Monthly Archives: August 2011

Blown Away by the Winds of Khalakovo

The Winds of Khalakovo
Bradley P. Beaulieu
Nightshade Books

If there is any justice in this world whatsoever, this book will be short-listed on next year’s Hugo ballot.

This one has it all:  flying ships, magic, mystery, dark secrets, buckets of intrigue (both familial and political), honor, revenge, sea serpents, selfless sacrifice, a wedding dance that’s just short of combat, assassinations, ship eating squids, and after a fashion, unrequited love. Lifelong friends will become bitter enemies; bitter enemies will become staunch allies.  And for all involved, everything will change.

So what’s the book really about, you say?  I’m glad you asked that.

Here’s the situation and the principle players:

Dark times have fallen on the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya.  The blight is moving through the Duchy, resulting in fewer catches, blighted crops, a disease called the wasting, and death.  The duchies are scattered on archipelagos.  Sea travel is rather dangerous due to the aforementioned sea serpents and squid.  Travel of any distance is conducted by air.

And that’s where the magic system comes in.  There are five types of spirits which can be controlled:  earth, fire, air, water, and the spirit of life.  This is done through different stones.  Controlling spirits of air is essentially how the ships fly, although it’s a little more complicated than that.  Also, the women of the duchies, some of them at least, can travel through a type of astral projection.  They are losing this ability because of the blight.

There are two main cultures in conflict here.  First the Landed, clearly patterned after Imperial Russia.  The others are the Arahman, essentially gypsies, who are somewhat oppressed by the Landed.  A subgroup of the Arahman are the Maharraht, who feel they’re really oppressed by the Landed and have taken up arms against them.  Essentially, they’re terrorists.

The key players in this drama are Prince Nikandr, the youngest son of the Duke and Duchess of Khalakovo.  He’s betrothed to be wed to Princess Atiana, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Vostroma.  There are two problems with this.  First, he and Atiana have known each from childhood, when she and her sisters played tricks on him and their brother.  His memories do not reassure him when he thinks of his future.  Second, he’s in love with an Arahman woman named Rehada.  The course of true love never did run smooth.

Atiana isn’t any more thrilled with the marriage than Nikandr is.  It’s a marriage of political convenience, to seal an agreement between the duchies of Khalakovo and Vostroma.  Yet Atiana wants more than the marriages she sees her mother and sisters having.  She wants to stand with Nikandr, and it doesn’t take long before she begins to genuinely love him.  The course of true love, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Then there’s Rehada, who is secretly Maharraht.  Her mission is to get close to the Landed, particularly Prince Nikandr, and gain information that will be useful in the coming uprising.  Only she never planned on falling in love with Nikandr.  The course of true love…you know the rest.

Add to this mix Ashan, an Aramahn who is one of the rare masters of all magical disciplines and a young boy named Nasim who is much more than he seems, along with the leader of the Maharraht and father of Rehada’s deceased daughter, Soroush, and you have an explosive mix.

And explode it does.  Literally in places.  The book moves at a breakneck pace, even when Beaulieu is setting up things to come.  He made a dance at one of the wedding events seem suspenseful, which is a real trick since that type of thing tends to be what I skip over.  The characters are multi-layered and deep.  They change and grow, not always for the better, but no one is the same person at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.  I’m speaking of those who survive, of course.  Not everyone will, which makes the suspense more real.

Lest you think I’m in the employ of Mr. Beaulieu, there are a few places where the first novel aspect of this book shows.  Only one was of major consequence.  Early in the story, after Nikandr and Atiana have danced, they go for a moonlit ride away from the castle, where he tells her he has the wasting.  Offended that he had kept such an important thing secret, she returns to the castle in a huff.  He tethers his horse to a tree (he’s on foot at this point), walks a short distance away, and then dismounts.  Without ever getting back on his horse.  A minor thing, but it threw me completely out of the story.  Fortunately, what happened next pulled me right back in.  Read it for yourself cause I’m not gonna tell ya.

If I had to pick a theme for the novel, I’d say it’s the damage that pride causes.  There’s a scene where Nikandr, Ashan, and Nasim are exploring a city on an island that was destroyed centuries before.  When Kikandr asks Ashan what caused the destruction, he replies:  “Hubris”.  That’s the driving force in almost all the conflict right there.  Most of the dukes and their offspring have hubris to spare.  In buckets.

And not just the men.  The women are just as guilty.  This society is somewhat matriarchal in that only the women can do the astral projection thing.  They can communicate with each other and see what’s happening great distances away.  They don’t always have the same goals as the men, and even when they do, their methods are often quite different.  Only Nikandr’s sister-in-law Yvanna shows any sign of being a weeping wallflower, and even that’s only partial.  All the rest of the women are tough, smart, strong, and not to be trifled with.

This was a fantastic book.  I’ve been fortunate so far in that most of the books I’ve selected to review here have been good.  There have been a few that I’ve not really liked, but over all, the past year I’ve been blogging has been one of the best for reading I’ve had in a long time.  The Winds of Khalakovo has been one of the top two or three.  Read it for yourself and you’ll understand what I mean.

A Look Back: Black Gate 3

This is the first of an occasional series, in which I’ll look back at an issue of a magazine from some years ago.  I’m not sure how far back these looks will extend.  I’d like to restrict myself to things that most of you can find without too much difficulty or expense.  For that reason, I don’t know if I’ll include pulps.  What I won’t focus on in this series is anything that is currently available for free online.  While Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly are venues I enjoy and will from time to time take a look at, they won’t be part of this series.

I decided to start this series with Black Gate 3, Winter 2002 because I like this publication.  It’s published some great fiction over the years by people who have gone on to have successful careers.  I can’t think of a single issue that hasn’t been a winner.  By the third issue, BG was beginning to hit its stride and had developed a clear editorial style.

Let’s take a look at what this issue holds.

First of all, there isn’t as much fiction as in recent issues, because at this time BG was on a more frequent publication schedule.  It was only after the magazine went to annual issues that the page count increased.  BG 3 clocks in at 224 pages, with approximately 150 pages of fiction and accompanying illustrations, the rest being devoted reviews and articles, the ToC, an ad for subscriptions, and an editorial.  There are eleven stories, and ten of the worked for me.  That’s a pretty good ratio.

The lead piece of fiction is “Iron Joan” by ElizaBeth Gilligan.  This is a story about a woman whose inner strength is more than a match for several men who attempt to treat her badly.   In the process she wins the respect of the town where she’s come to live.

Elaine Cunningham tells of the first meeting of Oberon and Lancelot in “The Knight of the Lake” and shows that you’re never to old to learn something new.  The Faery Court and Camelot have been somewhat overdone through the years, but this is a fresh and entertaining take on some familiar characters.

Veteran author Mike Resnick provides an entertaining glimpse into the life of John Justin Mallory, hero of Stalking the Unicorn with “The Chinese Sandman”.  In this one, Mallory has to retrieve an artifact from his old nemesis, the Grundy, in order to meet the Sandman’s price for returning a dream to his partner.
Harry James Connolly, who has since gone on to publish several novels as Harry Connolly (link to the first shown), returns from the second issue with another story set in the city of Pald.  “Another Man’s Burden” is a heartbreaking tale of what happens when we try to realize our dreams by any means possible.

In “A Taste of Summer”, Ellen Klages (Portable Childhoods) tells the story of a young girl and a very special ice cream shop.  This one was highly reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Green Town stories, and it took me back to the summers of my childhood, depsite the fact they weren’t much like the one in the story.  Of all the stories in the issue, this one moved me the most.
Darrell Schweitzer’s “A Dark Miracle” is set in colonial America and concerns the dark events of one winter night, a night that will haunt a man for the rest of his days.
“Tav-Ru’s Troth” reveals the depths some are willing to sink to in order to achieve love.  Unfortunately, love gained under those circumstances rarely lasts.  A dark and disturbing tale, and one of the better ones in the issue.
Jon Hansen spends “Three Nights in Big Rock City” to provide the second humorous detective story.  He also reveals a clever way to cheat at the craps table, although I don’t recommend trying it.  The results can be quite devastating if you’re found out.
The issue ventures into science fiction, with Todd McAulty’s “The Haunting of Cold Harbor”, about a serious (and rather grim) mystery set in a fantasy virtual reality game.  It’s one of the longer stories in this issue.  I also want to play the game.  The world here seems like a lot of fun.
The other long piece is the classic reprint, “Ringard and Dendra” from Brian McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones. I’d picked up TToB at a book sale a few years ago but never got around to reading it.  I will now.  This was a horrifying little gem of a story within a story.  The fact that at least one of the endings is predictable only adds to the mounting sense of dread rather than detract from it. 

Completely opposite was Gail Sproule’s “For Love of Katie”, which rounded out the issue.  This one is told from the point of view of a small dragon-like creature produced in a genetics lab.  Telling a story from an animal’s point of view is a hard trick to pull off and few authors can, which is why I generally don’t care for that type of story.  Unfortunately, the author didn’t quite succeed, at least to my satisfaction.  This one was a little too cute and predictable for my taste.  Still it was well written and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would enjoy it.

All in all, BG 3 is a solid issue, with a great deal of exciting fiction to recommend it.  There’s something here for everyone.  From sword and sorcery to near contemporary to futuristic, from quiet and thoughtful to humorous to horrifying. You can’t go wrong.  And although they may disagree with me, it’s fun to see some of the early efforts of some of the rising stars of the genres

This issue of Black Gate is still available.  If you don’t have a copy and would like to pick one up, you can order here.  It’s one of the first, so I don’t know how many are left.  There’s a back-issue sale going on, so you can probably score some good deals.  If you don’t wait too long.

Home of Heroics and Rogue Blades Entertainment are Back…

…and I have a post there!  Jason M. Waltz just sent out an email saying that Rogue Blades Entertainment is back online as is Home of Heroics, both virus free.  That’s great news, made even sweeter for me by the fact that I have a post there.  It’s a review of a book entitled The Roads to Baldairn Motte.  Check it out!  Then buy and read the  book.  There are still a few details Jason is working on as far as the look of the site, but it’s great to have RBE and HoH back.

Quick Update

It’s been hectic this week.  I’ve not posted any new reviews (although I’ve started one on The Winds of Khalakovo) because classes started a couple of days ago.  I’m visiting family out of town today; they’ve just returned from Scotland.  We’ll head home in the morning, then I’ll catch a plane in the afternoon for a job interview on Monday.  I’ll finish the Khalakovo review, then focus on some short fiction I’ll read while in the airport.  I should be back up to speed by the middle of next week, including some more Conan posts.  Then I’ve got four or five novels I’ll be reviewing.  So things will be quiet here at the blog for a couple of days.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t browse the archives…

Rogue Blades Entertainment, Home of Heroics Websites Temporarily On Hiatus

I got an email earlier today from Jason M. Waltz.  The RBE website has been infected with some sort of virus.  Jason is working to fix it, but at the moment he is swamped with some additional training for his day job and doesn’t have much time (or energy) at the end of the day.  As soon as he can, he’s going to get things back up and running.  In the meantime, the RBE site is in construction mode and new Home of Heroics posts are on hold.  They’ll return once things are fixed, and on a daily basis until HOH is back on schedule. 

Marvin Kaye Buys Weird Tales, Replaces Ann Vandermeer as Editor

This was announced earlier today, so many, if not most, of you have probably seen it, but I wanted to post it anyway.  (It’s been one of those days.  Power was out over most of the campus for most of the day and classes start tomorrow.)  Marvin Kaye has bought Weird Tales from publisher John Betancourt.  He is replacing the entire editorial staff, including editor Ann Vandermeer.  Vandermeer’s final issue will be #359, which will be published next February.  (The current issue, #358 is shown at right.)  Kaye, who has edited anthologies related to Weird Tales and the now defunct H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, intends to edit the magazine himself.  His first issue, #360, will be a special Cthulhu themed issue.  Stories bought by Vandermeer that aren’t included in #359 will be published in future issues.  Further details can be found in Ann Vandermeer’s farewell postBlack Gate editor John O’Neill has written a commentary here.

What I Think of Conan the Momoan

photo courtesy of

I said in my post last Friday that I thought Conan the Barbarian was a semi-decent movie.  Now that things seem to be slowing down a little and I have time to write, I need to define that term.  Simply put, “decent” means not good but not particularly bad, either.  “Semi” means not even that good.

The problem, as more people than I’m going to try to link to have said, is that the movie simply doesn’t deliver in terms of story.  There are just too many holes in the internal logic.  I’ll discuss the things that stuck out to me, but first I’ll discuss why this character isn’t Conan as written by Robert E. Howard.

There were a couple of attempts to tie this movie to what Howard wrote.  Some of the initial lines narrated by Morgan Freeman in the opening were quotes from Howard.  One of the characters summarizes the events of “The Tower of the Elephant” in about one sentence when he’s bragging about Conan’s exploits.  Then there’s the famous quote, “I live…I love…I slay, and I am content” that was taken completely out of context and not even quoted correctly.  The actual quote is from “The Queen of the Black Coast” and is “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”  Beyond that, there’s nothing directly from Robert E. Howard in the film.

The argument to counter this criticism is that the film captures the spirit of the Conan stories.  But even there the film falls short.  I won’t rehash the origin story criticisms.  Others have said it better than I.  Nor will I get into the depiction of Conan as a crusader against slavery.  There’s no point in throwing stones at the fight choreography.  In this type of movie, the If-I-Did-This-In-A-Real-Fight-I’d-Be-Gutted school of combat is almost unavoidable.  Instead I’ll point out a few lapses in logic that others seem to have missed.

First, Tamara.  She seems to be the only one of the female monks who has any idea how to fight, and she’s quite accomplished at it.  Why?  Is she unique in her interests and abilities in this area, or was she singled out for special training?  If she was, what explanation was given to her and the rest of the monks?

If Tamara’s such a great fighter, and tells Conan that she won’t go with him after he rescues her, why is she docilely accepting being tied up in the next scene and at no time trying to escape?  Is she into bondage?  The sex scene didn’t indicate she was, but maybe that was too racy for the R rating.  Nah.  Probably not.

In the final fight scene, Tamara falls through a bridge of wooden slats.  She has a chain on her wrist, and Conan catches the chain to save her.  The distance she falls before he catches her is enough to dislocate her shoulder if not tear her arm off.  She isn’t even bruised.  That’s pushing things a little too far.

Last gripe about Tamara.  If she was supposed to fill the role of Belit in this film (it was Belit the above quote was spoken to), why does he ride off and leave her in the end?  Belit was the one great love of Conan’s life.  There was no real reason for him to leave her.  Except maybe that since he’d bedded her, it was time for new conquests.  And he would never do that to Belit.

I can’t buy Conan deliberately allowing himself to be taken prisoner in order to get close to one of the men he’s after.  My memory may be misleading me, but I don’t recall Conan ever doing anything like that.  I do remember more than once him threatening to kill anyone who laid a hand on him.

When Tamara is kidnapped from the ship, why wasn’t there a man on watch?  Robert E. Howard’s Conan would never be so stupid as overlook a thing like that.  And earlier, when Khalar Zim first tries to kidnap her, don’t any of these people realize they’re coming.  Khalar Zim has a land ship pulled by eight elephants, fer cryin’ out loud.

I didn’t buy the scene where young Conan fights and kills the Picts early on, either.  Not while holding an egg in his mouth.

On the other hand, there were some things I liked about the movie.  The fight scene with the sand demons was exciting and (I thought) genuinely suspenseful.  Of all the scenes, I thought this one best captured the spirit of Robert E. Howard, at least until he defeats the sand demons and fights Khalar Zim directly.  Too bad more of the others didn’t.

I don’t have any major gripes about the sets and the cast, although I know some people do.  Jason Momoa did a much better job as Conan than I expected him to.  I can see him playing this role again.  I only hope he gets to, and in a film that’s actually based on Howard’s work.  Unfortunately, the movie is doing so poorly that it will probably kill any chance for a genuine Howard adaptation for another generation.

One final thought.  The makeup Rose McGowan wore as Marique placed an image in my head that I can’t get out, so I’m going to share it with you.  Her hair reminded me of Londo Mollari from Babylon 5, while the spots on her neck and forehead made me think of Dax from Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine.  If those two ever had a love child, Marique is what she would look like.

Congratulations to the Hugo Award Winners

The Hugos were given out last night at Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno, Nevada.

The winners are:

Best Novel:                      Blackout/All Clear                             Connie Willis

Best Novella:                   The Lifecycle of Software Objects      Ted Chiang

Best Novellette:                “The Emperor of Mars”                        Allen M. Steele

Best Short Story:              “For Want of a Nail”               Mary Robinette Kowal

Best Related Work            Chicks Dig Time Lords                  Lynne M. Thomas
                                                                                          and Tara O’Shea, eds.

Best Graphic Story           Girl Genius Volume 10:                        Phil and Kaja
                                                                                          Folio, art by Phil Folio

Best Dramatic Presentation , Long Form:                Inception

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:               
                                     Doctor Who:  “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”

Best Professional Editor, Long Form:                      Lou Anders

Best Professional Editor, Short Form:                     Sheila Williams

Best Professional Artist:                                         Shaun Tan

Best Semiprozine:                                                  Clarkesworld

Best Fanzine:                                                         The Drink Tank

Best Fan Artist:                                                      Brad W. Foster

Also, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is not a Hugo, went to Lev Grossman

Adventures Fantastic/Futures Past and Present would like to congratulate all the nominees and especially the winners.  A list of winners and all nominees can be found here.

Conan the Movie

I just came from seeing this movie called Conan the Barbarian.  It’s a semi-decent sword and sorcery flick about this guy who has these adventures.  He just happens to be named Conan.

Interestingly enough, one of my favorite writers, Robert E. Howard, also created a sword and sorcery character named Conan who goes around having all these adventures.

Other than some place names, there’s not much more in common than that.

I’ve got to pack up the van for one last short summer jaunt before school starts for my son on Monday.  I’ll write a more detailed review sometime in the next few days.  I doubt anything I have to say will have any impact on how well the film does, but I do want my thoughts to be coherent.  I will say that the movie wasn’t as bad as I feared (an advantage to setting your expectations really low) but not as good as I’d hoped.  I’ll elaborate on the semi-decent remark in the full blown review.