Thursday, June 28, 2007

Review: "The Blood Knight" by Greg Keyes

Epic fantasy can be a tricky thing. Fans of the genre expect complex stories with tangled subplots, but sometimes they can get too tangled. Just ask Robert Jordan, whose once-promising Wheel of Time series grew so many heads that it stalled somewhere around book six and has only barely inched forward in the last four or five volumes.

With "The Blood Knight" (Del Rey), the third of four installments of his Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series, Greg Keyes has managed to weave his subplots seamlessly and avoid the pitfalls that so many other authors have fallen into.

In this book, Anne Dare, the exiled princess and rightful heir to the throne of Crotheny, has returned to try to muster support and remove her usurper uncle Robert from the throne. While that battle rages, there's a bigger battle being fought in the world as a whole. The legendary Briar King walks the earth again, some say to reclaim it from man, and with him comes a host of creatures thought to be children's tales and myths. Just whose side they're on is open to debate.

The head-hopping style that Keyes adopts in his storylines will immediately remind readers of George R. R. Martin's recent works, but Keyes manages to stick rigidly with his tale with few wasted words. Action and conflict rule every line of the book with little time for the overlong descriptive passages and asides that often crop up in the genre. Keyes gives his readers what they need to know, when they need to know it, and the result is a fast-paced sprint to the finish in a genre that often prefers meandering strolls. It's a refreshing approach that keeps you wondering what's around the next corner.

Keyes' characters are likeable and easy to connect with. And just when you think he's falling into the conventions of the genre, he surprises you with a deft twist.
"The Blood Knight" should satisfy the most hardcore epic fantasy purists as well as the occasional reader of the genre. A lot of the other writers working in the genre could take a few lessons from Keyes.

Read reviews of Keyes' previous books.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review: "Fall of Knight" by Peter David

Arthur Penn, former President of the United States, plans to live the rest of his life peacefully sailing the world on his yacht with his wife Gwen in Peter David's latest, "Fall of Knight" (Ace). The only problem is the former first lady was shot by a terrorist and medical experts from all over the world said she would never come out of a coma.

When a satellite photo of Arthur and Gwen apparently living happily ever after shows up on the news, people want answers. Perhaps telling the truth - that Arthur is, in fact, Arthur Pendragon, king of Camelot, and he healed his wife with the Holy Grail, which he won in a battle against Sumerian legend Gilgamesh with the aid of a Moorish Knight of the Round Table named Percival and a Noah-like sailor named Ziusura - was a bad idea.

Proving the claim by using the Grail to treat a fallen journalist covering the story, turns out to be an even worse idea as, suddenly, Arthur finds himself besieged by people needing help and even as the focus of a new religion.

But the worst is yet to come when Merlin discovers that the Grail's companion piece, the Spear of Destiny, is also back in play, and the combination of the two could have disastrous results. Unfortunately, before he can warn Arthur, he's imprisoned by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.

The third book in David's satirical modern-day Arthur trilogy provides as many chuckles as the first two, and just as much food for thought, as well. While telling a fun adventure story, he also skewers several aspects of modern life from politics to religion to frivolous lawsuits.

Those prone to being offended may want to give the book a pass. The story deals with two legendary items closely associated to Christ - the cup he drank from at the last supper and the spear that pierced his side on the cross - and some of the fictional revelations in the book are a bit irreverent. It is, after all, a comic fantasy. But at the end of the day, the story serves more as an affirmation of faith.

Even more interesting to me, a long-time devotee of the Arthurian legends, is the story that serves as the backdrop for "Fall of Knight." Without giving anything away, I'll just say that it's a tale of Merlin and the origin of Excalibur that rivals any other that I've read.

The trilogy, which also includes the books "Knight Life" and "One Knight Only," is a fun update on the Arthurian legends. I'd definitely recommend it for Arthur buffs with a sense of humor.

Read my reviews of past Peter David books.

Get "Fall of Knight."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Review: "Wizards," edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann

"Wizards" (Berkley, $25) bills itself as a collection of stories by "masters of modern fantasy," and it lives up to that billing.

Almost every author contributing to the book will be well-known to fans of fantasy fiction, ranging from masters like Neil Gaiman and Orson Scott Card to relative newcomers like Eoin Colfer.

Wizards, of course, are a staple of the fantasy world, and almost every different kind of magician imaginable is featured in this collection from the all-powerful to the mere illusionist.

There are warm-hearted and whimsical stories like Neil Gaiman's "The Witch's Headstone," which finds a young resident of a graveyard who can speak with the spirits attempting to buy a headstone for an accused witch buried anonymously, or Colfer's offering, "A Fowl Tale," about a talking dove who backs himself into a corner while trying to spin a tale for his supper. Even the normally dark Tanith Lee takes a light approach on "Zinder," about an abused and mentally impaired man who soars the night skies making things right.

Darker tales do appear. Mary Rosenblum's creative "Color Vision" features a wizard hunting young people with the talent to gain their power. The wizard in Elizabeth Hand's "Winter's Wife" uses her magic to avenge a greedy man's act against the natural beauty of her new home. Peter Beagle's "Barrens Dance" features one of the few truly evil wizards in the collection, a man intent on winning the love of a woman he can't have, through any means he can. But even these stories usually end well, if not always entirely happily.

There are tales that play on legends, such as Garth Nix's "Holly and Iron," drawing on a number of different European tales, including King Arthur. Jane Yolen' s "Slipping Sideways Through Eternity" even places the prophet Elijah in the position of wizard.

Perhaps the strangest story (and title) is Andy Duncan's "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or the Devil's Ninth Question" which finds a young girl jumping into a diorama and finding herself in a house where she'll face the devil himself.

There are a few forgettable stories in the mix, but very few. For the most part, this is a collection of writers doing what they do best. The stories are entertaining and offer a wide variety of styles and wizards to suit most any taste. "Wizards" is a good way to sample some of the best writers in the genre today.

Get "Wizards."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review: "Firebird" by R. Garcia y Robertson

It takes a little audacity to open your novel with the words "once upon a time." It takes even more to close them with another very familiar phrase, which I won't give away here. Fortunately, R. Garcia y Robertson's "Firebird" (Tor) lives up to the opening line.

Given to the Bone Witch at a young age, Aria has grown up knowing very little about who she is, but she does have some vivid fantasies. So far, she's lived a simple life, but that changes when, while out gathering fungus, she runs into a wounded knight riding away from the burning city of Byeli Zamak. When she offers him aid, her life changes forever, as she's swept up in an adventure that takes her far away from the simple woods life she's known.

It's hard to offer a synopsis for "Firebird" because Garcia y Robertson leads the reader through so many deft twists and turns of the story that I don't want to give anything away. The plot involves returning a firebird's egg to its nest atop a mountain but there's much more to it. There's a lot of adventure packed into the 320 pages of this tale, and it happens fast and furious.

The story itself is an interesting mix. It's part fairy tale, part alternate history and part bawdy romance. While the overall feel of the book is that of a fairy tale, it's certainly an adult fairy tale. It does have a few raunchy moments and some very dark moments.

At times, perhaps, Garcia y Robertson's fixation on the romantic dalliances of his characters distracts from the story at hand. Some seem a bit unneccessary, but they don't prove too distracting for what is a very good story.

The world of "Firebird" is also interesting, set largely in a slightly modified version of medieval Russia known as Markovy that mixes in magic and mythical creatures. It calls upon legends and themes that fantasy often ignores.

While "Firebird" was my introduction to Garcia y Robertson's work, it certainly makes me want to revisit some of his previous books. It's an engaging read with a sense of wonder and imagination that has by and large been lost in the genre.

Buy "Firebird."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Review: "His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik

Having read fantasy for more than 20 years, I think I've seen dragons used in just about every way possible. But on rare occasion, I'll run into a book like Naomi Novik's "His Majesty's Dragon" ($7.50, Del Rey).

Originally published under the title "Temeraire" in the U.K., the alternate history begins aboard the ship of British Capt. Will Laurence during the Napoleonic Wars. When Laurence captures a French frigate, he's thrilled to discover a dragon egg in the hold. He's less thrilled to find it is near to hatching. Knowing the dragon's value to his country's Aerial Corps and knowing it must be bound early to be controlled, he and his officers draw straws to see which one will attempt to harness the dragon. But when the egg hatches, the beast ignores the man attempting to harness it and instead bonds with Laurence. Knowing his duty, he accepts that he will have to give up his proud and comfortable Navy life to become an aviator.

As the dragon, named Temeraire after a ship Laurence once admired, grows, the captain's reluctant sense of duty gives way to a deep affection for the dragon. The bond is strengthened when they discover that Temeraire is, in fact, a Chinese Imperial dragon, an extremely rare and intelligent breed and further through their experiences in training and action.

At heart, this is the story of a man and his dragon, and with Novik's considerable talents, if it were left at that it would probably still be worth a read. But here she gives us so much more, including a completely different view of fantasy's most popular creature.

"His Majesty's Dragon" reads a bit like one of Patrick O'Brian's naval adventures, except, of course, that it takes place hundreds of feet above the ground. Full crews scrambling around atop a moving dragon, cheating death with every move, provide for some truly awesome imagery.

Even more interesting is the personality that Novik injects into her dragons. Each beast is as distinctive and well-developed as her human characters, perhaps even moreso at times. It leaves the reader longing to meet more of them.

Though this is Novik's debut, it certainly doesn't read like one. In fact, "His Majesty's Dragon" is easily one of the best fantasies I've read in a long, long time. It's a must-read for both dragon-lovers and fans of historical adventure novels.

Review: "Throne of Jade" and "Black Powder War" by Naomi Novik

It's always nice when you get to read the books in a series back to back. Usually in fantasy series, you get hooked with the first book and then end up waiting a year or more for each installment, in the process forgetting a little about each world and story. So it was nice to see Naomi Novik's most recent two books in the Temeraire series, "Throne of Jade" and "Black Powder War" (both $7.50, Del Rey), follow hot on the heels of the first book, "His Majesty's Dragon."

I was truly impressed by the first installment, and immediately immersed myself in the second and third tales. For those who missed my review of the first book a few weeks back, Temeraire is a dragon intended as a gift for Napoleon from the emperor of China. His egg was intercepted by a British ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and he ended up bonded to the ship's captain Will Laurence.

In "Throne of Jade," the Chinese royalty have decided that Laurence is not fit to be a companion to a Celestial dragon, intended only for royalty. So he and Temeraire have been called to China, where they expect attempts to separate them from each other. In the process, they find themselves embroiled in a struggle for power between the emperor who is open to communication with the Western world and a faction led by a prince who opposes Western influence.

Having struggled through their confrontation with the emperor of China, Temeraire and Laurence expect to soon return to England in "Black Powder War." Temeraire, much to Laurence's dismay, is excited about the possibility of bringing the living standards of England's dragons up to those of China's, who are treated as equals, and often betters, by humans. Instead, they get an urgent missive ordering them to go to Istanbul to retrieve three dragon eggs purchased by the British government. Their ship damaged by a fire, they are forced to travel overland where they face not only the challenge of the journey and ongoing war, but also a Celestial who feels wronged by them.

I love dragon tales, and Novik's books are easily the best dragon stories I've read in years. Hers is a rare and refreshing original take on dragons, imagining a hierarchy and community of dragons on a scale that has rarely been attempted.

Making the stories even better is the fact that Novik is also an excellent writer with the skills to bring her creation to life and make the reader care deeply about Temeraire and his captain. When you're reading a story where the characters are wronged and you find yourself trembling with anger at the injustice, you know the writer has crafted something powerful. It happened to me more than once during these books.

If you're a lover of dragon tales or a fan of historical military adventure (who can accept the existence of mythical beasts, of course), do yourself a favor at check out this series.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review: "Definitely Dead" by Charlaine Harris

Editor's note: This is another of those housecleaning reviews. I plan to review Harris' latest in the near future.

Charlaine Harris' latest novel about the strange happenings in the small northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps almost got blown away by last year's hurricanes. In a foreword, Harris explains that after watching the devastation, she considered shelving "Definitely Dead" ($23.95, Ace) because much of the action takes place in pre-hurricane New Orleans.

Ultimately, she decided to go ahead with the book, and fans will be glad she did. This time around, telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackhouse has just found out that her cousin Hadley, who had become entangled with the vampire queen of Louisiana and had become a vampire herself, has been killed - permanently, this time - in New Orleans. She's escorted to New Orleans by the queen's lawyer to close out Hadley's estate, but there are much stranger things afoot in the Big Easy.

First, there's the discovery of a freshly-made, blood-starved vampire in Hadley's apartment. Then there's the mystery about her death, which just happened to coincide with the queen's marriage to the vampire king of Arkansas, not to mention the attempts being made on Sookie's life by a small group of weres and a revelation about former vampire boyfriend Bill that shakes her world.

There's a lot going on in "Definitely Dead," perhaps more than in any of Harris' previous Southern Vampire novels, and while many of the happenings don't seem to play into the story at hand, the reader has the feeling that the details may be important in future installments. Certainly many of the events from previous volumes play into this book, and though Harris tries to recap as much as possible, readers will probably be a little lost if they're not familiar with the back story.

A welcome change in this book is the lessened focus on Sookie's love life. While it still plays a major role with the revelation about Bill, a new weretiger beau named Quinn and continuing problems from a previous relationship with Shreveport werewolf Alcide Herveaux, there's less her of fretting and worrying about it and more focus on the situations at hand.

Harris has yet to disappoint in this series. As with past volumes, "Definitely Dead" is fun, fast, filled with interesting characters and a particular treat for those of us who live near Bon Temps.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review: "Proven Guilty," by Jim Butcher

Editor's note: You'll see a few reviews like this pop up in my housecleaning over the coming weeks. When I posted my review of Jim Butcher's latest book "White Night," I stumbled across this review of his last book "Proven Guilty," which I had never posted to the old site. Some of the info is now dated, but the opinion on the book is the same. Enjoy.

Whenever a new installment in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files arrives on the shelves, it's bad news for the books in my to-be-read stack. They're all going to get bumped down a spot.

Since discovering Butcher's wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden with 2001's "Fool Moon," the tales of the modern-day magician have consistently entertained me more than any other writer in the past five years. His latest, "Proven Guilty" (Roc), is no exception.

The secret war between the Red Court of vampires and the wizards' White Council is heating up, and Dresden, a newly named Warden, has been given a covert mission to find out why the Summer Court of the fey isn't aiding the wizards. But Harry's got bigger problems on his plate. He's fighting an inner battle against the fallen angel Lasciel, who is trying to tempt him to unleash her power. More pressing, he's just gotten a report of some big-time black magic going down in his hometown of Chicago.
When fans at a horror convention suddenly start becoming targets of the big-screen monsters they're celebrating, Harry is on the case. But when he discovers the source of that magic, it hits Harry close to home and may force him to further stretch his already strained relations with the White Council.

"Proven Guilty" turns out to be one of the best installments in the series so far, as it shows the series maturing, with plots and character motivations digging deeper than just battling the bad guys. It tackles some tougher emotions and questions about good and evil, graying a line that's been fairly clear in the previous installments.

There's also a lot more fun to be had here as Butcher tosses out pop culture references a little more easily than in past volumes. While he often doesn't use the real names of the Hollywood baddies, horror fans will recognize a lot of popular monsters, and even a few obscure ones, here.

We're eight books into the Dresden Files now, and instead of running out of steam, the series seems to be getting stronger with each volume. With a two-hour Dresden Files pilot directed by Nicolas Cage set to air on the Sci-Fi Channel this summer, it's a safe bet we'll be seeing a lot more of Harry Dresden. (Editor's note: The series was delayed after I wrote this, and of course, has now aired its first season.) That sounds like good news to me.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review: "White Night" by Jim Butcher

It's not often that the ninth book in a series is still as lively and engaging as the first. It's even rarer for a series to be continually getting better over the course of that many books. But Jim Butcher has managed it with his supernatural detective series The Dresden Files. The latest, "White Night" (Roc, $23.95), is one of the best.

The books center on Chicago's only wizard for hire, Harry Dresden. He's part Mike Hammer, part John Wayne and part Merlin, with better wisecracks than any of them. He's also surrounded by a cast of characters just as colorful as he is, from the cute but tough-as-nails police sergeant Karrin Murphy to the ruthless and despicable, yet somehow likeable, gangster "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone.

This time around Harry gets the call from Murphy to investigate what appears to be a series of suicides, but some of the facts don't add up. When Harry discovers a magical message, Exodus 22:18's "suffer not a witch to live," left at the scene of a couple of the suicides, Murphy's fears are confirmed. There's a serial killer in town, targeting witches. Making matters more difficult, the suspected killer has been seen wearing the gray cloak of a Warden of the White Council, the magical police force that Harry just happens to be a member of, and several of the women have been seen in the company of a man matching the description of Harry's brother Thomas.
Oh, and don't forget the ongoing war between the White Council and the Red Court of vampires, or Harry's struggle to reign in his headstrong goth girl apprentice, or the reappearance of another wizard for hire who happens to be Harry's ex, or the fallen angel Lasciel, who is trapped in Harry's head.

So, yes, there are a few things going on in the book, but Butcher, as always, juggles them well, weaving all the threads into a cohesive story that includes some thoughtful observations on human nature among the magical battles and zaniness that surrounds Harry.

Dresden recently received the TV treatment from the Sci-Fi Channel, as the first season of "The Dresden Files" ended, but the show has little to do with the books other than the main characters. Butcher's version is far better.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Review: "Heart-Shaped Box" by Joe Hill

Joe Hill's lineage may be one of the worst-kept secrets in the publishing business. He's Stephen King's son, and if you couldn't figure that out from the author photo on the book jacket, you'd definitely get the idea after reading his debut "Heart-Shaped Box" ($24.95, William Morrow).

That's not to say that Hill's work is just a rip-off of his father. In fact, this book is quite a bit better than anything his father has done in years. It does, however, use some of the same techniques that are hallmarks of his dad. His characters are grounded, down to earth and very real, and he makes liberal use of pop culture references. In this case, it's almost as much fun picking out the rock 'n' roll references as reading the story.

When aging hard rocker Judas Coyne spots a ghost for sale on an online auction site, he can't resist adding it to the collection of bizarre and macabre items fans have given him over the years. There's just one catch, though. This particular ghost isn't the benign spirit the ad promised, but rather the spirit Craddock McDermott, stepfather of a former groupie of Jude's, Anna McDermott, known to him as "Florida." When confronted, Anna's sister tells Jude that after he cast her aside, Anna killed herself, and Craddock, a particularly talented hypnotist, has devised a way to make Jude pay.

Of course, as in real life, things are not quite that black and white as we find out in the twists and turns that take Coyne and his current lover "Georgia," real name Mary Beth, on a wild road trip with the ghost hot on their trail. The journey is not only a race with the devil, but a voyage of discovery that leads Jude back to his Louisiana childhood as Justin Cowzynski and opens his eyes to revelations about Anna, Mary Beth and himself.

It's understandable that Hill, real name Joseph Hillstrom King, didn't want to be saddled with his father's legacy and the expectations that go along with it, but he needn't have worried. Craddock is as creepy a character as you could ask for in a horror tale, and Hill manages to make the reader care deeply about Coyne, Georgia and Anna, despite their flaws. "Heart-Shaped Box" is an outstanding debut for a writer with a bright future.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Another grand failure

At what point do you just let something go?

I've had grand visions for a site dedicated to books, music and whatever else since about 1996. I've put months into designing the site and redesigning the site several times with intentions of following through on my grand schemes each time. I was quite proud of the most recent incarnation, from 2005, but life intrudes. It takes time to format html and make regular updates -- time that I never seem to have. So once again, I enter the Hall of the Mountain King to find cobwebs in every corner and a thick coat of dust over everything. This time, with a heavy sigh and resignation, I realize that I'm just never going to have the time to make it the site that I envisioned. (Feel free, however, to visit the crumbling ruins of the Mountain King's old home in the links list. There are still a few treasures hiding in the dark halls.)

But rather than give it up completely, I've decided to take a cue from some friends of mine over at the Saintsfan Lovers of the Blues site and try accomplishing the same mission via blog. It doesn't take quite as long to make updates, and I can do them anytime. It's more immediate, and it allows for some interactivity for the few people who may still be holding out hope that I'll update.

This space, up to this point, has been largely a place for me to bitch (those old posts are still hanging around if you want to read them, though most are out of date), but now I hope it will become a more creative and productive place. I'm not going to place any parameters on what I do here. I'll still do reviews of recent CDs and books, but I'll also do other things like talk about movies I've seen lately and revisit some old favorites in features like Stuck in my Head, which will take a look at whatever single song is running around in my brain at the time, and Pages from the Past, a revisiting of some of my favorite books. Should be fun. Enjoy reading, and feel free to chime in.