Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Vengeful Virgin

The Vengeful Virgin (Hard Case Crime #30)The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, she was a virgin at some point...

The story is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook. Jack Ruxton, a broke TV repairman, hooks up with a teenage temptress, Shirley Angela. Shirley and Jack plot to rid Shirley of her invalid stepfather and get her vast inheritance. Almost immediately, things get shot to hell...

The Vengeful Virgin is a thrill ride of conspiracy, murder, sex, and insanity. Gil Brewer's prose is similar to Lawrence Block's and the suspense and desperation is very well done. Things start off wrong and just keep getting worse.

The characters are pretty realistic. Even though officially I'm appalled by the idea of a thirty-ish guy and a teenage vixen, but as a red-blooded male... I can see how things went the way they did. In the beginning, Shirley's a sympathetic character. You feel for her, having her teenage years spent cooped up and caring for her dying stepfather.

The Vengeful Virgin is a gripping tale with a lot of twists and turns. If I wanted to get someone started on the Hard Case series, this is one of the ones I'd point them at first.

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Quarry in the Middle

Quarry in the Middle (Hard Case Crime, #61)Quarry in the Middle by Max Allan Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Using information contained in the deceased Broker's database, Quarry goes to the rathole port town of Haydee's Port, Illinois to prevent a hit and earn some cash in the process. As a result,Quarry puts himself in the middle of two casino owners, both of whom would like to see the other put out of business. Permanently...

I'd say Quarry in the Middle is my favorite Hard Case Quarry novel so far. There is a lot of sex, a lot of violence, and the standard Quarry orgy of violence ending. Quarry proves to be a well-rounded character, a scumbag with some redeeming qualities, even if he does have trouble keeping his pants on. There are a couple twists and I saw the big one coming, but neither are obvious.

If you like Quarry, you'll like this. If you've never read a Quarry before, you can pick this one up without getting lost. Quarry in the Middle is easily in my Hard Case top ten.

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The First Quarry

The First Quarry (Hard Case Crime #48)The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quarry gets recruited by The Broker to be a contract killer. His target: A university professor writing a tell-all book about a mobster. However, things are never as easy as they seem. Complicating matters are the professor's numerous female companions and his soon to be ex-wife. Can Quarry eliminate the professor and his manuscript without collateral damage?

The First Quarry was a good read. Maybe a shade behind The Last Quarry but still quite good. There was more violence, more sex, and more twists. Quarry's inexperience was nicely done, as was his relationship with The Broker. Some of the violence was shocking. I have to think things would have been better for Quarry had he been able to keep his pants on but I can't fault him for doing what (or whom) he did.

As far as the Hard Case Crime series goes, this one is definitely on the high end of the scale, a good way to spend a few hours.

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The Last Quarry

The Last Quarry (Hard Case Crime #23)The Last Quarry by Max Allan Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Quarry notices a gay hitman he once had a run in with buying tampons at an out of the way convenience store, he gets suspicious. The trail leads him to a media millionaire's daughter being held for ransom. Quarry re-unites the girl with daddy for a price and a few months later, the dad offers him a job. But why would anyone want a librarian like Janet Wright dead?

Max Allan Collins knows how to write 'em. There are quite a few twists packed into this slim 200-pager. I didn't really see the revelation of Janet's true identity coming. Collins makes you wait for the big shoot out but it's almost orgasmic when if finally happens.

The Last Quarry is rocketed near the top of my favorite Hard Case book. You wouldn't want to run into Quarry, the semi-retired hitman, in a dark alley but it's sure fun to read about him.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death (Hard Case Crime #17)A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When washed up football player Lee Scarborough gets hired to steal $120,000 from a banker's widow, how can he pass it up? Little does Lee know that other people have their sights set on the money and the widow herself. And Madelon Butler, the widow, is the most deadly of them all...

A Touch of Death has many of the things I look for in a crime novel. There are multiple double crosses, gunplay, and the tension of being on the run. Madelon Butler is by far the most interesting character in the novel; beautiful, cold, calculating, and deadly. Lee had big hopes for the dough but wound up way over his head.

So why only a 3? William's writing seems really stiff compared to the other work of his that I've read, The Hotspot. It felt like he was afraid to really cut loose. There was no sex and only a little violence. The suspense was good but not as good as in the Hotspot.

The final verdict is that this isn't a bad read but is neither the best Hard Case nor the best Charles Williams book.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Fungus of the Heart

Fungus of the HeartFungus of the Heart by Jeremy C. Shipp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, I wrestle with the dilemma of trying to review a collection of short stories. Should I talk about The Sun Never Rises in the Big City, a bizzaro detective story about a detective and the search for the killer of his rag? Or The Haunted House, about a ghost struggling with its identity and trying to help a girl? Or the title story that starts with a man chasing a homicidal jester through a forest for killing his warthog? Or the fairy tale-eque The Boy in the Cabinet?

Fungus of the Heart is a collection of bizarre tales by Jeremy C. Shipp. While on the surface the only thing the tales have in common is their strangeness, a deeper look reveals that they're all about relationships. Relationships between a detective and his woman with a detonater inside her, a boy who lives in a cabinet and his cup with a smile drawn on it, or a gnome and her oposition to a war against goblins. The tone of the stories ranges from darkly humorous to creepy as hell. Many of them are so strange they have a dreamlike quality.

If you're in the mood for something different, give Fungus of the Heart a try. You won't be disappointed.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Golden Apples of the Sun

The Golden Apples of the SunThe Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does one review a book of tiny short stories? Do I describe the stories individually? Or do I just mention a couple favorites, like the one about the last dinosaur and the lighthouse, or the pedestrian, or The Sound of Thunder, the time travel story that everyone knows even if they don't know the name of?

I'm one of the few people that didn't have to read Fahrenheit 451 in school so the only exposure I had to Ray Bradbury before this was issues of Tales from the Crypt where they adapted his stories. Bradbury's got a quaint sort of writing style and most of his tales have that bite you in ass ending. He knows how to tell a short story without letting it get too wordy. 22 stories in 169 pages is impressive. Not all of them are gems but there are more gems than bits of broken glass in this collection, that's for sure.

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Starman Omnibus Vol. 5

The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 5The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 5 by James Dale Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Knight, with Mikaal in tow, takes to the stars to find Will Payton, a previous Starman and the brother of his lady love. Will he find Payton or only trouble?

As I've said many times before, what sets Starman apart from other comics of its day, or even today, is that it's about something. It's about family, stepping into your father's shoes, destiny, and a slew of other things. James Robinson takes characters that normally just wear spandex and punch one another and tells a compelling story.

In this volume, Jack takes to the stars and has quite a series of adventures. Adam Strange, the Steve Ditko version of Starman, Starboy of the Legion of Superheroes, the New Gods, an intact Krypton, and some of DC's C-List sci-fi heroes are featured. Ever think you'd see Ultra the Multi-Alien again? He's in here. So's Space Cabbie. And Jack even makes a reference to Richard Stark's Parker, something I didn't catch the first time through.

Other cool aspects of this volume include the reprinting of things that didn't make it into the original trades, like Starman 1 Million, the Shade's journals and some JSA-related stories.

Any negatives? Just one. Tony Harris defined Starman for most of the series. While Peter Snejbjerg's art isn't bad, it just isn't Tony Harris's. That's about all as far as gripes are concerned. That and we only have one omnibus left before the series is finished.

Starman is a worthy addition to any fan of comics that aren't just extended fight scenes bookshelf. It's a pity they don't make them like this anymore.

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The Murderer Vine

The Murderer Vine (Hard Case Crime #43)The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three college students travel to Mississippi to work for civil rights and don't come back, and it's up to New York private eye Joe Dunne and his assistant to find out what happened to them. And he gets a hundred thousand apiece for killing their murderers...

The Murderer Vine is a fairly good crime tale. You've got deception, murder, some sexual tension, and a shit storm of bullets at the end. The tension between himself and Kirby, whose posing as his wife, is what keeps the story going. It would make a pretty good movie.

Still, it's not all that great. Joe Dunne isn't that different from most detective characters. Since Dunne has a good idea of who killed the students before he leaves New York, there isn't a lot going on on that front. The reader is left waiting for him to get the drop on the murderers. If it wasn't for the ending, I'd probably give this a 2.5 because it was so predictable. The way the Southern dialogue was written got on my nerves after a while. I was glad when Dunne wrapped things up and headed north.

Not a bad read, especially for Hard Case fans. It's an easy three.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Mornings in Jenin

Mornings in JeninMornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the West, when we hear of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we rarely get the Palestinian side of the story. This book is that story.

Mornings in Jenin is the story of a Palestinian girl, Amal, and her family, living through six decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As such, it is brutal at times. There are scenes of torture, brutality, and killing. War is brutal business and Abulhawa doesn't let you forget it. People are senselessly killed left and right.

Amal's story was an extremely sad one. Every time things start goign her way, the rug gets jerked out from under her. I almost teared up in front of co-workers at one particularly poignant scene near the end. The book was originally titled the Scar of David. David is Amal's brother, lost as an infant and raised as an Israeli. Amal finally meets up with her brother decades after he'd been lost in yet another tear jerker. Her return to Jenin after years of exile in America was the best part of the book.

I could see how some people could criticize Mornings in Jenin as being anti-Jewish but I don't think so. Ari Perlstein is portrayed as a benevolent man. Besides, the story is told from the poiont of view of the Palestinians. Of course the Jews aren't going to be looked upon in the most favorable light.

Mornings in Jenin is a good read. Just be prepared to have your emotions repeatly stomped on.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beyond the Moons

Beyond the Moons (Spelljammer: The Cloakmaster Cycle, #1)Beyond the Moons by David Zeb Cook

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poor Krynnish farmer Telden Moore has a space ship crash land in his field. The dying captain gives him a magical cloak and soon every miscreant in Wildspace is on the trail of Telden and his cloak. Will Telden's life ever be the same?

Even though I played a fair amount of D&D when I was a lad, I was never compelled to read any of the related novels. Fifteen years later, I was in a haze of nostalgia when I decided to give the Cloakmaster cycle a try. While I wasn't wowed, I was quite entertained.

Sure, the plot isn't overly unique. Hell, the summary above looks like the origin of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern. Still, it was a fun read. You've got hippo-headed mercenaries, octopus-faced aliens, mysterious blue-skinned merchants, sailing ships that ply the spaceways, and, in later books, Giant Space Hamsters. The Spelljammer itself, a manta-ray shaped ship with a city on it's back, remains the goal of the series throughout.

Without giving too much away, Telden does a lot of running and getting betrayed on his quest for the Spelljammer, exposing the reader to the wonders of Wildspace (and hopefully enticing him to buy the Spelljammer boxed sets.) Those TSR guys were sneaky.

Any flaws? Sure. The writing. Each of the six books is written by someone else and the quality varies. This is one of the better ones. Also, the plot is pretty linear and predictable. Still, for gaming fiction, it's not bad. By the end, Telden is in space and firmly entrenched in his quest.

Not a bad read but you probably should already be a Spelljammer fan before reading it.

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Night Lamp

Night LampNight Lamp by Jack Vance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A six-year boy is found nearly beaten to death and, in order to save his life, a portion of his memory is erased. He recovers and is adopted and becomes Jaro Fath, an outcast youth on the socially stratified planet Thanet. As Jaro gets older, his desire to find out about his past intensifies until he can resist the call of space no longer! Will he be able to unlock the mysteries of his past?

First off, I have to say I've discovered an advantage of reading using a digital book rather than an analogue one: no back cover flap to blow half the plot twists. Yeah, the flap revealed things that happened 60% of the way through the book. Bastards.

Night Lamp is a likeable read but it's not up to the standards of the Dying Earth books. While Vance creates some interesting cultures and creatures in the Gaean reach in this volume and the standard Vance formal dialogue is there, the sense of wonder is diluted with a sense of tedium. While Jaro is curious about his past, he only leaves Thanet 75% of the way through the novel. The first 75% is Jaro going to school and dealing with all the cliques while trying to become a spacemen despite what the Faths want. 75%. And when he finally figures out who was behind the death of his mother, there's a showdown, only it's in a courtroom. It reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa watched a parody of the Phantom Menace that was all in the senate halls on Coruscant. The bit with Jaro's dead twin brother was fairly predictable. In fiction, how often does one twin actually die and not come back later in some capacity?

Night Lamp isn't a bad read, it just isn't up to the standard set by his earlier books.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Merlin's Gift

Merlin's GiftMerlin's Gift by Ian McDowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Right off the bat, this book has my favorite opening line of any book ever. I'd relate it here but I don't want to spoil it. Never the less, it was what made me decide I was going to enjoy this book and its predecessor, Mordred's Curse.

Merlin's Gift was a great sequel and a logical follow up to the first book. It's ten years later and Mordred and Guinevere are keeping things on the down low after the climax of the last book. Guinevere's sister is changing and Mordred goes to Merlin for help. Little does he know the size of the can of worms he opens in the process, leading to the end of Camelot.

To sum up: Interesting take on the Arthurian legend, full of black humor, and finished in just two short books

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Mordred's Curse

Mordred's CurseMordred's Curse by Ian McDowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really into King Arthur as a kid and when I saw this book and it's sequel in the Science Fiction Book Club's flyer one day years later, I decided to give it a chance. King Arthur's story from Mordred's point of view? Sounded interesting.

Interesting was an understatement. The story is told by Mordred and he's bitter as hell about Arthur, his supposed father Lot, and has a strange relationship with his mother. Launcelot is nowhere in this book or its sequel. The things Launcelot is known for, ie romancing Guinevere right under King Arthur's nose, is done by Mordred. And Merlin, don't get me started. He's a half-demon and a pedophile.

The story is engaging, dealing with Mordred growing up on Orkney, eventually joining King Arthur and falling for Guinevere.

If you're looking for a new take on King Arthur, look no further. Plus, the second book in the series, Merlin's Gift, has my favorite opening line of any fantasy book ever.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38)I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Things are hostile toward witches on The Chalk and Tiffany Aching aims to find out why. But how can she with the future mother-in-law of the new baron gunning for her? Can the Nac Mac Feegle help her clear her name and the name of witches everywhere?

Terry Pratchett has been one of my "buy everything" authors for years now and this book is a good example why. It would be easy for old Pratch to phone it in at this point. He's written something like 50 Discworld books and has been stricken with early onset Altzheimers. I'm proud to say there was no phoning in, or even texting in, in this one.

Like all of the Discworld books, this book is about something. It's about prejudice and mass hysteria, how seemingly rational people can be driven to do some pretty irrational things. It's funny how a lot of people dismiss the Discworld books as fantasy parody when they're so much more.

The Nac Mac Feegle, demented Scottish smurfs that they are, provide comic relief as always. Preston, the guard who's too smart to be a guard, provided a believable future love interest for Tiffany. Tiffany herself has come a long way since the Wee Free Men. Her grace The Duchess was such a foul villainess I couldn't wait to see her taken down a peg. The Cunning Man was pretty horrible as far as Pratchett villains go. And the cameos by Vimes, Nanny Ogg, and Granny Weatherwax were worth the price of admission.

Something that not many people mention, Terry Pratchett does a lot to advance the concept of the fantasy witch as more than juts a cackling hag. He portrays them more like shaman or jacks of all trades, doing whatever is necessary for the people in their steading.

So why a four? Why not five? I'll tell you, Arnold. For one thing, the ending was a little too easy. For another, too many plot threads were swept under the rug. Amber, the girl who's dad beat the hell out of her, was forgotten for most of the book after spending time with the kelda of the Nac Mac Feegle. The Duchess, likewise, was defused at the wedding near the end and it seemed out of character. The thread of Letitia being a witch came out of left field and also didn't go very far. It could be that old Pratch is planning another Tiffany Aching novel but I was under the impression that this one is the last.

All in all, this was a worthy addition to the Tiffany Aching saga and the Discworld series. Lots of laughs and also some thought provoking stuff.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Man with the Golden Torc

The Man With the Golden Torc (Secret Histories, #1)The Man With the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Edwin Drood is a member of the legendary Drood family, a family dedicated to protecting humanity from threats. At least, that's what he thought until he was declared rogue and had the entire familly on his trail. Now, with Molly Metcalf, infamous witch, in tow, Edwin must find out the sinster secret at his family's heart. The only people that can tell him: the people he's been fighting against his entire adult life...

The Man With the Golden Torc is typical Simon Green. You have monsters, action, and dry jokes. The Secret Histories series is an homage to James Bond and it shows. The action is almost at a ridiculous level, reminscent of the Bond movies, making for a very exciting read.

The Drood family reminds me of the family from Roger Zelazny's Amber books and Eddie himself reminds me a little of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, only without the ambiguous sexuality. There are nods to the Nightside, as well as the other easter eggs common to a Simon Green novel. The enemies are top notch, be they Manifest Destiny, a group seeking to overthrough the Droods, or the Sceneshifters, a group that alters reality to suit them at will with the help of a mummified yet still living head.

So why only a three? Eddie is a little too powerful for me to care very much about. Each member of the Drood family wears a golden torc around his neck that allows him or her to be sheathed in a nigh-impervious golden armor at will. Not much jeopardy there. Also, his gadgets are a little too over the top. A watch that rewinds time? A gun that never misses or runs out of ammo? But the thing that really irked me was Edwin Drood's cover identity of Shaman Bond. It's not like the James Bond homage wasn't clear already. Shaman Bond is about as hamfisted as he could get. Although he could have called him Bames Jond or something, I suppose.

The Man with the Golden Torc is an exciting read and a good bit of escapism, quite enjoyable despite the flaws. I'd give it a three and a half if I could.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Gun Fight

The Gun Fight (Evans Novel of the West)The Gun Fight by Richard Matheson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I decided to replace my old review with the one I wrote as Dangerous Dan for It's much more entertaining.

The Gunfight is a meager two-hundred forty seven pages but don't let that dissuade you. Matheson's books are all meat. You won't find any needless descriptions. If Matheson takes the time to describe something, you know it will be important later.

The plot of The Gunfight is fairly simple. A legendary gunfighter, John Benton, and his wife settle in a tiny town called Kellville to enjoy their retirement. Meanwhile, a teenage girl named Louisa Harper tries to make her boyfriend Robby Coles jealous by telling him Benton's expressed some interest in her. Soon the whole town is egging Robby on, saying he has to protect his girl's honor. So guess what Robby does? I'll give you a hint: the title of the book isn't "Knitting Contest."

The characters are fairly realistic. Benton's the guy who feels he has nothing left to prove and just wants to enjoy retirement. Robby's the testosterone-laden kid who just wants Louisa to treat him right. Sometimes you even feel sorry for the poor lug, getting pushed in way over his head. The townsfolk are like a lot of small town folk who get out of control once they smell blood.

One of the hallmarks of a Richard Matheson story is that he's an expert at misdirection, be it I am Legend, the Incredible Shrinking Man, or that Twilight Zone episode where there's a gremlin on the wing of the plane. The Gunfight is no exception.

This book should be a prerequisite for anyone who tries to write a suspense novel, because at its core, The Gunfight is more of a suspense novel than a western. The pacing is perfect and leaves you worn out by the end. Two-hundred forty seven pages is the perfect length. Any more would have thrown off the remarkable pace. I started reading this at lunchtime on a Sunday and finished a little after dark. It's really hard to put down.

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The Walls of the Universe

The Walls of the UniverseThe Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if your double from a parallel universe showed up on your doorstep one day? What if said double turned out to be an asshole of epic proportions who shunted you into another universe while he usurped your life?

That's the problem John Rayburn is facing in The Walls of the Universe. His double, John Prime for clarity, tricked him into using his malfunctioning transporter device. Will John be able to fix the wreck Prime has made of his life when or if he can fix the device and make it back home?

The Walls of the Universe was a lot better than I anticipated. Prime and Rayburn contrast in interesting ways. While Prime tries to make money right away by "inventing" the Rubik's Cube in Rayburn's home universe, Rayburn tries to stay out of the way of things in the universe next door while he studies the device... until he accidentally invents pinball.

The villains are invisible for most of the novel and seemed a little tacked on, though the idea of sinister Germans appeals to me. The supporting cast was fairly well although I can't really see both Johns being so enamored with Casey. Grace was easily my favorite of the supporting cast.

The ending leaves things open for a sequel. It was hinted that John's device isn't related to those of those the enemy use, and the are hints of universe-hopping civilizations that could be used for further stories.

The Walls of the Universe was a fun read and should appeal to fans of dimension jumping, parallel universes, and the like. If you tried Neil Gaimain's Interworld and found it lacking, this might be what you need to soothe your wounds.

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The Pyrates: A Swashbuckling Comic Novel by the Creator of Flashman

The Pyrates: A Swashbuckling Comic Novel by the Creator of FlashmanThe Pyrates: A Swashbuckling Comic Novel by the Creator of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I'd paste in my Dangerous Dan review for this one. We'll see if it gets the appreciation the one for The Gun Fight got.

Dangerous Dan here, back to push you toward stories while he drinks a PBR and pretends to care about things other than women and alcohol.

One of Dangerous Dan's favorite movies as a young lad living in the back room of a whore house was The Princess Bride. When I finally learned how to read (it was before I shaved the first time but not much), I read the book and wanted more. Unfortunately, old Bill Goldman never wrote a sequel. Well, today I'll review the next best thing.

George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the writer of the Flashman Chronicles, a series of books about a rogue named Flashman who blunders his way into taking credit for all kinds of heroic deeds throughout history. In The Pyrates, Fraser takes uses the ability to make complete bastards likeable that he honed in the Flashman series to new heights.

The Pyrates features everything you like about pirate stories. It has a noble hero, a rogue you're not quite sure about, a buxom damsel in distress, vile villains, and a femme fatale that's even hotter than the heroine. Dangerous Dan's pants were definitely snug during some parts of the book.

The plot of The Pyrates is as follows. Captain Ben Avery is escorting the British crown on a sea voyage, along with Admiral Rook and his daughter Vanity. Vanity's the hot girl of the story. The ship is attacked, Vanity is kidnapped, and Avery is stranded on a sandbar. Enter Colonel Blood, the rogue of the piece and Dangerous Dan's kind of guy. He's a liar, womanizer, and cheat, and also quite handy with the sword. Avery's kind of naïve and stupid and a perfect ally for Colonel Blood. On the side of the villains are Don Lardo, a huge fat guy that's trying to steal the british crown, and his henchwoman, the lovely Sheba. She's like Catwoman to Avery's caped crusader and has provided Dangerous Dan with some interesting fantasies during dry spells.

Anyway, Colonel Blood is continually caught between wanting to do the right thing, wanting to get some from Vanity while she thinks Avery is dead, and wanting the crown jewels for himself. Like I said, Dangerous Dan's kind of guy except that he didn't take advantage of Vanity while she was asleep.

Aside from the dialogue and the sight gags, one of the funniest thing about The Pyrates are all the sly references to modern culture, again, just like the Princess Bride.

The writing is snappy and the dialogue is clever, much like that of the Princess Bride. If you liked the Princess Bride, you'll like this. If you didn't, Dangerous Dan is coming to your house in the dead of night with a roll of duct tape, a jar of Vaseline, and three large cucumbers.

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Behind the Walls of Terra (World of Tiers Part Two)

Behind the Walls of Terra (World of Tiers 2)Behind the Walls of Terra by Philip José Farmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Behind the Walls of Terra: Kickaha and Anana got to Earth to find Wolff and Chryseis, running into the middle of a power struggle between Red Orc and his brother Urthona over the fate of two Earth's. Earth's status as a pocket universe created by the Lords is revealed, as are hints about Kickaha's true parentage. The ending leads nicely into the next book.

Behind the Walls of Terra was pretty good. It had all the things that made the previous three volumes great. It was interesting reading about Kickaha and Anana adjusting to Earth. I'm excited for the next story.

The Lavalite World: Kickaha, Anana, Urthona, Red Orc, and a human named McKay are transported to an ever-morphing planet called the Lavalite World by Urthona, its creator. After being seperated and re-united, Kickaha and Anana, with McKay in tow, go on a quest for Urthona's floating palace, their ticket off the Lavalite World.

I have to admit the title didn't wow me but the intrigue between Urthona, Red Orc, and the duo of Kickaha and Anana was great. Farmer does a good job of making Kickaha competent and resourceful without making him seem like a super hero. Some of the denizens of the Lavalite world were like something out of a Lovecraft novel. I'm dying to see how Farmer wraps things up in the next book and I have a feeling I'll be tracking down Red Orc's Rage once I finish More Than Fire.

More Than Fire: The story starts with Kickaha and Anana on a world populated by tripod people after someone trapped the portal to Earth in Jadawin's palace. Without giving too much away, they meet an Englishman named Clifton, a pre-Thoan creature named Khruuz, an Amazonian Lord named Manathu, and Red Orc establishes himself as quite a bastard. Kickaha and friends go through the wringer and the ending is a pretty brutal fight. All in all, a pretty satisfying conclusion to the second volume of the World of Tiers.

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The Desert Spear

The Desert Spear (Demon Trilogy, #2)The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Warded Man continues his work, spreading the wards of the ancients and the ability to fight demons, denying that he is the Deliverer. A new Deliverer rises in the southern desert, seeking to unite all of the world in the Daylight War. Can he do it? Can Leesha resist his charms? And what does the Warded Man think of it all...

Wow. If The Warded Man turned the awesomeness knob up to ten, this one turns it up to eleven. The first third of the book is an expansion of Arlen's time in Krasia in The Warded Man, only told from Jardir's point of view, covering Jardir's origins. The Krasians are given more dimension and more insights to Krasia's culture is given.

The relationships between the three main characters continues to develop. Leesha has grown into the leader of Deliverer's Hollow. The Warded Man contiues to fight his slide away from humanity. Old threads are tied up and new ones are introduced.

The Desert Spear is more demon-killing goodness in the vein of The Warded Man. I can't wait for the next volume. There's going to be hell to pay when The Warded Man and the Deliverer finally cross paths.

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First Chronicles of Amber

The First Chronicles of Amber (Books 1-5)The First Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nine Princes in Amber: Mr. Corey wakes up in a hospital after a car accident with no memory of who he is. After visiting his sister (and fooling her into thinking he still has his memory), he crosses dimensions with his brother Random and eventually regains his memory after walking the Pattern in the city of Rebma, the sister city of Amber. From there, he joins up with his brother Bleys and attacks Amber, intent on stopping his brother Eric from crowning himself king.

Nine Princes in Amber is really good, especially considering all of the background Zelazny manages to cram into less than 150 pages. The twists are unexpected and the machinations of the nine princes of Amber are fairly reallistic. Although I can tell it was inspired by the first book of the World of Tiers series, it's far from being a ripoff. Zelazny started with Farmer's concept of an amnesiac hero who's a member of a group of nigh-immortal lords and taken it into a different direction. I'm looking forward to Guns of Avalon.

Guns of Avalon:Corwin hatches a plan to take Amber with a force bearing automatic rifles along with Ganelon, an old enemy. Along the way he spends time with his brother Benedict and Benedict's great granddaughter Dara. However, he isn't the only one assaulting Amber...

Guns of Avalon was even better than Nine Princes in Amber. I'm really enjoying the court intrigue between Corwin and his siblings. I didn't really see the ending coming until it was too late. Zelazny really knows how to craft a tale.

Sign of the Unicorn: Another of Corwin's family is murdered, Brand is rescued, and more of what actually happened to Corwin prior to the first book is revealed.

The Amber books probably wouldn't work as well if Zelazny hadn't written them in the first person. The way they are, we learn things as Corwin does. The machinations of Corwin's family are the driving force of the story and we get to watch as Corwin peels away lair after lair.

The Hand of Oberon: I'm officially past the point where I can give a synopsis and not give away too many plot points. Suffice to say, Zelazny is quite a story teller and I'm approaching the final novel in this volume with a sense of anticipation I haven't felt since the last volume of The Dark Tower wound up in my mailbox years ago.

The Courts of Chaos: Who stabbed Corwin in the dark? Will Amber be destroyed by the forces of Chaos? Can the Pattern be repaired? Who will sit on the throne of Amber? All of these questions and more are answered in this, the final book of The First Chronicles of Amber.

Zelazny took the aspects of Farmer's World of Tiers he liked the most, namely the immortal family endlessly conspiring against one another and the amnesiac hero, and ran with it. Amber isn't so much a fantasy story as a huge multi-layered mystery. I thought I knew how it would end but I was wrong. I'm officially ranking Amber up there with Moorcock's Elric series (the first six or so) and Stephen King's Dark Tower as my favorite fantasy stories of all time.

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Who Fears the Devil?

Who Fears the Devil (Planet Stories)Who Fears the Devil by Manly Wade Wellman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Silver John travels the Appalachian mountains, encountering all manner of strangness, with only his silver-stringed guitar for a companion...

I have a confession to make: I think 95% of fantasy stories are derivative and unoriginal. This collection is neither. Who Fears the Devil is the complete collection of Silver John short stories, 30 in number, ranging for three or four paragraphs to fifteen pages. Silver John is a wandering balladeer, modelled after a young Johnny Cash, who wanders from one strange event to the next.

The first thing I noticed about the stories were how skilled Manly Wade Wellman was at rendering Southern dialogue without making the speakers seem stupid. Once I dug in, the book was hard to set aside for too long and I'm not a big fan of short stories by any means.

The best way to describe the stories would be to call them American fantasy. The stories explore different aspects of Southern and mountain folklore, much having to do with witches, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural creatures. The line between fantasy and horror is blurred in some of them while others are pretty humorous. Silver John outwits supernatural beasties, encounters a giant, a house that's acutally a living organism, and other things too odd to mention, all the while playing songs on his guitar and singing.

If you like fantasy that isn't derived from Tolkien, you could do a lot worse than spending a few evenings with Silver John.

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The Steampunk Trilogy

The Steampunk TrilogyThe Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Victoria: Naturalist Cosmo Cowperthwait succeeds in creating a human-newt hybrid he names Victoria, after the Queen who she resembles. Unable to support her, Cosmo stashes her in a brothel. Meanwhile, Queen Victoria vanishes and the Prime Minister proposes they swap one Victoria with the other. Will anyone notice before they find the Queen and return her to the throne?

This story was a hoot! Steampunk lends itself to Python-esque humor so easily I'm surprised more people don't go for the humorous approach. The characters and setting were well done, especially for an 80 page novella. The idea of a fly-eating amphibian impersonating the queen without anyone knowing is a gem.

Hottentots: Professor Agassiz and his group of scientists scramble to track down a fetiche (with happens to be a preserved vulva in a jar) that will summon Lovecraftian beasties when invoked. But can Agassiz put aside his prejudice toward blacks long enough to get the fetiche?

Hottentots was just as funny as the first story once you got past the racism of the main character. How can you not love a story with a chapter title like Moby Dagon? Lots of Easter eggs in this one, like Herman Melville and HPL being minor characters.

Walt & Emily: As romance blooms between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the two poets join an expedition to the afterlife with a group of spiritualists and scientists. Will their romance survive the trip?

Yeah, this story was the most bizarre of the collection. The afterlife they visited was unique, though it may be drawn from spiritualist sources. While I don't know much about Dickinson, Whitman's character seemed pretty authentic from what I've read of the man. The medium heading up the expedition was by far the best character in the story.

To sum up,if you like your steampunk stories to have a strange and humorous bend, this is the book for you.

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A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome OctoberA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I now have a second favorite Roger Zelazny book.

A Night in the Lonesome October is about a gateway to a dimension of Lovecraftian horrors and the two opposing forces dedicated to opening the gate or making sure it stays closed. The story is told from the point of view of Jack the Ripper's dog Snuff. Yeah, you read that right.

I was hooked right away, around the time Snuff and the graveyard dog had a funny conversation and asked to see one another's teeth. One of the characters calls The Game, as it is known, a lunatic scavenger hunt. That's pretty much what it is. Snuff spends most of the book calculating where the gateway will appear, having to recalculate every time a player turns up dead...

One of the best parts of A Night in the Lonsesome October is trying to figure out which characters are actually participants in The Game, and which side they are on.

I enjoyed seeing classic horror characters like Count Dracula, Larry Talbot, and Frankenstein's monster in the same story as Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Through in the Cthulhu mythos and you have a ripping good yarn.

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World of Tiers - Part One

The World of Tiers 1The World of Tiers 1 by Philip José Farmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The World of Tiers is a step-pyramid of mind-boggling size, each tier populated with people plucked from various points in the earth's history as well as monsters created by the super science of the Lord. As with other three in one volumes, I'll be reviewing these as I read them.

The Maker of Universes: The Maker of Universes starts out with Robert Wolff, a hen-pecked retiree, hearing the sounds of a horn being blown inside the basement closet of a house he and his wife are thinking of buying. Wolff opens the door and discovers a gateway to another world. Upon entering the gateway, Wolff finds himself on a paradysical beach, the lowest tier. Without giving too much of the plot away, Wolff ends up on a journey to the Lord's house on the highest level, along with the trickster Kickaha and Chryseis, a gorgeous woman from ancient Greece.

Farmer's writing reminds me a lot of Roger Zelazny's. His books are full of ideas but short and to the point. Why take a thousand pages to say something that can be said in one-hundred and fifty? The story is gripping. It doesn't fall into the trap most quest stories fall into, aka the boring middle of the journey syndrome. It's essentially a planetary romance. On a side note, The Maker of the Universe is one of the books that inspired Roger Zelazny to write the Amber series.

The Gates of Creation: Wolff is awakened in the middle of the night by a flying hexaclum sent by his father, Urizen, telling him he's kidnapped Chryseis and wants Wolff to try to get her back. He touches the hexaclum and is transported to a water world where his siblings have likewise been trapped. The siblings travel across multiple pocket dimensions, some dying along the way, until arriving at Urizen's citadel. Unfortunately, things aren't completely as they seem...

I thought the writing was better in Gates of Creation than in The Maker of Universes. The story was good and although I half-suspected one of the twists, it was still surprising. On the other hand, it suffered from a lack of Kickaha. I'm looking forward to the third story.

A Private Cosmos: Kickaha leaves the Bear People and heads for Talanac and stumbles upon an otherworldly invasion by the body-stealing Black Bellers in the process. In the process of combatting the invasion, he jumps to all leveles of the Tiers and even to the moon, developing a relationship with a Lord, Anana, Wolff's sister.

A Private Cosmos was probably the fastest-paced book in this volume. Kickaha goes from the frying pan into the fire many times but his escapes are fairly believable. The relationship between Kickaha and Anana didn't seem forced. I loved that Wolff turned the moon into a copy of Barsoom for Kickaha's amusement.

The first World of Tiers is a great addition to the collection of any reader of science fantasy. It's like Edgar Rice Burroughs but with better science and better writing. It should also appeal to fans of Roger Zelazny's Amber series, of which it is an ancestor of sorts.

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Implied Spaces

Implied SpacesImplied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Notes from halfway: When it comes to genre fiction, I'm a big fan of books that use what I'm now calling the Reese's Effect to tell an interesting story. That is, I like when genres collide as chocolate and peanut butter do in Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Implied Spaces is a prime example of the Reese's Effect (see, it's catching on). At the end of the first half, I'd say it's a sword and planet/cyberpunk/singularity/detective/zombie story.

At first glance, the story is a mix of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers. Aristide is one of the oldest humans alive and spends his time roaming the pocket universes humanity has created and colonized, along with his sidekick, a talking cat named Bitsy, investigating disappearances that may or may not be linked to one of the eleven gigantic AI computers humanity has created to govern it going rogue.

Sounds good, right? So why am I not in love with this book? Too many intermingling flavors? Perhaps. The fact that the main character is a near demigod ala John Carter of Mars? Possibly. I like the setting, what with the wormholes and pocket universes and such. I'm a little iffy on one aspect of it. Humans can easily change bodies and have their brains backed up every once in a while so they can be restored in the event of an accident. Where's the fun in that? It's hard to get attached to characters if you know they won't die. Not permanently, anyway.

I'm enjoying the easter eggs so far. I've caught multiple references to Batman and Aasimov, as well as nods to World of Warcraft, and Gene Wolf's New Sun, and Vernor Vinge.

As of the halfway mark, I'm giving it a three. I'll update the review once I'm finished.

At the finish line: The book ends as expected, with the ten good AI's fighting against the rogue one in a battle of unbelievable proportions. I guessed the identity of Vindex about twenty pages before it was revealed and knew the truth about the universe shortly before it was revealed, though most readers of World of Tiers will guess that as well. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The verdict? Still a 3. If the story had stayed at the pocket universe level, I probably would have given it a four but it felt like the book was trying to cram as many styles of story into one slim 264 page volume. It was good and I enjoyed the inital Reese's Effect, but eventually it all became a stew where everything wound up diluted and tasting like carrots.

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Paragaea: A Planetary RomanceParagaea: A Planetary Romance by Chris Roberson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science Fantasy at its finest. Chris Roberson crafts a Planetary Romance clearly influenced by Burroughs, Moorcock, and others.

Leena Chirikov, a Russian cosmonaut from the 1960's, is the heroine of the tale. Her ship is pulled through a vortex shortly after takeoff and she ends up in Paragaea, a very Earth-like world. Leena's a resourceful lady and manages to escape drowning with her survival pack intact, complete with pistol and medical supplies.

Shortly afterwards, she runs afoul of the first band of humanoids (meta-men) she'll encounter, a party of jaguar men. After some tense moments, she's rescued by a heroic duo reminiscent of the much revered Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Balam's an exiled jaguar man and clearly the Fafhrd of the group while Hieronymus Bonaventure, an earthman from the 19th century fills the Mouser role nicely. After helping Leena, the duo offers to help her find her way back to earth. Along the way, the meet up with a warrior woman, a centuries old robot, Balan's estranged daughter, a lost race with great technological power, and meta-men of every shape and size.

This book could easily fall into rip off territory but Roberson manages to keep it fresh. Although he uses all the staples of planetary romance, he gives them all his own twist. He has a heroine instead of a hero and she's not a superhuman, the technology and even the meta-men are explained, and he works Easter eggs into the story for people as into the genre as he is to find.

If you're looking for pulp cheese with a new flavor, Paragaea is the way to go.

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The Changing Land

The Changing Land (Dilvish the Damned, #2)The Changing Land by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A society of wizards monitors Castle Timeless, the stronghold of the missing wizard Jelerak, and home to a mad Elder God named Tualua. Wizards from within and without plot to take the castle and the powers of the imprisoned god for their own, until Dilvish arrives with vengeance on his mind...

The Changing Land is a good quick read. Bascially, it's Roger Zelazny telling a pulp swords and sorcery sort of tale with some Lovecraftian elements thrown in. Dilvish and his steel horse Black are an interesting, if underdeveloped, pair. I found Jelerak and the relationship between Semirama and Tualua to be the most interesting parts of the book, although the imprisoned wizards definitely had their moments.

The ever-changing landscape outside Castle Timeless reminded me both of the Amber series and Michael Moorcock's depiction of Limbo in his Eternal Champion saga. The plot, while not overly original, has enough twists to keep it interesting, as well as an ending that I didn't see coming.

The Changing Land is well worth a read but I wouldn't rank it among Zelazny's best works. 3.5 out of 5.

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Turn Coat (The Dresden Files, #11)Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was planning on quitting this series if this one didn't measure up. Looks like I'm sticking around.

Morgan shows up at Harry's house with the Wardens on his trail, framed for murder. Harry goes about trying to clear Morgan's name, all the while dealing with a summoner named Binder and a demon called the Skinwalker. Meanwhile, the Wardens are coming to Chicago and it looks like the White Court of the vampires is linked to the mysterious Black Circle of wizards Harry is sure exists.

Why am I sticking around? Lots of things happen in this one. People die. Harry accumulates more scars. Harry's relationships with the other wizards and Thomas change. New characters are introduced. The plot advances.

I can't imagine how anyone who has stuck out the series so far would find anything wrong with this one. It wraps up some old plot threads and introduces others.

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Template - A Novel of the ArchonateTemplate - A Novel of the Archonate by Matthew Hughes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Indentured professional duelist Conn Labro finds his sole friend murdered and his debt cancelled. Among his friend's affects was the deed to an entire world, willed to Labro. Can Labro figure out why his friend was murdered and where he belongs in the universe?

Template was a pretty good tale. While on the surface it's a detective story/space opera, it's really a series of culture clashes. Conn's homeworld of Thraiss is centered around greed. Conn's interactions with his eventual love interest, Jenore, are hilarious. The villains are a gang of vile intergalactic perverts and you can't wait for Conn to settle their hash. The book is actually fairly light on action. There are only three really action-packed scenes. The rest is Conn doing his detective work and running into culture clashes.

For a book about a professional duelist, the story could have easily degenerated into a mindless actionfest but Hughes never sinks to that level. It's a very deep story for what it is.

I was leaning toward a five but I had to go with a four. The reason: the title gives away a plot point. If it had had a different title, I wouldn't have tipped to the ending so early on.

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Space Captain Smith

Space Captain Smith (Chronicles of Isambard Smith #1)Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Isambard Smith, former captain and current file clerk, gets tapped to take captaincy of the John Pym and transport Rhianna Mitchell from New Franscisco to the British Empire. Helping him are Carveth, a renegade sex droid, Suruk the Morlock, and a hamster named Gerald. Unfortuantely, both the Ghast Empire and the Republic of New Eden also have their eyes on Rhianna as well...

Sometimes, I run into a book that feels like it was written specifically for me. Space Captain Smith is a comedic space opera, like Christopher Moore sat down with the surviving members of Monty Python and attempted to write an episode of Battlestar Galactica. The humor is dry and sarcastic with nods to Bladerunner, Predator, Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Matrix, among other things. Smith and crew are hilarious but the story never falls into a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy level of absurdity. Although, there is a redneck planet and a hippie planet...

I'd recommend this to all fans of Christopher Moore, Red Dwarf, and fans of British Humor in general.

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Wizards and the Warriors

Wizards and the Warriors (Chronicles of An Age of Darkness 1)Wizards and the Warriors by Hugh Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miphon, Garash, and Phyphor, members of the Confederation of Wizards, join forces with Elkor Alish and Morgan Hearst, Rovac warriors and sworn enemies of the Confederation, to slay the wizard Heenmor and retrieve the death-stone he stole from the Dry Pit. Only nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Feelings of greed and jealousy taint the party. If they retrieve the death-stone, can any of them resist the temptation to use it?

The Wizards & The Warriors is the first of The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness and sets the stage for the rest of the saga. All of the characters seem like fantasy stereotypes at first but quickly develop well-rounded personalities. The death-stone is suitably horrible and the hidden resentment for Hearst Alish feels, as well as Garash's power-lust, simmer until the perfectly horrible moment for them to arise. By the end of the book, not one of the main characters is the same as when he started.

The supporting cast is also well done. Blackwood and Prince Comedo in particular. Ohio, who also appears in The Walrus and the Warwolf, is introduced... and later killed. Scenes from The Walrus and the Warwolf, as well as The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, were told from different angles. The writing is superb, a combination of dry wit and artistry.

I recommend The Wizards and the Warriors to all fantasy fans, particularly the ones that prefer shades of gray to the usual black and white worlds of fantasy. Where else can you read the line "Well... a leech has crawled up the eye of my penis."

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Tales of the Dying Earth

Tales of the Dying EarthTales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Earth is on its last leg. The sun is a red giant, the moon has vanished, and magic has returned.

This omnibus includes the following four books:

The Dying Earth: The Dying Earth is a collection of linked short stories. And here they are:

Turjan of Miir: Turjan, a wizard, seeks the help of Pandelume, another wizard, in creating artificial life. Turjuan is a good intro to the Dying Earth. The basics of the setting are covered and it sets the tone for the rest of the short stories. The story itself is pretty simple. Turjan has to do a favor for Pandelume in exchange for his secrets.

Mazirian the Magician: Mazirian covets Turjan's secret of artifical life, and also T'sain, the woman Turjan has created. MtM was like an extended chase scene showcasing some of the weirder denizens of the Dying Earth. I liked it but so far all the wizard characters have been nearly interchangeable.

T'sais: T'sais, the woman created by Pendelume, comes to earth to find beauty. What she finds is trouble, as well as a disfigured man named Etarr and the sorceress that cursed him. More of the Dying Earth is revealed and the ending is definitely worth the read.

Liane the Wayfarer: In order to win the hand of a witch named Lith, Liane seeks to recover half of a stolen tapestry. But is he a match for Chun the Unavoidable? Liane is almost like a prototype for Cugel, the protagonist of later Dying Earth stories, amoral and greedy. Chun's robe of eyeballs is a chilling image.

Ulan Dhor: Ulan Dhor, nephew of Prince Kandive, goes to the ancient city of Ampridatvir to retrieve the magic of Rogol Domendonfors in the form of two tablets. Instead, he finds a bizarre city where everyone wears green or grey and can't see people wearing the opposing color. Can Ulan find the two tablets and take them back to Kandive? This story was easily my favorite so far. Even though it was only twenty pages, a lot of ideas were crammed into it. It's becoming easier to see how Vance influenced so many that came after him.

Guyal of Sfere: Guyal's father gets tired of his inquisitive nature and sends him looking for the Museum of Man, where the Curator can answer all of his questions. Only Guyall finds trouble along the way... Guyal's tale takes him into the odd culture of the Saponids and against ghosts and demons. The message of this tale seemed to be "Don't forget the past but don't worship it either."

Eyes of the Overworld: Caught in the act of robbing the wizard Iucounu, Cugel the Clever is flung to the other side of the world, tasked with retrieving the missing Eye of the Overworld. Can he retrieve the Eye and get revenge on Iucounu?

Here's where the Dying Earth kicks it up a notch. Cugel is a scoundrel and a liar; a classic anti-hero. He lies and bluffs his way from situation to situation. He brings to mind Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, as well as Hugh Cook's Drake Douay.

There is a lot of dry humor in this story as Cugel gets flung across the world, imprisoned, sent back in time, and imprisoned again, never forgetting about getting revenge on the one who "wronged" him. Vance's P. G. Wodehouse influence is visible in the dialogue and in the situations.

Cugel's Saga: Cugel's woes continued as he is flung across the world a second time by Iucounu. This time, Cugel gets himself indentured as a worker retrieving scales in a pit of muck and, later, as a worminger aboard a ship. Will he ever get back home and finally give Iucounu a taste of what's coming to him?

Cugel's Saga was even better than the Eyes of the Overworld. Once again, Cugel lied and cheated his way back to Almery to get his revenge on Iucounu. Vance's Wodehouse influenece was even more visible in this tale. Cugel is a like a sociopathic version of Uncle Galahad or Uncle Fred.

Rhialto the Marvellous: Rhialto the Marvellous is a collection of three novellas starring Rhialto the Marvellous.

The Murthe: The Murthe, a witch-goddess from the distant past, arrives in the present to take over the world and turn the men into women. A creature from the past has persued her and must rally the wizards against her.

Even for a fantasy story, this one is pretty sexist. Still, it's hilarious, especially when the wizards fall victim to the squalm.

Fader's Waft: Another wizard launches a smear campaign against Rhialto and he has to traverse time and space to redeem himself.

Hilarious. I have to think Terry Pratchett's wizards are influence by Rhialto and company.

Morreion: Rhialto and company attempt to solve the mystery of Morreion, a wizard who disappeared aeons ago, along with the origin of the IOUN stones.

As in the previous story, the bickering and pettiness amoung the wizards is hilarious, much in the vein of P. G. Wodehouse. The ending was poignant and was a perfect example of Vance's penchant for anti-heroes.

Closing Thoughts: What a difference 15 years makes! I was 18 the first time I visited the Dying Earth and didn't care for it all that much. With age comes wisdom and I loved the Dying Earth on my second visit. While it's influential to fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, it isn't the breezy read a lot of people expect. It reads like a mix of Fritz Leiber and P.G. Wodehouse. Vance's anti-heroes are the inspiration for countless that came later. Cugel the Clever has risen to become one of my favorite fantasy characters. I came for the SF but stayed for the subtle humor and uniqueness. If you've lost your taste for heroes and crave fantasy, a visit to The Dying Earth will do you no ill!

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The Dark World

The Dark WorldThe Dark World by Henry Kuttner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After an illness following a plane crash in Sumatra, Edward Bond is whisked away to The Dark World, a twin of Earth where mutants rule. Bond encounters a mysterious hooded woman, a werewolf named Matholch, and a red witch named Medea, all of whom think he is the missing Ganelon. Will Bond free The Dark World of it's tyranny or rule the Dark World himself?

I've been interested in The Dark World since I found out it was one of Roger Zelazny's inspiration for Amber. Edward Bond/Ganelon's plight seems similar to Corwin's at first. Bond has fragments of memories that aren't his own and bluffs his way through situations as long as he can.

Ganelon was an interesting protagonist, an anti-hero motivated by his own ends rather than heroism. The Coven were an intersting lot; a gorgon, a vampire, and a werewolf. Ghast Rhymi was strongly implied to be Merlin trapped in the Dark World. Llyr felt like Cthulhu more than anything else. Since Kuttner was involved with the Cthulhu mythos crowd, it's not hard to imagine that that was intentional.

The Dark World wasn't developed as much as I would have liked. The revelation about Bond and Ganelon, as well as their final fates, were well done. The ending was unexpected.

The Dark World is a quick read and should entertain any fan of pulp fantasy and Roger Zelazny fans.

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Majestrum: A Tale Of Henghis Hapthorn (Book 1)Majestrum: A Tale Of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes

Henghis Hapthorn, freelance discriminator, is hired to investigate the suitor to Lord Alfre's daughter. His case takes him to several planets and leads him on an assignment from the Archon himself. But how will his second personality cope with things? And what does the word Majestrum have to do with the case?

Majestrum is set in the Penultimate Age of Old Earth, an age immediately preceding The Dying Earth of Jack Vance, an age where magic is making a comeback. Henghis Hapthorn is a lot like Sherlock Holmes if Sherlock Holmes had a second personality that was rooted in magic, or sympathetic association, if you prefer, instead of science.

Majestrum is a good read. The intertwining mysteries were well done and actually solvable by the reader, a rarity in the sf-mystery genre. Henghis Hapthorn's interplay with his Integrator and his second personality are the driving force of the novel and make for some laughs and also raise philosophical questions. Majestrum, the villain of the piece, was fairly chilling, even though he had a touch of the stereotype fantasy big villain feel to him. Hughes's writing is clearly influenced by Jack Vance and P.G. Wodehouse and thus quite enjoyable to read.

So why only a 4? I felt like I was stepping into the middle of the story. While this is the first Henghis Hapthorn novel, it continues on the thread of one of the six short stories that preceded it. I felt a bit lost at first but quickly caught on.

I recommend this book to fans of genre-busting mysteries, P.G. Wodehouse, and Jack Vance. It was quite entertaining.

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The Gunslinger

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1)The Gunslinger by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The man in black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.

Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers, is on a quest for the Dark Tower, a mysterious edifice that is the axle of worlds and holds all existence together. In this, the first volume, Roland pursues his nemesis across the Mohaine Desert. He follows the man in black's trail to a little town called Tull, then through more desert, encountering a boy named Jake from our world, and then into the mountains. Will Roland finally catch his arch-nemesis after years of pursuing him? And what means will he go to to achieve his goal?

When I first picked up this book, I had no idea it would shoot to the top of my favorites list. I wolfed down the first four books in three weeks, then entered an agonizing period of waiting the last three to be published. I think I've read the first four books five or six times each. The whole Dark Tower series, while on the surface a fantasy-western, is really the story of one man's obsession. In this volume, we get a hint of what Roland will do to get to the Dark Tower.

The writing is great and it warmed me up to Stephen King. Roland's world is unique. Part fantasy, part western, part post-apocalypse. While it's the first book in a series, it's quite satisfying to read on its own.

If your looking with fantasy with a different flavor, look no further.

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SiddharthaSiddhartha by Hermann Hesse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Siddhartha rejects his life as a Brahman's son and goes out into the world in a quest for enlightenment, to live as an ascetic. After meeting Buddha, Siddhartha rejects the ascetic life for a more material one, the life of a merchant, learning the ways of love from a courtesan, and in time leaves that life behind as well. Will Siddhartha ever find what he is looking for?

Normally, a Nobel prize winning book wouldn't get a second look from me. I'm more into people getting pistol whipped and big monsters. I kept seeing this book on my girlfriend's bookshelf and finally decided to give it a shot. I'm glad I did.

Siddhartha is the story of one man's quest for meaning and it's a good one. Since it's a classic AND translated from German, I wasn't expecting an easy read. It was a breeze compared to what I was picturing. The first couple of paragraphs were a little rocky but I started digging it right away.

The story mirrors the life of Buddha but isn't a retelling. This Siddhartha has his own road to travel. He goes from having nothing to having everything, including a woman was eager to teach him to be the best lover she'd ever seen, back to having nothing and living as a ferryman, learning life lessons every step of the way.

While it's a novel, it's also pretty inspirational. There are nuggets of wisdom to be mined from it. My favorite is that wisdom can't be taught but it can be learned.

I highly recommend this book to those interested in Eastern Philosophy and Buddhism and those needing a little more than gun play and werewolf attacks.

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FinchFinch by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Detective John Finch gets assigned to an impossible murder case, one of the victims being a man thought dead for a hundred years. Finch's case takes him all over Ambergris and up against a crime lord, his Gray Cap superiors, The Partials, and makes him question everything he believes. Can Finch solve the case before he becomes another victim?

After City of Saints and Madmen, I was leaning toward passing on the rest of VanderMeer's work and dismissing him as a pretentious bastard. Shriek, the second book, changed my mind and brought me around. This one, damn! is about all I can say.

Finch is a new weird detective story set in Ambergris, VanderMeer's city of choice. After the events of Shriek, the fungal alien Gray Caps have risen up and taken over the city. Partials, humans entered into unholy pacts with the Gray Caps, serve as a spy ring, keeping the populace under control. Finch is a cop working under the Gray Caps. Paranoia and distrust permeates every page. Finch reminds me a lot of Dekkard from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, cynical, bitter, and just doing his job.

While Finch is a good character, I think it's the supporting characters that carry the story. Wyte, Finch's fungus-infected partner, The Partial that keeps messing with him, Heretic, Finch's Gray Cap boss, Sintra, Rathven, the list just keeps going.

I'm trying not to give too much away but it's hard. There are so many things I want to mention, like the living fungal guns and the memory bulbs, mushrooms that grow on corpses that give the person who eats them a glimpse at the memories of the person they grow on. Finch's case is bizarre and manages to answer many of the questions posed by the previous two volumes. The paranoid feel reminds me of Blade Runner at times and the plot-oriented episodes of the X-Files in others. VanderMeer uses a noir style reminding me of Richard Stark at some points and James Ellroy in others. It's one hell of a ride.

VanderMeer hit the ball out of the park with this one. All of the plot threads and hints about the Gray Caps in the first two Ambergris books come to a head in this one, the best Ambergris book yet. If I read a better book than this one in 2010, I'll be surprised.

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Changes (The Dresden Files, #12)Changes by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the space of a phone call, Harry Dresden learns he has a daughter with Susan Rodriguez and that she's been kidnapped by the Red Court of vampires. The vampires are setting up a bloodline curse that will kill the child and everyone related to her. Meanwhile, the White Council of wizards seems to be buddying up with the Red Court to put an end to the war between the wizards and the vampires. Can Harry save his daughter and stop the bloodline curse?

I have mixed feelings about this one.

Pros: As usual, Jim Butcher delivers all the thrills of a summer blockbuster. Big explosions, action, a touch of comedy. The showdown with the Red Court would look great on the screen. Old favorites like Sanya and Susan Rodriguez make return appearances. Forgotten plot elements like the holy swords are finally used. There's even some closure to one of the long-running plot lines and new plot lines are set up.

Cons: While I liked Changes and found it entertaining, I wouldn't say I thought it was great. The same things that bothers me about summer blockbusters bother me about this book. Everyone has stupid smart ass quips for every situation. When in the middle of a city of thousands of vampires, shouldn't at least one person maybe BE SCARED OF THE VAMPIRES rather than making inane "witty" remarks?

Most of the story was fairly formulaic for the series, almost as if Butcher took the outline for one of the earlier books, changed some names and places, and started writing this one. Even though I'm glad the vampire plot line went the way it did, how much more of a Mary Sue can Harry Dresden be?

Another thing that bothered me is that the ongoing plot about strife within the White Council didn't advance one inch. I think Butcher is going to milk his cash cow for all it's worth, considering he's already got the titles listed for books that come out in seven years on his Wikipedia page!

The ending was a cliff hanger after a cruel tease.

Conclusion: While I enjoyed Changes as much as I enjoy most Harry Dresden books, they are like the Cadbury Creme Eggs. While I like them when they're in stores around Easter, I'm glad when they're gone and I get a year to let the memories fade so I can enjoy them again the following year. See you in 365 days, Jim Butcher!

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Sanctified and Chicken-Fried

Sanctified and Chicken-Fried: The Portable LansdaleSanctified and Chicken-Fried: The Portable Lansdale by Joe R. Lansdale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sanctified and Chicken-Fried is a collection of Joe R. Lansdale short stories. The cover says The Portable Lansdale. I guess that's true since this is a best-of collection.

The stories are a combination of old favorites, like Bubba Hotep and Mr. Weedeater, new stories like the Dust Devils, and excerpts from two of Lansdale's novels, the Magic Wagon and A Fine Dark Line. The short stories are great. Rather than review them all, I'll tell you about Mr. Weedeater.

Mr. Weedeater has been my favorite Lansdale short story for about a decade now. Job Harold, redneck and all round loser, sees a blind man trimming the yard of the church next door with a weedeater. He tries to help the blind man but the blind man is on the obnoxious side. Eventually, Job's conscience gets the better of him and he helps the blind man, then lets him relax in his living room. Job's family likes the blind man entirely too much for Job's liking. However, when Job drives the blind man home, his house has burned down and his wife suggests the blind man stay with them. Hilarity ensues.

While I enjoyed the hell out of this collection, I couldn't give it five stars for two reasons. First, only one of the stories was brand spankin' new. Second, I would have much rather had two more stories instead of the novel excerpts. If the collection had included Bestsellers, Guaranteed and the one about the people fighting over the locket containing the Virgin mary's Pubic hair, I would have given it five stars automatically.

If you don't have any Lansdale short story collections, this one is the perfect place to start. Otherwise, read the contents before you buy, although the stories within are good no matter how many times you've read them.

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Genghis: Birth of an Empire

Genghis: Birth of an Empire (Conqueror, #1)Genghis: Birth of an Empire by Conn Iggulden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Temujin, the son of Yesugei, khan of the Wolves, goes to a neighboring tribe to find a wife. While he's away, his father is murdered by a gang of Tartars. Worse still, his father's friend usurps the role of khan and leaves Temujin and his family to die on the steppe. Can Temujin and his family survive long enough to get revenge on the Tartars and regain control of the Wolves?

The story of Temujin and his rise to uniting the tribes against the Tartars is a powerful one. Temujin goes through a lot of hell from the age of twelve onward, from being abandoned on the steppe during winter, to being imprisoned in a pit and being urinated on, to having his wife kidnapped and raped by Tartars. Once he started uniting the tribes, even I felt like riding with the young khan. While he's not always likeable, he's definitely a charismatic character.

The action scenes were by far the highlight of the book. People get peppered with arrows or hacked to death by swords on a fairly regular basis. While Iggulden plays fast and loose with history, it's still a great story. And since I'm already aware I'm reading fiction, I don't really care about historical accuracy. Iggulden's writing makes for an engaging read. You will not easily be able to put this down.

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