Sunday, December 31, 2000

Review: "The Truth" by Terry Pratchett

"The truth shall make ye fret."

Misprint or not, a lot of people in the city of Ankh-Morpork are learning that statement is accurate. In Terry Pratchett's "The Truth" (HarperCollins), the Discworld's largest city has gotten its first newspaper, and it's shaking things up.

William de Worde writes a newsletter for a few select clients when he runs into - or rather, is run over by - a group of dwarves who claim they have discovered how to turn lead into gold. They're not lying. They've invented moveable type, and de Worde's life is about to change.

Meanwhile, the Patrician has been imprisoned for murder, but de Worde doesn't think the facts add up. So, he embarks on the Discworld's first investigative report. Along the way, de Worde has to tangle with a competing tabloid-style publication, a couple of very unique professional hit men, the city watch and even his own father.

"The Truth" is Pratchett's 25th foray into the Discworld and goes a long way toward re-establishing his status as the king of comic fantasy.

After a number of disappointing and unfunny books like "Jingo" and "The Last Continent," Pratchett's last two offerings - "The Fifth Elephant" and "The Truth" - have re-invigorated the series with the same satire and sharp parody that his devoted readers have come to expect.

A former journalist, Pratchett has a remarkable grasp of how the newspaper business really works, and he uses that to great comic effect in "The Truth." Fantasy or not, the book does paint a fairly accurate portrait of the day-to-day life of a journalist.

This book also offers something the Discworld has needed for the past few years - new faces. Long-time fans may be disappointed in the change, preferring to read more tales about old friends like Rincewind the Wizzard, Granny Weatherwax and Sam Vimes and the city watch. But, despite recent successes featuring Sam Vimes ("The Fifth Elephant") and Granny Weatherwax ("Carpe Jugulum"), it seems these characters may be running out of stories.

While favorite characters from past Discworld novels - like Vimes, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Foul Ole Ron, Gaspode the Talking Dog and, of course, Death - do pop up in "The Truth," the spotlight is on new characters. And some of them are quite entertaining.

De Worde, the son of a rich Ankh-Morpork socialite, wants to prove that he's different from his father, but instead finds out he's more like his family than he'd like to admit.

Otto Chriek, a vampire photographer, reduces himself to a pile of ash every time he takes a flash photo.

But most interesting are the two hitmen, Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip. Mr. Pin is the brains of the operation, and the more intriguing Mr. Tulip supplies the muscle. Tulip is a brutish, foul-mouthed thug with a very fortunate speech impediment and a surprisingly keen eye for art. Unfortunately, the ending of this book seems a bit final for this pair, but as long-time Pratchett fans will attest, anything is possible on the Discworld. What else would you expect on a disc-shaped world perched on the back of four elephants who fly through space on the shell of a giant turtle?

As always, there are a number of inside jokes that only regular readers of the Discworld books will fully appreciate, but unlike most series, no prior knowledge is required. "The Truth," like all of Pratchett's books, can be enjoyed by newcomers to the Discworld as well as well as regular visitors.

"The Truth" is the best entry in the Discworld series in years, rivalling Pratchett's early works like "Sourcery," "Reaper Man" and "Equal Rites." It's nice to see Pratchett back at the top of his game, and it's nice to know there are more good things to come on the Discworld.

Sunday, December 17, 2000

Review: "Servant of the Shard" by R.A. Salvatore

Shortly after discovering the fantasy genre in junior high, I turned my attention to the shared worlds of what was then TSR. I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player - and it seemed only natural to dip into the fiction set in those worlds.

Over the years I drifted away from those worlds and their stories, losing interest as the first generation of writers and characters were retired. Still, every now and then a book by one of the writers or about one of the characters I really liked during those years pops up.

When that happens, I just can't resist picking it up.

In "Servant of the Shard" (Wizards of the Coast), R.A. Salvatore again turns his attention away from his scimitar-wielding dark elven hero Drizzt Do'Urden. Instead he focuses on two of the most intriguing villains of the series, the assassin Artemis Entreri and the drow Jarlaxle, leader of the mercenary band Bregan D'aerthe.

The pair have formed an alliance to move Bregan D'aerthe's interests to the surface world, but there are obstacles. Jarlaxle now possesses the crystal shard Crenshinibon, and it has plans for greater conquests.

Its influence over Jarlaxle also leads to dissension among the ranks of Bregan D'aerthe, as two of his most powerful lieutenants plot an overthrow.

Salvatore began this series in the late 1980s with the rousing adventure of the Icewind Dale Trilogy, which introduced us to most of the major players. He continued with the more somber and introspective Dark Elf Trilogy, that provided insight into the character of Drizzt.

After that, the series began to grow stale. The same plot line was repeated several times: One of the drow royal houses, seeking favor with the Spider Queen, attempts to kill or capture Drizzt and is soundly thrashed by the heroic ranger and his companions.

But with the last couple of offerings, Salvatore has shifted directions for the better.

One of the best aspects of this book is the development we see in the characters, most notably Entreri. When we first met the assassin in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, he was a brash 20-year-old with only one goal - to prove that he was the best swordsman in the world.

That meant engaging Drizzt in combat and slaying him.

As "Servant of the Shard" opens, we see a much different character. While his mind is sharper than ever, a middle-aged Entreri is facing the fact that he's lost a step and the inevitable time when younger assassins will seek to add a notch to their belts by killing the famous Entreri.

Through the course of this novel, Entreri is brought face-to-face time and again with the conclusion that he has been working toward.

By the end of the book he's questioning the choices of his life, but in a way that's uniquely Entreri.

Jarlaxle has always been confident and calculating. He's quick witted, agile and prepared for almost anything that can be thrown at him.

The mercenary leader is one of the few males to hold any power in the matriarchal drow city of Menzoberanzan. That changes when he takes possession of Crenshinibon.

The artifact begins to control the usually wily mercenary through subtle manipulation. When Jarlaxle is forced to face the fact that he's been duped, he gets a new outlook.

This book is also unique in that both primary characters are "bad guys." Still, they are intriguing characters and Salvatore manages to create sympathy for even a couple of cold-hearted killers.

"Servant of the Shard" also pulls in a couple of characters we haven't heard from in a while: the priest Cadderly and his wife, the fighting monk Danica.

It was interesting to see the changes that have come about in the years since Salvatore's Cleric Quintet.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Salvatore book if there weren't a few intense fight scenes. Salvatore does combat better than any other writer out there, and there are plenty of intricate battles in this volume.

The descriptions put you right in the middle of the action - so close that if you're not careful you could get cut.

Salvatore has expressed an interest in checking on Drizzt and his companions in the next volume. That would please fans who have complained about the dark elf's small role in the last two books.

But for some, the change in direction has brought a new outlook to the Dark Elf series, and those will likely think this is the best offering in quite a while.

"Servant of the Shard" is a refreshing departure for the series, breathing new life back into a tale that was growing stale.

Sunday, December 03, 2000

Review: "God, Guns & Rock 'n' Roll" by Ted Nugent

The title and the cover of Ted Nugent's new book tells the reader just about all he needs to know when deciding whether or not to pick it up.

The jacket of "God, Guns & Rock `n' Roll" (Regnery) features Nugent with his Gibson Byrdland slung around his waist, a double-barreled over-and-under shotgun on his shoulder and an American flag in the background. The message is clear: anti-hunters, anti-gunners and anti-rock `n' rollers need not apply.

If the cover doesn't convey that message, then the first few pages will. Nugent loads up the automatic and blasts away at gun control advocates, media portrayal of guns and gun owners, animal rights groups and anything else that gets in his way.

Ted shoots straight and speaks his mind. That may be a little hard to stomach for those that disagree with his views, but for those who do agree with his opinions, it's a refreshing blast. Don't expect any political correctness, double talk or backing down. As Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry says on the back cover, whether you agree or disagree with him, you know exactly where you stand with Uncle Nuge.

His strong opinions and no compromise attitude have always drawn the ire of his mostly liberal counterparts in the entertainment industry and have even alienated a few of his fellow sportsmen. Ted doesn't care. In response to the fellow hunters and shooters who disapprove of his methods, he compares it to someone rescuing a drowning child and then having the parents throw him back in because they didn't like the way the rescuer swam.

If you pick up "God, Guns & Rock `n' Roll," you'll soon find out that Nugent's highly-publicized views on hunting and the Second Amendment are not the only things he has very strong opinions about. Even the most avid gun control advocate or anti-hunter couldn't disagree with his views on drugs and alcohol. A spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an officer in the DARE program, Nugent takes pride in the fact that he has never indulged in drugs and alcohol.

Nugent credits hunting for filling a void that he says others try to fill with drugs and alcohol. He points to a long list of talented entertainers - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Belushi, Bon Scott and others - who have died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. "They got high, and they're all dead. I went hunting, and I'm still Ted," Nugent writes.

Nugent also has some intriguing thoughts on gun safety. Since the gun has been glorified in television, movies and even music for so long, he reasons there's no way you can keep a child from being fascinated by firearms. The logical approach, according to Ted, is to teach them as much as you can about guns - especially about gun safety.

But once you get past Nugent's activism, you find the real beauty of this book. For a guy who is "just a guitar player," Nugent has the uncanny ability to put the reader next to him on the hunting trail. His vivid descriptions allow the reader to see, hear and smell the same things Nugent does in the woods.

The scenes are ones that will connect deeply with those who enjoy the outdoors. Every hunter will recognize the heart-thumping, pulse-pounding close encounter with his quarry; or the absurdity of laying flat on your back in the mud, one boot-top still sticking out of the muck, but laughing like a madman because you're happy to be alive in the woods; or the keen sense of pride a father feels in a child's display of skills.

Nugent closes with a few stories of his friend and mentor Fred Bear. He tells of how he had to convince Bear that all rock `n' rollers were not "drug-infested anti-hunters," and how the death of Bear inspired the most powerful song Nugent has ever written, the haunting "Fred Bear."

Sandwiched in the middle of the book is a collection of photos, illustrating Nugent's everyday life. It includes numerous photos of his family, a few on-stage photos and a few hunting photos. It also shows him rubbing elbows with everyone from fellow rock `n' rollers to conservative leaders.

If you're a member of PETA or Handgun Control, Inc., you'll probably want to give this book a pass. On the other hand, if you believe in the Second Amendment, the Spirit of the Wild and the power of rock `n' roll, then crank up "Stranglehold" on the stereo, sit back and prepare for some full bluntal Nugety.