Archive for October, 2012

Mercedes Lackey’s “Redoubt” — Fine Series Fiction, Valdemar-style

Mercedes Lackey’s newest novel in the long-standing adventures of Valdemar is REDOUBT, the fourth novel in what is now being called “The Collegium Chronicles” (originally it was the “Collegium Trilogy,” but as we’re already in the fourth book, it’s just as well that the former appellation has been scrapped — except at Lackey’s own page).  And before you get into this one, you may want to check out the review of the previous novel in this cycle, CHANGES, which is here.

All right — our heroes are still Herald-trainee Mags, his Companion, Dallen, his love-interest, Amily, his best friend, Healer-trainee Bear, and his other best friend, Bardic-trainee Lena.  And things remain somewhat in flux; no one knows what two mysterious and shady individuals known as Ice and Storm were doing in Valdemar in the last book, much less why they seemingly recognized Mags and said, “Not you!  You weren’t supposed to be here!”  (Best paraphrase, that.)

REDOUBT starts slowly as the Prince has just gotten married to a commoner — a rather wealthy commoner, and unlike the real-life marriage of Prince Charles of England to Lady Diana Spencer, this Valdemarian wedding appears to be a true love-match.  This wedding allows for all of the previous information in the three books that’s important — that Mags was brought up in a mine, that he’s not much like most of the other Heralds, etc. — and gets the reader up to speed within a few, short chapters.

Then something awful happens — Mags gets captured, and this time, the people capturing him bring him to Valdemar’s hereditary enemy, Karse.  Yet they aren’t Karsite, which Mags notes as strange; as they quickly drug Mags with something that appears to knock out his telepathy (or Mindspeaking, in Lackey’s parlance), Mags isn’t able to alert his Companion in any way, shape or form that he’s been taken, much less as to where he is.

Because Mags is a survivor — all that experience in that nasty mine, where he was particularly ill-treated — he of course manages to survive.  But when he’s rescued by of all people a young priest of Karse, Mags doesn’t know what to do.  (Because the priests of Karse, ’tis said, will have no mercy upon a Herald or Herald-trainee, thinking that the Heralds all ride “demon horses.”)

So there are a number of nifty mysteries here, to wit:

  1. Why has Mags been taken?  Who are these people, and what do they want?
  2. Why would a Karsite priest, of all people, come to the aid of Mags when Mags is not Karsite himself?  (Is it the priest’s youth that is the main factor?  Or is it something else?)
  3. And what will Mags do to get back home, especially as he still has no Mindspeech?

All of these questions will be answered, but in turn raise even more questions.  (Which means book 5 of the Collegium Chronicles had best be on the way, soonest . . . just saying.)

Overall, REDOUBT is a big improvement over CHANGES, mostly because getting Mags away and on his own shows how intelligent, independent and resourceful he is.  This allows for a better suspension of disbelief, far more engagement with Mags himself, and a better appreciation of what Mags brings to the table as a hero.

Bottom line: this is a good effort in a long-running series that held my interest and actually made me re-read it a time or two in the process.  But I do hope Mags’ story will be completed in book five — whenever book five is slated to arrive, that is.

Grade: B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb


Sygillis of Metatron — Fun Book Without Transformers

Our apologies for the look of the cover. This was taken with a cellphone, since no image of the book could be found online.

Ben Garcia is quickly becoming an adept student at blending steampunk and space opera, as evident in his debut novel, Sygillis of Metatron. In spite of the awkward sounding name, the opening book for his League of Elders series is a pretty good little offering.

For as long as many could remember, the League warned all who would listen of the danger of the Black Hats. Only the Sisterhood of Light could protect the League from them as the two sides of women were drawn into conflict every time their paths crossed. For Captain Davage, Lord of Blanchefort, capturing one in battle was an odd occurrence  Odder still was his desire to enter the Black Hat’s cell, knowing that it would be certain death to do so. But love of a missing and long-dead friend compels him to look in on the Black Hat, who bears a striking resemblance to his deceased friend. The Black Hat, Sygillis of Metatron, vows to destroy the young naval captain, but something happens in that process along the way…

Once upon a time, Davage was promised to Princess Marilith of Xandarr, a Xaphan noble, to unite the League and the Xaphan and end a very long war. However, when time for the marriage came, Davage’s own sister refused to accept the bride and war broke out anew. While the seemingly random coincidences do not immediately seem to matter, Davage’s family history, and that of his long-dead friend’s family as well, and…

Okay, there’s a lot of back story involved in this novel, and this review would be close to three thousand words long if we went into it fully. Needless to say, it’s all very fascinating, only mildly detracts from the pace of the story and overall, links the beginning, middle and end of the book all together.

I really wish this book hadn’t done that.

Sygillis of Metatron is one of those books that, if you can get past some of the new-writer flaws, has potential to be an amazingly good read. The story concept is fascinating, and the author’s writing style is pretty polished. The inherent love story and the sacrifices some of the characters make in the name of love is, without a doubt, very heartwarming. Plus, you find yourself rooting for Sygillis, no matter the cost may be to her soul.

Now, some of the scene shifts are awkward, and you really do not have a sense of “time” in this book. Two paragraphs could go by before the reader realizes that the author has fast forwarded two months (or perhaps it was two weeks?) and it isn’t very clear when that happens. Sometimes the battle scenes are strange, since the reader gets the initial impression that Davage doesn’t want to really kill Marilith but eventually they both decide that the other must die.

The most fleshed-out character, surprisingly, is Sygillis herself and not Davage, the star of the book. Once Sygillis comes into her own, she completely dominates the book, and the awkward sense that all is not right with the book in scenes she is not featured can slow down the reading process. Davage makes a few token “I’m the man of the book” moments but, by and large, this is more Sygillis’ story than Davage. I think that the author came to realize this towards the end, as Sygillis becomes the focus of some very intense rage and hostility from Princess Marilith.

A fun read, and I think that Ben Garcia has something going here.

Reviewed by Jason

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“Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students” — Winning YA Urban Fantasy from Lackey and Edghill

Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill is about Tomas Torres, a fifteen-year-old from the barrio.  Tomas saves himself and his younger sister, Rosalita, from a nasty encounter due to his previously unknown talent for pyrokinesis — fire-starting, but with the additional ability of being able to move the fires he calls about.  But in doing so, he calls attention to himself and ends up working for the local padrone — a very dangerous man — until he quickly ends up behind bars.

Fortunately for Tomas, he’s sent away to St. Rhiannon’s School for Gifted and Exceptional Students (“St. Rhia’s” for short) in upstate New York for three years of probation rather than hard time for arson.  St. Rhia’s is a place where psionics like Tomas, or magicians, like his friend and love interest Valeria Victrix Langenfeld (always called “VeeVee”), get trained.  Because they’re in the middle of nowhere, that limits the damage these untrained kids can do; it also allows these kids to fight against some really noxious magical things without anyone in authority getting wind of it.

Of course, Torres doesn’t believe in magic, much.  Nor does he believe in anything beyond what he can do himself.  This is something that needs to get knocked out of him, fast.  And as Tomas has adventure after adventure (some with VeeVee, some not), he starts to realize that the world as he knew it is a whole lot bigger — and a whole lot deadlier — than he’d ever imagined.

Fortunately for Tomas, he has experienced help at the ready, as Arcanum 101 is an offshoot of the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe.  That means such well-known characters as Eric Banyon, Kayla Smith, and Hosea Songmaker either teach at St. Rhia’s, or are counselors, and can help as needed.  The reason for these characters to help at a school like this is simple; none of them want these kids to have the types of growing pains they did.  And while none of the teachers overtly state this, the point still came across.  (Loudly and clearly, too.)

So there’s a rationale for the school.  And there’s a rationale for why these kids are better off at this school than they would be if they were simply left on their own.  Which is why Tomas, once he settles into it, decides he rather likes St. Rhia’s, even if it is rather far from civilization.  And his liking is not simply due to “get on the bandwagon” psychology, either — instead, it’s actual fellowship, which is hard to write well.  (Lackey and Edghill not only wrote it well, but got me to believe that Tomas indeed wanted this sense of fellowship, even when he didn’t know what it was.  And writing inchoate longing is even harder than writing about the sense of fellowship without it turning to treacle.  Full marks for the pair of them!)

At any rate, Tomas’s and VeeVee are good characters and I enjoyed reading about their adventures.  Better yet, I believed in their nascent romance, complete with ups and downs — some of which will be familiar to every teen whether they have Gifts or not — and believed it added greatly to the book as a whole.

Bottom line:  Arcanum 101 has magic, teens, a boarding school that’s nothing like the “Harry Potter” series, adventure, a believable, PG-rated romance . . . in other words, this is a winning effort, Young Adult-style, from the gifted duo of Lackey and Edghill.

The only minor drawback is that this is a short novel, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 words.  But as it’s obviously meant to be the start of a whole new crop of adventurers in the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe — complete with Elves, Guardians, and bad guys galore — it works out just fine.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab the e-book today!  (Then do as I did, and devour it in a few hours, cold.  Then enjoy the re-reads.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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The Mark of Athena — Picking Up Where We Last Left Off

For other reviews in this series, please see The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune.

For many readers now, the latest series based on the original Percy Jackson and the Olympian series has fallen short of expectations. Rick Riordan’s latest foray into The Heroes of Olympus series, The Mark of Athena, might mean a return back to the vastly entertaining original series starring Percy Jackson.

Unfortunately, first Riordan needs to get rid of all the excess baggage surrounding Percy. Namely, head honcho of the Romans, Jason, and his much-unneeded drama llama.

The Mark of Athena starts off with the Greek contingent flying off to meet the Romans at their demigod camp near San Francisco with Percy, Annabeth, Leo, Hazel, Jason, Piper and Frank (and the satyr chaperone, Coach Gleeson Hedge). Annabeth is nervous, since before most wars had started with the Greek and Roman demigods going to war (which, minor quibble here, is completely against the claim made in the original series, when children of the “Big Three” — Zeus, Poseidon and Hades — all were great leaders who caused war amongst each other). However, she is more nervous as it is shown that she has received a visit from Athena herself, who happens also to be Annabeth’s mother. Athena tells her to follow the Mark of Athena and avenge her, which confuses Annabeth to no end. However, she is forced to put the thought aside as the Argo II — Leo’s redesigned ship — hovers over the Roman demigod camp and they are met by an angry and confused contingent of Romans. Reyna, who with Jason is co-leader of the Romans, manages to keep everything from going badly as the Romans hear out the Greeks plans, and that their common enemy is Gaea herself. However, after Leo goes back to the Argo II, the ship begins to launch an attack upon Romans and Greeks alike, driving a permanent wedge between the two camps. The six other demigods make it back to the ship, where they find a confused Leo, who claims he did not attack the Romans on purpose, but that something made him do it.

Confused but on the run from the vengeful Romans (led by Octavius, slayer of teddy bears — one of the more funnier characters Riordan has ever come up with), the seven demigods meet Dionysus/Bacchus on the road across the country in the middle of Kansas. He tells them that they should seek out Phorcys, an ancient sea god from before the time of the Olympians, who is currently residing in Atlanta. They wonder why an ancient sea god is in Atlanta, which isn’t really near the ocean (about 200 miles away, give or take) but the demigods continue anyways. Meanwhile, Annabeth discovers just what the Mark of Athena leads to — the lost statue Athena Pathenos, which had been stolen by the Romans during Greece’s decline and is a major cause to the conflict between Greeks and Romans.

Clever twists and turns abound throughout this book, which leads me to believe that the author is back on track with the same voice that led to the original wonderment which the reader felt in the Percy Jackson novels. The pacing is fairly decent this time, though the book drags whenever the reader is on Leo’s POV, which is odd because Leo makes the average demigod seem calm. Maybe it’s due to the character’s excitement being so high that the author felt that he needed to convey more details around him? I’m not certain, but it does take a little bit away from Leo as a whole. Frank, on the other hand, would probably have been a more interesting character.

The plot is solid, though I did question the spirits which caused a lot of problems for the gang as they went on their quest. It was a mildly convenient plot tool for them to be around, though it sorta made sense. It was an easy out for the author, however, so I won’t begrudge him that. Still, part of me wanted a bit more of a challenge when it camer to character motivation.

Better than the previous installments of the series, though not quite to par with the original five books.

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Redshirts — A Novel with Three Codas

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. He is excited because, as a xenobiologist, he gets to go on “Away” missions. Missions that, as he comes to learn, are very dangerous to the assigned ensigns — and perfectly safe for certain officers.

What is the secret behind the dangerous away missions? Is it simply bad luck, or is something more dastardly going on?

John Scalzi’s Redshirts offers us a look at just that — the red-shirts from a certain television series (whose name was changed to protect the innocent) in a fictionalized universe. Well-paced and well-written, the author draws us into a realm where the narrative of the story is everything.

Dahl, the main protagonist, is determined to not die on an away mission like so many of his fellow ensigns have upon joining the crew of the IntrepidAs he and his fellow new arrivals settle in, they begin to discover that some of the more savvier crew members avoid both the captain and first officer like the plague in an effort to not be assigned to an away mission. Dahl suspects something strange is going on, and gets confirmation from an unlikely source — Jenkins, a mysterious crewmembers aboard the Intrepid who seems to know the answer to the riddles that Dahl seeks.

Redshirts is the book that would have been written had any member of the Star Trek television series had the thought to. Funny and clever with a dark humor that the audience should enjoy, this book is highly entertaining. The pacing is excellent, the plot is compelling and the mystery behind the Intrepid is very well drawn out, despite that the reader knows what is going on within the first ten pages. Scalzi also does an excellent job of making this quasi-science fiction novel character driven, which is something more authors need to do.

The downside? The book is too short, and the first two codas (stories) of the second half of the book are… difficult for the unsophisticated reader. The second story is written in second person, which is very hard for some readers to wrap their head around. The first story is written as a script, which is strange because it’s also written in the first person (much like a blog entry). It offers some insight into the mind of a screenwriter, and I can see how many critics of the book say this is the author’s none-too-subtle nose tweak towards his cancelled television series. I disagree with this assessment, but I can’t offer any more proof other than “Read it and decide for yourself”.

Overall, a great entry. Scalzi fans will be pleased with this one.

–Reviewed by Jason

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Sharon Lee’s “Carousel Tides:” Excellent Urban Fantasy

Sharon Lee’s CAROUSEL TIDES is about Kate Archer, her grandmother, the half-dryad Ebony “Bonnie” Pepperidge, and the enigmatic André Borgan, whose powers derive from the sea.  Kate is magically talented, being a Guardian of the Land, but renounced it years ago; she’s been forced to return to Archers Beach, Maine, because her grandmother is missing.  Worse yet, her grandmother’s business — a magical carousel ride, where every carousel animal has a spirit that has to be bound every season or it’ll escape and cause great harm — needs attending to, as does the Land.

Kate’s an interesting character for more than one reason; though she scans as a normal, thirtyish human being, she wasn’t born on our Earth at all.  This means Kate, unlike most humans, is familiar with the Six Worlds and the magical ability called jikinap, which isn’t exactly the same as Bonnie’s inborn abilities as a dryad, her mother Nessa’s various abilities due to her voysin (or magical spirit), or even Kate’s Guardianship of the Land.

So while Kate wears a Google sweatshirt with pride, and speaks of how magical code and computer code seems to have a lot in common, the fact remains that Kate has hidden depths.  One of the reasons for this is because Nessa was taken prisoner many years ago in the Land of the Flowers (one of the other Six Worlds) by the evil Ramendysis, a man who’s attempting to swallow whole as many mages — and as much jikinap — as he possibly can.  Worse yet, Kate was forced to watch as Nessa had to submit to Ramendysis, then endure many more privations before she finally escaped Ramendysis’s clutches and found her way to our Earth (and her grandmother’s guardianship).

But just because Kate’s been on our mostly non-magical Earth for years and away from her magical duties doesn’t mean that Ramendysis has forgotten about her — oh, no.  (That would be too easy.)  Instead, Ramendysis, for whatever reason, just can’t leave Kate alone.  Because of this, Kate has to not only keep Bonny’s business alive and resume her Guardianship of the Land, but she also must make alliances, pronto, or Ramendysis will end up destroying her, just as Ramendysis has destroyed so many other mages of various abilities and talents in the process of swallowing their magic and using it for himself.

And if Ramendysis kills a bunch of non-magical humans in the bargain, that’s just a bonus.  For him.

This is where Borgan comes in.  Borgan, you see, has many hidden depths also, and with his affinity being the sea (or, in the more usual terms, he’s Water and she’s Earth), he’s very strongly attracted to Kate.  Her personal story only furthers and deepens this growing attachment, which is why Borgan decides to mix in, along with other various magical entities (including a hidden-in-plain-sight Fire mage).

But will all of these various entities, which Ramendysis sneeringly calls “Low Fae,” be enough to stop the nasty Ramendysis?

And even if Ramendysis is foiled, will Bonny be found?  What has happened to Nessa in the intervening years?  Will the animals of the carousel escape Kate’s magic for good due to all of this upheaval?  And will Kate and Borgan be able to gain any peace, much less allow their romance to progress, amidst all this turmoil?

All of these questions will be answered, but tend to pose more and more questions.  But if you give this book time — for me, it took about five chapters to settle in — you will get hooked.  Guaranteed.  (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Bottom line: CAROUSEL TIDES is a highly satisfying, extremely enjoyable, and manifestly excellent novel that urban fantasy lovers will devour with relish because it succeeds on every level.  As a quest story, it works.  As a coming of age story for Kate, it works.  As an understated romance between Kate and Borgan, it works.  And as a story of female empowerment — coming into your own power unapologetically — it also works.

A book that can do all that is one that should be in your library.  So what are you waiting for?  Go grab a paperback copy of CAROUSEL TIDES today — or go get the e-book directly from Baen Books.  (You’ll be glad you did.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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