Monday, May 28, 2018

Beyond Hades - Luke Romyn

   2012; 427 pages.  Book #1 (out of 2) of The Prometheus Wars” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Military; Mythology; Action-Adventure.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    There’s been a very unsettling (and secret) archaeological discovery deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.  Some say it might be the legendary city of Atlantis, but that's doubtful, since some extremely advanced technological artifacts have been found there.  And they've caught the attention of the US military.

    The most intriguing one consists of a control panel connected in some way to a circle of standing stones, which look kind of like Stonehenge, except on a much larger scale.  There are some sort of runic symbols associated with the control panel, so a scientist has been called in to decipher them.

    The gist of the runes seems to be that the control panel opens a "rift" between here and another dimension, and that opening it will unleash an Evil capable of destroying our world.

    The scientist thinks we should back off and leave things be; we don't know if the warning is metaphorical or actual, and the risk’s too great.  The military thinks such technology could give us a leg up on our enemies in any future conflict, so we should open up the rift and see what happens.

    Guess whose opinion is going to carry the day.

What’s To Like...
   Beyond Hades is an ambitious mixing of mythology with an action-military adventure, plus a dash of dimension-hopping and time-travel thrown in to spice things up.  The heaviest emphasis is on Greek mythology.  Indeed, I think the book may set a record for the sheer number of creatures, people, and places from the Greek legends.  It’s interesting to see how the mythical creatures called forth by Luke Romyn fare against modern-day weapons and special-ops personnel.

    The storyline is straightforward.  An archaeologist, Dr. Talbot Harrison, and an Australian special forces commando, Wes, cross through the rift to try to set things right again, and find themselves up against every mythological entity imaginable.  These range from well-known ones, such as cyclops and minotaurs, to some obscure ones, such as the Hecatonchires and a leucrota.  I'm a huge mythology buff, but there were quite quite a few of these beasts that I'd never heard of.  Luke Romyn changes the spelling of some of these slightly, but if you're wondering whether he made these up (and I did), Wikipedia has postings for all the ones I checked.

    Talbot is main focus of the story, but frankly, Wes is the more interesting (and colorful) of the pair.  The author apparently felt likewise, because ANAICT, only Wes returns for the sequel, Slaves of Valhalla, where the scene shifts to Norse mythology.

    Most of the book consists of our two heroes meeting, greeting, and in many cases, doing battle with one beast or legend after another.  It all starts to blur after a while.  But if you stick around, things pick up around 70% (Kindle) with some nifty plot twists and an exciting climactic battle.  And oh yeah, I much enjoyed the killer puppy; it reminded me of the lethal rabbit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

    Beyond Hades is an action-packed adventure tale, and I felt like Luke Romyn made a conscious effort to make sure there were no slow spots.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a 2-book, completed series.   All the main story threads are tied up by the end.  The only R-rated stuff is a slew of cussing, mostly from the mouth of Wes.  I have no problem with cuss words in stories, but here I thought it was overdone, particularly since, what with mythology being the dominant theme, this might have been better penned as a YA novel, with teenage boys being the target audience.

Kindle Details...
    Beyond Hades sells for $4.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Slaves of Valhalla, is the same price.  Luke Romyn has another dozen or so e-books available at Amazon, including a series called The Legacy Chronicles; all of which fall in the $3.99-$4.99 range.

    “Have you ever fired a weapon, Doctor Harrison?” asked the captain as they dashed along the empty passageway.
    Talbot shrugged – now probably wasn’t the time to ask if Playstation counted.  (loc. 572)

    “Zeus here-“ began Talbot.
    “You mean like Greek-god Zeus?” interrupted Wes.
    “Hmm.  Cool,” said Wes, appraising Zeus once more.
    Talbot grinned despite himself.  “Well Zeus was just saying that we’re practically on our own for the fight ahead.  They’re still recovering from the last war and need to protect their own borders from the creatures of Tartarus.”
    “What’s a Tartarus?  Isn’t that what Doctor Who travelled around in; you know the telephone box with the flashing blue light on top of it?”  (loc. 3345)

 “So you reckon Prometheus is a starfish, is that what you’re saying?”  (loc. 5990)
    Sadly, as other reviewers at Amazon and GoodReads have noted, there are some significant issues with Beyond Hades.  Besides the aforementioned abundance of cussing, the formatting is sucky and a better font could have been chosen.  Those things are minor.  More serious are the writing and the storytelling.

    To be blunt, the writing needs another round of polishing.  There are telling/showing issues.  The plot gets stuck in a do-loop for the first 70% of the book, as one mythical creature after another pops up out of nowhere, wanting to do harm to our heroes.  After about the third one, I was just wishing the plotline would move along.

    The storytelling is in even more need of attention.  Deus ex machinas and WTF’s abound.  A few examples (of the non-spoiler variety):

    In the WTF category:  How did Talbot and his brother come to be fluent in the mysterious ancient language?  For that matter, why are the beasties from the other dimensions instantly able to find them in our dimension?  How can such huge beasts proliferate in our dimension (and a popular tourist attraction in Australia collapse), yet no one seems to notice?

    In the Deus ex Machina category: How convenient is it that Zeus can instantly make Wes fluent in the Olypmpian tongue?  How timely is it for Prometheus’s eagle to show up at the most critical time and rescue our heroes from beasts-with-evil-intent?  Ditto for the life-saving bulls of Khalkotauroi?

    I got the feeling that, if Wes and Talbot were pitted against some evil entity which could only be killed by sugary snacks, a gray storm cloud would appear on the horizon and it would start to rain marshmallows.

    5 Stars.  I loved the basic concept of Beyond Hades.  But the ending is above-average ending, but it's not quite enough to make up for the writing and storytelling issues.  Another round of editing and beta-reading is called for.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

   2015; 359 pages.  Full Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania.  New Author? : No.   Genre : Non-Fiction; History; World War 1; Ships.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Everything I know about the Lusitania comes from history classes, either in high school or college.  Here’s what I remember from those classes.

    The sinking of the Lusitania caused an outrage in America that immediately caused us to enter World War 1 on the side of the British and French.  Since we did that in 1917, that means the Lusitania was sunk in 1917 as well.

    It was torpedoed by a German U-boat.  There were two giant explosions.  The Germans say that proves the luxury liner was secretly carrying ammunition from the US to England.  The British say it proves that the U-boat fired not one, but two torpedoes, those dirty dogs.

    The Lusitania was an American ship, so the sinking of it was an act of war.  The attack took place somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  There were some survivors, but a lot of passengers died because there weren’t enough lifeboats.  Most of them were Americans.

    Hmm.  Strangely enough, the only true statement in those last three paragraphs is that the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

What’s To Like...
    Dead Wake is Erik Larson’s most recent book, and is a departure from his usual style of interweaving two disparate stories, such as in The Devil  in the White City, where he tells about the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago (which showcased the a marvelous invention called the Ferris wheel), and a detective's dogged hunt for a serial killer named H.H. Holmes.  Here, no such blending takes place, but the POV does skip around from the perspectives of the U-boat, the Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson in Washington DC, and Room 40  in London, the headquarters for British Intelligence during the First World War.

    Larson divides the book into five sections, arranged chronologically, and chronicling the voyages of both vessels.  They are :
Part 1. (pg 5) Bloody Monkeys (background and pre-voyage preparations)
Part 2.  (pg 133) Jump Rope and Caviar (the voyages themselves)
Part 3. (pg. 215) Dead Wake (the paths of the two ships meet)
Part 4. (pg. 245) The Black Soul  (the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue efforts)
Part 5.  (pg. 315) The Sea of Secrets  (the aftermath and consequences)

    The torpedo impact takes place at 2:10 PM on May 07, 1915, which, book-wise, is on page 247.  You might think that means a whole bunch of boring pre-explosion stuff to slog through, but Erik Larson did meticulous researching into the lives of the various passengers and crewmen, and their lives and intertwining fates makes for fascinating reading.

    The book isn’t overly technical, but I enjoyed learning about the U-boat technology of World War 1.  Submarines were viewed as a joke at the beginning of the war.  They were small, their torpedoes had a 60% fail rate, and their batteries needed charging frequently.  But after they sank a couple British warships, they developed into a deadly threat.  Indeed, it led to an official British policy forbidding any of their large warships from being dispatched to rescue survivors from a torpedoed ship.  This would have a grave impact when the Lusitania went down.

    As usual, Erik Larson throws all sorts of details and trivia into the account.  Arthur Conan Doyle writes a fictional sub story that turns out to be remarkably prescient.  I learned about the long-forgotten “Straw Hat Day” celebrations.  There’s an eerie quote about the horrors of trench warfare by some German soldier named Adolf Hitler.  And you’ll be amazed by how much coal has to be loaded onto a ship that’s about to embark on a transatlantic voyage.  Overall, it was really neat to get a “feel” for life in the 1910’s – in Germany, in the US, and in England.

    The title is explained on page 241.  The ending is great, which is no small feat since most readers will know ahead of time how things turn out for the Lusitania.  The blame-games played in the aftermath will sadden you.  Winston Churchill, then the Secretary of the Navy, comes across particularly poorly.  The “Epilogue” section is in a “whatever happened to” structure, and I greatly enjoyed  that.  The closing paragraphs (pg. 353) about Theodate Pope’s search for her shipboard friend, Edwin Friend, will bring both a tear and a smile to your face.

    There are no pictures in the book, which was mildly disappointing.  I would’ve liked to see a larger-scale map of the watery areas of interest.  The “extras” in the back of the book include 6 pages of acknowledgements, 58 pages of notes, and an 11-page index.  I highly recommend reading the "Sources and Acknowledgements" section, as it details just how much work goes into writing and publishing a book like this.

Kewlest New Word ...
Sequelae (n., plural) : conditions that are the consequence of a previous disease or injury.

    Men served as ballast.  In order to quickly level or “dress” his boat, or speed a dive, Schwieger would order crewmen to run to the bow or the stern.  The chaos might at first seem funny, like something from one of the new Keystone Cops films, except for the fact that these maneuvers were executed typically at moments of peril.  U-boats were so sensitive to changes in load that the mere launch of a torpedo required men to shift location to compensate for the sudden loss of weight.  (pg. 121)

    He and Pierpoint swam together.  Turner saw the bodies of the ship’s firemen floating nearby, upside down in their life jackets – he counted forty in all.  Seagulls dove among corpses and survivors alike.  Turner later told his son, Norman, that he found himself fending off attacks by the birds, which swooped from the sky and pecked at the eyes of floating corpses.  Rescuers later reported that wherever they saw spirals of gulls, they knew they would find bodies.  Turner’s experience left him with such a deep hatred of seagulls, according to Norman, “that until his retirement he used to carry a .22 rifle and shoot every seagull he could.”  (pg. 296)

 “If you had to jump six or seven feet, or certainly drown, it is surprising what ‘a hell of a long way’ even older people can jump.”  (pg. 272)
    Dead Wake was a riveting book for me, especially the “what ifs” and the subsequent events.  The British navy tries to make Captain Turner a scapegoat, but instead, you, and Erik Larson, have to ask: Why wasn’t there a destroyer escort for the Lusitania as it approached Liverpool?  After all, it was in a war zone, and Germany had sent out explicit communications that they would sink any and all vessels their U-boats encountered there.

    It should also be noted that, by its own shipping records, the Lusitania was carrying much-needed rifle-carriages and shrapnel shells to England, making it fair game in the conflict.  Still, the popular conspiracy theory that it carried another, secret trove of highly-explosive munitions is pretty much debunked by Larson.

   The actions of the United States are also head-scratching.  No matter what your and my 8th-grade teacher told you, we didn’t declare war because of this.  The Lusitania was sunk in May 1915.  We didn’t enter the war until two years later (half the duration of the four-year conflict), and that only after our indignation over the infamous “Zimmerman Letter”.  Wiki it, or read this book.  Talk about skewed priorities.

    9½ Stars.  Dead Wake is a fantastic read for history buffs, and I've never yet been disappointed in an Erik Larson book.

    We’ll close with some of the more poignant stats and trivia given in the book.  764 people survived the sinking of the Lusitania, including the ship’s captain, William Turner.  1,195 people died, including 27 of the 33 infants aboard  and 3 German stowaways, who had been caught at departure snooping around, and were incarcerated below-decks.  The bodies of more than 600 passengers were never found.  123 Americans perished.

    The Lusitania was just 16 hours from arriving at its destination when it was torpedoed.  The total time between the impact and sinking: just 18 minutes.  Although each passenger had been issued a life jacket, many of them died because they didn't know how to put it on and/or where they had stashed it in their cabins.  Think about that last piece of trivia the next time you take a cruise and have to participate in the mandatory life jacket drill.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Burglar In The Rye - Lawrence Block

    1999; 352 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #9  (out of 10, or 11, or 12, depending how you count them) in the Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” series.  Genre : Crime-Humor.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The timing is going to be tricky, but it’s all for a good cause.  Bernie Rhodenbarr, retired burglar, is going to unretire for a bit in order to purloin some highly-sought letters from the reclusive author, Gulliver “Gully” Fairborn to his one-time agent, Anthea Landau.

    It won’t be easy.  Dear old Anthea is a recluse who almost never ventures out from her room at the Paddington Hotel, and Bernie isn’t sure where in her room the letters might be stashed.  In fact, he doesn’t even know which room is hers.

    But where there’s a will, or t least some letters, there’s a way, especially if some money can be made along the way.  And Bernie’s larceny skills are certainly up to the challenge.

    Unfortunately, someone saw him just outside Anthea’s hotel room door.  And someone else can prove Bernie was registered at that hotel under an assumed name.  And someone else must also be wanting those letters, because when Bernie makes it into Anthea’s room, she’s dead, and there are no letters to be found.

    Worst of all, someone’s already called the cops.  They’re at the door, and Bernie’s stuck inside.

What’s To Like...
    The Burglar In The Rye has the usual structure used in the Lawrence Block “Burglar” series, and I mean that in a most positive way.  Bernie gets talked into doing “one last heist”, and this isn't his first relapse.  Things go awry, Bernie gets implicated, and he and the reader spend the rest of the book navigating the many plot twists until Bernie, and sometimes the reader, figure out the whodunit.

    The murder-mystery is well-done.  The clues are there, if you’re astute enough to spot them.  But it’s just as much fun to meet a bunch of zany characters – both new and recurring – and to listen in on the sparkling wit that permeates every conversation in a Bernie Rhodenbarr book.  Lawrence Block also revels in imparting obscure trivia to the reader.  Here, we learn all about Chester Alan Arthur (who?) and the dreaded candiru, aka the “toothpick fish”.  The author doesn’t make this stuff up.  Wiki “candiru” to learn, as Bernie did, why you’ll never want to sneak a pee while swimming in a river again.

    As with any of the Burglar books, the new characters introduced are fascinating studies.  The reclusive Gulliver Fairborn sparkles, but my favorite newbie was Isis Gauthier, the first person I can recall that leaves Bernie flummoxed with her incisive questions.

    It also should be noted that, although the book was published in 1999, Bernie’s best friend throughout this series, Carolyn Kaiser, is gay.  No biggie, I hear you say, but what’s impressive is the way Lawrence Block makes her a three-dimensional character.  Yes, she’s gay, but that isn’t her only raison d’etre.  She owns a dog-grooming business, shares meals and drinks with Bernie, and swaps various insights with him over various relationship issues they both have.

    The Burglar In The Rye is a quick and easy read, told in the first-person POV (Bernie’s).  There is some mild cussing, one instance of aural sex (I’ll let you suss that out), and two, unconnected instances of urination fascination.  Maybe Lawrence Block was on diuretics when he wrote this.  This is a standalone story, as well as part of a series.

Kewlest New Word . . .
Twee (adj.) : Excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.

    “The day I moved in he told me he wanted me to stay as long as I wanted, and that he hoped I would never leave him.  But that he would leave me.”
    “He told you that?”
    “He stated it as a fact.  The sky is blue, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the day will come when you’ll wake up and I’ll be gone.”
    “It could be a country song,” I said, “except that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny would be tough for Garth Brooks to sing with real conviction.”  (loc. 1085)

    For God’s sake, he’s a self-proclaimed burglar.”
    “Actually,” Carolyn put in, I think ‘admitted’ would be a better word for Bernie than ‘self-proclaimed.’  It’s not as though he goes around making proclamations.  If anything, he’s a little ashamed of being a burglar.”
    “Then why doesn’t he stop burgling?” Isis wanted to know.
    “Just between us, I think it’s an addiction.”
    “Has the man tried therapy?  Or some sort of twelve-step program?”
    “Nothing seems to work.”  (loc. 3414)

Kindle Details...
    The Burglar In The Rye sells for $6.49 at Amazon.  All the rest of the books in the series are in the  $3.99  to $5.99 price range.  Lawrence Block wrote several other, less lighthearted detective series, and those e-books are in the $2.74-$9.99 range.  One of them is the “Matthew Scudder” series, which I am eager to check out.

He was a bear, of course, but not the sort whose predilection for sylvan defecation is as proverbial as the Holy Father’s Catholicism.  (loc. 69)
    There’s not much to quibble about in The Burglar in the Rye.  At one point Bernie, desperately fleeing the police, enters a random hotel room, and stumbles across some extremely valuable rubies, They just happen to play a key part in solving the crime.  Yeah, it’s kinda of a “WTF moment”, but hey, without those gems, the whole investigation would come to naught.  So we’ll let it slide.

    The ending is suitably dramatic, albeit a two-stage affair.  Just about everyone you’ve figured was the culprit gets put under the Bernie Rhodenbarr spotlight, but I doubt you’ll have fingered the actual murderer.  That gets wrapped up at 88%, then it’s time to also resolve the matter of the missing and much-coveted letters.  That may sound anticlimactic, but it actually all works out quite nicely.

    8½ Stars.  I borrowed the Kindle version of Burglar In The Rye from my local library.  They carry the complete series, and it seems like very few patrons remember Lawrence Block.  It may be time to read a couple more of these, before the library deletes them due to inactivity.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Tinker's War - Jamie Sedgwick

   2012; 345 pages.  Book 2 (out of three) of the Tinkerer’s Daughter series.   New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    The Vangars.  They came, in their dragon ships of death.

    They saw.  The lands of the humans, the Elvish Tal’mar, and even the giant Kanters.  All of whom were squabbling amongst themselves.  All of whom failed to realize the danger came from without, not within.

    They conquered.  They focused on the palaces of the reigning kings and queens, dropping bombs of unimaginable size and deadliness, and killing the rulers of each empire.  Then they swept into all the major cities in their, in their dragon ships, protected by gyroplanes, capturing and enslaving most of the civilians before they had a chance to flee.

    Yet a few made it out and went into hiding in the mountains.  Including Breeze.  The half-breed.  The tinker’s daughter.  The pilot.  The healer.  But she’s just one fighter.  What can she do against the overwhelming Vangar invasion force?

What’s To Like...
    Tinker’s War is the second book in a series about a half-elf/half-human girl named Breeze growing up in a bleak, futuristic world that reminds me of China MiĆ©ville’s Railsea setting.  This is vintage Jamie Sedgwick - the action starts right away with the Vangars attacking everyone all at once, and doesn't let up until the very end.

    Yet there is more to Tinker’s War than just thrills and spills.  Our half-breed heroine has a pair of suitors vying for her hand – one human, the other elf.  Neither one will take “no” for an answer, and both are jealous of each other.  But be of good cheer, male readers.  While this thread runs throughout the book, the romance never gets in the way of the excitement and fighting.

    I’m also thinking Jamie Sedgwick must be a mechanical engineer in real life, because we get some keen insight (usually courtesy of Tinker) into various mechanisms – the steamwagons, the dragon ships, the gyroplanes with their spring engines, piston motors, spring-loaded revolvers, and the strangest of all, at least to our heroes, the electric light bulb.

    The genre style is much more steampunk than fantasy.  Outside of the elves, it seems the only other magic is the gift of healing.  There is a hint of trolls, though.  And dragons abound in other books set in this world.

    The story is told from a first-person POV, Breeze’s, of course.  There are 32 chapters for 327 pages, plus an 18-page preview of the next book in the series.  Overall, Tinker’s War is a quick and easy read, which was exactly what I was looking for.

    The ending is so-so.  Nothing is resolved, the Tal’mar still are in firm control of their newly-conquered territory.  But there’s a nice tie-in to the conjunctive series Aboard The Great Iron Horse, and the Vangars are a dominant force in that setting.  So their sustained success here is consistent with the overall storyline.

    “This is no life you have, Breeze.  You’re not living, you’re hiding.”
    I pulled my hands away from him and placed them on my lap.  “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, Robie.  Look at me.  Look at my face, my ears.  Do you think I’m one of your farm girls?  Do you envision me standing at a cook stove all day, my belly swollen with child, our house full of chaos and noise?  Is that what you want?”
    A mystified look swept across his face.  “Cook stove?  I don’t know… you do cook, don’t you?”  (loc. 87)

    I had long since learned that few people possess the kind of fortitude it takes to question their leaders.  Humans and Tal’mar are no different when it comes to this.  The individual is always more worried about calculating his or her personal outcome in a situation than making that situation a success.  Regrettably, I had come to learn that many people would choose to loose (sic) the war if it meant they could be the head slave, rather than win the war and be equal with everyone else.  (loc. 2454)

Kindle Details...
    Tinker’s War is priced at $0.99 at Amazon.  The first book in the series, The Tinkerer’s Daughter is free, and the final book, Blood And Steam, sells for $2.99.  Jamie Sedgwick has a slew of others e-books and series available at Amazon, ranging in price from free to $3.99.  Those are great prices for books of this caliber.

 “The hair in my nose keeps growing back no matter how much I trim it, but lose an arm or leg, or even a finger, and it’s gone forever.”  (loc. 290)
    There are a couple quibbles, none all that serious.

    First, there is little or no backstory, and it’s been two years since I read the first book in this series.  This isn’t all that critical, though, because of the episodic nature of the book.  More on this in a bit.

    Second, while getting into occupied cities is understandably a cinch, I found it curious how easily our plucky heroes could get out of them as well, even when there were a bunch of noisy humans in the group.  It was also odd that the Tal’mar Queen’s name is never mentioned.  I couldn’t recall it.  Maybe Jamie couldn’t either.

    Finally, given that the dragon ships make use of giant balloons containing flammable gas to keep them aloft, the good guys take an incredibly long time to wonder if that might be a weak spot in those airships’ defenses.  

     7½ Stars.  I’m beginning to gain a better insight into Jamie Sedgwick’s intent when writing a story, and more importantly, when he’s writing a series.  It doesn't seem like he's too concerned about furthering the overall plotline in the series.  Here, the main thread is the Vangars kicking butt all over the place, and the author doesn’t appear to feel any obligation to resolve that anytime soon.

    Instead, this book, and others written by him, have a feel of simply being “episodes” in his excellently-constructed post-apocalyptic world.  It’s kinda like watching any of the TV series of, say, Star Trek.  You know you’re in for a fascinating hour-long story.  But if you ask yourself how it furthers the five-year mission to boldly seek out and explore new worlds, well, frankly, it doesn’t.

    If Gene Roddenberry can get away with this, I suppose Jamie Sedgwick should be allowed to as well.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1: Judgment of the Witch - Robert McCammon

    2002; 483 pages.  Full Title: Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1: Judgment Of The Witch.  Book 1 (or ½), of the 6-book “Matthew Corbett” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Horror; Mystery; Witches; Suspense; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Carolina town of Fount Royal is dying, and everyone who still remains there knows why.

    Yes, people are succumbing left and right to the swamp plague.  So are the animals.  To say nothing of those two murders.  Plus the miserable jungle-like weather that seems to keep the sun from shining, which is ruining the crops.  But all of those things are effects, not causes.

    The cause is “her”.  The witch.  And the sooner she is hanged or burned at the stake – it doesn’t really matter which method is used now, does it? – the sooner the curse that is afflicting Fount Royal will end.

    But the town’s residents are civilized, law-abiding people.  The witch is in jail, and she's entitled to a fair and speedy trial.  It should only take a day at the most, after which she’ll be found guilty and sentenced to death.  So somebody get busy making the stake, chopping the wood, and lighting torches, cuz there’s gonna be a public burning real soon.  All that’s lacking is a judge.

    And he’s on his way from Charles Town.  He should be here any day now.

What’s To Like...
    Speaks The Nightbird – Volume 1: Judgment Of The Witch takes place in 1699, a few years after the onset of the Salem Witch Trials in New England.  The fictional (ANAICT) Fount Royal is a day or two's ride outside of the larger city of Charles Town, now modern-day Charleston, South Carolina. Back in those days there was no “North” or “South” Carolina, it was just the single colony.

    Robert McCammon is first and foremost a writer of the horror genre, but to be honest, I was more transfixed by the historical fiction aspect of Speaks The Nightbird.  When’s the last time you read a book that was set anywhere in American in 1699?  The attention to historical detail here is amazing, with now-archaic things like “toss ‘em boys” (a food), “black flaggers” (pirates), slide groat and wicket (boys’ games in those days), and the Spanish method of rolling tobacco leaves into cigars.

    The horror/mystery/thriller aspect of the book is just as good.  The fundamental question is whether the odd goings-on in Fount Royal are natural or supernatural in origin.  I very much enjoy books that keep you guessing about this.  Preston & Child employ the same motif in their Agent Pendergast series, and I’m a fan of them, too.

    I was impressed by the character development.  Our protagonist, Matthew Corbett, a young clerk and the assistant to the magistrate, is a fascinating study.  But the other major characters – the witch, the magistrate, Fount Royal’s founder, et al. – are also interesting people to meet and get to know.  As for the baddies, well, I can’t tell you anything about them because, other than Exodus Jerusalem (who may be more of a shyster than a baddie), they haven’t been identified yet.  More on this in a bit.

    The detailed descriptions conveyed to me a real “feel” for life in America in 1699.  I still haven’t figured out who-or-what “Jack One-Eye” is, but the “toss ‘em boys” food was explained on page 83, ditto for the enigmatic title on page 459.  I chuckled at the medicinal smoking of hemp on page 265; it is a rare treat to encounter some subtle humor in a horror story.  I also liked the chess game on page 193.  My only quibble is the assertion that Matthew’s first move was with one of his knights.  While not impossible, it would be rare for either player making their first move with anything but a pawn in 1699.  Still, Matthew says he was self-taught, so perhaps that explains his odd choice.

    The trial (technically. a hearing) begins on page 219.  The testimony against the accused witch is compelling; even Matthew is forced to admit that.  There is a lot of cussing and explicit sex, so you probably don't want little Tommy or Suzy reading this book.  None of the threads are tied up, but the book ends at a suitably-chosen spot.

Kewlest New Word...
Toss ‘em Boys (n.; phrase) : greasy roast chicken, so named because of the manner in which the fowl is caught.  Google it..
Others : Caliginous (adj.); Sippet (n.).

    “Alice Barrow has taken to bed as well.”
    “Alice Barrow?”  Bidwell turned from the window to face the other man.  “Is she ailing?”
    “I had cause to visit John Swaine this morning,” Winston said.  “According to Cass Swaine, Alice Barrow has told several persons that she’s been suffering dreams of the Dark Man.  The dreams have so terrified her that she will not leave her bed.”
    Bidwell gave an exasperated snort.  “And so she’s spreading them like rancid butter on scones, is that it?”
    “It seems to be.”  (pg. 57)

    “How old are you?”
    “Twenty years.”
    “Have you always been so curious?”
    “Yes,” he answered.  “Always.”
    “From what I saw today, the magistrate doesn’t appreciate your curiosity.”
    Matthew said, “He appreciates the truth.  Sometimes we arrive at it from different routes.”  (pg. 281)

“Better the company of wolves than the cryin’ of saints.”  (pg. 29)
   Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1 is not a standalone story, despite being 28 chapters and 483 pages long.  Normally I’d carp about that, but in researching this book, I discovered that if you pick this up new nowadays, you’ll find it to be 800+ pages in length, and is actually Volumes 1 and 2 combined.  That includes the e-book version.

   So it appears I have a very early edition of the book (the publisher is Pocket Books).  Indeed, the blurb in the back exhorts the reader to be sure not to miss Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 2: Evil Unveiled, which is/was "coming out next month”.
    Which means the only thing I have left to quibble about is the Wikipedia entry for Robert McCammon.  It really needs to be updated and fleshed out a bit.  The author has issued at least one more book since the Wikipedia article was last updated.

    9 Stars.  Frankly, if the only thing I can gripe about is the author’s Wikipedia page, you just know I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Highly recommended, and that's from someone who doesn’t read much in the horror genre.  My OCD will demand that I read “Volume 2” at some point in the near future.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Riddler's Gift - Greg Hamerton

    2012; 643 pages.  Full Title: The Riddler’s Gift: First Tale of the Lifesong.  Book 1 (out of 2) in the series “The Tale of the Lifesong”.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Epic Fantasy Sword & Sorcery; a smidgen of Romance.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Everyone agrees; young Tabitha Serannon has a gift for music.  She can play the lyre beautifully.  She sings even better.  Some even describe it as being divine.

    Tabitha isn’t sure about that.  Right now, she just wants to win the local singing contest that will take place shortly at the neighborhood tavern.  Or at least come in second or third.  Because the top three will qualify for the next round of competition, which will take place in Stormhaven, and that’s the King’s City.

    But not everybody thinks so highly of Tabitha’s musical ability.  There are those of the Dark who view it as a threat.  They are resolved to kill her, and to summon demons to carry this out.  Tabitha is going to need some friends.

    Friends with swords.  Friends with magic.  And perhaps even an unanticipated friend, with riddles.

What’s To Like...
    There is a heavy Lord of the Rings (“LOTR”) influence on The Riddler’s Gift.   The most obvious tie-ins are a Ring of Power, the reluctant ring-bearer, and some wannabe Nazgul.  There’s also a circle of wizards (“The Gyre”), although  only a fanatic LOTR reader will know that there were five wizards serving in Middle Earth, not just Saruman and Gandalf.  But the LOTR/Riddler differences outweigh their likenesses.  This is almost purely a sword-&-sorcery fantasy.  No elves or dwarves or hobbits, although the Riddler’s stature might qualify him as the latter.  And the only otherworldly creatures are those summoned from the demon realms.

    The book is written in English, not American, and I always enjoy that.  Music is important, hence the “Lifesong” in the book’s title, and I liked the poems and songs inserted by Greg Hamerton.  Each chapters starts with a short, pithy quote courtesy of the Riddler, and I chuckled at the palindrome-like phrase “see thyself as thyself see”.  The magic system is unique and innovative: sprites for the wielders of light; motes for the wielders of darkness.

    The tone of the book is much darker than LOTR, with lots of violence, a fair amount of cussing, and some rape and torture thrown in to boot.  You probably don’t want little Timmy and Suzie reading this book.

    I especially liked the character development.  All the main players are given deep and complex personalities.  And while Tabitha is the protagonist, it was more fun trying to figure out the Riddler's angle in all this.  Even the bad guys bring lessons to the tale.  The problem with being the Lord of Chaos is that …well… all your subjects are inherently chaotic.

    The storyline kept my interest.  I once read that Tolkien’s aim when writing LOTR was to make every chapter and every scene exciting.  I think he carried that out nicely, and Greg Hamerton succeeds in similar fashion here.  Simply put, there are no slow spots.

  The chapters are of intermediate length – 47 of them for 643 pages.  There is some romance in the storyline, but it won’t cause male readers to quit the book.  The plotline builds to an suitably exciting and tense ending.  All the threads are neatly tied up.  This is a completed 2-book series, and I presume the sequel deals with an Uber-Evil entity, Ametheus.

Kewlest New Word…
Spindrift (n.) : spray blown from the crests of waves by the wind.
Others : Haver (v., Scottish) : To talk foolishly; to babble.

    “You have not used magic to interfere, have you, Riddler?”
    “I have ground my teeth on the oath, but I have heeded it.”
    “Always speaking truth in crooked ways, but never crooked truth,” said the Spiritist, smiling gently, her grey hair framing her sprightly face.  Zarost hoped she was the only one who truly understood his riddled answer.  Heeding something was different to obeying it.  Just a little.  (loc. 11119)

    “You’re a woman.  You’ll be able to tell the difference between sex and love, and it’s love I’m talking about.  Sex would drive him further into despair in the morning.”
    “What’s being a woman got to do with it?” Ashley interjected, with an impish grin.  He took a seat on the bed beside Grace, and set a gently hand on her forehead.  “We can be sensitive, too.”
    “Men have more difficulty discerning the difference,” said Sister Grace, reaching up, and tweaking his ear.  (loc. 12757)

Kindle Details...
    The Riddler’s Gift sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Second Sight, goes for $5.99.  Amazon offers only one other Greg Hamerton e-book, Beyond The Invisible, which does not appear to be related to the Lifesong series, and is priced at $3.99.
“Trickster, liar, traitor, thief.  One part laughter, three part(s) grief.”  (loc. 3070)
    The quibbles are minor.  There was no map, at least in my edition, and that really would’ve come in handy.  I note that the “Look Inside” blurb at Amazon now includes one, so perhaps this has since been rectified.  Similarly, it would’ve been nice to have an Table of Contents, with links to each chapter, in the front of the book.

    Story-wise, the ‘turncoats’ in secret service for the Evil Ones whilst living among the Forces of Good seemed pretty obvious to me.  Yet our plucky band of heroes were remarkably slow to grasp this.  I also found the secondary threat, a Neverending Story sort of tie-in, to be somewhat "tangential".  It didn't seem like it was really needed. and it was dealt with way too quickly and easily.

    Finally, several reviewers at Amazon criticized the book’s length.  Yes, it is long, almost 650 pages.  But come on now, the reader knows that going in (at least he should if he looked at the Amazon blurb before buying it), and since there are no slow spots, that's not a valid complaint.

    8½ Stars.  For me The Riddler’s Gift was a well-written and thoroughly entertaining piece of epic fantasy.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes J.R.R. Tolkien was still alive and cranking out LOTR sequels.