Sunday, December 16, 2001

Tolkien was a world-builder without peer

What more can you say about a classic?

On the eve of the release of the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring," (mass market from Del Rey) I decided it was time to revisit Middle Earth and get reacquainted with some old friends and familiar places.

Frodo Baggins is a hobbit - a race of furry-footed, meal-loving, largely sedentary halflings who rarely venture beyond the borders of their homeland, the Shire. Frodo is different, though. He's been adopted by the legendary Bilbo Baggins, one of the few hobbits that has not only ventured out of the Shire, but actually had an adventure - complete with trolls, elves and dragons.

On Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, he pulls a disappearing act - quite literally - and leaves in Frodo's trust one of the treasures from his travels, a simple golden ring. But it's not really simple at all, as the magician Gandalf soon discovers. It's the One Ring of power from legend, and it's being sought by the dark lord Sauron. If he finds it, he will use it to dominate Middle Earth.

The only way to destroy the ring is to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, in the heart of Sauron's territory. Frodo and an unlikely band of adventurers are charged with the task of delivering the ring to the heart of Mordor - a task that could lead to their own doom and that of Middle Earth.

Millions of people have been enthralled by Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings," and with good reason. While it is a fantasy tale, you don't necessarily have to be a fantasy fan to appreciate the depth and scope of the work.

Tolkien is a master world-builder. No other author comes close. Even the most minor characters and places have a rich and complete history.

He weaves myth, legend and history into a world as complex and diverse as our own. A world where every race has its own identity, culture and even language.

"Fellowship of the Ring" is the first of the three novels that make up the larger story, so it's largely a set up for the events to come. Though it's often recommended for fans of "Harry Potter," they should be warned that it doesn't have the whiz-bang action of that series. Instead, there's a slower build-up to the main action, with more attention to detail that lays a solid foundation for the story to come.

Tolkien's leisurely pace in "Fellowship of the Ring" also allows for some poems and songs that further illuminate the history of Middle Earth. And you won't find a writer with a better knack for language.

Though we often talk about being transported to another world when we read, with Tolkien, the feeling is more palpable. "The Lord of the Rings" represents the culmination of a lifetime of work, and the effort is obvious to anyone who dares to venture beyond the borders of the Shire.

Thursday, December 06, 2001

Trips to Middle-Earth prove to be hobbit-forming

I was in seventh grade when I first stumbled into Middle Earth.

It was a rainy day, and I was looking for something to read. For as long as I can remember I've been a voracious reader. At the time, I was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe and S.E. Hinton - and I was also probably reading a lot of really bad television and movie tie-ins.

As I perused the options on my bookshelf, one novel seemed to stand out. It was one I'd passed over dozens of times - "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was familiar with the cartoon version, and I thought it was a "kiddie" book. But for some reason, on this day, I paused and took it from the shelf.

From the opening lines, I was hooked:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

I quickly became lost in Tolkien's world, devouring the book faster than I'd ever read any other novel. For a while, Tolkien was all I wanted to talk about - and truth be told, even today when the subject comes up I'm pretty expansive.

I begged for the three later volumes that made up "The Lord of the Rings" and tore through them as well. They were darker, more serious books that revolved around an ominous passage that's becoming well known to moviegoers:

One ring to rule them all,


One ring to find them,


One ring to bring them all,


And in the darkness bind them.

Discovering Tolkien altered my reading habits completely. It gave me an appetite for fantastic worlds where wizards cast their spells and dragons roamed the skies. Almost 16 years later, that hasn't changed.

For a while I had an annual appointment to visit Middle Earth. To get lost in a world where I didn't have to worry about homework and grades - or later, deadlines and bills. My original paperback copies of the books are dog-eared, stained and worn until the covers are nearly unrecognizable from the years of reading. But as more unread books stacked up and less time became available for reading, I drifted away from my annual ritual.

When the promotion for the new "Fellowship of the Ring" movie began to reach a fever pitch a short time ago, I realized it had been five or six years since I last visited Tolkien's land of furry-footed hobbits. It was time to get reacquainted.

I went to the bookshelf, letting my fingers roam lovingly over the leather-bound edition of "The Hobbit." Then, I paused at the gorgeously illustrated omnibus edition of "The Lord of the Rings" that had been a Christmas gift from Jerri several years ago. I picked it up and flipped through, looking at the fantastic illustrations. But something just didn't seem right.

Placing the book back on the shelf, I realized what it was. I went to the storage building and shuffled around in the old ammo crates that hold my book collection. In a few minutes, I had located what I was looking for - an ancient golden-covered edition of "The Hobbit," which I called well worn and others might call "ratty."

The spine is unreadable, many of the pages are water-damaged and stained with what appears to be Kool-Aid, the pages that aren't stained are yellowed and the cover is bent and torn. Still, it felt comfortable in my hands, and it seemed only fitting for my first visit back to Middle Earth after a long absence.

A little more digging produced similar versions of "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," all in various shades of the rainbow - and with various colors of stains. I was all set, and Middle Earth was waiting, very much as I remembered it.

Walking the road to Rivendell with Frodo, Sam and Strider was like getting reacquainted with a few old, good friends. But the reunion also added to my doubts about the movie adaptation that hits theaters in a couple of weeks.

I have to admit my concerns are a little selfish. Though millions of people have read Tolkien's books, they've always been a very personal thing to me. I've always enjoyed the idea that my Middle Earth is not quite like anyone else's - and vice versa. In a lot of ways, I also think most "Lord of the Rings" fans feel a little bit of elitist snobbery towards those who haven't shared the experience.

The film, though, makes Tolkien's world accessible to everyone - which is not a bad thing. But it also gives everyone the same image and vision of Middle Earth - which may be a bad thing.

I can't contain my excitement about seeing my favorite story of all time come to life on the screen, and those around me are probably getting sick of hearing me talk about it. But underneath, there's still that nagging doubt, despite the fact that everything I've seen about the film looks outstanding.

For now, I'll continue my journey through Tolkien's realms. I'll revel in the experiences and adventures for a last time before everyone shares in the same vision. One last walk through the barrow downs with Tom Bombadil. One last flight over the treacherous bridge in Khazad-dum as Gandalf battles the Balrog at the other end. One last rest beneath the golden trees of Lothlorien.

On Dec. 19, everyone can share in these experiences. But until then, they're all mine.

Sunday, December 02, 2001

Review: "Sea of Swords" by R.A. Salvatore

After two books that focused on other characters, R.A. Salvatore puts his popular dark elf hero Drizzt Do'Urden back in the spotlight in his latest.

"Sea of Swords" (Wizards of the Coast), the fourth book in the "Paths of Darkness" series and the 14th installment of Salvatore's tales of the drow and his companions, marks the return of the scimitar-wielding hero with a new enemy and a new mission.

Since Wulfgar's breakdown and disappearance, the remaining Companions of the Hall have continued to uphold the peace in Icewind Dale. Then they capture a bandit with a strange brand on her shoulder - a one-of-a-kind design that could only have come from the head of Wulfgar's war hammer, Aegis-Fang. The discovery sets the companions on their friend's trail - to either find him or discover what became of him.

While his former friends are searching for clues in Luskan, Wulfgar himself has found a home with Captain Deudermont's pirate-hunting ship, Sea Sprite. He, Delly and their adopted child have settled in Waterdeep, but it's an unstable home. Wulfgar remains haunted by his past and intent on recovering Aegis-Fang from the pirate Sheila Kree. That path eventually leads to a reunion with his friends and a showdown between the companions and the pirate band that forces the barbarian to face some of his inner demons.

First, I've got something to get off my chest. I really find the inconsistencies in these stories annoying. They're mostly little things, but as someone who has followed Drizzt's story since the beginning, they seem glaring to me. As an example, a few books ago Bruenor's ancestral home "Mithril Hall" suddenly became "Mithral Hall." Likewise the spider goddess "Lloth" became "Lolth." They're little things, but every time I run into one of those words in the book, I think, "that's not right" - and it knocks me out of the story.

Aside from those nit-picks, "Sea of Swords" is another solid installment in Salvatore's series. It's a rollicking adventure tale in the spirit of the early books in the series.

I was surprised at how pleased I was to see Drizzt spinning his scimitars while his mysterious panther Guenhwyvar pounced on unsuspecting enemies. I enjoyed the last book of the series, "Servant of the Shard," more than any of the other recent stories - and it hardly featured Drizzt at all. But from the first flash of the dark elf's blades in this book, I realized that I had, in fact, missed his presence.

Salvatore does send mixed signals in "Sea of Swords," though. In a lot of ways, this book seems like a finale. A lot of loose ends are tied up, and there's almost a feeling of farewell. But at the same time, he sets up other intriguing paths for the story to take - like the growing courage of the halfling Regis. And, of course, Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle are still out there with Crenshinibon, the crystal shard.

If it is a farewell, then Drizzt has had a good run, and he goes out on a high note. If not, I'll be looking forward to the next installment.

Sunday, November 25, 2001

Review: "Coldheart Canyon" by Clive Barker

Clive Barker's latest novel is a departure for the modern-day master of the grotesque, and it takes no more than a glance at the book to realize it.

The cover of "Coldheart Canyon" (HarperCollins), which features the author dressed as a 1920s socialite, seems odd to someone who is familiar with Barker's previous works. I did a double take when I saw it, wondering if perhaps he'd written an autobiography. Not quite. While some parts of the book could possibly be autobiographical, it's still filled with the fantastic elements his fans have come to expect.

Barker has built a reputation as the writer who picked up where H.P. Lovecraft left off, bringing all of the slimy things that lurked in the shadows of Lovecraft's world into the light. It could be argued that in "Coldheart Canyon," Barker brings the slimy things of our own world out of the shadows.

Just outside of Los Angeles, hidden from the world, there is a canyon that hides a secret. In its heyday in the 1920s, Coldheart Canyon - so named for its owner, silent film actress Katya Lupi - was the site of the most perverse and decadent parties in Hollywood history. But those days are long forgotten by most.

Todd Pickett is an action star who, at the age of 34, has passed his prime in the eyes of most of Hollywood's elite. When a producer hints that he might green-light one of Todd's projects if he'll get a facelift, the actor undergoes the surgery - with disastrous results. An allergic reaction to one of the chemicals leaves Todd disfigured and in need of a hiding place while he heals. An associate of his agent recommends Coldheart Canyon. It seems ideal, but Todd soon finds those parties of the '20s are still roaring at the mansion.

Long-dead Hollywood stars haunt the valley committing various acts of depravity, while the still very much alive Katya Lupi roams the house, keeping the spirits out and claiming its secret as her own - until Todd arrives.

Enamored of Todd, Katya leads him to a room in the bottom of the house that opens on another world - a world where a Romanian duke and his party have been doomed to hunt forever by Lilith, the Queen of Hell. It's up to Todd and Tammy Lauper - an obsessed fan who is discovering that her prince isn't so charming - to close the door and set the cursed spirits of Coldheart Canyon free.

While the story is essentially a horror tale, the real focus is on Hollywood. Barker skewers the superficiality, vanity and avarice of the place with a book that could well ruffle some feathers in Tinseltown. Famous faces - both dead and alive - make appearances throughout the book, many in compromising positions.

While the book focuses on Todd, it's Tammy who is the real hero. At the beginning, she seems pretty pathetic in her hero worship of the actor. By the end, she's seen the fantasyland of Hollywood up close and the golden sheen has been tarnished. She's transformed into a practical, no-nonsense character who is much more likeable than the obsessed fan club president we encounter at the beginning of the book.

As a warning to the squeamish or easily offended, there are some very graphic scenes in the book, some of which are probably unnecessary to the plot. But it is a Clive Barker novel - and that's to be expected.

In all honesty, "Coldheart Canyon" is not likely to be ranked with Barker's best. It seems like more of a personal book - something he just wanted to write. Still, it succeeds as both a horror story and a satirical look at some of Hollywood's "dirty secrets."

Sunday, November 04, 2001

Review: "The Bone Doll's Twin" by Lynn Flewelling

So long as a daughter of Thelatimos' line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated.

The words of the Oracle led to prosperous times for the kingdom of Skala when they were heeded, but that's all changed. Following the death of mad Agnalain, the last queen, her son Erius ascended to the throne - but he proves just as mad, putting all female children of the royal line to death to avoid the prophecy. In the meantime, Skala has suffered droughts, plagues and attacks, and many of the people are beginning to remember the words of the Oracle.

In "The Bone Doll's Twin" (Bantam Spectra), Lynn Flewelling returns to the world of her popular Nightrunner series, but she explores a different side of it - a darker side.

Prince Tobin was born female, but his true identity has been hidden - even from Tobin himself - by a dark spell cast the night he was born. Hidden away from the world and haunted by the spirit of his dead twin brother - murdered at the time of their birth - Tobin is the hope for the small group of co-conspirators that know the truth and hope to bring prosperity back to Skala.

But first Tobin has other issues to deal with. Not the least of which is a crisis of identity.

"The Bone Doll's Twin" shows a maturing in Flewelling's writing. While her previous Nightrunner books were rollicking adventure tales that focused on the exploits of the likeable rogues Seregil and Alec, this one is darker and more somber. While it has its share of adventure, it's more of a coming of age tale. And for obvious reasons, Tobin's coming of age is more complicated than most.

As she did in her previous books, Flewelling pulls issues from our own society into "The Bone Doll's Twin." Gender roles and identity feature prominently in the story line, just as they did in the first Nightrunner novels. They're subjects that Flewelling handles well, and often in thought-provoking ways.

If I can find a complaint with "The Bone Doll's Twin" - and, in truth, I can't - it would be that it's typical of first books in a series. There are a lot of loose ends left hanging, presumably to be resolved later. But those same loose ends also hold a great deal of promise for future volumes.

Flewelling's Nightrunner books are popular among fantasy fans for a very simple reason - they're good. "The Bone Doll's Twin" continues that trend, and I look for her to be a major force in the future of fantasy.

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Review: "From the Dust Returned" by Ray Bradbury

Ask speculative fiction fans to name the best authors of the 20th century, and Ray Bradbury would probably rank high on almost every one. In a career that's spanned almost 60 years, Bradbury has shown us visions of the future and sent shivers down our spines. In the process he's also created some classic stories like "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "Fahrenheit 451," which in my opinion should be required reading in school.

Now Bradbury enters the 21st century with his newest novel "From the Dust Returned" (William Morrow). It's an unusual book in that it took 55 years to complete. The book meshes together slight revisions of several popular short stories, along with some new tales and interesting interludes.

"From the Dust Returned" chronicles Bradbury's popular Elliot family, which includes witches, vampires, magicians, winged men and all sorts of curious characters. The story is told by Timothy, a seemingly "normal" child who was left on the doorstep with a note that simply said "historian."

Through Timothy, we meet some of the more interesting members of the family. The fabulous winged Uncle Einar who, after losing his night vision in an accident, hits upon a unique solution that allows him to fly during the day without drawing undue attention to himself. Cecy the Dreamer who lays in the attic, but travels far and wide through the minds of other people and animals. A Thousand Times Great Grand-Mere, the daughter of a pharoah, and her husband Grand-Pere, who still feels frisky at the age of 4,000.

Even though he's often referred to as a science fiction writer, the weird is really Bradbury's element. While I appreciate his sci-fi tales, I've always felt that he was at his best when exploring the strange and unknown in tales like those in his short story collection "The October Country."

In "From the Dust Returned," Bradbury hits on all cylinders. He draws every emotion from the reader, from amazement to laughter to horror. It's a book with a sense of wonder that will appeal to children and a depth that adults will appreciate. Since most of the chapters can be read separately as short stories, it may even be a good book to read with your children.

In the afterword, Bradbury talks about his relationship with the late cartoonist Charles Addams - whose cover art fits the book perfectly. After watching "The Addams Family" when I was young and reading "From the Dust Returned," it seems to me that they influenced each other heavily. In a lot of ways, the Elliot family resembles the cartoonists' famous "Addams Family."

Bradbury says he and Addams often talked about doing a book like this, but never got around to it. I think Addams would be proud of "From the Dust Returned."

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Review: "The Telling" by Ursula K. Le Guin

When it comes to literary science fiction, there are few names more recognizable than Ursula K. Le Guin. The award-winning, critically-acclaimed author of "The Left Hand of Darkness" and the Earthsea novels is one of only a handful of science fiction writers to actually make their way into literature classes.

My introduction to Le Guin came in a college textbook, which featured her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I quickly moved on to the Earthsea books, which I enjoyed immensely.

Now Le Guin has returned with "The Telling," out this month in trade paperback from Ace. It's the first book in her Hainish cycle in over 25 years.

Historian Sutty Dass is sent to the planet Aka to study its culture. Unfortunately, in the time it has taken her to travel the light years to the planet, its society has changed. Aka is now ruled by the Corporation, a capitalist government based on principles picked up from reports of Earth.

The ancient culture of Aka has been pinned under the bootheel of the Corporation, which encourages - sometimes violently - everyone to be good consumer-producers. The old ways and stories have disappeared in the cities. Anyone caught practicing those customs is imprisoned, and if they survive the punishment, re-educated.

So far Sutty has been sheltered from the real Aka, fed the same propaganda over and over from Officials. But now she's been given a chance to travel outside the city, where she discovers the true nature of the people. But how can she report it without drawing the wrath of the Corporation down on the people who have trusted her with the Telling?

I have to admit that I haven't read much of the Hainish cycle, but that hardly mattered. From the first pages, the book began to draw me into this new world, setting up a web of mystery about the origins of the people of Aka before the rise of the Corporation.

I was a little disappointed in the follow-through, though. Somewhere near the middle, "The Telling" gets bogged down with a dump of information about the Aka. Rather than working it into the story, it seems to be presented more like Sutty's scientific report. Fortunately, Le Guin recovers for a solid ending.

More importantly, though, are the thoughts the book produced in me. Somewhere between classics like Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and George Orwell's "1984," the novel made me think about some of our technological advances. When you take a look at the lack of privacy under the Corporation, you begin to wonder a little about satellite systems that can pinpoint your vehicle anywhere in the country and other things that many people consider "conveniences."

"The Telling" also has some connections with unfortunate recent events, as Sutty's life has been altered by the terrorist attacks of an extremist religious group back on Earth. Le Guin doesn't dwell on these aspects of the book - which was originally published in hardcover a year ago - but some scenes are unsettlingly similar to the events of Sept. 11.

"The Telling" is a science fiction story, but like "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" it also contains a cautionary tale. Perhaps we should listen.

Sunday, September 23, 2001

Review: "Grave Peril" by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard-for-hire, is back on the case in Jim Butcher's newest novel "Grave Peril" (Roc).

This time, something has all the ghosts in the city stirred up, and Harry and his sidekick Michael, a sword-wielding warrior for God, have their hands full trying to set things right.

Matters are complicated by the arrival of a young girl at Dresden's office who calls herself Lydia and claims that she's being hunted by a Nightmare. Harry, like the film noir private eyes that much of his character is based on, can't resist a damsel in distress. He puts her under his protection, and that's when things start to go very wrong.

As Harry investigates the Nightmare and the forces behind it, he discovers that it's personal. He uncovers an elaborate revenge plot against him, but who is behind it? Harry's made his share of supernatural enemies, and any one of them could be the culprit.

If it all sounds a bit absurd, well, it really is. But it's meant to be. Like its predecessors "Storm Front" and "Fool Moon," this book is a fun romp through the supernatural.

Harry Dresden has the attitude of a hard-boiled detective and dresses like a character from a Clint Eastwood Western. Instead of a six-shooter or a snub-nosed revolver, he guns down his enemies - all sorts of nasties from vampires to werewolves to ghosts - with a blasting rod or a quickly-scribbled spell circle.

His sidekick Michael wields a blessed sword, a gift from God. He's stalwart in his service to God and devoted to protecting the innocent. He's also not very happy with Harry's chosen profession, and takes every opportunity to try to convert him. But despite their differences - and the objections of Michael's wife - the pair work well together.

Throw in Harry's tabloid-reporter girlfriend who is always after the supernatural scoop and a police investigations unit that calls on Harry for his help but doesn't really believe in his powers, and you have the chaotic backdrop for an entertaining circus sideshow. And that's just what Butcher delivers.

"Grave Peril," and the "Dresden Files" in general, is a fast-paced mix of fantasy, horror and hard-boiled detective novel that's just as addictive as it is entertaining.

The third installment of the "Dresden Files" shows Butcher getting better and better. I can hardly wait for the next time Harry Dresden gets called to action.

Sunday, September 16, 2001

Review: "Black House" by Stephen King and Peter Straub

It's been 17 years since the first time Stephen King and Peter Straub teamed up to write "The Talisman," one of my favorite books by either author. Now the dynamic duo of horror is back for a follow-up, "Black House" (Random House).

It's been a long time since Jack Sawyer last visited the Territories, and he's convinced himself that the fantastic place he explored as a 12-year-old is just a figment of an overactive imagination. He's since gone on to become a successful LAPD detective, and thanks to an inheritance from his mother, retire at the age of 35.

When he visited the rural Wisconsin town of French Landing on a case, Jack fell in love with the charm of smalltown life and decided to make it his new home.

For a while, Jack lives a dream life in the Wisconsin countryside. But it turns into a nightmare with the arrival of a serial killer dubbed the Fisherman by a sensationalistic writer at the local newspaper.

As the killer takes another child, the townspeople are turning on police chief Dale Gilbertson and his police force. Gilbertson tries to press Jack back into police work, but the real call to action comes from the Fisherman himself, who sends the admired detective a grisly calling card.

Dangling the latest abducted child Tyler Marshall as bait, the killer draws Jack into a game of cat-and-mouse that forces him to face the reality of the Territories and enter them again.

Though I loved "The Talisman," with its blending and blurring of the fantasy and horror genres, "Black House" began to alienate me from the very beginning. It starts by addressing the reader directly and telling the story in the present tense - two things that I find very annoying. Then the book meanders for the first 50 pages, introducing the scene and the cast of characters, but not really getting to the story.

After a half-hour of reading, I was determined not to like this book. Then, something strange happened. Beginning with the introduction of Fred Marshall, the book slipped into a rhythm. Soon, I was absorbed in the story, finding myself lost in the world of French Landing and the Territories.

Part of the reason is King's hallmark treatment of small town life. The bumbling Barney Fife-type police officer who truly wants to be a good cop, the small-time journalist who wants to make a name for himself and doesn't intend to let the facts get in the way, the town grapevine that twists and distorts information until its almost unrecognizable - all of these things, or others very like them, are familiar to small-town residents. The details add a flavor to the story that draws the reader's interest, while at the same time serving to ground the story in reality and make the supernatural elements all the more believable.

Thrown into that mix are some oddball characters - like blind radio announcer Henry Leyden who seems to have a deeper knowledge of things than he lets on, and the gang of college-educated bikers that also aren't quite what they appear. These characters present a bit of a mystery and pique the reader's interest, adding some spice to the tale.

Seventeen years of refining their art clearly shows as Straub and King flex their literary muscles a little more than in "The Talisman." In the end, some of the very things that I disliked about "Black House" at the beginning were the things that set it apart from their other work and make it one of the best books either author has produced in a while.

It's been a long wait, but for fans of King and Straub, it's worth it. "Black House" is the kind of book you can get lost in, only to look up at 5 a.m. and realize you only have a couple of hours to sleep - that is, if you can get to sleep after some of the scenes.

In the press material for the book, Straub says another collaboration with King is on the horizon, and he promises this one won't take another 17 years. Fans of the duo can only hope that's the case.

Friday, September 07, 2001

Review: "Kushiel's Dart" by Jacqueline Carey

In the world of fantasy, truly daring books have a tendency to take a backseat to the safer Tolkien knock-offs. It's rare to see a risky novel and even rarer to see one from a new author. With "Kushiel's Dart" (Tor), Jacqueline Carey breaks the mold and takes some chances. In doing so, she's produced one of the best first novels to come out of the genre in quite a while.

Phedre is born to a courtesan of the Night Court who was married without the court's approval. To make matters more difficult, she's also been labeled with an ill-luck name, one that will prove prophetic.

While she bears the beauty of the D'Angeline courtesans, she is shunned by the Night Court for what they perceive to be an imperfection - a tiny mote of red in her left eye. Anafiel Delaunay recognizes the "deformity" as Kushiel's Dart - the sign of one marked by the gods, an anguissette.

Delaunay immediately purchases Phedre's marque from the Night Court and begins to train her in a new talent, the art of espionage. She soon finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue as she reports the secrets of her patrons, shared in moments of passion, to Delaunay.

Soon, things are looking bright for Phedre, but not for long. Just as the marquist is about to complete the design that will set her free, she learns that Delaunay's house has been attacked and everyone murdered.

When she tries to relay a final message to his allies, Phedre is captured. Branded a murderer in her homeland and sold into slavery to a tribe of the brutal and warlike Skaldi, she learns of a plot to usurp the throne of the D'Angelines. It's up to her, a disgraced Cassiline warrior priest and a disinherited Tsingani prophet to save the D'Angelines and clear her name.

The risky and risque themes aside, "Kushiel's Dart" is an exceptionally good story. Carey deftly weaves a tale of espionage that has a little bit of everything - fantasy, mystery, adventure and romance. The language of the book is beautiful, and the names of places and characters seem to fit perfectly.

The characters themselves are complex and easy for the reader to like. Even though Phedre's thought process seems unfathomable at times, I still found it hard not to identify with her and root for her. Likewise, the warrior priest Joscelin's struggle to choose between his vows and his devotion to Phedre is something that most readers will connect with in one way or another.

There's also a historical aspect to the novel. All of the races that populate Carey's Rennaissance-like world are based on cultures from our own. The approach makes for a more believable mix of people and a more realistic setting. In many ways, her world-building skills remind me of Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the giants of historical fantasy.

Of necessity, "Kushiel's Dart" is R-rated; Phedre is, after all, a courtesan - and one with a strange gift as well. Carey does include a few graphic scenes, but only those that are telling to the story. She walks a fine line, but manages not to cross it. If there's no nugget of knowledge to be gained from the scene, Carey usually passes on it. Still, some readers may be offended.

If you approach it with an open mind, though, you'll find a great debut from a very promising writer.

Sunday, September 02, 2001

Review: "Ravenheart" by David Gemmell

David Gemmell may be the best writer you've never heard of.

The British fantasy writer has made a name for himself in his native Europe, but he's only recently found a measure of success in the United States.

In his newest book, "Ravenheart" (Del Rey), Gemmell returns to the world of the Rigante for a third tale. Set in Gemmell's version of 17th century Britain, the book weaves the story of Jaim Grymauch, a hero of the outlawed Rigante clan, and his young protégé Kaelin Ring.

For years, the Varlish have subjugated the highlanders, but recently things have become worse. Since his wife had a tryst with Kaelin's father, the Moidart has become even more vicious toward the clans. Even the Moidart's own son is disturbed by the Varlish leader's actions, but no one has the nerve to stand up to the man who has a penchant for hangings.

Things soon begin to go badly for the Varlish. A young girl is raped and murdered because she openly associates with a young clansman - namely Kaelin Ring. Certain that Varlish justice won't punish the murderers, Kaelin tracks them down and delivers his own brand of justice. That sets off a chain of events that sends Kaelin fleeing into the northern mountains and escalates tensions between the two races. It takes only a few more Varlish acts to push those tensions to the breaking point.

One of the most unique facets of Gemmell's work is his approach to series fiction. He understands something about true heroes that other writers often miss - that a hero is not a superhuman figure who has adventure after adventure, but rather an ordinary person who reacts extraordinarily when there is a need. Though the books of his series are set in the same world, they tell the story of a hero in a volume or two and then move forward, often skipping generations between books to get to the next time of crisis and the rise of the next hero.

Gemmell also understands the breathless adventure that is at the heart of the fantasy genre. His novels are rousing tales of heroism, honor and legend with few wasted words. Events move quickly, keeping the reader engrossed in the action.

I discovered Gemmell several years ago and have since mowed through most of his 25 books. So far I haven't been disappointed by any of them. "Ravenheart" continues the trend with characters and a story that grabbed me from the very beginning and held me spellbound until the last word. It manages to pack a punch and at the same time whet your appetite for what is to come with the Rigante.

Sunday, August 26, 2001

Review: "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

A storm is coming, and its name is Neil Gaiman.

Acclaimed for his work on the classic "Sandman" comic, Gaiman has since turned his attention to novels - and he just keeps getting better.

"American Gods" (William Morrow) is easily his most ambitious book so far, and it firmly establishes him as one of the best fantasists in the business.

Shadow is a man that made a mistake - one he's spent three years paying for. As his parole hearing approaches, Shadow wants only to put the experience behind him, to return to his wife and his old life. But those dreams are shattered when he's released a few days early - to attend his wife's funeral.

On his way home, he meets a man named Wednesday who offers him a job as a bodyguard. His mysterious employer soon reveals himself as Odin, the All-Father of the Norse pantheon, and he begins to lay out Shadow's part in the coming war between the new gods of technology and the old gods who came to America with the first settlers.

Shadow's journey will take him to every corner of the country and some places that perhaps mortals shouldn't tread.

"American Gods" is a bit darker and grittier than any of Gaiman's previous novels, and it's definitely the most far-reaching. The book tackles some serious social issues as it entertains, making some pointed statements about spirituality and morality in America.

At the same time, Gaiman manages to address those issues without being heavy-handed or judgmental. For the most part, he leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions as he concentrates on spinning a gripping tale of adventure.

While perhaps a bit more serious than his other novels, "American Gods" still has a flair that's uniquely Gaiman. It's filled with a colorful cast of over-the-top characters, and the whole story has a fairy-tale feel to it. That's what Gaiman does best, and he's in top form here.

Another interesting aspect of "American Gods" is Gaiman's interpretation of the "old gods." He takes the reader's vague concept of mythological gods and turns them into believable characters that the reader can identify with. He also sprinkles legendary figures from King Arthur to Johnny Appleseed in cameos throughout the book.

"American Gods" shows Neil Gaiman stretching his creative muscles and the results are fantastic, delivering a solid story now and a great promise for the future.

Sunday, August 12, 2001

Review: "The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic" by J.R.R. Tolkien, et al

With the first movie in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy due out in December, the rush is on. People will probably get sick of seeing the name J.R.R. Tolkien under my byline between now and then, but it's a subject near and dear to me.

One of the first entries in the Tolkien bonanza is "The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic" from Del Rey. The adaptation, in graphic novel format, is illustrated by David Wenzel and adapted by Charles Dixon and Sean Deming.

I'm always a little leary of any adaptation of Tolkien. His work has been abused quite often, and it always leaves me furious. I once saw a stage production of "The Hobbit" in which Bilbo Baggins struck down the dragon Smaug with his short sword Sting, something that seems ridiculous to any devoted Tolkien-ite. And I don't have to tell any fan of "The Lord of the Rings" about the disastrous cartoon adaptations of the books.

Every now and then, I get a pleasant surprise, though. Wenzel, Dixon and Deming follow Tolkien's vision closely, while adding an appealing visual dimension to the story.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the gorgeous cover by Donato Giancola. His rendering of Gandalf shows the imperious wizard I imagined on first reading "The Hobbit." His vision of Bilbo is one of the more realistic I've seen - even more so than the slightly bulbous-nosed rendering of the hobbit inside.

But that's not to take anything away from Wenzel's artwork. Wenzel strikes a delicate balance between classic comic book art and the more somber works of artists known for their interpretations of Tolkien's world, like Alan Lee and John Howe.

More impressively, though, Wenzel does something that's very tough - and that is to draw characters that are recognizable from the image in the reader's mind. While the Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield of my mind aren't exactly the ones that Wenzel put on paper, they're close.

By the very nature of the graphic novel format, though, there are weaknesses in this offering. One thing that makes Tolkien's work so appealing is the language - not just the language of the narrative, but the songs and legends as well. This book gives the reader snippets of some of the more important songs, but most of that is lost.

The book also seems a little rushed. Again, that's probably due to the format. The graphic novel calls for near-constant action, otherwise the art component would get a little boring. "The Hobbit" loses a little of its charm in the transition, but it keeps enough of it to satisfy Tolkien fans.

All in all, the strengths of this adaptation far outweigh the weaknesses. It will be a welcome addition to any Tolkien fan's collection.

Sunday, August 05, 2001

Review: "Windhaven" by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle

During the last few years, George R.R. Martin has become one of the most recognized names in fantasy with his "Song of Ice and Fire" series, which has garnered several awards and a spot on the best seller list. Lisa Tuttle's most recent novel, "The Pillow Friend," won some of the top honors in the speculative genres - including the Locus Poll Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

But both writers have been around - and winning awards - for quite a while. Back in 1981, the duo teamed up for a novel called "Windhaven." For the book's 20th anniversary, Bantam Spectra has re-released it in a new hardcover edition.

Windhaven is a world of islands, wracked by violent storms which make ocean travel dangerous and at times impossible. The star sailors, who originally colonized the world, brought with them a metal cloth that they learned how to fashion into wings that allowed them to ride the storm's fierce winds.

Since that time, the flyers have become revered members of society, a caste the equal of the ruling Landsmen and far above the land-bound. Tradition dictates that the wings be passed down to a flyer's firstborn child when that child comes of age.

That's all about to change, though. Maris of Lesser Amberly is a land-bound child that dreams of the skies. She's adopted by the flyer Russ and trained to soar on the winds. But then her adoptive father has a son. By tradition, the wings must go to that son, but Maris' step-brother Coll has no desire to fly. Together, they challenge the age-old customs of flyer society and win. But that's where the real problems begin.

Fans of Martin who are expecting something like "Song of Ice and Fire" will be disappointed. It was written long before the current series and at a time when his focus was on science fiction rather than fantasy. On the other hand, fans who approach it with an open mind will find a lot to like.

The most intriguing aspect of "Windhaven" is the layout of the book. At first, I was a little disappointed that what I expected to be the main conflicts - the challenging of tradition and the struggle for acceptance - were seemingly resolved early in the book. But, like Maris, this novel also challenges traditional ideas.

Rather than one continuous story with a beginning, middle and end, "Windhaven" is more like a collection of short stories that reflect the pivotal moments in the life of someone who has had a great impact on her society. At first it may seem a little disjointed and choppy, but viewed as a collection of scenes, it becomes a powerful tale of change and the consequences of that change.

Some online fans of Martin have been critical of the book because it's unlike his more recent work. I disagree. There are numerous similarities between this book and his newer works, especially in the characters. Maris is a great deal like Arya in her strength and determination, and I have to believe that perhaps Val One-Wing was a forerunner to the Imp - a character who is exceptionally unlikeable - but somehow the reader ends up pulling for him.

If you can approach this book without preconceived notions of what it should be like, it will make an enjoyable interlude during the wait for the next volume of "Song of Ice and Fire."

Thursday, August 02, 2001

Stan Lee I'm not, but I keep trying

I've always been a fan of comics. As a kid, I can remember wanting to go to the grocery store every time my grandparents went, because I knew I could talk them into sparing 50 cents for the latest issue of "The Lost World of the Warlord," "The Incredible Hulk" or "The Uncanny X-Men" - and every now and then I even talked them into a little more for "The Savage Sword of Conan."

I remember going into the store with my grandparents or my mom and going directly to the magazine rack, where I'd look at comics while they shopped. I'd always pick a few that I'd ask for. Sometimes they'd come home with me, sometimes not. I had much more luck with my grandparents than my mom.

Most of those comics are, unfortunately, gone. Unlike the neatly-packed and well-organized boxes of plastic-bagged comics I have now, I didn't think of them as collectibles. I read them several times and then they were discarded - usually stained and torn, and occasionally colored on.

Still, I was always fascinated by the artwork and the idea of these brightly-costumed, muscular heroes who used their superpowers to save the world.

To be completely honest, I'm pretty sure I dreamed of growing up to become one of them, no matter how unrealistic. I think I always expected my mutant powers to develop in my teen years - and, in truth, I'm still waiting. The only one I've noticed so far is the uncanny ability to make everything I touch go haywire - not very useful.

Comics have changed a lot since the days when I could get my weekly fix for 50 cents or less. Back then, they were made cheaply and intended to be disposable entertainment for kids just like me at the comic stand in the grocery store. Now, many of them are better packaged with stiff covers and printed on slick pages - built to last for collectors. There's also a downside to that, though. All of the few titles I still collect cost over $2 per issue - an amount of money that would have seemed like a small fortune to me in those days.

The change in price also makes me wonder how many kids today will grow up with comics the way I did. I don't know if many grandparents will be as willing to drop $2-3 on a comic book. Then again, as far as I know, a lot of grocery stores don't even sell comics anymore. The grocery store or drug store comic book rack where I spent so many hours as a kid is perhaps becoming a thing of the past.

My fascination with comic art hasn't disappeared, though. I've even gone so far as to attempt to create my own comic book a few times. The first attempt, I believe, was in junior high. I came up with a character I named Vigilante.

Even then, I knew my weaknesses when it came to art. Vigilante's torso was built like a WWF wrestler, but he wore a mask that covered his face, eliminating the need for me to give him one. His hands, too, were always balled into fists and always rested on his hips. It didn't take me long to realize that, since this was the only pose I could draw well, an entire comic would be pretty boring.

I tried again in high school. This time I would be the writer, while a friend of mine - and a pretty good artist - would do the artwork. This one had a chance, but it never quite materialized.

Recently I decided to give it another shot, when I received "How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics" by Frank McLaughlin and Mike Gold.

First, let me say that you need to read the book all the way through before attempting the exercises. It's a little inconsistent in that some of the early exercises include facial features and hands before the writers have discussed them. The reader will be a little lost if he hasn't read ahead.

Despite any confusion that might cause, the book has some solid tips and puts the artists' techniques in simple language. They made it sound so easy that I had to pull out my sketchbook and give one of the exercises a shot.

I don't think Stan Lee will be giving me a call to launch his next comic. But it was one of the better drawings I've done. Of course, this was drawn from an exercise, so I had a finished reference point to look at. It was much less difficult than drawing a character out of my imagination, which I haven't worked up the confidence to try yet.

I still have the same weaknesses. I thank McLaughlin and Gold for putting a mask on the character in this exercise, or it would have been a complete disaster. As it is, the face still could use a lot of work. And I won't even talk about the hands, which are closer to talons. Hmm ... every superhero has to have an Achilles' heel, though. Maybe hers is arthritis.

"How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics" does have a good examination of facial features and hands, but it was hard for me to apply the exercises to my own drawing. As much as I like to draw, I guess I've just got to face the fact that's not where my talents lie.

The book did help my figure drawing a little, but that's always been my strong point. Still, it was an enjoyable read that offered a good overview and some interesting insights into drawing female comic characters, both good and evil.

It's not quite as in-depth as some other books on the subject of comic art, but it's a solid starting point - especially for someone who just wants to draw for the enjoyment of it.

For now, I guess I'll content myself with reading comics and appreciating the artwork of people who know what they're doing. But when those mutant powers finally reveal themselves, who knows?

Sunday, July 29, 2001

Review: "Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle

It's a rare thing for me to see the movie before I've read the book, but I was taken by surprise recently. I remember seeing "Planet of the Apes" when I was younger, as well as its sequels and even the television show it spawned. But I was completely unaware that it was all based on a book.

First published in 1965, Pierre Boulle's "Planet of the Apes" has recently been re-released by Del Rey in time for the big-budget remake of the movie. The version is translated from French by Xan Fielding.

It's an unusual situation for me. My entire perception of "Planet of the Apes" comes from the movie, which I consider one of the classics of science fiction. So I approached the book with the same trepidation usually reserved for movie adaptations.

What I discovered was a similar, yet deeper story than the one on the screen. Whereas the movie relies more on the action and the conflict, Boulle's book is more contemplative. The novel is a more cynical and satiric tale of role reversal.

The story is basically the same. A group of adventurers set out to explore deep space and encounter a planet very similar to Earth. On the planet, which they name Soror, they run into a strange tribe of humans who live in the forest and speak in primitive noises. When their launch is destroyed by the natives, they're stuck on the planet, and they soon discover a darker secret.

They believe that some trick of evolution has caused this world to take another fork - and it's apes, rather than humans, that rule the world. But that's not the real story. As journalist Ulysse Merou and a couple of his captors explore a ruin, they discover a secret that makes the human who talks a threat to the entire society of the planet.

Unlike the film, the book isn't a post-apocalyptic vision of the future. Instead, it's more of a cautionary tale about the human race's propensity for laziness - a theme we've seen time and again in the intervening years in science fiction books and movies where machines rule the world.

I did question the space travel aspect of the novel, which seems a little shaky. But then, the book was written in the early 1960s when space exploration was in its infancy.

The changed ending is a point of contention among fans for the remake, but the ending of the original movie was a deviation from the book. I won't spoil it, but Boulle's surprise is just as effective.

If you're a fan of the movie, Boulle's "Planet of the Apes" is a must-read. But even if you're not a fan of the movie, you can find something worthwhile in the book.

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Review: "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley

There have been hundreds of books written about the Arthurian legends, and for every good one, there are at least three or four bad ones.

I've read a lot of Arthurian fantasy, but there are only a couple that stick out in my mind as "must-reads." They include Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur," T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" and last, but certainly not least, Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Mists of Avalon." Each of these books brings something different to the round table, "Mists of Avalon" most of all.

To coincide with the TNT miniseries, Del Rey has issued a Ballantine Reader's Circle edition of Bradley's classic, and it seemed like a good opportunity for me to revisit a book I hadn't read in a few years.

You've heard the stories about Arthur and his knights, but Morgaine - later known as Morgan Le Fay - is quick to tell you that most of them have, at the least, been exaggerated. Many are outright lies.

"Mists of Avalon" is unique in that it's told exclusively from the point of view of the major women in the legends - The Lady of the Lake Viviane, Arthur's mother Igraine, Arthur's aunt Morgause, Queen Gwenhwyfar and, of course, the key player Morgaine.

While the story follows the basic outline of most Arthurian legends, it takes a lot of detours from the worn path. Many things we take for granted in the legends, we find to have very different reasons for happening in Bradley's vision.

If history is viewed through the eyes of the victor, "Mists of Avalon" is the lost text written by the other side.

The reader will leave Bradley's book with a new understanding of Morgaine, a character so often viewed as an evil villain. In reality, she's more a victim of the changing times.

She's not the only one who gets a facelift, though. Bradley does an outstanding job of developing all the characters and revealing some surprising things about them. She takes already rich subject matter and makes it even more intriguing.

The book also tackles some tougher issues - including religion and gender roles.

Central to the story is the struggle between age-old pagan religions and the new Christianity, which is rapidly sweeping over the world. The tension between the earth-based religion of the Druids and the more rigid rules of the Christian church create a majority of the conflict in the tale.

Arthur is sworn to the Priestesses of Avalon to be a fair ruler to both the followers of the old ways and the Christian church, but Gwenhwyfar would have the old religions driven from her country. The struggle ultimately leads to his downfall.

Stemming from that same conflict is another involving the changing role of women. Before the rise of Christianity, women have been respected advisors, but the new church thinks it an affront for a woman to raise her voice, a problem that puts Morgaine constantly at odds with her brother's wife.

As for the TNT miniseries, it has the same problems that most Hollywood productions have - an attempt to cram an 800-page novel into four hours of film, with commercials. The filmmakers cut deeply and twist certain events for dramatic effect.

While I'll admit that Bradley's novel could have been trimmed a little, the film cuts far too much. Much of the conflict between the Christian and pagan religions - which is so key to the success of the book - is lost. Many of the excised scenes are also ones that are very telling about the characters. The result is instead of the rich personalities of Bradley's work, you have undeveloped cut-outs of many of the characters.

Despite its liberties, however, the film does follow the same basic plan as the book. It's also saved by impressive performances from Julianna Margulies, Joan Allen and Anjelica Huston. The actors chosen to portray the Merlin and Mordred, were also, in my estimation, perfect for the parts.

While the movie is entertaining, as with most things, it doesn't even come close to the power of the book. Enjoy the movie, then go out and buy the book. It's long and involved, but well worth the effort.

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Review: "The Demon Spirit" by R.A. Salvatore

When R.A. Salvatore began his first "Demon Wars" series several years ago, I was disappointed. Salvatore is one of my favorite writers, but the first book in the series, "The Demon Awakens" seemed to cover the same old ground. The heroes - Elbryan and Jilseponie - struck me as far too similar to his famous characters Drizzt Do'Urden and Cattie-Brie from the Dark Elf books.

It was only recently that I pulled the second book, "The Demon Spirit," out of my to-be-read stack and gave the series another chance. I discovered that I had given up on it too quickly. In the second book, Elbryan and Pony became more distinct characters and the world fleshed itself out as Salvatore's own. It was a far more satisfying novel.

Now, comes "Ascendance," the first book in a second "Demon Wars" trilogy, and a lot has changed since the beginning of the series. Jilseponie, now revered as a hero, has won the heart of King Danube of Honce-the-Bear. When she accepts his offer of marriage and becomes queen, she has no idea of the pit of vipers she's about to step into. Though she's a hero, she was still born a peasant and the nobles don't like the idea of the "peasant queen."

At the same time, Aydrian, the son of Elbryan and Pony, is coming of age. As far as Jilseponie knows, she lost the child in a battle with the possessed Abellican leader Dalebert Markwart. In fact, the child was spirited from the field by the Touel'alfar and trained in the ways of the ranger. But now he has left the elven kingdom and taken the mantle Nighthawk, fitting of his desire to become more of a legend than his father.

With the help of a conveniently-worded decree by King Danube and the fallen monk Marcalo D'Unnero, Aydrian is about to make his presence known.

Since I haven't gotten around to reading "The Demon Apostle" or "Mortalis" - widely acclaimed as Salvatore's best work - I missed many of the changes. The rosy plague, the covenant of Avelyn and most importantly, the death of Elbryan Wyndon, the Nightbird, all passed me by. Fortunately, Salvatore does a good job of filling in the gaps in the prologue of this book, as well as through clues in the text. Prior knowledge of the characters and their world makes it a richer experience, but is not necessary.

"Ascendance" shows Salvatore's writing continuing to mature. Many of his early works were action-packed adventure tales, and when it comes to those, he's among the best. But now, he's turned his attention to other things. While there's still plenty of action in this book, there's a deeper side to "Ascendance." Courtly intrigue and elaborate conspiracies replace dazzling swordplay as the key conflicts are often fought with brains rather than brawn.

But fans of Salvatore's action sequences shouldn't be disappointed. There's still plenty of swordplay, and Salvatore is still in top form when it comes to combat scenes that put the reader in the middle of the action.

With "Ascendance," Salvatore has achieved a solid balance between action and intrigue and woven them into a very satisfying story. Though I haven't yet read "Mortalis" - and that may change my mind - at this point I have to rank this as Salvatore's best effort.

Sunday, June 17, 2001

Review: "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delaney

It's been a long time since I put a book down and asked, "What was that?" But when I walked away from "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany (Vintage), I honestly wasn't quite sure what I'd just read.

A man known only as the Kid comes to the town of Bellona, an American city shut off from the rest of the world by mysterious, cataclysmic events. The city is ever-changing, and neither the laws of man or nature hold sway.

Bellona has developed its own society, characterized by street gangs, what passes for the upper class in the desolate city and those who are just trying to get by.

Kid is searching for his identity, and Bellona may hold the answers. It certainly holds a lot more questions.
Originally published in 1974, "Dhalgren" has recently been reissued by Vintage, the first in a series of Delany re-issues scheduled for the next few years.

Though I wasn't really familiar with Delany before picking this book up, he seems as fascinating a character as any in the book. The Harlem native is often referred to as the first published African-American science fiction writer, as well as the first gay science fiction writer. But he shies away from the title, pointing out others who broke that ground before he did.

In addition to science fiction (which he refuses to call "sci-fi," saying it's a term "reserved for particularly brainless raygun and rocket-ship extravaganzas"), Delany has also written historical fiction, literary analysis, comic books and essays.

I'd never read Delany before, but as I understand it, "Dhalgren" is much more experimental than his other speculative books, like the upcoming Vintage releases "Babel-17" and "Nova," which earned him a reputation as one of the top science fiction writers of the 1960s and '70s. After delving into "Dhalgren," I'm looking forward to reading those.

When it was originally released, "Dhalgren" was a very controversial work. The intervening 27 years haven't made it any less thought-provoking. The book deals with issues the world is still struggling with a quarter century later and likely will still be facing in 25 more years - race, religion, sexuality and identity.
In the beginning, "Dhalgren" is difficult going. The book opens with the second half of a sentence, and for a while, only gets stranger. Delany's odd style that blends elegant prose and street-wise slang is sometimes beautiful, occasionally stark and often jarring.

This is the kind of book that requires multiple reads for a full appreciation. Don't expect everything to become clear at the end. The story itself is like a great jigsaw puzzle with a several pieces missing, and for the most part, Delany leaves it to the reader to fill in those gaps.

The people that populate Bellona are as strange a mix as Delany's style, ranging from the cyberpunk street gangs with their holographic projectors to characters that would be more at home in a literary classic. Come to think of it, though, that might be exactly where they are.

While it's considered science fiction, "Dhalgren" isn't a light read for a rainy day. It's a book that demands an investment from the reader. But the return is well worth it.

Sunday, June 10, 2001

Review: "Dragons of a Lost Star" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Like the fabled gods of Krynn, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman - the creators of the Dragonlance universe - left for a while. Concentrating on other projects, they only occasionally checked in with the world they created. In their absence, Krynn floundered, losing the momentum Weis and Hickman had lended to the early days of the saga.

Now they've returned to set things right - at least an old Dragonlance fan hopes so.

One thing's for sure: When Weis and Hickman return to Krynn, things change. The last time the duo combined for a Dragonlance tale, it ended with the gods abandoning the world and taking magic with them. Now it appears that at least one god is taking an interest again.

"Dragons of a Lost Star" (Wizards of the Coast), the second in Weis and Hickman's "War of Souls" trilogy, continues the tale of Mina, the mysterious warrior-cleric who appeared the night of a vicious storm and began spreading the word of the One True God. Along the path, she's won a number of great victories, drawing to her a loyal following of the Dark Knights of Neraka.

Now, having conquered the elven kingdom of Silvanost, Mina and her army have turned their attention to Solanthus, the stronghold of the Knights of Solamnia. Meanwhile, the great green dragon Beryl has focused her attention on the Qualinesti elves. And everyone seems to be interested in the Time-Journeying Device carried by Hero of the Lance Tasslehoff Burrfoot and the wizard Palin Majere.

Palin and Dalamar believe the only way to set the world right is to send Tasslehoff back to die in the Chaos War, as he should have. Instead Tas used the Time-Journeying Device to escape his fate. Now the spirits of the dead are unable to leave Krynn, and they're feeding on what little magic is left in the world. For the wizards, the implication is clear.

At the same time, the healer Goldmoon has been restored to her youth, and she's not happy about it. She's following a call steadily toward Nightlund and the Tower of High Sorcery for a confrontation with Mina and the unveiling of the identity of the One True God.

I was disappointed by one facet of the story (WARNING: Small spoiler in this paragraph.): Though I already suspected the real identity, I had been hoping the One True God would turn out to be Raistlin Majere. I've missed my favorite mage since his sacrifice, and the chaos on Krynn seemed to me to be the perfect time for him to re-enter the world. Alas, I was disappointed, but there's still hope for his return in the third book.

The most remarkable thing about this series is the way that the world of Krynn has evolved. In the "Chronicles" and "Legends" days, there were very few shades of gray. With the notable exception of Raistlin, the lines between hero and villain were clear. Now, in the aftermath of the Chaos War, the world's just a little bit grittier, and the lines of good and evil have blurred. In short, Krynn has become a lot more like our own world.

Mina herself is a perfect example. Deep down, the reader knows she's evil, but at times she seems almost kind and reasonable.

Even the adventurous kender Tasslehoff Burrfoot has undergone a tremendous change. The mischievous halfling that provided comic relief for the early books is more somber and reserved here. Though he exhibits the traditional kender characteristics, they're tempered with an edge of something never before seen in the race of halflings - fear.

The first book in the series, "Dragons of a Fallen Sun," suffered from an overabundance of information dumped on the reader in huge chunks. Thankfully, that happens rarely in "Dragons of a Lost Star." The book flows much smoother than its predecessor and sets up some interesting scenarios for the endgame.

It's tough to top the originals, and in the world of Dragonlance, the "Chronicles" and "Legends" series will probably never be surpassed for most fans. But "War of Souls" is shaping up to be the best thing to happen to Krynn since those early novels.

Sunday, June 03, 2001

Review: "The Dreamthief's Daughter" by Michael Moorcock

Some of my earliest reading in the fantasy genre took me to the land of Melnibone and introduced me to a character that remains one of my favorites - Elric, the albino prince.

What initially drew me to Elric was how different he was from many of the fantasy heroes I'd read at the time. Like most, he was quick to action, fearless and handled his soul-sucking sword Stormbringer well. Unlike others, though, he was a sardonic, introspective and tormented personality - an outcast and a character that I could relate to more than the dashing swashbucklers of many fantasy tales.

As Michael Moorcock's series strayed away from Elric and into other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, I lost interest. It's been years since I visited the land of Melnibone, and to be honest, I didn't even know that Moorcock was still writing tales of the Eternal Champion. Then, "The Dreamthief's Daughter" (Warner Aspect) landed on my desk. I was thrilled by the prospect of a new tale of one of my favorite characters.

In this book, the first of three Elric novels Moorcock will write for Warner Aspect, the author brings together two incarnations of the Eternal Champion - Elric of Melnibone and Ulric von Bek.

In 1930s Germany, von Bek's cousin Gaynor is moving quickly through the Nazi ranks as he searches for the Holy Grail and the Black Sword, both believed to be in von Bek's possession. Gaynor has convinced the Nazi elite that these items will lead them to victory, and secretly believes they'll also further his own desires.

On other levels of the multiverse, Gaynor the Damned and his minions are also on the move.

In Germany, von Bek is persecuted and placed in a concentration camp for refusing to reveal the location of the sword. But with the help of Oona, Elric's lost daughter, von Bek escapes into the strange land of the Middlemarch.

At the same time, Gaynor, with the aid of the mad goddess Lady Miggea, tricks Elric and takes the black blade Stormbringer. He then turns his attention on the Middlemarch, where the Grail is hidden. With both of the items in possession of the Nazis, it will take everything that Elric, Ulric and Oona can muster to save the multiverse as they know it.

"The Dreamthief's Daughter" is a return to the classic sword and sorcery-style storytelling that marked the early Elric novels, but with a dash of the more philosophical underpinnings of the von Bek books.

At close to 350 pages, it's small by today's fantasy standards, but it seems monstrous compared to the slim Elric volumes I remember - books that were easily read in one sitting. Remembering those early tales, I feared there would be a good bit of padding. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. Moorcock's storytelling style is still concise and to the point - a rare thing in this age of fantasy novels that seem to wander all over the landscape without actually advancing the story.

Moorcock does get bogged down in philosophical debate about the Nazis a bit too much. It seems as though he's trying to convince the reader that the Nazis were wrong and that many of them were insane. I don't think that's something you have to convince many people of.

Overall, though, this book is a satisfying journey back into the realms of the Eternal Champion, and it has whetted my appetite for the tales of Elric that are yet to come.

While not as good as the first volumes in the Elric saga, this one certainly earns its place on the bookshelf next to them.

Sunday, May 13, 2001

Review: "The Blade of Tyshalle" by Matthew Stover

If you think reality TV is out of control now, you should see what happens a hundred years or so from now. In Matthew Stover's "Blade of Tyshalle" (Del Rey), the Studios of Earth use the ultimate form of reality TV to help keep the 14 billion people crammed onto the planet in line.

A worldwide outbreak of a new, highly contagious form of rabies known as HRVP leaves the world in chaos. Out of this chaos rises a new caste system, and the Studios are at the forefront.

With the discovery of Overworld - a fantasy world where magic works and fantastic races live - the Studios have their answer to keeping themselves at the top of the heap. Actors from Earth are trained and sent to Overworld to become heroes or die for the entertainment of the masses.

Hari Michaelson was born Labor - the lowest caste - and the only way out is to become an Actor. With a little help from fellow student Kris Hansen, Michaelson not only becomes an Actor, but the most famous Actor of all time - the legendary Caine.

But Caine's reign ends with a severed spinal cord in his final feature, "For Love of Pallas Ril." Without the use of his legs, he's just Hari Michaelson again, an Administrator for one of the Studios.

He has everything he fought for. He lives with his wife Shanna - the Overworld river goddess Pallas Ril - and their daughter Faith. Still he wallows in self-pity and longs to return to Overworld, to play Caine one more time.

Then Hansen - now Deliann, the changeling prince of the elves - sends a message through an Actor that Michaelson has been following closely. HRVP has broken out in Overworld. That sends Caine back into action as he scrambles to save the world he loves.

But he uncovers a much more sinister plot. He gets his wish to go back to Overworld, to play Caine again, but it comes with a heavy price. He has a decision to make, and the future of Overworld hangs in the balance.

"Blade of Tyshalle" is a grim tale of Earth's future, made only darker by the eerie similarities it bears to our own world.

It's unsettling how easy it is to picture our world turning into the barren, polluted, overpopulated Earth of Hari Michaelson's day.

Stover heightens this sense of despair with incredible descriptions of the surroundings that engage all the senses. These are, for the most part, not pleasant sensations. It's not the idealized world of most fantasy - far from it.

But Stover bucks the trends of the genre at every turn. His protagonist Caine was once the ideal fantasy hero, a dashing rogue with incredible fighting skills and a treasure trove of good one-liners.

The Caine that's called to action in "Blade of Tyshalle," however, is a middle aged administrator, wounded in both body and spirit. But the other Caine still lives inside him. He only needs something to bring it out.

For most of the book Stover dances a fine line between philosophical expositions by the characters and action/adventure sequences. At times he falls a little too far one way or the other, but overall he manages to keep a good balance. The book is frenzied and fast-paced, but there's also a lot of substance to the story. That's a balance that's difficult to achieve.

"Blade of Tyshalle" is actually the second book in a series that started with "Heroes Die," which tells the story of Caine's younger days.

I wasn't aware of that when I started the book, but I didn't need to be. Stover delivers up my idea of the perfect series novel - one that can be read and enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the world or characters.

He offers just enough background information so the new reader won't be lost, and the story itself is engaging and stands alone rather than just being a continuation of what happened in the first book.

This book isn't for those with faint hearts or weak stomachs. It's gritty, dark and violent, much like its protagonist.

The truly disturbing thing about "Blade of Tyshalle," though, may be what it says about our society and the path we're on.

Sunday, April 08, 2001

Review: "The Serpent's Shadow" by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is one of the most respected names in fantasy fiction, but she hasn't always been a favorite of mine. In fact, Lackey has always been hit-and-miss with me. Some of her stories have been grand tales with likeable characters and fabulous settings, while others have just seemed to fall flat, pale imitations of her better works.

Lackey's latest, "The Serpent's Shadow" (DAW), is a slight departure from her usual fare. The multi-layered tale is set in 19th-century London and deals with very real issues as well as fantastic ones.

Maya Witherspoon is the daughter of an English doctor and a Brahmin lady, who - following the mysterious deaths of her parents - has fled to London to pursue her own career as a physician. In London, she is subjected to a double-dose of prejudice because of her gender as well as her mixed Indian-English heritage.

Maya doesn't let the racism and sexism of the time bar her from pursuing her goals. Instead, she goes to the toughest doctor in London to seek her certification, so no one can doubt her credentials. But someone besides the medical community has taken an interest in her.

The elemental masters who control magic in England have taken notice of her strange magical wards, and send one of their own, Peter Scott, to investigate her. After meeting Maya, Peter is convinced that she has the ability to become an Earth Master, an area in which the white lodge is severely lacking. He tries to convince others in the lodge that Maya should be trained, but unfortunately, many of them hold the same prejudices.

Scott takes it upon himself and his "twin" in the lodge, Lord Peter Almsley, to train Maya as much as possible in her abilities. But now another threat has surfaced. A dark and mysterious magic has found its way into the city. Shivani, a follower of Kali, has unleashed the Shadow Serpent on an unsuspecting London both to seek revenge on the English and to settle some unfinished business with her niece, Maya.

"The Serpent's Shadow" is really three stories rolled into one.

First there's the mainstream story of Maya's struggles in the medical field, as she tries to break into a male-dominated profession and bring some much needed compassion to medicine. Maya treats patients that no one else will see and is often derided for her actions - such as trying to save limbs that others would amputate or attempting to remove an inflamed appendix from a woman who is seven months pregnant without harming the child. Along the way she makes enemies who could easily end her career.

Then there's the story of Maya's burgeoning magical ability and her relationship with Peter Scott who is trying to put her on the path to becoming an Earth Master. Here she faces some of the same challenges as in her medical career - men who don't want to see women as their equals. The difference here is that her enemies could end much more than her career.

Finally, there's Shivani, who is obsessed with vengeance on the English for their trespasses in India. Her dark arts are responsible for the death of Maya's parents, and she's followed Maya to London to finish the job. When the white lodge bungles its protections against Shivani's magic, it's up to Maya and Peter to deal with her. But Maya discovers she has some magical help of her own. The "pets" that she inherited from her mother are much more than they appear.

Each of the three stories would be intriguing on its own, but Lackey deftly weaves them into a complex and very satisfying novel. This easily ranks as one of her best efforts.

Sunday, April 01, 2001

Review: "Tamsin" by Peter S. Beagle

There are good ghost stories, and then there are good stories that happen to have a ghost. In "Tamsin" (ROC), Peter S. Beagle has managed to give the reader a little bit of both.

The book begins with the tale of a 13-year-old girl, Jennifer Gluckstein, who is displaced from her home in New York after her mother marries an Englishman. She's moved into the English countryside, on a farm in Dorset. The first 100 pages of the book take an in-depth look at her adjustment to this new life and her obstinate refusal to be happy there. During this time, the ghosts are only hinted at, but the story line still manages to hook the reader.

Even when Tamsin Willoughby appears in the story, it still doesn't turn into the traditional sort of ghost story. Instead, we watch as Jenny and Tamsin develop a friendship, and Jenny tries to puzzle out the mystery of Tamsin's life.

Tamsin was the daughter of a farmer named Roger Willoughby who worked the farm during Judge George Jeffreys' Bloody Assizes in the wake of the Duke of Monmouth's Rebellion. Jeffreys took a liking to the girl and was infuriated when she didn't return his affections, instead bestowing them on a musician who played for her while a portrait was painted.

The final third of the book finally introduces the traditional angle, when Jeffreys arrives at the farm to claim what he thinks is rightfully his - Tamsin.

The historical aspect of the book fascinated me, sending me to the Internet to research Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. What I found indicates that Beagle's portrayal of him is likely fairly accurate. Though sources offer conflicting reports of how many men Jeffreys hanged for treason - varying from less than 200 to almost 500 - all agree that he was known for his cruelty. The self-righteous apparition we see in "Tamsin" seems to be in line with that.

The book is written from the point of view of a 19-year-old Jenny Gluckstein, looking back at the happenings as she made the transition to life in the English countryside. It's written in a chatty, conversational style that makes it seem more like a diary. At first, I didn't like the approach, but as the story played out I found that it made it seem more real. The diary style gave me the impression that Jenny was a real person, telling a real story.

We can feel the fascination that Jenny felt as Tamsin introduced her to a whole new world, filled with wondrous creatures - mischievous boggarts seeking to make a deal with the new owners of the home; the shape-shifting Pooka who can never be trusted; the sage billy-blind that always offers the right advice at the wrong time; the mysterious Oakmen who lurk in the tangled forest; and, of course, the fury of the Wild Hunt which soars through the skies of the English countryside. The style of the story - told in real words that could actually belong to a 19-year-old - makes it easy to believe these things actually exist in our world, below our level of consciousness.

While "Tamsin" is a story of the supernatural, it's not a white-knuckled, edge-of-your-seat page-turner. Instead, it's more like a meandering stroll through a haunted wood that contains spirits both fair and foul. But that only serves to make the story more effective.

With "Tamsin," Beagle shows again why he is one of the premier storytellers in fantasy or any other genre.