Monthly Archives: August 2012

New Frontier: Books 1-4, by Peter David

Sometimes you simply have to assess a situation and say, “Dammit, it’s me or no one.”  And if you can’t live with no one, then you have to take action.
-Captain Mackenzie Calhoun of the U.S.S. Excalibur

Lately, it seems that Pocket Books has begun leaning towards Star Trek books that are more or less independent of the four main franchises (for those not in-the-know, that’s the Original Series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager).  According to the releases slated for this year, we’ve got a book that builds on the New Earth set of books, and the beginning of Deep Space Nine novels that take place after the series finale.  But these probably wouldn’t have been possible without the New Frontier books.

Peter David’s been writing Star Trek for a long time (at least as far back as the fifth original Next Generation novel), and has been regarded as a fan favorite.  That put me in a favorable frame of mind when there was the announcement that there would be a series of four books in 1997 that would take place with “a new ship, a new crew, and a new mission”.  With House of Cards, Into the Void, The Two-Front War, and End Game, readers were treated to the exploits of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the U.S.S. Excalibur.  These books were later re-released as a single collected edition.

The early portion of the book takes place in the past, showing the early life of the boy M’k’n’zy of Calhoun, on the planet Xenex, leading a revolt against a race called the Danteri; an incident on the planet Thallon with a Vulcan woman named Soleta and another Vulcan of considerable fame; and Dr. Selar (formerly of Picard’s Enterprise), returning home to Vulcan to deal with Ponn farr.  After that, though, we hit the present time-chronologically sometime shortly after the events of the movie First Contact.  A sector of space (221-G) has fallen into anarchy, due to the fall of the Thallonian Empire.  It is decided that the Federation should send a ship for humanitarian aid and exploration into Thallonian space.

The crew is a diverse one; Calhoun is a bit of a maverick, which is pointed out by a number of officers in Starfleet.  Elizabeth Shelby (seen in the Next Generation episodes “The Best of Both Worlds”) is a strict, by the book officer, but she has a past with Calhoun.  Zak Kebron is the Brikar security officer, who gets some of the best lines in these books, in my opinion.  Soleta and Selar get a fair amount of attention, due to a subplot that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone.  And these are just the characters who get the most time in these books, with a single, non-Starfleet addition, who just gets along quite badly with Kebron.

I had pretty high expectations for these books, and Peter David didn’t disappoint.  His past books have blended humorous moments with some deadly serious material, and for the most part he’s mixed them well.  He also has a reputation for exploiting the history behind the various Star Trek franchises.  He continues to do so here; this is probably what has contributed to the continuing success of the New Frontier novels (now up to 11 books and with at least one more scheduled in ’01).  But a word of warning:  this probably isn’t a series that should be started with someone who has no clue about Star Trek.  This is a series whose appeal is tied directly to the reader’s familiarity with the entire Star Trek line.

Categories: New Frontier, Star Trek | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Flash: Stop Motion, by Mark Schultz

It’s over.  You’re too late.
-Words rarely spoken to Wally West, a.k.a. the Flash

He is a member of the Justice League of America, a group of the greatest heroes on Earth.  He stands amongst such legends as Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Batman.  Well, perhaps stands isn’t the right word-because he’s the fastest man alive.  He’s Wally West, but he’s better known as the Flash.  He’s not a character who gets the same reputation in the general public as these other well-known comic characters, but he’s the star of the show in the latest in a series of Justice League of America books-Stop Motion.

The book opens as the League is dealing with a large number of objects dropping towards the planet-meteor isn’t quite the right term.  This particular crisis leaves Wally feeling mostly like a fifth wheel, as this is a problem better suited to the powerhouses of the League.  Yet, he is able to perceive something about them that others cannot-even though it doesn’t seem to answer the question of where these objects came from.  He does, however, sense something else as he gazes at the fragment-something that seems to speak the name of Iris West-his aunt, and the wife of his predecessor, Barry Allen.  Before he can investigate that further, however, Wally gets word of some unusual murders in his home of Central City-unusual because they all happened simultaneously.

As far as plot goes, this is pretty standard fare.  This isn’t to say that this is a bad or boring book-it’s not.  There are murders going on, and there is an excellent explanation of what is going on, as fact after fact is uncovered.  But what really made this book for me was the various characters in it, and it all starts with Wally West.  I’ll admit that back in the day, I was more familiar with the Barry Allen version of the Flash, with the costume popping out of a ring instead of being stored as kinetic energy-but that character died saving the world (long story).  As a result, I was completely unfamiliar with the Wally West character.  I’m not sure how well he matches up with the version in the comics these days, but he certainly comes off as a different kind of hero here.  Married, works well with the local police, and doesn’t use a secret identity; he’s not Wally acting as the Flash-he’s Wally West, also known as the Flash.  And one has to admit, if you’re committing a crime out in the open, there are better places to do it than Central City-where the Flash can take care of a very large number of problems between seconds.

Wally’s got a good supporting cast in Stop Motion as well.  I’ll admit that I really liked the pair of Central City’s Finest, Jared Morillo and Fred Chyre-competent police officers in charge of metahuman issues, who also get the somewhat-less-than-joyous job of investigating these murders.  The difficulty of living with a speedster is illustrated by Wally’s wife, Linda, who is very supportive of his activities-even though it puts a significant burden on her to support the family (being a super hero doesn’t exactly help in paying the bills).  As an encounter with the doctors Pradash and Metz of S.T.A.R. Labs demonstrates, being a public superior doesn’t diminish the level of fascination that the general public has for them.

I’d be remiss, though, if I failed to mention Wally’s interactions with the League itself.  I did find it interesting that he has a slight inferiority complex compared with the heavy hitters (and is pointed out by no less than the Man of Steel himself).  It seemed odd to me-he’s been in the business for quite some time.  Seeing the other League members through his point of view puts an interesting spin on them-his awe of Superman, his respect of Wonder Woman, his discomfort of having the Martian Manhunter peeking into his mind, and the amazement that Green Lantern wields the vast power of a power ring and still appears to be fairly well balanced.

From the Watchtower of the League, to the streets of Central city, to a meeting at “the Great Constant”, I’d say that Stop Motion is a pretty decent book to spend an afternoon with-especially if you enjoy the adventures of the Justice League or the Flash in the comics; or if you’d like to get reacquainted with the super heroes you might have been reading about in your youth (or if, like me, you remember these guys from the old Saturday morning cartoons).  The Flash isn’t as darkly gritty as Batman or as powerful a Boy Scout as Superman, but he is a pretty normal guy in attitude.  Even if he’s the fastest man alive.

Categories: DC Universe, Justice League of America | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Homecoming, by Christie Golden

You said that we needed to talk about my mother, and that it is a matter of some urgency.  What happened to her?
First, how much do you know about your mother’s recent activities?
How the hell should I know anything?  I’ve been lost in the Delta Quadrant for seven years!
-Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres of the U.S.S. Voyager and Commander Loght of the Klingon Empire

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  Of all the shows that have had “Star Trek” on the header, I liked Voyager the least.  I didn’t have a problem with the captain; I’ve never had a problem with a woman in command of a starship.  I didn’t have a problem with the concept; stuck 70+ years away from the nearest friendly port had a lot of potential to it.  But as the seasons rolled on, I got less enthused by the show; it seemed there was little in the way of consequence from episode to episode.  Perhaps I was spoiled by the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine; DS9 of course had the ongoing Dominion War, and actions in previous episodes could have consequences in the next; and even the Next Generation crew evolved (Worf being the obvious example, but there were other great touches such as Picard’s attitude towards the Borg after being assimilated).  But in Voyager, after the first couple of seasons….  I realize I’m probably being unfair; there were episodes that carried over consequences, so I can’t point to that as my major problem; I also had trouble with the fact that the Borg had become just another evil-species-of-the-week, or with how Seven of Nine came to dominate much of the show.  Or maybe I’ve become old and set in my ways.  Even the novels hadn’t inspired me all that much.

But in the present day, it seems that the Star Trek books have become more impressive, and none more so than the Deep Space Nine relaunch, set after that series ended.  I expect it had much to do with the fact that the authors had a great deal of freedom to write without fear of a movie contradicting them later on.  But because of the successful relaunch, it encouraged me when I heard that there was a Voyager relaunch waiting in the wings taking place after the crew returned home.  And that brings us to the novel Homecoming, the kick-off of the Voyager relaunch, and it starts up roughly ten minutes after the series finale.  And I’ll say up front-Christie Golden has set up no shortage of subplots to work with!  Let me go a step further; to date, I’d say this is the best Voyager book I’ve read (although, granted, this could be considered faint praise).

The crew of the U. S. S. Voyager return to a very different quadrant than they’d left behind, seven years ago; while they’ve been gone, a war had started and ended which had caused a great deal of damage to the worlds of the Federation; the Borg had taken another good hard crack at assimilating planet Earth; the Maquis, a group of fighters in the Cardassian DMZ, had been effectively exterminated as an organization in the war; as a result, the return of Voyager doesn’t quite rate the level of celebration they had received in the alternate future of Admiral Janeway.  Worse, there are some in Starfleet who look upon the crew with suspicion-after all, Admiral Janeway busted the Temporal Prime Directive to bits with her actions-and her futuristic technology is still a part of Voyager.

So, what does the future hold for this crew?  Well, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen the movie “Nemesis” that a promotion gets kicked through; I’ll reserve my comments on this promotion for a future review, since there may be Star Trek fans who haven’t actually seen it.  As for the others….  Well, on this, I have to give Golden a lot of credit-remember what I said about the show and consequences?  Well, she picks up a few selected loose ends and tosses them at the Voyager crew, one person at a time.  The Doctor and B’Elanna bear the brunt of two, but one whopping loose end comes to affect the entire crew (and I spoil nothing by saying that resisting it might be futile; when the back of the book flat out tells you….).  There’s also some great moments as Tom Paris is reunited with his dad-and has to introduce him to his wife and new child; Chakotay dealing with his feelings for Seven of Nine, who becomes somewhat notorious herself because of being a live (albeit former) Borg on a world that just escaped assimilation twice; and Harry Kim, who gets what he deserves on the one hand, and becomes an object of unusual scrutiny on the other.

This was a terrific start to the relaunch; while I don’t think it was quite as strong as the DS9 relaunch’s start, it’s a vast improvement over previous Voyager novels.  And the continuing storyline that is starting is following one of the big loose ends from one of the bigger shows in the series (presuming I guess right; it seems obvious to me, but authors have surprised me quite often).  If you enjoyed Voyager on T.V., you will love this book.  If you didn’t…well, you may be a little lost with some of the references, but I think you’ll find it’s at least worth checking out.

Categories: Star Trek, Voyager | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Servant of the Shard, by R. A. Salvatore

I know not-that has apparently become the litany of my existence, Dwahvel.  I feel as if the foundation upon which I have built my beliefs and action is not a solid thing, but one as shifting as the sands of the desert.  When I was younger, I knew all the answers to all the questions.  I existed in a world of surety and certainty.  Now that I am older, now that I have seen four decades of life, the only thing I know for certain is that I know nothing for certain.
-A moment of reflection for Artemis Entreri

It’s been a long time since Salvatore wrote his first novel, The Crystal Shard, featuring a young barbarian, a grizzled dwarf and his adopted human daughter, and a dark skinned drow elf.  He brings the saga of the Shard to a close in this new offering, Servant of the Shard (although certainly not the end of Salvatore’s novels with his heroes-in fact, there is another one in the works).  Amazingly enough, it involves none of the characters that the Shard’s saga began with. In fact, the major characters are the villains of previous books!

The story opens in the Arabian-like city of Calimport, with one of the Houses of the city having been quietly taken over by the drow, the dark elves.  More specifically, it is taken over by Bregan D’aerthe, the mercenary band that operated out of the drow city of Menzoberranzan.  Its leader is an eccentric dark elf named Jarlaxle, who operates in a constant state of whimsy…which is not to be confused with “nice” humor.  Unfortunately for him, he also came into the possession of the crystal shard called Crenshinibon, an artifact of awesome power which has a habit of bending its owner’s will to its own.  In Jarlaxle, it finds itself in the hands of the most capable host it has ever encountered.

Allied with Jarlaxle, although initially unaware of the shard’s influence, is Artemis Entreri.  Readers of previous books will remember that Entreri is a cold-blooded assassin, and the fighting equal of Drizzt Do’Urden, the most popular character of Salvatore’s books.    Here, though, he finds himself over his head; the drow are far more deadly, more manipulative, and they outnumber him.  Entreri is looking for nothing more than a way to be free of the power they hold over him.  He finds it early on, but achieving that goal is substantially harder.  Entreri finds himself in the role of the manipulator as a result, with his life as stakes.

The book might be a little tricky to follow with all the backstory behind the crystal shard.  On the other hand, I found that it can probably stand fine if a reader has only read the previous two Salvatore efforts, The Silent Blade and The Spine of the World.  There are some disappointments, from my point of view…I would have liked to see a bit more insight on Entreri’s character-and make no mistake, while Jarlaxle is on the cover, this is Entreri’s book-and a bit more on the goals of the shard.  But on the other hand, there’s a lot going on in this book:  Entreri’s attempts to free himself from the tangled web of the drow, Jarlaxle’s fight against the influence of the shard, the manipulations of the drow and the assassin, and the final journey to deal with the shard once and for all.

This was not the book I anticipated when I first got word of it.  I don’t consider that a bad thing, though, as it shows that Salvatore is branching out from his signature character and on with other characters.  His last book featured the soul-weary barbarian, Wulfgar, whom he had unceremoniously disposed of for several books.  Now he’s looking at the bad guys-and it shows up as an entertaining story.  But don’t feel too much sympathy for these characters…while they show some sympathetic traits, neither Jarlaxle nor Entreri are going to win any Boy Scout awards.  In spite of that, Servant of the Shard makes for a nice read for an evening or three.

Categories: Forgotten Realms, Legend of Drizzt | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Have Tech, Will Travel, by Assorted Authors

That’s not hot chocolate, is it?  ‘Cause you know what happens when you order hot chocolate.
-A friendly warning to Commander Sonya Gomez

The oddest thing about this book is its origins.

This book began life as a series of E-books.  I never read ’em; didn’t have the motivation to shell out dollars for something to read on my screen; it’s also why it never appeared on my site here, since I made a deliberate decision early on to stick with the print media.  E-books and audiobooks need not apply.  Apparently, though, the editors at Pocket Books-eager to make more money, I expect-decided to release the first four stories in paperback form.

That brings us to the present:  Have Tech, Will Travel is the story of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, an organization that lives for all the technobabble that you’ve seen before in books and television (and occasionally movies).  They aren’t out to seek out new life and new civilizations; they are out to play with alien technology and fix problems that are way too big for a standard starship crew.  To borrow a phrase from the book, “If anything in the galaxy needed to be built, rebuilt, programmed, reprogrammed, assembled, reassembled, or just understood, the S.C.E. was who you called in”.

In this case, it means if there’s a massive starship that mysteriously attacks the U.S.S. Enterprise, or if there’s a worldwide computer system on the fritz, or other equally interesting problems, the starship U.S.S. da Vinci is sent to investigate.  The captain of the ship is David Gold, a contemporary of Captain Jean-Luc Picard; however, the commander of the crack S.C.E. team is Sonya Gomez, who was formerly assigned under Geordi La Forge.  Other notable team members are the bonded Bynar pair 110 and 111 (they’re great with computers), Domenica Corsi, the chief of security for the S.C.E. (and with a nickname like “Core Breach”, you just know what can happen!), and Dr. Lense, who joined the S.C.E. to get away from doing combat medicine (which may have proven to be a big whoopsie).

This book has four stories, so I’ll get right to it.  The first story, written by Dean Wesley Smith, is “The Belly of the Beast”.  The U.S.S. Enterprise has just finished defeating a mysterious, huge starship, and Captain Scott (of the original series) sends the da Vinci to figure out why it attacked an agricultural colony.  We get our first look at the dynamics of the crew, which I found to be a little easier to believe than most of the other crews that have been put together solely for books.

The second story is “Fatal Error”, by Keith R. A. DeCandido.  In this offering, the S.C.E. is asked by the planetary computer of Eerlik for aid, as it is beginning to experience malfunctions that its caretakers are unable to handle.  What they find is that the situation is considerably more complicated than that (par for the course for Star Trek).  This one also begins to delve into the various personalities of the members of the team, and introduce a couple more.  One of the things I enjoyed about Have Tech, Will Travel is the slow revelation of who’s on the team.

The third is “Hard Crash”, by Christie Golden.  It wraps up a couple of subplots begun in the first story, and hits the world of Intar, as an alien craft crash lands in the capital city, and becomes a problem very quickly.  The discovery of its pilot leads the crew to a rather frightening possibility for the S.C.E., as they wonder if they’ve run into a threat far too big for them to handle.  We get the first look at the da Vinci’s EMH (Emergency Medical Hologram), which seems considerably more stable than the one on Voyager (or, for that matter, the one that was on one of its episodes being hyped as the Mark II).  I sincerely hope it’s not overused.

The final story in this book is “Interphase, Book One”.  I know-not another cliffhanger!  But from what I understand, the second book will not be long in coming (although readers of the E-books undoubtedly are chuckling behind my back as I write this).  It involves a mysterious ship suddenly appearing in Tholian space, which instantly gets Captain Scott’s attention-especially since it’s a Starfleet ship.  But there are those who don’t want the starship recovered….  This one was written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore.

Amazingly enough, I rather enjoyed all four stories.  All were fairly complete, and had solid plots; perhaps stories averaging slightly under a hundred pages removes the need to fill a Star Trek book with fluff.  I also like the concept of the S.C.E.  They aren’t out to do the big things, like save planets or galaxies or entire civilizations; they aren’t out to fight the Dominion or the Borg or the Romulans.  They’re out to fix and understand things, and it’s nice to have a break from the Big Ideas.  While this book hasn’t changed my stance on E-books (sorry Pocket Books!), I will be more than happy to keep purchasing paperback collections if they’re of the same quality as Have Tech, Will Travel.

Categories: S.C.E., Star Trek | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin

I can’t die yet.  I haven’t seen The Jolson Story.

Novels on super powered people aren’t new.  This series predated a good chunk of the latest crop, though, and was a damned good series to boot.  Now it’s been re-released, and with a couple of caveats, I’ll recommend it to anyone interested in either super-powers or science fiction, because Wild Cards partakes of both.

This book covers time from 1946 to the 80’s.  It’s at the end of the War that Earth gets it’s first extraterrestrial visitor, Prince Tisianne of Ilkazam, or as he quickly becomes known as, Doctor Tachyon.  His goal is to prevent his family from the planet Takis from releasing a virus upon humanity-a virus that would change it forever.  Things don’t work quite out as planned; the virus kills 90% of those it infects in all kinds of unpleasant ways.  9% are changed horribly, mutated in forms from nightmares-and 1% gain powers above and beyond mortal ken, as they say.  The virus comes to be called the Wild Card virus; the dead draw the Black Queen; the mutated draw Jokers.  The lucky ones draw Aces.

Wild Cards is an anthology series, which means a number of authors are writing short stories that cover the entire span of time.  This also means we get a good look at a bunch of different personalities, from the nobility of the Great and Powerful Turtle (yeah, I know, what’s in a name, but on the other hand, it fits), to the rather despicable acts of Puppetman.  The stories cover all over the late 20th century; from post WW2, to the days of the McCarthy hearings, to the hippie movement, to the Presidential primaries of ’76.

Because of the nature of this book, some authors have better stories than others.  I found myself particularly fond of “The Sleeper” by Walter Jon Williams, which takes place in the early days of the coming of the virus, and shows how a young boy is changed by the Wild Card into something rather unusual, even for the virus.  “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” is more about Robert Tomlin, a jet pilot who was stranded on an island during the last year of World War II, and is written in the tradition of the old serials.  And “Shell Games”, by George R. R. Martin and set shortly after the assassination of JFK, shows the beginning of the career of the Great and Powerful Turtle.

Interspersed about the book are small sections showing the impact that the Wild Card has had on history.  Between the prologue, which gives a hint of how it all begins, to a discussion on the McCarthy hearings, to Wild Card Chic, we get a fairly good idea of how things are a little different because of the Wild Card-and how some things still remained the same.  I rather liked that touch, personally.

This isn’t a books for younger readers; if nothing else, there’s a lot of language that you do not want youngsters using, and a significant number of characters aren’t really the type of people you want to emulate.  My other problem with unreservedly recommending this book is the price tag; while I usually don’t remark on it, it’s a pretty steep tag for a book that came out originally in normal paperback form for half the price.  If you can find this in a used book store, I’d recommend you pick it up there; from what I can see, you only miss a few illustrations, and really, the stories don’t need them.

(2012 note:  pricing has much improved with the latest printing on Amazon.)

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Survivor’s Quest, by Timothy Zahn

You have got to be the most brazen con artist I’ve ever met.
Better even than Han?  Why, thank you.
It wasn’t necessarily meant as a compliment.
-Mara Jade Skywalker and Luke Skywalker

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Star Wars had faded away to a pleasant memory; the movie Return of the Jedi was years in the past, and there seemed to be no likelihood of new movies anytime soon.  Then one day, I came across something extraordinary-a brand spanking new Star Wars book-in hardcover, no less!  I wasted no time in purchasing Heir to the Empire, and by the time I was done, I immediately wanted the next one.  Unfortunately, it would be a year’s wait…but the point is, Timothy Zahn had written what I felt was a great Star Wars book, and that trilogy of books cemented him as the best Star Wars writer out there (although later books have come very close indeed).

One of the little details that came out of Heir to the Empire was the idea of the Outbound Flight Project, where a bunch of Jedi Masters were to explore beyond the current reach of the Republic during the Clone War era.  The flight was doomed, as the future Grand Admiral Thrawn destroyed it, and that was all there was to it.  Until now.

Survivor’s Quest picks up a few years after the marriage of Luke and Mara.  A message makes its way to the pair from the world of Nirauan, a world where followers of the late Grand Admiral are formulating the Empire of the Hand.  This comes as a bit of a surprise, since Mara kind of wrecked a chunk of their base in Zahn’s “Hand of Thrawn” duology; in spite of that, the Skywalkers learn the reason for the request for their presence.  The remains of Outbound Flight have been found by the Chiss, and the Chiss wish to return them to the New Republic.  Along with Chak Fel and his small squad of stormtroopers, Chiss diplomats, an alien race that owes its continuing existence to Outbound Flight, and a New Republic “diplomat”, the Skywalkers agree to go recover the remnants of Outbound Flight.  Luke hopes to find information on the Old Republic’s Jedi, especially in regards to opinions on a little prohibition they had that he ignored three years ago; Mara, on the other hand, finds herself drawn to the attitudes of the Empire of the Hand, and wonders if perhaps her place should be with them.

Those familiar with Timothy Zahn’s other Star Wars stories will not be surprised that very one of these groups has their own agendas, and the only ones who seem to be fairly honest in theirs are the two Jedi.  Between dealing with possible treachery in their midst and the mysteries contained in the remains of Outbound Flight, Luke and Mara have their hands full.

So:  how does Survivor’s Quest stack up against other Star Wars books?

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’ve enjoyed each and every one of Zahn’s Star Wars books, and this one was no exception.  It’s unique in the fact that this story is self contained, unlike the trilogy and duology he’s previously written.  In spite of that, he still puts together an intriguing story.  Outbound Flight turns out to be a much bigger project than I’d ever expected from previous works (I just had visions of a small group of Jedi from the Old Republic, not the massive six-dreadnought unit that is drawn on the opening pages of this book), capable of settling colonies if desired.  It also makes it more plausible that there are parts of the Flight that have survived destruction for discovery by the Chiss.

Speaking of whom:  we get a new look at the Chiss society, and their highly defensive mindset (to say the least).  Of even greater interest is the Empire of the Hand at Nirauan; they’re putting together a very different Empire than old Palpatine’s, but there’s enough similarities to give Mara feelings of nostalgia and more; the professional attitude and very nature of some of the stormtroopers accompanying Fel shows the differences as well-these guys aren’t simply blaster-bait!  It does drive me a little crazy, though, since there was no mention of them during the New Jedi Order (that I can remember offhand, anyways).

I’d like to go into some more details about some of the surprises among the wreckage, but that would give away some of the big surprises.  I will say that I made a wrong guess as to the true nature of Outbound Flight (well, it appears that way so far), and a look at what was hinted at in Visions of the Future, when it was implied that there were lots of nastier threats outside the Outer Rim (and here I thought they’d been talking about the Yuuzhan Vong…heheheheh).  And we also get a really disturbing theory from Mara at the end about what kicked this all into motion; I really hope she’s wrong, although I can certain see her points.

For fans of Timothy Zahn’s book, Survivor’s Quest will not disappoint.  It’s a little rushed near the end, but all in all it’s a very satisfying read.

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Talon of the Silver Hawk, by Raymond E. Feist


I don’t know.  There’s a man…a magician.  He and my father crossed paths before, years ago.  We have reports that he might be back.  We thought him dead, but perhaps we were wrong….  From what I’ve been told, this man is harder to kill than a cockroach.
What is his name?
He’s used several, so I doubt he’ll be using any that we know.
What does he look like?
His appearance changes.
A man who may look like anyone with a name no one knows.  I’ll be certain to keep an eye out for him, Caleb.
-Talon of the Silver Hawk and Caleb

The world of Midkemia is one I haven’t visited for a while.  In part, it has much to do with the fact that I pretty much skipped the Krondor books; and it’s been a while since I’ve read the group of books prior (the Serpentwar, if I recall correctly).  But, with a new set of books coming out, I figured on heading back.  Fortunately for readers new to Feist’s books, you really don’t need prior knowledge of previous books (although, as always, it helps), because it’s been a significant number of years since the Serpentwar, so most of the characters are brand spanking new (with a few virtually immortal exceptions).  So I picked up Talon of the Silver Hawk, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

It begins with a solitary ritual, one in which the boy Kieli of the Orosini will set aside his boyhood name and take on a name given to him by the gods.  Unfortunately, while he’s busy discovering his name (three guesses!), an army attacks his people-and promptly slaughters the lot of them.  That sad list nearly includes the newly named Talon as well; a pair of travelers saves his life-a life which will undergo changes like none any of his people could have imagined.  While he vows to find out who has sent this army to murder everyone he has ever known, he is also in debt to Caleb and Robert, who decide that Talon could be very useful to them in a battle that has been fought in the shadows against an encroaching evil-a battle which may never have an end.

Talon of the Silver Hawk isn’t so much about this war as it is about the boy’s training as he enters into manhood and into the mysterious Conclave of Shadows; this organization consists of spies, killers, and magicians, and they work to operate in secrecy-even though some of the members, such as the magician Magnus, has caught the attention of their enemies.  As Talon learns more about the men who saved his life, and their associates, he also gets bits and pieces about just who was behind the deaths of the Orosini.  But he’s not in a position to take vengeance upon the individuals involved just quite yet-but he will get a chance to make a good start.

One of the key points about the Conclave of Shadows is that these nominally good folks (and this has varying degrees), in order to advance a good cause, often find themselves doing evil things.  This gets illustrated to Talon in a couple of ways, which has an effect on him.  One has to wonder a bit about the motives of a group that sees a young man such as Talon as nothing more than a weapon to point and shoot at a target (not just Talon, either).  It’s even more disturbing when you look at two of the more prominent members of the Conclave, who have in the past been fairly upright individuals.

The book is mostly self-contained, leaving few loose ends (but significant ones for the next books).  On the other hand, it still had the feel of setting the stage for the later books.  I’m not too sure how many books are planned for this series, but Talon of the Silver Hawk makes for at least a respectable start-at least enough for me to keep reading.

Categories: Conclave of Shadows, Riftwar | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Approaching Storm, by Alan Dean Foster

In storytelling, nothing is a given, the astonishing becomes commonplace, and one learns to expect the unexpected.  But when people of understanding and goodwill come together, a happy ending is usually assured.
I was speaking of storytelling, Master.  Not reality.
One is but a reflection of the other, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is the original and which the mirror image.
-Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight, and his Padawan, Anakin Skywalker

As I write this, there is a little over two months to go before Star Wars Episode Two is released to theaters.  In anticipation of that, we have what could be considered the introduction to the movie in the form of the newest hardcover, The Approaching Storm.  From what the inside cover flap seems to indicate, this books ends about two minutes before Attack of the Clones begins.

Another interesting aside is that this book is written by Alan Dean Foster.  He has an important place in Star Wars fiction-if I recall correctly, he wrote the original novelization of Star Wars, and wrote the first original novel based on that movie, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.  So it’s pretty neat to see him write a new Star Wars book after all this time.

It has been a number of years since the death of Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul, since Anakin Skywalker entered into the service of the Jedi Knights.  Now, Anakin has grown up, and has become strong in the Force under the tutelage of his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi (although still a Padawan learner).  The Republic, on the other hand, is continuing a slow deterioration, in spite of the best efforts of the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Several worlds are on the verge of withdrawing from the Republic, and there are some in the Commerce Guild and the Senate who would like to hurry the process along…so that they can increase their own personal power.

Key to that strategy is the world of Ansion; an unimportant world on the surface, but with key alliances that would pull many worlds away from the Republic if it were to withdraw itself-an event which is beginning to look certain.  To try to avoid this, the Jedi Council sends two of its order (along with Padawans) to see if they can’t find a way to keep Ansion from seceding.  Needless to say, Obi-Wan and Anakin are among them.  Also needless to say, there are those who not only want them to fail, and are willing to go to some effort to insure that result.

The Approaching Storm is a rather enjoyable novel; it sets up the upcoming movie nicely without giving me much in the way of clues as to the full plot of what’s coming (anyone who does know, don’t bother emailing me!  I’d like to keep the surprises intact), and it gives us a good peek into not just Obi-Wan and Anakin’s personalities, but also the personalities of other Jedi Knights-in this case, Luminara Unduli and her Padawan, Bariss Offee.  Foster does an excellent job of showcasing the different personalities, even though they have the same goals.  And while one might expect serious foreshadowing of Anakin’s dark fate, we don’t get anything so obvious here; we get in fact an image of a young man who is something between a Jedi and a typical young adult who is still growing up.

Foster also does a nice job on fully realizing the world of Ansion; not just of the civilizations on it (although conflicts between city-dwellers and nomadic folk are often staples in fiction), but of the natural world.  Indeed, some of the toughest problems that the Jedi face are not evil Senators or Sith Lords, but the native wildlife.  We also get a good sample of a couple ways to try to deal with Jedi if you don’t exactly agree with them (one method I’d actually seen before in-of all things-a David Eddings fantasy book).

All in all, I found this book to be rather approachable, and an excellent setup for Attack of the Clones.  I’ll be most interested in seeing how neatly it fits into the movie when it is released.  I’d have to say that this is the best of the Old Republic novels to date, and well worth reading.

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American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

You work for me now.  You protect me.  You transport me from place to place.   You run errands.  In an emergency, but only in an emergency, you hurt people who need to be hurt.  In the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil.  And in return I shall make sure that your needs are adequately taken care of.
-Shadow’s new job description

Well.  Neil Gaiman never does anything small, does he?

Fair warning:  this is not a book for younger readers.  This is not only due to content, but the fact that there are stretches which, honestly, will bore younger readers.  Older readers, on the other hand-especially ones familiar with Gaiman’s writing style-will appreciate it more.

Enough disclaimer.

American Gods is set in what we like to think of as “the real world”.  A fellow named Shadow is about to be released from prison, and looking forward to using his second chance with his wife to stay out of trouble.  Unfortunately, tragedy strikes his wife and Shadow finds himself out in a bleaker world.  Without his wife and without prospects, he is approached by a mysterious stranger calling himself Wednesday.  Shadow is offered a job with Wednesday, and after some convincing accepts.

With that, Shadow begins a journey that takes him across the paths of…well, gods.  And the gods are dividing into two camps.  The first camp consists of the old gods, those of legend and myth (and be sure, a good chunk of them are extremely obscure; I’ve not heard of several, and I used to think of myself as pretty up on that kind of thing).  They are also in danger of becoming extinct, as mankind’s belief has faded.  Many take up rather unusual occupations in order to remain in existence.  The second camp consists of the gods that seem to be worshipped by people now.

No, I’m not talking about the usual religions.  I’m talking about Technology, the Internet, the Media, Credit Cards, and the like.  They’re the wave of the future, and they want to sweep away the refuse of past ages-and they aren’t too choosy about methods used to do so.  Where the old gods are just hanging on, the new ones are eager to make their marks, and the old ones aren’t quite ready to get together to do something about it…until Wednesday sticks his nose in (and I expect many of my visitors here can figure out who Wednesday is…although I was caught flat footed by another character, whom I really shouldn’t have missed).

This is a fairly deep novel.  Gaiman has touched upon the concept of old gods fading away as belief faded in the comic book series The Sandman (which, incidentally, I recommend to anyone-it definitely isn’t a kid’s series); here, he takes it to a new level, introducing new gods that seem to fit the commercialism of today’s society.  He also makes the point that America just isn’t a good place for gods, as it seems to pick up trends.  It’s an interesting train of thought, even if I don’t exactly agree with some points.

As far as characters go:  Shadow’s the main character here.  Most of the characters in the book interact with him, including his wife (yes, I know she died; it didn’t stop her much), Wednesday, and other gods of both camps (I especially loved his game of checkers with one.  “Best of three” indeed).  Shadow also will confront secrets about himself that he never suspected.  Wednesday shows himself to be a consummate con artist, although he is aided by certain facts about himself.  In addition to gods, there are also references to the American folk legends (Paul Bunyan is mentioned, although a couple others actually make appearances).

Fans of Gaiman will, I expect, enjoy American Gods, as will the fans of writers like Stephen King’s less horrific books.  I’d also recommend it for folks who enjoy deep thinking with their fantasy.  It’s a deep book, and I expect I’ll be re-reading it and see more that catches my attention-there’s that much detail.  It’ll be a nice way to fill up a few afternoons.

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

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