Sanctuary, by Lynn Abbey

sanctuaryWreathed in moonlight, incense, and memory, Molin recalled the days when Sanctuary had been a divine playground, swarming with gods, heroes, magicians, witches, priests, not to mention whole neighborhoods populated with the living dead.  He’d thought that was hell.  He’d never thought to see the day when he’d have welcomed the likes of Tempus, Ischade, or his own overly troublesome niece, Chenaya, with open arms.
-Molin Torchholder’s reflections on Sanctuary’s past…and present

Sanctuary is not a nice place.

There are cities that speak of wondrous things in fantasy books.  Tar Valon of Jordan’s Wheel of Time books.  Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings.  Palanthus in the Dragonlance books.  Incredible places all.  So if you think of how wonderful they are, and flip them upside down to be equally horrible, you’d have Sanctuary.  All right, perhaps I’m overstating things a bit.  Let me try this again.

Sanctuary is a city that has been abandoned by empires, wizards, and gods; if a type of crime exists, it has probably been committed in Sanctuary several dozen times.

As it turns out, it’s also a book; Lynn Abbey picks up many years after the Thieves’ World anthology series ended over ten years ago (my god, has it been that long?!).  As a result, most of the characters that fans of the anthology knew of are either dead, gone, or….?  One of the ones that has hung around, though, is Molin Torchholder, a high priest of the exiled god Vashanka.  Molin’s been around Sanctuary a long time, and in that time he’s seen it rise to almost-prosperity from its depths, and watched it sink right back down again-and worse.  The book starts out with Molin getting ambushed by a pair of cultists belonging to a group that he’d thought long gone-indeed, was in part responsible for getting rid of.  Unfortunately, the wound he takes in that ambush is a mortal one.  Molin’s not the kind to die quietly, though-and the arrival of a young man named Cauvin gives him a tool to try to finish off his mistake…and perhaps leave a legacy for the future.

Cauvin’s a scarred character himself; he’s survived the worst days of Sanctuary (and that’s saying quite a bit), and now lives as a sort of adopted son of a stoneworker.  His stepbrother, Bec, is very young, but far too inquisitive for his own good (and, thank god, no super genius; I was getting tired of books that had far too bright youths; Bec felt far more real to me because of it).  And the lady of Cauvin’s life isn’t exactly the cream of the crop, but shares a history with him during those dark days.  I had to feel for Cauvin while reading Sanctuary, because I can certainly understand his frustration dealing with Molin (hero of Sanctuary’s past, and even while dying he’s an arrogant guy).

In the process of serving Molin, we also get a bit of history behind Sanctuary.  Most of the events chronicled in the Thieves’ World series are glossed over, in favor of events that have occurred later.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we see no sign of the Sanctuary that was; long time readers will enjoy references to characters from the series, from Illyra the S’danzo seeress; Enas Yorl the immortal, shape-changing wizard who sought death; to those who had fairly direct contact with the gods they served, with power to show for it.  And there are a couple of cameo appearances….

When reading Sanctuary, I had to read it with two pairs of eyes.  The first pair were those of a fellow who had read all of the Thieves’ World books, including the various spin-offs at the time, and had enjoyed most of the stories therein.  The second pair were those of a fellow reading Sanctuary without having read that series.  I’d say that both pairs were satisfied.  I might have a little more regret that most of the characters I knew are long gone, but Abbey did a creditable job in drawing me back into Sanctuary.  I was also particularly happy to see that some questions are still not answered…perhaps in a future book?

I recommend this book highly for those who enjoy fantasy at the down-and-dirty level, where knights and wonder-workers don’t operate, and to anyone who enjoyed Thieves’ World in the past.

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One Knight Only, by Peter David

oneknightonlyWhat’s Bob?  Our Bob?
Right.  Bob Kellerman.  Your head speechwriter.
What about him?  Is he all right?
Not at the moment, no.  Did you tell him that you were going to toss the text of the State of the Union address and just ‘wing it’?
I might have done.
That would be the speech he’s been working on twenty-four/seven for the past month?
That’s as may be, but why?  I was just joking.  He must have known that.
Sir, you know Bob.  He takes everything literally.  He’s been lying on the couch in his office for the last hour with an ice pack, moaning that his life is pointless.
-President Arthur Penn and Chief of Staff Ron Cordoba

A little over a year ago (as of this writing), I put up a review of Peter David’s book, Knight Life.  At the time, I mentioned that I was certainly hoping that a sequel would happen (as was rumored).

It happened.

One Knight Only picks up quite some time after the events in Knight Life.  For starters, Gwen D. Queen is now Gwen Penn, Arthur’s wife (and in case you missed Knight Life, understand that Arthur Penn was once Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons).  Arthur himself is now the President of the United States, thanks in part to very good publicity after a terrible event in New York City when he was mayor.  Merlin, who had always been by Arthur in the past, is now a small statue in a corner of the Rose Garden after coming up second-best in an altercation that is explained in more detail as the book continues.

As the story opens, Arthur is getting ready to make his State of the Union speech; part of it involves announcing a treaty with the country of Trans-Sabal, the last country that had been willing to give sanctuary to the terrorist behind the events in NYC (a man named Arnim Sandoval)-as well as making a few off-the-cuff comments.  However, tragedy strikes as Gwen is struck down by an assassin, leaving Arthur to make some hard choices as to what to do next.  In the meantime, the knight Percival is working for his king as a presidential aide who goes where he feels he’s needed-and while he’s in South America, he comes upon a man named Joshua, who’s older than he looks (and he’s not young anymore); not the Joshua you may be thinking of, but someone who has been touched by the Holy Grail.  Percival finds himself wishing to see it again-and perhaps in finding it again, understand what fate may await him in the future.

And in a way, what Percival finds leads in to a significant portion of this book:  something that will bring his king to another who thinks of himself as a High King-and one whose age makes Arthur look like a tot.

Where to start?  Well, there’s a number of good things about this book.  I loved the loophole in the U. S. Constitution that Arthur used to justify a Presidential run to himself and a couple of select others (still shaky, obviously, but he did have some help from Merlin).  I didn’t see the true identity of the High King coming, and that’s always a pleasant surprise (and I won’t ruin it here).  And the general attitudes of Arthur have carried over from the first book, a blend of righteousness and a hint of arrogance; well, he is a king, after all, and still having a little trouble with the idea of representative government.  But he’s still trying to do the right thing.  I also really enjoyed the role of the characters who are not a version of the Arthurian mythos, but are just everyday folks doing their jobs and being friends-from Ron Cordoba, the White House Chief of Staff who knows who Arthur is, to Nellie Porter, who attends to Gwen, and is a pretty sharp cookie.  And I can’t neglect Miss Basil, who isn’t quite who-or what-she seems; and she is most definitely not nice.

I expect that some folks might have a little trouble with the NYC event.  While it isn’t exactly 9/11 (and there’s no evidence that this has occurred in the setting of this book), it’s close enough in general atmosphere that some folks might find it very uncomfortable.  Plus, the general attitude of Arnim Sandoval is awfully close to what we see a lot of in the news of late.  Keep in mind, though, that Peter David’s never shied away from “uncomfortable” in writing his books, not only in these books but in his Star Trek books and his Sir Apropos books.  Also keep in mind that he’s also got a very interesting sense of poetic justice in his books.

One Knight Only doesn’t have the same feel as Knight Life, mostly because the first book had been about Arthur finding his place in the present day, and this one is about Arthur actually doing something in the present day.  He’s more in a position to change the world and make it a better place (in his point of view, of course), and one cannot doubt that he’s highly motivated to save his wife and take a personal sort of vengeance upon the author of his troubles.  While it’s not exactly what I’d want to see in a President in real life, it makes for entertaining fiction.  And there’s a couple of interesting consequences that could leave the door open to a third book if he wants to write it.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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Time’s Eye, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

timeseyeI wonder what she’s thinking.
‘There goes the neighborhood.’
-Bisesa Dutt and Abdikadir Omar, UN Peacekeepers, 2037, upon first seeing Seeker and Grasper, pre-history

It wasn’t so long ago that I wrote a review for what I believed was the last Odyssey book, 3001:  The Final Odyssey.  Foolish me.  It seems that, having gone over one thousand years ahead in those books, we’re starting a new Odyssey:  but instead of chronicling space, we’re hitting the other half of the equation:  time.  With Stephen Baxter, Arthur C. Clarke brings us Time’s Eye, the first book of “A Time Odyssey.”

The simplest way to state the premise could be “something weird is going on”; Earth has changed (or perhaps been rebuilt?), with parts of the planet coming from all parts of the planet’s history-or perhaps only mankind’s history.  There are a number of points of view tacked by this book, and the simplest to relate to is probably the UN peacekeepers from the year 2037, running a mission in Afghanistan.  At about the same time period, there are a trio of cosmonauts making a departure from the International Space Station.  Both groups have the somewhat dubious honor of being caught in the discontinuity that cuts them both off from their own time-and puts them on the same footing as people from the distant past.  The UN mission falls in with a unit of British soldiers from 1885, while the cosmonauts (not nearly as lucky) become acquainted with a Mongol horde.

Watching above it all appears to be a number of alien artifacts.  No, they aren’t black monoliths-we’re in a Time Odyssey now, not a Space Odyssey.  What we have are a number of silvery globes, hovering in mid air.  Are they responsible for the sudden “toss in various spots and time and mix” situation, or are they simply recording something-or something else altogether?  The only signs of what could be considered more modern technology seems to be coming from the city of Babylon; the journey to reach it and learn the secrets there will bring in conflict two of the greatest military leaders in history:  Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.  (No, I’m not spoiling anything here; you can read it on the front flap)

This book is quite different than the Space Odyssey books; I expect that in part, this is because it’s not looking at the future so much as the past (what we see of 2037 isn’t all that different than the present day).  It’s possibly also in part the writing style of Stephen Baxter.  The biggest difference is the introduction of conflict-the closest conflict that hit the Space Odyssey books was a bit of a fight on a luxury liner (well, physical conflict).  But in Time’s Eye, we have conflict between the cosmonauts and the Mongols (and I gotta tell you, the character of Sable is really unlikable; makes you wonder how she got in the space program), between the cosmonauts themselves, and of course, the big meeting between the forces of Alexander and the Khan.  This is no action novel, though-fans of previous Clarke works will find plenty to chew on, as the various characters begin to figure out what has happened, compare just when everyone came from; it’s also worth noting that the folks from further back the timeline adapt pretty well to meeting folks from the future.

I also should note that there is a companion CD-ROM that comes with the hardcover edition of this novel; I doubt it’ll be included with paperback versions, but you never know.  I haven’t really had a chance to peruse it yet, but (among other things) it includes the novel Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter, which shows that this book isn’t the first book dealing with time that Baxter’s dealt with.

In the beginning of the book, the author’s note indicates that this is not a sequel to the Space Odyssey novels, but rather a part of a series that is kind of askew of it; there is indeed something behind all of this, and we only get short glimpses of it.  And while the conclusion seems to open up more questions than answers, it does succeed in making me curious as to where things will go from here (there are quite a number of loose ends that will undoubtedly be picked up in the next book).  I don’t know how many books will comprise this series, but Time’s Eye does a pretty nice job on setting the stage for future books.

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Planeshift, by J. Robert King

pshiftAs Yawgmoth will let you know, Dominaria is no easy world to invade.  I couldn’t have laid waste to every continent and killed every hero without the help of many colleagues and friends….
…And of course, I want to thank the fans, every last one of whom is now a subject of the dread lord Yawgmoth.  It’s been nice conquering you.
(I know some of you hope Urza and Gerrard can pull this thing off in the next book, but don’t count on it.  Yawgmoth and I go way back.)
-Author’s acknowledgments

Imagine living through an invasion by the next best thing to demons.  Imagine the elation you’d feel knowing that you’d helped beat back the forces of evil.  Then imagine what you’d feel if you discovered that it was only beginning; that another world in another plane was suddenly overlaid upon everything you know.

That’s probably what happened to Gerrard Capashen and company at the beginning of the second book of the Invasion cycle, Planeshift.  When we last left our heroes, they’d just finished a great battle, and were recuperating from considerable tragedies (the nature of which I’ll leave quiet for now, since this review is coming out at the same time as Invasion).  Unfortunately for our heroes, it turns out that it was only the opening gambit.  The plane of Rath, currently ruled by the Evincar Crovax, has begun a dimensional shift onto the lands of Dominaria.  That in itself wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that the overlay brings with it the hordes of Phyrexians living on Rath.  To make matters worse, Crovax’s Stronghold comes with the rest of Rath.

Fortunately, the heroes of our story aren’t exactly twiddling their thumbs.  Urza Planeswalker leads a team of other planeswalkers for a massive assault on Phyrexia itself, hoping to take out the being known as Yawgmoth directly.  The elf-lord Eladamri goes to the lands of Keld, where the warriors are firmly convinced that they are facing Twilight (their version of the end of the world).  Agnate, leader of the metathran soldiers, makes common cause with the lich-lord Dralnu.  The dragon Rhammidarigaaz finds himself attempting to awaken long slumbering powers that will reassert the might of the dragon nations.  And Gerrard and the crew of the Weatherlight help out where they can, but work towards their goal of dealing with Crovax and the Stronghold.

As this is the next to last book, expect some resolutions in some long-running subplots.  I’ll spare the details, but expect casualties on all fronts, both physical and mental (and both!).  Urza continues to demonstrate his obsessions, which includes a truly chilling moment which demonstrates that Urza’s not particularly nice in the effort to destroy Phyrexia.  Of course, it also doesn’t escape his notice how Phyrexia is close to his own ideas of paradise….!  There’s also a nice moment featuring Tahngarth the Talruum minotaur, as he steps into his own in not just one but two important sections.

The ending is appropriately horrifying as well, although hope is still offered (in spite of the author’s acknowledgments); just what you’d expect out of the penultimate chapter of the Invasion cycle.  Planeshift does a nice job of continuing the plot, probably the result of having the same author writing both Invasion and Planeshift (and the forthcoming Apocalypse).  I’m still wondering how they’re going to get all this wrapped up, but I’m willing to wait for the next book before rendering judgment on the Invasion cycle (and by extension, the entire Weatherlight Saga).

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The Future War, by S. M. Stirling

futurewarRemember, we have no fate but that we make for ourselves.
-John Connor, closing the circle

The last book concluded with the Connor clan finally feeling that they’ve aborted Skynet (or at least the more malevolent aspect of it).  There was sacrifice, but at least humanity was safe from its own mistakes.


As it turns out (as readers of the last book will recall), John made a bit of a boo-boo, which kickstarted the very event he wanted to prevent.  As a result, Skynet becomes sentient.  And while it’s behind schedule, Judgment Day is about to finally fall.  And this is how The Future War begins.

It’s a little strange to be writing this review at this time.  Not too long after this book was released, Terminator 3 was released in the theaters, with its own take on the Rise of the Machines.  So in some ways, comparisons will be inevitable.  In my opinion, though, The Future War beats Rise of the Machines all hollow.  Granted, it had the advantage of having a couple of other books to set it up….

The book opens as the Connors and Dieter finally unwinding in Alaska.  John feels that the war has (finally) been averted, while Sarah isn’t quite as certain; she’s built up a great deal of paranoia over time, especially since she’s thought it was over before.  And she has good evidence to back it up-after all, if Skynet never rose, then Kyle Reese would never have gone back in time, and John wouldn’t exist (the fact that he’s essentially a miner’s canary for everyone in this book hasn’t escaped the author’s notice).  That proves to be all to correct when, somewhat behind the original schedule, Judgment Day kicks off.

Unlike the recent movie, The Future War is mostly involved with what happens after the nukes hit as opposed to trying to keep them from hitting at all; one of the things that really caught my attention (and impressed me) was the methodology of just how Skynet arranged to achieve maximum effect for low cost as far as using its nuclear arsenal.  To make matters even more cloudy, Skynet doesn’t kick things off with Terminators immediately-the Luddites, who have been around the edges in the previous books, are made into pawns of Skynet (unknowingly, of course; working for the machines doesn’t exactly fit their philosophies).  This allows the artificial intelligence all kinds of other ways of exterminating the human race.

While we don’t get to follow some of the surviving supporting characters from the last book, we are introduced to a number of characters, working with and against the fledgling resistance.  Standouts are Ninel Petrikoff, a young woman who is very much a member of the Luddite movement who crosses paths with John a few times, and Lieutenant Dennis Reese, who is not only in the army, but is also suspected to be the father of Kyle Reese, the man who started the ball rolling in time.

A great deal of this book deals with simply surviving Skynet’s initial gambits, and solidifying a resistance movement so that they can reach that future point in time where humanity finally defeats the machines.  The book also covers much, much more time than the other two; while those books could be measured in months, this one covers years of activity.  Seeing the changes in John is what stands out for me, as he finally evolves into “the great military leader” that he’d heard he would become all his life.  I also liked to see how a couple of important facts might have actually helped the resistance early on, thanks to the wonders of time travel.

And for those who are wondering where the book fits in with the recent film:  in spite of a throwaway paragraph near the book’s finale, there really isn’t any tie to the Terminator 3 movie (and that paragraph doesn’t really fit in with what we know from the events in Terminator 3).  Consider this series an alternative path in the Terminator series, and on that vein, consider reading these books.  They aren’t exactly filled with things exploding and blowing up every five minutes like in the movies, but they do have a bit more meat to them-and I’ve always been partial to that kind of thing.

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Annihilation, by Philip Athans

annihilationLolth has abandoned us.
We have abandoned her.
Well, what could she expect?
-The Lichdrow Dyrr, and Matron Mother Yasraena Dyrr

There’s a lot to cover in Annihilation, book five of the War of the Spider Queen.  So, I’ll get right to it.

The crew from Menzoberranzan has managed to capture a ship of chaos (complete with demonic captain), which they plan to use to travel physically to the Abyss and determine what has become of Lolth.  On the downside, it’s not quite ready to go, requiring some additional “fuel”.  The demon, on the other hand, doesn’t really feel like serving a bunch of dark elves, and demons have a sense of treachery equal to that of the drow.  At the same time, Quenthel is finally losing what little grip on reality she has left, and Danifae Yauntyrr finally gets the opportunity to rid herself of a long-standing irritant.  In the meantime, the siege on Menzoberranzan has come to a waiting state, with the minor exception of two extremely powerful wizards who look to finish each other off.  On another front, Ryld Argith is having trouble on the surface reconciling his feelings for Halisstra Melarn and the fact that she’s been chosen to kill off his goddess.

And ahead of all of them:  the Abyss, and the Demonweb Pits-and possibly, the fate of Lolth the Spider Queen.

As the penultimate chapter of this series, you could expect that big things are in store for our characters.  Considering that the expedition consists of a bunch of drow elves, some of whom were ready to kill each other in the last book, one shouldn’t be surprised that nerves are frayed.  Pharaun gets a chance to renew his “acquaintance” with a fiendish friend-who he’s not really willing to trust too far, since she’s marginally involved with forces attacking Menzoberranzan.  Quenthel is…well, she’s at the end of her rope.  She wasn’t exactly a personality well suited for extended waiting, and that does take up a good portion of this book.  To say that the Mistress of Arach-Tinilith is losing her grip would be a kind way to put it-and among the drow, if you don’t exercise your power regularly, somebody is always happy to step in and claim it for themselves.  Valas begins to wonder if he has too much more purpose in the expedition, while Danifae puts plans into motion to both gain in personal power and claim a heaping of vengeance at the same time.

On the surface, Halisstra is just about ready to roll in her appointed mission to do the impossible-but her lover, Ryld, has only stuck around for her; the swordmaster really doesn’t have any desire to worship Eilistraee, and he has a serious dislike for the World Above as well.  Adapting to the dangers of the surface proves difficult-however, the problems of the surface pale in significance compared to the danger unleashed upon him later in the book.  In Menzoberranzan, Gromph Baenre is about to have his rematch with the lichdrow-after regaining his sight in a rather…messy…manner.  Let’s just say it’s a bad idea to be a captive of the archmage, and leave it at that.

While this book spends much time getting the ship of chaos up to speed, Athans does an exceptional job of keeping it from being boring.  The captain of the ship is cunning enough to cause a number of problems for his “crew”, and really rubs Jeggred the wrong way (and the final resolution of this little conflict was one of the high points of the book-I just loved Jeggred’s last word on the subject).  Danifae’s plans demonstrate a skill with treachery that show that the battle-captive is as skilled as any high priestess in plans for revenge.  A fight on the World Above is a marvelous set of sequences that brings in not only Ryld and his relentless opponent, but also some folks who were unlucky enough to be on hand to add more confusion to the fight.

The real fun in this book (besides the climax, which I am not even going to hint at) is the duel between Gromph and the lichdrow.  Reading about Gromph’s preparations for this conflict, and then the actual battle itself between two extremely powerful wizards was a joy.  The methods of magic in the Forgotten Realms setting has always seemed ill-suited to a one-on-one battle between wizards, but Athans pulls it off perfectly.  As a bonus in this conflict, we finally get to see the true nature of Nimor Imphraezl and those of the Jaezred Chalssin; I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t see it coming, but it makes sense.

In the end, I can say that Annihilation has set a high bar for the final book in the War of the Spider Queen to reach; the climax of the book changes the tone of everything.  But even before that end, the book keeps a lively pace, and has set up the series for what I anticipate as a stellar ending in Resurrection.

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No Phule Like an Old Phule, by Robert Asprin with Peter J. Heck

nophuleIn a truly orderly universe, a once-in-a-trillion-chances event ought to have the common courtesy to wait for someone to make a few million attempts to bring it about before manifesting itself.  It says something very unpleasant about the universe we live in that such an event can just as easily occur the very first time someone tries to bring it about.
-Beeker’s journal entry #727

After my review of the last book in the Phule series, Phule Me Twice, one could be forgiven for thinking I’d give the latest, No Phule Like an Old Phule, a pass.  But I did enjoy other books in the series, and Robert Asprin has completed his Myth books (well, maybe; I could swear I’ve seen references to a newer book somewhere), so that’s no longer on the back of my mind-so I go into this offering of the Phule books with an open mind.  And one of the big reasons I wanted to read this one has to do less with Willard Phule, and more with someone with at least as much wealth:  his father, Victor Phule.  Victor has a few issues with his son’s business practices-particularly with the acquisition of the Fat Chance casino at Lorelei.  He just can’t accept that the casino makes money, and plans to prove it by hitting it big.  At the same time, though, a pair of failed kidnappers-Lola and Ernie-are coerced into giving it another try-and it looks like Victor’s the only Phule in town.

This is, however, the least of the issues facing the Space Legion on the world of Zenobia.  Captain Jester still has to deal with the ill-will of General Blitzkrieg; this time, the ill-tempered general has sent representatives from the Alliance Ecological Interplanetary Observation Unit to observe the environmental impact the Legion is having on Zenobia (yes, the organization really is AEIOU); worse yet, its most famous representative has come to see-Barky, the Environmental Dog.  In addition, there are a number of big-game hunters with connections who want to try to take some shots at the local wildlife.

But that isn’t all that’s going on!  We’ve also got the enlistment of a fellow named Zigger, a Lepoid who definitely isn’t the usual material for the Legion-he’s too good!  Such an aberration can only be assigned to one unit-Omega Company.  And there’s something odd about the Zenobians, who seem to be working on something that’s caught the attention of Sushi, Do-Wop, and Rev; the Rev’s trying to determine the mysterious connection between the King and an entity the Zenobians call by the curiously named “‘L’Viz”, and the search for that connection leads to some rather interesting revelations about the Zenobians.

In spite of all the various plotlines in this book, it helps that they’re primarily concentrated in two areas-Zenobia and Lorelei.  That fact is probably the only thing that allows Willard Phule to keep riding herd on everything-and even then it’s a close thing.  Once everything starts to come together, even Phule has some trouble managing the various crises.  I rather enjoyed most of the subplots in this book.  I enjoyed the boot-camp and subsequent assignment of Zigger, who takes on a Legion name that had me shaking my head; the mystery behind the Zenobians really got my attention, and the end result was hilarious.  I can’t bring myself to go into detail about how things fall out at Fat Chance.  Let’s just say that while certain gambles turn out fairly predictably, the aftermath is far more amusing (a classic example of the quote used for this review).  I was less interested in the big-game plot, although I was certainly amused by the resolution.  The big conflict on Zenobia is driven by the AEIOU and Barky, and the efforts to prove that Omega Company is far more environmentally friendly than the average Legion unit; not as easy as it sounds, as Barky tends to have a very, very sensitive nose….

I felt this was a more enjoyable book than the previous effort; I was pleased that this didn’t introduce too many new long-term characters at the expense of the characters already in Omega, because I still feel that the current batch has a lot of mileage still in them.  While No Phule Like an Old Phule isn’t quite as good as the first pair of books in the series, it is certainly moving back in the right direction.

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The Skrayling Tree, by Michael Moorcock

skraylingThere’s a madness in Chaos, just as there can be in Law.  These forces take many forms and many names across the multiverse.  To call them Good or Evil is never to know them, never to control them, for there are times when Chaos does good and Law does evil and vice versa.  The tiniest action of any kind can have extreme and monumental consequences.  Out of the greatest acts of evil can spring the greatest powers for good.  Equally, from acts of great goodness, pure evil can spring.  That is the first thing any adept learns.  Only then can their education truly begin.
-White Crow, student of the Kakatanawa

It has been a very long time since I’ve last read something by Michael Moorcock.  I had been in the right mood to pick up his books, having seen references to them on and off over the years, and went out of my way to pick up the books involving the Runestaff, Corum, and of course, Elric of Melniboné-who, in his little corner of the multiverse, is an aspect of the Champion Eternal.  It was the Elric book that I’d enjoyed the most (and more importantly, had the easiest time finding in bookstores at the time).  Well, once again, I’ve hit the right mood, and picked up a Moorcock novel-and once again, Elric has a featuring role.  The book is The Skrayling Tree; don’t make the mistake I did-I had no idea that this is kind of a follow up to The Dreamthief’s Daughter, because I didn’t bother reading the inside cover first.  Well, it’s not the first time I’ve reviewed a book without reading a predecessor….

The book is written in three parts; the first is written in the hand of Oona von Bek, wife of Count Ulric von Bek-who shares Elric’s soul-and the daughter of a Dreamthief and Elric; however, Elric isn’t really a part of this particular universe (more on that in a moment)-which is similar (if not actually) our own, approximately 1951.  The von Beks are working for the United Nations, but the two are taking a short vacation.  It proves to be a bit more exciting than one would wish-Ulric is kidnapped by Indians, and it is fast apparent that they don’t hail from this Earth, but from another.  However, with the guidance of a fellow by the name of Klosterheim (who apparently has history with Oona, and it ain’t good), and a medicine shield left behind in the kidnapping, Oona goes off in pursuit.  In the process, she meets a pair of unique individuals-Ayanawatta, who knows much of the future from dream journeys, and White Crow, a student of the Kakatanawa Indians, and a shaman as well.  Oona joins their journey to Odan-a-Kakatanawa, as the two believe that her quest parallels their own.

The second part involves Elric.  Elric-in his own universe-has lost track of his fabled black sword, Stormbringer, at a most inconvenient time (I’m not sure where it fits in with his own story, but I get the impression that it’s near the end of it-when he really needs it).  In an effort to recover it, he uses a magic known as a Dream of a Thousand Years, which allows him to travel many worlds-including the one of Ulric and Oona, although at an earlier point in time; there he seeks the smith who forged the original black sword, reasoning that if he should find him, he should also locate Stormbringer.  While in Vienna, he learns of a Norseman named Gunnar who had explored much of the world, and may know of the smith.  Gunnar, however, is a man as unique as Elric, as he remembers his own past, present, and future-and wishes to take the universe with him when he dies.  Their journey on the seas, however, is hardly uneventful, and takes them into yet another world (guess which one?).  As far as the third part goes-well, I’ll leave that a bit of a surprise, although I’ll say that folks familiar with other Elric stories will recognize one or two people encountered in this part.

In spite of the fact that I have not read The Dreamthief’s Daughter, I was able to follow the plot along pretty easily; while there are references and characters that undoubtedly came from that book, their presence and significance is explained well enough to understand their role in the story (I was particularly interested in a reference to a character as an Eternal Predator; wonder if that has the same kind of significance as the Champion…).  This helped a lot in following the story.  The book has things I find familiar about Moorcock’s writing mixed in with concepts that I haven’t seen in his other books-but are in many others (such as the presence of the Grail, which doesn’t make an appearance, but is referred to).  Add in the new characters like White Crow and Gunnar, and the mix is a fairly pleasing whole.

One thing that I had a little bit of trouble with at first was the general writing style; the book is written in first person, but as if recorded in a journal; as a result, you don’t see the level of dialog that one might expect in these books, but rather as one would describe a conversation in a journal.  This isn’t a bad thing, just took a bit of getting used to.  Likewise, you don’t see endless pages of action-but that’s not what fans of Moorcock are looking for.  The conflicts are as much philosophical as physical, and the consequences are no less real for it.

I’d have to say that I liked reading The Skrayling Tree, and it has helped me make at least one immediate decision-I’ve got to pick up a copy of the last book as soon as I can.  The other decision is to keep my eyes open for an expected third book (as is heavily hinted at in this one).  Moorcock managed to hook me again.

Categories: Standalone Novel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Machine Crusade, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

machinecrusadeAh, the profits must flow.
-Aurelius Venport

Twenty-five years ago, the death of Manion Butler incited humanity against the machines that ruled them; the conflict quickly ramped up into a religious frenzy-an attitude that Omnius is ill equipped to understand.  Regardless, though, the war between the Synchronized Worlds and the League of Nobles has largely remained a stalemate.  And after twenty-five years of war, things start getting interesting. The Machine Crusade covers a period of seventeen years-a span which sees the birth of objects and ideas that are destined to live on for hundreds of years.  Let me add, though, before I get into the meat of this review, that if you really want to see what went on in those missing twenty five years, there’s a handy appendix that hits the highlights.  I’d recommend reading the main book first, though.

And with that-on with the show!

The book opens with the Army of the Jihad getting ready to repel an assault by the thinking machines on IV Anbus.  The Army is ready on two fronts-ground forces held by Xavier Harkonnen, and the forces in space led by Vorian Atreides.  Their task is complicated, though, by the fact that the native population doesn’t really want them there-no matter how hard Xavier tries to convince them that really bad things are on their way; an example of the dangers of pacifism taken too far.  In the meantime, Iblis Ginjo has become the Grand Patriarch of the Jihad, mostly by manipulation-as Serena Butler spends much of her time in seclusion, as an occasional target of assassination attempts (not all of which originate from Omnius).  Iblis is quite happy with the power he has, and has worked very hard to keep it.

On other fronts:  Agamemnon and his band of Titans haven’t really advanced their goals of taking control back from Omnius…but they haven’t given up, either.  They are, however, in for some surprises in this book.  On the world of Poritrin, Savant Tio Holtzman is still cranking away at developing new inventions-or at least, trying to; the real power behind him, Norma Cenva, is consumed with the idea of an even faster method of space travel-one that would actually fold space in order to reach a destination.  This suggests some very interesting possibilities to Aurelius Venport, the head of a merchant company.  Erasmus is also still around, still in the good graces of Omnius (possibly because the Earth-update version of Omnius never made it back to the Synchronized Worlds…yet….), and ready to analyze yet another aspect of human behavior-an aspect that is highly relevant to the present conflict.  And the saga of Selim Wormrider continues…!

If one thinks of the Jihad proper as the main storyline of this series, then one could also point at lots of little subplots (and not so little) that flesh it out further.  Mercenaries of the world of Ginaz are a potent force in this war, and Jool Noret is very likely the first who could be called a Swordmaster-even though he crowds out everything else in his life to bring destruction to the machines (and he’s undergone a very interesting method of training, all things considered).  Zufa Cevna, a Sorceress of Ruvak, decides to bear a child from someone new, and her choice is an…interesting one.  Savant Holtzman and his benefactor’s treatment of the Zenshiite and Zensunni slaves leads to a predictable outcome, one which leads some of them to an uncertain destiny.  Vorian Atreides discovers the personal cost of fighting in a war in which-barring accident-he will outlive almost everyone he knows; he also has the wit to put a very clever plan into action against Omnius.  Norma finds that there’s a bit more to her than an extremely keen intellect.  Even the Cogitors take a hand-but not as anyone expects.

It’s fun to see how some things start to shape what will one day become the institutions seen in the original Dune book:  we still see the development of what may become the Bene Gesserit, but we also get a chance to see the very beginnings of the Guild, the technologists of Ix, the Tleilaxu (I think; I’m still not 100% certain), and the effects of that most rare of substances-melange.  And for the first time, somebody gets a hint of the far future-a future that resounds with a single name on the lips of his followers.  To be honest, there’s so much going on that has links with other goings-on in this book that it would spoil a whole lot if I went into any kind of detail at all; but the authors continue to impress me with how everything hangs together.

The book concludes with a number of turning points-some for the better, and some for the worse.  The Machine Crusade is an excellent continuation to the Legends of Dune, and has me looking forward to the next and final book in this trilogy; even now, I can’t begin to guess how things are going to fall out here.  Expect to spend some time reading this book, though, because it’s at least a heavy a read as the last one!

Categories: Dune, Legends of Dune | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Nemesis, by Paul B. Thompson

nemesisCan you give me this strength, Kirril?
You have it already.  All that needs to be done is to delete what remains of your useless moral sense.
Then do it.
Are you certain?  What is taken away cannot be restored.
Do it!
-A conversation between a Phyrexian and Crovax the Cursed

It isn’t unusual anymore for a book to be written based on a game.  There are books based on computer games, role-playing games, and even trading card games.  The trading card game Magic the Gathering started was the first card game to get into the novel field.  Early efforts were sold primarily because of the free card offers (I didn’t think much of the books themselves.  A couple years ago, though, the makers of the game decided to start a long term storyline through their game and through their books.  It was the usual:  Good vs. Evil.  In this case, Good was represented by the crew of a flying ship called Weatherlight, and Evil was held by a race of demon/machines.

The background:  The world of Dominaria is in trouble.  Unknowing, the plane of existence upon which it resides is about to be invaded by a race known as the Phyrexians.  They plan to do this by mashing together the Dominarian plane and an artificial plane known as Rath.  A planeswalker (the next best thing to a deity) called Urza has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to frustrate them, and has failed to put an end to the Phyrexians in all that time.  He hit upon the idea of creating a bunch of artifacts and breeding a man who would be the final component of what he called the Legacy.

That man had no idea of his future prominence, although he understood that he was tied into the Legacy and its mysterious purpose.  He left his friends on the flying, plane-shifting Weatherlight because he wanted nothing to do with that purpose.  He returned to them to help rescue their captain, who was abducted for the express purpose of drawing him out.  With help, he succeeded in the rescue…but there was a cost.  The full story can be read in the book Rath and Storm.

Which brings us to Nemesis.  It’s the second book of the Masquerade Cycle; the first showed what happened to the heroes after their rescue of Weatherlight’s captain.  This one isn’t so cheery.  This centers on the folks left behind on Rath.  In the process of the rescue, two crewmen were left behind:  a really arrogant-but highly talented-wizard named Ertai, and a doomed nobleman named Crovax.  Crovax had a hard time of it in the Rath and Storm book; he killed the angel that he obsessively loved, and became twisted and evil.  It doesn’t get any better.  Ertai, on the other hand, ended up stuck on the flying warship Predator, just after he opened the portal allowing Weatherlight to escape…and the warlord Greven il-Vec, its captain, isn’t happy about it.

Ertai and Crovax aren’t the only ones who are involved in this book; there is the elf lord Eladamri, who led his rebels against the enemy Stronghold with no real success.  He has a fairly prominent role, as he hasn’t given up.  And there is Belbe, a Phyrexian shaped as an elven woman, sent by her masters to choose a new ruler for the plane of Rath (since the previous one went on a vengeance kick).

This isn’t a book with too many “good” guys.  Ertai has some flashes of morality, but his arrogance makes him hard to like for most of the book.  Crovax…well, I’d kinda hoped he’d find a way for redemption, since he got put through hell previously.  The Phyrexians had different plans, though.  The back of the book seems to hint at building someone powerful enough to take down a planeswalker.  Crovax may very well be it.  The story moves along as Ertai and Crovax attempt to meet their own goals:  Crovax to become the ruler of Rath, and Ertai trying to find a way to escape Rath and stay alive-not necessarily in that order.  Things get really complicated, though, once a third player begins to act in the background.  Throw Eladamri into the mix, acting on the words of an oracle, and you set the scene for a busy climax.

If you are looking for a book with a happy ending…I doubt you’ll enjoy this book too much (although one of the bad guys gets what he deserves in the end).  The protagonists are all tainted with evil in some way or another; some simply revel in their evil.  It does succeed in setting up the rest of the storyline, which will probably continue through the last of the Masquerade Cycle books and through whatever cycle follows.  This story got hung up a bit, I felt, with the year-long hiatus to fill in further back story with the Artifacts Cycle, but it seems to be back on track.  Think of this book as “The Empire Strikes Back“; just don’t think any Ewoks are going to come to the rescue in the next book.

Categories: Magic the Gathering, Masquerade Cycle | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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