Standalone Novel

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.

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Captain Nemo, by K. J. Anderson

nemoWhat one man can imagine, another can achieve
-Jules Verne


There was a time when science fiction didn’t mean outer space battles, or exploration of worlds beyond the farthest stars.  The earliest days of science fiction could be said to have taken place on Earth.  Jules Verne is one of the most celebrated authors of that time; Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea20,000 Leagues, in fact, has Verne’s best known antagonist, Captain Nemo.  And Nemo is the star of a new book bearing his name.

The book works of an interesting premise-Captain Nemo was real; Andre Nemo is a friend of a young man named Jules Verne, and is his rival for the affections of Caroline Aronnax.  The pair of friends come from different backgrounds-Jules from a family of wealth, and Andre from poverty.  But Jules is the dreamer; it’s Andre who acts on his dreams; in fact, the early pages of the book details Andre’s work on a prototype diving suit.

Events start moving fast when Andre’s father dies in an accident, and he is forced to seek his own destiny on an English ship sailing around the world.  This event starts Nemo on adventure after adventure; most of these adventures later serve as the inspiration for Jules Verne to write his famous novels, changing names as needed.  As time passes, Jules and Caroline move on with their lives, as Nemo is given up for dead.

I picked this book up on a lark, honestly.  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read any of the classics, and Captain Nemo gave me an excuse to revisit that time for a while.  Kevin Anderson has managed to do a credible job on recreating that time, while populating it with the fantastic events that Nemo keeps running into.  The pacing of the book felt a little slow, but I’ve probably been spoiled by the modern day sci-fi books; again, the pacing fits the time that this book is set in.  Some readers may not be thrilled by the lack of action in this book.

The characters besides Nemo are not exactly heavily fleshed out; the most significant thing about Jules and Caroline is that they fit the loose triangle together.  While romance is involved in this book, it isn’t exactly a major theme.  Other characters have a transitory feel to them, as Anderson covers a lot of books in a single novel.  We do, however, get a good idea of the character of Andre Nemo, and that’s how it should be.

Fans of the classics may appreciate Captain Nemo.  Other readers who will appreciate this book are folks who enjoy novels that are set as historical novels (specifically the late 1800’s).  I thought it was pretty nice for a while to go read an older style of science fiction; it’s a nice change of pace.

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The Redemption of Althalus, by David and Leigh Eddings

redemptionI know these Arums, Em, so I know exactly what kind of story to tell them.  Actually, that was a very good one.  It had a threat of a civil war, a hero, a villain, and a quest fraught with danger.  What more does a good story need?
A little bit of truth might have added something.
I don’t like to contaminate a good story with truth, Em.
-A conversation between Althalus and Emerald


It seems odd to finally be reviewing a book that stands alone, as opposed to a part of a series.  It’s even more odd that it comes from David and Leigh Eddings.

The Eddings’s are best known for the stories of Belgarion the Rivan King and Sir Sparhawk, and I’ll confess that I’ve been a big fan of theirs ever since a friend of mine introduced me to them in high school (waaay back when).  I’d heard a rumor after they’d written their last book, Polgara the Sorceress, that it was all over for them with writing.  I remember being incredibly disappointed, but thankful for what they had already written.  So when I learned that this book, The Redemption of Althalus, was a new Eddings book…well, I wasn’t going to wait for this in paperback, that’s for certain!

The story begins with a young man named Althalus, who believes himself the world’s best thief.  Certainly, he believed himself the luckiest.  So when he gets bored with life on the frontier, he goes to civilization to see if he can steal even more money.  One of the best scenes in the book is when he actually passes by a vast amount of money, for reasons that’ll be obvious when you read that part.  A run of bad luck convinces him to take a job from a fellow named Ghend to steal a book from the House at the End of the World.  When he gets there, his life changes forever, as he becomes…well, not exactly a pawn, but certainly a foot soldier in a conflict with an evil god, where the battlefield may be all of time and all of space.

When the story began, I started to have doubts.  Having read the inside front cover, I’d had a bad feeling that I’d read a portion of this book before when I read Belgarath the Sorcerer.  Certainly, their origin stories and influence by deities seemed similar.  I began to get more concerned when the goddess Dweia is introduced, who seemed far to similar to the character Flute in the “Elenium” and “Tamuli” series.  I began to lose a great deal of faith when another character was introduced, a ten-year old boy named Gher, who is not overly bothered by scruples, and is unwholesomely intelligent (much like Talen from the two series mentioned previously).  Things were shaping up badly.

Fortunately, there is much else that sets this aside.  A priest, a witch, a soldier, a noblewoman are introduced as well, and I couldn’t easily draw any comparisons with them.  The villains are matched well with the protagonists (although it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t get along with each other), and keep the outcome of some conflicts in doubt.  The one thing that sets this book apart from the Eddings’s other books, though, is the House at the End of the World, with doors that open up-for the right person-to Anytime, Anywhen.  The bad news, though, is that the antagonists have something similar, making battles a far more dangerous prospect for either side.

As with previous works, The Redemption of Althalus has a lot of great moments, both humorous and dramatic.  In many ways, its greatest similarity to the other books they’ve written is the ability of the heroes to stand up to the plans of deities, and make themselves count (sure, they’re aided by a deity themselves, but all the heavy lifting is done by them).  Besides the House, there isn’t an overabundance of magic in this story-Althalus learns a great deal of magic from a book, but he hardly uses it to the same extent as Belgarath or Sparhawk did in their stories.  Of course, when you work out of a House that transcends space/time, what more magic do you really need?

If you’re a fan of the Eddings’s previous books, pick this one up.  If you haven’t discovered them yet, well-why not start with this one?  I think this book would serve well as a great introduction to their storytelling style, and since it’s entirely self-contained, you can get a few nights of enjoyment and decide if you like it.  And if you do, then you can go after the significantly larger series of books that they’ve written.  I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

(Incidentally:  the cover shown at the top is supposedly a “limited edition” cover; this means that it’ll only be around for the first printing of this book.  You probably won’t be missing anything if you don’t get this cover, because a] it’s the exact reverse of the other cover, b] I wouldn’t count on too many printings for the hardback, and c] the first print run is probably so large that it’s not took likely to become a real collector’s item.  But then again, time will tell!)

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Mordant’s Need: Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through, by Stephen R. Donaldson

Please don’t judge Mordant by me, my lady.  The need is real.  And it’s urgent, my lady.  Parts of the realm have already begun to die.  People are dying-people who don’t have anything to do with Imagery or kings and just want to live their lives in peace.  And the threat increases every day.  Alend and Cadwal are never exactly quiet.  Now they’re forming armies.  And King Joyce doesn’t do anything.  The heart has gone out of him.  Wise men smell treachery everywhere.
But the gravest peril doesn’t come from the High King of Cadwal or the Alend Monarch.  It comes from Imagery.
-Apt Geraden of Domne explains Mordant’s Need to Terisa Morgan


This pair of books is probably the oldest batch I’ve reviewed to date.  I can’t recall when Captains Outrageous came out, but these were mid to late ’80s.  I doubt they can be found in the traditional bookstores, although I do believe Amazon at least still carries them.  And I’m certain they can be found in used bookstores.

It’s a safe bet that I wouldn’t be reviewing books written that far back if they weren’t any good.  The fact of the matter is, I thought these books were extremely good.  Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through both contain a great deal of story, but don’t have so many characters that you have to worry about losing track of who’s who.  Longtime readers of Stephen Donaldson will see nothing unusual from the two protagonists.  From the other books I’ve read of his (his Thomas Covenant books and the Gap series), I’ve seen a pattern of heroes who at least start out in a psychologically shaky state.

Here’s the synopsis in a nutshell.  Terisa Morgan is a young woman who works in a mission (in what we laughingly refer to as the real world); she tends to keep to herself and often has bouts of wondering if she even exists.  To that end, she surrounds herself at home with mirrors so that she can reassure herself of that fact.  Things get interesting when a young man named Geraden appears through one of her mirrors, and turns her life upside down.  He brings her to a troubled land called Mordant, ruled by King Joyce, who seems to have lost all interest in retaining the kingdom he had built.  The timing of his disinterest could hardly be worse, as the neighboring nations are looking to take the land for themselves, and there are Imagers-wizards who work magic through mirrors-who are working to destroy Mordant from within.

While Geraden tries to convince Terisa that she’s the champion that will save Mordant, it seems that very few others in Mordant believe it.  Castellan Lebbick is a rather…coarse individual who thinks she’s an enemy of the king.  The master Imagers Gilbur and Eremis have conflicting opinions-one considers her a waste, while the other is attracted to her.  The king’s closest friend, Adept Havelock, is insane.  Terisa spends a fair amount of time in the first quarter of the book trying to figure out what’s going on, when nobody will help her out.

Once she does begin to understand, all hell breaks loose.  I can’t really go any further without spoiling things, but rest assured that every character in the book serves a purpose (well, all the named ones, anyway).  The books take Terisa all over Mordant, and we get a fair amount of insight on how the two neighboring nations view things; it isn’t as black and white as it seems.  The book also has a considerable amount of intrigue behind it.  I think that any book that involves itself with the royalty almost has to involve treachery and intrigue as a requirement!  There’s also a strong undercurrent of romance in these books, which drives some characters to do some pretty dangerous (as in potential lethal) things.

I was also impressed with how Donaldson handled magic.  Mirrors are the big thing in Mordant, because an Imager can translate an image from the mirror into reality.  They can even translate people-although it can only be done safely through a curved glass, because translation through flat glass drives a fellow insane-Havelock is the proof of that.  And worst of all for Terisa, it is said that to observe one’s own reflection in flat glass is to go catatonic, a victim of a translation that goes nowhere.  How she deals with that blow is an important part of her development in Mordant’s Need.

Donaldson put together a good pair of books here.  If you can find them, either in a bookstore or in a library, they’re well worth the time it takes to read them.  They aren’t what you’d call heavy in the action department, but it is plot-heavy and character-heavy, and it’s got a great story with twists and turns.  What more can you ask from a book or two?

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Captains Outrageous (or, For Doom the Bell Tolls), by Roy V. Young

captainsI don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m mad!  Really mad!  I want to wring that blasted wizard’s neck!  I’m so mad that if I had to fight watervards for the opportunity to catch that charlatan, I’d go cheerfully, with one hand tied behind my back, all the while singing “The Ballad of Count Yor” in falsetto fortissimo, including the three-part harmony for eunuch choirs!
-Captain Yor, unwisely tempting the Three Weird Sisters of Destiny


Once upon a time, as strange as it may seem, TSR published novels that had nothing to do with Dungeons and Dragons.

One of the better ones was Captains Outrageous.  This was an only semi-serious novel set in the land of Leiblein; this book has a fairly serious threat to that world sitting on the top of the world; due to an agreement between some of the old gods, there is a great bell located there:  and if it rung three times true by the chosen mallet…well, game over.  For everything.  For the most part, the world ignored the legend.  But a wizard, urged on by a dragon’s promises and feeling humiliated by the Royal Court of Bretilya, has decided to find the mallet, and ring the bell.

Enter the three captains:  Dword Ecklundson of Norlandia, an icy, barbaric land.  Trebor Blackburn, a massive loremaster whose knowledge is equaled only by his fighting skill.  And “Count” Yor, a man with knowledge of sorcery, and yet filled with reluctance to use it due to an oath taken long ago.  The three set out to catch the wizard Bosamp before he can fulfill his dread goal.  On the way they take with them the young Prince Rodney (the youngest son, naturally, with attitude to match), accompanied by Sir Dudley.  They fight enchantments, Kundi assassins, snowsnakes-and oh yes, Bosamp.

Sounds like a high adventure novel, doesn’t it?  Well, don’t get that impression.  While the plot may sound suitably dramatic, this is not to be confused with a serious book!  The puns fly fast and furious, the wizard isn’t exactly Gandalf, and the three captains are constantly trading jokes with each other.  Even the situations they find themselves in tend to be humorous (a favorite scene involves the creature Furbelow, the guardian of Bosamp’s former residence:  “Poltroons!  You have sealed your doom!  At this very moment, I am entering your names onto the list of the Eternally Afflicted!  Lucky for you, I have the most exacting penmanship, so should you choose to turn and run away even now, despite the aspersions cast on mighty Bosamp, you might just barely escape deaths of unimaginable, drawn-out agony!  Flee now or pay later!”

Young does an excellent job on keeping the attention of the reader in this book.  Humor interspersed with drama make this a great read.  Yor gets the most back story in this book, and it is heavily implied that he’s going to be at the center of rather interesting events in the future.  Young follows this book up with Yor’s Revenge, which continues the story of the three captains.  That book also implied that at least one other would be forthcoming, but unfortunately, no new book was released.  This also means that most bookstores no longer stock this book.

But should you happen across Captains Outrageous and Yor’s Revenge in some used bookstore or a library somewhere, it’ll be worth your time to read them if you like adventure with a funny bone.  I’d rank it right up there with Robert Asprin’s Myth books (which I’m bound to review in the near future).

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The Sandman: Book of Dreams, edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer

bookofdreamsEven the Lord of the Dreaming shouldn’t ignore a child’s nightmares
-A child’s doll


In the Beginning, all things had a Destiny.  Because they had a destiny, they would also be forced to accept Death.  In order to push away that dread certainty, we make creations out of Dream.  All things that are created, though, eventually face Destruction.  Destruction brings about Despair, and we Desire to recapture them.  In doing so, we experience Delight (or Delirium, depending on circumstance).  In my own clumsy way, I’ve described beings that existed before the gods, which will continue to do so until even gods die.  They are the Endless.

Neil Gaiman wrote a comic book series some years back called The Sandman.  It was a comic geared towards older readers, because the subject matter was most definitely not for immature minds-it had elements of serious horror, and all kinds of other disturbing things.  But it was also filled with Big Ideas.  The centerpiece of it all was the being known as Dream (aka Morpheus, the Shaper, the Prince of Stories, etc.).  While Dream was not always a main character in this set of comic books, he was always involved in some way.  One of the things I was firmly convinced of was that The Sandman would do well translated into novelized form.

Whaddya know?  Not a work of Gaiman, but perhaps the next best thing-a collection of short stories written by luminaries such as Gene Wolfe, Tad Williams, and Barbara Hambly.  Each story about the Prince of Stories, or at least situations and characters that had populated the comic book.  While knowledge of that comic would certainly be helpful, it didn’t strike me as being absolutely necessary; even the stories that are mixed deeply with the comic book’s events stand pretty well on their own.

Many of the stories in here are excellent.  I’d like to point out especially “Stronger than Desire” by Lisa Goldstein, where a mortal man has a very interesting wager with one of the Endless; “Each Damp Thing” by Barbara Hambly, where one of Dream’s servants, Cain, is forced to ‘fess up to taking something that he really, really shouldn’t have while Dream was away; “Valosaga and Elet” by Steven Brust, where a pair of Endless are cast in the roles of adversaries (and they’re not the ones you’d expect!); and “The Mender of Broken Dreams” by Nancy A. Collins, in which the Mender tries to understand his own origins, and Dream shows him just who is capable of such things.

My two favorites are about as different as can be; “The Gate of Gold” by Mark Kreighbaum, where a child’s doll attempts to find out why Dream afflicts little children with nightmares; and “Splatter” by Will Shetterly, in which an author finds himself unexpectedly attending the famed “Serial Killers Convention” in one of the comic story arcs.  Wonder what that says about me…?  (Heh.)

While some of the stories were not as good in my opinion, I recognize they’ll fit other readers’ tastes.  Even so, the bulk of the stories are more than good enough for me to give it a strong recommendation.  And if you find that you really, really like this book, you might consider reading the collected Sandman trade paperbacks; sure, they’re comics, but they’re at least as good as some of the fantasy novels out there-and like as not, better than most.  So go pick up The Sandman:  Book of Dreams.  It’s a great read.

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Dragon Precinct, by Keith R. A. DeCandido

 Lord and Lady, not another heroic quest.
I’m afraid so.  Dragon’s been told to keep a special eye on them.  Those types always get into brawls.
Or worse.  I remember that group that wiped out the Boar’s Head Inn.
I don’t know that inn.
You wouldn’t, boy.  Even if someone like you would be caught dead in a place like that, it got burned to the ground before you were born.
-Assorted officers of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard


I’ve reviewed books by Keith R. A. DeCandido before.  I’ve commented on how he manages to nail down the characters of every licensed property he’s been involved with, going back from the Marvel Comics novels, to Star Trek, to Farscape.  He’s become known for his IKS Gowron books of late, where Klingons seek out new life, new civilizations, and conquer them.  However, all of his books to date have been in somebody else’s playground.  Until now.

Dragon Precinct is a fantasy novel; however, it’s not about warriors, wizards, and priests going on a quest.  Well, actually, it is about warriors, wizards, and priests going on a quest-but those characters aren’t the protagonists here:  they’re the victims of murder.  The world-famous Gan Brightblade and his allies are in the city-state of Cliff’s End, at the behest of the priest Brother Genero; Genero has had a vision of a great evil returning in the form of the wizard Chalmraik the Foul.  Never mind the fact that the wizard was killed ten years ago.  Unfortunately for those heroes, someone-or something-has decided to have at these heroes before they get too far.

Enter the Cliff’s End Castle Guard.  Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione and Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald investigate a death in the Dragon Precinct-specifically, the death of Gan Brightblade.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much for them to find; there are apparently no clues, physical or magical, no apparent motive, and the crew Gan traveled with are unwilling to tell the truth about why they are in town.  Then, of course, there’s also the little detail that the rulers of Cliff’s End, Lord Albin and Lady Meerka, want this case wrapped fast (Gan was an old friend), before it gets out of hand-and their chamberlain, Sir Rommett, isn’t exactly the most helpful of people to the Guard.  Which makes life especially unpleasant when one of Gan’s companions ends up dead in the same inn….

DeCandido’s put together a pretty good setting; Cliff’s End is a smorgasbord of the people populating the land of Flingaria; the land itself has gone through some rough times, and the heroism of Gan and his crew was one of the main reasons why it has entered a peaceful period.  Magic is regulated by the Brotherhood of Wizards, in part because of past abuses by wizards such as Chalmraik.  Many elves see humans as lower life-forms.  There are also dwarves and halflings in Flingaria (and I believe trolls are mentioned somewhere as well).  The story itself, however, is contained within Cliff’s End, and there’s enough here to tell a great many stories; from the upper-class areas of Unicorn Precinct, the docks of Mermaid, the seedy Goblin, and Dragon-which seems to hold the middle-class.  Since there’s no map of the city, one could easily guess that there may be more regions in the city as well.

Dragon Precinct has a number of minor subplots rolling along too; Danthres and Torin aren’t the only detectives in the city, and we get a look at some of their workload as well.  But the bulk of the story follows Danthres and Torin in their investigation (with some aid from the M. E. Boneen; Boneen’s a Magical Examiner on loan from the Brotherhood).  Both characters have their separate backstory (Danthres’s is a bit more heavily explored here), which affects their actions during portions of the investigation.  They’re hampered by the fact that there isn’t a lot to go on-at least at first.

There aren’t a lot of books in fantasy that deal with general crime in a city.  The only ones that come to mind immediately are the Discworld City Watch books, which tend to be somewhat less than serious in tone; a pair of Joel Rosenberg books which wasn’t so much city crimes being solved; and I think one of Saberhagen’s Lost Swords books had a detective tone in it.  None of them quite hit the right flavor for a police drama in a fantasy setting, though-and that’s what Dragon Precinct has accomplished.  It’s got a good core of characters, a diverse city setting, and plenty of room to write more stories-not to mention a potential loose end that’s a little beyond a city guard to handle (it’d be a neat thing to follow up in passing in future stories though).  I believe I’d enjoy reading more stories set in Cliff’s End.

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Torment, by Ray and Valerie Vallese

The absence of your mortality not only removes your fear of the absolute end, but it seems to have cleared away the worries and emotions that encumber transient beings.  You have a clarity about your purpose that I, for one, could never achieve because my feelings invariably complicate matters.
Dak’kon, the githzerai


This is likely the final book that TSR will release based on its Dungeons and Dragons Planescape role-playing setting.  The reason I say that is due to the fact that they canned the setting last year, and from the few rumors I’ve heard are bound and determined to sweep it under the mat.  I view that as a shame, because I was a big fan of Planescape.

The setting is the Multiverse.  Every world, everywhere that we view as “normal” (at least for a fantasy setting) is set in the Prime Material plane.  This is where TSR has their Forgotten Realms, their Greyhawk, and their Dragonlance worlds placed.  However, the Multiverse also holds the Inner planes, which have realities defined by the four classical elements and a combination of each, and the Outer planes, realities defined by belief and morality.  Order and Chaos, Good and Evil aren’t just concepts on the Outer planes-they’re ways of life.  And in the center of it all (although characters of the setting would laugh at the idea of a place being at the center of it all), is a city called Sigil.  This is where devils and demons can be walking down the same street as angels and not get into mortal combat-although neither group is friendly to the others.  Sigil is unique because every door, every window, every arch, every bounded space could be a portal to somewhere else…if you have a key.  There are a large number of Factions that would like to claim they rule this city, but the real power is the Lady of Pain-an enigmatic being who controls the portals, and bars gods from entering-yet she is not a god herself (at least, that’s the theory).

Planescape books have really gotten mixed reviews from the role-playing community.  The Blood Wars trilogy wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on (I’m not going to review those-my review could be summed up in three words-“Don’t get them”-even if somebody’s giving them to you for free), and Pages of Pain was…well, interesting.  I’m not reviewing that either, unless there’s requests for it.  Others have probably beaten me to it, though, and you’d be better off reading those reviews.  So it was with some concern that I picked up Torment.

Torment is based on a computer game of the same name.  However, it has about as much in common with the game as the movie The Lost World had to do with Michael Crichton’s book of the same name.  The names of the characters are the same and perhaps the basic plot, but that might be it.  So if you’ve played the game, don’t expect the book just to be a recitation of the game.  I’m not going to point out the differences, since I review books, not games.

The protagonist is a rather unique individual in a city of unique individuals.  He wakes up in the Mortuary, where the folk of Sigil bring all the dead bodies.  He has no idea of his name, where he is, how he got here, and such.  His sole companion is a floating skull with attitude (at least to start with).  He does discover quickly, however, that he is an immortal.  He can die-but he doesn’t stay that way.  His mind, however, seems to take a beating when he does.  The story goes along as he tries to piece together who he is, how he became immortal-and why he’s wanted by the Harmonium, the city’s equivalent of the cops.

The cast of supporting characters are interesting, although we really don’t get to know them too much (I’ll address why I think so in a moment)..  Dak’kon is probably the most fleshed out of the group, as a humanoid githzerai, and an exile from his people and his Faction.  Morte, the floating skull, remains a mystery throughout the book, and Annah the fiendling is just kind of there.  I really want to say this was a great book…but I can’t.

The reason:  the pacing.  To be completely honest, the book seemed rushed.  I suspect this is because the authors tried to hit all the major points of the computer game-and it was a pretty long and involved game.  To put all that into a single paperback novel likely required some patchwork.  To add insult to injury, it did leave room to write a follow up novel-which will probably never happen, since TSR is scrapping Planescape.  (It makes me wonder if the novelization of Balder’s Gate read like this.  Hmm, maybe another review brewing….)

If fans of the Planescape RPG are hoping Torment will get the line resurrected, then they’d better think again.  Of course, reviews of the computer game are much kinder than this review, which might do the job.  If you’re given a choice between buying the book or the game, and all other things being equal…go with the game.  It has far more depth to it.  If you’re looking for a great Planescape book…better go with Pages of Pain.

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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.

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