Thursday, May 31, 2012

Death of a Kingdom - M. Edward McNally

2011; 398 pages.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Book # 2 of The Norothian Cycle.  New Author? : No.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Change looms in the Norothian world, perhaps on an unprecedented scale.  It is already touching Tilda's band of adventurers.  Nesha-Tari sails east to do her Master's bidding.  John Deskata rides north to contest the throne of Miilark.  Tilda and Phin have "baggage" issues.  The Duchess Claudja wants to get back to her homeland of Chengdea, where her father's open rebellion will surely lead to war.

    And the dragons have their own agendas.

What's To Like...
   The time is about two weeks after the end of Book 1, and the action starts immediately.  The accompanying map is more inclusive, which is good since M. Edward McNally brings some new lands into the story.

    John Deskata is gone; we won't see him again until Book 3.  As a replacement, we get a Codian princess, Allison.  Be not beguiled by her youth and diminuitive size; you do not want to get into a fight with her, with or without weapons.  We meet some new species - a half-elf and a way-kewl minotaur(ess).  Nesha-Tari's quest is told in a separate storyline, and she picks up some interesting traveling companions.  The arch-fiend, Balan, is back; and he's in a foul mood.

    One of the kewlest things about Death of a Kingdom is the treatment of the heroes themselves.  Their spirits may be noble, but not all their actions are.  Three people die because of one hero's carelessness, there is an unprovoked military excursion, and well... um..., a girl's gotta eat, right?  Personally, I like my characters like this - not all white or all black. "Gray" is fashionable in Epic Fantasy.

Kewlest New Word...
Breeks : a Scottish term for breeches.

    "You have never really said if you adhere to any Norothian faith in particular.  I am trying to recall, but I believe you have taken each of the Ennead's names in vain, in roughly equal measure."  (...)
    "Faith tends to be fairly malleable in the Rivens, as if you feel too strongly for one-or-another deity, you are probbably going to have to march against someone else's followers at some point.  Or else, they will come for you.  There are not many big churches, either.  Too inviting a target once a war gets rolling.  Most of us pray to anyone we think will listen, depending on circumstance."  (location 989)

    Claudja watched the old Chengdean sergeant sight along the shaft of Zeb's crossbow, test the pull, then salute him.  He said a few polite words in Daulic the Minauan only blinked at, then turned and started to leave, taking Zeb's bow with him.
    "Hey, what the... what was that?" Zeb asked, turning to Claudja.  "I rather need my bow, your Grace."
    Claudja looked at the puzzled man calmly.  "Zebulon, that man is a skilled marksman without a weapon.  I have seen you miss enemies from five paces.  This is simply a more efficient deployment of resources."
    "You wound me, Duchess."
    "And you wound nothing you aim at.  Come with me."  (location 5746)

Kindle Details...
   I paid $4.99 for DoaK at Amazon, which is pretty reasonable for a 400-page book.  But you really should read the first book in the series, The Sable City (500 pages in length, and reviewed here), which you can pick up for $2.99.

"It seems the things we do here are doomed to be of significance."  (location 6360)
    The book's main storyline is well-crafted.  It builds to a climactic battle, and the ending both wraps things up nicely and points to further adventures.  You might get a little tired of Nesha-Tari riding over hill and dale with her bickering companions, but have patience.  You will be well rewarded once they arrive at Ayzantu City.

    Death of a Kingdom is a worthy sequel to The Sable City.  New characters are introduced, existing ones are developed further (especially Nesha-Tari), and the overlying story evolves from a simple quest to the dawning of a New Order.  Isn't that what sequels are supposed to do?  8½ Stars.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

2008; 374 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dystopian Thriller.  Book #1 of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    Woohoo!  Katniss Everdeen has won the lottery.  That means she gets an all-expenses-paid train trip to The Capitol, a whole new wardrobe, and she'll be eating better than she ever has in her whole life.

    The downside is that she has to compete in the Hunger Games.  24 teenagers (a girl and a boy from each of the 12 districts) fight to the death in a huge, artificially-rendered arena.  The event is televised nationally for the entertainment and punishment of the districts.  Be the last one alive, and your district receives extra food and other resources.  Be any of the other 23, and all you are is dead.

What's To Like...
    The Hunger Games will appeal to almost everyone.  It's a YA novel that adults will also enjoy.  It has Action, Drama, Romance, Thrills, and Kills.  Despite the inevitable ending, there are plot twists to keep your interest.  And plenty of Situational Ethics for you to ponder.

    Suzanne Collins handles the dystopian backdrop well.  She gives enough details for you to feel the misery and oppression, but not to the point of where the storyline gets overshadowed.

    The characters are complex and evolve as the story progresses.  There are good guys, bad guys, and a number of "tweeners".  Even the baddies evoke some sympathy, which is a pleasant surprise.  But in the end, only one can survive.

    (W)e make an effort to keep on good terms with Greasy Sae.  She's the only one who can consistently be counted on to buy wild dog.  We don't hunt them on purpose, but if you're attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat.  "Once it's in the soup, I'll call it beef," Greasy Sae says with a wink.  No one in the Seam would turn up their nose at a good leg of wild dog, but the Peacekeepers who come to the Hob can afford to be a little choosier.  (pg. 11)

    Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
    A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
    Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
    And when again it's morning, they'll wash away.

    Here it's safe, here it's warm
    Here the daisies guard you from every harm
    Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
    Here is the place where I love you.  (pg. 235)

"District Twelve.  Where you can starve to death in safety."  (pg. 6)
    So how good of a story is The Hunger Games?  Well, consider this.  The first third of the book is all about Katniss prepping for the games.  Which means it's all drama.  No killing, no action, no romance.  Yet it will keep you in your chair, turning the pages.  Then the games begin, the excitement kicks in, and you find yourself thoroughly hooked.

    There are a couple deus ex machinas, but they balance out all the "Bruce Willis Die Hard" injuries that Katniss sustains, so they're forgiveable.

    The Hunger Games is easy-to-read (it really is a YA novel), with an ending that's both happy and haunting.  The big challenge is for the other two books of the trilogy to maintain the high standard.  10 Stars.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Portable Door - Tom Holt

2003; 404 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Contemporary Humor; Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    For the first time in his brief working career, Paul Carpenter has a steady, full-time, paying job.  Of course, the work (filing) is boring, the Management Team seems like it just fell out of Tales From The Crypt, and there are strange rules about working late and arriving early.

    Then there's the other newly-hired clerk.  She's a skinny plain-Jane, has a crappy personality, likes artists for boyfriends, and seems to be always irritated with Paul.

   Perhaps Romance is about to walk into Paul's life.  But if so, it will have to step around that giant Arthurian sword-in-the-stone that just appeared in his apartment.

What's To Like...
    The Portable Door has the usual Tom Holt formula.  It starts out normal, then something surreal happens.  Then a second piece of weirdness is added.  And a third; and a fourth.  And so on.  Pretty soon we're up to our necks in strangeness, and wondering whether Holt's capable of juggling, let alone resolving, all the madness.

     Our hero and heroine are more ordinary than heroic, and I like that.  There's some time- and dimension-hopping, which is always a plus for me.  There's wit and surprises, and maybe-just-maybe some romance.  And last-but-not-least, there's the ultra-kewl Portable Door.

Kewlest New Word...
Bedsit : a one-room apartment typically consisting of a combined bedroom and sitting room with cooking facilities.  (Now you know what that Moody Blues line, "bedsitter people look back and lament" is all about).

    "Who would you rather be, Lloyd George or Gary Rhodes?"
    "Sorry," Paul said.  "Who's Lloyd George?"
    "What do you most admire about the works of Chekhov?"
    Paul frowned.  "I don't know," he said.  "The way he says, Course laid in, keptin, is pretty cool, but mostly he doesn't get to do much."  (pg. 11)

    She smiled.  "You know," she said, "you've put me in mind of something a kid like you said to me once, not long after we'd had a chat pretty much on the lines of this one, where I'd told him to watch his back, and he said, Yeah, sure.  Always stuck in my mind, it has, what he said then."
    "Really?  What was that, then?"
    "Aaaaargh," Mr. Tanner's mum replied.  "Be seeing you."  (pg. 262)

Do gerbils love?  (pg. 379)
   I worried at the start of The Portable Door.  Clerical work is boring, and it takes a little time for the wackiness to start permeating the storyline.  This was my third Tom Holt book.  (the other two are here and here).  Was it going to turn out to be the first dud?

    Silly me.  Tom Holt is a masterful writer.  He was just building up the tension via unresolved bizarreness.  Halfway through the book, he starts giving us some answers, and it's a fantastic read from there on.  The myriad of loose ends are ably attended to in a very nice ending.

    The humor had me chuckling, and TPD could serve as a textbook for how to effectively use the "show-don't-tell" precept.  8½ Stars.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Sable City - M. Edward McNally

2011; 475 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fantasy.  Book #1 of "The Norothian Cycle".  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Tilda Lanai and Captain Block are hunting the rogue legionnaire, John Deskata.  Zebulon Baj Nif has been "borrowed" for his translating skills by a Samurai, a Healer, and their reclusive employer.  Phinneas Phoarty, a mage with the skills somewhere between Gandalf and Rincewind (probably closer to Rincewind) also gets coaxed into that group.  The Duchess Claudja Perforce and her bodyguard, Sir Lucas Towsan, are on their way to a Jobian temple.

    Everyone has hidden agendas.  All three bands (with a couple additions and subtractions) will cross paths in the muddy streets of Camp Town.  In the shadow of the Sable City.  All agendas, hidden or open, will be changed.

What's To Like...
    The Sable City pays heavy tribute to AD&D quests, along with a couple nods to LOTR (doesn't anyone go over mountains anymore?).  There are dragons and goblins, clerics and mages, devils and armies; and although elves and halflings don't show up, they are cited as if they exist.

    We follow Tilda and Block's travels exclusively for the first 8 chapters.  It's a bit of a challenge, as they're "off" the book's map (to the north).  The story has some slow spots as the author introduces you to his world and its characters, but this is all for a good cause.  Once that's out of the way, things pick up sharply, and the action flows full force the rest of the way.

    There are an adequate number of plot twists, some token romance, and enough humor to keep the overall mood from getting too dark.  The characters aren't particularly deep, but they are endearing.  Even the evil ones are fun to follow.  The ending is quite satisfying, despite this being Book One of a series.

Kewlest New Word...
Poniard (adj.) : dagger-like (here, "poniard teeth")

    Zeb laid prostrate and bled, managing to do no more than slowly move his left arm across his chest to grip his right hard above the ruined elbow.  Even the slight motion of his arm against the ground sent a new wave of blaring pain over him, swimming the sky and making air hiss out between his teeth like a kettle.
    After moments that seemed much longer, Zeb's leftenant appeared over him.  He shouted for a tourniquet, then knelt and clamped both hands around Zeb's arm.
    "It could be worse," the leftenant said.  Zeb looked at him with the one eye he still had open.
    "How do you figure, sir?"
    "Well... they could have shot me."  (12% Kindle; location 1142)

    Nesha-tari had not learned her magic in the manner of an Imperial Wizard.  No Circle had neutered her mind, forcing false obstructions between her will and her power.  To release in invocation like the lightning that was the attack form favored by her Master, she did not have to memorize spells and bind their release to meaningless words, gestures, and material components.  If Nesha-tari wanted to throw lightning, she would bring it into being in her hands.  If she wanted a shield against scrying magic, it formed unseen in the air around her (76% Kindle; location 7127)

Kindle Details...
  I downloaded TSC for free at Amazon, but it's $2.99 now.  Death of a Kingdom (Book 2) and The Wind from Miilark (Book 3) are both $4.99.  I'm not sure if this is a trilogy or a continuing series.

Good luck wears off, the Tulls had said.  Bad luck lasts forever.  (location 400)
    The Sable City has some weaknesses, but they're minor.  M. Edward McNally goes overboard with descriptions at the outset, but this tapers off nicely once the action gets going.  The map is sucky, but perhaps it's better on the Kindle Fire than on my Kindle.

    At its core, TSC reminds me less of LOTR, and more of a Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman series.  Some of us think that's still pretty freakin' kewl.  8 Stars.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Stone Arrow - Richard Herley

1978; 224 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action Adventure.  Book #1 of "The Pagans" trilogy.  Laurels : winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The time is ca. 3000 BC.  In southern Britain, a scourge is sweeping the land, uprooting fauna and flora, and displacing the local hunter-gatherers.  The scourge has a name.  It is called Farming.

    One farming village decides to speed up the displacement of a neighboring clan of hunter-gatherers.  They raid the encampment at night, killing everyone there down to the last man.  But they miss that last man, Tagart.  So what?  What can one angry man do against a fortified village of 170 people?

    Bad mistake, farmers.  Very bad mistake.

What's To Like...
    The Stone Arrow is literally non-stop action.  Tagart is resolved to avenge his tribe by killing as many of the villagers as he can.  Anyone else getting in the way will suffer the same fate.  There will be no mercy, so there is a lot of gruesome violence.  You have rape, dismemberment, torture, and cold-blooded murder of men, women, and children.  This is not a book for the squeamish.

    Richard Herley does a nice job of recreating neolithic England at this critical time in civilization.  Things like the towns, animals, and landscape are described in vivid detail, maybe a bit too much so at times.  There's some romance, and even a little humor.  At one point Tagart's ambush fails because he drops his bundle of arrows while perched in a tree.  How droll!  The pacing is frenetic, and the ending is satisfying, despite being used to set up the next book in the series.

Kewlest New Word...
Periapt : an item worn as a charm or amulet.  (archaic).

    Hernou was afraid.  The savages were killers.  It was the way they lived, by hunting and killing.  They thought no more of blood and murder than did the farmers of soil and harvest.  The harsh forest life streamlined their tribes and made them strong and ruthless, like the animals they sought for their prey.  Their discipline, their life, were impossible to understand.  For them to swim free in the seasons, not to have precise tasks for each week and day, but to wander the land by whim: this alone thrust the savages far beyond comprehension.  (39%, location 1296)

    He waited, as if he were waiting for deer, exploring his thoughts.  The water-bottle lay at his side.  No mistake.  Fifty miles to Burh.  He could not risk using the Valdoe roads.  A forest route, then.  Twenty miles a day, his usual speed, would be too much for him in his present state.  Fifteen.  Allow three days.  Four at most.  Burh in four days.  Four back to Valdoe.  That left two spare days before Crale Day.
    It could be done.  He could get the girl out somehow (67%; location 2181)

Kindle Details...
    This was, and still is, a free download at Amazon.  The next two books in the series, The Flint Lord and The Earth Goddess, are reasonably priced at $2.99 each.

"Look what the savages have done."  (5%; location 189)
    I do have a couple quibbles with some of the historical details.  In particular, using bolas as weapons, the sport of falconry, and the wearing of (presumably metal) armor and helmets.  Were any of these really present 5,000 years ago in Britain?

    But The Stone Arrow is primarily an action tale, and only secondarily a piece of historical fiction.  So we'll forgive a few anachronisms, and be happy that Richard Herley made the effort to set the story in such a fascinating time.  8 Stars.  This is as good of a freebie download of contemporary fiction as I've found yet at Amazon.  Quite likely I'll be reading the sequels in the next couple of months.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Princess Bride - William Goldman

1973; 398 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy.  Full Title : "S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The Princess Bride".  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    The full title doesn't mislead; The Princess Bride truly is a tale of love and adventure.  It features Buttercup and Westley; pirates and swordplay; six-fingered villains and R.O.U.S.s; Fezzik and...

    ...oh, come on now.  We've all seen the movie; most of us have watched it several times.  Do I really need to do a plot synopsis?

What's To Like...
    All your favorite quips and one-liners are here.  But the book (which came first) has a lot more depth and a bunch of scenes that the movie just couldn't cover due to time constraints.  Fezzik in particular is fleshed out.  We learn about his childhood, are privy to his thoughts, and enjoy a rhyming game that he and Inigo play.  More details about Buttercup are given, sometimes to her detriment.  And there is a kewl fight through the Zoo of Death that I don't recall being in the movie.

    There is an extra "story layer" in the book.  The movie has the main tale plus Peter Falk reading the story to the little boy.  Now Goldman's fictitious editing of Morgenstern's manuscript overlays both those plotlines.

    The "extras" are a mixed bag.  There is a neat map, and the epilogue, Buttercup's Baby, gives some alluring teasers for a possible sequel, plus some answers about what happens after the film ended.  The introduction, where Goldman gives details about the making of the movie, is skippable.  And his pseudo-criticisms of Morgenstern's manuscript get irksome.

    Buttercup ran to her bedroom mirror.  "Oh, Westley," she said, "I must never disappoint you," and she hurried downstairs to where her parents were squabbling.  ...  "I need your advice," she interrupted.  "What can I do to improve my personal appearance."
    "Start by bathing," her father said.
    "And do something with your hair while you're at it," her mother said.
    "Unearth the territory behind your ears."
    "Neglect not your knees."  (pg. 56)

    Did they make it?  Was the pirate ship there?  You can answer it for yourself, but, for me, I say yes it was.  And yes, they got away.  And got their strength back and had lots of adventures and more than their share of laughs.
    But that doesn't mean I think they had a happy ending either.  Because, in my opinion anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight and some hotshot kid whipped Inigo with a sword and Westley was never able to really sleep sound because of Humperdinck maybe being on the trail.
    I'm not trying to make this a downer, understand.  I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops.  But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn't fair.  It's just fairer than death, that's all.  (pg. 315)

"Inconceivable."  (pg. 100)
    There are some slow spots in The Princess Bride, particularly between when Humperdinck captures Westley and the wedding day.  This is probably unavoidable for those who have watched the movie a couple times.  You know what's going to happen, and you've memorized all the verbal zingers coming up.  When the action slows, one's interest lags.

    Nonetheless, I found this overall a fun read, simply because I could take my time to savor the good parts.  And the movie, excellent though it is, does leave a lot of unanswered questions, which Buttercup's Baby addresses.  Sadly, I don't think it will ever be developed into a full-fledged sequel.  William Goldman is 80+ years old, and seems to have settled in to doing screenplays, not novels.

    7 Stars, maybe more if you're one of the 17 people in the world who haven't seen the movie.