Monthly Archives: July 2012

Blogging the Lost World of the Warlord

Back in the 1970s DC Comics had a try-out title they called 1st Issue Special.  It was one of those things like Showcase had been in an earlier era where new characters, teams, and series were given a trial run.  Reader response determined if a particular character or team got his/her/its/their own book.  It was also at this time that sword and sorcery was enjoying a period of popularity, in part due to a boom in Robert E. Howard’s work.  This carried over into comics, with Marvel’s Conan.  DC tried to get in on the excitement by attempting several sword and sorcery titles.  Of these, only Mike Grell’s The Warlord lasted more than a few issues. 

The Warlord premiered in 1975.  I didn’t start reading the title until the early 1980s, when it had peaked and begun a long decay, but there were a number of solid issues with some good sword and sorcery storytelling still to come.  Mike Grell was still writing and drawing the book and would continue to do so for a few more years.

I’m going to take a look at this series, and I’m going to try to post on a regular basis, meaning once every week or every other week, hopefully on the same day.  We’ll see.  I’ll focus on one to two issues at a time.  If this series of posts is well received, I’ll continue until I reach the point where Grell left the book.  If not, I’m sure I can find something to blog about.

The story opens with Air Force colonel Travis Morgan flying a solo spy mission over the Soviet Union in 1969.  His plane is damaged in a missile attack, and while he survives, he doesn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the US, specifically a base in Alaska.  He tries to save time by flying over the north pole.  As he passes over the pole, his compass spins wildly, with the explanation that it won’t work over the North Pole. 

Now I’m a physicist by training and there are just some things I can’t ignore, at least not easily.  This is one of them.  On the geographic North Pole, the compass would point south because the magnetic axis and the spin axis of the Earth don’t line up.  The magnetic pole in the northern hemisphere is near the western coast of Greenland.  (It moves slowly with time, so I’ll not try to be more specific.)

Anyway, Morgan crashes his plane, and much to his surprise discovers himself in a tree in a jungle.  While walking, he discovers a dinosaur attacking a beautiful maiden, scantily clad, of course.  He rescues her, although it’s something of a team effort, the girl is the one who delivers the killing blow. 

They are soon captured by slavers and taken to the city of Thera, where Morgan immediately gets on the wrong side of the high priest Deimos.  He still has his sidearm and shoots a globe Deimos uses to try and get inside Morgan’s mind. 

Thinking Morgan is a god, he and the girl are treated as royalty.  Bathed, wined, and dined, they are given a chamber where they immediately fall asleep.  It’s during this sequence that Morgan is given the first costume he would wear in the series, a sort of black leather tights without sleeves.  The winged helmet and loincloth would come later.

At this point Grell reveals another aspect of Skartaris, the name of the world he’s in.  Time has no meaning.  When Morgan and the girl awake, they discover a great deal of time has passed.  He was clean cut when he went to sleep, but when he wakes up he discovers his hair and beard are long and shaggy.  It’s here he adopts the forked beard, a la Green Arrow.  This was another aspect of the series I was never crazy about because at times it will seem as though the characters never age even though decades pass in the outside world.

Being adept at linguistics, Travis Morgan quickly picks up the language, learns the girl’s name is Tara, and some basics about the realm of Skartaris.  Here’s where I have another problem, not just with this story but with any  hollow world tale.  Morgan tries to explain to Tara that they are in the center of a world and gravity holds them to the sides.  The problem is that gravity doesn’t work that way.  There is no gravitational attraction to the side of a hollow sphere or a spherical shell.  Not because gravity doesn’t exist, but because it cancels out.  And it does it everywhere, regardless of where you are in the cavity.  This is basic physics that’s been known for centuries.  Makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief.

Deimos hates them and wants Morgan dead for humiliating him in front of the king but is hesitant to move against Morgan because the people think him some sort of god..  One “night”….rather while Morgan and Tara are sleeping Deimos sends mercenaries into assassinate them.  But Morgan and Tara wake up in time to defeat the mercenaries and escape, ending the first appearance of The Warlord.  Why Deimos didn’t try this while they were asleep the first time, when Morgan’s hair and beard grew so long, is never explained. 

We’ll look at the first and second issue of The Warlord in the next installment of this series.  For now, a few closing comments.  First, the series hadn’t found its legs at this point, a common thing for most new series in just about any format.  Most of the supporting cast haven’t been introduced nor the characters of Morgan or Tara well established.  The two page opening spreads that would come to characterize Grell’s run on the book wouldn’t start for a while. 

I was a pretty naive teenage when I read this series, and I’m interested in seeing what subtle things I missed.  Or just plain don’t remember.  The Comics Code Authority was still very much in place at the time The Warlord was launched.  It would be another decade, give or take a few years, before the direct market would open the door to more adult oriented themes and content.  I’m curious as to what things I missed when I first read these, and I’ll speculate at times as to how the series might have been different if it hadn’t been subject to the Code.

There have been some attempts to revive the character and/or the series in the last decade or so, but I’ve not read them.  The general consensus based on what little I’ve heard is that they weren’t successful in terms of story.  I’d like to see Grell take another stab at the character.  That may be too much to hope for.

Why Modern Fantasy Needs More Naked Slave Girls

Yes, I realize that’s an incredibly sexist title for this blog post.  It’s not intended to be taken seriously (well, not entirely), so chill out a bit and listen to what I have to say.  Substitute “naked slave guys” if you prefer.  If I’m going to be sexist, I’m willing to be an equal opportunity sexist.  It may also come across as a manipulative method of increasing blog traffic, but it’s not (well, not entirely).

Rather I’m picking an old sword and sorcery trope as an example to make a point.  I think much modern fantasy, far too much in my opinion, takes itself way too seriously.  It’s gotten so dark and grim, for one thing.  I don’t have too much of a problem with that.  I tend to prefer a dark strain through much of my fiction. What is starting to get on my nerves is how so many authors seem to be using their fiction to push some sort of an agenda.

At least it sounds like what they’re doing from blog posts, essays, and tweets.  I’ve gotten in the habit of following some writers whose work seems interesting or who are up and coming or major figures in the field.  Some of them are coming across as such ideologues that they’ve killed any interest I have in reading their work and I’m about to stop following some of them on Twitter. While these people are a minority among those I follow, there’s enough of them that I can no longer pretend they don’t exist.

I follow these people because I’m interested in their writing, or at least think I might be.  I don’t follow them to hear their political opinions to the exclusion of just about everything else.  Now, I’m not objecting to someone airing their views on Twitter or a blog or anywhere else.  What I do object to are bigoted, personal attacks on groups or individuals who have different philosophical views, politics, or religious beliefs.  Especially when those being attacked are being accused of the same things the attacker is guilty of.  I’ve been seeing a lot more of those recently.

It’s hard for me to believe that these attitudes won’t show up in their fiction.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.  The first job of a fiction writer is to tell an entertaining story.  Period.  Everything else, whether it be moral instruction, insight into the “human condition”, or to further some political or social agenda should be secondary to telling a good story.  There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they are secondary to the story.  The best storytellers will incorporate secondary objectives into the work to add depth to the work, not make them the central focus of the work with the story the mechanism for the sermon.  If I want to read a sermon, I will.  And do from time to time, but it’s never disguised as a work of fiction.

What does this have to do with naked slaves girls?   Quite a bit actually.  I stated a few paragraphs ago that too much of modern fantasy takes itself too seriously.  I think it’s because too many authors think they have Something Important to say.  Sometimes that includes either actively or passively slamming older fantasy, particularly sword and sorcery, and trying to remove the elements they find offensive from what’s currently being published.  Including but not limited to naked slave girls.  This can be done through editorial policies, reviews, or critique groups and workshops.

What happened to adventure and fun?  Yes, I realize it’s still out there, but some days it’s mighty hard to find.  That’s why I often go back and reread the older stuff, in spite of there being so much new material available.

Robert E. Howard is near the top of the list of classic S&S authors, at least that I read.  One of the things I like about Robert E. Howard is that his stories are fun.  And while they’re also stirring adventures, Howard was a skilled enough writer that he could introduce serious themes and ideas in his fiction.  Howard’s work, particularly the Conan stories, had a sense of the exotic to them, but the societies in them were also modeled after real historical periods, which gave them a sense verisimilitude and just enough familiarity that readers could relate to them.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and not nearly enough of today’s crop (at least the ones I’ve read) can pull it off.

Yet Howard is often attacked for his attitudes on race and women (whether they were naked slave girls or not), and he’s cited as an example of the type of writer newer writers are trying to distance themselves from.  The problem is that Howard’s views on race and women aren’t that simple. (That’s a topic too big for this post.)  Many of the tropes of older fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, that Howard and other writers used are out of favor these days.  And lumping those tropes into broad categories such as “racist” or “sexist” isn’t that simple, either.

I’m not saying we need more fiction that pushes a deliberate racist or sexist agenda.  We already have John Norman for that.  I think we could use a few more Robert E. Howards, though.  A fully realized society will have elements that are racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive to contemporary sensibilities.  That’s just the way the world works.  And what is or isn’t offensive varies from person to person.  Ignoring those things doesn’t lead to good fiction.  Neither does focusing on those elements to the exclusion of a good story, especially in adventure fiction.

Many of the things that made the good old stuff so fun would be considered politically incorrect today.  But there is clearly a market for it.  If not, why else is the New Pulp movement doing so well?  Let’s keep modern fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, fun.  Bring on the naked slave girls.  Or whatever trope or plot you enjoy that’s fallen out of favor.  It can be done in ways that don’t glorify or advocate negative attitudes and still be fun. 

A Review of Keith Baker’s The Queen of Stone

The Queen of Stone
Keith Baker
Wizards of the Coast
mmp, 293p., $6.99

Earlier this year, a group of fantasy writers got together and had a contest collectively called Crossing the Streams.  The way it worked was that each author had some sort of contest on his or her website to give away one or more books.  There were about seventeen authors if I counted correctly.  You can find a list of them at the above link.  If you keep up with this blog, you’ll see quite a few familiar names.

The rules for each contest were different, and there was one uber-contest in which the winner got all of the prizes from all of the contests.  While I didn’t win the uber-contest, I did win Keith Baker’s.  First I would like to thank all of the authors who participated in Crossing the Streams for their generosity in putting this thing together.  I would especially like to thank Keith Baker for sending me an inscribed copy of The Queen of Stone.  Additionally, I would like to apologize to him for taking so long to read and review the book.

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Baker’s work, and since his prize was my choice of one from a group of novels, I asked him to suggest the best one to start with. The Queen of Stone was his response.  I have to say it was a good choice.  This was a compelling, fast-paced read.

The story is set in the world of Eberron.  The viewpoint character is Thorn, who is one of the Dark Lanterns of the kingdom of Breland.  No, not that type of lantern.  While she does have a ring that is central to the plot, it’s not a power ring and there’s no oath.  Rather, the Dark Lanterns are espionage agents. 

Thorn has two missions.  One involves protecting the Brelish ambassador at a conclave called by the Daughters of Sora Kell.  They want diplomatic recognition for the kingdom they’ve established.  The citizens of this kingdom are viewed with fear by humans and human-like races such as the elves.  They’re what we would consider to be monsters:  harpies, minotaurs, ogres.  And, oh yeah, gorgons.

Which brings us to the second of Thorn’s missions.  There’s a legendary hero who was turned to stone by the queen of the gorgons two hundred years ago.  Gorgons having extremely long lifespans, she’ll be at the conclave.  Thorn is to find the statute of this hero, convince the gorgon queen to restore him to life, and smuggle him back to Breland.  And if the gorgon queen gets killed at some point in the process, well, that’s okay, too, so long as Breland can’t be blamed for it.

Yeah, right.  No problem.  Piece of cake.

The novel hits the ground running, and Baker doesn’t slow down much except when he wants to tighten the screws and up the suspense.  The fight scenes, both individual and large scale, are extremely well executed.  Baker comes up with some clever tricks for Thorn to accomplish her missions.

Thorn is an intriguing, multi-faceted character.  Some very interesting things happen near the end (you don’t think I’m actually going to tell you what they are, do you?) which make me eager to read more of Thorn’s adventures.

While this might sound like a cross between a traditional fantasy novel and James Bond, Thorn is cut from a very different cloth than 007.  For one thing, Thorn isn’t a master agent like Bond.  She’s still learning, although she’s no neophyte, either.  And she’s accompanied by Steel, a sentient dagger that can communicate with her and seems to think it outranks her at times.

This was a fun, entertaining adventure.  Thorn is a multifaceted character, and I’d like to see more of her.  I’ll be looking for more in this series.

New Fiction Magazine Specutopia Premiers

edited by Dale Wise
6 issues/year
$3.49 per issue
available in PDF, .mobi, or .epub formats

 Issue 1 July/August 2012

I had an opportunity the other day to pick up a review copy of Specutopia, the new speculative fiction magazine.  I’m glad I did.   I’d like to thank editor Dale Wise for sending me a copy.

Specutopia is an electronic fiction magazine of, what else with that title, speculative fiction.  In his editorial, Dale Wise states that he’s open to publishing any type of speculative fiction, be it fantasy, science fiction, or some hybrid.  It contains seven stories by authors whose names, with one exception, aren’t familiar to me.  The authors come from all across the globe, which I think is a good thing.  There are a lot of good fiction writers outside the US.  On the whole, I enjoyed the issue, although there were a couple of exceptions I’ll discuss below.  For now, some general impressions.

First the layout was quite professional.  Mr. Wise did a fine job on the formatting.  The cover art is quite striking.  I couldn’t find a credit for it, or I would list the artist’s name here.

While the cover might suggest this is strictly a science fiction magazine, and there is some pure science fiction, there’s a wide variety of fiction here.  With this type of selection, there’s probably something to appeal to just about everyone.  The flip side is that it’s highly likely that not everything will appeal to everyone.  If Mr. Wise continues to have this much diversity in what he publishes, and I hope he does, he could have a problem with finding cover art that encompasses the magazine’s contents without making prospective readers think it’s more narrow in scope than it is.  While I think that’s something of a good problem to have, I’m glad it isn’t my problem. 

The first story, “Hollow Spaces” by Greg Mellor, didn’t work for me until I was well into it.  The reason was it started out with only dialogue.  I had to read a bit before I understood what was going on.  Once I did, though, I began appreciate what the author was trying to do.  In the end, this turned into a moving science fiction story of a mother and the irreversible changes her relationship with her young son undergoes.

James Beamon‘s “The Death of the World’s Greatest Detective” is a quirky little deconstruction of the stereotypical private investigator tale.  It was a fun poke at some of the more ingrained tropes of that genre that managed to still be a fantasy in the end.

“Hoodoo” by D. Thomas Minton is the only science fiction story in the issue that takes place in space.  A group of soldiers and scientists, at war with a hostile alien race, discover the remains of an unknown species that crashed on the planet they’re exploring.  And in the end, one of the soldiers discovers a bond with them across time and species.

When I started “Water Child” by Jennifer Mason-Black, my initial reaction was this was going to be another mother and child story, which is not my favorite subgenre.  By the time I reached the end, all I could say was “Wow.”  This was by far the most powerful and moving story in the issue.  If Mr. Wise can put at least one story in each issue that’s this powerful, he’s going to put his publication on the map.  I won’t be surprised if this one is on recommended reading lists next year, if not included in a best of the year anthology.  Since the situation unfolds throughout the story, I’ll let you read it to find out what it’s about.  And the pecan pie lady got on my nerves, which I think was the point.

“Entanglement” by Rachel Acks is a science fiction tale of a girl, eventually woman, who is haunted by a man only she can see.  He doesn’t appear to her often, but when he does, he tends to be injured.  The nature of his injuries change and they appear to have something to do with decisions the protagonist makes.  In spite of questions being left unanswered, I like this one a lot.

David Seffen‘s “Never Idle” is a fantasy about a man who has the ability to awaken machines to consciousness.  He tends to restrict his talent to cars, which is somewhat appealing.  This is something of a love story, although the love interest isn’t a car.

The final story, “Solitude, Quietude, Vastitude” is by Jetse de Vries, the only writer in the magazine of whom I had heard.  The advantage to reading stories by unfamiliar authors is that, unless there’s been a lot of hype, you usually don’t have much in the way of expectations, either good or bad.  Mr. de Vries was the editor of Shine a few years ago, an anthology of optimistic science fiction.  I enjoyed the anthology and liked the premise, so I had high hopes for this story.  Unfortunately, I found this piece long on writing and short on story.  On the surface it’s about a woman who goes to something resembling a carnival, but its really about the life issues she’s facing.  It seems to me that this was the type of literary science fiction where an author puts as much, and usually more, effort in writing fancy sentences full of symbolism as telling a compelling story.  It was a well-written story, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.  Maybe I’ll have better luck with the next story of his I try.

Overall, this is a promising start to a new publication.  It often takes a few issues for a new publication to find its tone and voice, something Mr. Wise points out in the editorial.  It’s going to be fun seeing that develop.  I’m looking forward to the next issue.  If you want to give Specutopia a try, it’s available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but I would suggest you click this link and buy directly from the publisher to show your support.  That way they don’t have give a cut to the middle-man.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Hits 100 Issues

Beneath Ceaseless Skies 
Cover art by Raphael Lacoste

The one hundredth issue of BCS won’t go live for another day or so, which means I’ll have to put the links in for the individual stories later (done), but I wanted to try and create a bit of advance buzz for the issue.  (Having a subscription, I got my copy early.)  Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of the best fantasy markets out there, and it publishes every other week.

I’m behind on reading the short fiction magazines I subscribe to, or I would have reviewed some of the preceding issues.  I may still.  But 100 issues is a milestone that deserves to be celebrated.  Instead of the usual two pieces of fiction, there are four, just like in the issue marking the three year anniversary of the magazine (reviewed here).  Here’s what you’ll find.

In the Palace of the Jade Lion” by Richard Parks is a quiet combination of ghost story and love story.  It’s the longest story in this issue, and well worth your time. It’s set in China or a country very much like it, a departure from his series of stories set in ancient Japan.  Parks is one of the best practitioners of fantasy working today, and if a magazine or anthology has a story by him, and it’s not one of the publications I subscribe to, his name alone usually is enough to make me pick it up.

Next is “Ratcatcher” by Garth Upshaw.  In this tale, clockwork creations have taken over, forcing humans to hide in holes.  They subsist on a number of foodstuffs  at which most people who eat Western diets would turn their noses up.  One day a ratcatcher decides he’s had enough and fights back.

Christie Yant is an up-and-coming writer of science fiction and fantasy.  “The Three Feats of Agani”  was the second story of hers I’ve read (the first being”Temperance” in the inaugural issue of Fireside, reviewed here).  While “Temperance” was science fiction, this is core fantasy.  It’s about a nine year old girl hearing the story of the god Agani at her father’s cremation.  It’s dark, morally complex, and powerful, a mature work.

If the name Amanda M. Olson isn’t familiar to you, it’s because “Virtue’s Ghosts” is her first published story.  You couldn’t tell it by reading it; I only know that because it says so in the brief author bio at the end of the story.  This may have been my favorite solely for the narrator’s voice.  It’s the first person account of a girl who lives with her mother and two aunts.  The mother and one of the aunts run a boarding house, and the second aunt comes to live with them.  In this world, people are required to undergo a coming of age ceremony in which they are given a magical pendant that prevents suppresses their greatest character flaw.  In this story, they take in a boarder who has a shocking secret.

As I said, this issue won’t go live for another day or two, but you should keep your eye out for it  (I’ll add links and any other updates when that happens.).  Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of the most consistently high quality pure fantasy publications around.  Here’s hoping we see another hundred issues.  And another hundred after that.  And another…

Dancing on Graves is Good PI Fun

Dancing on Graves
Jack Clark
Createspace, 217 p.
Trade paper $13.95, Kindle 4.99

Of the major awards for genre fiction, at least among the ones I pay attention to, the Shamus Awards (given by the Private Eye Writers of America) are pretty close to the top of the list.  So if a book’s cover says that the author is a Shamus Award Finalist, I pay attention.  And when a Shamus Award Finalist emails me to ask if I he can send me a couple of his books to review, do you think I’m going to be open to that idea?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Does a bear…never mind.

Now I realize that the focus of this blog is primarily heroic fantasy and historical adventure and the focus of my other blog, Futures Past and Present, is science fiction in all its forms.  Granted there’s been little historical fiction in recent months, and I don’t update the science fiction blog very often.  That’s because this one keeps me busy enough.  So busy that I find I have very little time left for the other two closely related genres that I really love, noir  and private investigator fiction.  There are times when this drives me nuts because that’s what I’m in the mood for.  I’ve decided to occasionally include some noir or PI novels in my reviews, just to preserve my own sanity.  Not a lot of them, but every once in a while, maybe once very four to six weeks.  I know some of the people who read these posts on a regular basis are also noir/PI fans, so I don’t think I’m completely deserting my audience by this move.

Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel was one of the first books I reviewed here, before I really hit my stride.  It was top notch.  Dancing on Graves is, too, and it’s the first of two books Mr. Clark kindly sent me that I’ll be reviewing, and for which I would like to thank him.

There was a question on someone’s blog the other day, I think James Reasoner‘s but I’m too lazy to look it up, asking how many ongoing PI series were left.  Other than Loren D. Estleman‘s Amos Walker and Bill Pronzini‘s Nameless Detective, there weren’t too many names suggested.  A few others, but not many.  The Nick Acropolis series by Jack Clark can be added to that list. 

Acropolis is a former cop who left the force approximately ten years prior to this novel under conditions that were not of his choosing.  That plays some role in the plot. 

Back in 1981, when Acropolis was a homicide detective, a young law student named Katherine Traynor was brutally murdered in a Chicago park.  The man arrested for the killing, Billy Mansfield, ran out of the park and was hit by a taxi.  He claimed he couldn’t remember what happened prior to his being struck by the vehicle.  He was also covered in blood.  It was an open and shut, slam dunk case, with little to no investigation done.

This was in the days before forensics.  Billy Mansfield has been on death row for about 22 years, placing the events of the novel in 2003 or early 2004 if I caught all the dates and numbers correctly.  Acropolis, now a private detective, is approached by a group that’s trying to clear death row cases.  They manage to convince Acropolis that there is a possibility that Mansfield might be innocent.

So he agrees to help them look into the case, although he doesn’t think it will go anywhere.  If you’ve read even a little detective fiction, you can make an educated guess just how wrong he’s going to be. 

In good detective fiction, you don’t know what’s going on but you think you do.  This should be true of the reader as well as the detective.  Only as you get deeper into the book should little things not add up, creating a sense of frisson, and the further you read, the more secrets start to open up like layers in an onion.  That’s exactly what happens here.  This is one of those books that rewards patience, when about halfway through you start to discover that you really don’t know what’s going on after all, that there are currents at work dark and deep and ready to suck you under.

This was a good PI novel, a fine addition to what has gone before in the genre.  If you like this sort of thing, and I know some of you do, Jack Clark is someone to check out.

Now, lest some of you think I’m giving Mr. Clark a pass because he sent me free books, let me address a couple of negatives.  First, the layout/formatting/whatever.  I’ve never dealt with Createspace, so I don’t know how difficult this part is.  There were numerous places where the top and bottom margins were off, mostly the bottom, with the text ending before the bottom of the page.  This had the effect of making me think I was at the end of the chapter (they’re short for the most part) only to find I wasn’t.  Was this annoying?  Yes.  Was I able to get used to it?  Yes, after a bit.  Did I let it stop me from enjoying the novel?  Is a bear Catholic?  Does the Pope…never mind.

The second was a factual detail.  At one point, Acropolis makes a reference to Pluto no longer being classified as a planet.  I don’t remember the context, or even what part of the book it was in other than it was in the first half or so.  Why is this a big deal?  Because in my offline life, I’m a science geek, that’s why.  This novel takes place in 2003 or so, and Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.  That type of little detail is the sort of thing that can bug me.  It’s not a big deal, and certainly not essential to the story, but it stuck out in my mind.

One other thing, and it’s not a negative really, but something you should be aware of.  Many of the great PI series take place in large cities where the city itself is to some extent a character and the detective’s interaction with the city becomes part of the attraction of the series.  Amos Walker in Detroit.  Phillip Marlow in Los Angeles.  The Continental Op and the Nameless Detective in San Francisco.  Matthew Scudder in New York.  John Francis Cuddy in Boston.  I could go on.  Jack Clark is a Chicago cab driver, and the city is very much a central part of the book.  Never having had an opportunity to visit Chicago (a three hour layover in the airport doesn’t count), many of the references were lost on me.  I could have looked some things up on the internet, but we’ve already discussed my laziness.  Besides, I was more interested in finding out who killed Katherine Traynor.  If you’ve not been to Chicago, you might not fully appreciate the aspect of how the city had changed over Acropolis’ lifetime.  Even not having seen some of the places mentioned, Clark still managed to make me feel the sense of loss Acropolis experienced as he moved through a city that was no longer the one he grew up in.  It was powerful writing in places and made Acropolis more than just another gumshoe.

While there were some negatives to this book, the positives far outweighed them.  The other novel is Highway Side, also an Acropolis novel.  I’ll review it here when I’ve cleared some other commitments.  I’m looking forward to it. 

Mockingbird Sings an Original Song

Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot Books
6 Sep 2012
384pp B-format paperback
£7.99 UK

28 Aug 2012
mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN

28 Aug 2012

Class? Let me have your attention please, class.  We’re going to start today’s session with a quiz.  The topic is Chuck Wendig’s forthcoming novel, Mockingbird.  This will be multiple choice.  Mockingbird is a) relentless, b) creepy, c) compelling, d) surprising, e) likely to keep you up too late finishing it, f) all of the above.

No looking on your neighbor’s paper.  Please pass them to the aisle when you’re done.

Do I have all the papers?  Good.  The answer, of course, is f.

If you read Blackbird (reviewed here), then you know the basic premise.  Miriam Black has the ability to know the time and circumstances of a person’s death just by touching them. Wendig made the most of that premise in the first novel of the series, in which Miriam touches a man and learns that she will be present at his murder a month in the future.

When I had an opportunity to grab an eARC of the sequel, I jumped at it.  Mockingbird opens about a year later.  Miriam touches a woman in the grocery store and sees the woman will be gunned down in about five minutes.  So she acts to save the woman and launches a series of events that will totally change her world.

And that’s a rough paraphrase of the blurb Angry Robot has posted.  I’m loath to add too much to it, even though it really doesn’t tell you much.  I’ll say this.  Miriam finds herself in a situation in which she has to prevent a series of killings that are a few years in the future.  Beyond that, I don’t want to give too many details away.  Spoilers, ya know.

The story didn’t go where I expected it to.  I was surprised several times.  Wendig has come up with a killer that is at least as scary as Hannibal Lector.  There were scenes that were downright flawless in their creepiness.  I doubt I’ll ever look at crows the same way again.  We learn more about Miriam, and it’s kinda spooky, some of the stuff we learn.  Of course, Wendig only gives us so much.  He leaves plenty of questions and implications hanging, making us want more.

He also does a great job of balancing how many times Miriam uses her talents in the book.  Too little, and she’s not really special; too much, and it becomes blase.  Wendig has her use it just enough, and every time it heightens the suspense or gives us some important piece of information or moves the plot along.

The prose is lean and compelling.  I’ve stayed up way too late tonight finishing the book and writing this review.  It’s that good.

The publication date here in the US is still about six weeks away, which should give you plenty of time to put the book in your reading schedule and to read Blackbird if you haven’t yet.  (Points deducted if you haven’t.)  Angry Robot hasn’t posted an excerpt yet, or I would provide one.  I’ll just leave you with your assignment, class, which is to read this book.  It’s going to be one that people are talking about, and I expect to see at least one volume from this series on the award ballots next year.

Tales of the Emerald Serpent is a Great Start to a New Anthology Series

Tales of the Emerald Serpent
Scott Taylor, ed.
Art of the Genre
tp, 180 p., $14.99
ebook, $4.99
Illustrated by Janet Aulisio, Jeff Laubenstein, and Todd Lockwood

I don’t remember where I heard about this project (probably over at Black Gate), but it was a Kickstarter project I told you about earlier this year.

Well, the project was successfully funded, although the stretch goals weren’t met.  More on that in a bit.

I finished the collection over the weekend, and I can say it was money well spent.  There are nine interrelated stories by Lynn Flewelling, Harry Connolly, Todd Lockwood, Juliet McKenna, Mike Tousignant, Martha Wells, Julie Czerneda, Scott Taylor, and Rob Mancebo.

 The setting is the city of Taux, a city made of stone.  Once a thriving metropolis, something happened the inhabitants which caused them to be imprisoned in the stone.   Since that time, humans as well as a number of other races have moved in and tried to make the city their own.  They’ve not been completely successful.  It’s a city of sorcery, swordplay, and intrigue.  There are the Razors, professional duelists who are deadly in all styles of sword fighting.  There are the Sturgeons, the name of the constabulary.  There are thieves, scoundrels, and ne’er-do-wells.  Much of the action centers around the Emerald Serpent, a tavern in the Black Gate district.  All of it is exciting, fresh, inventive, and a whole lot of fun.

Most of the stories in this volume take place over the period of a few days or weeks, although some, like “Namesake” by Lynn Flewelling, occur across a span of a few years.  Some of the tales contain references to other stories and characters in the book.

There’s not a bad story in the lot, and some of them, such as “Between” by Todd Lockwood and “Charlatan” by Scott Taylor tell of the same events from completely different points of view.  The overall effect creates a book that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Along with reading some good fiction by old favorites, I’ve discovered some more writers whose work I’ll be reading.

I highly recommend this anthology to fans of good, exciting fantasy, especially fans of the short story.  The stretch goals of this anthology would have funded the second and later volumes in the series.  The first stretch goal didn’t quite make it.  That’s a shame, because I’m really looking forward to reading the next volume, especially after the events of “Footsteps of Blood” by Rob Mancebo, the final story in the book.  I’m hoping Scott Taylor produces the second volume anyway. (Pleeaasee!!!)

If you are old enough to remember Thieves World or have read similar books, Tales of the Emerald Serpent is patterned after that series.  If that’s your thing, then show your support by ordering a copy today.

Out of the Garden and into my Library

Out of the Garden
Angeline Hawkes
Bad Moon Books
Trade Paper, 393 p., $20.00
ebook $3.99 Kindle  Nook

If you enjoy a good barbarian story, and who doesn’t, then you might want to check out the latest from Angeline Hawkes.  While most of her recent work is in the field of horror, she makes the occasional foray into the realms of fantasy, often giving us another exploit of her barbarian character, Kabar of El Hazzar.  All the stories so far have been collected in this volume.

These are pseudohistorical fantasies that may or may not take place in our world.  Some of the references to historical places and peoples, such as Nineveh or Hebrews, would incline one to think so.  But then there are references to all sorts of places that never existed.

None of which is really relevant.  What is, is the answer to the question, are the stories entertaining?

Yes, yes they are.  The title story, also the longest in the book, is by far the most unusual, in that Kabar wanders into the Garden of Eden long after Adam and Eve have left.  He finds it’s not uninhabited.  The other eleven stories vary in length, with some being short stories and others novelettes or novellas. 

The tone and plot vary, as well, from one story to the next.  Although several have the same basic plot skeleton, that being Kabar must go and fight a monster to bring back a magic item to aid someone, the difference and enjoyment is in the details. 

Kabar isn’t your typical Clonan.  Whereas Conan is a wanderer with no family, Kabar places great importance on family in spite of his travels.  In fact two of the stories don’t involve Kabar at all.  “The Treasure of Their Destinies” is an adventure of Kabar’s brother Aeneas in which Kabar isn’t even mentioned that I noticed.  This one reminded me of Sinbad.  Kabar’s wife Adina has the starring role in “Sacrifice of the Utukki”.  It’s in part this expanded cast that sets these stories apart from the pack of poor Robert E. Howard imitations.

That’s not the only thing different about this character.  Kabar is noble and good, not the antihero that Conan sometimes is.  He is more than willing to sacrifice or put himself at risk for those he cares about, whether they be friend or family.  Of course, he’s not above keeping some gold for himself or ravishing a beautiful (and willing) woman (or goddess) if opportunity arises.

That’s not to say that Robert E. Howard doesn’t cast a long shadow over these tales.  The author and her husband are former members of REHupa, after all.   The action, swordplay, danger, and sorcery are all there.  And the titles are worthy of Howard.  “The Skull of Zondamar” (nice twist on the end of that one), “To Hunt a God”, “Upon This Forgotten Altar”, “The Bloody Spear of Nineveh”, and others sound like Howard titles.

I found this collection to be enjoyable and fun, a nice addition to my sword and sorcery library.  The author’s website has a list of the stories in this series.  On that list is a novel in progress.  I’m keeping my eye out for it.

Cover for Abercrombie’s Red Country Released

Joe Abercrombie’s next novel, Red Country, is due out in the UK from Gollancz on October 18 and in the US from Orbit on October 23.  I know what I’ll be reading over the Thanksgiving break (unless I can score an ARC first).  Gollancz has released the UK cover.  That’s it on the right.

From what I’ve been able to learn, it seems to be a Western in a fantasy setting, where a woman seeks revenge out on the frontier.

 Here’s the wraparound cover:  

The US cover looks like this:

 Finally, if you’re wondering what the book is about, here’s the jacket copy: 

“They burned her home.
They stole her brother and sister.
But vengeance is following.
Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old stepfather Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own, and out in the lawless Far Country, the past never stays buried.
Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust…”