Archive for August, 2012

Dave Freer’s “Dog and Dragon” — Cute Sequel

Dave Freer’s DOG AND DRAGON is a sequel to DRAGON’S RING (reviewed here).  As such, it’s about the further adventures of Fionn, the black, shapechanging dragon (also called Finn), his lover, Meb (née Anghared), and their devoted sheepdog, Dileas.

At the end of DRAGON’S RING, everything was thrown into flux.  You see, Meb believed that if she stayed with Finn, something awful would happen to the universes — the various planes of existence — and that Finn, in trying to save them (as that is, indeed, his job), would end up dead.  That’s why she leaves Tamarind and ends up in Lyonesse, the place of her birth; while she hadn’t intended to go there, her magic tends to send her wherever she’s most needed.  And Lyonesse, it turns out, is in major need of a heroine.

Meanwhile, Finn and Dileas are searching for Meb.  Searching the various planes isn’t as easy as it sounds, even for a shapechanging dragon like Fionn/Finn; fortunately, Dileas is an excellent tracker, and despite the fact that Meb’s translation from Tamarind to Lyonesse was nearly instantaneous and didn’t go by way of the planar travel Finn and Dileas are forced to endure, Dileas ends up getting them in the right direction.

Back in Lyonesse, Meb makes common cause with the only decent people around, the formidable Lady Vivien, a widow, and the young noblewoman sent to become Meb’s maid, Lady Neve.   But both women are being blackmailed — more or less — by Mage Aberinn, a man who’s kept Lyonesse in thrall for the past fifty years.  And because of this, Meb has difficulty figuring out how to become Lyonesse’s predestined “Defender” — who, as it might be expected via prophecy, will defend the land from villains such as Aberinn.

Now, why is Aberinn such a bad guy?  Simple — he’s kept Lyonesse at war with six or seven other planes of existence by way of something he calls “the Changer” for most of the past fifty years.  And when people can’t grow crops due to the constant warring — when people can’t be safe in their own homes — well, it’s a situation that’s good for Aberinn because the people are scared and cowed.  But it’s an appalling situation for everyone else.

Worse yet, there’s another figure — a shadowy presence — encouraging the constant warring in Lyonesse.  So between this shadow-person and Aberinn, Lyonesse is in bad, bad shape, which is one reason why it’s such a depressing place to live.

To Meb’s credit, she understands that the constant warring has caused major problems nearly immediately and vows to do something about it.  But she has few allies; Vivien feels compelled to stay where she is due to her two young sons, while Neve just can’t do much.

Never fear, however; there are other allies on Lyonesse, such as the knockyan (called “knockers” by humans), a type of dwarf akin to the previous book’s dvergar, there are the ant-like muryan, there are spriggans, and of course there are pixies.  All of them eventually end up aiding Meb in repelling any number of invaders, merely because Meb can’t help being what she is — a very powerful mage who comes from this odd world and has strange links to it by birth — and while it’s good that Meb gets aid, perhaps some of that aid comes to her a bit too easily.

Really, the better part of the story here lies with Finn and Dileas; they have all sorts of adventures.  Bad things happen to them, or at least are attempted, and most of them are rebuffed with humor and/or forethought — but despite Finn’s near-immortality and near-invulnerability, I never got the sense that things happened too easily for Finn and Dileas, especially as they had to work really hard to find Meb in the first place.

Overall, DOG AND DRAGON is a really cute story, and the adventures Finn and Dileas have are fine and funny.  But is it up to the rousing action-adventure of DRAGON’S RING?  No. 

And are Meb’s adventures as interesting as the ones experienced by Finn and Dileas?  No, they aren’t, precisely because everything seems to come just a bit too easily for her — something that did not happen in DRAGON’S RING — and because I couldn’t help but get the sense that despite all of her Defending, she really was there for one plot purpose and one plot purpose only: to wait for Finn and Dileas to find her.

Granted, had DRAGON’S RING not been so outstanding, I may have been happier with this adventure.  But DRAGON’S RING was and is outstanding, which is why I really expected more here — and I didn’t quite get it.

That said, this is still a cute story and I enjoyed Finn and Dileas’s adventures.  Meb’s a good character, too — I liked her, even though I thought Lyonesse was a rather depressing place and that most of the people there were obnoxious at absolute best — and I’d like to see more adventures for all three of them.

In other words, DOG AND DRAGON is a strong B-plus — nothing to sneeze at, mind you, and a book that I enjoyed quite a bit (especially when Finn and Dileas were “on stage”) — but not quite up to the standard set by DRAGON’S RING.

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Doyle/MacDonald’s Excellent “Mageworlds” Series, Books 6 and 7

Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald are among the best SF&F authors working today.  They write books filled with great characterization, excellent adventure, and have a way of combining space opera, mysticism, fantasy elements and romance in a way few other authors can match.  Their “Mageworlds” series, which has run to seven books, is excellent and rousing; that all seven books — now including books six and seven — are available in e-book format is something worth cheering about.

The Stars Asunder

Book Six, which starts 500 years prior to the events depicted in THE PRICE OF THE STARS (book 1), is THE STARS ASUNDER.  It features Arekhon “‘Rekhe” Khreseio sus-Khalgath sus-Paladaen, the younger son of the huge Paladaen fleet family.  Due to familial obligations, Rekhe ends up serving on one of the family ships before he takes up his life’s work — Magery — and meets the love of his life, Elaeli Inadi, in the process.

‘Rekhe, you see, has a powerful destiny — he’s the “”Professor,” whom we meet up with in book one, dies in book two, and is referred to many times in book three — but as a young man, he’s pretty much like any other young man you’ve ever met.  His interests may be a bit more esoteric than most, as he’s a Mage who sees the eiran (more or less the electrical currents of life than bind all living things in various ways), but when this book starts, ‘Rekhe has no idea that he’ll live a very long time, that he’ll end up on the other side of the galaxy entirely, or that he’ll eventually have to leave his family behind.

At any rate, THE STARS ASUNDER deals with the set-up and workings of the Demaizen Circle — Demaizen is famed in the Mageworlds, even five hundred years later, because Demaizen’s head Mage (or First of the Circle, as they’d have it) Garrod is a famous Void-walker.  Mageworld ships transit the Void slightly differently than do their counterparts across the galaxy as they follow the Void-marks set by various Mages — and Garrod is the most famous of them all, a noted explorer who’s done more to advance Mageworld space than anyone.  And because Mages find worlds blindly — basically by going to the Void, walking for a time, and going wherever the mood strikes them (as the eiran cannot be viewed within the Void) — it’s obvious that traveling long distances is difficult, painful, and fraught with peril.

This is why Garrod’s Circle is made up of the most powerful Mages Garrod could find.  ‘Rekhe is Third in Garrod’s Circle of ten (ten being a large amount for a single circle), and for the most part what he does is similar to what mystics do in any culture at any time.  Where ‘Rekhe’s abilities differ — where all Mages’ abilities differ — is that the workings of the Mages require power; the more difficult the working, the greater the power required.  And the Mages gather power in a way that newcomers to the Mageworlds series may find offensive — they are blood mages.

Now, what redeems the Mages is this — they use the power raised by fighting amongst themselves for peaceful means, at least in this point in their history.  Mages consent to fight; they know it’s possible that a great working will require a death (or more), and they accept this as the price of their power. 

This is borne out early by one of Demaizen’s other Mages, a very strong woman named Narin.  Narin worked as the First of her Circle on a fishing trawler; due to a storm, the only way to get her boat back home safely was to fight all the other mages in her circle of four, and use their death-energy to save the rest of the crew (and most, if not all, of their catch).  Narin and her Circle know the price of this working; all consent to it, and Narin knows that she could fall — in fact, she expects to fall.  But when she doesn’t, Narin refuses to work on a fishing boat again and ends up at Demaizen instead.

The adventures ‘Rekhe and the other members of Garrod’s Circle go through as they attempt to get across the Void to find more viable worlds are rousing, interesting, and extremely moving — especially when ‘Rekhe’s old friend Elaeli ends up being one of the officers-in-charge of the ship which ends up going to the edge of the galaxy.  And the Mages may find that getting to Entibor — as that’s the world Garrod found — may be far easier than returning to their own culture . . . .

Next up is book 7, A WORKING OF STARS.  Garrod’s working still is not complete, which is why Llannat Hyfid — one of the most intriguing characters from the original three books of “The Mageworlds” — has come back in time to help ‘Rekhe and the other surviving members of the Demaizen Circle finish it up.  Llannat goes by Maraghana, which is easier for ‘Rekhe and the others to say, even though this book starts out on Entibor and even though it’s been ten solid years since the events depicted in THE STARS ASUNDER.

Of course, things are still a mess.  The Mageworlds themselves have actually devolved in some ways; they have become much more violent as lesser noble families are ending up either eliminated or absorbed, and the Mages themselves are having much more difficulty keeping themselves away from politics.

That said, the adventures of Elaeli (now Elela Rosselin — yes, one of the forebears of Beka Rosselin-Metadi, the heroine of the first three books, along with Beka’s mother, Perada) are probably the easiest to follow, but have the least “screen time.”  That’s not a weakness, mind you, but it does mean that you shouldn’t read this book unless you’ve read book 6 or you’re likely to get extremely lost.

Overall, much more is learned about ‘Rekhe, his family, and the structure of the Mageworlds.  There’s still a great deal of action here (though much of it centers around lesser characters), there certainly are people here to root for (‘Rekhe and most of the survivors of Demaizen, Elaeli, etc.) and against (‘Rekhe’s nasty brother), and the political and spiritual worldviews make sense.

But as I said before, this is a book you really won’t get the most out of if you haven’t read, bare minimum, THE STARS ASUNDER.  And because of the huge amount of backstory here — necessary backstory, granted — this is a book that moves more slowly than any other in the seven-book series.

Finally, if you haven’t read the first three books of the Mageworlds series, you won’t understand why Llannat Hyfid does anything in this book.  Llannat is a much more sympathetic figure in the first three books; by this time, she’s a mature woman, secure in her powers, and she barely thinks about the more onerous duties she must face as the greatest Mage of all the Mage Circles (meaning she has to sacrifice people, when needed, for the good of the galaxy — granted, she only sacrifices those who consent).  And because she doesn’t think about it, much of her actions seem opaque, even to long-term readers like myself (THE PRICE OF THE STARS came out in 1992) . . . as it stands, Narin ends up standing in as a compassionate figure for much of this novel rather than Llannat, and while I liked Narin, that really isn’t what she should’ve been there to do — or at least that wasn’t all she should’ve been able to do.

All that said, these are both very, very good books that I’m happy to recommend without reservation.  Most SF&F readers will enjoy these novels a great deal if they keep that one aspect — the fact that the Mages do blood magic — in mind.

Grades:  THE STARS ASUNDER — A-plus.


— reviewed by Barb

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When Diplomacy Fails — Another Romp with Ripple Creek

 When the enemies are the good guys and the good guys are worse, there’s only one security company to call.

When Diplomacy Fails is the latest Ripple Creek novel (set in the Freehold universe) written by Michael Z. Williamson and published by Baen Books. Alex Marlow and the rest of the Ripple Creek security detail (Do Unto Others, Better to Beg Forgiveness) return to duty after their last harrowing assignment and are tasked with something much more dangerous: protecting a woman who so many people want dead that a war could break out over who gets to kill her first.

When Marlow and Co get their latest tasking, the first thing they begin to wonder is if their latest assignment from the U.N. is retribution for their successful protection of a president that was reported dead by the media (see Better to Beg Forgiveness), one that could possibly lead to negative publicity for the (arguably) best protective detail around. Well-paid and motivated (and, at times, at odds with their principal), they set out to keep the Bureau of State Minister alive as she toured Mtali, a planet which was quickly becoming a hive for religious fundamentalism and war (as mentioned in another Williamson novel, The Weapon).

However, they soon realize that they not only need to protect the principal from dangers without, but to protect her from herself as well. That is going to make the mission much more difficult than any of them originally thought.

The writing is fast-paced, as always, and the best thing about the Ripple Creek novels is that they are what I would call “light reads”. Fast, fun, and not requiring too much introspective thought about whether war is bad or good. The thought process of a Ripple Creek novel is pretty simple: keep the principal alive at all costs. This eliminates some of the more disturbing questions one would normally imagine when reading a novel of this type (like why does Elke need explosives? Is it a pathological disorder, etc?) and focuses instead on the entertainment aspect of rough and ready warriors. And that is just what a Ripple Creek novel is, pure entertainment.

I still have favorite characters (Aramis Anderson and Shaman are my two faves, followed by Elke) and their attitudes and behaviors have stayed consistent throughout the series (for which I’m thankful). There is a bit of Aramis maturing as he ages, which is welcomed, and the depth of the characters, while not fully explored, is lurking there, just between the lines of every page. But the character development does not interfere in any way, merely enhances a story without throwing much angst into the reader’s face. A welcome change from some of the other novels I have read lately.

I would compare a Ripple Creek novel with a SF-version of Mack Bolan: you know what you’re going to get, are not surprised by the result, and yet can find something cool and refreshing in the novel which is filled with death, dismemberment and mayhem throughout. A fun read and continuation of the Ripple Creek saga.

Reviewed by Jason


Dave Freer’s “Cuttlefish:” Excellent Alternate History, with Subs

Dave Freer’s CUTTLEFISH is an excellent story.  Set in an alternate 1976 where the British Empire never fell and that’s still dependent on coal as its main energy source, CUTTLEFISH features the stories of two teens — cabin boy Tim Barnabas, and passenger Clara Calland — and a rollicking action-adventure plot that never lets up.

In this world, submarines have been made illegal because they are able to go where other naval conveyances cannot.  This is important because Tim is one of the “underpeople,” as he comes from London’s now-flooded streets.  (London, in this conception, has become the new Venice, complete with canals, due to what Freer calls “the Big Melt” — otherwise known as climate change due to the overuse of coal.)  The underpeople believe in democracy, something the autocratic British Empire would rather stamp out, and have created a thriving business by trading in things the British Empire would rather leave alone.   They use the illegal subs as a way to trade.

Of course, Tim is a bright young lad with no future in London’s tunnels.  He needs an occupation, soonest, which is why his mother gets Tim a berth on the Cuttlefish in the first place.  Tim is quick-witted and learns to love the sea, but doesn’t really care much for the other cabin boys as he finds them either too rambunctious or too juvenile, take your pick.

Clara is on the Cuttlefish because her mother, an English scientist, has figured out a new scientific process.  Every country in the world wants this process, but Clara’s mother refuses to allow it to be turned into a weapon; that’s why she’s turned to the underpeople and their submarines, hoping to find a way to either the United States or Western Australia as these two countries are the least likely to use her scientific discovery to make war.

But Clara is still a teen, and she’s both bored and lonely due to a lack of intellectual stimulation.  Her father, an Irishman, is in prison after being branded a revolutionary, while her mother is severely distracted due to running for their lives.  However, because Clara is younger and bounces back much more quickly than her mother, she needs to find at least one friend on the sub.  This is why she initially talks with Tim — he’s her age, he’s known privation, and as he’s mulatto, she feels she has something in common with him due to the fact that she’s half-Irish.  (Note that the term “mulatto” is not used.  Tim just sees himself as a Londoner, same as any other.)

During the course of CUTTLEFISH, there are many adventures in store for Tim, Clara, and of course for Mrs. Calland.  Some of these adventures you may not expect, but all of them flow naturally from the story and are sensible in context, something realized once the book is over (after you’re able to catch your breath).

And before you ask, of course a romance is in store for Clara and Tim.  But this is a gentle, G-rated romance that builds out of Clara and Tim getting to know each other as people first, then members of the opposite sex, second.  As this feels quite true-to-life under the circumstances — and as it’s always subordinate to the action and adventure that can’t help but go on all around Clara, her mother, and Tim — it makes perfect sense.

Best of all, the sub is filled with all sorts of people, which is unusual in any form of fiction nowadays as it seems too many authors in all genres want everyone to get along.  Some of the people on the Cuttlefish are good, some are not-so-good, and a few are out-and-out blackguards, which helps ground the story nicely and makes the story far more plausible on an emotional level.  (Trust me — Freer already had the other levels covered.)

Overall, CUTTLEFISH is an excellent action-adventure yarn with just a tad of romance that’s suitable for all ages.  It’s meticulously researched, well-thought-out, and reads quickly.  Buy this one for anyone on your list who likes naval adventure with a touch of romance, as this is a novel that should appeal to more than “just” the SF/F audience.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Rosemary Edghill’s “The Vengeance of Masks:” Surprising, Different, and Compulsively Readable

The Vengeance Of MasksRosemary Edghill’s THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is a cross-genre novel featuring fantasy, science fiction, situational ethics, and urban fantasy in one highly appealing package.  Edghill’s hero is Childeric the Shatterer, soon to be Emperor of the Eidoloni; we meet him at the ripe old age of eight in the royal city of Contradance.  This is when Childeric first finds out that his world contains many enemies, and that some of them are members of his own family, including his uncle, Prince-Regent Dormaoth, and perhaps even his own sister-and-intended-bride, Cyannice.

Over the next sixty pages or so, Childeric goes through many growing pains while he attempts to figure out how he’s going to survive his ceremonial Masking.  (Childeric must don the Mindmask and be united, ever so temporarily, with all of his ancestors, else he cannot become Emperor.)  This is an extremely dangerous undertaking at the best of times and has killed other would-be Emperors before, but Childeric must risk it because it’s obvious that Dormaoth wants nothing other than Childeric’s death.  And, of course, Childeric doesn’t want to comply.  (If he did, this would be a much shorter and far less imaginative novel.)

When Childeric dons the Mindmask, he calls upon Malvisage, a God — perhaps better thought of as a demon — to keep Dormaoth from killing Childeric outright.  However, Childeric does this before he has full control over the Mindmask, which allows Malvisage to run rampant.  Cyannice and many of Childeric’s other allies end up dead in a hurry, while most of the rest of the Eidoloni end up scattered.  Contradance becomes a ruin, while Childeric ends up hunted and alone, an outcast among his own people.

Then the novel shifts gears to our world as we meet up with fifty-one-year-old heroine Arcadia Stanton McCauley — Cady to her friends — who’s a writer, cinematographer, and dilettante.  Cady’s purpose in this novel is two-fold: it allows us to see Childeric differently (not just as the tragic hero he’s obviously been set up to be), and it also allows for some humor as Cady makes many sarcastic cracks.  But before she can do much to potentially affect Childeric’s outcome, she must be transported to Childeric’s world; this happens due to a car accident and a quick change of venue, something she doesn’t fully understand.

Of course, Cady’s first direct experiences with Childeric are extremely off-putting, partly because both she and Childeric meet in the Spiral Castle, a place that seems more dream-like than not.  Childeric, by this time, has become an angry, frustrated, and rather embittered thirty-something — a man who believes he’s fully responsible for the destruction of most of his race and all of his society.  Due to this, Childeric does not treat Cady with much respect or care, partly because he doesn’t treat himself with any respect or care, either.

Because of Cady, the reader finds out that Childeric is an alien — not a man at all — and that Childeric’s view of sex is considerably different than most of the human men Cady has ever come across.  But then, Cady ends up trapped in a crystal coffin — which is where the original Wildside version of THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS originally ended.  (By the way, the original cover art is on the right.)

Of course, Childeric has to get her out, which means we get to figure out how Childeric got from the destruction of Contradance up to his present-day, rather embittered and distrustful self.  (Granted, Childeric is distrustful and embittered with good reason.)  Then, as the two spar, they learn more about Malvisage, while Cady admits that she’s the one who originally wrote about Childeric in the first place (meaning she feels responsible for how he’s turned out).  Despite this soul-shattering revelation and Childeric’s powerful rejection of it, Cady slowly starts to realize that Childeric is worth loving, even as she realizes he’s a deeply flawed, cynical, and often extremely frustrating man to be around due to his background.

But before the reader can get too comfortable, the plot shifts yet again as we meet Military Specialist Class Eight Hix of Central Control, a far-flung interstellar empire.  Hix is human, recognizes Cady as a citizen (albeit a backward and barbaric one) and Childeric as a Genji, or as a genetically-engineered construct who’s definitely not a citizen.  Genji aren’t even supposed to be able to reproduce, yet the Eidoloni certainly did, something that Hix can’t seem to grasp.

Hix, as a character, seems really odd at first; he’s definitely narrow-minded, does not believe in what he snidely calls “dimorphic cultures,” and thinks Cady’s growing attachment to Childeric is, at best, quaint (at worst, it’s probably akin to bestiality due to how Hix views the Genji).  Yet by including Hix, Ms. Edghill is able to fully explore prejudice in a way that neither preaches nor is obtrusive — and as such, Hix works as both a plot device and as a character.

The last hundred pages of the book deals with more adventures for Childeric, Cady, and Hix, as it turns out that Hix is right, as far as it goes: it seems that the Eidolon Empire was supposed to be a colony, but something went wrong.  This is what led to Malvisage, the Eidoloni becoming a race and an Empire, and even to Childeric’s final tragedy.

How does it all turn out?  Well, that’s for you to read, but I highly encourage you to do just that for more than one reason.  The sexual politics and questions of situational ethics alone would be worth it, but then there’s the growing romance between Cady and Childeric, and all of the interesting things that happen to them . . . really, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is one of the best-written and compulsively readable fantasy/science fiction novels of the past twenty-five years, and it deserves to be read as widely as possible. 

Yet for whatever reason, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS has thus far had trouble finding its audience, something I find inexplicable.  Considering the story of Childeric alone, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is comparable to works by contemporary fantasists Jacqueline Carey, Catherynne M. Valente, Michaele Jordan, and Jane Lindskold due to similar dark fantasy elements.  (What Childeric does is often unpleasant; he’s redeemable precisely because he doesn’t want to do these things.)  THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS also pays homage to Michael Moorcock, André Norton, and of course to Robert E. Howard.  So if you like any of these writers — or better yet, like all of them — you really owe it to yourself to read this excellent novel.

Bottom line: THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is a highly original novel from Rosemary Edghill, an author at the top of her craft.   It is compulsively readable, often surprising, quite different and extremely interesting.  It’s a novel you owe it to yourself to read, most especially if you love fantasy of any sort, much less 1960s-inspired sword and sorcery epics.  

And as THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is now available as a trade paperback, what’s stopping you from ordering a copy right now?

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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