Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best In Fantasy Year in Review




This year, in July I began my quest to try to read and discuss one really good fantasy read a week.  At the time that I began this quest, I had no idea just how difficult and time consuming a task that would become!  I quickly discovered that for every one book that I loved, I had to read four or five that I quite frankly didn't love. Many books that have received high critical praise didn't ring my chimes at all. 

For this post, I had to decide which book-cover was my favorite book cover, and that was incredibly difficult!  The art and graphics on most of these books is so great that I would be proud to have it on my walls.  Still, Stephen King's incredible cover for 'The Dark Tower' looms as the best cover that I have seen this year.  The joke there is that I never reviewed that book, although my friend Jesse Schlecter reviewed the series as a guest post!  Still, I am using it as the cover of choice for this post. A very close runner-up for cover of the year is Valerie Douglas' 'Servant Of The Gods', which was my final review of the year.

Since my reason for writing the Best in Fantasy was to discuss the books that I loved, you have never heard of the ones that I like moderately, or even not at all, and you will never hear about them unless we are chatting in person! I don't have the deeply rooted belief that I am the final word on whether a book is bad or great that a true critic needs to have.  You have come to realize, I am sure, that I have a rather quirky sense of what I consider to be a great read.  My choices of books tend to be quite divergent and often obscure.  Reading pleasure is so subjective and individual, that I simply try to promote what I personally consider to be little gems.

Several little gems really stood out in my mind this year, and they may or may not surprise you.  The first book that leaps to my mind when I think of the book that I enjoyed the most this year is  L. T. Suzuki's 'Imago - A Warrior's Tale'.  I was blown away by that first book in the series.  I dropped everything and immediately began reading everything in the whole series.  The more I read, the more I was addicted!

Another little gem that rocked the Casbah for me was 'Black Numbers' by Dean Frank Lappi.  That is the scariest, most compelling book I have read in a very long time.  I am now waiting on pins and needles for the sequel! 

I also dipped deep into the realm of Young Adult Fantasy, and along with J. K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' (which was my inaugural post) I read Alison DeLuca's 'Night Watchman Express', Rick Riordan's 'The Lost Hero' and Gary Hoover's 'Land of Nod - The Artifact'.  Although all of these books are written from a teen's point of view (an age which I left behind along with the dinosaur), each and every one of them captured my attention and drew me completely into their world.

I also review many books by authors who have passed on, but whose works live on and still pull the reader in, even after all the years since their passing.  Fritz Lieber's classic ' 'Swords and Deviltry', Robert Jordan's 'New Spring', and Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon' were just a few of the classics that I re-read this year for this blog.  I was so happy to re-read their work, and discovered many things in them that I hadn't noticed the first time around.

We also lost several great writers this year. The prolific, amazing Anne McCaffrey passed on in November, and Diana Wynne Jones in March.

Despite the losses, and despite the amazing number of books that I have had to read just to find one gem a week, this has been a truly great adventure.  Each and every book that I have reviewed in this forum is a book that I absolutely loved reading, and I would gladly read again. Thank you all for being a part of my first year at this!  I hope to be able share many more little beauties with you in the years to come!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Servant of the Gods, Valerie Douglas



Servant of the Gods -Valerie Douglas

Chapter one of Servant of the Gods by indie author Valerie Douglas begins this tale with one of the most moving and dramatic beginnings that I have ever read. I couldn’t wait to begin reading the story of how the Egyptian Priestess Irisi came to such a moment her story.
Chapter two takes up with her memories, beginning with events which happened when she was a child of eleven years of age, and was a shepherd girl named  Eres.  Her village has been attacked.  Now she is orphaned, and taken in by the druids who raise her to be a warrior. She becomes a mercenary soldier.  Her travels as a mercenary lead her to participating in a battle against Egypt, where she ends up on the losing side. This leads to her meeting the love of her life, Khai, in battle.  He captures her, but sees beauty in her as both a warrior and a woman.

To spare her being harshly used by others, he temporarily takes her as his servant.  Despite Khai’s wishes to the contrary she is sold at an auction to the court magician, an evil man named Kamenwati.  He chooses to use her as a gladiator, but eventually he plans to make her his sexual servant and use her in an arcane and evil ceremony.  He orders her to kill in cold blood, something she is loathe to do.  She will fight an opponent in honorable battle but only to first blood or disarmament.   To kill in cold blood is murder and is punishable by death, moreover she does not want to do such a thing. It would place her in Kamenwati’s power even more firmly than she is. 

To avoid having to commit murder in Kamenwati’s service, Eres offers her swords to the gods, in the hope that they will find her acceptable.  She is accepted as a priestess by Isis, and given the name Irisi which means ‘fashioned by the gods’.  Needless to say, her master Kamenwati is livid that she has escaped the fate he had planned for her, and he vows that he will reclaim ‘his property’ one way or another.

While at an audience with the Pharaoh she once again meets Khai, and thwarts an assassination attempt, engineered by the evil vizier Kamenwati who intends to be the next Pharaoh.

Kamenwati is secretly the servant of the God Set, who is the god of evil, chaos and war. He has also made a bargain with a Djinn, a very powerful demon.  An army of Djinn is poised to conquer Egypt, and Set will be the only God.

For several years, Irisi and Khai do not act on their mutual attraction, as Kamenwati would certainly punish them, and he is too strong for Irisi to defeat.

The Djinn that Kamenwati has called attack Egypt and Khai and Irisi are brought together, often enough that others begin to notice how they look at each other.  Eventually, they do become lovers, but they are very discrete, keeping their relationship a secret from Kamenwati.

This is high adventure. Khai is a romantic and sexy hero, and Irisi is a strong woman who never forgets that she is a woman.  She never competes in battle with men by trying to be a man. She is a female warrior, and proud to be so.  There are some very graphic scenes, both of violence and of sex, and frankly there is quite a bit of both. Still, I would recommend this as an adult book because the story is so compelling. 

I am looking forward to reading more works by Valerie Douglas in the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones


This week I finally read Diana Wynne Jones' classic tale, Howl's Moving Castle.  I have long been a fan of the classic animè movie by Hayao Miyazaki that is loosely based on the tale, but I must say that the movie does not tell the tale at all the way that Diana Wynne Jones wrote it. In her book, there are no enemy aircraft bombing anyone. Rather, the tension is between Howl, his personal failings and the Witch of the Waste. 

The book begins with a young woman named Sophie Hatter.  She is the eldest of three daughters living in the town of Market Chipping in the magical kingdom of Ingary, where magic and witchcraft are accepted ways of life. She is very talented with the needle and makes the most beautiful hats and dresses, unknowingly talking life into the hats she creates and other objects.

As the eldest of three girls, she believes that she will have no chance of finding her fortune, accepting that she will have a dull life running the family hat shop.  That is, she accepts it until she is turned into an old crone by the Witch of the Waste, a powerful witch who is not at all pleased with one of Sophie's hats. Mortified, Sophie leaves the shop and installs herself as a cleaning lady for the notorious Wizard Howl, by simply moving in and taking over.  He is infamous in her town for eating the hearts of beautiful young women. Sophie hopes to make a bargain with him to have her spell removed so that she will be young again.

However, she soon learns that Howl is a rather self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier but ultimately good-natured person and an extraordinarily talented wizard. She discovers that he spreads many malicious rumours about himself to ensure his privacy and smears his own reputation to avoid work and responsibility.   As she gets to know him better, she frequently refers to him as a 'Slither-er Outer' because he always  manages to slither out of things that are disagreeable or involve real work. 

The door to his castle is actually a portal that opens onto four different places: the moving castle Sophie first encounters in the hills above Market Chipping, the seaside city of Porthaven, the royal capital of Kingsbury and Howl's boyhood home in Wales, where he was named Howell Jenkins.

Sophie immediately makes a bargain with Howl's resident fire demon, Calcifer: if Sophie can break the contract Howl and Calcifer have signed, then Calcifer will return Sophie to her original form. Part of the contract, however, stipulates that neither Howl nor Calcifer can disclose the terms of the contract to any third party. Sophie tries to guess the specifics of the contract, while Calcifer supplies frequent hints which Sophie usually doesn't pick up on.

Howl himself realizes that Sophie is under a spell and secretly attempts to remove the curse, but when he is unable to remove it, he comes to the conclusion that, for some reason, Sophie wants to remain an old woman.  Since she apparently wishes to be an old lady, he plays along with it, not letting on to her that he is aware that she is under a spell.

Howl's apprentice, Michael Fisher, does all the work of running of Howl's business, while Howl himself is out chasing his long string of paramours.  The minute a girl gives in to him, Howl falls out of love with her. Soon it emerges that Howl and Michael are courting Sophie's two younger sisters Lettie and Martha.  Michael is sincere, and truly loves Martha (who is going by the name of Lettie due to the girls switching places in their jobs). Sophie is worried about the real Lettie, whom Howl is obsessed with, knowing that the minute Lettie admits her love to him he will drop her like a hot rock and she doesn't want her sister to be hurt by him.  

Prince Justin, the King's younger brother, goes missing while searching for Wizard Suliman, who is actually Benjamin Sullivan, also from Wales.  The King orders Howl to find Suliman and Justin and kill the Witch of the Waste for him, as she is responsible for their disappearances. Howl, however, has his own reasons to avoid seeking a confrontation with the Witch of the Waste. The Witch, a jilted former lover, has laid a curse on him.

Howl attempts to weasel out of this exalted royal appointment by having Sophie pretend to be his mother and petition the King against the appointment.  Her attempt to convince the King that Howl is a self-absorbed, dishonest and cavalier 'Slither-er Outer' is unsuccessful.  Howl becomes the official Royal Wizard despite his wishes to the contrary.

I must say that I really enjoyed this book.  It was first published in 1986, and how it was that I never read it before this, I don't know. I am now going to read more of Diana Wynne Jones' work, as this is also the first book of hers that I have read.  I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has seen the movie, because, as so often happens, the movie is a completely different tale altogether. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Voices in the Field and Other Stories, J. Allen Fielder


Periodically, I go on binges of reading short story compilations.  Recently I came across one written by indy author J. Allen Fielder, and I am now hooked.  He has gone back to the roots of science-fiction and fantasy with his book, 'Voices in the Field'.  This book is definitely a thinking-person's sort of book.  There are morality tales, and tales that are simply meant to make you go "hmm...."

Fielder's own description of his book on Amazon is as follows:   "Voices in the Field" is a collection of short stories by J. Allen Fielder. Titles include previously published and unpublished short stories, from the eponymous "Voices in the Field," to the humorously creepy "Mom's Eye View," these stories were written to thrill, chill, and make the reader wonder "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" Other titles include "Liquid," "Truck Stop Love," and "Homemade Pie." Stories range from horror, to mystery, to children's . . . and various points in between."

I must say, Fielder delivers on his promises!


In the first tale, which the book takes its title from, Fielder introduces us to a man whose car has broken down along a rural stretch of highway.  This tale is both homey, and frightening, with a sort of Stephen King intensity.  Harold is a 71 year old academic who has taken a less traveled route from Kansas State college on his back home to Corinthian College.  Alas, this road is exceedingly less well traveled, and Harold's car breaks down.  Being a naturally cheerful sort, he settles in to wait for a passing car to get help. To while away the time, he records his thoughts on the machine that he uses to record his notes on.   He is a bit old fashioned, and doesn't have a mobile phone. He soon regrets having taken the back road.  This is an unsettling story and it sets the tone for the rest of the book very well.

For those of us who are fans of horror, the fourth tale, 'Liquid' is one of the creepiest tales I have ever read.  A doctor at the top of his craft is the victim of an attack that completely changes his life.  It is a terrible case of 'There but for the grace of God go I', taken to an appalling extreme.

I must say, that I may never eat a pot pie again, having read 'Homemade Pie'.  The twist at the end of this tale is a real surprise, and gruesome though the tale is, it is one of my favorites.


'Cowboy Up' is the tale of an urban cowboy with an identity crisis, and a marriage proposal gone awry.

'The Party Pooper' is an extremely graphic tale of two buddies who make porn films in their spare time.  These are men whom I wouldn't want to know, but hey - it's all in good fun. (NOT!) 

The book ends with 'Weight' a tale of a young man who has suffered a lifetime of abuse for being obese.  It is not a long tale, but it is the sort of tale that would have found its way onto 'The Twilight Zone' back in the heyday of morality tales.

I could practically hear Rod Serling 's voice introducing each of these well crafted and deliciously thought-provoking tales!

All in all, J. Allen Fielder has written a wonderfully creepy series of short stories.  This book is going on my list of keepers!










Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens





 A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens is one of the first modern paranormal fantasies.  First published by Chapman & Hall on December 17, 1847, this tale has remained as one of the great classics and has never been out of print.

Dickens divides ‘A Christmas Carol’ into five chapters, which he calls ‘staves’, or in old English terms, ‘song stanzas’, in reference to the title of the book. The book is short, in modern terms it is a novella.  However, this tale is a showcase of Charles Dickens’ amazing ability to completely draw the mood of a scene and the set of qualities that make a character unique in only a few sentences.   1840s London IS grim; Bob Cratchit IS a good and noble man, and despite his cold heart Ebenezer Scrooge IS worth saving.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve in the 1840's, exactly seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is established within the first stave as a greedy and stingy businessman who has no place in his life for kindness, compassion, charity or benevolence.  His shabby treatment of Bob Cratchit and his rudeness to his nephew Fred are examined in the opening paragraphs. That night, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost and warned that he must change his ways in order to avoid coming to a miserable end like him. Scrooge is visited by three additional ghosts, each in its turn and each visit detailed in a separate stave, who go with him to various scenes with the hope of achieving his personal transformation and redemption.

The first of the spirits is the Ghost of Christmas Past.  This ghost takes Scrooge to scenes of his boyhood and youth, which stir the old miser's gentle and tender side by reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. We see the school where he had spent his youth, and meet his sister Fan, whom he dearly loved. We are also introduced to the root cause of his cold, miserly behavior:  the events which had caused him the most pain had always occurred around Christmas, and his own father had never forgiven him for the death of his mother, although we are not told the reason for that.  Now Ebenezer holds a grudge against his own nephew, Fred, for the death of Fan in childbirth. 

Dickens also shows us that Scrooge’s own fear of poverty and a subconscious desire to gain his father’s approval has caused him to care more about money than about people. One of the reasons for his miserly ways is the pain he feels for losing his love, Belle. Engaged to be married to her, he keeps pushing back the wedding until his finances are as healthy as he would like them to be; something that, given his insatiable lust for money, he will never happen. Realizing this, Belle calls off the engagement and eventually marries someone else, giving Scrooge more reason to further withdraw from society and relationships.



The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to several radically differing scenes (a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner, the family feast of Scrooge's near-impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit, is an amazing window into 19th century London.  Tiny Tim is a sweet boy, filled with innocence and love despite his illness and his poverty. Scrooge finds himself quite drawn to him.  A miner's cottage  is visited, and also a lighthouse, among other sites in order to instill in Scrooge a sense of responsibility for his fellow man.   Finally, this ghost warns him of the evils of Ignorance and Want. As the spirit's robe is drawn back Scrooge is shocked to see these two aspects of the human condition suddenly made real before him as hateful, terrifying little children who are more animal than human in appearance.

The third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, makes his case to Scrooge with dire visions of the future if he does not learn and act upon what he has witnessed. Tiny Tim has died, and there is so much sorrow surrounding his passing. In another scene ‘a man has died’, one whose passing has brought only joy, profit and relief to everyone who knew him. Finally Scrooge's own neglected and untended grave is revealed, prompting him to swear that he will change his ways in hopes of changing these "shadows of what may be."

I read this tale every year.  I watch every movie version of this story, and love and appreciate each and every version that is made for the unique qualities that they bring to the story.  I know that I am not the only person whose life has been touched by this story; touched by the annual affirmation that charity begins at home and spreads to the world.  I am comforted in the knowledge that I am not the only person who ‘binges’ on Dickens in December!


Thursday, November 24, 2011

A tribute to Anne McCaffrey



With the death of Anne McCaffrey on Monday, November 21, 2011 I felt that it would be appropriate to talk about her life and how her work influenced me.  I would not be a writer if I had not begun immersing myself in her work at the age of fifteen.


I first discovered Anne McCaffrey when I ... um... borrowed... my father's Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of 'The Dragonriders of Pern', a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them. I can't tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, 'When I think of dragons, I think of Pern'.



Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses 22 novels (plus 2 more in the works) and several short-stories. In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!


Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, 'Weyr Search' which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part 'Dragonrider', with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.



Pern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years. However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval). The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).



The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold. She was ten years old the day her family's hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds. Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher's kennel during the massacre. Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family's rightful home. However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should. Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him. Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa's vengeful care.



Unbeknownst to Lessa, the dreadful menace of thread is about to make itself known once again. This time, however, there is only one undermanned weyr to combat the menace, and only one Queen Dragon to propagate the species. Jora has died, and her dragon is only hanging on until her eggs are ready to hatch. The Dragon Rider F'lar, rider of Bronze Mnementh, has brought his wing of dragons to Ruatha hoping to find a woman who will be a the Weyrwoman of Pern. Fax despises the Dragon men, and is spoiling for a reason to kill him. However, he unwillingly makes the pilgrimage to Ruatha, bringing all of his ladies, including his pregnant wife, Gemma. When they arrive in Ruatha, the hold is a filthy disgrace, the food is unfit and tensions are high. Lady Gemma goes into labor during the disgusting meal that is all that the warder can scrape together.


Lessa secretly uses her abilities to manipulate F'lar into a fight to the death with Fax, with the eye to claiming Ruatha for herself, as was her right and due. Before the fight, Fax is maneuvered into renouncing his claim on Ruatha, but to her chagrin, it is only in favor of Lady Gemma's babe, should it live.


This is where the story really begins. At this point in the book, I am completely enthralled; and my own work, dishes and other domestic tasks fall by the way until I turn that last page!

The action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters. The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined. Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me. Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.



Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story. Every year there are new books to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks to get through it!



This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction. I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for ANY new book by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything by other auther that even remotely promised to be as good as this book. I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this book stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.


'Dragonflight' has captivated generations of fans, and was the first adult book my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck it off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). My children are firm fans of Anne McCaffrey's work, and so are my granddaughters! I inadvertently raised a fan-club! As a family, when we think of Dragons, we think of Pern!


Not only did Anne write amazing fantasy that defined dragons for millons of avid fans, she wrote some of the most compelling science fiction that I have ever read. 

The Crystal Singer’ series had me reading and re-reading the books almost compulsively. 

The Ship Who Sang’ began the Brain/Brawn series which one that I couldn’t put down. 

Dinosaur Planet’ was incredibly adventurous and well drawn. 

‘Restoree’ was a tale that was incredibly romantic and was my go-to romance novel for years. 

Her collaborations with Elizabeth Scarborough for the 'Powers That Be'  (PeTayBe)series were great escapes when I was bored or avoiding cleaning my house.

Anne McCaffrey put romance in the common space-opera.  Her books contained strong women who weren’t afraid to be women.  The men were strong men who loved and respected strong women.  The romance was thrilling, but not written in such a way that men could not relate to her work, and they enjoyed it as much as women.  Her fan-base is made up of both women and men, all of whom have been telling me that they will miss her as much as I will!



God Bless you Anne McCaffrey, wherever you are!  We will never forget the worlds you showed us, or the adventures you took us on!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series




This week I bring you a guest post by my friend, Jesse Lee Schleich.  I first met Jesse last year during NaNoWriMo.  He was so passionate about the Dark Tower Series, that I invited him to do a guest-post while I am on my November hiatus from blogging.  I hope you enjoy reading his post as much as I have!

The Dark Tower by Stephen King is a book series which I consider truly epic. It spans seven books, and several worlds. We follow Roland Deschain on his quest to reach the Dark Tower. We go through a lot with Roland. At first we know him only as the gunslinger, but then we get to know him a bit more. He slowly opens up to us and the others, much like a rose.

The adventure from start to finish had a bit of everything, and I am pleased to admit I found myself on more than one occasion worrying about what was to come for the characters. Stephen King managed to weave together an easily believable scifi fantasy fiction which included elements from other popular works of fiction such as the Fantastic Four and the Wizard of Oz. Not quite copying them but bringing them into his work as surreal places, and offering moments for the characters to not quite trust their surroundings.


The story manages to have a good variety in the cast of characters while keeping it believable. There was only one time when I didn’t get what was going on, but I digress. The story focuses around Roland, Eddie Dean, Jake Chambers and Susannah.  Also their animal friend Oy, who you will have to learn about for yourself. I’ll have you know the saddest parts of the story revolve around that damn billy bumbler. But again, I digress. They meet pretty interesting people, like the mysterious man in black, as well as Blaine the Mono.

I read the first two books in the series during a pleasant period of unemployment. By the time I got to the third one, I was working at a local golf course, from the early morning, to the early afternoon. A lot of what I did involved riding machinery, so I was able to listen to these books while outside and in the sunshine. After five books these characters were close to me. Their adventures were what I looked forward to all summer. They went through destroyed metropolitan cities and on super-sonic kamikaze train rides. And I believed every minute of it.

By the time the end-game came around, I was as ready as they all were to make it to the Dark Tower. It, from the start, was known to be the end of the line. The final period on the final page. So much tension preceded it. After a last confrontation, Roland makes it to the final door, and calls out the name of all those who helped him along on his quest to the dark tower. Then he enters. I won’t tell you what happens after that.

I will tell you though, that I re-listened to the ending over and over. You’ll have to tell me what you think of it. They’ve recently announced that The Dark Tower is going to be an HBO series. Be sure to read the book before the show comes out. You’ll be able to appreciate it more. If you like a great story, it is right up your alley. You’ll get to know some fascinating things about the King’s world.

Post written by Jesse Lee Schleich.  He can frequently be found blogging on birdwatching at http://gohawkyourself.blogspot.com/?mid=5310209


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Brother Betrayed, Danielle Raver




Today, in honor of her book's official release, I am pleased to revisit my review of Danielle Raver's wonderful epic adventure, Brother, Betrayed, which I first read as a Kindle book.  You can find this fine book at your local Barnes & Noble, and at www.Amazon.com, and of course through the publisher at www.FantasyIslandBookPublishing.com.

Brother, Betrayed by author Danielle Raver was a real pleasure to read! Raver has created a very real world, called Miscia. The three brothers, Oman, Fasime and Syah are very close and love each other very much, although they each have widely divergent interests and personalities. The tale focuses somewhat more on Syah, the youngest brother; and the one whose physical health has often been fragile.
The tale begins with the three brothers going on an extended journey. Omens and portents abound; and the brothers find themselves contemplating the words of a witch after they return.“One brother will betray the others with such treachery that it will change the destiny of Miscia forever.” The three princes hear this prophecy, and despite their fear of it,  it drives them to explore love, loyalty, and their own souls.

The princes are bound by love and loyalty to each other and their kingdom. When conflict comes to their land, their ascension into power is darkened by betrayal. Oman, eldest brother and Anteria’s promised king, leads his brothers on their journey through Arnith.

Fasime, driven by passion, seeks a life of romance and adventure.

Syah, born the ailing youngest brother of the three princes, endeavours to overcome his bleak destiny through pursuit of knowledge and magic… a quest that may reveal unknown power within his own soul.

In this tale woven with deception, war, sacrifice, and magic,  Raver takes the reader to a troubled kingdom surrounded by barbarians, magical races, and forbidden boundaries Raver pays attention to the backstory and paints in the details without going off on tangents. This makes for a beautifully drawn picture of the world in which her characters live.

The land of Miscia is nearing the end of its long golden age, and is poised on the edge of violent change. As the story progresses, each of the brothers becomes more clearly defined, as do their hopes and ambitions. They love their father the king, and they love their land of Miscia. Each brother makes decisions that affect the land for good or for ill based on that love. Oman tends toward paranoia and fear; Fasime is caught in the middle, and the youngest, weakest brother, Syah, is the voice of reason.

No one believes in magic or dragons anymore, and this becomes part of the central tension of the tale as the scholarly Syah begins to understand that his world is not exactly as he had always believed it to be.
The old King is a wonderful, brave character, beloved by the people as brave warrior and a benevolent ruler. The circumstances surrounding his death plunges the land into a civil war, and divides the brothers.

The battle scenes are inspiring, particularly the last battle of the old King. His strength and wisdom are some of the best scenes in a wonderful tale. Also later on a wise old dragon is introduced as an important character.

Raver’s prose is lyrical, and the tale is told as if by the court chronicler. This tale seems to be left open for a sequel; although it is an excellent stand-alone tale in itself. I highly recommend this to all those who enjoy a good epic fantasy.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling



November is National Novel Writing Month, where millions of authors attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  I did it last year, and I am attempting to do it again this year.  I have dropped everything to do this, and am up to 14000 words as of this morning.  This week I will be revisiting my first ever post on this page, which was written in celebration of the new website for all things Harry Potter, 'Pottermore which is still in the Beta Testing stage'.

I loved this book as much as I loved all the ones that have gone before, and also enjoyed the movie, despite the differences in the basic stories.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling is the final book in the series, and is the book where we meet the adult that the boy Harry Potter has become. He is still a very young adult, but he is making adult choices and trying desperately to protect the people he loves. I loved the book and immediately read it twice! Now I am re-reading it again and it is just as exciting to me as it was the first time I ever read it. Rowling's characters are masterfully drawn. They feel like real people and the reader cares about them like they are real people. That feeling of attachment carries through all the books in the series and the final book in the series is no exception. For those people who have never read the books and have only seen the movies I will only say that you have missed so much of the story!

The book takes up after Dumbledore’s death. Voldemort has completed his ascension to power and has gained control of the Ministry of Magic. Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to leave Hogwarts to hunt and destroy Voldemort's remaining horcruxes as Dumbledore had requested. In order to ensure their friends and families' safety they go into hiding. They begin the search despite the fact that they have little knowledge about the remaining horcruxes. What they do know is that two of them may be objects that once belonged to Hogwarts founders Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff, and the third may be Nagini, Voldemort's snake familiar. What the objects are and their whereabouts is unknown, but they are sure that Nagini is with Voldemort. As they search for the Horcruxes, they discover many things about Dumbledore's past; things which are not at all comforting to Harry.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione find the first horcrux, Salazar Slytherin's locket, by sneaking into the Ministry of Magic disguised as employees. Now they must carry it with them until they find a way to destroy it. Under the object's malevolent influence and suffering from the stress of being on the run, Ron abandons the others. A mysterious silver doe, the patronus of an unknown friend leads Harry to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which is among the very few objects able to destroy horcruxes. However, when Harry attempts to recover the sword, the horcrux, which is on a chain about his neck, attempts to kill him. Ron suddenly reappears, saving Harry’s life. Ron uses the sword to destroy the locket.

I like the way that Rowling portrays Ron, Hermione and Harry as young adults facing this terrible situation. They are forced to grow up too fast, but they rise to the occasion. They each have strengths and weaknesses that make the story engrossing. At this point in the tale Harry is a bit of an ass. Hermione is desperately trying to hold everyone together. Ron's slow crumbling under the weight of the horcrux is absolutely one of the better parts of the tale, and the way that Rowling deals with his insane jealousy is very realistic. Hermione's complete mystification is so natural, as is Harry's hurt and anger at what he perceives as Ron's unwarranted attitude. There is a part of them that knows that the deterioration of their friendship has arisen because of the piece of Voldemorte's soul that is held within the horcrux and that it is the horcrux that is causing Ron's depression and anger, but still they are not able to deal with their own emotions. I was totally hooked at that point when I first read it, and it is still one of the better sections from my point of view.

Reunited, the three resume their search, and continually encounter a strange symbol, that an eccentric wizard named Xenophilius Lovegood (Luna’s father) tells them is the symbol of the mythical Deathly Hallows. The Hallows are three sacred objects: the Resurrection Stone, with the power to summon the dead to the living world; the Elder Wand, an unbeatable wand; and an infallible Invisibility Cloak (hmmm…ring any bells?). Harry discovers that Voldemort is desperately seeking the Elder Wand. He realizes that the evil wizard is unaware of the other Hallows and their significance and is completely ignoring them. Against his friends' better judgement, Harry decides that finding and destroying Voldemort's horcruxes is more important than procuring the Hallows because the destruction of each horcrux weakens him. In a mad adventure, they break into a Death Eater's personal vault at the Wizarding Bank, Gringotts, to recover another horcrux, Helga Hufflepuff's cup. Harry learns that another horcrux is hidden in Hogwarts. The three find a way to enter the school and a fierce battle ensues, the climax of which finds Harry saving Draco’s life; an act which makes all the difference in the end.
Voldemort and his followers besiege Hogwarts and an all out wizarding war ensues. Several main characters die in the battle, and each time I read this part I cry over their deaths as if they are my friends. In another deeply moving scene Harry discovers, while viewing the memories of Severus Snape, that Voldemort inadvertently made Harry himself into a horcrux when he attacked him as a baby and that Harry must die to destroy Voldemort. (Snape has always been my favorite character after Harry in this series.) These memories also show to Harry the truth of Professor Snape's unwavering loyalty to Dumbledore and his role as spy in Voldemort's camp.

Harry then fully understands what he must do, and he willingly makes that choice.
I loved this very dark and thrilling finish to the wonderful series. It is a book that I will read again and again, and I will push my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to read it! When you see the movie you are only seeing the book-report version of the story, and of course it is wonderful, but the real action is inside the book!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - The Story of Snape

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey


I was unsure how I wanted to follow up last week's wonderful series of books, and I thought, why not go back to my roots? .  I have read the entire series every year since I snuck my father's Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of 'The Dragonriders of Pern', a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them.   I can't tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, 'When I think of dragons, I think of Pern'.

Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses 22 novels (plus 2 more in the works) and several short-stories.  In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!

Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, 'Weyr Search' which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part 'Dragonrider', with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.

Pern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years.  However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval).  The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).

The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold.  She was ten years old the day her family's hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds.  Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher's kennel during the massacre.  Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family's rightful home.  However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should.  Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him.  Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa's vengeful care.

Unbeknownst to Lessa, the dreadful menace of thread is about to make itself known once again.  This time, however, there is only one undermanned weyr to combat the menace, and only one Queen Dragon to propagate the species. Jora has died, and her dragon is only hanging on until her eggs are ready to hatch.  The Dragon Rider F'lar, rider of Bronze Mnementh, has brought his wing of dragons to Ruatha hoping to find a woman who will be a the Weyrwoman of Pern.  Fax despises the Dragon men, and is spoiling for a reason to kill him.  However, he unwillingly makes the pilgrimage to Ruatha, bringing all of his ladies, including his pregnant wife, Gemma.  When they arrive in Ruatha, the hold is a filthy disgrace, the food is unfit and tensions are high. Lady Gemma goes into labor during the disgusting meal that is all that the warder can scrape together.

Lessa secretly uses her abilities to manipulate F'lar into a fight to the death with Fax, with the eye to claiming Ruatha for herself, as was her right and due.  Before the fight, Fax is maneuvered into renouncing his claim on Ruatha, but to her chagrin, it is only in favor of Lady Gemma's babe, should it live.

This is where the story really begins.  At this point in the book, I am completely enthralled; and my own work, dishes and other domestic tasks fall by the way until I turn that last page!
The action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters.  The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined.  Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me.  Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.

Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story.  Every year there are new books to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks to get through it!

This is the colorful book cover as was published in 1970 by Corgi.  I never liked this cover nearly so much as the green one that is at the top of this post, though I did have several copies of this particular book.


This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction.  I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for new stories by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything that even remotely promised to be as good as this book.  I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this book stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.

'Dragonflight' has captivated generations of fans, and was the first adult book my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck it off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). My children are firm fans of Anne McCaffrey's work, and so are my granddaughters! I inadvertently raised a fan-club! As a family, when we think of Dragons, we think of Pern!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Imago Chronicles: A Warriors Tale, L. T. Suzuki


Just like every other obsessed, fanatic reader of High Fantasy, I am always on the lookout for that one special book that presages the advent of a new classic series in the genre.  In my opinion, L. T. Suzuki has written that book in Imago Chronicles Book One: A Warrior's Tale.

Over the last few months since I began blogging on what I consider to be the best fantasy reads that  come across my Kindle, I have read, on average, 4 fairly good books for every one really good book that made the blog; but 'fairly good' is not good enough for me to call a book 'Best In Fantasy'. Hence, my frequent excursions back to my library of classics. In order for a book to be featured here, I have to LOVE it!   In 'A Warrior's Tale', Suzuki has written a book that stands beside the works of my beloved heroes of modern fantasy Jean Aul, Mercedes Lackey, and David Eddings.  Imago now ranks as one of my all-time favorite epic fantasy series.  And now, joy of all joys!  Books 1,2 and 3 have been optioned for a major motion picture trilogy!

And now the story:

In an intriguing twist, A Warrior's Tale begins with the end.  Taking shelter from a freak blizzard, Nayla Treeborn, half elf, half human and not fully either, huddles next to the corpse of a dead soldier; using his body and the now un-needed cloaks of other dead soldiers to shelter her from the killing weather.  As she shelters there, she finds herself thinking about her life to that point; going back to a day when she had been a child the mental and physical equivalent of a mortal 12 year old, but was in reality 37 years of age.

Nayla's father, a high Elf and the Steward of Nagana, Dahlon Treeborn, despises her for reasons which are not made clear in this book.  He has punished her for publicly disagreeing with him; nearly beating her to death.  Joval Stonecroft discovers her, dreadfully mutilated and bloody and is horrified. Healing her as well as he can, he spirits her out of the elven city of Nagana to the human city of Anshen, home of the legendary Kagai Warriors.  Taking the name of Takaro, the young girl embarks upon a lifetime of training, eventually becoming the only female Kagai Warrior ever accepted into the brotherhood.  When at long last she reaches womanhood, not only is Takaro fully trained in the manly arts of the warrior, but she is also a woman fully trained in the womanly arts as a spy, a courtesan and an assassin.

In book 1 of the series the main antagonist is Eldred Firestaff, a sorcerer who combines the nicer qualities of Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) with the personal charm of Ctuchik (The Belgariad), and who is an immortal tool of evil, resurfacing every generation or so.   Each time he comes back, he uses the armies of the weak Emperor of East Orien as his power-base in his eternal quest to conquer the world of Imago. However, in this first book of the series, although the battles with this slippery and long-lived villain are colorful and intense, they are almost secondary to Nayla's personal battle for acceptance and with her own inner demons.  This book is concerned with fleshing out Nayla and really whets your appetite for the rest of the tale!

As a half-caste, Takaro/Nayla ages much more slowly than humans, and much more quickly than elves.  During the course of the story she outlives three of her Kagai Masters, all of whom live to be very old men.  She also outlives their grandsons and their grandson's grandchildren, yet at the end of the book she appears to be a woman of about twenty-five years of age. Her wisdom and abilities are that of a warrior at the prime of life, and she becomes the most respected of the fierce Kagai Warriors.  When her father is maneuvered into asking for the finest Kagai Warrior to train his own warriors, Nayla finds herself back in Nagana, and her father is forced to suffer her presence there; a situation that is bad at best.

The world of Imago is clearly drawn, and is every bit as compelling as that of Tolkien's Middle Earth. Here we have two distinct cultures living side-by-side in peace and harmony for generations; coming to each other's aid whenever the other is threatened.  Loyalty,  honor, hard-work, love and family are the central facets of the human society that Nayla/Takaro finds herself adopted into as an abused child, and these values are echoed in the society of the Elves.  Within each society, the political and social divisions are clear and the differences between Elves and Men are well drawn and consistently portrayed throughout the drama that unfolds. 

Suzuki is herself a master of the martial arts, being a practitioner and instructor of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu; a system that incorporates 6 traditional Samurai schools and 3 schools of Ninjutsu.  As one who was once a mere grasshopper in the obscure art of Shou Shu, I fully appreciate the wisdom and experience that the master crafts into the fabric of this tale.  Every element of this story evokes both the martial and the spiritual aspects of the culture of Imago; every element is vivid and believable to the reader.

With each book in this series, I am drawn deeper into this amazing and very real world of Imago.  In book 2 of the series, Tales From the West we find out more about the real evil that threatens Imago, and discover who or what is behind the sorcerer Eldred Firestaff.

I know I am repeating myself, but Suzuki has created a masterpiece in this series.  I have been compelled to read every single volume in the series (when I should have been  researching other books for this blog).  Work-ethic aside, the most recent installment in the series, 'Destiny's End' calls to me, and I must quit working now, and curl up on my sofa for a good long read.







Friday, October 14, 2011

Rick Riordan, Son of Neptune




The Son of Neptune – Rick Riordan



As many of you know, I love everything Percy Jackson, and last Sunday I was privileged to hear author Rick Riordan speak in Olympia Washington at an event promoting the local Timberland Library. He spoke in an outdoor plaza to a crowd of about a thousand avid fans. I was also quite inspired by his ability to motivate the young authors in the crowd. Unfortunately, I was not able to get my copy of ‘The Son of Neptune’ signed, as I didn’t know about the event in advance and didn’t realize that I would need a ticket, but I felt good about the whole event despite that disappointment. Riordan is an extremely funny man; personable and quite humble about his success. 

The Son of Neptune opens with Percy Jackson picking up where he left off in ‘The Lost Hero’. In that book, Percy had disappeared, and the tale revolved more around Jason Grace. This tale starts with Percy suffering from Amnesia and being hunted by two gorgons who refuse to stay dead whenever he kills them. All he knows is that he is looking for some one named Annabeth. As he is running from the gorgons he rescues an old bag lady who turns out to be the Roman Goddess Juno. She gives him the choice of remaining where he is and being safe or going to the Roman camp for demi-gods where he must save the gods but could regain his memories. Percy being Percy, he opts for his memories.

The Roman camp is quite different from the Greek Camp Half-blood, and Percy doesn’t know why he feels like everything is all wrong. There are Lares (household gods) and the camp is divided into legions in the same way that the Roman Army was. The military culture of the Romans is alive and well in this camp.

Here is where we meet Hazel, a daughter of Pluto and a girl whose darkest secret is her talent of creating precious metals and jewels spring from the earth comes with a curse for those who find them. We also meet Frank Zhang, a son of Mars and a gifted archer. His golden arrows are very unique, and he too has a dark secret.

Mars sends them off on a quest to Alaska, to rescue Thanatos, guardian of the underworld. During the quest we learn that the ancient Goddess Gaea is plotting to destroy the Gods, and how the demi-gods like Percy are supposed to stop her.

First they travel up the coast, to Portland, Oregon looking for Phineas, and on to Seattle, Washington where they discover that Amazon.com is run by Kindle-reading Amazon Warriors!

Continuing with his third-person narrative as he did in The Lost Hero, Riordan switches perspective from Percy to Hazel and to Frank, giving a well rounded view of what is going on with each character. I felt completely involved with them and learned a lot about Roman Mythology that I had never known. I also discovered that my birthday (which I share with Mercedes Lackey) falls on the Feast of Fortuna, which begins at sundown on the 24th of June.

Riordan neatly answers some of the questions that were raised in the first book, and of course, raises more. I laughed out loud several times, and held my breath as the heroes made their way through the dangers set before them. I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves an epic adventure, epic mythology and likes their epics with a modern twist!