Friday, September 26, 2014

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, series by Tad Williams


I am on a roll--Two reviews in row for the same author! Tad Williams' masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair is the first book in the epic fantasy series, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.  I first read this book when it came out in 1988 and had to re-read it again immediately upon finishing it. I read it aloud to my children, as each new book in the series came out. This is a sweeping series, and Simon's adventures are absorbing and exciting, and is a cornerstone of my library. 

But first, The BLURB:
A war fueled by the dark powers of sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard--for Prester John, the High King, slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai, lies dying. And with his death, an ancient evil will at last be unleashed, as the Storm King, undead ruler of the elvishlike Siti, seeks to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood. Then, driven by spell-inspired jealousy and hate, prince will fight prince, while around them the very land begins to die.

Only a small scattered group, the League of the Scroll, recognizes the true danger awaiting Osten Ard. And to Simon--a castle scullion unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League--will go the task of spearheading the quest for the solution to a riddle of long-lost swords of power...and a quest that will see him fleeing and facing enemies straight out of a legend-maker's worst nightmares!

My REVIEW:
Just like the best and most enduring of love affairs, The Dragon Bone Chair begins a bit slowly, as the author establishes the background to the tale. However, once you are into it, this book is sheer magic.  The main protagonist is Simon, a fourteen-year-old kitchen boy and servant in the great castle Hayholt.  He is not really very enthusiastic in carrying out his duties as a kitchen-drudge in the royal household during last days of the long reign of King John Presbyter. However, he is overjoyed when he finds himself apprenticed to Doctor Morgenes, the castle's healer and wizard. Simon alternates his time between his chores as a drudge and learning to read and write, taught by the good doctor.  Upon the death of the great King John, his son Elias, whom many say is a tool of the evil cleric Pryrates, becomes king.

Soon after he takes the throne, King Elias' brother Josua, whom Elias hates, vanishes and no one is sure if he went voluntarily or was murdered. Elias is blinded by his desire for power.  He creates a pact with the undead Sithi ruler, the Storm King, who plots to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood.

Simon accidentally stumbles into the castle dungeons and discovers that Prince Josua is being held captive.  He and Morgenes conspire to rescue the prince. Simon and Morgenes are successful, and Josua escapes, but Elias' soldiers, led by Pryrates, storm Morgenes' office, and Morgenes is murdered by a dark magic. Terrified and confused, Simon is able to flee the castle through a secret passage at the back of the doctor's office. With only with his mentor's biography of the good King John for companionship, Simon is lost and despondent.

In the process of escaping the Hayholt, Simon witnesses Pryrates and Elias performing an evil ritual with some strange white demons. He rescues a member of the Sithi from a trap, and receives a white arrow as a token.  At the same time he is befriended by a troll, Binnabik, who travels with Simon to Naglimund where they hope he will find safety.  While traveling they save a servant girl and her sister from wild dogs, and meet a witch who helps them escape the soldiers who are pursuing them.

Upon arriving at Naglimund Simon discovers that the serving girl whom they saved is actually Miriamele, the only child of King Elias.  She has run away to join her uncle Josua. Simon finds himself on a quest to recover the magical blade, Thorn which once belonged to the greatest knight in their history.  In the process, he runs into the Sitha Prince that he had rescued from the trap, and Jiriki joins Simon in his quest.

Simon’s quest begins simply (in his mind) as a just a desperate need to escape the horrors he’d witnessed at the Hayholt. It becomes so much more, and over the course of the books, he grows from an indecisive boy into a man capable of strong leadership. The divergent paths he and Miriamele must take are hard and nearly break them, but through those struggles they are both made stronger.

The beasts are fantastic as are the representatives of the various races who come to Simon's aid. Their magics and their cultures are clearly drawn; and the storyline is the most compelling and addictive book I've read in a long time. The world of Osten Ard is real and the story set within it is so well drawn and plotted that I find myself thinking about it when not reading it.  Williams paints his world with such detail yet he never falls into the trap of beating the reader to death with the minutia.

There is a large cast of characters, but I found it fairly easy to keep them straight because they are drawn with attention to their individual personalities.  The characters are all the more real because they each have strengths, flaws and weaknesses.  That is why this take on the age-old tale of the kitchen-boy who is really a hero is fresh and wonderful.   Of course, there is an Appendix in the back with the names and pronunciations of all the characters and places.

The intertwined stories of Simon and Miriamele is told in a way that is compelling and very real. Love jealousy, betrayal and redemption--all the worst and best of human emotions are vividly portrayed in these pages.  The day I got my first Kindle I had to get the rest of the books in the series downloaded, as I couldn't wait to re-read the whole series. This is my go-to series when I am looking for a tale that really resonates and absorbs me. I have re-read this series every year since the day the first book was published.

Word has it Williams is once again working on a book set in this world. I guarantee I will have it on pre-order the moment it is available.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sleeping Late on Judgement Day, by Tad Williams

Okay--I've been waiting for months, but the wait was SO worth it! Tad Williams is back with my boy Bobby Dollar, in the third installment of this crazy, dark, sometimes painfully hilarious series: Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. Who doesn't love a really bad angel?

THE BLURB:
Where does an angel go when he's been to Hell and back?

Renegade angel Bobby Dollar does not have an easy afterlife. After surviving the myriad gruesome dangers Hell oh-so-kindly offered him, Bobby has returned empty-handed – his demon girlfriend Casmira, the Countess of Cold Hands, is still in the clutches of Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. Some hell of a rescue.

Forced to admit his failure, Bobby ends up back at his job as an angel advocate. That is, until Walter, an old angel friend whom Bobby never thought he’d see again, shows up at the local bar. The last time he saw Walter was in Hell, when Walter had tried to warn him about one of Bobby’s angel superiors. But now Walter can’t remember anything, and Bobby doesn't know whom to trust.

Turns out that there's corruption hidden within the higher ranks of Heaven and Hell, but the only proof Bobby has is a single feather. Before he knows it, he’s in the High Hall of Heavenly Judgement – no longer a bastion for the moral high ground, if it ever was, but instead just another rigged system – on trial for his immortal soul...

MY REVIEW:
Holy crap!  Bobby's in trouble, but when is he not?  This angel is always looking for grief, and he always finds it. Nothing is what he thinks it is, and even Bobby's jaded eyes are opened as the reality of his unreality unfolds. 

Bobby's inquisitive nature has rattled the cage of  someone important in the Heavenly scheme of things, and that someone wants Bobby destroyed. They have already gone to great lengths to do so, and now he's going to find out just who it is, and what it has to do with this mysterious Third Way between Heaven and Hell. All his friends and most of his enemies are back in this tale, and some of his enemies prove to be more likable than his friends. 

He knows who is behind his troubles, and he is up against overwhelming odds. As Bobby says in one of my favorite lines from this book, "You know your life is pretty screwed up when even the winos turn their backs on you."  That comment pretty much sums up the magnitude of his trouble.

There is an innocence and kind of naivety about Bobby Dollar, despite his unsavory occupation. He makes mistakes, and draws attention to himself, and yet he continues to ferret out the truth behind the traitors in Heaven's midst.  The bad guys and the dangerous beasts are really bad, and the good guys are just swimming as fast as they can in shark-infested waters.  There's always something lurking around every corner, just waiting to trip Bobby up.

 As I read this series I find myself hoping that the afterlife is somehow a better, less corrupt place than the three options offered in Bobby Dollar's Heaven and Hell. Some of the angels who hold his afterlife in their hands have no compassion or mercy left in them, and some of the demons are kinder gentler souls than their angelic counterparts. 

I love the twists and turns of William's prose, as his hard-boiled angel gets down to the dirty business of cleaning up the mean streets of Heaven. He uses ordinary words in an extraordinary way, but never commits the sin of dropping the reader out of the story.  THIS is why I read his work.

I highly recommend Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. It is a smart, well-crafted journey into the human condition, set in an environment guaranteed to keep things interesting, and peopled with unforgettable characters. I give it 5 full stars.



Friday, August 29, 2014

Better You Go Home, Scott Driscoll



Today I am dipping into the world of literary fiction, with Better You Go Home by indie author Scott Driscoll. Technically this is a medical thriller, but the atmosphere of mystery and illusion, combined with the harsh other-world quality of the old Czech Republic make this novel a fantasy of a time gone by.

The BLURB:
Seattle attorney Chico Lenoch wonders why his Czech father refuses to contact family left behind the Iron Curtain. Searching through his father’s attic after the Velvet Revolution, Chico discovers letters dated four decades earlier revealing the existence of a half-sister. He travels to the Czech Republic to find his forgotten sister and unearth the secrets his father has buried all these years. There is self-interest behind Chico’s quest. Most urgently, he is nearing kidney failure and needs a donor organ. None of his relatives are a suitable match. Could his sister be a candidate? Chico also meets Milada, a beautiful doctor who helps him navigate the obstacles to finding his sister. While Chico idealizes his father’s homeland, Milada feels trapped. Is she really attracted to him, or is he a means of escape to the United States? Chico confronts a moral dilemma as well. If he approaches his sister about his need for a kidney, does he become complicit with his father and the Big Shots of that generation who've already robbed her of so much?

My REVIEW:
I loved this book. Driscoll takes a little step back in time with this tale. He gets into the workings of  human nature, of who we are, who we think we are, and how others see us.

Chico is an intriguing character. The tale is told in the first person, which I usually find difficult to get into as a reader, but didn't in this case. Also something I usually find off putting but didn't in this case is the way Chico occasionally 'breaks the fourth wall'--he sometimes addresses the reader directly. It works, because you are in his head the whole time and it feels perfectly natural.

An attorney, Chico is a fiercely independent man. An example of that independent streak is that he is nearly blind, and yet he insists on driving despite his friends' pleas, because, like a windshield, he can somewhat clear his vision when it gets foggy.

Despite his independent streak and his analytical nature, Chico's childhood memories are illusions and he only begins to realize it when he gets to Písečná. His father is not the man he believed him to be, and nothing is what he expected. Unable to stop thinking like a lawyer Chico asks questions and uncovers a family secret with far-reaching consequences.

The situation he finds his sister Anezka, in is serious and fraught with danger, the Czech Republic is a treacherous, alien world, and like an onion, truth there is concealed beneath many layers. Suffering, hardship, and betrayal lurk around every corner, but sharply juxtaposed against the grimness of that reality is intense beauty. At the heart of this tale are the lengths even the most ruthless of people will go to for a fantasy, an ideal.  

Driscoll's narrative draws you in and holds you spellbound to the last dramatic moment. He takes you to a world that is at times incomprehensible to western eyes, and immerses you in that culture. The way the authorities work, the absolute power certain people enjoy is shown with heartbreaking clarity. Love and loss, trust and betrayal, jealousy and all stops in-between--emotions drive this plot to it's stunning conclusion.

This is not genre fiction, instead it is written for mature, dedicated readers who want substance in a book. No fluff here, just good solid craftsmanship. I give it five full stars.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cyador's Heirs, L.E. Modesitt Jr.




I've mixed feelings about this book, Cyador's Heirs. It is a wonderful story, well-written as is all L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s work, but it is published by one of the industry giants,TOR. Quite frankly, the EBook book is outrageously over-priced, and there are numerous, severe formatting and editing errors that make going the rough at times. Proof-reading may have been skimped on in the hurry to publish, because I read many Indie novels that are far better proofed and formatted than this book, every week. Despite those flaws, I loved the story, and Modesitt's handling of the young Lord Lerial's coming of age.


FIRST, THE BLURB:

Decades after the fall of Cyador, its survivors have reestablished themselves in Cigoerne, a fertile country coveted by hostile neighbors in less hospitable lands. Young Lerial, the second son of Duke Kiedron, lives in the shadow of his older brother Lephi, the heir to their father's realm. Lerial’s future seems preordained: He will one day command his brother’s forces in defense of Cigoerne, serving at his older sibling’s pleasure, and no more.

But when Lerial is sent abroad to be fostered by Major Altyrn to learn the skills and wisdom he will need to fulfill his future duties, he begins a journey into a much larger world that brings out his true potential. Lerial has talents that few, as yet, suspect: He is one of those rare beings who can harness both Order and Chaos, the competing natural forces that shape the world and define the magic that exists within it. And as war finally engulfs the fringes of Cigoerne, Lerial’s growing mastery of Order and Chaos is tested to its limits, and his own.

MY REVIEW:

As always, L.E. Modesitt Jr. manages to tell a gripping tale that makes you have to think, have to guess at the motives and thoughts of the people around the main character. Lerial is the younger son of the Duke of Cigoerne, and is expected to lead the Mirror Lancers when his brother, Lephi, ascend's the throne.  His grandfather was the last Emperor of Cyador, and upon the fall of Cyador and the loss of their empire in Candar, the surviving Empress escaped with their son, fleeing to the continent of Hamor where she carved out a duchy for her her son, Duke Kiedron, to inherit.  These deeds and misdeeds of the ancestors loom heavily in Lerial's life.

His relationship with his brother, Lephi, is strained. Lephi openly regards him with jealous condescension. Their mother seems to care more for Lephi than Lerial, but that could be his perception. Due to the tense family currents, Lerial's younger sister, Ryalah, is his most cherished family member, followed closely by his aunt, Emerya.

Though Lerial has the talent to use both Chaos and Order magic, he tends to to Black of Order, and he must struggle to educate himself in his mastery of that craft. This really begins when he is sent away to be fostered at Major Altyrn's estate, which though it hurts his feelings as first, turns out to be the best thing. It is there, working on the family estate, that young Lerial begins to feel a part of a family, and to have a sense of who he is. His new guardian was well acquainted with his grandparents, and was the leader of the palace guard in Cyad. He made possible the Empress's dream of carving some kind of empire for her son, Duke Kiedral, to inherit, and now makes the education of Lerial his top priority.

Great things are expected of Lerial, and he feels the pressure. Being young, he sometimes tries too hard, and discovers that mistakes cost lives. Lerial's sense of Duty and his strict code of ethics keep him going when he at his lowest points. The story is well-crafted and thought provoking. Lerial is a wonderful character, and his struggle is compelling.

Again, I recommend you do not buy the EBook as it is outrageously priced  at $12.99 and too poorly formatted. I suggest you buy the paperback, or wait until it is available in the 2nd-hand bookstore, as the publisher may have taken better care with formatting and proofing the print version. 

This lack of respect for the author's work and for readers like me who prefer EBooks is disturbing, but it seems to be a volley in the war against progress within the industry. I'm just sorry the author is caught in the middle. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Doublesight, Terry Persun





Well, after my long detour into other genres, we're back in the realm of fantasy. Indie author Terry Persun has created a fantasy that is fresh and exhilarating.  Doublesight  is both an adventure novel and a novel of one girl's coming of age.


The BLURB:

After the Doublesight Wars, dangerous and mean-spirited shape shifters were killed off, causing other doublesight to hide their gifts, congregate into their own villages or clans, and avoid most humans. Zimp and Zora are the twin granddaughters of the crow clan's sage. The reticent Zimp is relieved that she has not been chosen to take her grandmother's position, but after Zora is murdered after an attack on the clan, Zimp is forced into her obligations. Rumors, stemming from Castle Weilk, suggest that dangerous throwbacks have been born--gryphons, harpys, dragons--and, once again the humans decide to hunt them down. Fear leads to mistrust, and mistrust to murder, all seemingly. The doublesight council assembles to assess the situation and sends five doublesight to investigate the rumors, placing Zimp in charge of four men. Struggling with her own intuitive abilities, and trying to hold a stable position as leader, Zimp finds herself in the center of a changing world and must decide on her real place within it.

My REVIEW:

Persun thrusts you into the middle of action from page one. Zimp's clan is under attack, and no one knows why.

Wholly human or wholly crow depending on what form she is in, Zimp is a great character, both endearing and aggravating. At first, she is weak and allows a less qualified, but more aggressive clan member, Arren, to make decisions for her. 

Brok, a shifter who is also a Thylacine, (which I had never heard of before this) is also an interesting and vivid character. He is angry, and Zimp is wary of him. His brother is unable to shift back to human, and his tragedy is poignant for every doublesight, whatever species. 

Lankor is a doublesight dragon, and is also a great character. He is angry and confused, unable to control his temper as all the doublesight teenagers entering adulthood seem to be.

Though they are being persecuted, the doublesight have many divisions and rifts among themselves, and must somehow find a way to work together to find out why they are being hunted. This leads to the discovery of a great evil that threatens their very existence. 

This book is as much about personalities and the need to remember their own commonality as it is about the great evil that threatens their kind. Each individual is sharply drawn, and has presence, struggling for their own place in their society while their world faces calamity. Zimp and Lankor struggle to do what they know is right, in the face of treachery and occasional bad judgement.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that the ending is a set-up for book two. There is some resolution, it's just not complete, and there is ample room for more story. I always have mixed feelings about that sort of ending for the first book in a series, but despite that one minor flaw, this is an awesome book, and I think it is one of the better fantasy books I've read lately. There is nothing stale, or been-done-before in this tale. I will definitely be reading The Memory Tower.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Killing Tide, by P.J. Alderman





Today I am not reviewing a fantasy or a scifi book--instead I am reviewing a contemporary thriller, located on the Columbia River, in a town I am most familiar with--Astoria. You may remember the town from the 1985 movie "Goonies." 

A Killing Tide, was a RITA finalist and climbed the charts to stay on the New York Times and USA Today bestselling lists for eight weeks. I can tell you why – this book grips you from the first page.


The BLURB:

Where there's smoke...

Kaz Jorgensen is used to fear--the anxiety of negotiating treacherous currents as she captains her family's fishing trawlers, the terrifying nightmares of the day she almost lost her life on the river. But now a man is dead, an arsonist has set the Anna Marie ablaze, and her brother is missing.

There's fire...

Michael Chapman knows how to take the heat--as the new fire chief of Astoria, Oregon, he's dealt with more than his share. No way can he afford to get involved with the sister of a suspect. But the scorching attraction between him and Kaz burns out of control, and when someone takes a shot at her, his protective instincts kick in. Whatever happens, he can't allow another woman to die because of him.
My REVIEW:
A Killing Tide by indie author P. J. Alderman takes place in the small Oregon city of Astoria. With simple strokes, she evokes the atmosphere of the coastal town, the eternal grayness and eternal rain. Based in Astoria, Oregon, Columbia River Bar Pilots were established in 1846 to ensure the safety of ships, crews and cargoes crossing the treacherous Columbia River Bar, which is recognized as one of the most dangerous and challenging navigated stretches of water in the world. The men and women who fish those waters are also a rare breed.
(Kasmira) Kaz Jorgensen was once a well-known local fisher-woman, and has recently returned to Astoria and fishing after a long absence from fishing as financial a consultant in San Francisco. Her best friend had called her, telling her there was trouble with her brother Gary, but not what the trouble was. She has not been able to talk much to him, due to having to be out on her own boat, the Kasmira B, and things are somewhat distant between them.
She has not been welcomed back with open arms by her brother or the community at large.  Having just lost half her pots and most of her catch to a vandal at sea, she brings her boat in late. She arrives at The Redemption, a tavern frequented by the local fishers, and meets up with her best friend, Detective Lucy McGuire who is also her brother’s girlfriend. Also eating dinner in the Redemption is the new fire chief, Michael Chapman. Just hired from Boston, Chapman is a man with a history, which comes out as the story progresses.
That evening in the Redemption, Michael witnesses Kaz trying to break up a violent disagreement between Kaz’s brother Gary and his friend, Chuck. Because she is no longer considered a member of the community for reasons which gradually emerge. Everyone warns Kaz to stay out of ‘it’; indicating to her that whatever is going on between Chuck and Gary is big and it involves the whole fishing community. Michael Chapman intervenes, to Kaz’s irritated chagrin.


Following that, a friend is murdered; a family man who is also a crewman on her brother’s boat, the Anna Marie. Gary, a vet suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome, is immediately suspected of murdering him and committing arson to burn his boat to cover it up. Making things worse, Gary has vanished. Police Chief Jim Sykes, a man with political ambitions, is hot on Gary’s trail, sure he is the culprit.  Michael, as fire-marshal, is leaping to no conclusions, and is handling the investigation his own way.
This is an intense tale of greed and small-town lust for power and easy money.  Each and every character is fully fleshed out and you immediately like or dislike them with one exception.  Jim Sykes remains somewhat of an enigma right up to the end.
The attraction between Kaz and Michael Chapman is part of what makes this tale so engrossing.  The possibility of their romance is a thread which weaves in and out of the tapestry that is this mystery.  Right up to the end, I was unsure as to whom the culprit was and the ending is a thrilling as any you could ask for.
First published in 2006, A Killing Tide was my introduction to P.J. Alderman’s work. She has become one of my go-to mystery writers, and I have enjoyed everything she has written.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Starliner, David Drake


I've been on a sci-fi jag lately. Hopefully I will find a fantasy book that rings my bells soon--but I can't seem to find any good fantasy that I haven't read already.  Show me some fantasy with an original plot and a great cast of characters, a book that's not full of cute, romantic fluff, thank you. I want to promote indies, but come on authors--you have to work with me! Write me something original or I'll go mad. I hate to be just killing time with my reading, and I refuse to blog about books that bore me. 

So I was cruising the cheap fiction in the Kindle store--and this one was free!


Starliner, by David Drake is another hard science-fiction tale. The ebook was first published In 2013, but it was first published in june of 1992 by Baen. Somehow I never saw this book, so it's new to me.


The BLURB:


The Empress of Earth

Finest passenger liner in the galaxy —
Brightest link in the chain that binds the starflung civilization of the 23rd century—
Six thousand lives in a single hull, trembling through multiple universes to land on raw, often violent worlds, each with its own history and wonder —


The Empress of Earth

Neutral pawn in an interstellar war!

When hostile necessity knows no law, Ran Colville and the rest of the complement of the Empress of Earth must bring home their ship and the passengers entrusted to them. From the Captain on his bridge to the Cold Crewmen who work in conditions that differ from Hell only by name, they'll have their work cut out for them this voyage!


My REVIEW:


Now this was an intriguing tale, an action adventure, written in a leisurely style. Politics, racism, and the privilege of class and wealth dominate this tale of a cruise gone bad. There is the sort of attention to detail that one might find in an Agatha Christie novel, if she had decided to write political thrillers set in interstellar space. It is a period piece.

The main character, Ran Colville is a poor-boy made good, a man who saw an opportunity to change his future and who seized it, though it is a secret that could destroy his career.  He is efficient, and determined to be as cold and heartless as the world he came from, but he has this annoying ability to care what happens to the people around him, though he refuses to admit it.

The crew is an interesting mix, and consists of people who would be found working on any high-end cruise ship. They are good at what they do, and serve with varying degrees of love for their ship and the passengers they carry, ranging from mild lip service to fanatic devotion.  

The passengers are drawn like caricatures, which in a book with as many walk-on parts as this, is the only way to describe them in the paragraph they are given, but they serve to illustrate the atmosphere aboard the starliner, Empress of Earth.
There is violence, and there is a military precision to the recounting of the action scenes. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of the wealthy  and the not so wealthy, it is a compelling drama that unfolds slowly, but eventually takes off with a vengeance.

If you want your books filled with action happening at all times, with no 'info dumps' this book is not for you. David Drake breaks all the rules of modern genre writing: There are many long passages of background information that is slipped into the middle of conversations--again, rather like an old-fashioned novel. It could be jarring to some readers, and while I normally don't approve of large injections of heavy background,  I felt it added to the atmosphere in this tale.

Starliner is most definitely not a one night read, as it takes a while to work your way through it. I did enjoy it, and all in all, I give this book 4 stars.