Centauri Dawn, by Michael Ely and Robert Simpson

centdawnA Spartan would rather lose an ankle than lose a fight?
I didn’t lose either, Jahn.  I didn’t yield; you stopped.  The Spartans have an incredible tolerance for pain, and they don’t surrender.  If you had broken my foot and stood up to leave, I would have kept on fighting.
-Rankojin of the Peacekeepers, giving Jahn Lal some insight on Spartan thinking

Well, it looks like Earth finally did it.  Let me rephrase that:  Mankind finally did it-it managed to pretty much kill itself.  The year is 2100, and the last remnants of humanity are arriving at the planet Chiron, which is in the Alpha Centauri system.  Unfortunately, the landing is a little rough, as a mutiny on the ship Unity forces various landing pods to eject from the ship without plan or purpose.  Not a sterling beginning to mankind’s attempt to rebuild itself.  It is, however, the beginning of this book, Centauri Dawn.  This is book one of a series (don’t know how many there will be, though)-so this gets the dubious honor of being the first book that I’ve reviewed that is just beginning.

This book takes place across several years, centering mostly on the doings of one of the several factions of survivors, the Peacekeepers, although there is a strong emphasis on the Spartans as well; and yes, you can almost guess the general thrust of the relations between these two factions.  The leader of the Peacekeepers, Pravin Lal, is desperately dedicated to trying to keep the Unity survivors in a building frame of mind; cooperation, rather than coercion.  Corazon Santiago, on the other hand, is the ultimate survivalist, seemingly embodying the worst parts of that subculture, where the weak are allowed to die (unless they’re killed flat out, naturally) and the strong take what they want.  There are other factions, but they are only briefly touched upon.  This story really belongs to these two factions.

The characters are interesting enough.  Pravin is a idealist, even though his fellows haven’t really given him reason to be-his wife was virtually killed in the mutiny-but perhaps too much so.  His son Jahn is probably as normal as a guy can get growing up on another planet.  Corazon doesn’t come off too fanatical…in fact, she shows glimmers of good sense occasionally.  Her advisors, such as a fellow named Diego, don’t have nearly as much good sense, and are apparently spoiling for a fight.  Corazon’s son, Victor, lives off of borrowed time, as many within the Spartan faction don’t think he’s tough enough for their philosophy.

Okay.  That’s the synopsis.  Here’s my opinion:  I wasn’t all that impressed.

It seemed to me that roughly half the book was a war between the two factions; I suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised:  after all, this book is based on the computer game, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and of course, it has a strong emphasis on battle.  On the other hand, given the events in this book and the implications of the future books, it amazes me how anyone capable of building a ship and sending it to Alpha Centauri could crew it with a bunch of mental defectives.  I mean, with the survivalist Spartans, and a faction called the Believers (which may or may not be acting with their boss’s awareness), and the hints of another one with less than honorable intentions-how could anyone think throwing all these people together would be a good idea?  The wonder isn’t that they mutinied-it’s that they did so at the end of the journey instead of in the middle or earlier!

It occurs to me that I wasn’t all that impressed with the other computer game-related book I’ve reviewed, Planescape:  Torment.  Perhaps I should take this as a hint that what might make good games don’t automatically make good novels.  I think when I see the next book on the shelves, I think I’ll leave it there. Alpha Centauri:  Centauri Dawn may appeal to the hardcore fans of the computer game, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

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Amber and Ashes, by Margaret Weis

amberandashesYou’re dressed like a monk.
Appearances can be deceiving.  You, sir, are dressed like a knight.
-Ausric Krell, death knight, and Rhys, monk of Zeboim

Before I get started, I’d like to point out that the cover shown here isn’t the cover of the book I picked up; either they’ve released two different covers, or it got switched last minute, so nobody write me about having up the wrong cover….!

With that out of the way:

Life sucks when you’re a god of death (okay, maybe that was the wrong way to phrase it).  You don’t get a good, healthy crop of worshipers-either they’re on their last legs, or they’re power mad in raising the dead to fight their battles.  And that’s not a great thing when you’re Chemosh, the death god of Krynn-especially if you’ve got grand dreams of becoming the king of the gods.  But Chemosh is capable of moving with the times-he’s got a plan, one that will be an image makeover for him, one that will increase the numbers of his worshipers.  All he needs is someone well suited for rallying people to his cause.  Fortunately, there’s a young woman who did just that recently for her goddess-a goddess who has recently become extinct.  Her name is Mina.  This plan drives Amber and Ashes, the first book in Margaret Weis’s solo effort in the Dark Disciple trilogy.

Of course, Mina isn’t exactly thrilled to receive visitors.  When last we saw her, she’d gone off to bury the deceased Dark Queen, Takhisis, after vowing to Paladine to go on a killing spree, targeting elves.  However, since placing the former goddess’s body under a mountain, she’s been afflicted by a numbing despair, only suffering the company of her longtime associate, Galdar.  Galdar can’t stay too much longer, though, as the minotaur god Sargonnas is getting antsy.  A number of gods have apparently stopped by as well-but only when Chemosh arrives does she believe relief is at hand-the relief of death.  But, again, Chemosh has other ideas.  He has a little test for her, and it involves a death knight.  And his plans involve giving his followers-led by Mina-the one gift that perhaps only the god of death can provide.  His plans don’t go completely unnoticed, though.  Sucked into the intrigue is a monk of Majere named Rhys-a monk whose brother becomes entangled in the intrigues of Chemosh.  He forsakes Majere for a new master in order to take action.

Of course, no plan ever unfolds perfectly-and Chemosh discovers a big detail with his.  The god of death is drawn towards one of the living-Mina.

In spite of the present day being an “Age of Mortals”, this story puts the gods front-and-center.  No less than four gods appear with speaking roles in this book, and those conversations are with the very mortals who worship them.  Given current events in Krynn, it’s probably not surprising.  After a pair of Cataclysms, each followed by a lengthy absence by the gods, I’d imagine that most of the gods have to do a great deal of convincing to gain worship again.  That means they have to go out of their way to gather followers for a change, instead of simply listening to prayers.  Chemosh’s plans are certainly a new tack-although it becomes apparent that his gifts do come with a price.  It’s also clear that he’s thought through his plans to become the king of the gods-but it’s still unclear that he’ll be able to overcome some rivals.

There’s a few new characters here as well (although there is a couple of cameo appearances with someone else who had much to do in the War of Souls series); The monk Rhys is a fellow who’s primarily interested in finding out what has happened to his brother, after his brother does some…well, let’s just say some not-so-nice things.  It’s the process of learning that he’s drawn into the plots of gods and goddesses.  It’s also how he meets one of the more interesting kender in Krynn-Nightshade Pricklypear, a nightstalker (which means that he speaks with the dead).  It’s a novelty seeing a kender who isn’t primarily interested in rooting through people’s belongings for a change.  And as for the death knight, Ausric Krell:  well, he’s one sick puppy, given his style of gaming.  He’s no Lord Soth; he may have power on his side, but I don’t get the same feeling of dread that Soth inspired (Soth didn’t exactly set the bar low, either).

Mina’s the big story here, of course-she is, after all, the dark disciple the trilogy is named for.  From a soul deluged by despair, to a servant of death, to the beloved of Chemosh, she’s undergone a great deal of transformation in this book (and in fact, we get a brief recap of her life prior to this book, which shows she’s no stranger to transformative events).  Reading about her trial in Chemosh’s service and her subsequent activity on his behalf, it’s easy to see why her service is coveted by many a god; well, at least the gods of evil.  She’s lost none of her ability to gather followers in the name of her chosen deity-although her methods have certainly changed a bit.

Amber and Ashes is a good start to this trilogy; I liked the new characters of Rhys and Nightshade, and I liked the increased presence of the gods.  But most of all, I liked the relationship between Chemosh and Mina-a relationship that is not nearly as unequal as it appears.  It’s not what one would expect from one of the evil gods of Krynn, and I’m looking forward to further exploration of Chemosh’s feelings towards Mina.  I’m also looking forward to seeing what happens next, because the book’s conclusion leaves a number of characters in some very interesting situations-and none of them are good.  The War of Souls may be over, but the war for the hearts and minds of the living is in full swing.

Categories: Dark Disciple Trilogy, Dragonlance | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Kingdom Come, Elliot S. Maggin, based on a story by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

kingdomFear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgement is come.
-Revelations 14:7

As a general rule, comics translate poorly into novels.  By this, I mean stories that have been released in comic form, as opposed to original novels.  There’s a lot of visual activity going on in the comics, which is hard to describe in novel form-especially given the amount of dialog that crams into a single panel of a comic book. The Life and Death of Superman, Knightfall, and No Man’s Land all have problems that fall into this category-much of what was put into the comic is lost in translation.

On the other hand, some comics survive the translation in flying colors.  Kingdom Come is one such book.  Based on a limited series of a few years ago, this book is set in the universe of DC comics…the one where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all call home.  More specifically, it takes place at some unspecified time in the future…in the next generation of heroes.  However, as the book makes clear quickly, “heroes” might be a misnomer.

The heroes we know are keeping a much lower profile, especially since Superman left Metropolis and vanished.  And it seems that new superhuman beings have been popping out of the woodwork.  Unfortunately, these heroes are often as bad as the villains.  The culmination of this unrestrained conflict is in Kansas, where the icon of this new breed of hero (a fellow with the apocalyptic name of Magog) causes a cataclysm of almost biblical proportions.

Which brings me to the main characters of this story.  The Spectre is a servant of…well, I won’t sugar-coat it.  It’s heavily implied that he’s a servant of God (I understand some of the comics have him as a manifestation of God’s wrath, eternally seeking Justice).  Once he was bonded to a human being, but now he’s become simply his power.  He needs a mortal man to guide his steps.  Enter Norman McCay, a minister in Metropolis, who has inherited visions from a former super-hero.  Together, the two explore the state of affairs with these new superhumans, what happened to the originals, and what happens when the disaster in Kansas strikes.

This was a terrific read.  The characters are still recognizable-Superman, psychologically beaten down, but determined to try to do the right thing, even though the path seems unclear to him.  Wonder Woman is the personification of the concept “Peace through Strength”, which gets a little out of hand as time goes on.  And Batman has become the ultimate schemer, rivaling even the schemes of Lex Luthor, Superman’s longtime enemy (who himself hasn’t exactly been keeping quiet).

There are other characters seen in this book, some of which are more recognizable than others; not all of the DC heroes have become entrenched in the popular consciousness.  However, Maggin manages to explain them all extremely well, through the eyes of Norman McCay.  McCay himself gets a bit more in-depth background than shown in the original comic series; he was the voice of normal humanity in the comics, and he only becomes more so in this novel.

A few wonderful touches:  Norman’s conversation with God (one sided, of course), trying to find enough faith to do the task the Spectre has asked of him.  Batman discovering-just for a moment-how Commissioner Gordon must have felt while the Batman was still active.  The development of Magog, who I was prepared to dislike heavily throughout the book, and who I actually began to feel some sympathy for (and given the events in this book, that’s a hell of a feat).  And my personal favorite, a background piece about the President of the country; when asked what she’d do if elected, her response is “Demand a recount.”  (At the time of this review, this response takes on whole new meanings!)

Read Kingdom Come.  It’s a great read, even if you gave up comics a long time ago.  The characters have grown up just like you have, and are far more interesting than they were ten, fifteen years ago.  The story is one of generational conflict, one as old as storytelling, and no less compelling for its age.

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Invasion, by J. Robert King

invasion…Safety isn’t the issue.  Defeat of the Phyrexians is.
This is where you and I differ, Master.  Safety is the issue.  You’ve never wanted to save your people.  You’ve only wanted to defeat your foes-Mishra, Gix, K’rrik, and now Yawgmoth himself.  You would sacrifice us all if you knew it would doom him.
I am willing to sacrifice myself to defeat Yawgmoth.  I have neither sympathy nor patience for others who are not.
As I said, Master, this is where we differ.
-A debate between the planeswalkers Urza and Teferi

    For thousands of years, Urza Planeswalker has been waiting for this moment.  Since the day he fought and defeated his brother Mishra in the depths of the past, he’s been looking to defeat and destroy the evil of Phyrexia, a plane of existence of plagues and twisted machine/creatures.  He’s been planning a way to defeat the Phyrexians when the time came for a final conflict.  That time is now.

This is it…the trilogy that has been building in the Magic the Gathering books for a few years now.  The Thran gave us the ultimate genesis of this story.  The Artifacts cycle gave us back story on the prime mover on the world of Dominaria. Rath and Storm was the prologue of the current events featuring the potential hero of this story, and the Masquerade cycle gave us the fallout from those events in three different settings.  Now, J. Robert King brings us to the grand finale:  the Invasion cycle, starting with the book of the same name.

Invasion has three major plots going through it.  The most significant one features Gerrard Capashen, captain of the skyship Weatherlight.  He and his crew are returning to Dominaria from another plane just in time for the Phyrexian invasion.  Gerrard’s been hyped as the heir to a Legacy which features a number of artifacts and the Weatherlight, all working as one unit.  The opening of the book certainly does much to prove that the Legacy is a force to reckon with.  Unfortunately, it also makes him a prime target for Tsabo Tavoc, a spider-woman-like creature who is leading the first wave into the land of Benalia-which happens to be Gerrard’s homeland.

Another plot is that of Urza Planeswalker, the somewhat insane immortal who crafted the Legacy, and supposedly has a plan to destroy Phyrexia once and for all.  He’s assisted by a mortal-but extremely long-lived-wizard named Barrin; he also created a fighting force called the metathran, beings born and bred to fight Phyrexians.  The last major plot features the nature spirit Multani, the spirit of the Yavimaya forest, who deals with the Phyrexian invasion in his own way; he later will gain assistance by an elf-lord from the plane of Rath.

When this whole story was first introduced, the Legacy was hyped as being the one thing necessary to drive off the Phyrexians for good, and that Gerrard was a key component of that Legacy.  He’d also left behind a piece of that Legacy when he traveled to Rath in the beginning of this story, to prevent that piece from falling into Phyrexian hands/claws/appendages.  I’ve a sneaking feeling nobody will remember that part….  Even so, I have trouble believing that the Weatherlight is going to single-handedly stop the invasion.  Of course, I’m not the one writing the story.

Urza is one of those characters who can’t really be considered a “good guy”.  As the quote above shows, he has his obsessions, and they’ve been a theme of Urza’s since the beginning.  One has to wonder what will happen to him if he should survive all this (always presuming that the invasion is pushed back, of course).  I also rather liked the character of Teferi, a planeswalker like Urza, but with a far better attitude.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t get nearly enough pages.

While Invasion is a pretty good beginning for this trilogy, I can’t help but feel that this might be a little to big for a trilogy to handle.  After all, this is the invasion of an entire world, using the resources of another world.  We only get to see small bits of it.  I’m all for heroes having near impossible odds, but I’m hoping that I won’t be disappointed by the resolutions.

Incidentally…don’t look for too much in the way of triumphant victories.  This is only book one, after all…

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

Dark Side of the Sun, by Andrew Dymond

darksideCom-Officer, send this message:  Captain SoueDva, Tenth Operational Peacekeeper Taskforce to Nomad Trader Jansz.  It is my great pleasure to inform you that you, and your scurvy fleet of fruit-sucking economic subversives, are under arrest.  You have one minute to surrender or I will personally throw the switch on the weapons that will immolate you.
You have a way with words, Evbow
-SoueDva and Evbow, of the Peacekeepers

Summer time can be a boring one for fans of sci-fi television.  Reruns are all over the place.  But it’s a good time to catch up on things you’ve missed, or to try something new.  This happened to me recently, so I started watching Farscape on the Sci-Fi Channel.  I figured I’d have the same opinion as Babylon 5…not a bad show, but not one I particularly feel like watching much of.

When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  I’ve been hooked.

Why is this relevant?  Well, as a result, I picked up the two novels that have come out set in the Farscape universe.  I may review the first book at some future date, but since I wanted to stay current, I present Dark Side of the Sun.

For those unfamiliar with the show….astronaut John Crichton, during a test of his experimental Farscape I module, was sucked through a wormhole to a galaxy far, far away (whoop!  wrong franchise!).  He ended up on a living prison ship called Moya, which had just been liberated by a few of its former prisoners.  They don’t always get along; Rygel XVI is the deposed Dominar of Hyneria, Ka D’Argo is a Luxan warrior, and Pau Zotah Zhaan is a Delvian priestess.  Also along for the ride are Moya’s Pilot, a former Peacekeeper commando named Aeryn Sun (and no, the Peacekeepers are not nice folks to begin with), and Chiana, a Nebari delinquent.  I won’t go into details about the characters, since the book does an adequate job on the basics.

It’s been about seven months since Crichton’s arrival; while attempting to practice good dental hygiene, Crichton accidentally infects Moya with a rather unpleasant disease…one that is beyond the crew’s ability to cure.  Luckily, Zhaan suggests that they seek out a Free-Trader named Jansz (that’s “pirate” for the less enlightened).  Jansz is a rather…interesting being, even in the rather well populated sci-fi genre.  A deal is struck that is almost to everyone’s satisfaction.  Unfortunately, a monkey wrench is thrown into the plan-Rygel discovers an old flame being held captive by Jansz.  Did I mention that Moya’s crew doesn’t always get along?  And things start to get really complicated when another life form makes itself known to Moya….

In some ways, I rather enjoyed this book.  Crichton’s a bit of a smart-ass, but he’s a basically decent guy.  We get a good luck at Rygel’s life before he became a prisoner of the Peacekeepers, and we get lots of infighting amongst the crew-which is for the most part, understandable, given the plot.  However, there were aspect that seemed contrived, especially concerning Chiana and Aeryn.  Now, I’ll admit I haven’t seen all the episodes of Farscape, but unless I’m wrong, there will be aspects of the book which may seem a little out of character.  And that’s one of the other weaknesses of this book; it does seem to rely a bit on familiarity with the series.  That’s all well and good for many licensed properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, but Farscape is a series that’s on a cable network that may not be available to a wide audience.  I think that a bit more background info would’ve been helpful, seeing that it is only the second Farscape book that’s been released.

I’m fortunate; since they’ve been replaying Farscape on the Sci-Fi channel almost daily over the summer, I can say that this was a decent book, although not stellar.  But readers interested in Farscape may want to bypass Dark Side of the Sun in favor of the other book, House of Cards, which may be a bit friendlier to readers new to Farscape.

Categories: Farscape | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Extinction, by Lisa Smedman

extinctionClimb out of the darkness, rise into the light.
Turn your face to the sky, your elf birthright.
Dance in the forest, sing with the breeze;
Claim your place in the moonlight among flowers and trees.
Lend your strength to the needy; battle evil with steel.
Join in the hunt; to no other gods kneel.
Purge the monster within and the monster without;
Their blood washes you clean, of this have no doubt.
Trust in your sisters; lend your voice to their song.
By joining the circle, the weak are made strong.
-Invitation to join Eilistraee’s priestesses

Imagine that you are a priestess of Lolth, and highly ranked in your city.  Then imagine that one day, your spells stopped working-as well as those of the other priestesses.  Now imagine that a few months later, you are homeless, your city gone.  You travel with a number of other dark elves, along with your battle-captive.  With them you reach the very doorstep of your goddess’s realm-and discover she’s not answering the door.  Imagine the frustration of losing your power, your status, and ultimately your faith.  This, then, is Halisstra Melarn’s inner conflict, and the most significant plotline in Extinction.

The drow from Menzoberranzan and Ched Nasad have returned-rather abruptly-from the Demonweb Pits, where the Spider Queen makes her home; and yet again, they are on the surface.  Tensions are running high, as Pharaun, Quenthel, and Jeggred nearly give in completely to their antagonism.  Cooler heads prevail, allowing Quenthel to come up with the next step of their journey-she still wants to try to contact Lolth, which means they need to get to the Abyss.  Unfortunately, they pretty much killed off the last method they used.  A combination of magic and blood secures a possible way that they can travel back to the Abyss (and it will be one familiar to old gamers of the D&D Planescape line).  It should come as no great surprise that the method involves yet more travel, this time to the homes of one of the more alien forms of life in the Underdark.

Not all of the group are going on this leg of the journey.  Halisstra volunteers to head to Menzoberranzan, taking along with her a message from Quenthel-and followed by Ryld Argith, who has entered into an unusual relationship with her (well, unusual for drow, anyway).  She isn’t destined to get far-as she and Ryld fall into the hands of people who are a little annoyed at Halisstra because of a minor matter of a murder in the last book.  Her time with them will force her to make a life changing decision-return to the life she knows, or to try another choice-one that doesn’t include having to watch her back every waking moment.

While all this is going on, nothing remains static in Menzoberranzan.  The forces of Chaulssin are still knocking on the door, the armies of duergar and fiends making plans with Nimor to crack open the strongest bastions of the city.  Gromph Baenre is still out of action, having failed to best the lich Dyrr; don’t count on him being out for long, with some rather interesting allies on his side.  Triel Baenre is only now learning a bit of the nature of what opposes her, and she’s not stupid-she comes up with some workable tactics against the invaders.  Too bad that Nimor’s not exactly slow either.

The back cover of this book indicates that this is a somewhat quieter book, and it’s true.  Extinction doesn’t focus as much on the quest to find Lolth as much as it does on the personalities of the main characters of this book.  It’s primarily on Halisstra, who really is at a point in her life where making a such a choice is actually something to consider, where before she’d kill anyone who even hinted at it.  At the same time, it’s tricky to figure as to whether any choice she makes can be considered truthful-she herself goes into this believing that anything she says she really won’t mean.  It’s never that easy, though.  The other protagonists aren’t neglected, though:  Valas deals with a transformation equally life changing (potentially), while Quenthel and Pharaun decide that this quest will go a lot easier without the other one.  I was a little surprised by it, although I shouldn’t have been-the two have been rubbing each other the wrong way since the beginning, and drow nature being what it is….  And Ryld, well, he cultivates a “friendship” with creatures that are pretty much unknown to the drow, but are a staple of a number of fantasy stories-and an early encounter may very well cause a change in him as well.

There’s still enough action to satisfy fans of that kind of thing (Gromph’s strike is nicely ingenious, which I’d expect from an archmage of his age, and the siege of Menzoberranzan proceeds apace; and that’s not counting little things like dealing with demons, outwitting underwater foes, and very, very big monsters).  Don’t expect boring out of this book-it may be quieter, but there’s still a lot going on.  By the time we reach the end of Extinction, a destiny is taken up, a big step in the siege is taken-along with a price paid for such a step-and an exceedingly dangerous new leg of the journey begins.  How’s that for a set-up?

The War continues….

Categories: Forgotten Realms, War of the Spider Queen | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Phule Me Twice, by Robert Asprin with Peter J. Heck

phuletwiceSo if we do our job well, we are sent to a place where there is trouble, and if we do it poorly, trouble comes to us.  Please, Sarge, how does this system encourage virtuous conduct and and constructive effort?
-Space Legionnaire Mahatma, giving Sergeant Brandy a headache

Here’s the back story:  The Phule books (beginning with Phule’s Company) are the story of Willard Phule, aka Captain Jester of the Space Legion.  The Space Legion is more or less the rough and tumble military arm of the Alliance (as opposed to the more glamorous army), and the Omega Company is the worst of the bunch-a group of misfits and ne’er-do-wells.  Willard Phule-who, incidentally, is one of the richest men alive, as the head of Phule-Proof Industries-chose to join the Space Legion, and in a move of enthusiasm, he strafed the site of a peace treaty and got promoted…so he could take command of Omega Company.  In spite of expectations, he turned the Company around and in the course of three books made the Company the highest profile in the Legion.  This has, needless to say, also managed to get him a couple of enemies.

As this is a book by Robert Asprin, it can certainly be inferred that this is not the typical military space army novel. Phule Me Twice is the latest offering, in collaboration with Peter Heck.  As of this book, Omega Company is basking in the success of having stopped a potential civil war on the planet Landoor, and is enjoying the benefits of the two major amusement parks built on the planet (as related in the previous book, A Phule and His Money).  However, a recent ally of the Alliance, the Zenobians, have had some unknown force beginning to encroach on their home planet, and Omega Company is called upon to find out what’s going on.  At the same time, a robot duplicate of Phule left on the space station Lorelei, at the Fat Chance casino (another story, chronicled in Phule’s Paradise) becomes the target of kidnappers thinking that they’re after the real Phule.

While the plot may seem heavily mired in past continuity, Asprin does a credible job in making the book accessible to new readers, often in the form of journal entries by Phule’s butler, Beeker.  At the same time, the readers of other Phule books will recognize the regulars-Sergeant Brandy, “Mother”, Chocolate Harry, and Sushi.  The Phule books have done at least one thing well-they stand alone with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  There are a few loose ends left at the end, but they are not enough to leave a reader hanging.

I like the way that Asprin transitions from one plot to the next.  The early part of the book deals with departing Landoor and making off to the Zenobian homeworld, with a few bumps on the way.  There’s a scene with some Legionnaires questioning the scuttlebutt as to where they were being sent next which was interesting, and leads to an important plot point later; and one character continues an audacious plan to take over the interstellar Yakuza, while keeping an intact skin at the same time-and is learning exactly what an officer deals with in the process.

I hate to say it, though, but this book didn’t grab me.  The first two books were definitely enjoyable, although the second was slightly weaker.  A Phule and His Money was released much later; I don’t really know the reason why, since I haven’t been keeping up with Asprin in the newsgroups or anything, but I suspect it’s the same reason he hasn’t written any Myth books for the same length of time, and perhaps is the reason he’s begun collaborating with Heck.  It seems that Asprin’s lost something in the downtime, because I just couldn’t get into the book.  Newer characters introduced haven’t really stuck in my mind, with the exception of the Reverend Jordan Ayres, of the Church of the King (who asked his flock not to be cruel, “a poor boy, climbed to the top, with no help from anybody”-a church which idolized a legend in the mid to late 20th century); he’s an interesting fellow to listen to preach.

In the end, I’d only heavily recommend this book to die-hard Asprin fans.  Phule Me Twice is only an “okay” book, and may be only worth picking up at a used bookstore or a library somewhere along the way.  It’s not one of Asprin’s stronger efforts, but I’m still willing to give him some leeway for now.  I’ll admit I may still be a little irritated that he hasn’t wrapped up his Myth series yet in favor of this series, but my enjoyment of the Phule books keeps my own personal complaints to a minimum.  Besides, if you’re a longtime fan, this might just be your cup of tea.

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Knight Life, by Peter David

knightlifeMerlin, by all the gods that’s it!  I shall become president of the Soviet Union of America.
-Arthur Pendragon, who needs a little more study time

The story of King Arthur and the Round Table is pretty much ingrained into the public consciousness.  Certainly it’s a story with many of the classic fantasy elements-a king trying to forge a kingdom where (to borrow a phrase) might is used for right, but a wife’s love for the king’s best friend signals the end of his dream.  Okay, well, that was my interpretation, in a nutshell.  Various scholars have various opinions, and I’m not here to debate them.

What I am here for is to review a rather interesting book.  Knight Life isn’t exactly what one would call unusual; many authors today have mined the Arthur legend, set in just about every conceivable time frame.  What make this book unique is the strategy taken.  But I’m skipping ahead.  Let me take it from the beginning.

The book opens up with Morgan Le Fay, in the modern day.  Time has, shall we say, not been kind to her.  Her one joy in life has been to occasionally look in upon the imprisoned wizard, Merlin (through the magic of her television set).  In despair, she is all ready to take her own life…except she notices that the prison is empty.  Suddenly, Morgan has a reason to live!  (Not exactly a noble reason, but what can you expect?)

Shortly after, a fellow arrives in New York City, wearing a full suit of armor…yes, it’s the King…and while he doesn’t have the same level of culture shock one might expect, he is still somewhat bewildered by it all.  But with the aid of Merlin, he decides to once again try to change the world.  However, Britain isn’t quite what it was in his time, and he’s not quite ready for national leadership…so he’ll start small-he runs for mayor of NYC.

In the process, other faces from the past pop up; a young woman who looks awfully familiar named Gwen D. Queen, and Moe Dreskin-a fellow who knows Arthur quite well indeed…and I had to feel a little sorry for him given the pretty bad position he’s put in…!  Even more dangerous, Arthur has to deal with the press, his political opponents, and the cynical nature of New Yorkers.

This was an interesting book, as I’ve already noted. Knight Life was written by Peter David some time ago, so this is almost a reprint; but the author has redone things in this book to “fix” it.  Not having ever seen the original version (in fact, I’d never even known he’d written one!), I have no idea what might have changed.  I never felt that I was reading dated material, though (unless you count some of Arthur’s political views).

Knight Life is not an action packed book; while it has a couple of scenes, those are not the strengths of this book.  It’s all about watching Arthur try to run for political office in a city that wouldn’t believe the truth about him if someone told them; it’s about Arthur trying to pursue the woman who seems ready to repeat history with him; it’s about the diabolical plans of Morgan Le Fay, hoping to put a final finish to her most hated enemies.  And it’s about a man from the past looking at present day society and comparing their attitudes towards life with his…and the differences aren’t as clear cut as one might think.

The introduction to the book hints that David is preparing another novel, which will be a sequel to this one.  I sincerely hope it happens, because I found Knight Life to be an enjoyable read; it was an interesting take on King Arthur-one that doesn’t rely upon the might of the sword, but on the ability to make people believe in him.  And that’s something that any politician should envy.

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Rising Storm, by S. M. Stirling

risingstormHis father is from the future.  He probably hasn’t even been born yet.  How the hell does that work?
Not too well.  At least as far as his dad was concerned.
Yeah.  Imagine sending your father back through time to become your father, knowing he’s going to get killed.
Do it to my old man in a flash.
-Brad, Carl, and Yam, MIT students

Well, once again, the Connors have managed to blow up Cyberdyne (or at least the all-important research facility).  When we last left our heroes, the I-950 Infiltrator was destroyed (or killed, depending on how you look at things), John Connor was on the run with Dieter von Rossbach, and Sarah Connor is headin’ back to the asylum.  But the future looked…well, safer, anyway.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to our heroes, the Infiltrator left behind a backup plan….

Which brings us to Rising Storm.  There are four plots moving along all at once in the early part of this book; firstly, John has accepted that in spite of previous events, there’s an excellent possibility that Judgment Day-the day when the machines will rise to power via Skynet-is going to happen (although not on any previously known schedules).  So, he (with Dieter’s occasional aid) begins to set up a network of humans to “get out of the way” of the imminent apocalypse, one of whom is an attractive MIT student who is also an exceptionally skilled hacker.

Dieter spends some time away from the gang, because he’s being tracked-both by the CIA and by his old bosses in the Sector (and I still wanna know more about them, dammit!).  He does his part as well, setting up a couple of contacts in preparation for Judgment Day.  Of course, the fact that he looks identical to the original Terminator is a little bit of a stumbling block in establishing any bona fides….

Sarah, on the other hand, is back at the asylum.  She deals with this in a more level-headed manner than her last visit (as moviegoers may recall), but she runs into a potential stumbling block when she is once again face to face with the doctor who “treated” her the last time around.  Fortunately, she has a little bit of outside help to count upon when the time comes to get out.  Too bad that there’s individuals who really don’t want her leaving.

But the backup plan of Serena Burns is already in action; Clea and Alicia, the two clones built from the Serena template, are working to a) finish off the Connors (surprise surprise), and b) ensure that Skynet comes into being.  To this end, Clea (who has been force grown to adulthood) begins to get involved with Cyberdyne survivors, using the building blocks of the T-1000 technology as her ticket in.

There’s a slightly different tone in this book than in the last one.  Infiltrator was a book about prevention; realizing that the threat was not over after all, and trying to stop it.  This one contains the terrible realization that the future may be unstoppable, so the characters are more in “damage control” mode.  And since most people generally don’t believe that machines from the future are out to insure their existence, it makes matters more difficult for John and company.  Even so, some supporting characters from the last book continue to make their presence felt, such as the mysterious Tricker (whose failures in Infiltrator come back to haunt him early on) and Jordan Dyson, who has come around to the Connors’ point of view after the Serena incident.

We also get a bit more world travel in Rising Storm; we hop from South America, to North America, to-of all places-Antarctica.  What we don’t get, unfortunately, is the sense of menace.  While there are the traditional Terminator robots around, they don’t seem as unstoppable as the folks we’ve seen in the movies.  To be fair, these robots were built with inferior materials from past technology (from their perspective, anyway), but I always considered the appeal of the Terminator movies to be the fact that a single robot just kept coming for you, no matter what you did.  That feeling is only on a different scale here, concerning the inevitability of Skynet.

All the same, Rising Storm was a decent book, although it’s destined (probably) to be consigned to continuity hell when the T3 movie finally hits the theaters, and it’s got an ending which is sure to chill fans of the books and movies to the bone-and the process of getting there is pretty fun, too.

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Well of Darkness, by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

wellofdarknessBut you said that Lord Mabreton is loyal to the Shield.  Why place a spy on him?
The Shield rejoices in Lord Mabreton’s loyalty, Your Highness.  He rejoices in it so much that he never tires of receiving constant proof of it.
-Prince Dagnarus of Vinnengael and Silwyth of House Kinnoth

Weis and Hickman have put together a book very different than their usual fantasy fare.  In fact, in some ways, they turn some of the general fantasy conventions into very different things.  Imagine a land where dwarves are not the mountain people obsessed with gold, but as a race that plans to eventually rule the world (although they aren’t in any hurry) and travel as master horsemen.  A land where orken are a race of highly superstitious sailors who respect strength as well as cunning.  A land where elves are prolific breeders in spite of their long life-spans, who believe that even showing an emotion on their own faces would invade the life of another.  Humanity, on the other hand, continues to be the mixed bag.  This is the land of Loerem, and the setting of Well of Darkness.

It also manages to be a little different in that in most fantasy books, the protagonists would be considered the villains.  It matches up an unlikely duo.  Young Gareth, cursed with a rather significant birthmark, enters into the royal household of King Tamaros as the whipping boy for Prince Dagnarus, the second son of the king.  Dagnarus is…well, let’s just say that he’s not the nicest person around.  Then again, perhaps it’s understandable-he’s the son of the king’s second wife, and the first son-Helmos-is everything a king would want in a son.  While Tamaros doesn’t neglect Dagnarus, the boy nonetheless feels a great deal of jealousy and envy.  Worse, he wants to be the king, which would require that Helmos be removed.

The pot gets stirred when talk of war between races goes around the court.  In an effort to unify all the races of the land peacefully, King Tamaros appeals to the gods, and their answer is the Sovereign Stone.  The king gives a piece to a representative of each race, keeping one for humanity.  In the process, however, he inadvertently reveals a dark aspect to the gift of the gods to the last person he’d want to learn it.  And that drives the remainder of the book.

Well of Darkness has some of the classic trappings of fantasy, in spite of turning things on their head a bit.  There’s jealous rivalries, there are champions of good and evil (that’s really evil), there’s doomed romances, and terrible sacrifices.  There’s some interesting characters as well-the elf Silwyth, who’s a nasty piece of work, as well as Dunner, one of the dwarven Unhorsed-a dwarf crippled and so is looked upon with nothing but pity amongst his race.  Helmos and Tamaros are, perhaps, too good for the world, as they have the noblest of intentions.

We get some neat concepts thrown in, too.  The Portals that allow the races to actually perform trade with each other even though thousands of miles separate them.  The Dominion Lords, champions of the gods, and the Transfiguration they must undergo after a series of tests.  And the Vrykyl, who are really nasty, created as the dark side of the Dominion Lords.  And best of all, gods who try very hard not to meddle-who indeed see the races as children who have yet to learn not to play with dangerous toys.

Really, though, the stars of the book are Dagnarus and Gareth.  Dagnarus is the big mover in the story, as his desires are what drives the plot along.  Gareth is his willing ally, even though he was originally brought in to serve as a living lesson for the prince.  The two work together over the years to become….  Well, I can’t really give everything away, now, can I?

This book sets the tone neatly for the next book in the Sovereign Stone trilogy, while remaining a fairly self-contained story all by itself, which is one of the reasons I liked it.  I’m a big fan of books that end a story, even though there are remaining questions to be answered.  In that, Well of Darkness succeeds admirably.

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