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.