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  of Fantasy Reviews

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

 LAST UPDATE 12/31/09  

Murder Has No Class by Rebecca Kent, Berkley, 2010, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23207-1

The Victorian rather than the Edwardian period is my favored venue for historical British murder mysteries, but this one was enjoyable.  I also liked the specific setting - a finishing school designed to turn out proper young ladies no matter how rough the raw material. And since there's a genuine ghost in this one, it's fantasy as well.  Things are not going well at this particular establishment. Trouble with the staff as well as the students. The ghost is of a former owner who was hanged (not "hung" as the cover copy would have it) for the murder of his own father. The headmistress decides that his discontent over his unjust execution is at the root of her problems, so she decides to solve the crime in order to restore tranquility to her charges.  Standard fare, done with a nice light touch.  12/31/09

Crimson & Steam by Liz Maverick, Love Spell, 1/10, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52779-0   

The Crimson City series is a shared world in which a future version of Los Angeles is the battleground for vampires and werewolves.  Humans are there as well, and they construct what amount to cyborgs to add a third side to the fray.  Iíve read several but not all of the books in this series Ė theyíre packaged as paranormal romances Ė and Maverickís contributions were the most interesting in the past, and here as well.  This oneís about star crossed lovers, one human, one vampire, and their dangerous path to love amidst a crisis that could tear the entire city apart.  Iím tempted to call this futuristic steampunk despite the supernatural elements because thatís how it felt when I was reading it.  A bit out of the mainstream of paranormal fantasy. 12/24/09

Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick DAW, 12/10, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0595-3  

Laura Resnick kicks off the Esther Diamond series with this new urban fantasy novel.  Esther is a sometimes actress making a living as best she can in New York City and helping her magician friend to combat magical evil in her spare time.  When someone finds a way to duplicate gangsters Ė sort of a gang in a box Ė she knows itís time to go into action. Thereís a romantic interest as well, predictably the detective who doesnít believe that magic is real.  Thereís also some impersonation going on and some of that hits close to home.  What might have been just another paranormal fantasy has some life in it thanks to a livelier than usual protagonist and some genuine inventiveness in the premise and plotting. 12/22/09

Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear by Gabriel Hunt, Leisure, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6258-1  

Part of a menís adventure series, this one written by Charles Ardai.  Hunt is a Doc Savage type figure, rich, near superhuman powers, ready to go anywhere in the world for high adventure.  In this one a secret room inside the Great Sphinx contains a secret that could change the world.  Thereís a human villain vying for the same secret knowledge, which eventually leads our hero to a confrontation with an actual living sphinx.  More holes than in a Swiss cheese factory and not nearly as entertaining as the previous book I read in this series.  Included also is a completely independent novelette that is actually better than the main story. It will be interesting to see how the series evolves as other writers are enlisted to continue the protagonist's adventures, hopefully with a somewhat more plausible plot.  On the other hand, Doc Savage was rarely plausible and that series did rather well. 12/22/09

Arms-Commander by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 1/10, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2381-1

Modesitt returns to his most popular series with this new novel of Recluce, although the series has ranged wide and far enough that itís really not a series at all, just a common setting.  In this one, conflict looms between two kingdoms, one of whom is ruled by women and the other by male chauvinists. The matriarchy sends a representative, our protagonist, to a neighboring kingdom, hoping to forge a defensive alliance. The bad guys have allies as well, some of them operating undercover, and Saryn, the representative, finds himself in the midst of a budding civil war. So the question becomes whether the matriarchy can successfully support the rulers of their prospective ally, so that the ally can in turn help support them if war comes.  Thereís a good deal of action but the story is really about the conflict between overt and covert political pressures, exploitation of perceived inequities, and outright subversion.  Enjoyable if not ground breaking, and you donít need to have read previous novels in the ďseriesĒ to understand whatís going on here. 12/21/09

Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe, Tor, 2009, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2221-0  

Alex Bledsoeís first novel was a blend of tough detective and fantasy, set in a fantasy world rather than as a contemporary urban fantasy. It is a combination that has been tried occasionally before Ė even Conan solved a mystery or two Ė but usually not well.  Mystery and fantasy is an awkward pairing at the best of times, but the nature of the Chandleresque detective is more suited for fantasy and more likely to work.  That novel worked, and so does this follow up.  This time our hero is approached by a young woman whose life is in danger, and shortly thereafter he finds his prospective client dead.  He decides to find out who was responsible and embarks on a varied trip through various levels of society in a reasonably typical fantasy world.  One might expect this to be a light adventure story, but there is some genuine meat on the bones of the plot and I found myself devouring it in one sitting.  Iíll be looking forward to Eddie LaCrosseís next caper. 12/20/09

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison, Ballantine, 1967, original publication in 1922  

I first read this way back just before this mass market paperback edition appeared.  Since then I have re-read it close to ten times, more repeats for me than any other book in any genre.  Each time I come to it wondering why I enjoyed it so much in the past, and each time Iíve become completely immersed in the story within a couple of chapters Ė a couple because the opening chapter is completely divorced from the rest of the book.  The setting is some imaginary planet peopled by various races called Ghouls, Goblins, and such, even though theyíre all perfectly human.  The main conflict is between the evil Witchland, ruled by Gorice XII with the assistance of the renegade Goblin, Lord Gro, and the heroic Demons, led by Brandoch Daha, Goldry Bluszco, and others. Gorice XI is killed in a wrestling match with Goldry early on, after which we get introduced to the villainy and sneakiness of the Witches and their allies. Gro is actually the most complex character in the novel; most of the others are larger than life heroes and villains. The king of Witchland conjures a demon who snatches Goldry away, but a prophetic dream tells the others that their friend is captive on the distant mountain of Koshtra Belorn, so they mount an expedition to rescue him.  Their journey through a series of fabulous mountains is one of the high points of the novel.  Meanwhile, the Witches launch a mostly successful invasion of Demonland in the absence of most of its leadership, despite a falling out among themselves. The battles are panoramic, the derring do very derring, and the prose Ė deliberately written in an antiquated poetic style Ė is a delight to read.  This wonít be the last time I travel along these familiar roads. 12/19/09

Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman, Pocket, 2009, $26, ISBN 978-1-4391-0141-4

Iíve enjoyed Gilmanís Wren Valere series of fantasy romances better than those of most of her peers, so I was curious about this, which is a more conventional fantasy.  The setting is a familiar fantasy realm where magic was once wielded by a kind of aristocracy who misused and lost their powers. The world is a quieter, nicer, and less magic prone place for a while, but then something evil starts to extend its influence.  Defense against this encroaching force may require the use of an enigmatic young man suffering from a form of amnesia, who may hold powers denied to the rest of the nation.  But we donít find out much about him, or even a whole lot about the evil menace, because this is the opening volume in a trilogy.  Promising, as is the case with most opening volumes, I was left hanging precipitously at the end. 12/17/09

Torn by Julie Kenner, Ace, 12/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01797-3  

Another urban fantasy with a not quite human protagonist.  Lily was brought back from the dead to balance her life by killing the demons that plague humanity.  She is partnered with a romantic lead, who is half angel and half demon through some complicated supernatural gymnastics.  In order to redeem herself, she decides to infiltrate the secret society of evil demons, which proves to be more difficult than she expected.  Trouble and turmoil follow but I lost interest after a while.  I couldnít identify with any of the characters, I didnít like Lily or believe in her newfound moral mission, and I thought the dialogue was chopping and distracting.  The author seems content to create superficial situations and then provide a mix of action and humor to advance toward a conclusion, but she never got me on board as a reader so the ride went without me. I hadn't read an urban fantasy in a while so I was in the proper frame of mind for one, but not this one.12/14/09

The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn, Pyr, 11/09, $16, ISBN 978-1-59102-783-6  

The first volume in Mark Chadbournís newest fantasy series is a definite winner.  Set in an alternate Elizabethan England, it involves Ė among other things Ė a plot to assassinate the queen and efforts by a swashbuckling spy to prevent the crime. Will Swyfte is a kind of fanciful James Bond character, larger than life, so well known for his exploits that his effectiveness against ordinary spies is problematic.  But thereís another hidden war going on and there he is at his best. Minions for Faerie are engaged in a secret war within England and only a small group of agents within the government recognizes the truth, and is capable of fighting back.  Using magical devices designed by John Dee and their own wits and prowess, agents like Swyfte are prepared to prevent England from being undermined from within. Lots of twists and turns, high adventure, thrills and chills.  Iím actively looking forward to another Swyftian outing. 12/11/09

The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, Hyperion, 2009, $17.99, ISBN 978-142311823-7  

The author returns to the world of the Seven Realms for this exceptional young adult fantasy.  The initial premise is an interesting one.  The protagonist is a one time thief now trying to survive legitimately.  He also possesses a pair of magical cuffs that he cannot remove.  In due course, and through a somewhat contrived series of events, he also acquires a magical amulet of such power that he knows ambitious wizards with less than ordinary scruples are certain to want to take it from him.  Thereís a secondary story involving a princess who wants to choose her own life rather than be compelled by her circumstances, but itís the boyís story that is the more interesting.  Another YA fantasy that should interest adults, and won't take long to read, with a kind of reverse quest motif. 12/10/09

Magic in the Shadows by Devon Monk, Roc, 11/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46287-9  

Third in the Allison Beckstrom series, one of my favorites of the current crop of paranormal fantasy.  Beckstrom has a unique ability to backtrack evil magic to its source, so she acts as a kind of unofficial detective dedicated to finding sorcerous villains.  The use of her power has a price Ė thereís always a price Ė and she feels at times that she is losing herself in the process.  That situation becomes even more pronounced when her father Ė her dead father that is Ė manages to manifest himself inside her already quite crowded and confused mind.  If she canít find a way to control her own mind, magically or otherwise, she might find herself no longer in control of her own body, let alone her destiny.  A nice solid fantasy adventure, not quite as good as the first two but still a winner. 12/3/09

Dead and Kicking by Wendy Roberts, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22862-8  

This is the third in what is now called the ďGhost DustersĒ series.  The protagonists specialize in cleaning up crime scenes, which would be an interesting premise all on its own.  Thereís another wrinkle as well because one of the team, Sadie Novak, sometimes communicates with the dead.  Yup, itís a Ghost Whisperer quasi-clone, although the interaction is considerably different.  This time around Sadie, who has numerous distractions, is hired to clean the house of a hoarder Ė and having done this myself on one occasion I can attest to the daunting aspects.  Sadie has a worse experience than I did, however, because she finds the mummified corpse of a baby and a malevolent ghost.  Neither of those came up during my efforts, I am happy to say.  And thatís just the beginning of the mystery.  Best in the series by far, and Iím starting to like the protagonist more with each new adventure. 12/3/09

Three Days to Dead by Kelly Meding, Dell, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59286-3  

Guess what!  This is the first in a new urban fantasy series featuring a feisty female who secretly battles evil vampires, trolls, and other supernatural creatures in the dark recesses of a modern city.  What an original idea!  All sarcasm aside, I really wish the author had tried something different because I enjoyed the book but suspect the series will vanish into the crowd Ė make that mob Ė of similar paranormal urban fantasies.  Evangeline Stone is a typical  fantasy heroine, except that she wakes up early in this book in a different body.  The plot is quite good Ė she has been reincarnated after having been murdered, and she has to solve the murder within a few days or die the final death.  Itís quite smoothly written for a first novel and shows signs of an active imagination, but the trappings of the format sheís adopted often obscures the original parts.  Iím tempted to look forward to the implosion of this subgenre because it will force the writers to do something different, but Iím afraid itís not necessarily the better writers who will be able to adapt. 11/29/09

Women of the Apocalypse, edited anonymously, Absolute Xpress, 2009, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-77053-000-3  

Four stories by authors Iíve not heard of previously. Thereís a brief frame Ė an archangel tries to activate four human males to save the world from the Four Horsemen but accidentally changes four women instead.  Each of the authors follows one woman and her battle against one of the horsemen.  Eileen Bell tackles pestilence with a sometimes interesting but ultimately just too talky story of a womanís confrontation with a more than human force of destruction.  There was very little actual pestilence in this which I thought diluted the basic idea of the collection. Roxanne Felix confronts war. Her protagonist finds herself drafted into a conflict she neither welcomes nor understands. It also involves a rather naÔve understanding of international politics. Famine is the subject taken by Billie Milholland. Itís much better than the first two, light in tone and easier to follow. Last is Ryan McFaddenís story of death, best in the collection.  An odd and uneven selection of stories. 11/29/09

Guan-Yin and the Horrors of Skull Island by Barry Reese, Wild Cat, 2009, $4.50, ISBN 978-0-9823116-1-5  

Wild Cat Books is a quasi-vanity press that specializes in pulp and comic book style adventure.  This is the first Iíve seen by them, and itís really just a novelette.  The title character is the female head of a pirate band who decides to find out what happened to her father, who disappeared after trying to find Skull Island.  En route, her ship encounters another crewed by zombies, whom she manages to defeat with ease. They reach the island and find a giant ape god, diminutive dinosaurs, and ghouls, among other things. She overcomes the various obstacles, rescues her father, and escapes the island.  Not too bad for a pulp story pastiche, with plot elements coming and going at a breakneck pace. 11/29/09

The Silver Mage by Katharine Kerr, DAW, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0587-8  

Iíve been reading the Deverry books for so long that I no longer remember the early ones at all and each new one feels like a visit from an old friend.  This appears to be the last in the series, unless the author changes her mind sometime in the future Ė and thereís a hint that she might go back and write about episodes that took place earlier.  The setting is a variation of the standard magical realm, although Kerr has added enough details to make it take on a life of its own.  Humans and inhumans are allied in an effort to resist the incursions of their magically equipped enemies.  Using magic of their own, they battle the invaders but things are not going well and it seems like only a matter of time until they are overwhelmed.  Within the context of this final battle, we also get a panoramic retro-view of the history of that world. The various story lines are resolved, mostly, and things eventually end reasonably happily.  Kerr is one of the few writers of high fantasy who can draw me deeply into her world.  If Deverry is indeed done, then I look forward to whatever she tries next. 11/19/09

The Dragon Book edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, Ace, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01764-5  

Most of the time, the word ďdragonĒ in the title of a book makes me shudder a little.  They are often emblematic of a kind of fantasy that has been done to death and which displays little inclination to improve or innovate.  There have been exceptions, of course, which I consider pleasant surprises.  So if this anthology had not been selected by Dann and Dozois, I might well have passed it by.  Their tastes, reflected in other anthologies theyíve put together, has been consistently good enough to overcome my aversion.  Some of the stories do fit my preconception, at least superficially, although they usually have a nice twist or a difference in presentation that suppressed my resistance.  Others are very different indeed and the authors Ė including Diana Gabaldon and Diana Wynne Jones Ė are not ones I might have expected to see in the table of contents.  In fact there are quite a few very good stories here, including those by Peter S. Beagle, Naomi Novik, Sean Williams, Cecelia Holland, and Gregory Maguire, and those not mentioned are all close contenders.  The quality is surprisingly and happily consistent from first to last. I took my usual precaution with theme anthologies of reading no more than two stories per day, but they were varied enough that I could have read this one straight through.  11/16/09

Peter and the Sword of Mercy by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Hyperion, 2009, $18.99, ISBN 978-142312134-3  

Barry and Pearson reimagined the story of Peter Pan way back in Peter and the Starcatchers and theyíve been elaborating on the original premise ever since.  Although I donít think any of the sequels have been quite as captivating as the original, theyíve all been quite good and this one doesnít break the string.  Since the boys never age, theyíve reached 1902 still as children and still battling their arch enemy, Captain Hook.  Molly, Peterís friend from London, has returned to our world and is now the mother of several children, including Wendy.  Molly is privy to a plan by the sinister shadow creatures to control the throne of England by securing a magical artifact but when she tries to intervene, she disappears.  Wendy knows something of what her mother was up to and, remembering her stories of Peter and the others, she sets out to find them and enlist their help in rescuing their mother and saving the world.  The rest if perhaps slightly predictable but itís a highly imaginative adventure story and the best in the series since the first. 11/15/09

How Not to Make a Wish by Mindy Klasky, Mira, 2009, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-7783-2737-0  

A few years back Mindy Klasky wrote a very interesting high fantasy series involving glassmaking and I had wondered where sheíd gone since that series ended.  It appears she has been writing humorous romances of which this is the latest.  As you might guess from the title, itís about a woman who finds a lamp that contains a genuine genie, but since he confesses to having limitations on his talent to fulfill her wishes, she decides to settle for something relatively minor, like a good job.  Except that her stint in the live stage performance business doesnít go exactly as she had intended, and the genie is giving her a hard time as well.  Itís no surprise when we discover that she could get what she wanted without resorting to magic if she just had confidence in herself, but itís a pleasant trip to that spot in the narrative.  Donít be put off by the romance label.  This one reminded me of the gentle contemporary fantasies of Robert Nathan and others like him. 11/12/09

Elegy Beach by Steven R. Boyett, Ace, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01795-9 

I read Ariel so long ago that I donít remember a thing about it, so this long delayed sequel Ė twenty-six years Ė needed to stand on its own.  The premise wasnít so overdone when the first novel appeared Ė the rule of science collapses when magic returns to the world.  Understandably, many of the survivors of the chaos that follows want things to return to the way they were.  Just as understandably, others think the new order of reality is just fine and want to keep it the way it is.  The young protagonist is one of the latter, and clearly he has the authorís sympathies even if he is surviving because of his ability to scavenge things from the fallen civilization. He and a friend decide to study magic and, by doing so, they discover a magical way back, which splits the two of them because they have very different opinions about whether or not the knowledge should be suppressed.  I actually liked the little things about this book better than the big ones.  The plot is okay and the characters are okay, but what really held my attention was the little details about the setting, some of the reactions of certain characters to events, and the atmosphere of decay and hopefulness all mixed together.   11/11/09

A Young Man Without Magic by Lawrence Watt-Evans, Tor, 11/09, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2279-1  

This one is dedicated to Rafael Sabatini, which is only appropriate since it is a rewrite of Sabatiniís most famous novel, Scaramouche.  More precisely, the first part of Scaramouche, since the story is incomplete.  The author stays pretty close to the original but switches it from Revolutionary France to a fantasy world where the continued rule of sorcerers over the common people has led to increasing tensions and the calling of a convention to reconsider the structure of the empire.  Naturally the sorcerers donít intend to give up their prerogatives, nor does the weak emperor.  A pragmatic man is forced into the role of a revolutionary after his best friend is killed wantonly by a sorcerer.  Since I re-read the Sabatini only last year, I have a pretty good idea whatís going to happen in the next book.  This was a classic swashbuckler in the original Ė which you ought to read if you havenít Ė and I have no doubt this new imagining of the story will be successful as well. 11/9/09

Chaosbound by David Farland, Tor, 10/09, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2168-8  

The eighth book of the Runelords was originally going to be titled Berserker Lord.  Iím not sure which I prefer since both are pretty generic.  If youíve been following the series, you know that two worlds have now been magically joined, but the merger has had disastrous results on the landscape at large and insidious effects on many of the inhabitants.  Although it continues the series, the setting and even the recurring characters seem to have changed significantly, almost as though the author got tired of his old creation and wanted to try something new without switching to a different series.  The immediate conflict is caused by the manipulation of mortals by fantastic entities with extraordinary powers, and the action is fast and furious.  I found myself stumbling over several character names, e.g. ďAaath,Ē but otherwise the story moves quickly and generally entertainingly. Farland manages to mix elements of sword and sorcery with high fantasy, and the results are very successful. I do think he might do better if he just brought this sequence to a close and moved on to something else. 11/7/09

Sasha by Joel Shepherd, Pyr, 10/09, $16, ISBN 978-0-59102-787-4  

The title character is a brilliant but sometimes rash young woman living in a typical fantasy world.  The society there is divided into two interactive cultures wherein forms of religion overlap with lay interests in sometimes unusual ways.  Sasha is caught up in a group that worships swordplay and finds herself cast in a role she is not entirely willing, or unwilling, to play. As an adventure story, this is quite good, and even though we know that Sasha will rise to the occasion and prove to be a strong and reasoned leader despite her youthful impetuosity, that doesnít really spoil the experience.  Shepherdís created world is also moderately interesting, although frankly I found both sides almost equally repellent at times.  In some ways this is better written than his previous SF trilogy, although I liked the story in that series much better. 11/6/09

This Crooked Way by James Enge, Pyr, 10/09, $16, ISBN 978-1-59102-784-3  

Morlock Ambrosius, hero of Blood of Ambrose, returns for a second adventure.  I didnít care for his first outing particularly.  It wasnít badly written but was too much of a reflection of contemporary high fantasy and I got bored halfway through and, to be honest, I donít think I ever finished it.  The setting hasnít changed much this time but the story is a whole lot better.  Ambrosius fends off an attack from an unknown enemy and decides logically that he needs to find out who is out to get him before the getting gets done.  To do so he has to embark on a perilous journey Ė fantasy heroes rarely have boring journeys Ė through a series of episodic adventures that are generally quite well told.  There are dragons and gnomes and various other inhuman creatures to be outsmarted or outfought as well.  Thereís a bit of a surprise at the end, and Iím happy to say that while I may not ever go back to read the first in the series, I will certainly watch for the next. 11/5/09

The Mermaidís Madness by Jim C. Hines, DAW, 10/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0583-0  

You might have thought you knew the Mermaidís Tale, but you never heard this version.  Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella team up to tell us the real story.  The sappy love story wasnít the half of it.  There was murder and madness, as the title suggests, and some not very nice people. Although there are comedic moments, this is a surprisingly serious account of the efforts of the three protagonists to avert a tragedy and bring a villain to justice.  Hines has been playing amusing games with classic fairy tales of late and heís obviously aware that there was a dark side even to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.  But itís even darker here.  Fairy tales for adults with nicely twisted tastes. 11/4/09

Child of Fire by Harry Connolly, Del Rey, 10/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50889-8  

Although a few other writers have dabbled in the general area of Jim Butcherís Harry Dresden series, none have none so as consistently often and well.  This debut novel might indicate its author will be the first to do so. The protagonist, Ray Lilly, has limited magical powers but works for a woman who belongs to an organization that tracks down and neutralizes rogue magicians in a slightly altered version of our world. Not the most original set up, but a potentially interesting one.  When mischance incapacitates his boss and puts Rayís life in danger as well, he is forced to carry out her mission on his own even though he is definitely outclassed. The tone is generall much more serious than in the Dresden books but the action is just as lively and innovative.  This oneís written in a self confident voice not usual in first novels, and it should provide a nice fix for fans in between Dresden novels. 10/22/09

Malice by Chris Wooding, Scholastic, 10/09, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-16043-8  

A while ago there was a wave of novels in which the characters Ė adult and young adult Ė found themselves transported magically into a computer game, or less than magically as in the movie Tron.  Like most of these things, it was quickly over done and usually not well thought out.  This is in the same tradition, but instead of a computer game, the protagonists are transported into a comic book, a particularly nasty comic book which is gobbling up teenagersí lives at a frantic pace.  The format is interesting in this because itís a mix of traditional prose and sequences of black and white graphics.  The story is cute at times, even clever, but thereís not much depth to the characters or much novelty to their adventures.  Fun, but you wonít remember it next month. 10/20/09

The Wizard of Rondo by Emily Rodda, Scholastic, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-11516-2  

Fantasy novels for younger readers often impress me as more interesting than similar novels for adults.  Iím not sure why this is exactly.  Maybe I connect fantasy with youth, or maybe itís because thereís more of a sense of wondrousness in YA fantasy.  In any case, this is the sequel to The Key to Rondo, in which a magical music box is the key to travel to the world of Rondo.  Two kids return there in a quest to rescue their friends from a new and malevolent evil that threatens to dominate that mystical world.  Although this isnít written as artfully as the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, it often has a very similar feel, without the undertext about the glories of Christianity and how punishing children is a good thing.  A nice change of pace from a steady diet of the weightier, and often overly verbose, mainstream high fantasy. 10/19/09

On the Edge by Ilona Andrews, Ace, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01780-5  

This one feels like the first in a new series, set in a Borderlands type world known as the Edge.  The protagonist travels back and forth from our world, known as the Broken, to the magical realm known as the Weird.  Rose is also capable of magic, but it didnít prove to be as remunerative a talent as sheíd expected and sheís reduced to doing menial work instead. She encounters Declan, from the Weird, a forceful personality who wants to dominate her.  The mildly twisted romantic element should be obvious.  But he sees the error of his ways when a crisis strikes within the Weird which will require them to work cooperatively if they are to turn the tide.  Some of the dialogue is apparently designed to be unrealistically formal to convey an effect but it didnít work for me and just felt awkward and artificial.  Otherwise this was a pretty good adventure, but not up to the quality of the authorís Kate Daniels series. 10/12/09

Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead by Steve Perry, Del Rey, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50698-6  

Way back quite a few years ago, I read a bunch of the Indiana Jones tie in novels and although few of them really seemed to reflect the spirit of the movies, they were generally decent enough adventure stories.  Steve Perry adds to that list with this new one, which also topically enough involves zombies.  Starting right after the events in the third movie, Indiana is off with a friend to uncover another fabulous ancient treasure, this time traveling to Haiti.  The artifact is said to possess unusual occult powers, and this time Indy has to fight not just the agents of Nazi Germany but also a similar group from Imperial Japan.  And that doesnít even mention the voodoo sorcerer who has an agenda of his own. Chases, traps, captures and escapes, thrills, chills, and occasional doses of humor fill out the story, which I thought was much closer to the original material than is usual in tie-ins.  This one wouldnít make a bad movie in its own right. 10/9/09

The Good Neighbors: Kith by Holly Black & Ted Naifeh, Graphix, 2009, $21.99, ISBN 978-0-439-85563-1

This is the second volume in a black and white graphic adventure about a half human, half fairy woman who realizes that something odd is going on.  The world around her and the people in it are being influenced by an external force. In order to save her human friends she has to travel into the dangerous lands of the fairies and confront the forces gathered against her.  Excellent artwork helped maintain by interest in a fairly entertaining but not compelling story.  I am generally disappointed with graphic work that involves a story that is not particularly visual because it seems to me this is defeating the purpose of the genre by playing against its strengths.

Imagerís Challenge by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 10/09, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2126-8   

If youíve read any of Modesittís previous fantasy series, youíll have a pretty good idea what to expect from this one, although there are some new twists to the magic system. The device is that imagers can make their illustrations become reality.  The hero here is an imager who nearly lost his life in the last volume, wherein he defeated his enemies and gained a high position.  Success proves to be expensive in the sequel.  Not only do his new co-workers have little interest in his presence, but friends and relatives of those who vanquished have long memories and bear powerful grudges.  His complications Ė and enemies Ė grow increasingly during the course of the novel, to a point where I wasnít entirely convinced that he should prevail despite his powers, although of course with the author on his side we know that he will prevail.  Thereís rarely a dull moment in this one, but a lot of familiar feeling ones. 10/8/09

The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham, Doubleday, 2009, $28, ISBN 978-0-385-52332-5  

The second volume of the Acacia trilogy continues the stories of the Akaran siblings.  One has turned to sorcery and has become a somewhat repressive ruler.  Another is engaged on a personal quest to destroy dangerous beings released into the world by other magic, but she will encounter one during the course of this story which will change her attitude toward the world.  The third has become a kind of super engineer.  I was a bit disappointed this time because the complex web of ethical and practical problems that made the first one so rich in detail are largely set aside this time in favor of a visit to another realm which is similarly torn between factions, interesting in their own right but a bit distracting.  Of course all of this leads to the possibility that an external force will overwhelm the internal problems of Acacia, which is tumultuous enough in its own right.  Wonderfully written, it provided some of the enthusiasm I felt when adult fantasy first began to become popular, but like most middle novels in trilogies, it feels incomplete and a bit disappointing when you realize youíre going to have to wait for volume three. 10/5/09

The Grave Thief by Tom Lloyd, Pyr, 9/09, $16, ISBN 978-1-59102-780-5  

Third in the Twilight Reign series.  This is a well written but typical fantasy series set in a world where magic works and society is more or less medieval, though with some twists and turns to mask some of the similarities.  There is also a fanatic religious movement that threatens to undermine the stability of the world.  As always, there is war in the air, conspiracies surrounding the rulers, and a troubled hero who isnít sure which path he should follow.  Although there is plenty of action, this installment in the series is more character driven than its predecessors, and itís not always clear whoís on the side of good and whoís not.  That provides an extra level of tension that is often missing in this kind of novel.  Itís otherwise a pretty straightforward epic fantasy Ė and the story doesnít end with this book Ė but better than average and a step up from the first two in the series. 10/2/09

Flight of the Renshai by Mickey Zucker Reichert, DAW, 9/09, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0273-0 

For some reason Iíve always enjoyed novels based on Norse mythology more than Greek, Roman, or Celtic ones, which are more numerous.  The authorís Renshai series, which Iíve enjoyed considerably over the years, draws on that tradition and enlarges upon it.  This is somewhat Renshai the Next Generation, because it features the now adult versions of children mentioned in the last few books.  The main conflict this time involves a band of pirates preying on shipping along the coast who are actually more or less unofficial advance guards of a foreign power which covets their lands.  The Renshai look for allies, but theyíve made enemies among their neighbors and those not actively against them are influenced by their reputation and by the manipulation of more overt enemies. Thereís more to come before this entire story is told, but the opening volume is full of adventure, conspiracy, and mounting tension. 10/1/09

Hannah by Kathryn Lasky, Scholastic, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-78310-1 

Kathryn Laskyís latest Ė first in the Daughters of the Sea series Ė reminded me immediately of Mollie Hunter, whose young adult fantasies I enjoyed way back in the 1970s.  This one is about a mermaid of sorts, a normal looking girl who works in a menial job and tries to conceal the facts that her skin is scaly in places and she feels a longing for the sea that she finds it difficult to deny.  Then an intriguing, mysterious man enters her life and she realizes that the status quo is about to change, that she can no longer deny her true self.  This is written for the low range of the YA market and has more the feel of a fairy tale than a serious novel at times, but we could all use a few more fairy tales in our lives. It's a very short book - less than an hour's reading - and I've spent far less fruitful hours. 9/29/09

The Stoneholding by James G. Anderson & Mark Sebanc, Baen, 2009, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-3299-9 

Opening volume of the Legacy of the Stone Harp.  Itís a very familiar set up.  The throne of a magical realm has been usurped by villains and the true ruler has gone missing.  One small fortress has held out against the tyrants, and the chief bad guy suspects that this is where the missing king has taken refuge, but getting him out of there isnít an easy proposition. A typically unlikely hero finds himself thrust into a role he isnít prepared for when he is forced by circumstance and his innate sense of justice and self preservation to take a hand in the struggle.  Itís a bit of coming of age and an obvious quest with the usual politics and derring do. No complaints with this one, but it has all been done before. 9/27/09

Hunting Memories by Barb Hendee, Roc, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-451-46291-6

Friday Night Bites by Chloe Neill, NAL, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-451-22793-5  

Each of these is the second in a contemporary heroic female vampire series, a growing trend within paranormal urban fantasy.  Hendee provides the better of the two with her story of Eleisha Cleavon, converted against her will and agonizing over the compulsion that forces her to take human lives.  Eleisha discovers a way to drink and survive without killing her victims and she believes that this knowledge will turn others of her kind into less dangerous creatures.  She does eventually find a community of vampires but she discovers that things are even more complicated than she had suspected, and is subjected to emotional and physical pressures which seem almost unbearable.  Not Hendeeís best novel by any means, but a solid story.  Neill is a new name for me and I havenít read the first in this series, Some Girls Bite.  This one edges over into fantasy because the vampires have come out of the closet and announced their existence to an apprehensive world.  The protagonist finds herself enlisted as a kind of community relations representative for her fellow vampires, but she has a considerable challenge when news comes to light of mass vampire feeding festivals where humans are treated as cattle.  This one was pretty good as well, with some interesting variations on vampire mythology, particularly late in the novel.  Both series will bear watching. 9/26/09

Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Tor, 9/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1929-6   

Thereís a blurb on this first novel comparing it to the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny, a not inaccurate observation although the similarities are more superficial than they feel.  Miranda and Prospero, characters from Shakespeareís The Tempest, are real and immortal and theyíre alive in the modern world.  Miranda runs a business which clandestinely uses magic to accomplish good purposes.  When she receives information that her father has disappeared, she sets out to find him, accompanied by her slightly odd brother and a fey creature named Mab.  Their search will take them to a variety of places around the world, including the North Pole.  I did not expect to like this and put off reading it for quite a long time, but my prejudgment was definitely wrong because once I started it, I had trouble setting it aside.  It ends well and I was well satisfied, but somewhat dubiously discovered that there is a sequel in the works.  But the author has proved me wrong once already, and Iím fully prepared to be surprised again. 9/24/09

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire, DAW, 9/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0571-7   

Guess what!  This is the first volume in another urban paranormal fantasy series set in a version of modern day San Francisco which overlaps with Faerie.  My brain has started to go numb when I run into these, which is a shame because some of them are quite well done.  This is a case in point, and it only penetrated because itís the first such Iíve read in a few weeks.  The protagonist Ė the improbably named October Daye Ė is a halfling who fled Faerie because she just couldnít fit in there and is now trying to make a life for herself in San Francisco, with the aid of an unofficial Faerie fleers placement service.  There are other fantastic immigrants in San Francisco as well, and their presence initiates a series of events that will cause violence and death before it runs its course.  Nicely written but with over a hundred similar series at last count, it will have a hard time rising above the crowd. 9/17/09

Doom with a View by Victoria Laurie, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22779-9  

Psychic detective stories have changed a great deal since the days of Jules de Grandin.  Abigail Cooper is a professional psychic who frequently works in consort with the local police. In this, her seventh outing, she is partnered with a man who quite obviously believes she is a fraud, a set up that has worked well in previous similar novels, but perhaps in a few too many of them.  Thereís nothing particularly new or intriguing about how this subplot works itself out.  The case this time involves three missing teenagers.  With the usual maddening inconsistency of psychic powers, Abby gleans enough to know that the disappearances are related and that another may be about to take place, she canít just pluck their location or the name of the party responsible out of the psychic atmosphere.  Of course if she could, there wouldnít be much of a story.  The result is a pretty good mystery unless you find the pseudo-tension of the psychic clues too distracting.  9/16/09

Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning, Delacorte, 2009, $26, ISBN 978-0-385-34165-3  

Iíve liked the first three novels in this series, set in a modern Ireland where the forces of faery, frequently amoral if not actively evil, impinge upon the lives of normal humans.  The protagonist is a young woman who came to Ireland seeking the truth about the death of her sister.  She falls under the influence of a mysterious man and encounters a number of fey characters, including a fairy prince with extraordinary magical powers and more than a few dark secrets.  By volume four, she has been cursed with an insatiable lust for sex that saps her will and threatens her mission.  Alas, Iíve grown impatient with the characters, who often refuse to have simple conversations that would clear up misunderstandings, and Iíve always had a problem with magical curses that can change your personality instantly.  If your personality is changed by an exterior force, the original person is dead and youíre someone else.  I suspect that if this had been a trilogy Iíd have liked it a good deal more, but despite some good parts and considerable originality, this one was very disappointing. 9/15/09

The Storm Witch by Violette Malan, DAW, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-7564-0574-8 

Dhulyn and Parno are a pair of mercenaries whose adventures remind me at times of those of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber.  In their latest, they find themselves wrongly accused of murder.  Naturally they decide to prove their innocence and to do so by finding out who really is responsible, but before they get far along that path, they are distracted by more immediately menacing events. Instead they set out on a quest by sea to rescue captured friends, even though one has had persistent visions of the death of her partner while traveling on the ocean. The plot then shoots off in a new direction when they arrive in a distant land whose people have unusual problems, and the usual array of dangerous situations.  A nicely swashbuckling tale that does tend to meander a bit, but itís such a fun ride that youíre not likely to notice the occasional detours.  And everything begins to shape up nicely as we approach the climax.  Malan has become one of those writers whose new books I watch for. 9/14/09

Stalking the Dragon by Mike Resnick, Pyr, 2009, $15.98, ISBN 978-1-59102-745-4  

John Justin Mallory is back for his third case.  This time heís searching for a dragon that has been kidnapped from an entertainer.  Note: itís not a very big dragon so is easily concealed.  He explores a supernaturally enhanced version of Manhattan where he encounters a variety of enemies, and puns.  The scene in the wax museum was my favorite of these.  As usual, Resnick weaves together a hodge podge of unlikely characters and even more unlikely situations and makes them all congeal into an actual, coherent, and sometimes even captivating story.  Not for those who like their magical mysteries to be serious and suspenseful, but a good anodyne for those who want a break from the sometimes turgid and often angst ridden stories that dominate the genre. 9/10/09

Lord of Silence by Mark Chadbourn, Solaris, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-753-1  

This sword and sorcery adventure reminded me a little bit of Michael Moorcockís early Elric stories, although the prose is not as trim and airy.  The protagonist has a jewel that must be appeased with the occasional life of a victim.  He has recently been promoted Ė thanks to a fatality Ė to chief protector of a city state which is beset by mysterious forces that dwell in a nearby forest.  Thereís also a murderer at work inside the city, whose depredations may or may not be connected to the exterior threat.  This appears to be a standalone novel, a pleasant change of pace in recent fantasy Iíve read.  Iíve consistently enjoyed Chadbournís novels over the years and while this is not my favorite among his efforts, it has some entertaining variations on familiar fantasy devices.  This might be a good one to try if you prefer more traditional treatments. 9/9/09

Wolfbreed by S.A. Swann, Bantam, 2009, Ballantine Spectra, $15, ISBN 978-0-553-80738-7  

S.A. Swiniarski, S. Andrew Swann, and Steven Krane are all writers Iíve enjoyed over the years and theyíre all the same person, now appearing under a slightly different byline.  This is, I suspect, the first in a series in which an order of monks has discovered the existence of werewolves and has enlisted them as special agents working for the benefit of the church, which often means slaughtering innocent people who stray from the path.  A survivor of one such massacre becomes involved with a female werewolf who has escaped from the domination of the monks, and you can probably anticipate a good deal of what follows from there.  Thereís potential conflict between the two primary characters, of course, but also the possibility that their liaison will endanger the status quo. Although this sounds much like the plot of a lot of recent paranormal romances, Swannís treatment is very different.  Itís an adventure story in an historical setting with undertones of seriousness about tolerance and fanaticism and the nature of freedom.  Another promising contender in a very crowded field. 9/8/09

Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks by Mike Resnick, Golden Gryphon, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-930846-60-9   

Mike Resnick has produced a goodly body of short fiction with a wide range of settings during his lengthy career.  Several of his novels were based on his experiences during a series of safaris in Africa, and safaris show up in a lot of his work, enough that this entire collection of short stories has safaris as their uniting theme.  Before I even opened the cover, I knew two of my favorites would be included: ďBwanaĒ and ďStalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera.Ē  A couple of the entries are actually excerpts from novels. One story, ďThe Lord of the Jungle,Ē was new to me, but most of the others I remembered, usually after reading the first couple of pages.  Thereís an introduction by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and an afterword by Lezli Robyn.  Most of these have appeared in book form previously, but theyíre all quite good and worthy of re-reading. 9/5/09

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson, Scholastic, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-439-92555-6  

This is the third in a young readersí fantasy adventure series set in a magical world where there is a league of evil librarians, of all things, one of whom was Alcatrazís own mother.  Thereís a break with traditional childrenís fiction. He and his companions are visiting a city currently under siege by the librarians and his arrival there is obviously going to change the status quo. I had read the blurb of the first in this series and thought this was probably going to be rather too silly for my taste, but once I actually started reading it, I found it to be oddly seductive.  The present volume also strikes just the right balance between high adventure and silliness.  Fans of Sandersonís adult fantasy should be warned that this is not at all the same thing, but itís good reading in its own right. 9/5/09

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Viking, 2009, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-670-02055-3  

This contemporary fantasy starts off like a slightly older version of the first Harry Potter novel, with its high school senior protagonist finding himself admitted to a well concealed but very comprehensive college of magic.  His education passes very swiftly though and we soon accompany him as a graduate, proficient in his secretive trade, now living a dissolute and largely boring life in Manhattan. It turns out that the fantasy world he read about as a child really exists, and the second half of the book involves a perilous quest and a belated coming-of-age.  There are some very good things about this book Ė good and evil are not clearly distinguished qualities and a few of the obvious clichťs of the genre are carefully avoided or turned on their heads.  On the other hand, it does not ďenlarge the boundariesĒ of contemporary fantasy in the slightest, though it plays quite well within them.  The prose is particularly noteworthy and I got lost in the story thoroughly enough that I almost read this in a single sitting. 9/2/09

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown, Tor, 8/09, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2235-7  

This first fantasy novel gets kudos from the outset because the setting was sufficiently different from the usual to make me perk up after only a couple of chapters.  I wonít spoil the revelations by providing too much detail but essentially it is possible, through magic, to steal portions of other peopleís lives, or lifeforce essentially.  Some of those who know the secret are benevolent, more or less, but others are definitely villainous, functioning like time vampires.  When the governance by the good guys falters, the common citizenry decide to defend themselves by hunting down the rogues who prey upon them.  Unfortunately for our hero, they think he might be one of them, or at least an associate, and heís on the run.  But even these problems will be dwarfed by the return of a preternaturally powerful being who wants the very souls of her victims.  This series shows a good deal of promise mixing workmanlike writing with some genuinely interesting ideas. 9/1/09

Speak of the Devil by Jenna Black, Dell, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24493-6  

A Morgan Kingsley novel.  Kingsley lives in an alternate version of our world where she is a famous exorcist.  This time she has more than one issue competing for her attention.  For one thing, her license has been suspended because something went terribly wrong on her last assignment, and now sheís being sued.  Then someone sends her a human hand as an unsettling present, and a fresh one at that.  Before long, the body count starts to rise and she and her current boyfriend have to become amateur detectives to find out who is responsible, without alienating the police, one of whom is a close friend.  Throw in some demons, a kind of psychic parasitism, and plenty of sex, mix thoroughly.  Okay, Iím not a prude but I find some of these ďromanticĒ paranormal series include sex just to make it fit a formula, often without real relevance to the plot.  Black is a bit more adept at it, and while I still think another edit would have helped this one, I liked it enough to keep reading to the end. 8/31/09

Ice Land by Betsy Tobin, Plume, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-452-29569-8  

Here we have a quest story set against a backdrop of Scandinavian mythology.  Freya has been warned by the gods that her people face a terrible future and given the onset of war Ė Norway wants to annex Iceland - and the advances of Christianity, there is good reason to be frightened.  There is romance and adventure and some of the action sequences are particularly well done.  I did, however, have two problems with it.  First, large portions are told in present tense, which is partly a personal quirk on my part, but which I think is legitimately a criticism because it serves no real purpose here except to draw attention to itself.  Second, the story alternates between first and third person, not as serious a problem, but it still jarred me a bit whenever there was a transition, preventing me from getting deeply involved with what was going on.  This one should have appealed to me a lot more than it actually did but I was too conscious of the author's stylistic quirks to enjoy the story. 8/31/09

After the Fall by Harry Turtledove, Night Shade, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-131-7  

I normally like Turtledoveís fantasies as well or better than his SF, one of the few writers about whom I can say that, but for some reason this one never really caught my interest.  Part of it might be the protagonist, whom I found unsympathetic even though heís not a totally unredeemed Nazi.  He is a Nazi, however, a member of the German army who is astonished that the motherland is falling to the Russians and their allies, but who is snatched from the jaws of defeat and dropped into an alternate universe where magic works.  His adventures there are a mix of the usual and the unusual and some of his experiences are generally engaging, but others just seem to take up time.  Readable but not one of my favorites of his work. 8/29/09

The Light of Burning Shadows by Chris Evans, Pocket, 2009, $26, ISBN 978-1-4165-7053-0

The first in this series, A Darkness Forged in Fire, showed some promise in the setting and characters, but I didnít care for the story that much.  Elves and humans are involved in the usual power struggle with magic overtones, using muskets as well as muscle, and thereís a typical villain using dark magic.  The action focuses on a group of elves who have been trying to reclaim their lost honor by performing extraordinarily well in battle, with some success.  Then another apparent dishonorable act dropped them all into hot water again.  In the first book, a powerful artifact was protected from the enemy, and this time thereís another of the same, requiring the characters to step outside their usual context and go traveling this time.  Not badly written but still just another magical quest novel.8/28/09

Mercy Thompson Homecoming by Patricia Briggs, Del Rey, 2009, $22.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50988-8  

The Mercy Thompson novels are among the better of the current crop of paranormal urban fantasy adventures.  Mercy is a shapechanger who uses her powers to protect normal humans from interlopers from a supernatural other reality.  This short graphic novel has her caught in the middle of a feud between two clans of werewolves Ė hardly the most original plot in the stable Ė and the result is an okay adventure that I found quite inferior to the novels.  The artwork by Francis Tsai and Amelia Woo is competent and illustrative, but none of the panels leaped out and caught my attention, although the story really didnít offer many opportunities for visual pyrotechnics.  David Lawrence is also credited as writer but itís not clear if he adapted a story by Briggs or collaborated with her.  Not bad, but not a lot for the price of three paperbacks. 8/26/09

Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia, Baen, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-3285-2  

This first novel initially put me off.  For one thing, it looked like Ė and essentially is Ė another urban fantasy which assumes that the monsters of legend are real.  For another, it is very, very long, over seven hundred pages, and I wasnít sure I could sustain my interest in another monster hunt for that long.  To my surprise, it doesnít read like itís that long.  For one thing, it has a sense of humor.  The protagonist, recruited into a monster hunting organization, takes things in stride and cracks jokes with impunity even when facing hairy monsters.  For another, the story moves so quickly that a hundred pages passes by with startling speed.  This isnít John Crowley, of course, and there are times when your suspension of disbelief might be strained, but itís good natured fun and a pleasant anodyne to those angst ridden paranormal fantasies that fill the book racks. 8/22/09

Nine Gates by Jane Lindskold, Tor, 8/09, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1701-8  

The sequel to Thirteen Orphans continues the story of several people who discover that they are each a kind of avatar of a character from Oriental mythology.  The protagonist has recently learned that she is descended from people who traveled to our world from a kind of magical alternate reality.  Back in that other reality, a new conflict has erupted and the absent avatars are to be major players in resolving the conflict. But in order to intervene, they somehow have to find a way to cross into that other realm, and to do that they need to create the Nine Gates of the title.  And to accomplish that, they need to first complete yet another magical quest.  Parts of this moved very quickly, other parts seemed to slow to a walk, and while I could sense the overall progression of the story, I nevertheless felt that I was being diverted into an excessively circuitous route to get to the end.  One of the problems with series novels is that if there is one continuous story, individual titles often feel incomplete or unfocused, and I think that's what's happening here. 8/20/09

Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, Doubleday,2009, $25, ISBN 978-0-385-52808-5  

Generally speaking, I donít enjoy stories that mix the supernatural with broad satire.  There are exceptions, and this one has its moments, but I find the juxtaposition of the two very difficult to manage without going too far in one direction or the other.  This opens as a kind of spoof of the deal with the devil story, and the opening chapters have some of the best humorous bits. Cabal wants to raise the dead and a rather bored Satan agrees to let him do so in exchange for one hundred fresh souls.  Cabal sets out to fulfill his end of the bargain, with the assistance of his brother, a vampire, and the darkest of dark carnivals.  I enjoyed most of this, but I felt restless at times and I suspect it might have suited me better if it had been a bit shorter.  Those who relish this kind of dark humor will probably have the opposite reaction and wish it had gone on longer.  Itís an interesting debut, whichever way your wishing waggles. 8/15/09

Trollís Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Viking, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-670-06141-9  

Although this collection of fantasy stories and poems is ostensibly aimed at younger readers, I doubt that it will disappoint older ones.  The editors have assembled a very fine selection of clever, witty, amusing, and sometimes very thoughtful stories from writers like Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Peter S. Beagle, Catherynne Valente, Holly Black, Ellen Kusher, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and several others.  With a line up like that, you could almost assume that this was going to be a rewarding experience and I even broke my usual pattern of spreading anthologies over a week or two and read it almost cover to cover.  Beagle, Hoffman, Valente, and Michael Cadnum had my marginally favorite entries, but that doesnít mean I didnít like the others almost as much.  Consistency without monotony in an anthology is a difficult balance to achieve, and this is a good example.   Iíd be very surprised if this isnít one of the very best young adult fantasy books published this year. 8/14/09

Grey Seer by C.L. Werner, Black Library, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-739-5  

Werner is one of the better writers working in the sword and sorcery side of the Warhammer game tie-in novels.  This is part of a subsequence about Thanquol and Boneripper, two of his recurring characters.  Thanquol is a wizard who, in this instance, has a powerful magical artifact stolen from him, which does not endear the thieves to him either.  What might have been a straightforward attempt to recover it goes awry when he discovers there are traitors among his own subordinates, ulterior motives among his superiors, and a powerful rival who wants to beat him to the punch.  There were times when this reminded me of Fritz Leiber a bit, definitely a plus, and the plot is certainly complex enough to hold your interest in its own right. 8/14/09

The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove, Solaris, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-747-0  

I have yet to find a novel by James Lovegrove that I havenít liked, even though his work ranges across a wide variety of themes and settings.  This oneís a fantasy, although at times it feels like SF.  The various pantheons of gods have had a war and the Egyptian deities have managed to win.  They now control the entire planet except for a tiny enclave known as Freegypt, where a small society of humans seeks to overthrow them.  They are led in part by a quasi-mystical figure called the Lightbringer who wants humans to stand independently of the gods, or so he says.  I suspected from the outset that we werenít being told his entire story.  And the gods are meanwhile squabbling among themselves, with humans caught in the middle.  The odd mix of magical and technological plot elements works nicely and the setting is certainly not one youíre going to find familiar.  8/13/09

The Kingís Daughters by Nathalie Mallet, Night Shade, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-135-5  

The first adventure of Amir - also a first novel -  was an entertaining blend of Arabian Nights style fantasy and detective story.  This sequel has a little less of each of those features, but it explores a little new territory instead.  Amir survived the murderous succession to the throne but now heís off to visit a neighboring kingdom in order to ask for the hand of a princess.  Sounds pretty routine, but the truth is anything but, as you would expect or it would be a pretty dulls story, which it isn't.  The customs he discovers are not at all the same in Sorvinka, and Amir has two mysteries to solve this time Ė how to keep his head above water in a welter of unfamiliar traditions, intrigues, and violence, and who kidnapped another princess, and why, and where is she?  And that last inquiry leads in a very unexpected direction.  I suppose this is technically a quest story, but it avoids the trite pitfalls commonly found in that form and ends up being quite a nice little story.   Mallet reminds me a bit of Dave Duncan at times. 8/11/09

A Flash of Hex by Jes Battis, Ace, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01723-2  

OSI novel #2.  This series has a lot in common with paranormal fantasy, but itís sort of a second cousin. The protagonist is a member of a special unit in an alternate version of our world which specializes in solving paranormal crimes.  The ritual killing of a young runaway appears to be an isolated incident at first, but it leads to the discovery of a string of similar deaths and suggests that more will take place in the future.  The plot is essentially that of a serial killer novel, but it has much more of the feel of fantasy than detective fiction or horror despite the central plot.  This is pretty close to the Jim Butcher end of the spectrum of quasi-contemporary fantasy.  I liked this sequel a lot better than the first in the series, Night Child, which was more formulaic, and the protagonist is developing nicely as well.  8/11/09

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt, Tor, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2043-8  

If I remember correctly, the precursor to this, The Court of the Air, was packaged as for young adults, which I didnít completely understand at the time even though it had young protagonists.  This sequel avoids that label completely.  An uneasy alliance forms between an idealistic but obsessed woman and a relatively ruthless businessman in the quest to find a lost continent that was supposed the home of a pacifist Utopia that actually worked. This involves a trek into a mysterious jungle with a disparate and fascinating group of characters.  There is high adventure, a touch of humor, an intriguing mystery, and fine writing in this.  The first book was well above average but itís very much overshadowed this time around.  Like China Mieville and a few other writers, Hunt has taken elements of mainstream fantasy and given them new and exciting life.  I expect to hear this title named when it comes time to pick 2009s best novels. 8/10/09

Larceny and Lace by Annette Blair, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22911-8

Spackled and Spooked by Jennie Bentley, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22913-2 

Iíve commented before about the intrusion of fantasy themes into the detective story, and here are two more examples.  The protagonist of the first opens a store in what was once the town morgue and promptly finds the bones of a murder victim.  Since the morgue is haunted by a friendly ghost, she also receives hints that the bones might be related to more contemporary crimes, and sheís off to the races to solve things while hosting a Halloween party and trying to keep her life in some semblance of order.  The plot is quite similar to the Aunt Dimity stories by Nancy Atherton.  This oneís quite readable as well.  The second also involves ghosts.  A professional redecorator finds an unusual problem with her latest assignment Ė the house appears to be haunted.  SPOILER ALERT.  Itís really not, but you wonít know that until quite late.  Some creepy moments and a fair mystery, but not as good as the first. 8/8/09

Balefires by David Drake, Night Shade, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 9781-59780-132-4 

Iíve read a lot of novels by David Drake over the years, both SF and fantasy, but I find that the work of his that sticks in my mind most clearly is his short fiction.  Even though it had been more than a decade since Iíd read many of the stories in this collection, I remembered a few as soon as I saw the title and others after reading just a few pages of the story.  This brings together most of his best fantasy and horror fiction, including ďLord of the Depths,Ē ďSomething Had to Be Done,Ē ďBest of Luck,Ē and ďLand of Romance.Ē  Most have been previously collected, but even if youíve already read those earlier titles, you might be surprised to discover how well they hold up.  I often wish the horror market was healthy enough that Drake might have pursued a career there instead of writing so much military SF and epic fantasy. 8/4/09

The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham, Tor, 7/09, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1343-0  

The Long Price Quartet comes to a close with this volume, set in the aftermath of the war that raged in the previous one.  The set up is a familiar one.  The emperor wants to re-establish stability and peace and restore the old traditions, and heís willing to arrange marriages, bend arms, and do whatever is necessary to get the job done.  Unfortunately, his own daughter presents something of a problem because she has associated herself with a movement to overthrow tradition and try new approaches Ė even in such a subtle way as to allow women to become poets, a position of power in Abrahamís quite original world.  These and other forces and ideas begin to clash and it seems that a fresh outbreak of violence is imminent.  Abrahamís excellent prose and some original ideas marked this as an important series way back in volume one and the subsequent titles books all measured up.  Iíll be very interested to see what the author tries next. 8/4/09 

Reforming Hell by Marilyn Brahen, Wildside, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-1-4344-5871-1 

Thereís an interesting premise in Mattie Brahenís second novel.  We all know how there was a falling out in Heaven which resulted in Lucifer and his followers creating Hell.  But what might happen if the two sides were able to engineer a reconciliation?  Naturally part of that would require a re-purposing of Hell and that means that somehow all of those lost souls will have to be redeemed.  So who is the worst monster in history, the test case to see if it can be done?  The author chooses Adolf Hitler, not necessarily the most evil person in history but easily the best known tyrant.  The protagonist is a young woman with extraordinary powers who lives a second life on a more spiritual plane and who is faced with deciding whether or not she should even accept this challenge, let alone bring it to fruition.  The novel raises some fascinating ethical questions, and is likely to leave you with more questions than answers, and deliberately so. 8/4/09

Nightís Rose by Annaliese Evans, Tor, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-6166-0

The Prince of Frogs by Annaliese Evans, Tor, 9/09, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-6167-7

These are the first two volumes in a series about Rosemarie Edenberg, who becomes Rosemarie Barrows in the second book, whose avocation is hunting down and neutralizing supernatural enemies of the human race, in the first instance a tribe of ogres who have gathered in London in 1750 to prepare a magical assault on the world.  She is involved with two vampires, one of whom might not be as loyal as she thinks, both of whom she finds attractive.  Yes, these are paranormal romances, though not overwhelmingly so.  In the second book, she has married the good vampire, but the wedding bells have barely ceased ringing when thereís trouble in Camelot.  Her husband is acting strangely and it turns out he hasnít been sufficiently forthcoming about his past, which holds a dark secret and a deadly enemy, both of whom are far from buried.  A little less ambitious than the first, marginally better written, but I liked the story in the first one a lot more. 7/31/09

Thorn Queen by Richelle Mead, Zebra, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0097-6   

The second Dark Swan book mixes fairy magic with a detective story.  The protagonist lives primarily in our world, or sort of our world, where she is employed in locating and expelling unwelcome visitors from a magical alternate reality.  But she also has responsibilities in that world, and these come to the fore when she is caught up in a mystery set in that realm.  Add to this the pressure exerted by the two romantic interests in her life, the disapproval or at least disdain of some of the powers that be, and an investigation that turns personal and potentially deadly.  Mead is one of the better writers straddling the romance/fantasy borderland and this is a much more interesting series than her more overtly erotic succubus series. 7/28/09

Treasonís Shore by Sherwood Smith, DAW, 2009, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7564-0573-1 

Fourth novel in a series which has improved steadily with each new title.  Inda has been on the outs again, returned from one exile to perform heroically, and now sent away again.  Despite his poor treatment at home, he is roused to their defense when rumors reach him that they face yet another powerful enemy.  He offers his services to the new ruler, who was not involved in Indaís earlier disgraceful treatment, but is a bit overwhelmed when he is offered supreme command of the army.  This is in large part a military fantasy novel, but it reminded me frequently of L. Sprague de Campís classic historical novel, The Bronze God of Rhodes.  Smithís battle sequences are convincing and his characters are interesting enough to make us care what happens to them.  The end is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but itís the travel rather than the destination that makes this such a good book. 7/24/09

Wildfire by Sarah Micklem, Scribner, 7/09, $26, ISBN 978-0-7432-6524-9  

Part two in a trilogy that began with Firethorn.  Firethorn is a woman with more than human powers who has fallen in love with Galan, a warrior who is called to fight in the current war.  Galan insists that she remain behind where itís safe, but of course she decides to follow him, only to be struck by lightning and deprived of most of her memories and abilities.  After various intermediate adventures, she actually finds herself among Galanís enemies, who have been defeated.  Her sojourn among them actually helps her to learn more about herself and her history because they take refuge from the battlefield in Firethornís homeland.  Although this is quite well written, my attention kept wandering, mostly because I kept succumbing to a feeling of dťjŗ vu.  Micklem is one of several fantasy authors whom I think would be much more appealing (to me anyway) if they chose different subject matter. 7/22/09

Strange Brew edited by P.N. Elrod, St Martins, 2009, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-312-38336-7  

The borders between fantasy and horror have been blurred by a number of writers in recent years, from Jim Butcher to Laurell Hamilton to Charlaine Harris and many more.  Vampires and werewolves have become just folks, sometimes even heroes, and adventure has displaced creepiness as their main effect.  A few writers working this vein are awful, most are competent but uninspired, and a few really standout.  Several of the standouts are represented in this collection, including Butcher and Harris, the former with a Harry Dresden story, marginally the best of the selections..  Also included are very good stories by Karen Chance, Patricia Briggs, Rachel Caine, and solid stories by several others.  Not a bad story in the book though a couple were a shade too predictable.  Although there is a certain commonality, they vary more in theme and plot than I expected and several step outside the mold of current paranormal fantasy. If you read one story a night as I did, the similarities aren't intrusive. This is a trade paperback, which means it wonít be shelved with the mass markets, and itís worth looking for even at the higher price. 7/17/09

Skinwalker by Faith Hunter, Roc, 7/09, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46280-0  

First in a new urban fantasy series featuring Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker, apparently the last of her kind, and one of those who didnít turn to evil as they did in most stories.  Jane is in New Orleans, employed by an aristocratic vampire.  This is one of those blends of fantasy and horror that could go under either label, since it is an alternate version of America where supernatural creatures are accepted as part of society. Anyway, Jane has been hired to track down a rogue vampire whose depredations put the entire undead community in jeopardy. Janeís unique talent is the ability to shift form into that of various animals.  Her job, dangerous enough already, is complicated by the presence of a sexy biker who may be more than he appears.  This was okay, but I didnít like it nearly as much as the authorís earlier trilogy, and despite the relative novelty of the protagonist, there wasnít much to distinguish this from the several dozen similar series already established. 7/16/09

Red Gold Bridge by Patrice Sarath, Ace, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01735-5   

This is the second novel of the Gordath in which two women from our world have been able to cross into a fantasy realm where magic works and where women are ordinarily subservient to men.  Now theyíre back in our world, but doors work both ways and one of the more malevolent enemies from the other realm has followed in order to continue his quest for power.  The villain is more impressive than most such because he seems so much more plausible in his villainy.  The rest of the characters are reasonably well drawn, although a good deal of the plot feels overly familiar and I never felt as though Iíd really become immersed in the setting, in either world.  Pleasant but lightweight. 7/15/09

Secondhand Spirits by Juliet Blackwell, Obsidian, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22745-4

Angelís Advocate by Mary Stanton, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22875-3

It looks like another trend is here to stay, at least for a while, murder mysteries involving ghosts and magic.  Itís not new by any stretch of the imagination - the Aunt Dimity books have been coming out for quite a while - but these arenít exactly in that mold.  Blackwellís is the first in a series in which a witch who runs a vintage clothing store gets caught up in a mix of mystery and murder and, in this case, kidnapping as well.  The first victim is one of her clients, and she is also involved with a couple of handsome men, one magically inclined, the other a skeptic, to provide some mild romantic interest.  Lightweight, but not bad at all.  Stanton is a more seasoned writer and it shows.  This is the second in her series about a lawyer who can hear the dead.  She had a ghostly client in her first adventure, and she gets another one this time around, although it starts with a more mundane story about her defense of a teenager accused of theft.  Itís also pretty frothy at times but nicely written and once you get into it, you'll find it hard to put down. 7/6/09

Desolate Angel by Chaz McGee, Berkley, 2009, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22873-9

Where Thereís a Witch by Madelyn Alt, Berkley, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22871-5  

Fantasy flooded the romance field and now itís spilling over into mysteries in a big way.  The detective in the first is a ghost and in the second, sheís a witch.  The first is an unfinished business novel, that is, the ghost is wandering the Earth because in lie, as a cop, he arrested and won the conviction of the wrong person in a murder case.  Now he has to straighten things out.  Of course, to do he has to work through the living.  First in the Dead Detective series.  I guess he screwed up more than one case when he was alive.  Not badly done.  Thereís a hoary old device in the Alt as well.  Construction workers find a buried vault and open it, someone dies, and someone obviously innocent is arrested for the crime.  A local witch has to solve a mystery and avert a supernatural disaster.  Alt is a talented writer, but this is pretty lightweight overall.  Irrelevant note:  Both of these books came out from the same publisher the same month and theyíre both presumably aimed at the same market.  But the slightly shorter one is $1.00 more than the other.  I donít understand. I have a couple more of these to read tomorrow.  Stay tuned. 7/5/09

The Gods of Amyrantha by Jennifer Fallon, Tor, 7/09, $27.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1683-7

Iím not sure just why it is that Jennifer Fallonís fantasy adventures satisfy me a great deal more than those of most of her peers.  There is a liveliness and enthusiasm that I don't detect in many other fantasy epics even though the plots and even settings seem much the same. This, the second in the Tide Lords series, is a case in point.  The Tide Lords are in the process of regaining their power over the world, despite the opposition of its residents.  Cayal, originally believed to be just a legend, has reappeared as well.  Heís immortal, but heís tired of living and hopes to find a way to put an end to his own existence.  The story hinges upon the choice he must make whether to stand aside or to intervene against the other immortals.  The plot description would not have drawn me to the book, but Fallonís storytelling abilities are first rate and even the most familiar of situations seems fresh and new.  If youíre looking for a new fantasy writer to add to your library, she deserves early and serious consideration. 7/1/09