Sunday, July 28, 2002

Review: "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

With "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" ($27.95, Wizards of the Coast), Dragonlance creators Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman bring their "War of Souls" trilogy to a close. They also effectively bring to an end the world's Fifth Age story arc, one that was unpopular with some fans.

As the book opens, Takhisis has revealed herself as the One God who has guided Mina's hand. Her Knights of Neraka continue their relentless march across Ansalon, conquering their enemies and leaving destruction in their wake.

The elven nation of Qualinesti has been destroyed and the Silvanesti are under siege.

The kender Tasslehoff Burrfoot, who may be responsible for the current situation because he used a time-travel device to escape his fate at the end of the Chaos War, is still bouncing through time. If he dies anywhere other than where he was meant to, the course of Krynn's history may be altered forever.

But behind it all is an even more sinister plot. Takhisis has planned her return for a long time, and it's no accident that the other gods are nowhere to be found.

Many fans feel that the Dragonlance series has floundered in recent years, and I have to admit that I was one of them. I had high hopes when Weis and Hickman returned to their realm. They didn't disappoint me.

With the "War of Souls" trilogy, Weis and Hickman have put the Dragonlance world back on an even keel. "Dragons of a Vanished Moon" closes at yet another critical juncture for the world of Krynn with great potential for new storylines. It leaves dozens of questions in readers' minds, each with the possibility of an intriguing tale yet to come.

Weis and Hickman have also given the Dragonlance world something it's needed for a while, an infusion of new blood. While some fans may be reluctant to let go of the original companions, characters like Mina, Galdar, Gerard and Gilthas (the authors seem to have an affection for the letter G), are worthy successors to the original heroes and villains of Krynn.

Readers also get a fresh look at old favorites Palin and Dalamar. Each has his own challenges to overcome in this new world.

"War of Souls" manages to blend some of the best aspects of the original "Chronicles" and "Legends" trilogies. It begins with the same sense of adventure as "Chronicles" and ends in the dark and somber tones of "Legends." While it doesn't quite live up to those two stories - when it comes to RPG-based tales, those are tough to top - it is easily the best Dragonlance set since.

After several disappointing years, the creators of the Dragonlance world have returned to set things right. In the process, they've breathed new life into the series and left Krynn a much more interesting place.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Review: "The Star Wars Trilogy: The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition"

Being the "Star Wars" fanatic that I am, most people will probably find it surprising that I've never read the novelizations of the first three films. But a couple of weeks ago, a package that I couldn't resist hit the shelves.

"The Star Wars Trilogy: The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition" ($25.95, Del Rey) pulls together the first three novels of the saga in one hardcover volume.

From the arrival of R2D2 at the moisture farm on Tattooine with his message from Princess Leia, to the final reconcilation between Luke and Anakin, it's all in this one volume - Yoda, Jabba, Ewoks and all.

If you're one of the few people in the world who is not familiar with "Star Wars," I'd probably recommend seeing the movies first. This is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book.

These books seem to be written directly from the original scripts, and therefore aren't quite as interesting as the big-name author novelizations of "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." You won't find many extra details or deeper story development in these volumes. It's pretty much a straight, blow-by-blow report of the movies.

That being said, it's still something that I'd recommend to any "Star Wars" fan. It's a nice package and certainly a big piece of "Star Wars" history.

The novelizations of the three films, written by George Lucas, Donald Glut and James Kahn, respectively, improve as the story moves along.

Lucas' "A New Hope" and Glut's "Empire Strikes Back" read much like the movie script. There is some nice background information that the films didn't have, but beyond that, they're a solid retelling of the story and not much more.

While many people consider "Return of the Jedi" the weakest installment of the first three films, it's the strongest in this case. Kahn spins a bit more of a tale than Lucas or Glut. It still sticks with the script, of course, but it moves a little more smoothly and is more entertaining.

How much you'll like this volume depends largely on what you expect out of it. If you want something that sheds new light on the first three "Star Wars" films, you'll probably be disappointed. If you want to experience the movies in a slightly different way, then you'll likely enjoy it.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Review: "Sorcery Rising" by Jude Fisher

All great stories have to start somewhere, and Jude Fisher's "Sorcery Rising" (DAW) lays a solid foundation for a good story to come. Fisher, who has also written the visual companions to the first two installments of "The Lord of the Rings," makes a promising fiction debut with the beginning of a series called "Fool's Gold."

"Sorcery Rising" opens on a world that's currently at peace, but is always teetering on the edge of conflict. The Istrians from the south have conquered most of the world, driving the Eyrans into a small area in the far north. Though the two nations have declared peace, there is still a great deal of animosity between them, from cultural differences to old grudges. But for the week of the Allfair, they have to get along.

Katla Aransen is a free-spirited Eyran, excited about her first Allfair. On arriving, she immediately makes waves by climbing a rock that is sacred to the Istrian's god - an offense punishable by burning. But that's far from the last strange happening of the celebration.

For some reason the magic of the Footloose - a nomadic gypsy-like people - is working far better than it should. A strange albino named Virelai - traveling with a young woman who casts a spell on every man she meets and a cat with a wealth of magical knowledge - has joined the wandering people. At the fair, he offers gold nuggets, along with a map to the place they were found, to several adventurous people. All they have to do to claim the treasure, he says, is find the island and deal with the old man that lives there.

The fair ends in chaos with a murder and Katla's capture and condemnation, threatening to send the two nations to war again.

With "Sorcery Rising," Fisher has laid the groundwork for what could be an explosive story. She's created a world balanced precariously on the edge of chaos. The Istrians bear a great resemblance to the Islamic radicals we've become so familiar with recently, while the Eyrans are free-wheeling. There's a natural tension between them that borders on open hostility.

Fisher has also created an intriguing cast of characters, each with his or her own story to tell.

Despite all its promise, though, "Sorcery Rising" is a bit unsatisfying. Fisher covers a lot of ground, but tells very little of the story. Almost all of the book's storylines are left dangling, and the lack of any kind of resolution is a little annoying. It's a common practice in fantasy, but having been burned in recent years by seemingly endless series like Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," I find it disappointing.

Still, I have to give Fisher the benefit of the doubt. The story begun in "Sorcery Rising" is compelling, the characters are charismatic and the world is an interesting one. It leads me to believe that there are good things to come from this series.

Sunday, July 07, 2002

Review: "The Pictorial History of Baseball," by John S. Bowman and Joel Zoss

For many baseball fans, this week is one of the best of the season. In Tuesday's All-Star game, arguably the best players the sport has to offer will be on display in one place. So what better time to take a look at a book that illustrates some of the highest (and lowest) moments in the sport's history?

John S. Bowman and Joel Zoss' "The Pictorial History of Baseball" ($24.98, Thunder Bay Press) is a great read for the casual baseball watcher or the hardcore fanatic.

The first thing that strikes you about this volume of baseball lore is the fact that it's a gorgeous book. The hefty tome measures 14 1/2-by-10 1/2 inches and weighs a solid five pounds. Its 256 glossy pages, feature about 320 photographs from all eras of the sport. That's enough to make any bibliophile flip.

Open the book up and you'll find a complete history, from the ancient Egyptian games that were the earliest ancestors of baseball to the sport's role in the wake of Sept. 11. The account is perhaps not as in-depth as some others, which focus on smaller segments of the game's past, but it covers a lot of ground.

As the title suggests, though, the real star of the book is not the written portion, but the photos. They present a visual account of how the game has changed since the first professional teams took the field in the 1800s. A quick glance at two contrasting photos - a very serious-looking Boston team in 1874 (page 19) and a light-hearted moment for the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers (page 217) - speaks volumes about the differences time has made in the game. But baseball fans will find similarities in the two pictures as well.

The photos from the first half of the book are mostly posed shots, which also hint at the photographic technology of the time. But those shots do have something valuable to offer the baseball fan - faces to put with some legendary names.

That's not to say there aren't a few gems among the photos. One that stands out is a shot of Hall-of-Famer Mickey Cochrane stretched out, lunging with the ball to make a play at the plate. This shot is given a two-page spread, and certainly deserves it.

There are also some interesting stories and characters that some fans might not be familiar with, like Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, whose missing finger certainly wasn't a handicap. Instead, it helped him to six consecutive 20-win seasons, in which he led the Cubs to four pennants.

The book covers all of baseball's most glorious moments - the best sluggers, the most revered pitchers, the greatest dynasties. But it doesn't ignore the dark side of the sport - the Black Sox scandal, the initial treatment of Jackie Robinson, labor disputes and drug issues all get their mention, too.

Due to the ambitious nature of the project, neither the good nor the bad really get the space and depth they deserve, but Bowman and Zoss do manage to pack them all in.

One of the most interesting chapters of "The Pictorial History of Baseball" has nothing to do with the professional game, though. With the rich history of the pro game on their palette, the authors could have easily ignored youth baseball. Instead, they devote six pages to Little League and American Legion baseball. Again, the book offers only sketchy details on the history of these organizations, but it's a testament to the true spirit of baseball - not today's game of millionaires.

"The Pictorial History of Baseball" probably won't satisfy the rabid fan that wants an in-depth study of the details of the game. It does, however, provide a glimpse of the rich history of the sport and what it's meant to American culture - and in a beautiful package that no baseball fan should be able to resist.