Hippogriff's Aerie

Apparitions of Imagination

Classic Review – Thieves’ World edited by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey

Format:  paperback, Ace Edition, 1982

Pages:  308 (including the editor’s addendum)

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

There seems to be an abundance of thieves and assassins in modern fantasy, but in the 80s there was little room for these types of characters as Epic Fantasy dominated the scene. One of the exceptions was Thieves’ World. Created by Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey, the concept was simple: create a shared world, in which authors were free to use each others’ characters in their story. The setting was Sanctuary, a city populated by crime lords, thieves, wizards, ladies of the night, squabbling priests, and brutal guards. Eight authors contributed stories for the first volume of this shared anthology, resulting in wonderfully diverse story lines, with each author centering their story around a memorable character.

The current state of affairs has Prince Kadakithis, or Prince Kittycat as the locals call him, arriving in Sanctuary to “clean up the armpit of the Empire.” The Prince is a member of the Rankan Empire nobility, which is at odds with those who favor the old kingdom (and gods) of Ilsig. The Prince is attended by his personal bodyguard called Hell Hounds. But the Prince has an agenda of his own, and to everyone’s surprise, they may be underestimating the resolve of man who they consider a fop…

At the end of the review I’ll have comments on the book as a whole, but first you’ll find a brief synopsis of each story; these tales vary in length from 23 to 53 pages. Most authors weave a fast-paced story bereft of intricate details. Such are the tales of a thief’s world…

Sentences of Death by John Brunner: here Brunner plots a story about a young woman who has been abused at a young age and is in the employment of a scribe. It is a tale of a magic scroll that weaves a spell of death, an attempt on the Prince, and revenge. However, this young woman mainly exists to introduce us to the character of Enas Yorl, a cursed, shape-changing mage. I would have preferred to read more about Yorl, who would be a much more striking character with more pages and detail devoted to him.

The Face of Chaos by Lynn Abbey: a new author at the time that this book was released, Abbey gives us a tale centering around Illyra, a fortune-teller who gets caught up in trying to avert a virgin’s sacrifice to bless a newly-constructed temple. We are introduced to the gods of the land and how they are at war with each other. This is the first story where the author uses other writers’ characters.

The Gate of Flying Knives by Poul Anderson: In this story we are introduced Cappen Vera, a minstral who has recently lost his meal ticket. Illyra features prominently here as Vera seeks to find his lost love, Danlis, with the fortune-teller’s help. We are first introduced to the Maze, a dangerous slum, and The Vulgar Unicorn, where scoundrels go to buy and sell information and make contacts. Vera’s quest to reunite with his love bring in other writers’ characters such as Jamie the Red, One Thumb, Hanse (Shadowspawn), and Enas Yorl. The minstral makes a daring raid through a portal in a temple in his rescue attempt, but the results are bittersweet. Though constantly changing tenses, Anderson embraces an adventurous spirit and even throws in a little poetry. This is probably my second favorite story in the book, and it is also the longest.

Shadowspawn by Andrew Offutt: Young Hanse, also known as Shadowspawn, is enlisted to steal the Prince’s rod of authority and discredit him. When the traitors try to double-cross Hanse, all hell breaks loose. Offutt weaves a light, deft tale of betrayal and uneasy alliances, and this story is easily my favorite of the bunch.

The Price of Doing Business by Robert Lynn Asprin: Jubal is a former gladiator-turned-crimelord who deals in the black market. In a moment of betrayal, Jubal nearly finds what the price of doing business is in Sanctuary, and discusses his choices in a philosophical battle with a Hell Hound. Asprin does a good job of explaining character motivations in this tale.

Blood Brothers by Joe Haldeman: This is a story about One Thumb, the crooked bartender at The Vulgar Unicorn. Some of his merchandise goes missing, and he attempts to retrieve it, only to fall into the middle of a sorcerous feud. I have to say the ending left me a bit puzzled and put off, and this is probably the worst story in the anthology. It’s also the shortest.

Myrtis by Christine DeWees: Myrtis is the proprietor of the Aphrodisia House, a pleasure house in the red lamp district that services the men of Sanctuary. When the Prince comes up with a plan to close the brothel houses, Myrtis is forced to hatch a plan that will counteract the Prince’s wishes. DeWees displays a deft hand and elegant prose; though having very little to do with thieves, Myrtis is by far the most well-written tale of the anthology, a great accomplishment for a novice writer.

The Secret of the Blue Star by Marion Zimmer Bradley: Lythande is a mercenary/magician who becomes embroiled in a sorecerous duel. For on Lythande’s head blazes the blue star, a symbol of Lythande’s order, and symbolizing a secret. If the secret were discovered, Lythande would lose all wizardly powers. And another magician seeks to learn this secret of Lythande’s. With a clever writing style and a flair for the dramatic, Bradley deftly weaves a tale with a reveal that will surprise some, but that other readers may correctly anticipate. A good short story, although having little to do with thieves except for a brief appearance by Cappen Vera.

Some of the stories seem a bit light on thievery and skullduggery…it is mainly the setting of Sanctuary, itself being a respute for such activities, that lends the book its name. Character voices change from story to story, which the editor explains as a difference in the perspective of the storyteller. For instance, Lythande may appear quite different in various stories, but that can be attributed to the difference in, say, a story told by the cursed sorcerer Enas Yorl, as to one told by the cynical thief Shadowspawn…characters have different perspectives, and see the world – and other characters – differently from each other. And it’s the imaginative characters that give these stories their appeal…characters in later books in the series don’t quite measure up.

In conclusion there are a few gems here, but anyone looking for the kind of thieves you’d find in a novel from Lynch or Weeks will be disappointed. These are light-hearted tales, with little emphasis on character detail and heavy doses of tongue-in-cheek humor. Looking forward to the next book in the series, Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn, things start to turn a little more serious and a little darker. If you like anthologies and don’t need to read dark, serious tales all the time, you might enjoy a few of these stories. Considering the age of the book, you should be able to acquire it cheaply at a good used book store, as I doubt many libraries would carry this. The point is, don’t spend a lot of money to acquire it, as there are several newly-released anthologies out there that are probably far superior to this.

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October 18, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Classic Review – Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Format:  paperback, first printing, 1984

Pages:  441

Reading time: about 10 hours

 

This is a review that may cause some groans among the audience. Dragonlance has its share of proponents and detractors. I find myself somewhere in the middle, and the following review will reveal why.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight is the first book in the Dragonlance Chronicles. Based off of Dungeons and Dragons sessions the authors experienced in their self-created world of Krynn, you run into some of your standard tropes – haughty elves with pointy ears, gruff dwarves, Kender (the hobbit equivalent of Krynn), Draconians (the orc equivalent of Krynn), honorable knights, etc. A group of disparate parts is assembled to quest after the Dragonlance, a powerful magic relic. However, there are also some unique ideas, like gnomes that are inventors, gully dwarves that lack brainpower, and an addled old wizard named Fizban who manages to create as many problems as he fixes.

Sometimes the first book in a series can drag as world-building and characters are established. Dragonlance avoids this by copious amounts of action sequences, and characters and world-building are developed on the fly. This methodology works surprisingly well, as each character has his or her own voice, and establish their personas more through their actions than through info dumps and backstories. The overall effect is a light, quick-paced read that doesn’t to fail on entertainment…there’s fight scenes, magic battles, humor, inner turmoil, and love interests.

Some readers will find this potporri a turn-off, as you won’t get lengthy introspection but you will get comedy that at times strains one’s patience as it tries too hard. Others dismiss the plot and action-driven sequences as simplistic and derivative. Fans who enjoy modern, dark and gritty fantasy and don’t care for lighter fare like Terry Brooks or David Eddings probably won’t care for this, either.

The main characters are a varied bunch. Tanis the half-elf is really the lead protagonist…he’s the glue that holds the group together, but has his own problems including a love triangle and struggles with the lack of acceptance from humans and elves. Sturm Brightblade is a Knight of Solamnia, who is attempting to restore the honor of the fallen knighthood. Goldmoon is barbarian cleric, a chieftan’s daughter of pure heart who bears the Crystal Staff, which the Draconians are searching for. Riverwind is Goldmoon’s mate and protector, quick to anger and defensive of Goldmoon. Raistlin is a young mage whose health is shattered but possesses much power, though he seems to have his own interests at heart. Caramon is Raistlin’s twin brother, a hulking bruiser with a slow mind who is protective of his brother and overlooks Raistlin’s agenda. Flint Fireforge is ancient dwarf, gruff on the exterior but soft on the inside. Tasslehoff Burrfoot is a Kender that has an innocent nature, a thief who steals without really being aware of it.

The plot involves a homecoming, in which the characters return after some time of having parted ways. The happiness at returning to their home of Solace is disturbed by the arrival of Goldmoon and Riverwind with the Staff, and the goblins and Draconians that have occupied their home. When the group helps Goldmoon and Riverwind escape this threat, and offer to escort them to a city of wise men (who hopefully have answers regarding the Staff), they become marked. What follows is the group attempting to evade capture by Draconian forces as they get into one problem after another. They learn that a god known as the Dark Queen covets the Staff, and controls the Draconians. Eventually their adventure leads them into a battle with the Dark Queen’s champion, Verminaard.

The story has some problems, mainly that it seems to lack direction as it moves from conflict to conflict. Also, fight scenes, which are abundant, are not only poorly described, they feel like the reader is sitting in on a Dungeons and Dragons session – it’s almost as if you can hear the dice rolling as it determines the outcome. The humor in the story sometimes feels forced. And although the characters are likable enough and have a legion of devoted readers, you won’t find much depth to them.

There are a few nice extra features…the front sports a map, which is always welcome. Each chapter heading features pencil artwork from Den Beauvais. The end of the book has a few pages that render the poem “The Song of Huma”. And the last two pages involve the authors talking about how the characters and world of Krynn came to be.

In conclusion, this is a hard book for me to recommend. While it does have some charm and is fast-paced, it feels a little dated, and it’s not something I would find myself reaching for off the bookshelves over some of the other books in my collection. If you like epic fantasy, with a variety of characters, lots of action, standard fantasy tropes, and easy-to-follow writing, you might like this. Dragonlance does have a legion of devoted fans, a large library of follow-up books, and has spun off numerous products such as role playing books, board games, and miniatures for a reason. But you might just want to check it out from the library before spending your hard-earned money…you can always buy it later if you like it.

October 12, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Classic Review – Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

Format:  paperback, 11th printing, 1977

Pages:  474

Reading time:  about 13 hours

 

Lord Foul’s Bane is the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. The first three books in the series feature Thomas Covenant as the protagonist. Before I get to the plot, I should first opine that Covenant is the ultimate anti-hero: an average man, suffering from leprosy, with two amputated fingers, divorced from his wife (due to the leprosy), feared by his neighbors (again, the leprosy), and who is anti-social and self-loathing from – you guessed it – his leprosy. To make matters worse, early on in the story, Covenant rapes a woman. There’s no way to sugar-coat this horrible act – Donaldson smacks you right across the face with it. The fact that Covenant believes himself in a dream, or feels a sudden emotional response to being healed, are no excuse. Yet after the briefest of dismissals, he moves on. It is at this callous moment, this suddenly insignificant turn, that some readers choose to abandon the story in disgust. In truth I certainly understand why someone chooses this course of action. However, by doing so they miss out on what is a fantastic story. Be assured that this is not an insignificant event…the consequences of this single act will come back to haunt Covenant for the rest of the series.

The plot revolves around Covenant being summoned from our world to a place called The Land. Throughout the series, we are never really sure whether The Land is some real place, or just a product of Covenant’s imagination when he falls unconscious and strikes his head. Magic is real in The Land, and Covenant is summoned by an evil creature called a cave wight, who is named Drool Rockworm. This creature summons Covenant with an artifact known as the Staff of Law, seeking to claim the white gold wedding band which Covenant bears. An item made from white gold is the most powerful source of magic in the land, and Rockworm seeks to dominate with it. But before Rockworm can take control, another being intervenes. Things go from bad to worse when Covenant learns that this mysterious being is Lord Foul the Despiser, an ancient enemy of the land who has been gathering power for 1000 years and also covets the white gold’s magic. Leaving Covenant with a message to deliver to the Lords who care for the land, Foul warns of Rockworm discovering the Illearth Stone, another destructively powerful magic. However, Foul claims that eventually all creatures will bow down before The Despiser.

From here the plot follows Covenant’s journey through The Land to carry the message to the Lords, and aid them in their attempt to stop Rockworm. It seems that the amputated fingers of Covenant invoke memories of The Land’s greatest hero, Berek Halfhand. Donaldson uses this journey, and subsequent quest, to introduce the people and magic of The Land, and several fantastical elements. There are Loremasters, who can make fire from wood without burning it, or mold and work stone as if it were clay. There are the Lords, who use magic staves to channel power from the earth. Hurtloam is a mud that heals wounds, and Aliantha is a plant, of which a single berry nourishes like a full meal. The Bloodguard are a monk-like people that fight without weapons, Giants are a gentle sea-loving folk that carve stone, and the Ramen care for the Ranyhyn, the great wild horses. There is much, much more, and Donaldson reveals an incredible amount of imagination in creating this world.

Donaldson’s prose runs smoothly and effortlessly, although he will have you occasionally running for a dictionary to look up words that are obscure. Although Covenant’s self-loathing becomes a chore to read through, an aspect of Donaldson’s writing that requires much praise is his ability to make you care about what happens to The Land and it’s people. One of the glaring complaints I have with some other writers (such as Terry Brooks for instance), is that they focus on the heroes and a few supporting characters to the exclusion of all others. Such writing has me asking why I should care about whether or not all those other people are saved. I never feel that way with Donaldson’s story…from the Loremasters and Lords, to the Bloodguard, Ramen, Saltheart Foamfollower (a Giant and Covenant’s friend), and servants, all of them have a nobility and strength of spirit that makes you want Covenant to succeed and save them. These people even care about Covenant despite his negativity and self-absorption. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most readers care about what happens to The Land a lot more than they care about Covenant, and I’m sure this is Donaldson’s design. The Land is a place worth saving.

In conclusion, this is a book worth reading. The characters are well-developed, have their own voice, are easy to root for, and act consistently. Fantastic elements abound, and Donaldson describes The Land with abundant detail. There is a map of The Land in the front of the book, and a glossary in the back. The ending occurs a little abruptly, but the stage for the next story is set. It is a story that holds up to today’s environment remarkably well. If you can overlook the main character’s flaws and attitude, you are in for an excellent story. Highly recommended for readers of high fantasy who don’t mind a seriously flawed protagonist. Also, the Darrel Sweet cover art is probably some of his best work. It makes Sweet’s Wheel of Time artwork seem uninspired. There are some alternate covers available that are more mainstream but less interesting.

October 4, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Classic Review: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

Format:  paperback, first Daw printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2 hours

As I stated in my review of Nine Princes in Amber, the other major influence on my reading during my teen years was Moorcock’s Elric series. My library had the fourth and fifth books in the series: The Vanishing Tower, with a giant bug on the cover, and Bane of the Black Sword, with a cool-looking, giant lich on the cover. It was those great Michael Whelan covers that sucked me in. Both books functioned well as stand-alone stories, and both immediately captured my imagination. This was a time when I was standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, discovering Dungeons and Dragons, and playing my Intellivision game console. It was literally a time when the world felt open and unscripted to me, as if anything were possible, and my mind openly embraced the Elric novels. Not long after I read books four and five, I was able to track down the rest of the books and start from the beginning – and what a beginning it is.

Elric is the ruler of a nation called Melnibone, the Dragon Isle, in a place where we are not really sure of but is later revealed to be one of many planes of existence in the Multiverse (with Earth being one such plane). I might have been lost reading this book had I not read the latter books first, because those books included a map of Elric’s world. Elric himself is an albino, with pale white skin, red eyes, and less-than-average strength that requires drugs to sustain him and give him energy. Later plot details do not specifically state, but leave open the possibility, that Elric’s condition could possibly be the result of centuries of inbreeding – the Melnibone empire desires little contact with the outside world. There are whisperings, particularly from Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon, that his condition threatens to weaken the empire. Where emporers in the past would have executed such musings from a traitor, Elric dismisses such talk as insignificant. This is our first glimpse into what makes Elric different from his countrymen – that he is lenient and capable of forgiveness and mercy.

Another major character introduced early in the book is Cymoril, Elric’s cousin and Yyrkoon’s sister. When the book states that Elric plans to make Cymoril his emporess, you can understand where my inbreeding comment comes from. This early part of the book almost seems to be written in second person. Instead of text such as “Elric knew this and wished he could please his court as it strove to honor him”, instead you get a present tense rendition: “Elric knows this and wishes he could please his court as it strives to honor him”. It is somewhat strange to read a story written this way when you are used to first-person or third-person accounts. However, by chapter two the book reverts to a standard third-person format.

The plot revolves around pirate raiders seeking to plunder Melnibone and steal its treasures. At the same time, Yyrkoon plots against Elric because he desires the throne. When Yyrkoon’s plans are set in motion, Cymoril is put into a deep, sorcerous sleep, and Elric must go on a journey to obtain the means to wake her, and then confront Yyrkoon. It is here that Elric has his first encounter with Stormbringer, the famous soul-sucking sword, and he also meets Rackhir the Red Archer for the first time (Rackhir will appear in later books). We also start to get a feel for the vastness of the Multiverse and the creatures and powerful beings that inhabit it. The creation of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion is truly Moorcock’s gift to fantasy – multiple worlds existing on different planes, sometimes mirroring one another, and often times intersecting with results that strain the fabric of existence itself. The Eternal Champion is one of those mirror-type elements: a hero saving the world, in various aspects, across those multiple worlds. Elric is a manifestation of the Eternal Champion concept, though that fact is not fully revealed until the next book in the series.

Moorcock’s writing is not without flaws. Most of the imagery required for the story the reader needs to imagine, as Moorcock provides enough to get the job done, but could have provided more. Also, the motivations of supporting characters could have been explained in more detail. I guess what I’m really saying is that I’d really like this book to be twice its size; 160 pages goes by far too fast and then the story’s over. This is something Moorcock corrected with later Elric novels like The Dreamthief’s Daughter.

In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.

Personally, I feel that there is room for all these types of genres to co-exist, and I think reading only one type is self-limiting. I like taking a break between 1000+ page Epic Fantasy novels, and diving into a Sword & Sorcery book, which is typified by action sequences full of armed conflict and magic. It’s good to see releases like The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones bring back interest in the genre. Elric of Melnibone is highly recommended for fans of Sword and Sorcery, and also anyone looking for a brief respite from huge novels. I also encourage people to read this to see where the origins of current fantasy found its inspiration from.

September 28, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Classic Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Format:  paperback, 1995

Pages:  435

Reading time:  about 9 hours

Another review, another first-person narrative. What can I say, I’m addicted to them. In this case we have the widely-heralded beginning of the Farseer series. This began as a trilogy that expanded into a second set of 3 books. There are rumors that Hobb is working on more, which is cause for celebration. I bought this paperback used in 1996, based on the cover and title, because I really knew nothing about it. I was unprepared for the excellence I was about to discover.

Young FitzChivalry is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, the heir-in-waiting to the kingdom who meets with an untimely end. As Chivalry’s only child, he soon finds himself at the royal court, cared for by Chivalry’s retainer, Burroch. Young Fitz has the Wit, a magic that allows bonding with animals and causes great fear among people, muderous fear. The Wit comes from his mother’s bloodline, but it is feared because people believe the person loses their humanity and becomes beast-like. But Fitz also has the Skill, which he has inherited from his father, a magic of the royal bloodline, that can be used for abilities such as telepathy and even killing someone from afar.

The Farseer books are very much character-driven. Though action and surroundings sometime suffer for this, the cast of characters are very well-developed. Besides Fitz and Burroch, there’s also King Shrewd, the aptly-named ruler who at times seems a little crazy; Chade, the ghost-like mentor who secretly trains Fitz to be Shrewd’s assassin; Verity, Fitz’s soldier-like uncle who is now first in line for the throne; Regal, the other uncle who despises Fitz; Galen, the Skill teacher who hates Fitz; Patience, Chivalry’s wife who should hate Fitz but does not; and the curious Fool, the court entertainer who is very close to King Shrewd and seems to know many secrets.

The intrigue behind the story revolves around the growth of Fitz from a boy to a young man. This is not your typical “boy comes of age, and uses his power to become a hero, saving the day” type of story. This is a painful story. Extremely painful. At times it seems like an exercise in exploring how much punishment a young man can take. But Fitz is strong, and finds unexpected allies, somehow managing to survive the abuse, and even something worse. The most intriguing character, however, is Fool. Although Fool does not have a huge role in this book, his importance grows in later books, and he becomes the focus of the second trilogy. In my opinion, Fool is one of the greatest characters in fantasy created in recent years, but as I’ve said, you’ll have to read further into the series to discover this.

Hobb’s prose is easy to follow and a delight to read. Much of the book is dialog, which gives a surprising amount of depth to other characters despite the first-person narrative. She is able to make you care about some characters and hate others. This is also one of those books that as I got closer to the end, I could not put it down. Events build up to a climax that is both satisfying and unsettling. There’s a little bit of deus ex machina with Fitz’s magical abilities, as he often finds a “sudden burst of strength”, but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. That’s as much as I’ll say without revealing too many spoilers. Got to love the Michael Whelan cover, too! I highly recommend this book, and the series as well; it’s one I’d definitely like to acquire in hardcover.

September 20, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Classic Review – The Black Company by Glen Cook

Format: paperback, 1984

Pages: 319

Reading time: about 3-4 hours

Just as Zelazny’s Amber series was important to me in my younger days, Glen Cook’s Black Company series opened my eyes as an adult. Having just left the military at the time I acquired this book, The Black Company struck a chord with me on a metaphysical level that no other book could. The new wave of gritty fiction that has encompassed the industry, from Lynch and Abercrombie to Erikson, owes at least some of its origins to Cook’s best-known work, and Erikson readily admits how influential it was.

In the Black Company, we follow a story told through the eyes of the Annalist and Medic, Croaker. The name and position of this main character immediately informs you as to what kind of sarcastic wit Cook possesses…did Croaker get his name because he talks a lot? Or is it because soldiers die in spite of his efforts as a medic? Or both? It’s brilliant and hilarious at the same time.

The Black Company, as an organization, has been around a long time. One of the Free Companies of Khatovar (and also the last), it is a mercenary faction that takes jobs and sees them through. They are not always on the winning side, and their numbers have fluctuated over the years (the outfit is several centuries old), but there is an honorable aspect to the Company. Not neccesarily in deeds, mind you, but rather in commitment. Those who join the Company are expected to fall in line with this ideal – a person’s past is irrelevant, only their dedication to the Company matters.

As a veteran myself, the cast of characters and their actions ring with authenticity. Each character is fleshed out in the form of their speech and further defined by their actions. Since the story is told first-person by Croaker, this method of characterization works well, though we often wonder what some characters are thinking about since we only have Croaker’s thoughts to listen to. Cook makes you care about these people, which is dangerous – as a mercenary outfit, becoming too attached to character is heartbreaking when they don’t make it. There’s always another soldier waiting to step in, however.

The true gem of the story revolves around two characters: One-Eye and Goblin. As the two most powerful sorcerers in the Company, their role is important. As you soon find out, there is something of a competition between them. It’s a cross between trying to one up each other, and playing practical jokes on each other. The interactions between Goblin and One-Eye deliver some of the most hilarious scenes you will find in fantasy fiction. Where some authors struggle when attempting to pull off humor, Cook delivers effortlessly. He could have written stand-alone books just about the two sorcerers, much in the way Erikson writes short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and I would have been ecstatic.

In this particular story, The Black Company is serving the Syndic of the city of Beryl, until the city starts to collapse in chaos and an ancient evil is unleashed. The Company ends up finding a loophole in its contract that lets them escape the chaos, and is then approached by a strange being that wishes to hire them. Only later does the Company realize they now work for the Lady, who is feared as evil incarnate and a powerful sorceress. Marching orders are given to the Company from The Ten Who Were Taken (or the Taken for short), a group of sorcerers twisted into psychotic beings by Lady’s evil dead husband, The Dominator, and who now work for Lady. These orders involve stamping out a rebel group led by the mysterious Whisper. The rebels are fighting Lady’s forces while trying to find The White Rose, a child prophecied to defeat Lady.

I’ll not give away any more spoilers than that. Cook’s writing is quick, similar in a way to Zelazny’s, with lots of action and quick wit. Descriptions are just enough to get the job done, but at times feel inadequate to give the reader a good image of surroundings and descriptive detail – kind of like the anti-Robert Jordan. Still, if you’ve got an active imagination, you’ll have no problem following along. In addition to the One-Eye vs. Goblin competition, you get lots of banter between the Company members, something Erikson tries for in the Malazan series but falls short in comparison…that’s not a slight against Erikson…Cook is simply an absolute master at this style of writing. It’s brilliant and engaging.

In conclusion, I highly recommend The Black Company. It captures the feel of a medieval mercenary group perfectly, and makes me wish that I had thought of it. The best part is that this is the first in what eventually stretches out into 10 books. Sadly, Cook has not written a Black Company novel since 1999’s Water Sleeps. This first book, however, contains all the hooks necessary to draw you in to the series. You can also find it as part of the omnibus edition Chronicles of the Black Company (which actually contains the first three books of the series).

September 11, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | , | 4 Comments

Classic Review – Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

Format: paperback,  1972

Pages:   175

Reading Time: about 2-3 hours

No author or series that I discovered in my teens was more important in forming my love of reading and fantasy than Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. Not Tolkien, not Eddings, not Brooks, not even Moorcock (though he comes close). From the moment I picked up Sign of the Unicorn in my school library (the only book in the series that they had), I knew this was something special. I was lost after reading the first couple of chapters of Unicorn, but there was something that intrigued me, and I sought out Nine Princes in Amber in a local used bookstore.

What followed was a romp through what is considered Zelazny’s finest work. Though some of his stand-alone books were award-winners, none approach the breadth and scope of Amber. In the Amber series, Zelazny mixes action and humor, drama and mystery, and it all begins with Nine Princes.

The opening of the book displays the fast-pace, off-the-cuff writing that delves into the mystery of the story. Waking up as the victim of an accident that maybe wasn’t so accidental, Carl Corey is an amnesia patient who must piece together clues to his past and identity, and he discovers that he is being over-medicated in a private hospital. Corey is one cool character, able to deduce when things don’t feel right, and when they do. He is strong, stubborn, and heals more quickly than a person should. In fact, when the reader finds out that his broken legs have healed completely in 2 weeks, you know something strange is going on. He turns the tables on his captors, tracks down his sister, and pries information out of her to fill in the blanks in his memories. He does all this without letting her know of his condition, which would be interpreted as weakness…a weakness that he instinctively knows could be fatal.

From here the story shifts from our mundane world to the magical world of Shadow. Amber exists on its own plane, and casts mirror images of itself through other various planes, called Shadows, of which our own Earth is one. Natives of Amber (and also some nasty creatures) have the ability to walk through Shadow, similar to plane-shifting. Corwin (Corey’s real name) is a prince of Amber who decides to enlist the help of a relative or two in order to make an attempt to claim the throne from his hated brother, Eric (it seems their father Oberon has gone missing). Without giving away too many spoilers, the siege does not go as planned and Corwin sets things in motion that he never intended. In fact, you might say the overall arc of the series (which isn’t apparent in this first book) is about the consequences of Corwin’s actions, how he comes to regret those actions, and ultimately takes responsibility for them. In other words, it’s less about ruling and power, and more about how you would live your life after a near-death experience, seen through the transformation of Corwin from a jerk to something a little more noble.

Zelazny’s imagination is on full display here, as he introduces not only the concepts of Amber and Shadow, but also elements such as the ingenious Trumps (which allow characters to talk to each other, travel long distances, and even strike at each other from afar), the Pattern (a sparkly blue maze that gives Amberites their power), the pattern-formed Grayswandir (Corwin’s magical sword), and other fantastical elements.

Though the book is a quick read, thanks in no small part to a wealth of action sequences and snappy dialog, characters are pretty well fleshed out and have specific motivations that drive them. Like real royalty, many of Corwin’s siblings are either noble and dedicated to the throne, or shallow and self-serving.

I’ve often wondered what the Amber series would like like as a third-person narrative, with multiple perspectives and a meaty thickness similar to The Wheel of Time or A Game of Thrones. I think it might have been spectacular. Still, Zelazny has a flowing style that is easy to read and Corwin is a likable enough narrator: part noble, part scoundrel, and part ass-kicker, though his near-death experience has changed his personality (which wasn’t so noble before). There is a smart-ass kind of humor to his character, and ample wit, to make the story engaging. I love the little one-liners like “in the State of Denmark there was the odor of decay…” or “my heart leaped forward and banged against my sternum and asked to be let out.”

Nine Princes in Amber isn’t for everyone; in fact, my friends that I’ve introduced the series to either instantly loved it and couldn’t put it down, or quickly grew bored and returned the book to me. From my observations, you either “get” Zelazny, or you don’t, and for those of the former group, this book is entertaining as hell. Ultimately, there’s no way to tell which group you belong to unless you pick up this first volume of the five-part series and give it a go. I highly recommend it.

A note about versions: during my original search for Nine Princes in Amber during the 80’s, I settled on the black cover paperback version (pictured at the beginning of the post) instead of the hard cover version, featuring Boris art on the cover (pictured to the right). Now, normally I like Boris, but he’s all wrong for Amber. Conan is perfect for Boris, Corwin not so much. Eventually I repurchased the entire series with the Tim White covers (pictured on the left), which I still have today. I have avoided the paperback omnibus, which I detest, and keep hoping that one day this series will re-release in hard cover with great cover art…

August 29, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | Leave a comment

Revitilizing the Blog: A New Feature, “Classic” Reviews

I’ve been struggling keeping the blog going because there just isn’t enough time in my day to read right now. I’m not into talking about book covers, I’m unable to interview authors, and I’m trying to stay away from reviewing movies and video games. So what to do?

I’ve decided to entertain a new feature I call “Classic” reviews. These are not classics in the literal sense, like Treasure Island or Dracula; rather, these are classics in my collection of fantasy, books I read through high school, the military, and then as a minimum wage worker entering the workforce at the end of a recession. In each of these periods of my life, money was tight and I had a lot of reading time on my hands. I would scour used book stores for paperbacks, hoping to stumble across a treasure, trading in books I didn’t like in order to get credit. I would then use that credit and my meager funds to buy something else.

Many of those paperbacks are still in my collection. Every now and then, I replace a series with hardback, but I still have lots of these “classics” on the shelf. My plan is that once or twice a week, I’ll review a “classic” by skimming it to refresh my memory of the story. Many of these older books may not be familiar to younger audiences (or even some of you “more experienced” readers), so maybe I’ll turn a few people on to them.

Look for the first review later this week. I’ll continue to read the stuff in my queue, but now entries in the blog will no longer be dependent upon the long period it takes to finish them.

August 22, 2012 Posted by | Classic Reviews | | 2 Comments