Sunday, November 28, 2004

Review: "Blood Rites" by Jim Butcher

Chicago's only wizard-for-hire, Harry Dresden is back, and not surprisingly, he's in hot water again in "Blood Rites" ($6.99, Roc), the latest in Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series.

Harry's trying to make a living while laying low. The vampire courts still have a price on his head. Then he gets a job offer from an interesting source. Thomas, a white court vampire that Harry has worked with in the past, asks him to take on the job of finding out who has put on entropy curse on his producer friend Arturo Genosa. Of course, Harry gets more than he bargained for when Genosa turns out to be an "adult" movie director with three ex-wives who were stars in his movies.

Harry soon finds out that the plot is thicker than a couple of spurned exes, and he finds himself in the last place he wants to be - in the middle of vampire politics.

"Blood Rites" is the sixth installment of the "Dresden Files," and though a number of very good authors have tried the ghosts and ghouls in the real world formula, Butcher's is the only series that's been able to keep me consistently entertained through this many books. It's due in part to the focus on action and humor and his avoidance of the overwrought emotional introspection that comes along with most of these tales.

Though Harry Dresden is certainly a prime candidate for that kind of over-the-top tortured hero treatment, Butcher bypasses the wallowing-in-misery thought sequences and keeps the story moving. He packs so much in that I often wonder if he'll run out of story line possibilities soon. I hope not because thus far, the Dresden books have been incredibly entertaining.

If you haven't read the past tales in the series, though, "Blood Rites" is probably not the place to start. Most of the characters in the book have been introduced before and have backstories with Harry that are alluded to, but not addressed directly here. You might find yourself a little lost, and you'll certainly miss some of the references to previous stories.

Butcher also does a good job of setting up future installments of the series, dropping a few possibilities into the mix with a stowaway puppy from a supernatural rescue mission and a revelation about Harry's past. Here's to the continuing adventures of Chicago's premier wizard.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Interview: Andrew Fox

Andrew Fox's novels have been described by reviewers as a cross between Anne Rice and John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces." It's an odd mix, but it suits Fox just fine.

"I've always been a big fan of vampires in pop culture - vampire comic books, vampire movies," said Fox, who works with the Louisiana Commodity Supplement Food Program. "I also really, really love `A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole. I think it's probably one of the funniest books ever written in English and does comic dialogue better than just about any book I've ever come across."

Readers of Fox's debut novel "Fat White Vampire Blues" ($13.95, Ballantine) will see a lot of nods to Toole's famous novel. The book follows the story of New Orleans vampire Jules Duchon, who after feeding on the people who enjoy the New Orleans cuisine for 80 years, has ballooned up to 450 pounds and faces some serious problems in trapping his prey.

The premise was inspired by a series of articles Fox read that said New Orleans was America's fattest city.

"I started thinking, vampires live an awfully long time," he said. "What would happen to a vampire that spent 100-150 years drinking the blood of people who eat the typical New Orleans diet - all of that fried, sugar-coated, cream-covered high cholesterol food? After a few decades, they wouldn't look much like Tom Cruise."

But his weight isn't the only challenge Jules is up against. In the first novel, he runs into a younger, stronger black vampire who forbids him to feed on the black citizens of the city. In Fox's latest, "Bride of the Fat White Vampire" ($14.95, Ballantine), Jules is recruited by an aristocratic group of vampires to find out who has been kidnapping and mutilating the group's members. In these ways, he uses the books to make some social commentary, without beating readers over the head with it.

"I definitely wanted to do it in a very light, humorous kind of way," he said. "The same way John Kennedy Toole did in `A Confederacy of Dunces.' He had plenty of social commentary in there, but you hardly notice it because you're laughing so hard."

One of the biggest characters in Fox's novels is not a vampire at all. It's the city itself.

"I think one of the main characters is the city of New Orleans itself," he said. "I have a lot of fun gently satirizing the classs and race relations in the city, and I have a lot of fun with local icons and local institutions."

If you see someone you think you recognize in Fox's books, you may. He said one of the characters in "Bride of Fat White Vampire" is based heavily on Popeye's Fried Chicken founder Al Copeland. He also has characters based on Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and the city's most famous vampire writer, Rice.

"Certainly you couldn't write a book about vampires in New Orleans without having some kind of Anne Rice figure," he said.

Fox has another Jules Duchon book in the works, called "Ghost of the Fat White Vampire," should his publisher want it. In the meantime, he's currently shopping a book that pays tribute to another literary icon, Ray Bradbury.

It's called "Calorie 3501," and begins with a play on "Fahrenheit 451." Instead of firemen who burn books, Fox's novel features Good Humor men driving around in ice cream trucks and confiscating banned high calorie foods.

"From there, the book spins off in all kinds of wild directions, never foreseen by Ray Bradbury," he said. "I'm a big, big admirer of Ray Bradbury, so I start the book off with a strong nod in his direction."

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Review: "A Hat Full of Sky" by Terry Pratchett

Vanity kills. That's the lesson that witch-in-training Tiffany Aching learns in Terry Pratchett's "A Hat Full of Sky" ($16.99, HarperCollins).

Well ... sort of.

Since she doesn't have a good mirror at home, Tiffany accidentally learns to project herself out of her body so that she can see herself. What she doesn't know is that when she does it, she's leaving her body open for anything to take it over. In this case, it's a mysterious creature called a hiver, which invades Tiffany and begins to abuse her powers by using them to intimidate and threaten people.

With the help of the a band of small, blue "pictsies" called the Nac Mac Feegle, her new teacher Miss Level and the legendary witch Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany has to cast the creature out and make everything right again.

This is Pratchett's third book for young readers set on the Discworld, which has been the site of more than 30 of his adult novels. Pratchett imbues these books with the same whimsy and bits of satire as his adult books, and they're just as entertaining.

Many of the gags are a bit different than Pratchett's usual to make them a little more accessible to younger readers, but there's still plenty for adults to appreciate.

I don't usually miss a new Pratchett book, but somehow I overlooked the first book in this series, "The Wee Free Men." Apparently, in that book, Tiffany casts out the evil Queen who oppressed the Nac Mac Feegle, thus earning their loyalty. The events of that book are important to "A Hat Full of Sky," but Pratchett provides enough detail that readers will have a sense of what happened even if they haven't read the first book. You still might want to pick that one up first, though.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Interview: Ron White

They call him Tater Salad.

But Ron White, one of the stars of "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour: The Movie," has no problem with being confused with his most popular joke. In fact, he revels in it. His Web site is and his concert T-shirts proudly proclaim, "I caught the Tater."

"I embrace any kind of notoriety," he said. "That's not the way I wanted it to happen. I didn't see myself being known for that particular joke, but however it happens, that's fine with me."

Like Lynyrd Skynyrd fans who begin yelling out "Freebird" as soon as the band takes the stage, many of White's fans begin to yell "Tater Salad," wanting the joke that tells the story of his being thrown out of a bar in New York and his subsequent arrest for being drunk in public. But White said fans only think they want to hear the seven-minute joke again. Still he performs it every night.

"Anyone who knows my career well enough to buy a ticket, they know that joke inside and out," he said. "That's really one of the only things I do off the `Blue Collar' thing because it's not like a song you love; it's a joke you know. There's a big difference right there."

White's career has taken off in the past couple of years with "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour" and his specials on Comedy Central, but it's been a long haul for the comedian. He's been doing standup for more than 18 years and said he has performed more than 10,000 live shows.

"I was a prominent headliner in comedy clubs forever - the best comedy clubs in the country," he said. "But that really doesn't make you famous. It doesn't really matter what you do in Omaha, even if you kill every night, because not enough people see you for it to matter."

The movie and television specials changed that. White's new DVD, "They Call Me Tater Salad," is the No. 1 comedy DVD in the country. His album "Drunk in Public," released in November 2003, is usually No. 2, behind fellow "Blue Collar" alum Larry, the Cable Guy. ("I've never passed him, but I don't care. He's my buddy," White said.) Is the newfound notoriety gratifying for White?

"You have no idea, my friend," he said. "It's (Jeff) Foxworthy that really believed in it, and it was Foxworthy's goal a long time ago to make me a star. He's not very good at it, I'll tell you that, because it took him forever to do it."

Jokes aside, White is thankful for the help of Foxworthy and his management company Parallel Entertainment, for getting him to this point. He brags about selling out an 1,800 seat theater in Green Bay, Wis., in one day and then selling 1,000 tickets for a second performance on the next day. ("It's a little bitty town," he said. "I know they have a sports franchise, but their phone book is not an inch thick.") A Ticketmaster search on Wednesday morning showed that his Monroe date was almost sold out. Only a few scattered seats remain.

"I never thought this would happen; Foxworthy did and my management company did, but I never saw it coming," White said. "Foxworthy's generosity, and his undying belief that I'm as funny as it gets is what did it. Actually, I've been the one trying to sabotage it for all these years. I'm famous despite me."

While some of his stories are pretty wild, White said they all have a grain of truth to them. He said to be a successful comedian, you have to be true to your nature. He said he's not a very good writer, which is why he takes stories from real life.

"What I'm good at is, I can watch a car wreck and tell you about it, and you'll laugh," he said. "If I have a gift, that's what it is. Most of it's just dead-on truth, and that's why it's funny."

Aside from his touring, there's a lot going on in White's life right now. He was recently married to his girlfriend of three years, Barbara, who was also the designer of Foxworthy's home. ("Our whole thing is real incestuous," White jokes.) The comedy group, which includes Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy, also filmed a second "Blue Collar" movie last week. White expects it will be out by the end of the year. He will also be making some appearances on the WB's "Blue Collar TV."

For his part, White's sitting back and enjoying the ride.

"It's a party every night with me on stage," he said. "Right before I go on, I always pour myself a nice Scotch, pick myself a nice cigar and go out and play with the people. It's fun."

Interview: Bill Engvall

Even if you're not familiar with Bill Engvall, you may think of him every time someone asks a stupid question. If you've ever heard the phrase "Here's your sign," you've heard Engvall's most famous joke.

"That was amazing," Engvall said of the success of his "here's your sign" jokes. "It literally became the `Where's the beef?' of the '90s. It's a neat thing to think that you added a little piece to Americana."

Even Engvall himself isn't immune to the catchphrase, as he relates on his album "Dorkfish." In one of the jokes, he says he came out of the mall to see the guy parked next to him with a coat hanger in his window.

"I couldn't stop myself," Engvall says. "I said, `Did you lock your keys in your car?' He goes, `No, just washed it, gonna hang it up to dry. Here's your sign.'"

In addition to his latest album "Here's Your Sign … Reloaded," released late last year, and his new DVD "Here's Your Sign Live," released this week, Engvall is excited about a new project with fellow "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" members Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. It's called "Blue Collar TV," and it debuted last week on the WB. The show, which airs on Thursday nights, is by the producers of "Mad TV," and Engvall thinks fans will be pleasantly surprised.

"They really tapped into who we were and who our audience was," he said. "I compare it a lot to the old `Carol Burnett Show.' There are a couple of sketches, and then at the end we come out and do some stuff together, kind of like we did on the `Blue Collar' movie."

"Blue Collar" alum Ron White will also make a few guest appearances on the show.

Engvall and Foxworthy have both done TV before, but their counterparts, White and Larry, are a little rougher around the collar. Is TV really ready for those guys?

"That's a good question," Engvall said. "Larry - I'd love to tell you that's just a character, but it ain't."

Like it or not, Engvall is now connected with the three other guys through the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour," and its sequel which was just filmed last week. Fortunately for him, he enjoys it.

"The four of us together are just a blast," he said. "You couldn't ask for anything better. It's four friends working together. How much better does it get than that?"

Engvall was once well on his way to becoming a teacher when he and a friend went to a new comedy club that had just opened in Dallas.

"A buddy of mine and I went up there to watch amateur night one night," he said. "I ended up going up there, and the next thing I knew, I was doing this for a living."

Engvall said being funny was a necessity for a kid whose family moved around a lot.

"I've always had the ability to make people laugh," he said. "We moved around quite a bit, and that was the way you made friends quick. You could either make them laugh or you end up hanging out by yourself. It helped me out a lot in life as far as being able to move into new situations and excel in those situations."

Though, like his "Blue Collar" counterparts, he's known as a country comedian, Engvall has actually lived in the city for a while now. Though, he said, if you walked into his Los Angeles home, you wouldn't know you were in the city.

"I've still got my country roots," he said. "That's the way I want to keep it."

Though he lives in the city, he's never bought into the Hollywood star attitude.

"Noooo," he said. "As soon as you do, you're dead. It just doesn't fit me, and I don't think it ever will."

One thing the four "Blue Collar" comedians share is that they're close with their fans - sometimes too close.

"People will walk up to you and tell you crazy things," he said. "You look at them like, why are you telling me this. I don't want to know that."

Still, Engvall said he is appreciative of the people who buy his albums and come to his shows, and he often hangs around after the show to sign autographs.

"They've supported me at this level for 10 years," he said. "I've got the best fans in the world."

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Review: "Dead to the World" by Charlaine Harris

After a rough year, Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in the small town of Bon Temps, just wants to rest. In the past year, she's hooked up and broken up with a vampire boyfriend, her brother has been accused of murder, she's been sent to Dallas to investigate a vampire kidnapped by a group of humans and she's had to rescue her vampire boyfriend from torture at the hands of his maker.

As the new year turns, she resolves not to get beaten up. Now, only a couple of days into the new year, she's about to break that resolution - big time.

"Dead to the World" ($19.95, Ace) is Charlaine Harris' fourth book about the supernatural community of Bon Temps, a fictional small town somewhere between Monroe and Shreveport, and it's about time she got a hardcover title.

The latest installment brings back a lot of familiar characters: telepathic Sookie, her shapeshifter boss who turns into a collie, her ne'er-do-well brother Jason, her vampire ex-boyfriend Bill, werewolf Alcide Hervaux and the vampires of the Shreveport bar Fangtasia. She also introduces new characters, including a strange group of folks from an outlying area named Hotshot.

The adventures begin when Eric, the sheriff of the local vampire community, shows up on Sookie's drive home with a serious case of amnesia. When she calls the other Shreveport vamps, she somehow ends up as his protector.

Meanwhile, her brother goes missing, leaving only a blood stain and a strange print on his pier. Then there's the coven of shape-shifting, vampire blood-addicted witches that seem to be moving in on the vampires' territory, and their leader has a vendetta against Shreveport's supernatural community.

As with the other three books in the series, "Dead to the World" is great fun. It's light and fast-paced - no long, woe-is-me philosophical passages for Harris' vampires, just action from start to finish.

Harris strikes a style that's much more fun than Anne Rice and less sexually charged than Laurell K. Hamilton. She tells the story with a down-home flavor that's not often found in the horror or fantasy sections of the bookstore.

I was a little disappointed that I was able to figure out the mystery of her brother's disappearance so early, but it didn't spoil the book. If you haven't checked out Harris' Southern vampire series yet, you should. It's great fun, particularly for folks who live in this neck of the woods.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Review: "The Swords of Night and Day" by David Gemmell

With "The Swords of Night and Day" ($24.95, Del Rey), David Gemmell returns to the story of a fan favorite, but with a twist.

It's been a thousand years since the death of the legendary swordsman Skilgannon the Damned when he wakes up in a strange room and a strange body. It's his own body, but without the familiar aches and pains of age and old wounds he remembers. It's a young, fit body - that of the swordsman in his prime.

Skilgannon soon finds out why he's here when he meets Landis Khan, the man that used a combination of technology and magic to create a new body from bones found in Skilgannon's tomb and bring his soul back from where it was lost in the Void, the in-between world. Now he expects the swordsman to take up the cursed Swords of Night and Day that he laid aside more than a millienium ago and fulfill an ancient prophecy of the priestess Ustarte by bringing an end to the tyrannical reign of the Eternal.

But there are more surprises waiting for Skilgannon. He's not the only reborn in the picture. Though they lack the souls of the original heroes, there are duplicates of several legendary figures roaming the landscape, including a direct descendent of Skilgannon, with just as much skill and a lot less sanity. But the biggest blow of all comes in the identity of the Eternal herself - Skilgannon's greatest love and worst enemy.

Unlike a lot of fantasy writers who deal in series, Gemmell knows how to do it right. Even when he returns to familiar characters, there's always a twist, and in this book, it's a big one.

Not only does the story put Skilgannon in a new light, it puts the entire world of the Drenai in a new light. As expected from Gemmell, "The Swords of Night and Day" is a rousing adventure story with plenty of action and swordplay. But this book has a more subtle subplot that puts a science fiction spin on the story.

While the main story is fun, readers will find themselves wondering about other elements of the story and the ancient past of the Drenai world. The technology represented in recreating people from bones will sound eerily familiar to recent headlines on cloning. Portions of the prophecy regarding the golden shield and the silver eagle that travels the stars and communicates with the magicians will also hit home.

Though I've been a fan of the Drenai series from the beginning, this book is the first time I've thought about that world in these terms. The possibilities are almost more interesting than the story, which is quite good in its own right.

If you haven't read Gemmell before, now is the time to give him a shot. You're missing out on one of the best fantasists in the business.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Review: "Time of the Twins" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; "Homeland" by R.A. Salvatore

It's always nice to take a walk down memory lane, and I got that opportunity thanks to a couple of recent releases of hardcover editions of some of my favorite books from junior high and high school.

"Time of the Twins" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman ($24.95, Wizards of the Coast) and "Homeland" by R.A. Salvatore ($25.95, Wizards of the Coast) took me back to days when Dungeons & Dragons was as much a part of my life as friends and schoolwork. It's the first offering of both books in a stand-alone hardcover edition, and a cool opportunity for collectors.

If you had asked me when "Time of the Twins" came out, Weis and Hickman would have ranked just below Edgar Allan Poe and J.R.R. Tolkien on my list of favorites. While that's no longer the case, the main character in the book, the wizard Raistlin Majere, still ranks as one of my favorites.

This second Dragonlance trilogy, "Legends," offered a much darker tale than the original "Chronicles" trilogy. Raistlin, now a black-robed mage, has taken over the cursed Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas. He's grown more and more powerful and slipped farther into darkness. Raistlin has hatched a plan to enter the Abyss and challenge the gods themselves.

The only person that can stop him is his loyal brother Caramon, who he's tossed aside. To ease the pain of his twin's scorn, the once-proud warrior has retreated into the bottle and become fat and lazy. Caramon combines his efforts with the seemingly ever-present kender Tasslehoff to try to reign in his brother's lust for power.

In "Homeland," readers first learn the origins of Salvatore's drow hero Drizzt Do'Urden. "Homeland" delves into the twisted society of the drow by showing Drizzt in the drow home city of Menzoberranzan. Sickened by the cruelty of his kinsmen, Drizzt rebels against the matron mother of House Do'Urden, and will, in the next two books of the series, make his way alone through the caverns of the Underdark and eventually to the surface world.

"Time of the Twins" and "Homeland" have more than a few things in common. They're both the opening book of a second series about familiar heroes, and they're both much better than the original tales of those heroes. The reason is that they break with the normal D&D storyline, where a ragtag group of "unlikely heroes" are thrown together in a quest for some object of power to save the world. Reading Weis and Hickman's "Chronicles" trilogy and Salvatore's "Icewind Dale" trilogy is fun, but you can almost hear the dice clicking in the background in those stories.

These books - particularly "Homeland" - focus more on the individual and take a deeper look at the inner workings of their characters. These stories are more about the people than the quest.

Besides that, they look very good on your bookshelf, if you're a fan. The new packaging for "Homeland" is gorgeous, but I do have a few quibbles with the artwork for "Time of the Twins." I loved the original Larry Elmore artwork for this book - in fact, it's one of my favorite book covers ever. Wizards of the Coast opted to go with newer artwork by Matthew Stawicki, which appeared on the recent paperback editions. It's nice work, but I would have preferred the original art. I guess it's because I grew up looking at the Elmore cover.

Still, this package, which matches Weis and Hickman's recent "War of Souls" trilogy and the hardcover re-releases of the "Chronicles" trilogy, is still a worthy addition to my library.

While my days of living in the D&D worlds are long past, I still enjoy an occasional visit, and these classic tales from those worlds fit the bill perfectly.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Review: "Troll Fell" by Katherine Langrish

Katherine Langrish's "Troll Fell" ($15.99, HarperCollins) starts the way so many books geared for children begin - with the death of a parent and adoption by cruel relatives.

In this case, Peer Ulfsson is snatched away while his father's funeral pyre is literally still burning by his two brutish uncles, Grim and Baldur Grimsson. He's taken to their mill near Troll Fell - the same mill his father ran away from as a young man - and put to work. Peer's uncles smack him around, make him do all the work, feed him very little and entertain themselves by threatening to have their monstrous dog, the appropriately named Grendel, eat Peer's dog Loki.

The only thing that brightens Peer's time at the mill is stolen moments with Hilde, the girl who lives up the hill. But he has to be careful. His uncles and Hilde's family have a bitter rivalry, and if he gets caught talking to her, there's sure to be swift and terrible punishment.

The uncles have other plans for Peer as well. The trolls in Troll Fell are planning a big wedding, and the Gaffer has offered the Grimsson brothers some of his famed troll treasure in return for a human servant that his daughter can present as a gift to her husband-to-be. When the troll ceremony becomes a double wedding and the Gaffer makes another demand of the Grimssons, things get really interesting.

Langrish's book probably won't have the crossover appeal for kids and parents that other series, like "Harry Potter," have. The story is a bit too cut and dried, and perhaps a bit predictable for adults, though there are a few interesting twists. Then again, it's not intended for adults. For the younger crowd, it's probably just what they're looking for.

The action begins with the opening sequence and doesn't stop until the end. Wonderful and strange creatures fill the book - wicked Granny Green-Teeth who lives at the bottom of the mill pond, trolls of all shapes and sizes and the Nis, which reminds me a lot of Dobby the house elf.

Though Langrish makes clever use of Norse mythology in the story, as you can tell by the names, the tale is not dependent on it in any way.

Langrish's debut novel is a simple tale, but it's still a lot of fun. "Troll Fell" is also a great way to keep young readers occupied until the next installment of a certain wizard's tale arrives.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Review: "The Dragon Quintet"

When you mention fantasy, one of the first images that pops into people's minds is probably the dragon. There's no other single element that better represents the genre. Unfortunately, there's also no element that has become quite as cliché.

For that reason, in recent years, the population of dragons has been steadily declining in the various worlds of fantasy. These days, if there's mention of a dragon, it's often a whispered legend of great creatures that died out long ago. That's bad news for us fans of the dragon.

But there's good news, too. "The Dragon Quintet," ($24.95, Tor) brings together five of the biggest names in fantasy to weave tales of the great magical beasts. Those tapped to bring dragons back to the worlds of fantasy include Orson Scott Card, Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Moon and Michael Swanwick. Their dragons couldn't be more different, either.

Card is undeniably a master of science fiction, having delivered, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories of the genre, "Ender's Game." But he's also an accomplished fantasist too, as he illustrates in the opening story, "In the Dragon's House." It tells the tale of a young man who has come to live in a very strange house with his great aunt and uncle. Curious about the attic room where no one is allowed to go, he sneaks in to discover that there's another, secret inhabitant of the house. The dragon seems benevolent, but he has his own agenda.

Moon is probably best known for writing military science fiction, about the farthest you can get from dragons in the speculative genres. But she's also no stranger to fantasy. Her dragon in "Judgment" is more along the lines of what has become the norm in fantasy, a nearly all-powerful and all-wise being that has the ability to appear in human form. The story begins when a young man and his future father-in-law find some strange rocks near their village. The rocks turn out to be dragon eggs, each containing thousands of young dragons and a whole lot of trouble.

A master of dark and macabre stories, Lee has regularly used dragons in her stories. In "Love in the Time of Dragons," a knight sets out with a village girl in tow to slay the dragon in the nearby mountains. The surprise is all his, though.

Lackey's Valdemar is one of the most familiar worlds in fantasy, and her story "Joust" was the basis for her 2003 novel of the same name. Lackey's dragons are more companion animals than the typical fantasy dragon. They're highly intelligent, but don't have the magical properties that other writers ascribe to them. In "Joust," a young serf is taken on by a dragon rider to tend his beast, but sees freedom within his grasp when he steals an egg from the clutch of a dragon that has been accidentally bred.

In his classic "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," Swanwick took the conventions of fantasy and turned them on their heads. He does it again in this collection with "King Dragon." If you've read the earlier work of Swanwick, it's no surprise that his dragons are malicious metal monsters, made of both magic and technology. In this story, an injured dragon crawls into a local village after a battle and takes over, setting himself up as king.

These five excellent tales from five of the top writers in the genre show just how diverse these stories and the dragons that populate them can be. They prove that there are still good dragon stories out there.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Review: "The Last Light of the Sun" by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is, at once, the most fascinating writer in fantasy and one of the most frustrating. When he's on, there's no better writer in the genre. When he's not, drying paint can be more exciting.

Thankfully, he hits the mark more often than not. His latest, "The Last Light of the Sun" ($24.95, Roc), may be one of his best. The book takes readers back to the world of Sarantium and Al-Rassan, but focuses on a part of the world that he hasn't explored yet.

Like so much of Kay's work, the world and people are based on cultures and time periods from our own world. His writings are equal parts fantasy, historical fiction and literary fiction.

"The Last Light of the Sun" is based largely on Norse, English and Celtic cultures, and the book shows a great deal of research on Kay's part. Perhaps more familiar to the average fantasy fan than the medieval Italian world Kay chose for his excellent "Tigana," this world is no less fascinating.

The book begins with a series of seemingly random events that offer no clue to where the story will take the reader. But when the large cast of characters begins to come together, the pattern of Kay's well-laid plan becomes clear. Kay takes the seemingly unrelated threads and weaves them into a masterpiece.

Another nice touch in this book is the change in Kay's style. His normally flamboyant and flowing writing style gives way to a shorter, simpler and perhaps even a bit choppy approach. Fans of Kay's usual eloquence may not be sure what to think of it, but I think it's very effective. This is a book dealing with simpler, more barbaric cultures than the sophisticated ones that David Gemmell has worked with in the past, and the writing style reflects that well.

After the disappointing "Sarantine Mosaic," it's nice to see Kay hitting his stride again. "The Last Light of the Sun" probably won't be remembered as Kay's best novel, but it's still an outstanding read. It has a faster pace than his previous work, and it further builds on a world where the cultural interactions are just beginning to emerge. It's easily one of the best books I've read so far this year.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Review: "Seduced by Moonlight" by Laurell K. Hamilton

In "Seduced by Moonlight" ($23.95, Ballantine), Laurell K. Hamilton returns to the tale of Merry Gentry, also known as Princess Meredith NicEssus of the Unseelie Court of the sidhe (pronounced shee for those not up on their Irish folklore.)

Merry, who is half human and therefore mortal, lives in Los Angeles, exiled from her immortal fey relatives by necessity. She has many enemies at court, and the violence of their court isn't safe for someone who can actually die from her wounds.

But she's been given the chance to return home not as a tainted half-human, but as queen of the Unseelie Court. In order to do that, she has to give her people a rare gift - a child. Her aunt, Queen Andais, has decreed that if she can conceive a child before her cruel cousin Cel, she will inherit the throne.

Hamilton's first novel in the Merry Gentry series, "A Kiss of Shadows," was absolutely incredible, a dark and moody work with just a bit of sensuality. The third book, "Seduced by Moonlight," is not her strongest work.

I have to agree with much of the criticism I've seen from other fans. This book is long on sex and a little short on plot development - at least in the early going. In fact, in the first 150 pages or so, it seems at times that the story is just an excuse to get Merry from one sex scene to the next.

That said, the book still isn't too bad. It hits its stride about midway through and gets back to the story at hand. It also features some very interesting developments, both in Merry's character and in the story.

Hamilton's writing is as strong as ever, rife with new wonders and interesting ideas. Characterization has always been a strong point for Hamilton, and her characters in this series truly shine. You won't find an odder cast this side of a Terry Pratchett novel, but you'll also never question for a second that her characters are truly real despite their odd appearances, mannerisms and magic. It's the characters that keep you interested.

Though "Seduced by Moonlight" doesn't advance Merry's story as much as I would like, it still lays some intriguing groundwork for future installments. Here's hoping that Hamilton gets her focus back on the story and doesn't let Merry's story devolve into a string of meaningless sex scenes. She's too good a writer and this is too good a story for that.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Review: "The Burning Land" by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss' "The Arm of the Stone" and "The Garden of the Stone" were two of the finest fantasy novels to come out of the 1990s, and also two of the most overlooked.

Strauss' two tales about a segregated world where magic and technology were at odds with each other took an old idea and gave it a surprisingly original spin, announcing the arrival of a big new talent. Then she seemed to disappear for a while.

Now, almost five years after the publication of "Garden," Strauss returns with her first hardcover (if you don't count the now out-of-print children's books she wrote before "Arm"), "The Burning Land" ($24.95, Avon EOS). I'm happy to report that she hasn't lost anything during the layoff.

In theme, "The Burning Land" will remind readers of her earlier two books - two beliefs at war with each other and the people caught in the middle - but when it comes to offering insight on human nature and emotion, this book is very much superior.

"The Burning Land" tells the story of a land that has survived 75 years of war between the traditional religious leaders, the Aratists, and the atheist Caryaxists. The Aratists have just been returned to power and now seek to bring back the followers of Arata who were exiled.

A young Aratist named Gyalo is chosen to lead an expedition into the Burning Land, the inhospitable sacred resting place of the god Arata, to bring back a group of refugees who are suspected of having survived by breaking their vows to the church and using their Shaper magic to create a home in the unforgiving desert. What Gyalo finds in the city of Refuge in the center of the Burning Land will rock the Aratist faith to its very foundations - if he can make the church's leaders accept its truth and move beyond their own fears.

Like Strauss' "Arm of the Stone," this book starts slowly, with the telling of a traditional tale from her world. Strauss eschews the "rule" that says you have to start your story by putting the reader in the middle of the action, and she gets away with it because of her compelling writing style.

In addition to being an intriguing story, Strauss offers some thought-provoking nuggets about religion, blind faith and the fallibility of the humans who wield the power in most religions. In a lot of ways, it's a very timely story that parallels some current issues in our own world.

"The Burning Land" works well on two levels - as its own story and as an intriguing setup for a future tale. The book leaves many more questions than it answers and makes me look forward to the follow-up.

After reading her first two books, I was disappointed that Strauss didn't ascend to the top ranks of the fantasy field. Maybe this tale will put her there.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Review: "Fool's Fate" by Robin Hobb

Reading "Fool's Fate" by Robin Hobb ($24.95, Bantam Spectra) was a bittersweet exercise for me. Like Hobb's other tales of FitzChivalry Farseer, I found it enthralling and entertaining, but at the same time, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend.

Back in the mid-1990s, I picked up a copy of the first tale of FitzChivalry Farseer, "Assassin's Apprentice," and immediately became a fan of the author, who also writes as Megan Lindholm. That first series, "The Farseer Trilogy," was the best fantasy series of the 1990s as far as I'm concerned. Though "Fool's Fate" leaves a few questions unanswered, the close of the book has an air of finality, and Hobb has said she doesn't think there are any more stories to tell about Fitz and the Fool.

Though I have often chastised authors in my reviews for sticking with familiar characters long after their story is over, I find myself on the other side of the argument this time. I think I'd really like to read a few more tales about Fitz, if they were done as well as these first two trilogies.

Since most of the world thinks he's dead, this tale finds Fitz still masquerading as Tom Badgerlock and quietly helping prepare Prince Dutiful for the biggest challenge of his young life. To win the hand of Elliania, the Narcheska of the Out Islands, and unite the enemy kingdoms, he must first meet her challenge - to travel to the remote island of Aslevjal and bring her the head of the dragon Icefyre, which legend says is encased in the glacier that covers the island.

The White Prophet - the man that Fitz has known most of his life as the Fool and lately as Lord Golden - has foreseen his own death on the journey. In order to protect his old friend, Fitz arranges for him to be left behind, but the Fool has other plans.

As if those things weren't enough for Fitz to deal with, he's also given command of the prince's Skill magic coterie, which includes Fitz's assassin mentor Chade and a slow, but powerful, youngster named Thick. He's sworn to protect and teach the runaway son of Burrich, the man who raised Fitz. He's being courted by a leader of the Wit magic - the ability to bond with animals, which is feared and despised - who wants to teach him to better use his gift. Finally, Fitz's biggest secret is about to be revealed when his daughter, adopted by Burrich after Fitz was believed dead, is threatened because of his mission.

There are a lot of threads to weave together, but Hobb does it deftly, leading the reader on a breathtaking ride from beginning to end.

The most striking development in this book is the transformation of Fitz himself. After six books, the self-pitying, tortured soul is finally coming to grips with himself and accepting who and what he is. Though always fascinating, he becomes a much more likeable character through the course of "Fool's Fate."

As always, Hobb is masterful when it comes to intrigue, both in the court at Buckkeep, among friends and in the hidden agendas of the Outislanders. She uses it to twist the story in ways the reader doesn't expect and also paints shadows in corners where there are none to create a sense of unease and distrust throughout the book.

If, in the future, Fitz finds himself in another situation worthy of a story, I'll look forward to it. If not, Hobb has provided a fitting (if perhaps a bit happier than expected) end to his tale.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Review: "New Spring" by Robert Jordan

It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest fan of Robert Jordan's last few books. When I read "The Eye of the World" more than a decade ago, it floored me. I proclaimed Jordan the next Tolkien and tried to convince everyone I knew to read his books.

But as the seemingly never-ending Wheel of Time has spun out of control, I've become more and more frustrated with it, so I was understandably reluctant to pick up Jordan's latest, "New Spring" ($22.95, Tor). Its small size (less than 350 pages), the fact that it wasn't a new installment in the Wheel of Time and those fond memories of "Eye of the World" finally convinced me to give it a shot, and I was pleasantly surprised.

"New Spring," which is an extended version of Jordan's novella in the first "Legends" collection, takes readers back before the events of "The Eye of the World." When the book opens, Moiraine Damodred and Siuan Sanche still wear the dress of Accepted, struggling to attain the shawl of Aes Sedai. Lan Mandragoran, the heir to a dead kingdom, is a soldier protecting Tar Valon from an Aiel invasion. He wants nothing to do with Aes Sedai, much less to be bonded to one as a Warder.

The story follows Moiraine and Siuan's ascent to the shawl of Aes Sedai. When they witness a foretelling that the Dragon Reborn, the man who will sunder the world and save it, has been born on the slopes of Dragonmount, they become obsessed with being the ones who find him. But the Tower has other plans. When the Amirlyn, Tamra, dies mysteriously, Moiraine seems to be bound for the throne of Cairhien, to which she has a claim. But rather than make that claim, she flees the Tower to search for the child.

Her search leads her to the Borderlands, where she and Lan meet, and the rest of the story, readers of the Wheel of Time are already familiar with. (Well, most of it. Word is that Jordan plans two more of these prequels.)

"New Spring" is nice for fans of the Wheel of Time, in that it gives them a chance to see a foolish and fun side of Moiraine, one not often seen in the other series. It also provides some background information on several characters that are important to the series.

For those like myself, who have been turned off by the direction the series has taken, it's a chance to remember what you liked about Jordan's work in the first place.

The detail is still perhaps a bit heavy-handed - like the 3-plus page description of Tar Valon as Moiraine and Siuan ride out for the first time as Accepted. But that's always been Jordan's style. Sometimes it works to put the reader closer to the story; others it doesn't.

"New Spring" doesn't have the same sense of adventure that the early Wheel of Time books had, but that's probably because we already know where it's headed. It's a problem shared by any prequel, and one easily overlooked once you get into the story.

Has "New Spring" convinced me to give the next Wheel of Time volume a shot? Probably not. At the pace that story has moved forward in the last several books, I don't think I'll miss much if I wait for the last volume and just see how it all turns out. But I will check out the other two prequel volumes, and I'll look forward to whatever Jordan does once that unwieldy saga is ended.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Review: "Down the Crawfish Hole" by Wes Thomas

It's an old tradition in children's books. Take a familiar, beloved story and alter it to put it in surroundings and add characters that relate to the local region. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Luckily for Wes Thomas, it works in "Down the Crawfish Hole" ($15.95, Pelican Publishing Co.).

In this book for the preschool set, a young boy named Maurice happens across an interesting blue crawfish that claims to be late for a meeting with the Frog Queen. On the way, the crawfish drops his watch. Intrigued, Maurice picks up the watch and follows the crawfish into a crawfish hole, where he arrives in a strange world populated by talking armadillos and opossum, and a friendly Cajun and his alligator buddy. Oh, and of course, the frogs and their queen.

If it all sounds a little familiar, it should. "Down the Crawfish Hole" is simply a Cajun-ized (and abridged) version of Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland."

Since this book was written for preschoolers, it's very short and moves quite quickly. In fact, too quickly for me, from the adult perspective. It was well enough done that I wanted to see it expanded and see how other elements from Carroll's classic would have translated into a Cajun world.

The drawings in the book are lively and should engage children, and the characters are just as colorful as Carroll's, even if they don't get the same face time as the originals.

Of course, when you're dealing with a classic like "Alice in Wonderland," there's really no way you can improve on it. But for a younger set, who perhaps don't have the reading skills to tackle Carroll's story yet, it will certainly get them interested in the book it's based on.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Review: "Legends II"

The first "Legends" collection, released in 1998, was a fantasy fiction fan's dream come true. It featured new short novels from 11 of the heavyweights of the genre, set in their signature worlds. It served as both a treat for long-time fans and a good introduction for the newbies - a way to test the waters before diving into a 700-1,000 page doorstop novel.

"Legends II" ($28.95, Del Rey) brings back a couple of the alumni of the first volume, while mixing in a few new writers, as well. Robert Silverberg is back as the editor, and also contributes a story from his world of Majipoor. Other returning authors include George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Tad Williams, Anne McCaffery and Raymond Feist. New to the collection are Robin Hobb, Diana Gabaldon, Elizabeth Haydon, Neil Gaiman and Terry Brooks.

As with the first book, the stories are a mixed bag, depending on your tastes in fantasy. Among the best stories are those by Martin, Gaiman and Williams. Martin continues the tale of the hedge knight Dunk that he began in the first "Legends" collection with "The Sworn Sword." Gaiman contributes a dark and atmospheric tale set in the world of his novel "American Gods" with "The Monarch of the Glen." Williams dips into his virtual reality "Otherland" world, and also takes a time to have a little fun and play around in Middle-Earth in "The Happiest Dead Boy in the World."

Some of the authors in the book truly fit the title. While they all have their fans and detractors, no matter which side of the fence you're on, you can't deny that names like McCaffery, Feist and Brooks are indeed legends in the fantasy field. If you like their previous work, you'll probably like these stories.

A few of the stories I found disappointing. Over the past several years Hobb has become one of my favorites in the fantasy genre, but her story "Homecoming," written as a series of journal entries, didn't really work for me. Though the approach is a unique idea, it kept me from really getting into the flow of the story. Likewise, Card, who is an outstanding writer, gives us another story in the world of Alvin Maker with "The Yazoo Queen," but I much prefer his Ender series. Being science fiction, Ender doesn't really fit into this collection, but I've never been a big fan of the Maker tales.

Unlike the first book, which contained 11 authors that I'd read before, I got my first look at a couple of writers in this book - Gabaldon and Haydon. I'll definitely be checking out more from them in the future. Gabaldon's characters in "Lord John and the Succubus" are among the more interesting I've read, and while it perhaps isn't a true fantasy tale, it definitely earns its spot in this collection.

Haydon's story, "Threshold," may be the best in the book. Set in her "Symphony of Ages" world, it's certainly the most sweeping and ambitious work in this collection. It takes readers on a journey they won't believe is possible in a mere 80 pages and leaves the reader wanting to dive right into one of Haydon's novels.

In the end, that's the best part of these collections. They give people the opportunity to sample some of the genre's biggest names and best writers in bite-sized chunks that are just enough, if you like the writer, to whet your appetite for more. Long live the "Legends" series.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Review: "Agents of Light and Darkness" by Simon R. Green

John Taylor finds things. If you're looking for something in the Nightside, the dark underbelly of London where it's always 3 a.m. and everything has a price, he's your guy. But in "Agents of Light and Darkness" ($6.50, Ace), Taylor finds himself out of his depth.

In this tale, Simon R. Green's detective finds himself inundated with offers he can't refuse. The Grail has come to the Nightside, but not the one you might expect. This is the Unholy Grail, the cup that Judas Iscariot drank from at the Last Supper.

With everyone from sorcerers to Howard Hughes - who didn't really die, but rather "moved to another plane for tax purposes" - seeking Taylor's services in the matter, he settles on a seemingly friendly priest named Jude who carries a hefty purse and claims to represent the Vatican.

Though Taylor is the best at what he does, this case proves more challenging when the angels arrive in the Nightside, and it may land him in some serious trouble that even his fearsome reputation can't get him out of.

In Green's second book about John Taylor, he builds on the detective's legend nicely. Taylor, though faced with a dire immediate situation, remains focused on finding out about his mother. She's the reason Taylor has his mysterious rep and a secret that everyone in the Nightside seems to know. But everyone also seems scared to share that secret with him.

Green's Nightside has one of the most colorful casts you'll find this side of Terry Pratchett. From his sidekick Shotgun Suzie, a female Rambo who takes her fashion cues from Emma Peel, to the Bedlam Boys, a washed-up boy band with the psychic powers to terrorize innocent bystanders (hmm … imagine that), the characters are almost as entertaining as the story itself.

That story follows a fairly basic private eye novel arc, provided that your favorite private eye has to deal with vampires, wizards and the occasional angry angel, of course. Taylor is a likeable character, a must in the world of private eye novels, and it's easy to root for him.

The result is a quick, light and fun novel that will eat up a couple of hours and leave you ready for another trip to the Nightside.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Review: "The Lone Drow" by R.A. Salvatore

If my count is correct, "The Lone Drow" is R.A. Salvatore's 17th book about the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, and it brings the unlikely hero full circle, to where his journey began.

For the first time in a long time, Drizzt is well and truly alone. He thinks his friends have been lost in a battle with a group of orcs that someone has somehow forged into a formidable army. The only thing that's left to him is vengeance.

Gone is the friend, mentor and confidante that Drizzt has become over the years. He's been replaced by the hunter - a cold, unfeeling and methodical side of the dark elf that we've rarely seen since he stalked the Underdark in Salvatore's "Dark Elf" trilogy.

As Drizzt wreaks havoc among the orc armies, his friends Cattie-Brie and Wulfgar are very much alive. (These books are a bit like a comic in that Salvatore does seem to have a problem killing his heroes, and even when it happens, they find a way to come back.)

While Bruenor lays grievously wounded, they attempt to hold Mithral Hall against the bulk of the orc army. Unlike Drizzt, Catti-Brie and Wulfgar are confident their friend is still alive, but they have bigger problems at hand.

After losing his way somewhere in the middle of this series, Salvatore has rebounded with the last few installments. He's made an attempt to take the series back to its roots, and for the most part, it's been pretty successful. The reunion of the original group in "Sea of Swords" and the rousing adventure of "The Thousand Orcs," definitely rekindled my waning interest in Drizzt's story.

I've got mixed feelings on "The Lone Drow." While I enjoyed seeing the hunter emerge again, it lacks the story depth and emotion that was present the last time we saw him, in the "Dark Elf" trilogy. This book is pretty much a "smash 'em and bash 'em" adventure tale. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. It's still quite enjoyable, particularly for fans of Salvatore's past work.

I still think Salvatore needs to shake up the world of his drow hero a little more to bring some excitement back into the storyline, and I do think he needs another well-developed and credible arch-enemy, a la Artemis Entreri, instead of the creep-of-the-week approach.

But "The Lone Drow" does reaffirm Salvatore's knack for breathless adventure and leaves me with high hopes for the conclusion of the storyline in "The Two Swords," due out this fall. Just a few years ago, I said Salvatore should retire Drizzt, but now I think there just may be some life left in the dark elf after all.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Review: "Monstrous Regiment" by Terry Pratchett

The current world situation seems to be permeating every part of our culture. In "Monstrous Regiment" ($24.95, HarperCollins), it's even found it's way into Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

Polly, the daughter of a tavern owner, disguises herself as a boy to join the Borogravian army and travel to the front to find her brother, who is missing in action. The Borogravians seem to be at war with everyone, largely due to their leader the Duchess (who hasn't been seen in years) and their god Nuggan, who seems to create new abominations daily. Among the things that are abominations unto Nuggan: images (except of the Duchess, of course), basically anything involving women, rocks and the color blue.

Polly, with a short haircut and a strategically-placed pair of socks, joins a ragtag group of recruits that includes a troll, a teetotaler vampire and an Igor - always an entertaining part of a Discworld story. Sergeant Jackrum takes in the pitiful lot because they're the best - and the last - available because, of course, Borogravia is winning. That's what everyone says.

As the group gets closer and closer to going to war, Polly discovers that a vampire and an Igor aren't the biggest oddities in this group. She's not alone in her disguise - not by a long shot.

"Monstrous Regiment" is not as howlingly funny as many of Pratchett's "Discworld" novels. Instead, it takes more of a satirical turn. While the book still has its laugh-out-loud moments, most of the humor here comes from Pratchett's wry take on more serious subjects. Pratchett uses the book to take a look at women's issues in our society and poke fun at fundamental extremists of all stripes. It's also a very timely novel, as some events seem to parallel those in our own world.

Hardcore Pratchett fans may be disappointed that the book doesn't focus on familiar characters, but as always, many of them put in an appearance, specifically Samuel Vimes, who comes to investigate the destruction of Ankh-Morpork's clacks towers in Borogravia after Nuggan declares them an abomination.

To me, the infusion of fresh blood in the book is refreshing. Though they're all fascinating characters, how many stories can you really tell about Vimes, Rincewind and Granny Weatherwax before they get stale?

It's a slightly different approach for Pratchett. Though his books have always had an element of satire, this is the first time he's used it as a primary element. It works well - even if it is an abomination unto Nuggan.