters with witches, giant, vampires, and other mythical creatures, each of which danger he avoids in various ways. I found the story rather uneven and a bit too long, but parts of it are excellent, not an uncommon situation with episodic adventure stories. 10/5/21

Nifft the Lean by Michael Shea, DAW, 1982 

This is an episodic fantasy adventure, although it does not appear that the individual adventures were published separately. In the first, Nifft – a thief – is commissioned to convey the soul of a living man to the underworld so that the woman he wronged in life can have her revenge. Their second adventure is to outwit a ruthless queen who kills her consort every year in order to take another. The third takes Nifft and a companion down into the Demon Sea to rescue a young man, who remains headstrong and difficult throughout the process, endangering them all. The final episode is the weakest, a sort of twisted quest story. The prose is sometimes heavy with detail and even though the story is that of standard fantasy, it often has an indefinably different texture. 9/27/21

A Quest for Simbilis by Michael Shea, DAW, 1974 

Shea’s debut novel was a sequel to Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance, adopting his style and story structure and doing it quite well. Cugel the Clever joins a frustrated town official on a quest to find a legendary wizard of great power. Their adventures are episodic and includes cannibals, zombies, giant lizards, demons, and purely human villains. Cugel is a rogue who only does what’s right when it benefits him to do so. The ending is a bit of a letdown but otherwise it’s very well done. 9/22/21

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks, Solaris, 2021

I enjoyed this author's recent SF series so was looking forward to his first fantasy. It's okay, but I won't be waiting impatiently for the next in the series. A supernatural creature possesses a human and dominates a sort of Viking society, causing one of its tribes to relocate to the mainland where it formerly raided. There are various cultural clashes, which are mostly quite well done, and the mainland society is also torn by conflicting attitudes toward the resettlement. All of this proceeds at a relatively leisurely pace. A bit too leisurely. Bits of information that should have been no more than a paragraph are expanded into subplots - a common failing of fantasy fiction which all too often has to expand 250 pages of story to 400 or more pages of text. There are also two separate devices designed to show us that genders are not regarded in the same way. One is to have characters refer to themselves constantly in third person and by their job title. The other is to include elision marks over every pronoun. The former is slightly awkward. The latter is not only distracting but it accomplishes nothing, since the author is still using "he," "she," "I," etc. 9/12/21

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier, Bantam, 1951 

This contains almost all of the author’s short fiction, which includes so many classics – “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” “Another American Tragedy,” “The Lady on the Grey,” “Evening Primrose,” “Green Thoughts,” etc. – that it is almost breathtaking to read. Only about half of the stories are fantastic but nearly all of them are ironic. A dozen or so have been filmed, usually for television. Murders gone awry, imaginary creatures who are real, deals with the devil, thwarted love, simple minded fiends, and a touch of surrealism here and there. I hadn’t read this in decades and it was liking being reunited with a bunch of old friends. You absolutely owe it to yourself to read these stories. The uniformity of the quality is astonishing. 9/7/21

Echoes of the Great Song by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1997 

This is not one of Gemmell’s best despite a few good scenes. Several heroes are living in a world where an immortal aristocracy’s grip over the mass of the population has been weakened by the onset of an ice age. After introducing the characters and explaining the conflict, Gemmell changes course dramatically. A new moon appears in the sky and it is home to an aggressive queen who sends her soldiers to conquer the world. The immortals have to reconcile themselves with their former slaves in order to present an adequate defense. A large number of named characters, including some of the protagonists, die in this rather long novel. 9/5/21

Dark Moon by David Gemmell, Corgi, 1996 

Another standalone fantasy epic set in a world where there used to be three non-human intelligent races. One of them was vicious and aggressive but they mysteriously disappeared. After introducing us to the primary protagonist, a man who shares his body with his not very pleasant unborn twin, we discover that the dangerous aliens have returned. Most of the novel describes efforts by three courageous heroes to direct the defense of a city under siege by the demonic enemy. The military sequences are well done as always and there are hints that the imagined world might be interesting, although these are never carried through. Perhaps Gemmell had planned to return to this world. 9/1/21

Once Upon a Dream by Liz Braswell, Hyperion, 2016 

I picked this up out of curiosity. It’s a kind of alternate version of a fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty is not awakened and has a series of adventures in her dream world. After the minor novelty of the set up, the story becomes just another light fantasy adventure, and it’s aimed at young adult readers in a very transparent prose style. The plot is uncomplicated. Actual fantasy fans will probably be disappointed but casual readers should find it enjoyable. 8/27/21

Morningstar by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1992 

This heroic fantasy adventure borrows considerably from Robin Hood, although the heroic protagonist is actually manipulated rather effectively by the narrator, a bard, who creates the romantic image and applies it to a rogue, around whom others gather. The rogue himself is transformed by his assumed role. After battling a number of fairly prosaic villains, they have to act against a vampire king who has returned from some realm to which he was exiled generations earlier. He has converted virtually an entire city, all of whose undead residents will disintegrate in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fashion if the king is destroyed. Which of course is exactly what happens. 8/26/21

Dark Prince by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1991   

Sequel to Lion of Macedon.  Much more fantasy this time as young Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, is part demon and is abducted into an alternate world where mythological creatures are real. Our hero, Parmenion, goes after him and is able to engineer the defeat of a supposedly invulnerable villain. There is a great deal of story after this climax. Magic turns Philip against Alexander for a while, assassins lurk everywhere, and Philip embarks on a major military campaign. This is the first Gemmell I have actually disliked. The alternate world never seemed real, the characters are not as well drawn, and the structure of the plot is odd and disorienting. 8/22/21

Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1990 

Although there is some fantasy in this – mostly a couple of women foreseeing the future and interfering in the present- it is really an historical novel set in the early days of the life of Philip of Macedon. The protagonist is Parmenion, half Spartan and half Macedonian, who is mistreated in Sparta and eventually helps the city of Thebes to successfully rebel against the Spartans. He then goes to Macedon where he proves equally valuable to Philip and his father, the king, who are surrounded by aggressive enemies. As is always the case with Gemmell, the battle sequences are excellent, and the rest of the novel almost as good. 8/19/21

The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards, Uclan, 2021, $14, ISBN 978-1-912979-00-4

This is a very thoughtful young adult novel set in a fantasy world where a civil war has just been concluded. Although one side was victorious, there is simmering discontent and the conflict has just become more subtle. There are two main protagonists, both young women, who are caught up in the consequent struggle. Each is expected to be manipulated in furtherance of one agenda or another but once they begin to realize what is going on, they act independently and chart a very different course. Strong female characters and an interesting story, though marred for me by the irritating present tense narration. 8/16/21

Fantastic Americana by Josh Rountree, Fairwood, 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-16-3

Twenty-one stories ranging from fantasy to the supernatural to science fiction, although fantasy is the dominant genre. I had previously read about half of those included here. The sources are generally obscure except for Realms of Fantasy magazine and a couple of online sites. Rountree is not easily pigeonholed. His stories range from traditional contemporary fantasy to witchcraft to apocalyptic futures and supercomputers. His themes are very human, regardless of theme and setting, including the value of true love, understanding of oneself, and duty to one's companions. Despite the popularity of fantasy during the past twenty years or more, very few writers have done much with short fantasy fiction rather than novels, and Rountree is definitely one of the exceptions. 8/16/21

Knights of Dark Renown by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1993 

A standalone adventure set in a world whose protective knights crossed into another reality, with the exception of one who chickened out at the last minute. In their absence, the country has fallen into disunion and the king is controlled by evil and ambitious men. The last remaining knight has to find the courage to cross into the other world, seek out his fellows, and convince them to return to save the day. As always, Gemmell presents us with a cast of interesting characters and interspersed their interactions with duels, monsters, and swordfights. The setting struck me as a bit flat compared to his other fantasy worlds, but the story is a good one. 8/14/21

The Hawk Eternal by David Gemmell, Legend, 1995  

Sequel to Ironhand’s Daughter, although the protagonist of that novel makes only a brief appearance here. The Highlanders (think Scotland) are attacked by the Aenir (think Vikings) for no reason except the love of war and conquest. But the Aenir have bitten off more than they can chew this time as a kind of guerilla war saps their strength and causes internal dissensions. There is a coming of age story mixed in, along with an odd subplot about interplanetary teleportation devices that stopped working, leaving various worlds isolated from one another. 8/11/21

Ironhand’s Daughter by David Gemmell, Legend, 1995 

A thinly disguised revisiting of the Roman occupation of the British Isles. The Highlanders have been defeated by the Outlanders, but the local governor is ambitious and wants to prove his military mettle, even if that means provoking a war where no resistance exists. He imprisons and tortures a young woman who is the last of the Highlander royal line, but she escapes, killing several soldiers in the process and becomes leader of a growing rebellion. The villain’s plans are undercut, however, when she visits the king he serves and threatens to cut off the sunlight by magic if he supports the governor. He agrees to a hands off policy and the governor and his minions are overwhelmed. 8/8/21

Bloodstone by David Gemmell, 1994  

I thought Genmell tried too hard with this one. It has an artificial intelligence, multiple timelines, godlike powers, mutants, atomic weapons, machineguns vs flintlocks, demons, and a kind of resurrection of the dead. The protagonist is a great warrior who is believed dead but who has just adopted another identity. Then he suffers partial amnesia and is back in the fight against a repressive theocracy that has its own internal divisions, the return of an old enemy from an alternate world, and other dangers. It felt more like a rapid series of vaguely related events than a linear plot working toward a conclusion. Rather disappointing. 8/3/21

The Last Guardian by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1989  

This is not my favorite series by the author. It seems out of focus and uncontrolled. Jon Shannow has to battle not only the villains of his own time, but the emperor of lost Atlantis who has found a way to send his inhuman legions forward through time to conquer the future. There are some individual sequences that I thought were well done, but the story does not really hold together, and Shannow is a less interesting character than are Gemmell’s other heroic figures. The supporting cast is not as strong as usual either, and time travel and alternate realities almost always make it difficult to stay absorbed in the affairs of the base world. 7/28/21

Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell, Legend, 1987  

Aka The Jerusalem Man. The first adventure of Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man, in a far future Earth which has altered its axis. Magic and chaos reign. An army known as the Hellborn has set out to conquer the world. Shannon is disillusioned and mostly disinterested, but the Hellborn leader has targeted him specifically because of a magical prophecy, and Shannow vows to kill him. The protagonist is a bit difficult to understand at times, but the story is tightly plotted and has multiple viewpoint characters. The magic is mostly off stage, although it is integral to the story. There are lots of dream visitation by the spirits of the dead. Gemmell was one of the best at this type of story. 7/24/21

The Fat Man by Ken Harmon, Dutton, 2010 

This one is an amusing fantasy set at the North Pole of Santa Claus. A dissident elf makes an effort to punish the parents of children who misbehave, convinced that they are responsible. When one of those parents is found murdered, evidence suggests that the elf is responsible, so naturally he has to find out who did it in order to escape from being framed. Written in a light, unadorned style that sometimes feels like a fairy tale and sometimes feels like a tough contemporary PI novel. 7/20/21

Last Sword of Power by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1988 

The second half of the story of Uther Pendragon, although much of this focuses on his son, Cormac. The chief villain is Wotan, a sorcerous Viking leader who has conquered Gaul and stolen Uther’s soul. His son Cormac overcomes a number of challenges – including being stabbed to death – in order to prevent Wotan from winning. He also rescues the fair maiden, consults with a Merlin analogue, and has various adventures. Although both halves of this story have been well written, I found them much less interesting than the books Gemmell set in worlds of his own imagination. 7/18/21

A Sorcerer of Atlantis by John Shirley, Hippocampus, 2021, $20, ISBN 978-1-61498-332-3 

Two unrelated novellas are partnered here. The title story is an expansion of the previously published “Sword of Atlantis.” It lies somewhere between Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Two somewhat unlikely heroes find themselves allied with a female warrior in ancient Atlantis. They have some mild adventures fighting monsters with a light touch in the prose before discovering the existence – and threat – of an ocean going variety who could very well destroy Atlantis entirely. There is a good deal of casual humor that holds at bay the darker implications of the story. The second story, “A Prince in the Kingdom of Ghosts,” did not work as well for me, probably because of my aversion to stories set in dream worlds or the afterlife. The protagonist in this one dies and finds himself in a rather inventive afterlife where he has to struggle against a variety of fantastic creatures. Shirley is always interesting and these are unlike anything else that I’ve read by him. Both are well crafted and despite superficial similarities, they felt very different to me. 7/14/21

Ghost King by David Gemmell, Del Rey, 1988  

First half of the Stones of Power, which is based on Arthurian fantasy. Uther Pendragon is known as Thuro for most of the story. The legal High King is assassinated and a civil war breaks out among the tribes of Britain. A handful of immortals including Culain and Astarte (sometimes known as Circe), manipulate people and battle behind the scenes. Uther gains possession of a magical stone that gives him powers of his own. A lost Roman legion that has been wandering for centuries in a land of mist is brought back into the real world in order to turn the tide of battle. Uther becomes the high king, but not without suffering losses and being changed by his experiences. Gemmell added a trilogy to this "series" later but they are barely related. 7/8/21