Monthly Archives: June 2012

Hunter and Fox is Full of Surprises

Hunter and Fox
Philipa Ballantine
Pyr Books
trade paper $17.32
ebook $10.31 Kindle  Nook

I enjoyed Philipa Ballantine’s Geist very much (reviewed here) and have the sequel Spectyr in the TBR pile, so when an opportunity to get a review copy of her latest book arose, I took advantage of it.  I’m glad I did.

This is different than any of Ms. Ballantine’s work I’ve seen to this point.  I think it’s safe to say Hunter and Fox is different than most fantasy that’s currently out there.  This is a good thing, although trying to pull off a book like this is a challenge for most writers.  By and large, Ms. Ballantine is up for the challenge.

This is a hard book to describe because there are multiple story arcs that intertwine.  I’m only going to give you an idea of the initial set up to avoid spoilers because there are plenty of surprises.  The story takes place in a world where Chaos reigns, with mountains becoming plains or shallow seas, forests turning into deserts, a constantly changing topography, with the flora changing with it.  Or at least it did until a despot known as the Caisah conquered everything and brought stability to large portions of the world.

This world is inhabited by a number of races, all of whom came there through the White Void at different times.  The older races are the more powerful, and the oldest of all is the Vaerli.  When the Caisah came to power, he performed a magical attack against the Vaerli called the Harrowing, which took away most of their abilities.  It also caused any two Vaerli who happen to find themselves in each other’s presence to burst into flame.  This was 300 years ago.  Some of the races, including the Vaerli and the Casisah (whose race is a mystery), are effectively immortal.  They can be killed, but they don’t age.

Talyn is one of the Vaerli.  She is the Caisah’s Hunter, charged with tracking down and killing any enemies he decides need to die.  There have been quite a few such individuals through the years.  Talyn tells herself she’s doing this to help her people.

Finnbarr the Fox is a storyteller who happens to have some small magical abilities.  He loves Talyn.  At one time she loved him, but she’s discarded those memories.  Being immortal, the Vaerli have the ability to excise memories to preserve their sanity.  He’s come to find her.  He’s also fomenting rebellion against the Caisah.

Finnbarr has three companions who are more (and less) than they seem.  Talyn’s brother is out there somewhere.  He’s been given a quest that will have major repercussions.  Before the book is done the players will learn that there are greater things to fear than the Caisah.

This is an ambitious book, original and full of surprises.  My understanding of what was happening changed throughout.  Ballantine doesn’t foreshadow much.  She simply drops information and revelations as she goes along.  You need to be paying attention when you read this one because what you think is happening isn’t necessarily what’s really happening.  There are a number of plot threads hanging and questions unanswered when you close the book.  Who is the boy Finn communicates with through a cat’s cradle?  What’s the story about a group of Vaerli sacrificing their children?  I could go on, but that would be teasing.  Also, many of the questions involve spoilers.

Don’t look for a happy ending in this one.  The last line has to be one of the bleakest and most effective I’ve ever seen.  It’s not so much that the ending is tragic or a cliffhanger, although the end contains aspects of both.  This is a story that isn’t fully told, and I’m not sure wrapping things up in neat resolutions would have been the best way to tell this portion.  There will definitely be another volume, and I hope sales are good enough that Pyr publishes it soon.  I want to know how things get wrapped up.

The only complaint I have is the cover, for two reasons.  First, it implies there’s a greater romance element to the story than there actually is.  Second, Talyn is described more than once as being shorter than the average Vaerli woman, or any woman for that matter, with an olive complexion.  The woman on the cover (that’s not a horse she’s riding, BTW) looks tall and pale. 

My issues with the cover aside, this was a good book, one I recommend.  I’m looking forward to the sequel.  Hunter and Fox is a featured book at Adventures Fantastic Books.

Congratulations to the Campbell and Sturgeon Award Winners

The winners of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award have been announced. 

The Campbell Award is given for the best novel, and this year it’s a tie.  Christopher Priest (The Islanders) and Joan Slonczewski (The Highest Frontier) will share the award.  The Sturgeon Award is given for the best short fiction and goes to Paul McCAuley for “The Choice”, published in Asimov’s 2/11.

Locus has a complete list of the nominees here

Adventures Fantastic congratulates all the nominees and especially the winners. 

The Authors Guild Shows Where its Loyalties Lie

Paul Aiken, the Executive Director of the Authors Guild sent a letter to John Read of the DOJ addressing the DOJ’s suit against Apple and five publishers.  It’s rather lengthy, but if you wade through it, as I’ve been doing from time to time (when my blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels and I need something to raise it), you’ll find the following quote:

“Amazon’s vertical integration of on-demand printing eliminated the ability of iUniverse, PublishAmerica, XLibris and others to offer authors better royalties when selling through Amazon.  CreateSpace appears to have thrived ever since.”

Now what’s interesting about this is the list of publishers named.  I’m not familiar with all of them, but PublishAmerica has been shown to be a vanity press with little to no editorial oversight.  If you aren’t familiar with the hoax manuscript some members of SFWA submitted, start reading here.

To put it bluntly, what we have here is an organization that purports to speak for authors attacking an organization which has made it possible for numerous authors to publish, some quite successfully, their own work while defending other “publishers” at least some of whom have documented records of mistreating and scamming authors.  Publishers whose authors don’t meet the Authors Guild’s standard for membership, i.e., an author who is published by these publishers won’t be accepted into the AG. 

This double standard flies in the face of how things should be to the extent that I keep expecting Rod Serling to show up at some point.  It’s been suggested by numerous people that AG authors who are so offended by Amazon’s efficient business model pull their titles from Amazon.  Or at least give the royalties from Amazon sales to charity.  Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know, that hasn’t happened yet.

What little credibility the AG had up to this point it seems to have jettisoned out the window.  Not surprising, since the AG tends towards the writers who have the most to lose with a level playing field and is a pretty elitist organization.  One that is opposed to indie authors.  If you’ve been paying attention over the last few months, it’s obvious that the AG’s lyalties don’t lie with the majority of authors.

I’d suggest a boycott of AG authors except I doubt there are any I read.  I gave up on Turow years ago.  In the meantime, I’m going to order some books from Amazon and wait to see what Konrath has to say about this. 

The Hammer and the Blade are a Fantastic Combination

The Hammer and the Blade
Paul S. Kemp
Angry Robot Books
26 Jun 2012
432pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN
5 Jul 2012
432pp B-format paperback
£7.99 UK
26 Jun 2012

In addition to the people who supported him while writing the book, in the dedication Paul Kemp mentions the names of four people who inspired him while writing The Hammer and the Blade:  Leiber, Howard, Brackett, and Moorcock.  ‘Nuff said.

But in case you’re one of those people who want to know a little more about a book, here’s what  you should know.  In naming the four authors he does, Kemp sets himself a very high bar to try and meet.

He succeeds.  In fantasy there are a number of tropes which are used often enough that they become cliched.  Sometimes that results from a work that has such a impact that many of the writers who follow churn out imitations, some good, some less than good, until the situations and characters in the original work become archetypes to a greater or lesser degree.  Tolkien and Howard are two of the most prominent examples.  And sometimes a book comes along which breathes new life into those tired and heavily used tropes and reminds us why we love them in the first place.

The Hammer and the Blade is clearly in the latter category.  Whether it will become a book that is widely imitated remains to be seen, but if it does, I won’t be surprised.  Paul Kemp is now on my must read list. 

Here’s the basis of the book.  Egil and Nix are thieves, grave robbers to be precise, and they’re quite good at what they do.  While robbing a tomb in a distant desert, they end up killing a demon guarding the treasure.  Thinking they have enough wealth to retire, they buy their favorite inn/brothel and prepare to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Their enjoyment is short-lived.  Rakon is a powerful sorcerer in the city of Dur Follin.  He’s the head of the house of Norristru.  Centuries ago, House Norristru made a pact with one of the Houses of Hell.  It’s almost time to renew the pact.  The demon Rakon is expecting to come and renew the pact is now dead, killed by Egil and Nix.  Rakon is not pleased.  Our heroes don’t even get to enjoy one evening of their new establishment.

This is a sword and sorcery novel that reminds you why sword and sorcery is fun in the first place.  In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air.  It’s fast paced, smart, funny, and at times extremely dark.   The action and tomb robbing sequences are well done, and the conflict between Rakon and Egil and Nix is riveting.  The supporting characters are well drawn; their relationships with Egil and Nix change and grow.

I’ll let you discover the exact nature Rakon’s pact with Hell.  The best way to describe it is that it’s twisted and insidious.  But Rakon is more than just a Saturday matinee villain who is evil simply for the sake of being evil.  He has believable motives, twisted, yes, but believable.  And despite their flaws, Egil and Nix are honorable men, each with his own moral code.  Those moral codes will be tested, and tested severely, before all is said and done.

Some people, whose opinions really aren’t worth paying attention to, criticize sword and sorcery as mindless entertainment.  They should read The Hammer and the Blade.  There’s depth to this novel, especially near the end when the heroes face a choice about what type of men they really are.  And while I thought the sun took an awful long time to set in one sequence, I love the poetic justice of the conclusion.

I can’t wait to read the next volume.

This book hits shelves here in the States and Canada in a few days, the rest of the world early next month.  Below is an excerpt.  If you like what you read, The Hammer and the Blade is currently the Featured Book at the Adventures Fantastic Bookstore

Life Continues to Happen

Things have been slow at my wife’s place of employment for a while, so slow that yesterday she was one of about half a dozen let go.  Needless to say, it was not a fun evening at my house.  While the boss stressed it was for financial reasons rather than job performance and would call them back if things turned around and they hadn’t found other employment, it’s still a bit of a nuisance.  Armadillocon was pretty much out of the picture already, but it’s definitely not going to happen now. 

My wife has already started job hunting, and while I’m generally optimistic, nothing is guaranteed at this point.  I bring all this up so you’ll know that if I seem to disappear for a while, it’s only temporary.  I’m going to help with the job hunt however I can.  That could cut into my reading, reviewing, and blogging time.  Just so you know.

Announcing Adventures Fantastic Books

I thought I’d let you know that I’ve added a bookstore to the site, or at least a link to a bookstore.  It’s there on the upper right.  This is something entirely new, so it may undergo a number of changes before it’s all settled.  In other words, Adventures Fantastic Books is very much a work in progress.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m part of the Amazon Associates program, and everything in the bookstore is through Amazon.  I get a small pittance from each title sold through Adventures Fantastic Books.  Right now there are four categories, although I plan to expand.  The fantasy and science fiction categories will allow you to purchase any title in those categories Amazon currently stocks.  As a result, some of the titles in the fantasy section may not be the type of fantasy I focus on here.  But there’s Search feature that will allow you to find anything in that category or in science fiction.

I could only include titles that I hand choose, but that will take a while, especially as there’s so much fantasy and science fiction out there.  Each title has to be entered by hand, and there is a limit to how many items I can include, on the order of 500 or so.  While I could put a wide selection in that way, it’s a time consuming process.  I’m adding items by hand in the other two categories, Historical Adventure and Featured Books.  I’ll be adding more to these categories, but right now Historical Adventure has titles by Robert Low, Harold Lamb, Ben Kane, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Scott Oden, and others.

The Featured Books will change frequently; probably not every day (although it’s a thought) but at least once a week.  Right now all the titles that were shortlisted for the David Gemmell Awards are there.

I’m learning as I go here, and I’d appreciate your feedback.  Please feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t.  Should the book most recently reviewed be the Featured Book?  Are there categories you would like to see added?  Are there authors in Historical Adventure I’ve overlooked?  I’m intending to add categories for History and perhaps Detective or Pulp Fiction.  Are there any other categories I should include? 

Whether you buy anything through Adventures Fantastic Books or not, thank you for your support, comments, and taking the time to read this blog.

Congratulations to the David Gemmell Award Winners

I’m traveling and using a borrowed computer, so I’ll keep this brief.  Adventures Fantastic sends its congratulations to the all the nominees of the the David Gemmell Awards, and especially the winners. 

And the winners are:

Legend Award for Best Novel:  The Wiseman’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Morningstar Award for Best Debut:  Heir of Night by Helen Lowe

Ravenheart Award for Best Cover Art:  Blood of Aenarion by Raymond Swanson

Further details can be found at the Gemmell Awards page.  And again, congratulations to the winners.

Long Looks at Short Fiction: "Amarante" by Scott Oden

Scott Oden
ebook $0.99 Kindle Nook

Scott Oden is an outstanding writer of historical adventure fiction and fantasy.  I’ll be looking at his novels over the coming months. For now, though, I want to take a look at this short piece, a tale of orcs.  I’ve reviewed several stories about orcs in the last few months, one by Charles Gramlich and three different stories by Tom Doolan

This latest is probably the darkest of the lot, which is by no means a bad thing.  It concerns a punitive raid on a temple.  The leader of the orcs is Kraibag, Captain of the 10th Zhrokari Brigade.  They’ve finished destroying the temple for spreading sedition.  Kraibag is about to kill the surviving priestess when he’s stopped by Muzgaash, a Witch Hound.  Witch Hounds can sense magic, and he warns Kraibag of sorcery. 

He’s right.  It’s only minutes later that everything erupts as the priestess uses herself as a blood sacrifice.  What ensues is an attempt by the surviving orcs (Kraibag and Muzgaash) to track down the priestess responsible for setting up the spell enabling the first priestess to sacrifice herself and to prevent a prophesied child messiah from arising to destroy them.

There’s plenty of action and excitement in this one, and the sorcery is good and creepy.  Oden writes conflict well, and the pacing carried me along.  This is more than just a story of good guys versus bad guys. It’s more like bad guys versus bad guys.  It’s hard to say who is more vile here, the orcs or the priestess Amarante.  One of the things that impressed me about this story was how Oden took traditional villains, the orcs, and without changing them or making them nice in any way, made them sympathetic.  Initially my sympathies were with the humans, but as I saw the lengths they were willing to which they were willing to go to defeat the orcs, that changed.  The end does not always justify the means.

Another thing I liked was that this story didn’t take place in a vacuum.  There’s a history that informs all the events.  Oden refrains from infodumping it all on you.  Instead, he lets you have enough information when you need it to understand the contexts of the things the characters say and do.  I especially liked Kraibag’s reaction to the ghosts when he passes through an old battleground.  This approach made me want to read more stories set in this world.

Scott Oden has had a tough year.  I’ll not go into any details because it’s not my place to do so.  If this sounds like a story you’d enjoy, show him your support by buying and reading “Aramante” and then telling a friend about it.  I’m hoping he’ll post something else soon.  Like maybe that historical piece featuring Richelieu he was working on last year.

Report on Howard Days 2012

The Robert E. Howard House

This had to be the best Howard Days I’ve attended, and from what others said, the best ever as far as the weather went.  Because of the recent rain, Friday I don’t think the temperature got out of the low 80s, and I’m not sure it got that high.  It felt more like April than June.  Saturday I think the high was in the low 90s, which is still April temperatures for this part of the world.  Today I came home to triple digits.  Welcome back to summer.

The theme this year was Conan’s 80th birthday.  Like many people, Conan was my gateway drug to Howard.  While I like all aspects of Howard’s work, Conan is still my favorite.  My wife had been sick the day before with the stomach bug from Mordor, so I waited until I was sure she was back on her feet before I took off Friday morning, running a few errands for her and going to the store.  I didn’t get there until after lunch, so I missed the tours and the morning panel, which was a tribute to the late Glenn Lord.  Here’s my take on what I was there for.

The first panel of Friday afternoon was Guest of Honor Charles Hoffman’s presentation of Conan the Existentialist.  This was followed by Paul Sammon, Al Harron, and Mark Finn discussing Conan’s Birthday.  When the panels were over, I hit the post office and picked up some postcards with this year’s cancellation.  Afterwards, I went back to the pavillion and hung out, visiting with friends until time for the dinner and silent auction.  There were fewer people in attendance this year.  Some of the regulars had various life issues, most of a medical nature, that prevented them from attending.  They were missed.  On the other hand, there were a number of new faces who will hopefully be returning.  The general attitude was it was an up year for that reason alone. 
l to r, Jeff Shanks, Mark Finn, Indy Cavalier, Al Harron trying to get out of the picture, Jay ?

Dinner was catered by The Staghorn Cafe, which makes some of the best chicken fried steak on the planet.  Amazingly, I won most of the items I bid on in the silent auction.  They were all low ticket items, cash being tight this year, but I still walked out with ten books, a comic, and a DVD for less than $30.  I stepped into the parking lot after dinner, got caught in a conversation, and missed some of the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards. For that reason, I’ll not discuss them in depth.

An item that has become one of the most popular panels is “Fists at the Ice House”.  Started by Mark Finn and Chris Gruber, this year the panel was held after the awards.  The ice house was just what it sounds like, an ice house.  This was how ice was kept in the early twentieth century, and delivery carts went around every day.  You could buy ice and put it in your ice box, where the ice would keep perishable food cold.  Some older folks (your grandparents and great grandparents) may still refer to the refrigerator as the ice box, and that’s where the term comes from.  Ice houses also sold cold beverages, alcoholic and otherwise.  In Cross Plains, there was one ice house in the 1920s where young men would meet for beer and boxing.

Fists at the Ice House:  (l to r) Shanks, Finn, Gruber

Robert E. Howard was one of those men.  Mark Finn makes an excellent point:  If you want to understand Robert E. Howard the man, you need to understand his relationship with boxing.  Some of the first and last stories he sold were boxing stories, and he wrote them throughout his entire career.  Mark, Jeff, and Chris discussed this and read from Howard’s boxing works.  It was rather late when this panel broke up.  As much as I would have like to hung around, I had an hour drive to where I was staying, so I took off.

After buying a thank-you gift ofr my wife for letting me attend, I toured the house the next morning.  There are some new additions.  For one thing, a number of books from Howard’s personal library are on permanent loan from Howard Payne University.  Several of them are inscribed to Howard from his friends, including one from Edmund Hamilton.  I’ll put pictures at the end of this post.

The morning panels (held at the library) consisted of Shanks, Hoffman, and Finn discussing efforts to get academia to take Howard seriously and laying out a strategy for this to happen, and afternoon panels featured Paul Sammon giving a slide show on The Illustrated Conan.  As well as being a writer, Paul works in Hollywood, having been a key person on a number of movies such as Conan, Blade Runner, and Starship Troopers.  If you ever meet him, talk to him. He seems to know or have known everybody and tells some wonderful stories.  The final panel was What’s Happening with REH?, and discussed mostly forthcoming books (lots of boxing stories) and some information about movies (nothing major, at least that can be announced).  Then I viewed the collection of books, manuscripts, and pulps, many Weird Tales with Margaret Brundage covers.

Look what’s coming to dinner.

This year I got to go to the Legacy Circle members lunch hosted by the REH Foundation.  We nearly took over the Mexican restaurant.  The food was excellent.  So was the barbeque out at Caddo Peak Ranch that evening.  We did have a couple of uninvited guests, or as Paul McNamee called them in response to my tweeting, Set cultists everywhere.  I’m referring, of course, to the snakes.  The first was a copperhead which was only a few meters from the tables.  The other was a rattlesnake the coiled up beside the trail on the hike down from Caddo Peak.  I got a picture of both, but the rattler is hard to see in the picture.  It was coiled, about three feet long, and they can strike two thirds of their body length away.  My telephoto on the camera only does so much, and I wasn’t getting any closer.  Here’s the copperhead, though.

After eating delicious meal and watching the sunset, I went back to the pavilion.  Barabara Barrett organized an impromptu poetry reading on the steps of the house.  We took turns reading from the poetry books we had.  No one had the complete poems, so I didn’t get to read “A Song of the Naked Lands”, my favorite.  Dave Hardy had some homemade mead again, which was good, as always.  I visited a while, then hit the road, later than the night before.  It was one of the most enjoyable Howard Days I’ve been to.

What follows are photos I took this year, some with captions.  I’ll try to identify everyone I know; if I leave someone’s name off or get it wrong, I apologize.  No slight is intended.

Jeff Shanks with award
Bob’s Room (window view is painting; additional room to right was added later)

Bob’s Room (Mrs. Howard’s window is on left)
Volumes from Bob’s library
The library’s collection of original manuscripts

I love Margaret Brundage covers
View of East Caddo Peak from West Caddo Peak
More Margaret Brundage

A portion of the dinner party

Current and former REHupans
Bill “Indy” Cavalier reading poetry

A Requiem for Ray

When I learned of Ray Bradbury’s death this morning, a piece of my childhood died as well.  A fairly large piece, as a matter of fact, and there aren’t too many pieces left.  I posted an announcement of his passing, but at the time that was all I could do, so with your indulgence, I’d like to say a few words of a more personal nature.  We’re already beginning to see the deluge of tributes from those whose lives he touched, which is as it should be.  Many people more eloquent than I will be writing those, so I want to thank you for taking the time to read mine.

When I first began to make the transition to adult books, or what I probably thought of as “Grown up books” at the time, Bradbury was one of the first I read.  We were living in Wichita Falls, Texas at the time, and I would have been in about the fifth or sixth grade.  Somewhere in there; with the passing of years the chronological details have faded a bit.  I don’t recall which happened first, if I discovered him on my own or if I was pushed in his direction.  One day in reading class, we had a guest come and read “The Screaming Woman” from S is for Space.  I was blown away. 

Science fiction was front and center on my radar, having read comics for a few years and with Star Wars released for the first time the previous summer.  In the children’s section of the main branch of the public library, down in the basement, there was a rack of paperbacks.  If you’re of a certain age, you know the kind I’m talking about.  The wire spinner in so many drug stores of the time.  This one contained popular fiction that had been deemed suitable for the more advanced of us among young readers.  Planet of the Apes was on that rack, along with most of James Blish’s Star Trek novelizations.  As were a number of titles by Ray Bradbury, including The Martian Chronicles, with a terrific cover showing the author’s face.  Behind him, the picture of Mars you see in the accompanying illustration, with a face looking out at you. 

If I hadn’t been reading Bradbury before our guest came to class and read to us, I certainly was afterwards.  Over the next decade, as his work was reprinted and new works came out, I bought and read them all.  The October CountrySomething Wicked This Way ComesThe Illustrated ManLong After MidnightA Memory of Murder.  And all the rest, first in paperback, then as I could afford them, hardcovers.  I’ve bought as many of the collectible editions of recent years as I could, too, such as Match to Flame, Dark Carnival, and  the complete edition of The Martian Chronicles.

I can still remember where I was when I read some of them.  Long After Midnight at my grandparents’ house.  The Golden Apples of the Sun in my room after we moved to Paris, Texas. 

And the stories, they still fire my imagination.  “Mars is Heaven.”  “The Veldt.”  “The Scythe.”  “Marionettes, Inc.”  “Rocket Man.”  “The Crowd.”  “The Small Assassin.” 

I learned about wonder.  And fear.  And the romance of living in a boarding house.  And the Day of the Dead.  Somehow, after reflecting today on Bradbury’s impact in my life, I suspect that it runs deeper than I realized. 

I never met the man, although I do have his signature.  When the complete edition of The Martian Chronicles was delayed, before Subterranean Press eventually took it over and published it, those who preordered it through a different publisher received a set of three prints from the book, each set unique, signed by Bradbury and Edward Miller.  Mine is number 22 of 200.  If my house were burning, and I knew family and dogs were safely out, this is the thing I would make sure I took with me. 

I’ve also got the two omnibuses, The Stories of Ray Bradbury and Stories, each containing 100 stories.  That’s each containing 100 different stories.  And there are more not in these volumes.  I’ll be dipping into them later this evening.

So in closing, I want to say “Thank you, Ray.”  For all the thrills, chills, and wonder you’ve given me and will continue to give me through your works.  I’ve learned a great deal about writing from you.  And a great deal about life as well.