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.