Archive for April, 2012

The Night Sessions — Inches From Immortality

What happens when society rejects religion outright in politics, and mentioning anyone’s religion is a very tender subject? What happens when a person of a religion is regarded with skepticism, mistrust and sometimes even fear?

That is the question originally posed by Ken MacLeod in his new novel, The Night Sessions, where wars in the Middle East and rising sea levels have forced society into a futuristic second Reformation. Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson is tasked with investigating an explosion which decimates a home. After making inquiries, he is startled to discover that the victim of the explosion was a Roman Catholic priest. A terrorist event has taken place, and Ferguson must find out why the Roman Catholic priest was targeted.

Meanwhile, the robot scene in The Night Sessions is one of acceptance (mostly) and use. Robots are very common throughout the city of London, from assisting the police in their investigations to being bouncers at a goth nightclub. However, there is a sense of mistrust from most civilians regarding robots, though this is not quite delved into early on in the novel.

While Ferguson is investigating the murder of the priest, he stumbles upon a new group of people called the Covenantors, who are going on about the third coming and a new Faith War. His investigation takes a turn for the worse when evidence points that the murders are being committed by an overzealous robot who is eager to start the next religious war.

I would normally say “…and this is where the book gets weird” at this point except that the book starts off weird. The author makes no qualms about it being weird, and once you can wrap your head around just how weird this book is, it’s a fascinating look into a question posed over forty years ago by author Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?: if a robot feels something or has self-awareness, what is the barrier between humanity and robotics? Here, MacLeod asks an even bigger question (albeit subtly): if robots believe in God, how does that affect the belief and faith structure of humanity?

The question isn’t outright asked, merely implied, but it’s enough of a theme to take a middling book and make it interesting. The pacing is a tad slow, the scene shifts aren’t very smooth or polished and the POV shifts are rather at random, as though the authors paused and thought “Well, I have nothing else I can think of for the moment… scene shift!” It’s disappointing, because as I mentioned before, the theme and question in the background about robots, faith and humanity is a question that should have been explored in much greater detail.

A decent enough effort that was literally one breath away from being very, very good.

Reviewed by Jason

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Spoor and Flint’s “Threshold:” Good, Solid Space Opera

Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s THRESHOLD is a space opera that centers around our near-future Earth, Mars, and a bunch of long-lost alien artifacts.  (The first book, BOUNDARY, while a good read in its own right, does not have to be read in order to understand THRESHOLD.)  All you really need to know to start this book is that the human race has attained space and now has a small colony on Mars, and that there’s a hope that more alien artifacts (of the type found on the Earth itself and Mars during the course of BOUNDARY) may reside within the solar system.

THRESHOLD starts out with a quick recap of what has gone before (deftly incorporated into the narrative), which is this: Madeline Fathom, formerly an agent for Homeland Security, has resigned to take a new position on Mars along with her new husband, Joe Buckley.  Helen Sutter, a paleontologist, and her much-younger husband, A.J. Baker, continue to puzzle out the alien fragments left behind that have been named Bemmius Secordii for two reasons: “Bemmius” is for the “bug-eyed monster” the aliens apparently looked like, while “Secordii” is the name of the person, Jacqueline Secord, who discovered the alien artifact in the first place.

Because of the alien artifacts, humans have finally been able to get out into space to stay.  (Human ingenuity plus alien knowledge is the equation Flint and Spoor make, and quite credibly, too .)  Now, there’s a legitimate “space race” going on, with India developing a “space elevator” for freight, the European Union building the biggest, baddest spaceship on record (the Odin), and of course Baker’s own Ares Corporation (the first private company in space, headquartered on Mars) also develops its own, small spaceship.

Over time — as much of this story is told in the form of vignettes — Fathom and the others realize there’s a real problem: the Martian artifacts, which have been freely shared with the crew of the Odin, lead to yet another artifact.  The Odin’s crew, rather than telling everyone on Mars (and Earth) what they’re doing, instead cuts the Martian colony completely out of the equation, possibly so the EU will be able to put its own, massive footprint in space.

While the devious nature of the Odin is not in question, there’s a further problem.  The Ares Corporation has far more work than it knows what to do with considering the alien artifacts known to be on Mars that are within its purview (as most of Mars has been parceled out to other Earthly concerns, if and when they are able to join the United States, the EU, and other major groups in space), but Fathom, a security specialist, does not believe the Odin should be left to have it all its own way.   To be blunt, she emphatically distrusts the Odin’s chief of security, Richard Fitzgerald, because he’s more or less amoral — she calls him a “mercenary . . . sociopath,” which may or may not be true.

What is true, though, is that Fitzgerald is the most unscrupulous crewman on the Odin.  Fathom is right to distrust him, as is the Captain of the Odin, General Hohenheim.  And what Fitzgerald will do to try to gain the Odin an advantage may just start the first — and, possibly, last — interstellar war.

THRESHOLD is an excellent book that does everything right.  There’s treachery, politics, love, mayhem, friendship — in short, the usual array of human personality traits and emotions — which just goes to show how well grounded Flint and Spoor are in human psychology.  All the relationships (positive and negative) make sense in context, the science (both the alien and human) seems sound, and the story is well-constructed.

But be warned: as the name THRESHOLD suggests, this story leaves the reader on tenterhooks, especially in the latter half of the book.   (Especially with regards to this question: will Joe Buckley survive?  Or won’t he?  Tune in tomorrow . . . . )

That being said, there is a sequel to THRESHOLD in the works called PORTAL (Spoor’s Web site mentions that PORTAL was accepted by his publisher, Baen Books, last September).  This is a very good thing, because THRESHOLD asks more questions than it answers and left most of “our heroes” in a devilishly tight spot.

So, you have an episode in a very good space opera series, with another to follow.  Excellent!  (Put me on the list to read PORTAL soonest, please.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Julia London’s “Eberlin:” Revenge, English-style

Julia London’s THE REVENGE OF COUNT EBERLIN is an English historical romance set in 1808, and is the second novel set in the “Secrets of Hadley Green” series.  The protagonists are the Danish Count Eberlin, born Tobin Scott of Hadley Green (his title was purchased), and Lily Beaudine of Hadley Green, now the Countess of Ashwood in her own right.  Years ago, Lily saw Tobin’s father leaving Ashwood Manor at a very late hour and didn’t understand the context; unfortunately for Tobin (and his father, Joseph Scott), that was the night the Ashwood jewelry went missing.  The elder Scott was quickly accused of theft and hanged even though he was innocent of that crime.  Even though Lily was only eight and Tobin thirteen when this happened, Tobin blames Lily for his father’s untimely death and is bent on revenge.

Lily’s feelings for Tobin are more complicated.  She remembers him as a childhood friend and companion, as Lily’s beloved Aunt Althea used to ask Tobin to watch over Lily due to her close companionship with Tobin’s father.  But since Tobin’s now bent on the complete ruination of the Ashwood estate — and because Tobin has a great deal of money due to being a self-made man (he made his money the old-fashioned way, as a privateer and gun-runner) — Lily feels she has no choice but to make some sort of deal with Tobin.

Of course, Tobin doesn’t want anything from Lily but her body (isn’t this always the way of things?), partly because Lily moves him but mostly because he wants to ruin her for a decent marriage to one of the Ton.  This is why Lily decides on a dangerous course; she will attempt to seduce Tobin (without giving up her virtue, or at least without giving it up too easily and to no purpose) while attempting to clear Joseph Scott’s name, as she figures one or the other things should lower Tobin’s defenses.

There’s a great deal of passion here between Tobin and Lily, so Lily’s stratagem quickly falls apart.  Yet the regret and guilt Lily feels about Tobin’s father (as now that she’s fully adult, she has a much better idea of what was probably going on between Aunt Althea and Joseph Scott that had nothing to do with the Ashwood jewels), much less the guilt Tobin feels later on (as he realizes Lily was only eight; why should he blame her for reporting what she saw under the circumstances?), can’t help but complicate this romance further.

So, do Lily and Tobin find out who carried off the Ashwood jewelry?  Will Tobin succeed in ruining Lily in every possible way?  And what will happen to this pair long-term?  All of these questions, and more, are answered in a thoroughly satisfying way.

As this is a romance, you can expect sparks to fly and the dialogue to sizzle, as it’s part of the genre.  But what’s particularly good about THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN is the strength of the characterization, as both Tobin and Lily could’ve easily become caricatures with less skillful treatment, yet are winningly brought to life by Ms. London.

The only minus here is the fact that Joseph Scott’s fate wasn’t ever in doubt.  From the beginning, I knew he was innocent and that Tobin’s anger over his father’s death was real.  The only real mystery about that is why Aunt Althea didn’t speak up to save Joseph from the gallows, but even there, Althea was married, albeit to a man who had many mistresses during the course of her marriage.  In that day and time, women didn’t admit to taking lovers unless they were independently wealthy widows, so it wasn’t at all surprising why Althea said nothing — and why Joseph, loving Althea, said nothing even though it meant his death. 

This one weakness is enough to keep this novel from getting the grade I’d wished to give, a solid A.  Still, THE REVENGE OF LORD EBERLIN is a fine way to spend a few hours, and I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Grade: A-minus

–reviewed by Barb 

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“Lawyers in Hell”: Back into Hell

 LAWYERS IN HELL is the first installment of the “Heroes in Hell” shared world anthology series, co-created by Janet and Chris Morris, in twenty-five years.  And as such, it’s both welcome and relevant, as there are plenty of new authors and characters who have yet to experience Hell and all its forms.

The best stories here are the “framing” stories by Chris and/or Janet Morris, which are, respectively, the introductory “Interview with the Devil” (credited to both), “Tribe of Hell” (credited to Janet) and “Erra and the Seven” (credited to Chris).  These stories help explain what’s going on in Hell these days, which is extremely important as the Akkadian God Erra and his seven Sibitti  are rampaging through Hell while conducting an audit.  (I’d call the Sibitti “henchmen,” as they do whatever Erra asks without question, except that it’s shown in these stories that at least one of the Sibitti does have a mind of his own.)  Because Erra is not exactly a user-friendly God (he makes Satan appear positively merciful by comparison), the Morrises are able to show how much worse the denizens of Hell could have it if Erra’s audit does not go well.

There are twenty-two different stories in this collection, which is why a review of every last one of them is impossible.  Complicating matters is that two of the very best stories that aren’t from the Morrises are by Jason Cordova and Leo Champion, who both review books (Jason often, Leo sporadically) here at Shiny Book Review.  That said, my best — and worst — stories follow, with the caveat that all of the stories in this collection are, bare minimum, competent stories that adhere faithfully to the “Heroes in Hell” mythology and milieu, so “worst” is a relative term.

Best stories:

Larry Atchley, Jr.’s, “Remember, Remember, Hell in November” is an excellent story about Guy Fawkes, “Church of Satan” founder Anton LaVey, and how neither one of them finds things exactly as they’d expect in Hell.  (Fawkes, of course, believes he should be accounted a martyr and be in Heaven instead, while LaVey expected instantaneous rewards once he descended into Hell.)  Atchley deftly incorporates the “Welcome Woman,” a common figure seen in this anthology and many of the others, into his story without a hitch, a nice touch.

Allen F. Gilbreath’s “The Adjudication of Henrietta (Hetty) Howland Robinson Green” discusses well-known businesswoman Hetty Green (called “the Witch of Wall Street” in her time) and her parsimonious ways.  Hetty, you see, is up for tailor-made damnation as she has a number of difficult and complicated problems for adjudicator Eddie O’Hare to resolve; it’s up to Eddie to figure out where the best place to put her is, because if he doesn’t satisfactorily (and speedily) resolve the case, his own damnation could be made that much worse.

Leo Champion’s “Revolutionary Justice” brings together long-time foil Che Guevara and 19th century lawyer, adventurer and privateer William Walker.  Champion’s story evokes the strongest sense of menace in the entire collection while breathing new life into Guevara’s hellish fate, and it’s a story that’s long on atmosphere without compromising or lessening the overarching plot, a neat trick.

Jason Cordova’s “And Injustice for All” is about Marie Antoinette and her problems with the advice she’s received from prophecy dolls, which necessitates a lawsuit.  (Marie, you see, doesn’t either understand or care about Erra and his Seven; she wants what she perceives as justice, and that’s that.)  This is the lightest story in the collection, which helps to relieve some of the tension built up thus far; that said, Marie Antoinette still gets what’s coming to her, while the sins of vapidity and stupidity are disposed of in short order.

David L. Burkhead’s story “With Enemies Like These” shows the problem of trying to form alliances in Hell.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who goes by Wendell) tries to kidnap Lt. Colonel William Dunlap Simpson, late of the Fourteenth South Carolina Volunteers, and it doesn’t go well.  Then as they travel, they encounter Fimbulwinter and must somehow bargain their way out.  This is a delightfully twisted story that discusses the pluses — and minuses — of alliances in Hell.

Worst (or weakest) stories:

Kimberly Richardson’s “The Dark Arts” shows lawyer Clarence Darrow (still a pretty good guy, even in Hell) trying to help fallen angel Penemue, who is depraved enough to be a devil in disguise.  Penemue’s defense against plagiarism is unique, a plus, but Penemue is so disgusting that it’s hard to sympathize with anyone in the story, including Darrow.  This isn’t so much a bad story as one I just didn’t care for, but it still makes its point that Hell has many different variations.

Nancy Asire’s “Tale of a Tail” isn’t a bad story, either, being about the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon, and Napoleon’s long-time mistress, Countess Marie Walewska.  There are pluses here in that Asire’s story weaves in many other aspects of Hell from this and previous books in the anthology, which is one of the reason I admire Asire’s skill.  But I expected more from Asire than this tale of perpetual grass-growing and the hellish Home Owner’s Association and just didn’t get it.

Bruce Durham’s “Plains of Hell” accounts for a rematch between two Canadian historical figures, General James Wolfe (who died before he was able to account for overmuch) and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm; they are told to re-fight their battle on the plains of Hell, even though Erra and his Seven are on the way.  This is a story that requires a long build-up and has an ending that can only be described as off-putting (even though it is entirely faithful to the “Heroes in Hell” mythos).  Once again, while this isn’t a bad story, it’s not one I’d ever wish to re-read, either.

All of that said, the anthology LAWYERS IN HELL proves that Hell has many more stories left to explore, and succeeds in advancing the “Heroes in Hell” series.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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The Magicians — Idealistic and Gritty

It’s a work of literary fantasy that left me speechless. It was astounding in its breadth and grittiness, and could be one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read in my life. And yet it slaps you in the face, like a wet turd in church. It made me wish for some innocence, some sort of happy tale instead of a “Dirty” Harry Potter goes to Narnia-Hell. It’s gritty, it’s realistic, and it is as f*cking awesome as a pile of cookies left on your porch by the local drug dealer.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is one of those books that tears you apart emotionally while you read it, turning your idealism onto its head and forcing the reader to ask oneself just what they would do if they had any sort of magic in their life.

Quentin Coldwater is just an ordinary American teen (who happens to be brilliantly intelligent) preparing for life at college with his two best friends when he suddenly stumbles upon a secret campus where is he tested and, after passing, “released” back into reality. Quentin has no idea what he has stumbled upon, but he immediately accepts the offer to attend a special school for magicians, where he is separated from his friends (who were not accepted) and begins to build himself a strange new life.

The school he is invited to attend seems to function with a laissez-faire approach to education. The adults (because that’s what they are, in spite of everything they act to the contrary) learn their magic through repetition and rote, much like modern schooling. No magical quills, potions and herbal lore for them. No, the school is content on churning out magicians with very little preparation for their upcoming lives as adult magicians. Huzzah for standardized testing!

As he descends further into the rabbit hole, Quentin begins to realize that his childhood fantasy world, Fillory (think Narnia), is real and a place where he can visit. However, he slips into a world of hedonism and nonsense as he comes to grips with being an adult magician in an unmagical society. Or rather, fails to come to grips, as his life begins to fall apart around him and his dreams of Fillory are replaced with nights of partying and days of nothingness, a soul-crushing emptiness he is more than willing to allow his life to become.

I can’t explain just how much awesome this book contains. It’s horrifying, in a way, as you read about typical American teens who simply coast through their realities with little to no motivation. Yet absolutely brilliant on its own, making the reader take stock and want to reach into the book and smack Quentin (repeatedly) across the back of his head.

Much like you’d do with your own kids…

Grossman’s style is uniquely his own, a blend of the fantastical and realistic. He hits you with it over and over again, never letting you go, never letting up as he drives you through Quentin’s story. It’s amazing and yet, horrifying. I can’t say enough just how much this book is a genre-buster, one that should be read by any and all. They say that The Lord of the Flies is required reading for middle school boys? I’ll add that The Magicians should be read by any and all college students before they graduate.

A++. Must read. Go buy it.

–Reviewed by Jason

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ConVent — The Crazy Convention Story That Keeps It Fun

Part of the fun when reading about the convention scene in fiction is finding “them” in your own memories (and, curiously enough, your own experiences) and giggling in recognition. Kate Paulk does this and more in her blood-sucking, werewolf prowling, con-going hoot of a tale, ConVent.

“Jim”, as our hero in this novel calls himself (having outgrown his original name many, many years ago) has just arrived at a science fiction/fantasy convention when he smells a familiar scent: his old “friend” Sean, who also happens to be a werewolf. Normally (as anybody who has read urban fantasy or, sweet merciless Cthulhu, read some Twilight in their day) werewolves and vampires do not get along, but Sean and Jim make an exception, since they both tend to travel the con circuit like any other die-hard congoer. They say their hellos…

…and are immediately greeted by the strong scent of blood. Jim feels it to be his obligation to investigate the obscene amount of blood he smells, but it’s Sean who points him in the proper direction (werewolf, like dogs, have a great sense of smell) and it’s there that the two of them find a body in the Art Dealer’s Room.

Jim doesn’t quite know what is going on, but it becomes painfully clear that after the police are called and he runs into a real angel acquaintance of his named Raph that something very odd is going on at this particular convention.Of course, there’s going to be bigger problems, because a minor demon lord has with him a very dangerous dagger that makes Jim fearful and Raph’s succubus “girlfriend” is turning heads sharp enough to cause permanent damage. It’s going to be up to Jim, Sean, Raph and his succubi to save the world.

Okay, let’s get the bad out of the way: I hate the author’s depiction of “fen” (nickname given to congoers by, well, themselves). It’s sort of sad to see that someone who writes SF/F can still generalize like this, especially given the recent trend of cons becoming “mainstream” (see ComicCon and DragonCon if you don’t believe me). And, as an Amazon reviewer said, the lack of panels, steampunk, filk, etc. at this particular con makes this sound like one I really wouldn’t want to attend. Plus, the best stuff at cons often happens at late-night panels (the infamous “Ask the Authors Anything” panel of Conjecture 2008 comes to mind… I still shudder to this day about “pony”, “fisting” and oh God kill me now I need to write this freaking review before my train of thought becomes derailed and ends up in a sewer in Newark…). Other than that…

…other than that, the novel was a lot of fun to read. The mysterious murder(s) which keep occurring, the lack of interest from any sort of law enforcement confusing our “hero”, the absolute havoc and confusion that Raph causes when having sex with a succubus (“undercover angel”, indeed) keeps the reader solidly interested. Midway through the book, the author introduces a family that can subtly be described as “familiar”. The Bosting family, with one award winning author and another in the midst, happen to be at the con as well and causing many demons (who are editors at big-time publishing houses, not exactly a stretch there… are you certain you were writing “fiction”, Ms. Paulk?) to get more than a little weird.

Ms. Paulk manages to do something here that I usually have problems with — she made me care about all of the characters, both main and secondary. (Almost) any author can make the reader care about the main character, and sometimes even the primary secondary. But it’s very, very hard to make the minor characters just as intriguing as the main without taking too much away from the primary (this is evident when the two teenage Bosting boys are dominating a scene, and Jim can only sit back and be carried along with their zaniness).

Definitely a good read, and I can’t wait to see the sequel.

Reviewed by Jason

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Haymore’s “Bride”: Unexpected, Welcome Depth and Pathos Make for a Great Romance

 Jennifer Haymore’s CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is an English historical romance set in 1828 of unexpected emotional depth and complexity.   In it, we meet the oldest surviving Donovan sister, Serena, once an identical twin.  Six years ago, she was first wined, dined, and seduced by Lord Jonathan Dane, then cast off when Dane’s father, the Earl of Stratford, refused to let Jonathan marry Serena after Jonathan had compromised her (and himself) at a social function.

On the way home due to her disgrace, and accompanied by her twin sister, Margaret (called “Meg”), a terrible accident caused Meg to be lost at sea.  Because Meg was promised to another man, Captain William (“Will”) Langley, and because Serena’s formidable mother decided to hush up the scandal any way she could, the world was told that Serena had died — not Meg.

The problem was, Jonathan Dane didn’t know that Serena was still alive because he saw the same obituary as everyone else, and he really did have feelings for her — strong ones.  Being adjudged a wicked man for how he’d seduced Serena, then cut her in the street because of parental pressure, he went out and promptly did his best to live down to his reputation.

What the world at large, and Serena in particular, didn’t know is that he’d vowed privately to his father, and his elder brother Gervase as well, that he’d marry Serena — or he’d marry no one at all.  And since he believed Serena was dead, his new vow after he ascended to the Earldom was that he would die without issue as a way to spite his father and brother for refusing to let him marry Serena when he still could.

So the two principals here are stricken with guilt, remorse, and grief; that Serena has been told by her mother that she must be Meg and must marry Will Langley (a very good man in his narrow way), or her sisters will not be able to marry well due to Serena’s past disgrace, just complicates the issue.  Her heart and body still belong to Jonathan, though she wrongly believes he never cared about her; she also believes, wrongly, that Meg was far more innocent than Serena, which is yet another complication that can’t help but cause problems for all concerned. 

Serena believes she must take Meg’s place in every respect, and be more of a moral, virtuous woman (as that’s how she’s always viewed Meg) in order to save her family.  She also feels that as she was at fault for Meg’s death (as Meg wouldn’t have been on that ship with her if Serena hadn’t been sent home), Serena must marry Will and be as good a wife to him as her sister Meg would’ve been, even though she doesn’t love Will (she merely likes him) and never will. 

So how do these two lovers, separated by fate and chance, manage to get together after all?  That’s for you to read — but I can assure you, if you love romance, you’ll find a great deal to enjoy.

The best thing about CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is its unexpected (yet welcome) emotional depth and pathos on the part of both Serena/Meg and Jonathan.  They’ve both grown up in six years, are both still extremely attracted to one another, and when Serena lets herself, she can still communicate with Jonathan quite well.  The fact that Jonathan very quickly figures out Serena isn’t Meg (and is thus alive), but doesn’t tell anyone about it because he doesn’t want to shame Serena further, is believable in this context; that it’s “played straight” by Haymore helps, as this could’ve been a plot deal-breaker with less skillful treatment.

The secondary romance is that of Serena’s next-oldest sister Phoebe, who’s nineteen, and the twenty-one year old Lord Sebastian Harford, who’s more or less “hedge nobility” — that is, he has a title because his grandfather had one, but has no money nor an ancestral estate with which to back it up.  Harford is adjudged his generation’s “great rake” because he gambles and fights (he also seems to know more than his share of loose women, too), while Phoebe is an innocent who scans much as Serena must have six years ago.  Yet this romance does not run into the same troubles, partly because Serena had the experiences she did years ago, and partly because Jonathan, too, decides to help the younger couple rather than hinder them.

This secondary romance is sweet, earnest, and not based on carnality (though there does seem to be a strong undercurrent of passion there, it’s not the primary motivation for these two to be together).  Phoebe and Sebastian can talk with one another; they have long, in-depth conversations and hide nothing, much as real lovers in any time would do.  Phoebe doesn’t care that Sebastian is land-poor and that his prospects aren’t good (though he does have talent as an architect, then, as now, it can be tough to break into that particular field); her family is just as poor as Sebastian’s (might be worse off, in fact, as they’re another of the types that try to hold up appearances to outsiders but live in wretched poverty behind closed doors), and she sees no need for the type of hypocrisy it would take for her to say, “I must marry for money rather than love,” especially as her sister Serena is preparing to do that very thing at the start of this novel.

So the primary plot works, the secondary plot works and is an excellent contrast, the sensuality which Haymore is known for is shown to excellent effect (much better than Haymore’s A SEASON OF SEDUCTION, which I reviewed here) and the true things that drive any good romance to fruition — understanding, mutual respect, friendship, and caring — are also enumerated well.

This is a near-flawless romance, one I enjoyed in all particulars, and I recommend it without reservation.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Jon Sprunk’s “Shadow’s Master:” Intelligent, Violent Dark Fantasy

Jon Sprunk’s SHADOW’S MASTER is the third and final installment of Sprunk’s “Shadow Saga,” the previous two books being SHADOW’S SON and SHADOW’S LURE.  It isn’t necessary to read the previous books in order to understand SHADOW’S MASTER (good thing, too, as I haven’t).

This third installment in the “Shadow Saga” features Caim Du’Vartha, a fearsome fighter of renown, who must go North in order to find his mother’s family.  Caim has abilities, you see, which he doesn’t understand but somehow has full use of, including the ability to teleport by the use of “shadows” (thus the name for the trilogy) and the ability to move much faster than most humans, which obviously improves his fighting and is the main reason for his reputation.  But this, alone, wouldn’t be enough to motivate him; the real reason he’s going North (a place of fearsome, dark beauty where the sun never shines and the constellations are all wrong) is because Caim wants, once and for all, to know why his mother simply disappeared one day, never to return, despite her love for him and his (fully human) father.

Note that despite Caim’s fearsome abilities, he hasn’t been stupid enough to go North alone; instead, he’s taken three very good fighters along with him, these being Malig, Aemon, and Dray.  These three often serve to relieve tension, and all serve a unique purpose: Malig is a “love ’em and leave ’em” type, Dray is moody, and Dray’s brother Aemon seems like he’d rather have retired than gone on this quest, except Dray wouldn’t let him.  These three men help to keep Caim from becoming too introverted or angry.

Here’s the one piece of information Caim really doesn’t know, but should’ve figured out before he started this quest (which is why it’s not a spoiler): Caim is not fully human, as these shadows he uses are a biological ability he was born with due to his mother’s genetic heritage.  But Caim doesn’t think of himself as a half-breed, though others do; these others, centered in a stronghold called Erebus, call Cain the “Scion” and wonder if he’s really as capable as he seems.  This is why they resolve to test him; a noble fighter named Balaam, one of the Talons who guard “the Master” (equivalent to an Emperor) and can use the shadows as easily as Caim can, is dispatched to test Cain’s mettle.  Balaam must determine whether or not Caim truly should be named the Master’s heir — or if Caim should be eliminated out of hand.

Meanwhile, there are two others who actively factor into the plot; the first is Empress Josephine (called “Josey”) of Nimea, who is carrying Caim’s child, though Caim doesn’t know it.  (This apparently is because Josey didn’t know she was pregnant before Caim went North.)  The second is a woman of mist (a “guardian spirit”) named Kit, who can’t fully incorporate into the physical world, yet is deeply in love with Caim anyway.  This love triangle adds depth to Caim’s character, which otherwise would’ve been one of extreme violence and not much else.

Mind you, these two women are also very important to the plot.  Josey is on a “royal progress” in order to unite Nimea, and has many adventures of her own, while Kit must figure out whether or not she loves Caim enough to leave her current mode of life.  You can see why this is a most interesting love triangle: Josey’s pregnant and knows it’s Caim’s child, but has no idea where he is.  This means she has to get on with her job of ruling Nimea, and part of that job means she must entertain the possibility of other alliances.  And Kit’s entire mode of living could change if she stays with Caim; she would not only have to become mortal (difficult enough), but also give up all of her extra abilities despite the fact that Caim may need them in order to survive.  These extra layers of complexity help to humanize Caim’s situation, especially since in both cases, Caim has no idea what these women might be willing to give up in order to be with him (because neither woman is willing to tell him).

Who will Caim choose (or who will choose Caim, take your pick)?  Will Caim find his mother in Erebus, or will Balaam succeed in keeping Caim out?  And what, pray tell, will Josey do regarding her rule and her increasingly obvious pregnancy?  All of these questions will be answered by the end of SHADOW’S MASTER.

The pluses of SHADOW’S MASTER are these: the characterization is spot-on.  The fighting sequences, violent as they are, work well.  The action-adventure works.  The plot is well-constructed.  And I liked the fact that “Caim” is a very close name to “Caine,” the hero played by David Carradine on the old “Kung Fu” television series.

The minuses, though, are a bit harder to understand. 

First, why is it that both Kit and Josey don’t tell Caim anything?  One of them — Josey — has every reason in the world not to tell Caim what’s going on as he’s gone.  But there’s no excuse for Kit not to say anything, as she’s with Caim every day due to her own magical abilities.  This was something that just made me scratch my head, as it could’ve easily been fixed.

Second, the court at Erebus wasn’t as well-sketched as I would’ve liked.  Most of those people were complete ciphers, and while that makes sense from Caim’s perspective, it makes zero sense from Balaam’s.  As we see much from Balaam’s viewpoint, this also could’ve easily been remedied.

Third, Caim’s essential nature bothered me.  He’s so dark and brooding that I truly didn’t understand how it was that not one, but two good women would be willing to give up so much for him. 

I understand why Caim is upset throughout most of this book, mind you; that’s not the what bugs me.  What does is that Caim doesn’t seem to grow in this particular book.

I’ve read comments elsewhere to the point that Caim has grown a great deal throughout the trilogy, and this may well be true.  However, just because his good qualities may have been more strongly enumerated in the previous books of the trilogy, they still need to be sketched out here — and they weren’t. 

All that said, this is a strong sword and sorcery effort that lovers of dark fantasy — especially men, the younger the better — will enjoy quite a bit.  And that’s not chopped liver.

Grade: B

–reviewed by Barb

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The Son of Neptune — A Hijacked Series?

I have to admit, I was a little biased when I reviewed the last Rick Riordan book (The Lost Hero) last year. I had been hoping for something extraordinary and instead I got a non-Percy Jackson book. However, the next book of the series, The Son of Neptune, promised to have Percy Jackson in it, so (late to the party, I know) I went and bought it.

Amnesia seems to be the theme of this new series as Percy, unable to remember who he is or what he is doing, stumbles upon the Roman camp of Half-Bloods (see? yin-yang continuity in a Greek/Roman demigod world…) and is “saved” by two Roman counterparts, a daughter of Pluto and a son of Mars. Which, if you’ve read the original series, is sort of amusing because Aries and Percy Jackson do not get along.

So yeah, quest, blah blah blah… the true story here is the mystery behind why Percy doesn’t have his memory and what is the special birth circumstances of his two new friends, Frank and Hazel. It seems that the author is dropping hints about other gods and goddesses and who their parents are, hereditary powers that haven’t been discovered.

There was simply too much about the “mystery” (something Riordan did in book one of the new series as well) and less actual “story”. I literally spent half the book wondering when everything was going to start clicking. Part of the problem is that, like The Lost HeroThe Son of Neptune jumps from point of view to point of view. While it is fascinating to see what Frank and Hazel think and feel, the series feels like it has been usurped by outside characters. It finally gets going about 2/3 of the way through the book, which is almost too little, too late. However, the last third of the book makes up for it and takes the reader for the ride you’d expect from the author.

Good writing, even if I am complaining about the pacing. The story is lacking a bit, but if you prefer the build up of demigods to actual doing things, this book will be enjoyable.

–Reviewed by Jason


Contest Reminder

Just a reminder, our April contest is currently underway. You can win two books (Jack of Ravens and The Burning Man, books 1 & 2 of the Kingdom of the Serpent series by Mark Chadbourn) by simply following us on Facebook. We’ll ship it just about anywhere (well, anywhere within the US I mean… it’s expensive shipping it overseas). Contest has been extended to next Friday, April 13 (ooh!). If you already “Liked” us, then “Like” one of our recent posts and you’re entered.

We really want to give these books away.


Really, we want to give you these.

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