Why I Don’t Review On Goodreads Or Amazon

There are a lot of things to like about Goodreads. It is a diverse community and there are many benefits to belonging – finding reviews and recommendations, tracking statistics on your reading, notifications of new releases, a strong author presence – among other things. But there are two gigantic reason why my reviews aren’t found on Goodreads:

  1. I dont like the review system
  2. And, the comments found in those reviews

Most of you who read my reviews know that I don’t use a scoring system. Why is that? Because a scoring system, unless extremely detailed, doesn’t offer any flexibility in assigning book scores. And even if you design in some measure of flexibility – such as a score of 1 to 100, or scoring using multiple categories – defining criteria for a scoring system is difficult to implement consistently. Books must either be compared against other books, or they must be compared against your own internal means of measure, which may be as simple as “I liked it this much”, or it must check off certain boxes to achieve a score.

In a system where the only rating options are 1 to 5 stars, there is a distinct lack of flexibility in assigning a rating. Furthermore, a rating is not an opinion; it is simply a score. There is no context within a score to give the value meaning. Let me use an example I have relied on in the past. Forsaken Kingdom has a total rating of 4.16 on Goodreads, while The Wise Man’s Fear has a total rating of 4.58. Those total scores, however, are disingenuous to my own rating, because I can only leave a score of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 in my own review. The Wise Man’s Fear has its flaws and is not a perfect book – I don’t equate it to my “cream of the crop” novels, so let’s say I gave it a 4. Forsaken Kingdom is a novel that plays it safe and doesn’t come close to attempting the depth and lyrical beauty of The Wise Man’s Fear, but isn’t terrible. So that means I should rank it lower but not too low, perhaps a 3. Now along comes The Crown Tower. I feel that it is better than Forsaken Kingdom but not as good as The Wise Man’s Fear. Yet my only scoring options are to make The Crown Tower equal in score to either Forsaken Kingdom or The Wise Man’s Fear, instead of somewhere in between.

This is the problem I have with the “star” scoring system – it allows zero flexibility when scoring books. And let’s face it, the score of a book can often influence its success or failure. Whoever set up the 5 star scoring methodology on Goodreads did the reading community a poor service. Amazon uses the same scoring system. This is primarily the reason why I won’t review on Goodreads or Amazon – I refuse to use that type of a scoring system. Yet on both sites, if I want to leave a review, I must use that system.

The other reason I won’t leave a review on Goodreads has to do with the social media aspect regarding comments on reviews. If I were to post a review, I would expect that like many social media sites where anyone and everyone can leave an opinion, the comments section would degenerate into arguments and name-calling. One need look no further than the reviews of Prince of Thorns. There are so many angry comments about rape, and also people saying things like “I can’t stand to follow a murderous character like Jorg” or “I don’t understand how a fifteen year old boy can be good at all these things.” I can see their viewpoint, and I respect it. I would never try to argue with them that what they are feeling isn’t right. That is their opinion.

Yet in the comments section, arguments and name-calling ensue. To me it seems that many of the reviews or comments missed the entire plot of the book – this boy was merely a tool used by a wizard and had little to no control over his actions. It changes the entire context of the story, yet it is as if none of these people actually read the book, or at least came away with an understanding. It’s far too easy to simply deride and shout down differing opinions, and it’s something I want no part of. At least here on WordPress I can moderate comments and ensure that type of thing doesn’t happen to me.

It’s a shame, because there are a lot of thoughtful and wonderful people on Goodreads that have interesting things to say, and aside from the scoring system, the site has some great features. Yet it is the baseness in the comments section that ruins it for me. If that was the only reason to avoid Goodreads, I could probably overcome it. But added to the scoring system, the site just isn’t a good fit for me. Perhaps one day I will reconsider, but for now I’m happy to stay exclusively right where I’m at.

Book Review: Bloodfire Quest by Terry Brooks

bloodfire questFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  339 (not including a 10.5 page preview of Witch Wraith)

Reading Time:  about 8.5 hours

 

I must say that I approached this review with some trepidation. This was the story and review that became the final nail in the coffin that kept me locked away from reading fantasy for four and a half long years. Like an eel in a flooded soap factory, reading time slipped away me for those four and a half years. Suffering burnout from a lifetime of reading fantasy (30 years) and blogging (2.5 years straight), and in desperate need of a break, it is unfair to assign any blame to this book – that is all on me. For some reason, I could not offer a review that said something different than what was already said elsewhere, which I found extremely frustrating. After all this time, I am ready to navigate this review and move on to other books and reviews. Continue reading to find out more of my thoughts, but fair warning given: spoilers of Wards of Faerie and Bloodfire Quest are present.

Here are some other reviews of Bloodfire Quest:

A Dribble of Ink

Fantasy Book Critic

M.A. Kropp

Aidan’s review at A Dribble of Ink talks about how war seems imminent (though it is not present in this book) and also about how strong the female characters are. Ryan Lawler at Fantasy Book Critic offers a bleak review – the darkness and death, as well as the recycled plots in this book, made him unhappy, turning Bloodfire Quest into an unsuitable sequel to Wards of Faerie. M. A. Kropp also talks about the book’s darkness as not being fun to read, but claims it is necessary to show that Brooks is willing to step outside his comfort zone, achieving growth after years of stagnate writing, and offers a reminder that Bloodfire Quest is only part of the story.

So how do my thoughts differ from those above? They don’t, exactly. I agree with everything said above. And yet, at the same time, I feel like that may be an oversimplification of what Bloodfire quest both offers and represents. Hopefully I can explain that contradiction.

Brooks has always been at the top of his game on “quest” stories. While the plot lines may seem recycled, and in a way they are – elves trying to save the Ellcrys, the Ard Rys confronting the Straken Lord, the Federation trying to snuff out magic – there are subtle shifts in perspective. In the Elfstones of Shannara, we didn’t understand the sacrifice required to save the Ellcrys until the end. But what if the character knew what the sacrifice was going to be ahead of time? What would that struggle be like, how much harder would it be? And now the Federation is being controlled by a witch who desires magic, particularly the elfstones, for herself. How might that change what the Federation has always represented?

The character of Grianne Ohmsford, probably the most unique and compelling character Brooks has created, along with her interaction the Straken Lord, seemed to have a disappointing story arc by the time the High Druid of Shannara ended. It was as if all the efforts and loss in the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara and the High Druid of Shannara meant nothing, and only the journey mattered. Oft times it is the journey, and not the destination, that matters, but when the destination undermines the journey, it leaves one less than satisfied. However, Aidan’s review of the final book, Witch Wraith, gives me great hope that The Dark Legacy of Shannara series will conclude Grianne’s story satisfactorily. Here is what Aidan said that gives me that hope:

It’s better to consider the ‘trilogy’ to be the story told across all nine of the books, beginning with Ilse Witch and ending with Witch Wraith. Let’s call this the Ilse Witch Trilogy, for lack of an official name…Just by existing, Witch Wraith and The Dark Legacy of Shannara change the nature of the first two volumes of The Ilse Witch trilogy and take them from being footnotes in Brooks’ career to a cornerstone.”

Aidan offers the most intriguing take on the 9 book arc that I have seen anywhere. The main difference between a book like The Elfstones of Shannara, and the books of the “Ilse Witch trilogy” as Aidan calls it, is that that each series should have only been one book, consisting of all three books in that series. Brooks has become a rich man by spreading each story into three separate books, but that has also lead to much criticism at the fluff and filler it takes to accomplish this. Compiled as 1 volume, with the filler cut out, there is no doubt that Antrax, Morgawr, and Ilse Witch as one book, called the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, would have been epic, and the same goes for the High Druid of Shannara trilogy. You can indeed buy all 3 books of each series in one volume now, although since they are not re-edited, the fluff makes them longer than they should be.

So what did I think about Bloodfire Quest? I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is full of action, airships flying all over the place, battles and combat (including ship to ship combat) and lots of dead characters. The stakes are high (and grave) as the end of the Shannara stories draws near. I particularly enjoyed the Bloodfire quest portion as Arling struggles to accept the sacrifice she must make, and I also liked the happenings in the Forbidding and the return of the Straken Lord, and the forthcoming quest to see what has become of Grianne. It was a faster read than Wards of Faerie and at times I didn’t want to put it down. This time Todd Lockwood’s art, and the map, have been moved to the front of the book, which I appreciated. And the the last ten and half pages offer a preview of Witch Wraith, the sequel to Bloodfire Quest and the third and final book in the series.

Criticisms are numerous…the main criticism I had was of Edinja the Federation witch – her power seems limitless and its source is not explained to my satisfaction, so when she creates a few animal-like creatures out of men, why doesn’t she create more? What is stopping her? And why does she have so much information, yet remains clueless about the Ellcrys dying, the Forbidding failing, and the Straken Lord coming, which might make her think twice about killing off those who could defend against this? It feels once more like a forced plot device. Many questions from the first book remain unanswered. The heroes continue to only react to events around them…rarely do they ever drive the action. And once again we see only the heroes, with no “regular” people, except at the very last few pages of the book, where a couple of “regular” people appear, only to be depicted as greedy and self-serving, and not worth saving.

Despite the shortcomings, I really didn’t let them influence my enjoyment of the story. Action-packed, fast-moving, and heroic, Bloodfire Quest is much better than Wards of Faerie, in my opinion, and one of the best Brooks novels in quite some time. Since I have no plans to read the subsequent Defenders of Shannara and Fall of Shannara series, the final book in this series, Witch Wraith, is very likely the last Shannara book I will ever read. And with Aidan’s words (that I have quoted above) in mind, I’m very much looking forward to, well, “The End.”

Book Review: Slither by Joseph Delaney

slitherFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  371

Reading Time:  a quick 4-5 hours

Slither is the eleventh book in the Last Apprentice series. Like book 9, Grimalkin, the story takes a detour away from Tom Ward, the Spook’s Apprentice, and on to a whole new character: Slither. A few other new characters are introduced, a horde of gruesome beasts parade through the pages, and a familiar character makes an appearance. I was fully prepared for a negative view of this book based on some early reviews I caught on Amazon. Is that my consensus? Read on to find out…

The setting for this story is a land far to the north of the County. It is a cold, harsh land, divided into farming communities as well as the lands of the Kobalos, a hairy, savage, blood-drinking humanoid race with tails. The Kobalos have a large city called Valkarky, where most of them live, but some of them are Haizda mages – outsiders who study magic and rule over their haizdas, a territory often containing humans. Slither is one such Haizda mage; he commands magic, is able to change his size, his breath has magical properties, and his tail warns him of danger. He makes his home inside a tree (through magical means) and his haizda consists of several farms, most of which are terrified of him. There is one farmer that trades with him, however. One day when the farmer has an accident and lays dying, he strikes a deal with Slither – if the creature will deliver his daughters to their aunt and uncle some distance away, Slither may keep the oldest daughter, Nessa, for his own. As Slither agrees and sets off with the girls, the viewpoint switches between Slither and Nessa.

Nessa has some great qualities, consisting of bravery, sacrifice, and empathy. Her story is a sad one, however, since she is destined to be a slave. Kobalos must sell a human at auction every so many years, or he will be hunted down and killed, and Nessa will fulfill this obligation for Slither. The younger sisters are more of an annoyance, however, as they constantly whine and cry about their situation, and aren’t really well developed. In fact, there isn’t really any character development here at all, other than Slither’s and Nessa’s.

The seemingly innocent journey quickly take a turn for the worse when a snowstorm hits and Slither is forced to keep his charges alive by seeking refuge in the manor of another Kobalos mage. When the mage turns out to be treacherous, Slither is forced to kill several opponents, including a mage-assassin who has the ability to send his dying memories instantly to the assassin’s order back in Valkarky. The assassin’s order vows revenge for the loss of one of their own. What follows is a steady stream of opposition that Slither is forced to overcome to keep his side of the bargain with the farmer.

The story has some pretty imaginative elements, from mage assassins and a two thousand year old knight that can’t be defeated, to a grotesque pit creature called the Haggenbrood and centaur-like creature called a hyb. Slither gets deeper and deeper into to trouble, and the main reason for this is surprising: Slither is an honorable creature who keeps to his word. He feels a great obligation to stick to the deal he made with the farmer, often to his own discomfort or risk of life. It’s a good story, and though it is not really frightening, the fantastic elements and change of characters and scenery are enjoyable, unlike the trip to Greece in Clash of the Demons (the sixth book in the series). Delaney goes all out to unleash his imagination with strange creatures and the even stranger culture of the Kobalos. One problem I did have with the story was that it did not seem that Slither was consistent with his people’s culture…where he is lenient and honorable, most of his people, including their rulers, are cruel and treacherous. Now maybe Slither’s years away from his people have changed him, but even when he is consistently betrayed by them, he stubbornly sticks to complying with their cultural norms and customs, putting himself at a disadvantage. This is only a minor annoyance, however. The appearance of Grimalkin, still carrying the fiend’s head and looking for something specific, was a pleasant surprise, and her character is fleshed out even more with qualities I would not have expected of her.

So despite the negative reviews I had observed, I actually enjoyed reading Slither. I know some people won’t appreciate the deviation from the main story line, but to me it’s not a stalling tactic or a money grab – it’s a good enough story, and looks like it’s important to explain what’s happening with Grimalkin. It will be interesting to see whether some of the characters specific to this book  will make an appearance again sometime in the future. The book is a quick read, with a large font and smaller page size (consistent with the rest of the series), and copious amounts of action. The book also contains a lengthy poem at the end and a Kobalos glossary. Recommended for fans of the series that don’t mind a change of scenery (and characters) once in a while.

Book Review: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

libromancerFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  305

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

I read a few reviews of Libriomancer when it was first released. Some people loved it. Others thought it was okay but flawed. I didn’t really know what to believe, but Little Red Reviewer’s take was probably the one that convinced me I should take a chance. Still, it took over 6 months for this book to find its way into my queue and then into my hands. Usually the sign of a good book for me is the inability to put it down. Every once in a while, though, I come across a book that strikes a chord in my inner psyche. There’s only a few authors who have had this effect on me (Roger Zelazny, Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, and Patrick Rothfuss come to mind).

For me, Libriomancer is one of those books.

Other reviewers don’t seem to have had the same experience. I’m not even sure I can completely explain my fascination with the story…but I’ll give it a shot. It starts with style and pacing. Hines lays out fast-paced, first person narrative that very much reminds me of Zelazny’s The Last Defender of Camelot or his Amber series. Add some sleuthing like The Dresden Files, a magic system that at times resembles Inkheart, and maybe a little craziness, sexism, and magic from Xanth, and you’ve got one heck of a story. It is in some ways a coming of age trope, as the main character, Isaac Vainio,  is a young man who has been restricted from practicing magic in the field. Although he understands the magic and its rules, what he must learn is how to bend those rules, without getting killed or going insane in the process. What I found most compelling about Isaac, however, was his innate understanding of how magic works; at the same time, he lacks the inhibition, or common sense, to know when to stop pushing himself, right up to the edge of death or madness. In other words, he’s a big-time risk-taker.

Isaac has been exiled to a small public library, where his job is to catalog book titles for the Porters’ database. The Porters are a secret organization of wizards who try to squash harmful magic from being unleashed on the unsuspecting populace, like the agents of Warehouse 13 or Harry Dresden, or even Supernatural. They keep vampires, werewolves and other creatures in line, cover up magical happenings, and nab people who show a talent for magic. Isaac’s talent is libriomancy; through the collective belief of a book’s readers, objects and people in the books become real, and a libriomancer can reach in and pull objects out of books, making them real in our world. There are a couple of problems with this, though. One is that you could pull out some incredibly power objects that allow you to dominate the world, such as The One Ring from Lord of the Rings or the Elder Wand from Harry Potter. To prevent this, all copies of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,  and other problematic books have been magically “locked”, meaning a libriomancer can’t access their pages. A second problem is that reaching into a book carries risks…for instance, while reaching into a book about vampires, your arm could get bitten by a vampire, which would then turn you into one. Finally, by reaching into a book, you immerse yourself in the story, and the more you draw on the magic in the books, the less able you are to separate the books from reality (remember, the people and objects within the books have their own reality). In a nutshell, the rules that govern libriomancy are there for a reason, and because Isaac once broke those rules while in the field, he can’t be a field agent again.

The trouble starts when some vampires come looking for Isaac. They want some answers, and when Isaac is not forthcoming, they decide to use force. Fortunately for Isaac, he’s got a couple of friends: Smudge, the fire spider who senses danger, and Lena, a dryad who shows up in the nick of time to help. This sets Isaac on a quest for answers of his own, and he follows clues that eventually lead him to face down more vampires, robots, and a mysterious adversary who may or may not be the missing Johannes Guttenberg, the father of the printing press who is over 600 years old, and the head of the Porter organization.

The story is smart, funny, and full of plenty of action. I enjoyed the characters, and watching the plot as it unfolded.  What I didn’t expect to find were ethical questions posed by the story. I had an idea about Isaac’s dilemma regarding Lena (see Little Red’s review). However, the lengths at which the Porters (and Guttenberg) go to protect society and themselves seems at times a bit heavy-handed. Also, Guttenberg uses magic (like the Holy Grail) to keep himself young, but forbids others from using that magic, in what appears to be a totalitarian system. What the story suggests, however, is how would you handle it differently? It’s one thing to be critical; it’s quite another to be able to offer solutions, especially once you know the motivation and reason behind those decisions.

In conclusion, the story was over all too soon. It was the most enjoyable read I’ve had in some time, and I’m looking forward to the next book with high expectations. The ending wrapped up a little strangely, and at times the book conveys some nagging inconsistencies, but they didn’t hinder my enjoyment at all. Highly recommended to anyone who loves books, or what lies within them…

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

The-Alloy-of-Law-by-brandon-sanderson-colourFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2011

Pages:  325

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

The Alloy of Law is not quite a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, although it does take place several years after those events, in the same world. Some of the characters in Mistborn are referenced, but none of them are around for this book – except, perhaps, a few (sorry, no spoilers here!). Much of the innovative magic system has been retained, with some new wrinkles. There are other elements from the previous books still floating around too – like the Mists, Koloss, and canals.  Sanderson has hinted that there may be sequels to this book, but that’s not a sure thing. On to the review…

It’s been 300 years since the events of the first trilogy took place. Not content to leave his world mired in medieval times, Sanderson has moved technology forward to an industrialized setting, featuring rifles and revolvers, skyscrapers, trains, and electricity. In between some of the chapters you will find artwork simulating the pages of a newspaper; I found myself looking forward to these inserts and read them with great interest. It gives the story a very Sherlock Holmes/Jules Verne/Victorian/(almost) Steampunk feel, which is awesome. Many other authors have medieval-type cultures that make no technological process for thousands of years, so it’s great to see Sanderson do something different. Add to the fact that magic is still around, and you can get a feel for the chaos of how bullets can be made to fly around, people leaping off trains, etc. Into this setting comes Waxillium Landrian, a twin born who possesses both Allomancy (the burning of metals) and Feruchemy (storing up abilities to use later). Wax can push on metals with his Allomancy, as well as make himself heavier or lighter with Ferochemy. This is the closest you can get to being a Mistborn in the current age, as more abilities have been discovered but powers have been somewhat diluted. Wax was born a noble in the city of Elandel, but spent time in the Roughs, which is a sort of desert wilderness similar to America’s Old West. In the Roughs he was a lawman who tracked down criminals, but eventually he is called back to the city to run his family’s estate when his uncle dies.

Accompanying Wax is Wayne, a former criminal turned deputy who worked with Wax in the Roughs. Wayne is a master of disguise and accents, and is also a twin born, who can create speed bubbles with his Allomancy and store health with his Feruchemy. The speed bubble allows Wayne to speed up time inside the bubble, giving him time to plan his maneuvers and move faster than his surroundings. We are also introduced to a myriad of other characters including Steris (the potential fiance of Wax), Marasi (cousin to Steris who becomes a major character), Tarson (an evil, part-Koloss thug), and Miles (another lawman from the Roughs). There are several other minor characters but they are not really fleshed out and remain for the most in the background.

The dynamic between Wax and Wayne feels very much like the Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic of recent movies and TV. The pace is brisk and the action at times is fast and furious, reminiscent of scenes in the previous trilogy…except now add bullets, moving trains, and dynamite. This lends an exciting air to the book, and the main characters are fairly well developed, but it seems to be over far too quickly – this is not an epic on the scale of previous Mistborn novels. I’m okay with that, though, because it means that there isn’t too much unnecessary filler. Both Wax and Wayne are likable enough – Wax has a nobility and ethos similar to Eland, while Wayne is somewhat of a scoundrel – he’d fit right in on Kelsier’s crew. Marasi is more than just a third wheel – her insightful thinnking, knowledge of law and university studies, and ability to fire a rifle go a long way towards helping solve the case.  Humor is abundant – sometimes it feels a little forced, but most of the time it’s appropriate, and though I never did laugh out loud, it had me chuckling a few times.

Wax and Wayne are pitted against Miles, who is robbing trains and kidnapping women. Miles has the ability to regenerate, making him near-immortal, and is somewhat reminiscent of an Inquisitor. But there is another figure behind the crimes, a benefactor known only as Mr. Suit. I have to say that the revealing of Mr. Suit’s identity at the end of the book was not a surprise, as the clues left by Sanderson are fairly obvious. Another element that is fairly obvious is Marasi’s Allomancy – not only is it not a surprise when revealed, but the fact that we are told it is useless several times just screams that it is not. I have to say I didn’t see its use coming, and when it was used, I just shook my head at how sly (and clever) Sanderson can be.

Overall I have a very favorable impression of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. When compared against George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, which is similar in setting, I greatly preferred The Alloy of Law. The ending is not a cliffhanger, but there are some loose ends deliberately left untied to set up a sequel, and a visit from a surprise character at the end has me wondering if the generally light-hearted tone of The Alloy of Law might give way to a more serious change if a sequel is written. Although reading the original series would help a new reader understand Allomancy and Feruchemy better, I think they could probably figure out what’s going on, especially with the help of the indexes in the back of the book. Highly recommended to fans of the Mistborn series, borderline steampunk/westerns, and Sherlock Holmes/sleuth action novels.

Book Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

memoryoflightFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  909

Reading Time:  A long, long time…maybe 17 hours?

I must admit that I’ve wrestled with the approach to take on this review. The most effective review would be to look at the book as it stands, alone from the rest of the series, as well as it’s place in the series as a whole, due to the fact that it’s the conclusion. However, I freely admit it’s been 23 years since I read The Eye of the World. And here’s another neat fact about me – my long term memory is terrible. I really couldn’t tell you what happened in that first book, it’s been so long. I have a vague idea, mind you, but the details pretty much escape me. No, my time is better spent approaching this book as the final part of the trilogy that Sanderson has written.

Furthermore, I’m not a Wheel of Time superfan. I’ve never been to Dragonmount.com, I don’t debate and argue plot points, or speculate on what should have happened between the pages and what would have happened in the future. For some reviewers, the Wheel of Time is an important part of their life. I was simply a 23 year old guy who picked up and read The Eye of the World in 1990, liked it enough to continue buying the sequels, got more and more frustrated with the characters and the lagging pace and plot in each successive book, gave up on the series completely, figured it was toast when Jordan died, but renewed my interest when Sanderson took over. Now the series can have closure, and for me, I feel like that should suffice. Though the book has serious flaws, it also has its share of both shining and tragic moments, and I’ve walked away with a feeling that…well, let’s not say I’m completely thrilled, but instead, I’m satisfied enough that the 23 year journey was a memorable one. I’ve touched on both what I liked and didn’t like about the book in bullet format below. Minor spoilers to follow…

What I liked:

  •  As other bloggers have mentioned, Sanderson does a wonderful job of taking a cardboard character like Talmanes and breathing some real life into him during the opening battle for Camelyn. interestingly enough, Talmanes doesn’t show up for the Last Battle.
  • The bonding between Androl and Pevara is well done and one of the best parts of the story. It explains how a member of the Red Ajah could go from wanting to gentle a man with channeling to wanting to marry him. That’s no easy feat. Especially for a woman a couple of hundred years older than Androl.
  • The subtlety of Compulsion on the great captains was lost on me at first. I couldn’t understand why the shadow wouldn’t just kill the generals off. But it’s really a brilliant plot point. The idea is that by the time the armies discover their tactics have been compromised, it’s too late to recover. Were the Shadow to just kill the generals, some other commander would take their place. It also clears the way for Mat to step in and use those memories he’s been given.
  • Rand has a moving scene with his father, learning to duel with one hand, while they repair the rift that had grown between them. Both realize that this is probably the last they will see of each other.
  • The confrontation between Egwene and Fortuona is great, especially where Egwene dares Fortuona to put on the a’dam.
  • Where The Gathering Storm focused on Rand and Towers of Midnight put a heavy emphasis on Perrin, in A Memory of Light Mat steps up front and center to lead. And more of Mat is a good thing.

What I didn’t like:

  • Moraine’s importance seemed overstated. From my perspective, any Aes Sedai would have satisfied the “two women” requirement that Rand desired, including Egwene, Cadsuane, or Aviendha. And indeed it is Egwene that has the biggest impact when Rand is in trouble.
  • In addition, the Last Battle seems pointless. Why did the Shadow send a million Trollocks to attack the lands when it is Rand that determines the outcome of humanity and the pattern itself? Why not bend all its resources to stopping him and killing him?
  • The scene between Rand and Fortuona, after so much build-up, was bland and disappointing.
  • Many of the individual showdowns – Perrin vs. Slayer, Matt vs. Fain, even Rand vs. The Dark One – seemed underwhelming. The showdowns between Lan and Demandred, and Egwene and M’Hael, were better.
  • Elayne as the leader/coordinator of the entire army was ludicrous.
  • The use of the Mask of Mirrors. This is the single biggest flaw in the series, and its use is far more glaring than gateways. When anyone can pretend to be anyone at any time, why don’t they? Forsaken should have pretended to be generals, or Aes Sedai. Egwene could have pretended to be Forsaken or a Darkfriend and got close to Demandred and killed him. There’s just so many ridiculously possible storyline abuses of such a power…it was so effective that Demandred couldn’t see through Androl’s and Pevara’s disguise…that both its use and non-use is staggering. Just a horrible plot point, very deus ex machina.

Other random thoughts:

  • Many lamented Gawyn as a useless character; however, he was necessary to get Egwene into the right frame of mind to challenge M’Hael, and much more.
  • You can bet that Artur Hawkwind spoke to Fortuona about a great many things – including the abolishing of the a’dam.
  • It was good to read about the battle for the Black Tower, but it was somewhat underwhelming. However, the comment about “making the Asha’man into their own men” instead of being Rand’s weapons was accurate. At first I thought, “no, they just worship Logain instead. But when the time came for the Tower men to choose between Logain and doing what was right, they turned their backs on Logain. Impressive.

Final thoughts:

There were moments of intense grief. After finishing page 795, I had to stop reading as the tears just kept rolling down my face. A character who I had grown to love as my favorite was gone. This occurred again on page 904, when one character paid tribute to another that had fallen. I expected more big showdowns, awesome displays of one-on-one badass moments, and was disappointed that this was not the case. Overall it was an exhausting read…too many battles and tactics going on for page after page…the grief I just mentioned…the sheer number of pages to wade through. And the Epilogue is very, very short. It has been noted by those other than myself that it would not have hurt the book, and far enhanced it, to have about 150 pages less of battles and 150 more of Epilogue. After all, this is The End, and there will never be another Wheel of Time book. At one point in the series I would have shrugged, but now…it seems like a shame. A big thank you to Brandon Sanderson to get us to this point.

Thus it was that the Dragon rode once more upon the winds of time, and as I rode beside him, I observed and marveled at the immensity of his purpose, and wept as the Dragon fulfilled his destiny, but it was not the end. There are no endings to the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending…

Book Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

towers midnightFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 843

Reading Time: about 15 hours

Okay, you know the drill…I’ve been reading the Wheel of Time series since 1990 blah blah blah…the end is nearly here blah blah blah, and so on. It’s really a series that is long past needing an introduction. Towers of Midnight is the 13th book in the series, and at a hefty 843 pages, is packed full of amazing stuff. So read on, but be warned that minor spoilers will follow.

The title of the book at first glance seems to literally reference the thirteen fortresses in Seanchan that, during the Consolidation, when Artur Hawkwing’s descendants seized power, was the center of Seanchan might. However, the Seanchan barely factor into this story. I thought it might refer to the two towers that have been hinted at but largely ignored to this point: the Tower of Ghenjei, where the Aelfinn and Eelfin reside, and the Black Tower, where the Asha’man are living and training. And certainly those do become the focus of the last 10 percent of the book. But what about the other 700+ pages? They are a buildup to the Last Battle, which is now suddenly, frighteningly close. Returning to the reference of the Seanchan fortress, Artur Hawkwind’s armies were able to conquer Seanchan, despite the presence of the fortress, due to the divided nature of the Seanchan lands, where factions were pitted against one another; such divisions weakened the Seanchan and made them ripe for the conquering. With that in mind, the time has come for Rand al’Thor to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison. Will he be able to unite the various factions into a single purpose, to break the seals and fight the Last Battle? Or, will the differences and divided factions turn against him, and much like the Seanchan fell before the armies of Artur Hawkwing, allow their division to be the means in which the Dark One defeats them? Though the question hangs in the air as the book ends, as of yet unanswered, it is the events throughout this book that bring us to this point.

The pacing of the story, for the most part, is fast and furious…there’s so much happening that if you let your mind wander, or skip a few pages, you’d be likely to miss something important. I often found myself reading ahead in anticipation, and had to go back and re-read the section I jumped, chiding myself for a lack of discipline. The change of pace in the series is so different – so incredibly quick now – it seems like the glacial pace of entries like Winter’s Heart and Crossroads of Twilight are but vague memories, the side plots and characters in those stories completely irrelevant to what has needed to happen. Towers of Midnight does possess a few slow moments, like Perrin’s attempt to master the wolf dream or Elayne’s political maneuverings, but these are small sections of the book. As armies march and travel through gateways, disparate events suddenly begin to tie together, plot threads are resolved, and the pieces are in place for the conclusion. There’s no telling how long it would have taken Jordan to get from Crossroads of Twilight to the Last Battle, had his health not suffered, but it would have been far more than four books.

The characters readers have grown to love – Rand, Mat, Egwene, Perrin, Thom – at times in the series were nowhere to be found; now they dominate the pages. Other supporting characters that once had pages and pages of focus, such as Aviendha, Min, and Cadsuane, are now reduced to bit roles. The whole reversal effect, of main characters returning to the forefront while supporting characters step into the background, is a good thing – heck, it’s a great thing. Where A Gathering Storm returned the focus to Rand, with Egwene’s situation as the other major plotline, Towers of Midnight focuses mainly on Perrin, with a generous helping of Mat sprinkled in. With Perrin being the focus, his storyline is finally fully resolved in a satisfying way. Though Mat’s loose ends are tied up as well, he suffers the cost greatly, and someone close to him is not who they seem to be. Even characters I once despised – such as Elayne, and the Whitecloaks – I grudgingly followed in this book without skimming, and it proved to be a good decision. Mat has a brilliant exchange with Elayne, and the Whitecloaks show that they aren’t all religious nutcases. There were still moments when I was peeved about Elayne’s arrogance as Queen, which is in stark contrast to how Rand attempts to lead people, but those moments are blessedly few in this book. This time around, Sanderson has a firm grip on Mat’s voice, and he even manages to make Aes Sedai feel different, which is no small feat.

I was fortunate to start reading this book at just the right time, during my company’s Christmas shutdown. It allowed me to sit and relax in solitude as I consumed my reading in large chunks, and it allowed me to be immersed and entranced by the story. I think reading it in smaller chunks, only a few chapters at a time, would be more difficult; the story requires – no, demands – your full attention. There are many plot threads occurring: Perrin’s attempt to destroy Slayer and face the Whitecloaks; Egwene attempting to flush out Mesaana in the White Tower; Mat and Thom attempting to rescue Moraine; Rand trying to convince the Borderlanders he is the Dragon Reborn; Lan reluctantly mustering an army for a suicide run; Nynaeve taking the test to be Aes Sedai and trying to recover Lan’s Warder bond; Elayne attempting to take the throne of Carhein; Gawyn trying to find his place in Engewe’s new world; trouble at the Black Tower…and that’s just a brief summary!

There are so many questions still to be answered: why is rescuing Moraine so important? What will happen when Rand breaks the seals? Who will aid him and who will oppose him? How will Min’s visions translate into actually events? What happened to Logain, and what’s going on at the Black Tower? What will the Dark One do now that so many Forsaken have fallen? What are the Seanchan going to do during the Last Battle? I can’t wait for the last book!

If there’s one failing of the story, it’s Aviendha’s visions of the future in Rhuidean. Though they are essential to her character’s plotline, I feel the authors gave away too much of the future and robbed the story of some of its tension, and I would have been happier not knowing. However, assuming Aviendha attempts to change the future, maybe things will shake out differently. But that’s my only real criticism.

Towers of Midnight is a brilliant read, the best book I’ve read in a long time. Plenty of action, tension, resolved plot lines, and the return of prominent characters as the focus make this the best book in the series by far. Here’s to hoping A Memory of Light, which should be holding in my hands in less than a week, lives up to expectations that have now set the bar very, very high…

Book Review: The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones

BonesFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 302

Reading Time: about 5 hours

This has been an excellent holiday season – I don’t normally get much time to read, but I’ve managed to polish off The Bones of the Old Ones. I was so impressed by Jones’s The Desert of Souls (of which you can find a review here), that I had been hoping for a sequel, and was disappointed to discover that the collection of Asim and Dabir stories titled The Waters of Eternity was only available on Kindle. At last, The Bones of the Old Ones has been released, and I immediately acquired it. My review follows, with minor spoilers ahead…

Asim the warrior and Dabir the scholar are enjoying the comforts earned from their previous services to the son of the vizier, Jaffar. Told once again in first person, not through the eyes of Asim as it happens, but rather as a story being written some years later, the adventure begins immediately. Asim and Dabir are no longer members of Jafar’s household; they now have their own house in the city of Mosul. When a beautiful woman escapes her kidnappers and is found by one of Asim’s servants, Asim and Dabir pledge their assistance to help her return home. However, matters get complicated when the kidnappers try to take her back by force. It seems that the kidnappers are ancient and powerful wizards called Sebitti, and their arrival sets off a series of confrontations that reveal the kidnapped woman, Najya, is cursed. To break the curse, Asim, Dabir, and Najya must venture out to find the bones of the old ones, ancient weapons that are thought to be able to break the curse. Things, however, are not always as they seem, and as the curse gets stronger, the entire world is threatened. It is up to Asim and Dabir to join forces with one of their old enemies and try to keep the world from falling to an an ancient, alien evil.

In my review of the first book, I was impressed by the way Jones grew Asim’s character. That growth continues here, with Asim’s heart, courage, and determination becoming more defined as his most prominent characteristics, but he is also supported by his wits and wisdom. Like Hamil the poet in The Desert of Souls, who won over Asim’s dislike and mistrust, Asim is able to win over an old enemy, who comes to realize that Asim is not just a thug with a sword, but is much more than he first seems. Dabir again does not seem to change much – he seems like a tragic character – however, he possesses traits similar to Asim’s, and seems to show a resilience in the face of tragedy. Other supporting characters are well done, with the Sebitti portrayed not as simply good or evil; rather, they have their own specific motivations that are self-serving, although at times their shifting motives are hard to comprehend. The female characters are more fleshed out and show more depth than the first book; Najya is integral to the plot and is a strong character, but I would argue that the Greek necromancer Lydia is one of the best characters in the story – she also is transformed by events, and has more depth than first appearances suggest. She is a very strong character, and the tension and presence she brings is a welcome addition to the tale.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace. There are copious amounts of action and no pages are wasted filler, as the plot advances rapidly and more mysteries unfold as the story moves to its conclusion. It also helps that Jones doesn’t have to spend time on introducing us to Asim and Dabir, since that’s already been done in The Desert of Souls. The scope of the plot is far more epic than the first book, with the fate of the world at stake. There were some twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, with lots of shifting allegiances, and Jones does a good job of veiling who lives and who dies until they meet their ends. I can say that the ending was not surprising, given the fact that it could of gone one of two ways – happy or tragic – but it’s the tension of not knowing which of the two ways the story will go that keeps it compelling, as either ending would be fitting. Fantastical elements abound, from magic weapons and spells to flying carpets, rocs, and ghostly ice spirits. Humor is much the same as it is in the first book, delivered as witty barbs.

Like The Desert of Souls, The Bones of the Old Ones is an easy, enjoyable read thanks to the smooth, flowing prose of Jones. Although 8th century Arabia is still the setting, the culture is not quite as prominent as the previous story, due to the fact that much of the action takes place in barren countrysides and ruins. Jones has still done his homework, however, tying his story to some ancient legends and touching on the conflicts between Arabs, Greeks, and Khazars. Some of these thoughts can be found in the afterword, which provides a bit of insight into Jones’s thought process and his recommended references, and where Jones also reveals Howard Lamb and Fritz Leiber to be inspirations. According to Jones, however, it is Zelazny’s Amber series that he perhaps admires most, and maybe that is why I’m so drawn to Jones’s work, because that is the series that I admire most as well, as I mentioned in my classic review of Nine Princes in Amber earlier this year (I also purchased The Road to Amber a few months ago just to read the Amber-related short stories).

In conclusion, the sequel is everything I hoped it would be: more epic in scope, with a great deal of  action and adventure, while at the same time improving the depth of supporting characters, all wrapped in the guise of a mystery…swords and sorcery doesn’t get any better than this. Jones is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I for one hope he continues to find success and gives us more stories in this setting. Highly recommended to all – I believe there’s something here for everyone.

Book Review: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

gathering stormFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2009

Pages: 766

Reading Time: about 13 hours

The Gathering Storm is the 12th book in the Wheel of Time series. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been with the Wheel of Time since The Eye of the World was released in paperback in 1990. The series has been both a delight and a struggle, and the payoff is finally here. There are a few minor spoilers ahead, so read with caution….

I would like to take a moment and offer the utmost praise to a man that has recently become my favorite fantasy author – Brandon Sanderson. What he has done here – advancing the story to it’s conclusion with nothing more than Jordan’s notes – is simply amazing. It’s hard enough to write your own stories; I can only imagine how much harder it is to write someone else’s story, in their voice. A standing ovation for Mr. Sanderson.

I’d also like to sidebar for a moment on the concept of the book itself. Initially fans were upset that the final book was to be split into two and then three books. They felt that they were being milked out of yet more money just to see the series to its conclusion. If you think about it, however, that’s really an asinine attitude. There’s absolutely no way this could have been wrapped up in one book – it wouldn’t have felt right. Conceptually, it’s already a struggle to relate this book to the previous few books that were glacial in pace, filled with padding and unnecessary detail, with viewpoints from a multitude of characters. To finish the story, it’s necessary to abandon that writing style, level of detail, side plots, and character viewpoints. With so many events that need to take place, main plots to explore, and main characters that need to be where they are, The Gathering Storm already feels much different from the previous few books. It would be worse with only one volume – it would be so jarring that it would never feel right. Splitting the last novel into three is the right move.

And speaking of right moves, the story is as good as any of the Wheel of Time books, maybe even better. Matt and Perrin are maneuvering their armies for the last battle, while Rand struggles with his inner demons, and Egwene tries to fix the broken White Tower. The pacing of the book is excellent; it’s been a long time since I was reluctant to walk away from a Wheel of Time book, but that definitely was the case here. I found the battle for the White Tower to be incredibly compelling and thrilling, as well as the final chapters when Rand seems to lose control and threatens to wipe out the Pattern (and all of humanity in the process). Both plot threads are resolved in a satisfying manner. I’m guessing that Towers of Midnight will feature both The Tower of Genjii, where Moraine is being held, and the Black Tower, which was notably absent in this book.

The characterizations are pretty much spot on, with Rand, Egwene, and most Aes Sedai captured perfectly. While Sanderson had a difficult time with Mat’s character, he did manage to capture Mat’s voice in a few places, and I wasn’t bothered by it as much as some other reviewers were.

While I don’t normally pay attention to cover art, Darrell Sweet’s cover is uninspired and just plain awful. I would have liked to see some Michael Whelan cover art (like the one done for A Memory of Light).

In conclusion, this is really an outstanding and thrilling book that is setting up a finale that has been over 20 years in the making. I’ll be moving on to Towers of Midnight with great relish, content in the knowledge that the conclusion of one of the greatest epics ever told is in good hands. Highly recommended for Wheel of Time fans; readers who want to get into the series should not start here – go to the beginning!

Book Review: The Skrayling Tree by Michael Moorcock

9780446613408Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2003

Pages: 330

Reading Time: about 6 hours

This review is going to be brief, because, quite frankly, this book is borderline awful.

The story is told from 3 main viewpoints of characters that were present in the previous book (The Dreamthief’s Daughter): Ulric Von Bek, Elric, and Elric’s daughter Oona (Ulric’s wife). The plot revolves around a threat to the Skrayling Tree, an ancient oak whose branches represent the multiverse. The setting is ancient America, particularly the Rocky Mountains, and involves time-traveling, as well as many Native American aspects, of which the Tree of Creation is one. Like similar stories that Moorcock has written before, multiple aspects of The Eternal Champion (Ulric and Elric) and the Black Sword (Stormbringer/Ravenbrand/Mournblade), must come together to defeat a threat to the existence of everything humanity holds dear.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of Moorcock’s writing, and I love Elric as much as anybody. But the attempt to shoehorn Elric into a Native American setting is ludicrous. This immediately on the heels of Elric battling Nazis feels like Moorcock has jumped the shark. Of all the millions of worlds in the multiverse, Elric visits Earth multiple times? Really? I applaud the attempt at something different, but other than the setting, there really isn’t anything new here. During many parts of the story I had the feeling that I’ve read this all before, just in a different setting. Compounding the problem is a distinct lack of action. There’s lots of philosophy and debate, pondering existence and forces of the universe, and lots more traveling, but not much really happens until the last 50 pages or so of the book, when events finally begin to happen rapidly. I also noticed some pacing issues in places that I’ve not seen in Moorcock’s writing the past. In addition I found the story fairly predictable – Moorcock does little to disguise that Gunner the Doomed is really Gaynor the Damned…I mean, you can tell by the name for crying out loud…

I will say that Moorcock’s descriptions of the setting are still top notch – he paints amazing imagery with an economical use of words, which I always find incredible. Also of interest is an explanation as to the origin of the Black Sword – it provided some background that didn’t previously exist.

But I’m hard-pressed to even recommend this to hard-core Moorcock or Elric fans. While I found some aspects of the story interesting, I became bored with the philosophical meandering and the deja-vu feeling that I’ve read this before. I’ll eventual read The White Wolf’s Son, but only because I’ve already purchased it.

Book Review: Lure of the Dead by Joseph Delaney

the-last-apprentice-lure-of-the-dead-book-10Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 418

Reading Time: about 4 hours

After a book that deviated from the norm by following the actions of the witch assassin Grimalkin, the story now returns to the viewpoint of Thomas Ward, Spook’s apprentice. Is Delaney able to maintain the momentum he has built up in the last couple of books? Read on to find out, but beware of minor spoilers…

While Alice and Grimalkin had their own adventure in the last story, we now follow the actions of Tom and the Spook. Tom is now about 16 years old and has been apprenticed for 4 years. While the Spook’s house is being built (it was destroyed several books ago), he receives an offer from a woman across the county. This woman is in possession of a large number of books, and offers to sell some to the Spook in order to rebuild his library. This message is delivered by another former apprentice named Judd Brinscall, a character that has not been previously introduced. (Note: I found it surprising that another former apprentice still existed, and wondered if there were more.) Tom and the Spook set off for the sleepy village of Todmorden to meet with the woman and see which books they might acquire. The villagers are unfriendly and keep to themselves, warning Tom and the Spook to stay away from the foreigners on the other side of the river.  Tom and the Spook meet with Mistress Fresque and examine the books. After Tom leaves to hire a cart to haul the books, the situation quickly deteriorates as the Spook goes missing and Tom must face down Romanian witches, strigoi (Romanian vampires/demons), and moroi (a spirit that possesses animals). Tom’s greatest challenge, however, is to prevent Siscoi, an old vampire god, from taking mortal form and terrorizing the countryside. At the same time, Tom learns more about his mother’s mysterious past and her plans for Tom and his abilities.

There are a lot of similarities between this book and previous books. Tom must make multiple attempts to defeat the strigoi, and fortunately does not get captured over and over as in some previous books; instead, he is forced to retreat and try different tactics. Although this has been a staple of the series and gets tiring at times, it also has consistently defined Tom’s spirit and willpower. Although Tom frequently meets with failure, his determination, persistence, and willpower carry him through. Grimalkin and Alice feature prominently in the last half of the story, and Alice is using dark magic more and more. A subplot involves Alice’s turn towards the dark, as well as the preparations for the ritual that will be required to destroy the Fiend. It’s also a transitional book, as we are given many hints that the Spook will be out of the picture and Tom will become his replacement.

Due to the smallish book size (it’s smaller than a normal hard cover) and large font, the reading time is shorter than books with a comparable number of pages. Another aspect that shortens the required reading time is that the pace of the story is quick, with lots of action being the most prominent feature, as it has been in previous books. Once again you won’t find a lot of character depth, but at the same time the story never bogs down in the details. There were a few instances where I thought I had discovered plot holes (such as why some strigoi offered Tom protection instead of killing him), but it is the main plot arc – the Fiend attempting to return to his body and rule the world – that explains these moments. Knowing events and explanations in previous books are key to understanding and answering these types of questions.

There are a few parts of the book that I feel are are extremely well-done. One of these parts occurs after the Spook disappears and Tom is once again on his own. Similar to events in Wrath of the Bloodeye, when Bill Arkwright disappears and Tom is alone, this creates a tense and compelling sequence. As Tom descends into the basement of a house, he enters what amounts to a nest of vampires, and it is the best part of the story – it had me on the edge of my seat:

“Then I heard a noise, and a cold gust of wind blew the candle out again. I waited, hardly breathing, and put the stub in my breeches pocket. Then I gripped my sword with both hands and went into a crouch, ready to defend myself. The blade began to glow once more, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw red points of light moving toward me. There were a dozen or more. I heard a low growl to my right, another directly ahead. I began to tremble, and the ruby light from the sword quickly faded. There were eyes – too many eyes! How many of the creatures were there?”

Another well-done part is when Tom tries to track down the boggart and enlist its help once more, in order to guard the Spook’s new house:

“Again there came the scritch-scratch of invisible claws on the wood. When I read what it had written, I was filled with dismay: my price is higher this time. you must give me more.

In conclusion I found the first half of the book to be tense and compelling, while the second half was action-packed but not quite as tense due to the arrival of Tom’s allies. It’s another solid entry in the series, and I’m looking forward to the next book, as it looks like Tom will be increasingly on his own – which makes for a great story. Recommended for those who have followed the series, enjoy well-written and action-packed YA, and a mix of horror and fantasy. Although the book could stand on its own, the characters and main plot arc (destroying the Fiend) could cause confusion…instead, for readers new to the series, I recommend starting with the first book, Revenge of the Witch (called The Spook’s Apprentice in the UK) instead.

Book Review: The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

emperor_of_nihon-jaFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2010

Pages: 435

Reading Time: about 8 hours

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the 10th and final book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. I was slightly disappointed in the previous book, so I had debated about whether to spring for the final installment. Though it has numerous problems, The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is another solid entry in the series, and while Flanagan plays it safe, he also manages to entertain in this concluding volume. Minor spoilers to follow.

The previous entry, Halt’s Peril, wrapped up a two story arc, so this book takes on a completely new storyline. Horace, hero of Arulan, journeys to the land of Nihon-Ja to study different fighting techniques, and forms a strong bond with the emperor of the country, Shigeru. Unfortunately, in Shigeru’s attempts to enable and inspire the lower-class peasants of his country, he alienates some of the upper class Senshi warriors, including a clan leader that wants to seize power. Horace gets caught up in the ensuing civil war, and finds himself and Shigeru on the run, where they take shelter with the peasants.

Meanwhile, Halt, Will, and Alice are on a similar mission in Toscana, where they are observing formational fighting styles while negotiating a treaty. When Princess Cassandra, also known as Lady Evalyn, brings news of Horace’s plight, the group sets forth to rescue him. From there the story turns into sailing, marching, and battle tactics, with a side quest featuring Alyss and Evalyn, all leading to a final battle between the Emperor’s supporters and those of the would-be-usurper, Arisaka.

In many ways the story is very polished, and reminds me very much of the eighth book, The Kings of Clonmel. The difference this time is in the details. Flanagan shows well-researched knowledge about innovative sailing techniques, weapon creation, and battle formations and tactics. It’s all carefully explained, and although it is in simple terms, it appears logical to me (as a non-expert). Flanagan’s setting of land based on feudal Japan has the potential to be different and exciting, a departure from the typical medieval Europe setting, and in some ways Flanagan succeeds. His exploration of the difference between the lower peasant class and the upper Samurai-type class rings with authenticity. Also, the status of the Emperor and how he rules these classes seems feasible. In addition, the setting receives careful attention to detail, as Flanagan takes time to describe the food, clothing, bathing, speech patterns, and fighting styles of this land. The descriptions are brief and lack detail; however, the focus of the series has never been so much on detail as it has on action and logical reasoning, so in this respect Flanagan remains consistent. Unlike the previous story, it never seems like this tale spins its wheels going nowhere – there is always some kind of engaging action transpiring.

As in previous stories, there seems to be a lot of bickering among characters, and the forced humor that has been a staple of the series continues here. There are also many, many flaws, and while I’ll not pick the book apart completely, there are some aspects of the story that defy belief. First, if you’re going to set your story in feudal Japan, with Japanese customs, culture, and even Japanese words, why not just call it Japan?! Also, some of the main characters sail halfway around the world to reach Horace, and do it faster than Arisaka’s men who are in the same country! Then there’s the fact that Alyss and Evalyn are bickering over Will through almost the whole book, when that storyline was resolved 4 books ago. Communication should be a problem in a foreign country, but everyone pretty much speaks Arulan’s common tongue. Evalyn, the crown princess and heir to the throne of Arulan, is allowed to sail across the world to rescue her boyfriend, without any escort except for Skandian sailors…these inconsistencies (and more) plague the story and it loses much credibility. The careful attention to detail that Flanagan uses to describe the culture and fighting scenes is sadly lacking in the plot itself…in the past, when Flanagan sets up his plot, he takes painstaking detail to show the logic behind his story. That feature is lacking here. Also, the ending wraps up abruptly and is a curious way to end a series, especially one that has spanned 10 books.

Despite the story’s numerous flaws, it’s still an enjoyable read, but it’s so predictable that some readers will be put off. I’m not completely sad that the series is ending, as I think this series has run its course and it’s clear that Flanagan wanted to move on to other projects. Though problematic and unspectacular, this is nevertheless another solid entry. Recommended for those who enjoy YA series, have read the previous books, enjoy a feudal Japan setting, and can accept predictability while being willing to overlook plot issues.

Book Review: Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

7121713Format: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages: 366 (not including a 5 page preview of Bloodfire Quest)

Reading Time: about 7 hours

Wards of Faerie is the first book in The Dark Legacy of Shannara series. After the debacle of The Legends of Shannara series, I vowed that unless things changed, I was done with Shannara. Inspired by Aidan’s review over at A Dribble of Ink, I decided to give Wards of Faerie a shot. The good news is that Wards of Faerie is an entertaining story, with a few minor flaws. Minor spoilers to follow.

First, let me say I was puzzled not to find a map at the front of the book, a staple of nearly all Shannara books. I was having trouble remembering where places were located and had to refer to a map in another book. About halfway through the book, I turned to the back to view the nice double-page color insert painted by Todd Lockwood, which reminded me of earlier days when Hildebrandt paintings where found in The Sword of Shannara. Only when I had unfolded the artwork did I observe the full color map on the backside of the insert. Oh well…

The story has thankfully moved back to the “current timeline”, set after the events of The High Druid of Shannara series. From that previous story, only one familiar face remains: Khyber Elessedil, the young girl in the previous entry who is now Ard Rhys of the Druids. Thanks to the Druid Sleep, she has outlived all of her contemporaries from the last series. However, while she is one of the main characters of the story, the focus this time around is on two related descendants of the Elessedil family tree, Aphenglow and Arlingfant. Aphenglow is also a Druid, but because Druids aren’t trusted by anyone, she is an outcast to her people. Her recovery of a diary detailing the missing elfstones (not the blue or black ones, but others) sets the story in motion. For a good synopsis of the story, check out this post by SFRevu.

Brooks is a polarizing figure in literature, and a study in contrasts. Either you love the consistency and familiarity of Elessedils, Ohmsfords, Leahs, the Ellcrys, the Forbidding, demons, magic quests, talismans, and Druids; or, you find it repetitious. Either you find Brooks’s prose accessible and fast-paced; or, you find it simplistic and shallow. I can understand both sides, but maybe the strangest aspect is I can see both sides at the same time, while I’m reading. There were times when I would find his phrasing clumsy, find plot devices forced, and the story predictable and all-too-familiar; yet I would also admit to being engaged in the story, and grateful for not being bogged down in the details, allowing for a past-paced read. This is Brooks’s gift and also his curse, which will keep long-time readers satisfied, but drive away potential new readers.

I was very intrigued about the plot centering around a mystery and a quest for adventure. However, by the end of the book we are back in save-the-world mode. This once again leads to one of my long-standing criticisms of Brooks’s work: what makes the world worth saving? We know that the heroes are good people, but what about the people of the land? They remain nameless, faceless, and utterly obscure. Those that we do get glimpses of in Arborlon, the Federation, and Varfleet, seem petty and self-serving. Brooks must rely on the strength of rooting for his heroes to carry the story; fortunately, he has proven adept in this over the years, and this story is no different. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing new in this story. Everything from the politicians of the Federation, the Elven Council, the attack on Paranor, the quest for magic, the Ellcrys, the Wishsong, and the heroes themselves – it’s all been done before. Brooks’s stories have shined when he has introduced new elements – The Word and The Void, Shadowen, the Isle Witch, the Wishsong and the Ildatch – these new ideas breathed life into those stories and felt fresh. There’s none of that here so far.

There are also many questions raised that are unanswered, and some plot devices feel forced. Brooks even asks some of those questions himself in the story. How does someone immediately know that Aphenglow has found something important? Why do they try to kill her? We can only hope that the next two books provide answers to these questions – otherwise it leaves gaping plot holes that you can drive a truck through. At one point in the story, Bombax is kidnapped. How did Stoon know that Bombax would travel to Varfleet, and then be able to react so quickly, when there is no way communication could travel to Stoon that fast? Since this plot thread only exists to explain how Paranor could fall from within, it feels wrong. The romance between Aphenglow and Bombax also feels unbelievable. While this first book is a setup book meant to develop the characters – and for the most part does a decent job – not enough time is spent on minor characters like Bombax to understand why Aphenglow is attracted to him, at times in an almost fanatical way (yet their separation is largely met with mild acceptance by Aphenglow). In fact, when it comes to character development, the entire Druid Council feels woefully underdeveloped. I do applaud the fact that an aged Khyber Elessedil is the character in charge, instead of simply being a mentor or villain, which Brooks is wont to do with his older characters. We do still have young protagonists in Aphenglow, Arlingfant, and the Ohmsford twins, which are essential to the Shannara formula.

The ending is a cliffhanger – just when it feels like the story is picking up steam, it’s over all too quickly. Due to the fact that much of the book was spent setting up the story and developing the main characters, I would expect the sequels to be of a faster pace and focused more on the plot, which will likely consist of two separate quests. At the end of the book is a 5 page preview of Bloodfire Quest, book 2 in the series. The good news is that releases are planned in six month intervals instead of a year, which means by summer of next year this series will be resolved. It makes me wonder if this series (or at least Wards of Faerie) wasn’t already near completion when he decided to write and release The Legends of Shannara instead.

Although it seems I’m rather critical of the book, I was still entertained, and didn’t want to put it down, and it is far superior to The Legends of Shannara. While enjoyment requires acceptance of repetition, unanswered questions, and forced plot devices, it’s rather easy to set all of that aside and just get lost in the story. If you’re a Brooks fan – and by that I mean you’ve enjoyed later entries such as The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara or The High Druid of Shannara series – I think you’ll enjoy this. If you stopped reading Brooks long ago and want to jump back in, I’d recommend The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series first. If you are a new reader looking for a place to start, I would start at The Sword of Shannara and work your way forward to this point. I would only recommend the prequels (The Word and the Void, The Legends of Shannara) to hardcore fans.

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne-of-the-Crescent-Moon-CoverFormat:  Hard Cover, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  288

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

For a quick recap of the plot, see Neth Space’s review here. Neth does a really good job in summarizing the plot, something I don’t feel the need to do here. Instead, I’ll focus on the positive and negative impressions resulting from my reading experience.

One thing I admire about this book is the choice to center the story around an older man, Adoulla. It certainly is refreshing to pick up a book and not read another coming of age story. This continues with Ahmed’s choice to provide two supporting characters that are also older. For me, this was the highlight of the book, and what gives it the most depth. These people have seen much and fought much. They are tired, poor, ready to retire, and questioning whether their accomplishments, their life, has made a difference. Because, you see, that’s what life is about, isn’t it? What kind of impact or contribution have you made to society? Have you made a difference? Did you make the right choices? What is your legacy? Will you be remembered (in a positive way) when you are gone? It’s the reason some authors write books, maybe even why some of us blog: to exert an influence on the world, to make a difference, to leave a legacy. Ahmed is to be commended for such an approach. Yes, there are a couple of young characters, but in reality 3 of the 5 main characters are older and express these sentiments.

Another positive is the culture and setting. Much like Howard Andrew Jones and The Desert of Souls, Ahmed’s environment and the city of Dhamsawaat are fully realized and believable. The culture Ahmed has created, from religious connotations, economics, class status, and leisure are extremely well done. It truly feels like we have been immersed in a real place, where every socio-economic aspect rings with authenticity. I enjoyed the fact that the story did not take place in a “medieval Europe” setting. Ahmed is very descriptive of the environment, and earns high marks from me for it.

As for the villains, Ahmed has done a great job on the ghuls (in their various aspects) and the manjackal is also well done. However, the main villain, the man behind all of the problems, is really nothing special. Other than the ability to create ghuls, his power is nothing more than illusion. I found this to be a little underwhelming, especially at the finale.

Unfortunately for me, I had some glaring issues with this book. My main problem is the writing style. Despite claims on the cover of the book that describe it as well-written, I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with Ahmed’s descriptive abilities; rather, I found the book to have a poor, choppy flow, at times even clumsy, causing the story to suffer severely from uneven pacing. This is especially noticeable when we get glimpses into what the characters are thinking and feeling. In addition, the author over-relies on the use of exclamation marks…they’re everywhere. I don’t think you can go two pages without finding one, and at times I think I counted nine or ten of them on a page. That probably doesn’t bother most people, but it became extremely annoying to me.

Finally, the love interest between Raseed and Zamia feels unnatural and forced, as if it were tacked on. Other than a physical attraction and an admiration for their combat skills, I could not see what drew them to love each other, even consider marriage…Ahmed did not do a good enough job in justifying their feelings for each other.

As I stated in my review of Tin Swift, I was reading that book at work, while I read Throne of the Crescent Moon at home. Though I started Throne of the Crescent Moon first, and it is shorter in length, I finished Tin Swift first because I was so much more entertained by it, the pages just flew by and I couldn’t put it down. Whenever I was reading Throne of the Crescent Moon, I kept thinking “I’d rather be reading Tin Swift.” I’m not making a direct comparison between the books; rather, it’s more of an indictment on the struggles I had to get through to finish Throne of the Crescent Moon…this was a book that I could and did put down. Sometimes, I would only read a page or two before closing it, and that really shouldn’t be the case, because I love Swords-and-Sorcery.

In conclusion, the story wasn’t terrible – in fact, it has many positive aspects. I just didn’t enjoy it as much as other readers did. Because of this, I will neither recommend nor discourage others from reading it. However, at this time I’m leaning towards avoiding the sequel.

Book Review: Tin Swift by Devon Monk

Tin SwiftFormat: Oversized Paperback, First Edition, 2012

Pages:  369

Reading Time: about 6 hours

After reading and reviewing the first book in The Age of Steam series, Dead Iron, I had enjoyed it enough to spring for the sequel, Tin Swift (check out the review of Dead Iron here). Was it a good decision? Read more to find out (caution: minor spoilers ahead)…

Our story picks up some way past where Dead Iron ended. Cedar Hunt and his brother Wil, along with the Madder brothers, Mae Lindson, and Rose Small, have left Oregon and are headed east in a covered wagon. They have two goals: to find the pieces of the mysterious weapon “The Holder”, and to return Mae to the witch coven before their summoning spell causes her to lose her mind. Both Cedar and Wil still bear their curse, with Wil trapped as a wolf except under a new moon, and Cedar is still a werewolf under a full moon. Things get off to a bad start right away when Cedar kills a man without even realizing it. It seems the beast within can sometimes take over his mind, even without Cedar changing into wolf form. The situation goes from bad to worse when the group stumbles into a trap set by the Strange, and Rose is injured by a piece of the holder. Separated from the Madders, with Rose’s wound getting worse and Mae’s sanity slipping, Cedar finds it increasingly difficult to keep them alive. And a whole new cast of characters are introduced, that both help and hinder the situation.

Mae’s magic seems to be growing stronger and is more prominently featured, but the story really takes a big leap forward into a more steampunk feel with addition of airships. Made of various metals and used to harvest the mysterious substance known as Glim from the sky, the ships are similar to dirigibles  but are steam-powered. There are a few ship-to-ship battles that are described quite well. The title of the story is derived from one such ship made out of tin, called the Swift. The Swift is piloted by Captain Hink, a pirate-like scoundrel who is more than he seems, with a significant backstory that is essential to the plot. His crew is not explored with as much depth, although one crew member is related to Gregor, the blacksmith in the first book. Most of the story is told from Cedar’s point of view, and we also have Captain Hink’s view, as well as his adversary, General Alabaster Saint.

Though it is still a character-driven story, much of the development of characters was covered in the first book. This allows Monk to move the story along at a brisk pace. The action sequences are plentiful, and suspense abounds throughout the story. I still have a problem with a couple action scenes where so much is happening, it’s hard to form a clearly detailed picture. Also, after Cedar’s initial blackout where the beast takes over his mind, it never happens again in the story, making it a highly suspect plot device. And some characters still seem to be impossible to kill, removing some of the tension. I was also able to predict some of the plot threads a little more than I was able to in the first book.

These problems are, however, insignificant to the enjoyment of the story, as Tin Swift is an excellent book – in fact, it’s one of the best I’ve read this year. Monk’s prose is still wonderful to read, the plot makes sense, and the pacing is far better than Dead Iron. The good guys are easy to like and the villains are easy to root against. This is one of those books that I hated to have to put down, which is pretty rare for me lately. I was reading this book at work, and Throne of the Crescent Moon at home, and while it’s not fair to compare the two, since they are different genres and styles, Tin Swift was the book I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. I’ll be eagerly anticipating the release of the next book in the series. Highly recommended to fans of steampunk, westerns, werewolves, and serial fantasy.

Classic Review: Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

Pawn of ProphecyFormat:  paperback, First Edition, 1982

Pages:  262

Reading Time:  6 hours

Pawn of Prophecy is the first book in the Belgariad, a series of five books that tells the story of a young boy named Garion.  It opens with a sort of “history of the gods and the world”, in which the basis for the story will be set.  From this we move to a narrative centered around Garion, a farm boy who lives with his Aunt Pol, and who is shadowed by a mysterious figure on horseback. When the eccentric Mr. Wolf shows up with some startling news, the quest to recover a stolen object begins. The story reveals that every one is not who they seem, including Garion, who is struggling to find his place in the world when he is uprooted from his home. Much has been written about this book…you can find reviews of the plot in many different places. I won’t re-hash the plot or provide spoilers here, but instead just give you some impressions of my re-read, and how it feels to revisit this book more than 20 years after I first read it.

This first book is, in my opinion, the worst of the series. For pages and pages, nothing really interesting happens. We are introduced to the characters and their personalities, and see some of the countryside as they travel, but significant events are few and far between. Only towards the end of the book does the pace and action pick up.  A person who had never read this book before could be excused for thinking that this book is full of tropes and stereotypes, a “coming-of-age” tale, the sort I would later come to detest. If, however, you consider its release in 1982, around the same time as Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist, you must consider that these stories were the basis for creating the tropes, not followers of such. Had the Belgariad and Magician books not been so popular, and thus not so emulated, they would stand alone on their own merits as quaint and enjoyable romps.

Eddings does some things well in this opening book. His characters, while at times one-dimensional, are likable and consistent. They communicate well, and the dialog is crisp and snappy. His world breathes with different cultures, each with their own political motivations, rituals, and beliefs. Too many authors these days set their stories in one culture, with people who either believe in the culture or are at odds with it. Eddings tries to populate his world with multiple cultures and should be commended for the attempt. My favorite character here is Silk. Witty, whiny, sarcastic, an actor and a thief, Silk is a great character, kind of a precursor to The Fool in Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice.

Now, as an adult, I freely admit that when I approached the book, I fully expected the charm and esteem I once held it for it might have rubbed off a little. There were so many coming-of-age stories released in the 80s and 90s that I grew sick of them and vowed not to read them anymore. However, with the current trend towards darker fiction, I found my way back to such stories through series like Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice, Delaney’s Spook’s Apprentice, and Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series. What I have discovered is that between massive tomes of epic stories or dark volumes that are now popular, there is a place in my reading for light-hearted stories that are a nice diversion and quickly consumed. When I go back and read Pawn of Prophecy in this context, that it where the story shines. For despite its flaws, it has far more depth and consistency than many of the coming-of-age stories of today. I wonder if reading the series as an omnibus – as one complete story – might actually be better than individual novels.

So did the re-read work for me? From a nostalgic viewpoint, it did, but others won’t have that same experience. If you enjoy YA books, and can struggle through the first book, you will be rewarded with a series that gets a little better in each book. If you can’t get into YA, coming-of-age stories, or a slow plot that exists only to explore the lands and cultures of the author’s imagined world, you’ll want to avoid this. For me, it is a revisiting of my youth, a nostalgic reminder that once upon a time, I was not so critical a reader…

Book Review: The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

Format:  Trade Paperback, affinity bridgeFirst Edition, 2009

Pages: 334

Reading time:  about 6 hours

As a lover of all things steampunk, I should have found my way to this book sooner. However, the queue has rarely allowed such a diversion. After acquiring The Affinity Bridge from Powell’s Books recently, I managed to work it into the queue. And having now read it, my impressions are detailed below.

The main protagonist of the book is Sir Maurice Newberry, a consultant to Scotland Yard, but whose real employer is Queen Victoria. Newberry investigates matters of concern to the Crown, and these credentials lend considerable weight to his inquiries. Newberry is clearly modeled after Sherlock Holmes, right down to the addiction to Maudlin. He is thoughtful, well-spoken, and dedicated. Unlike Holmes, however, Newberry occasionally rushes into action and takes matters into his own hands, including some all-out brawls.

Newberry is assisted by newly hired Veronica Hobbes, who plays Watson to Newberry’s Holmes. Hobbes is smart, dependable, and has some grit herself, though she is equally at ease in a ballroom gown. Mann paints some sexual tension between the two into the story, but they are both far too dedicated and respectful to take their feelings out into the open. The other main supporting character is Charles Bainbridge, head of Scotland Yard and old friend of Newberry. Bainbridge appears quite frequently throughout the story and is presented with similar traits to Newberry, although Bainbridge is older and a little more rough, colored by years of police work.

Mann presents turn-of-the-century London as a city in contrast, setting scenes in museums and opulent houses, as well as slums and factories. The influence of steampunk is subtle, and rather inconsistent. Brass automata pilot dirigibles, and steam-powered taxis are abundant. There’s even a cool weapon that unfolds from an nondescript item, powered by some kind of electrical force, as well as doctors with machines that perform surgery and are filled with wonderous liquids. But that seems to be as far as the steampunk influence goes…it is more subtly applied, rather than dominating society.

The plot concerns an airship crash which may or may not have been an accident. As Newberry and Hobbes investigate, Bainbridge has also requested Newberry to help tracking down a phantom-like, glowing policeman who has been on a murder spree. Then there’s the matter of a plague sweeping London that appears to turn people into zombies. As Newberry gets further into the investigation, he meets the owner of the airship company, the inventor of the automata, examines murder victims, but gets no closer to solving the case. That’s until he is set to meet with an art gallery owner who turns up dead.

This early part of the story can be summed up in one word: boring. It’s not that Mann’s prose is bad; in fact it’s rather elegant. And it not that the story suffered from not having a plot; obviously there were several situations happening at once that required investigation. It’s not even that the characters aren’t interesting; I really liked Newberry, Hobbes, and Bainbridge. It’s just that, well, nothing happens! Newberry and Hobbes investigate the crash scene, they talk to people, they formulate hypotheses, but nothing of real significance happens. My initial interest in the story became a struggle as page after page turns with more of the same. It became a real chore to stick with it, but I manage to persevere through 200 pages of this. The pages do fly by thanks to narrow margins and large fonts.

Almost right at the 200 page mark, the story abruptly shifts and becomes a non-stop action adventure, with Newberry leaping from one conflict to another. Although the story moves furiously through these conflicts, and is a welcome change to the drudgery of the first part, it does require a suspension of disbelief. As Newberry caroms from one battle to the next, he takes wound after wound, bruise after bruise, is stitched up, and then takes more punishment. So much, in fact, that at one point I had to throw my hands up in the air and shake my head. There is Deus Ex Machina taking place here, with Newberry able to withstand wounds no mortal could survive, let alone succumb to shock or loss of consciousness. When Newberry does succumb, he has already saved the day. And he is conveniently immune to the plague sweeping London, one of the few known to have such an immunity. It really is a bit too much.

The worst part is yet to come, however. From the early pages, only a few characters are introduced as potential suspects, and this really doesn’t change through the story. This takes away much of the intrigue, because we already know who the villan is…there aren’t any other possibilities. This reduces the plot to waiting to see how Newberry and Hobbes get the bad guy. As a result, there aren’t any twists or turns I didn’t see coming…the story was very predictable, with all plot threads neatly wrapped up at the end, save one: what caused the plague, why does it turn people into living zombies, and how will it be cured?

Despite the issues I’ve described above, it isn’t a bad story. Mann has an excellent prose and descriptive imagery that captures turn-of-the-century London wonderfully. I was never left wondering what characters were thinking, what their motivations were, and the plot was easy to follow. I would give it a reluctant recommendation for those who like steampunk or Sherlock Holmes novels; there’s a lot to like here, but the flaws hold it back. From what I’ve presented above, you should have enough information to determine whether or not it’s worth giving it a go.

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

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

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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.

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

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

DragonsofAutumnTwilight_1984originalFormat:  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 book does have some charm and is fast-paced. At times it feels a little dated, but 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.

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

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

LordFoulFormat:  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.