Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Heroes Adrift by Moira J. Moore

Dunleavy, or Lee, Mallorough is a Shield, and her partner, Shintaro Karish, is a Source. Which means that Shintaro can draw on the magic of the land to prevent catastrophes like earthquakes, and Lee protects him as he does so. But when Taro is recalled to the capitol by the Empress, presumably for his great physical beauty, she must go along because Taro has convinced the Queen that they both suffer unless they are physically near each other... not the truth, but he used it to get out from under the Empress's lecherous gaze.

But she hasn't called them back so that she can try to seduce Taro. Instead, she sends them on a mission to the Southern Islands, to find the offspring and descendants of a sister she only recently found out she had. The only way to tell the people's relation to the Empress will be by a tattoo of a special flower that only the royal family have on their bodies. The last known location of her sister was in a town called Flatwell, and the Empress supplies them with maps.

They have no choice to agree, but their trip is fraught with troubles. For one thing, the Southern Islands are hot, and all their clothes are too heavy to be bearable. The second thing is that, in the north, Sources and Shields don't have to pay for anything, by decree of the Empress. The South, though part of the Empire, doesn't recognize that rule, and so they are quickly rendered penniless. Thankfully, Lee's Benchdancing skills come to the rescue. Though she is good, but not especially great at Bench Dancing, her exotic appearance in the copper-skinned, dark- haired South, allows them to make lots and lots of money travelling wih a troupe of entertainers who wander the islands not unlike Gypsies.

But the entertainers have their own probems, believing they are under a curse placed on the troupe by the brother of the current leader. But when he nearly kills Lee, Lee and Taro are able to capture him. But can they sever the idea of a curse from the superstitious islanders? And even if they can, can they possibly find the descendants from a baby taken to the islands over 50 years ago?

This was an engaging story, though the cover was more than a bit deceptive, as Lee never wears an outfit like that during the whole of the story, even if they do spend, oh, about 5 to 8 pages on a ship... in a 340 page novel. Other than that, I did enjoy it. The story is focussed less on the search for any possible descendants of the Empress and more on the "fish out of water" experiences of the two protagonists. Lee's voice is a sarcastic and snarky one, but she's less snarky when they are in the south. Shintaro, normally sought after and admired for his good looks in the north, finds himself extremely disconcerted to learn that he is considered plain and even a bit oily and smarmy in the south. Whereas Lee, who thinks she is plain and mousy (despite having red hair) is considered beautiful and exotic in the islands because of her coloring.

Other changes happen in their relationship with each other, as they become lovers during the trip. Lee has long carried a torch for Taro, but knows he isn't someone who can stay in a committed relationship. However, even by the end of the novel, he hasn't shown signs of moving on or even of wanting to move on. Yet... the outcome of their relationship isn't discussed, or the problems Lee feels are not addressed by the end of the book. While this isn't the first book in the series and obviously won't be the last, having this not dealt with or addressed made the book feel curiously unfinished, even if the story came to an end.

While it's nice to have a storyline carry over into the next book, the way it was done just... didn't feel right. It's not dealt with in the "Tomorrow is another day, and I'll deal with it then" fashion, or even "I don't even really want to think about it happening, so I won't deal with it", it's done in a "I know he's going to leave me soon, so I have to prepare my heart for when he does." Despite Lee and Taro being Source and Shield partners, they apparently are not particularly close or that they think they can get by without talking these things out.

It was an otherwise enjoyable book, but the strangely unfinished ending makes me hesitate to recommend it to others, especially since this is not Moira Moore's first book. It was clumsy, and the editor should have caught it and made it less so, or eliminated the clumsiness, as it rather turned me off to reading more of her work. I might seek out other books in the series, but then again, I might not.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Ghost Girl by Tonya Hurley

Charlotte Usher has always been the invisible one at school. Never pretty enough, popular enough, athletic enough or rich enough to stand out. But when she comes back to school for her junior year, she vows that this year will be *her* year. The year she finally makes the school cheerleading squad, the year she finally joins the clique of popular girls, the year she finally makes Damen Dylan, the school quarterback and Head Cheerleader Petula Kensington's boyfriend take notice of her. Maybe even ask her out.

Or not. When her efforts to dress like the most popular girls in school are pooh-poohed by Petula and her sycophantic followers, the Wendys, and someone erases her name for the cheerleading tryouts and puts in their own, Charlotte is unbowed. After all, her first class is with Damen, and she might actually get a chance to talk to him!

Her chance comes when the teacher reveals that Damen isn't doing well in school, and if he fails physics, he will be kicked off the team. Charlotte offers to tutor him, and he agrees, noticing her for the first time. Heart floating somewhere in the clouds, Charlotte tries to talk to Damen after class, but chokes on a gummy bear and dies in the hallway.

But death is not the end for Charlotte, and she neither goes winging off to the clouds nor falls into a fiery pit of torment. Instead, she is enrolled in Ghost School, where she must learn to use her powers to help her fellow ghosts rather than terrify or help humans, and meets the ghosts of the children and a teacher that go to school there. Pam, known as Picolo Pam for how she died... tripping on a step and ramming her own piccolo down her throat, shows Charlotte around and introduces her to the others, like Metal Mike, who died for the sake of his beloved Metal Music, and her teacher, Mr. Brain, who was partially decapitated so that his Brain shows through.

But even here, there are winners and losers, and the girl in charge is Prue. She seems to take an instant dislike to Charlotte, and goes out of her way to make life hard for her. But when Charlotte realizes no one can see her in her ghostly state, she decides to make the most of it and become a dead "Stalker", following Damen around everywhere... and I do mean *everywhere*.

But a chance encounter with Petula's Goth Girl sister, Scarlet, reveals that not only can Scarlet see her, but with her willing assistance, Charlotte can exchange bodies with Scarlet and use Scarlet's body to romance Damen. However, Petula isn't going to take this lying down, and when Damen starts falling for Charlotte in Scarlet's body, Scarlet starts falling for him back... because Charlotte can't be in her all the time.

Soon, though, the ghosts find themselves in a crisis. The dorm that they inhabit is going to be torn down if they can't come up with a way to save it. And, though no one talks about it, Charlotte is the one, the special ghost who could redeem them all... if she isn't too busy chasing Damen to care. And when Charlotte gets it into her head that her Romance with Damen is what will save the other ghosts and allow them all to graduate from Ghost School, is she right? Or will her attempts to mess with the human world damn them all?

This book is intended as a YA book, but comes across as very un-teen, with sly asides on how ridiculous the whole teen obsession over fashion, dates, athletes and cheerleading is, and how shallow the popular but mean girls are. Add to that a subtle dig at teens themselves (none of the ghosts miss their families or have even thought about them because they are all too self-absorbed, or so their Ghost teacher tells them), and you get a book that feels more like an adult pointing out the foibles of teens to other adults rather than a usual YA-type novel. While it's not always apparent that this is the case, it is a strong thread running through the novel.

The protagonist is a sympathetic character... who can't relate to feeling left out by the other kids in High School? And who can't relate to feeling invisible to most of their classmates? (Well, I had a slightly different experience in that most knew me, but only as the butt of their jokes and teasing. Not a great position to be in, either.) But no matter what she does, Charlotte can't seem to cut a break. Even after she dies, she seems to remain on the bottom of the totem pole with her new class of fellow ghosts. She can't seem to absorb that the only way to move on is to stop thinking about only yourself and your own concerns and to think of what other people want or need.

Charlotte does get it eventually, but getting there is a long process, and she becomes both the savior and bane of her classmates, both dead and alive. The ending of the book is rather puzzling, though. Is graduation movement to some higher plane, as the second-to-last chapter seems to imply? Or do "graduated" ghosts remain ghosts, only becoming helpful ones? Or is Charlotte some kind of, again, special case? We aren't given enough information to tell, and left me feeling rather curious at this question that was implied but never answered.

And Charlotte isn't the only character to grow over the course of the book. Most of the human characters do as well, and some of the ghost characters. But even this is inconsistent. We are told, over and over again, that "graduating" for ghost teens means being able to give up what mattered to you, and the baggage that caused your death, or that you carried around because of their deaths. But if that is so, how can Charlotte save anyone besides herself? How will her passing save the others? That point isn't well explained, because for most of the book, the secret is kept even from Charlotte herself.

While I enjoyed the book a great deal, it is not without story flaws and inconsistencies. Since this is a stand-alone book, it's also unlikely that these will ever be explained. But for a (what seems to be) first novel, it isn't bad at all. Some teens might be annoyed with the author for how she paints teens, as neurotic and self-absorbed, but more will agree with the truths she reveals and enjoy the story of a loser girl who eventually makes good. Adults will also enjoy the story, but probably see more of the flaws in it while it makes them remember their own teenage years.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Iron Hunt by Marjorie M. Liu

Maxine Kiss is a modern-day Demon Hunter. Unlike others who may aspire to the job, Maxine has something special, something that can only be passed down from mother to daughter. For with her job comes five demons bonded only to her, who must live on her skin as tattoos by day, and who pull themselves free at night to help Maxine fight the demons who inhabit the bodies and souls of other humans.

Her mother traveled around the country, but Maxine has settled in a city, with her lover, the ex-priest Grant Cooperson, who tangled with a demon named Blood Mama and was rescued from her realm by Maxine. This left him with a few powers of his own, including the power his voice has over demons. And if he plays a flute, he can see the auras of other people and read them. His powers are considerable, and he has several demons who live at the homeless shelter he runs, convinced by him that they no longer need to hurt and kill others to survive.

Maxine lives at the shelter with him, but when she hears of the death of a private eye not far from the shelter who died with her name on a slip of paper in his jacket pocket, she is motivated to go looking for answers. But finding who sent the private eye looking for her is next to impossible, as Blood Mama has her own reasons vested in keeping the secret, and Zee, the only one of her demonic tattoo "boys" able to communicate in speech, has his own promises to keep, and these promises revolve around keeping the secrets Maxine's own mother and grandmother swore him to keep.

Worse for her, the Prison, that secret place of air built to imprison the demons long ago by the people called "The Builders", is failing, and Blood Mama and her zombies are the least inimical of the demons imprisoned within. Maxine may be fated to be the last of her kind, fated to die as the demons are released. And when they are released, the entire world will die. All life will feed the demon's hunger, and the world will go cold and dead.

But Maxine might also save the world, and a dancing demon named Oturu and his boss, Hunter think that Maxine is the one fated to do it. This is only strengthened when Maxine falls into a place called "The Wasteland" and manages to find her own way free, returning with a sword that even the builders fear. For the builders are on earth, ensconced in human bodies, but unlike demons, if their bodies are killed, they are simply reborn in a new one somewhere. Also unlike demons, who move on to adult hosts, the builders take over their hosts in the womb, melding with the personality of the human they occupy.

Now, with the sword, her mother's knives, her "boys" and a labyrinth of memories left to her by her mother, Maxine must save the world for humans or die trying, for if she can't do it, there is no one else who can.

This story reads like the second in a series, mainly because it began from a short story in an anthology. One I have not read. It's unfair to readers who haven't already read the original short story because it leaves you going, "Huh?" a lot of the time. Especially with the background of Maxine's lover, Grant, who doesn't make enough appearances in the story to justify her feelings for him. I mean, sure, he seems like a nice enough guy, but...

I found that a bit annoying. It's also annoying that everyone but Maxine in the story seems to know more about what is going on than she does. Okay, hyperbole... everyone other than the pure (more or less) humans. It's so bad that even Maxine gets pissed off about it, and as a reader, I was, too. It doesn't help that flashbacks are liberally interspersed through the first part of the story. That, somehow, just makes the confusion over what is really happening worse.

Things do start to clear up by about the middle of the story, so it's not completely dismal, but it is almost guaranteed to make the story amazingly hard to get into. It's as if the first half of the book is a veritable slog to get through, and after that, it gets only slightly better. This isn't the best Marjorie M. Liu book out there, and it isn't fair to make you buy the anthology the first story is in to be able to understand what the hell is going on. For those who stumbled on this book, a recap would have been nice so that you don't feel like you've been dumped in over your head right away.

I won't be recommending this to anyone. It's too hard to read and understand without reading the first short story in the Anthology book (or so I am given to understand, since I haven't even *seen* the anthology book yet). And to add insult to injury, the name of the Anthology isn't even given on a "previous works by..." or "other books by..." page in the beginning! As it is, most readers won't realize that they even can go out and read a previous story in this series! Good idea, extremely flawed execution. Hey. publishers! If you aren't going to make the writer give us a recap of the story in the anthology, at least let us know it exists!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Touch of Darkness by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp

Kate Reilly once had a normal job as a bonded courier and looked after her brother Bryan, who had tangled with the drug Eden and ended up as little better than a vegetable.

All that changed when a man named Tom moved into the apartment house she owned. Tom was tall, gorgeous, a fireman... and also a werewolf. Kate wasn't exactly a standard human herself, having psychic powers, which made her a target for a vampiric entity called the Brood. The Brood feed off humans, possess a hive-like mind, and view someone like Kate O'Reilly as a candidate to become a hive queen. Kate was infected with the hive, but cut out the seeds of her infection and fought off the hive, earning the appellation "not-Prey". Theoretically, this should have made her free from hive attacks, but her ex-boyfriend, Dylan, had met another woman, a thrall of the hive, and made him a thrall, too.

Later, she and Tom fell in love, and managed to bring Bryan back to being his old self, as well as fighting off another hive attack. Afterwards, Tom asked Kate to marry him, over the disapproval of his packmates. It seems that Kate, in fighting off the Thrall infection, and contact with the blood of a Thrall Queen, had rendered herself infertile. As Tom is a handsome and attractive young werewolf, not to mention fertile, the pack frowned on the idea of their marriage.

Still going ahead with the idea of her marriage, she and Tom make plans to fly to Las Vegas and get a quickie marriage, then come back to her hometown for an actual church wedding. But a winter storm and the collapse of her apartment house make her have to travel to Las Vegas earlier than Kate had planned, as well as leaving her with nowhere to live.

But the Thrall are up to something, and her old lover is at the heart of it. Kate's first inkling of trouble comes when she realizes that the Thrall Queens are deliberately shutting her out. Then, after her friend Dusty has her baby, the Thrall try to kidnap it, and Kate is only barely able to prevent it. But that's not her only worry. Tom's former leader of the pack, or Acca, has been ousted, and the woman who has taken her place is not only hostile to Kate personally, she is also Tom's former girlfriend, whom he left because she was too intense. Apparently, if Janine can't have Tom, she prefers to let no one have him, and when she first meets Kate, she attacks her on sight and is only prevented from killing her by Las Vegas airport security.

Her attack gets Janine arrested, but Mary, the former Acca, begs Kate not to press charges, saying that this is something that must be taken care of within the pack, and as the Conclave of all the Pack Accas is soon to meet, it would be harder to do so if Janine was in jail. Also, it might cause the other Accas to vote against Kate's marriage.

Soon it becomes apparent that despite Kate's "Not Prey" status, that the Thrall are targetting her for attacks, hoping to kill her. The Thrall have been getting good press since they began helping drug users who became "Eden Zombies" regain their consciousness, so people are more ready to believe that Kate is unfairly persecuting the Thrall rather than that the Thrall have an ulterior motive. But Brian, who is one of those Kate helped to bring back to life, has found out the people whom the Thrall brought back on their own are not the same as they were before. What could they be planning? And why is Kate's old lover Dylan behind the change in the Thrall? And more importantly, what twisted idea is behind his takeover of not only the Thrall hive in the city, but all the other thrall hives as well? Can Kate keep the people she loves safe as the Thrall take on their most ambitious plan yet?

This novel was mostly good, although you'll notice that the Thrall become much more pro-active in this novel, and Kate spends a goodly amount of time in hospitals, getting healed, sewn up and put back together from all her various misadventures. But in a way, it was a bit *too* much. The novel appeared to be thrown together to be the last in the series, and so we must revisit all of Kate's friends and family, and they all must come together in the end whilst simultaneously removing all threat of the Thrall and giving Kate a close to perfect "Happily Ever After".

And it was just too much to cram into one book. I found the "ending all threat of the Thrall" part of the book to cause my "suspension of disbelief" to fail in a BIG way. Personally, I feel that it should not have been as easy as it was to take all the Thrall out in one blow like that, and I found myself staring at the book in shock and horror, going, "How convenient!" The ending was almost... anticlimactic, after that moment, and it really ruined the entire series for me, which is sad, as up to this last book, it was great.

In short, too much story and too many past characters got crammed into this book for the sake of closure. All the story threads are wrapped up so neatly in the end that I expected to see s fancy department store bow! But no matter how neat the wrapping and tying, it felt rushed and the ending of the Thrall was extremely unconvincing. Not a book I'll be recommending to my friends any time soon.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant by Pamela Horn

England has long had people in the job of servants, both to royalty and nobility and the upper classes. However, servants in Victorian times were different from the servants which preceeded them, and with the passing of Queen Victoria and the coming of the first World War, the institution would be forever changed and eventually die out as the young people who once spent their lives in servitude to the royals, upper class and middle class grew less and less interested in toiling away their days in the service of another family and left for jobs working in shops and factories, where they had more free time and they felt their lives were their own.

Today, you can still occasionally find people doing the same jobs that servants once did, but the institutions of servants as you found them in the Victorian era are dead. The English royal family may employ a butler, but he will be different from those of an earlier age, and he will probably not be living in the castle. Nor will his life be as constrained.

This book sets out to show us what servitude in the Victorian era was like, by contrasting it to eras before and after. Before Victorian times, most servants were male, a hand-me-down from medieval times, where noblemen had male followers who served as their private armies. Even after this, male servants were prized because they added to a family's consequence, and you were not considered of high class if you didn't have a footman or two following you everywhere, or a valet to dress you and so on.

However, thanks to a tax on male retainers to pay for the costs of the American Revolution for the British, families found it was more cost-effective to pay for female servants instead of male, and within a hundred years or so, the number of men in service declined precipitously, and the number of women in service rose dramatically. Whereas before a family might have had two or three women in service, by the start of the Victorian period, women outnumbered men by two or three to one, or perhaps even more, depending on the household. Male servants became more nominal, from retainers to butlers, footmen and valets. Male servants were still the highest positions in a house, but there were less of them. Families that might once have had 20 or 30 footmen reduced the size of their footmen servants to five or six at the start of the Victorian, and perhaps only one to three by the end of the period.

There were problems with employing more female servants, of course. Some fell prey to seduction by either the master of the house or another male servant and were usually turned out with nothing more than the clothes on their back when they became pregnant. And since the women of the house would not hire a servant with such a stain of fallen morality, once a woman lost her position, she would usually end up on the streets as a beggar. Though this was not uncommon, there were other bad things about servitude to a family, including the other servants who could take a dislike to someone and make their life hell.

As the period went on, there came a similar tax on female servants, and with the greater number of jobs opening up outside the traditional duties of servitude, many young people came to view the service profession as something to be avoided at all costs. Working in a shop or a factory may pay less than being a housemaid, maid of all work or tweeny, but many felt such work allowed them to retain their dignity, and such employers made less demands on the lives of their workers than working as a servant for a family did. For example, a servant position may allow a woman a half-day holiday, but require she be in by 10 PM that night, whereas a factory worker's employer did not care when she came home, as long as she was able to get to work on time the next day.

The book also covers the time after the Victorian era, when servitude as an institution finally died, mainly slain along with the many men who entered World War I on the British side. Many of those who marched off to war and returned later, or the women who took male jobs and roles while the men were away, saw no use in returning to the service profession. And with advances in machines that did the jobs once done by servants (Washers and dryers, vacuum cleaners, and so on), it became cheaper by far to buy the machine and do it yourself.

Victorian servitude was a strange institution, but this book covers it well, as well as the types of servitude that came both before and after. But the attitudes that led to the end of servitude still exist, and even if it were brought back this instant, I doubt you could find that many people who would apply for such jobs. It was fascinating, though, seeing how the times and attitudes of people changed, and reading the words of those who served and those of the people they served.

This book was probably required reading at some college course, but as a writer, I found it deeply fascinating in its own right, as I had never thought much about the institution. I also find that several writers have gotten it wrong when writing of servants in their books, and I know that after reading this, I will be paying more attention to how servants are written in future books I read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dead End by Shohei Manabe

Shirou is a loner, but still has friends. Then, he meets a beautiful girl who seems to know him, and all hell breaks loose. But not immediately. First he finds the girl unconscious in the road, so he takes her home and feeds her, then buys her clothing. He takes her to the Park, and she tells him her name is Lucy. He takes her to work, and when they get home, he introduces her to the yakuza boys who live in the building and she saves the life of one of them when he chokes on some mochi (sticky rice).

But a strange men is watching Shirou and his building, seemingly drawn to him by the presence of Lucy. The next night, Shirou and one of his "buddies" are returning home when Shirou needs to stop to buy cigarettes. When he finally gets home, everyone in the building is dead, and the strange men is there, telling him there is no time, and they must flee. Shirou cuts one of the man's arms off with a knife he got from his yakuza buddies, but the man seems unfazed, dragging him up to the roof and telling him again that there is no time.

A bright light impacts the roof, and the man jumps off with Shirou in his arms, and yet lands safely without either of them dying. The man's back is badly injured, skinned, and yet he still seems unfazed. He tells Shirou to go into the sewers, that someone is waiting for him there.

In the sewers, he meets another strange man who rescues him from the water but won't tell him what is happening or why, that Shirou won't believe him and must figure it out on his own. Shirou manages to forget, but a television newscast reminds him of the explosion at his apartment building. He returns to it, only to find no sign of the slaughter and all new people living there like it never really happened.

Only one of the people he knew still lives there, and he's in the hospital. So Shirou goes to visit him, but the man seems to have lost all his memory. The nurse looking after the man tells Shirou he said something which frightened her. She won't tell him in the hospital, but tells him to meet her after work in a bar.

They meet, but she attempts to poison him. He outwits her by switching the drinks, and the entire bar starts to attack him, but he manifests the power to pull weapons out of nowhere and kills everyone trying to kill him. Once again, the man from the sewer shows up to save him, and it turns out that the nurse wanted to know where this man was. They were once friends, but his memory was erased, by his own request. He was once friends with this man and five other people, and he must remember and assemble them togethe to live past what will happen after the next three days.

Shirou meets the first of them, a bandaged man who used to call himself Chappa, but asks for Shirou to rename him, and settles on the new name of Gips. He tells Shirou about himself, and then Shirou feeds him breakfast and they go to meet another friend, a fist-fighter named Parrot. Shirou fights him, and Parrot wins, but Shirou lasts long enough to intrigue the other man and to befriend him.

But there is another man, with a scar across his forehead who seems to be the one behind the killings and strange occurrences around them, and this man scares everyone, even hardened Yakuza. What does he want with Shirou and his friends, and what are their powers?

I didn't like this story at all. I thought the art was ugly, and the story didn't draw me in at all, being mostly about guns and yakuza and killing and strange stuff. I usually enjoy manga, but this one was a struggle for me. I suspect it hangs out more in Seinen rather than Shonen territory (adult male stories rather than teenage boy stories). I found nothing about it appealing, and it was nothing I really enjoyed reading about. I can't say it completely sucked for I have the feeling I was not the intended audience. But I won't be reading any more of this series, nor seeking it out to buy, since it was a struggle just getting through the first volume.

The Rough Collier by Pat McIntosh

Gil Cunningham is teaching his new wife swordplay when he is summoned by a group of Peat-Cutters who have found a dead body in the midst of the peat. They are even sure of the identity of the body, a man named Thomas Murray, who left on a trip to sell coal for the coal Heugh he works for and collect the money for the owner. However, what was supposed to take only a week has now lasted five, and he still hasn't returned. A Priest named David Fleming is certain his death is due to witchcraft by a woman named Beatrice Lithgo, an herb-woman who keeps the folk hereabouts healthy, but Gil isn't so sure.

Firstly because there is no sign that the peat above the body has ever been disturbed, second because no one but the priest seems to think that the man actually looks like Thomas Murray, and third, because David Fleming has recently read Malleus Maleficarum and seems to see witchcraft and witches everywhere he looks now.

Still, Thomas Murray *has* been missing for a long time, so Gil undertakes to look for him and see if he is still alive to prove the charges of murder wrong. But he also tries to find the identity of the dead body, which has been killed three times over, by strangulation, a slit throat and a blow to the head.

As the investigation continues, David Fleming continues to agitate for Beatrice Lithgo's being a witch, and for Gil, or someone else in power, taking her in and putting her to the test. He also returns to drinking, a problem he has had in the past and drinks hard when it is obvious that Gil doesn't believe she is responsible either for the dead body in the peat or the disappearance of Thomas Murray.

But when the real Thomas Murray is found dead by poison in the arms of his catamite lover, and Beatrice Lithgo confesses to the crime to shield someone else, can Gil and his lovely wife find the true murderer before one of them comes to harm from a murderer with way too much to hide?

This was a good book, though I did find the constant transliterating of the Scottish accent a bit annoying to read constantly. On the plus side, not everyone speaks in such an accent, but only the more rural, less literate and learned characters speak that way. On the other side, there are an awful lot of characters that fall under that particular heading, so when Gil is questioning workers at the coal heugh, you get to "hear" it a lot.

I liked the mystery of the body in the peat, and it was interesting if frustrating to see them peg him as "a man of Noah's day" when we in the present know it was a sacrifice made in the time of the druids. In the end, the body is dealt with in a very medieval Christian fashion, turned into a town saint and made into a relic. I will say that I suspected the person who turned out to truly be the murderer right off, so the ending, while nice, made me feel like I already knew what it would be, and for the reader of a mystery, that may feel nice, like you're smarter than the protagonist, it also turns the book into something of a grind. You know the solution, but watching the characters creak and grind their way to the same conclusion you made can be bloody annoying!

So, this book gets a mixed review from me. Interesting plot, lots of characters who speak annoyingly and an ending that telegraphed itself to me far too early in the book. Admittedly, you might not have the same experience, but that was my feeling towards the book. And if you read as many mysteries as I do, you might be able to figure out the true criminal as quickly as I did.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fire Study by Maria V. Snyder

As a child, Yelena was kidnapped from the bosom of her family and taken to the country of Ixia. As a teenager, she killed a man and was about to be executed for it when she was rescued by a man named Valek, who promised her a slightly longer life as a food taster, testing the Commander of Ixia's food for poison. To keep her honest, he dosed her with a poison called "Butterfly Dust", for which she had to recieve the antidote every day or die.

During this time, she was discovered to have magical abilities, and since mages were not welcome in Ixia, she was returned to the country of Sitia and to the bosom of her family by the man she had fallen in love with... Valek. There, she entered the school of magic to study her talent, and to grow to know the family she had been so cruelly taken from at a young age.

Her magical talent was not like any other at the school, and when a number of young girls were murdered to increase one of the mage's powers, Yelena and her friends at the school fought him and defeated him. Her love Valek is completely immune to magic, but managed to help her as well, and the villain, a mage named Cahill, was brought to justice. In the course of the story, Yelena discovered she was a kind of mage called a Soulfinder. Not only can she put souls back in their bodies, but she can animate the soulless dead body if she wants to, which makes most of the mages of the school afraid of her. They fear she will raise an army of soulless dead and seize control of the school and the country.

In Fire Study, the Mages of the School gather in council to decide what to do about her. Roze, the first mage and leader of the school, hates and fears Yelena and what she can do, with good reason, as all other mages with Yelena's powers have gone on to become mass-murdering tyrants. Yelena insists she would never do that while privately fearing that someday she will. But when word is brought to her that Cahill has escaped, she leaves the school to track him down before he can kill anyone else. It seems he has taken refuge in the lands of a tribe called the Sunseeds and whose mages are known as Storytellers. Yelena has met and befriended a Storyteller named Moon Man, and with the help of another Sunseed man named Tauno and her brother, Leif, travel to the Sunseed lands.

The Sunseeds have recently been splintered when a faction of their tribe abandoned their traditional magic for Magic like that used by Cahill. Worse, these "Warpers" as they are called, use more than just blood for power: if they capture the soul of someone with magical power, they can add the magic owned by the soul they have stolen to their own, making them much more magically powerful. But when Yelena and the other Sunseeds enter the lands of the Warpers to fight them, they find they have already fled to other parts of Sitia.

Feeling honor-bound to stop the Sunseed Warpers, Yelena, Leif, Moon Man and Tauno track one band of Sunseeds through a subterranean passage and discover that the Warpers have contacted another powerful Warper whose powers are over fire, to keep her checked. The first time she encounters him, he nearly burns her to death, which makes her fear him intensely. But she must face her fear if she is ever to bring the Sunseeds and Cahill to justice.

In her absence from the school, however, Roze has mobilized the Mage Council into nearly declaring war on Ixia, and declaring Yelena to be a danger who must be returned to the council for imprisonment and judgement. With Sitia too hot to hold her, she and her friends must return to Ixia for help, and to prevent Sitia and Ixia from going to war.

Ixia, though, is having a mage problem of its own. Young mages, who usually cross the border into Sitia to escape Ixia's ban on mages, have been disappearing in transit. Can Yelena find the cause, and prevent the two countries from going to war while capturing Cahill and clearing her name and reputation with the mage council? Or has she taken on tasks too big even for her?

This was a very satisfying novel, and might be the end of the series about Yelena. Though lots of bad things happen to her family, friends and people, Yelena always manages to find a way to cope. In fact, her way of dealing with the warpers, the fire warper and others, was unique and something I would never have thought of, and thus it was wonderful to read. I like a good surprise in a novel every once in a while.

Yelena seems like an actual person when you are reading her thoughts. By which I mean she makes bad decisions occasionally, but you understand why she did at the time. And she is fairly heroic, facing up to her fears and never just breaking and running or refusing to deal with her problems. She's someone who transforms people's lives when she comes into contact with them, and that's always enjoyable to read. In short, she transcends from character to real person, and that's unusual to read in a story, but I usually enjoy it when it happens (because if the character is annoying, making him/her/it seem real won't make them any less annoying to read about) and here it is definitely enjoyable.

This series, (Poison Study, Magic Study and Fire Study) raises the bar for Fantasy Romances, and Fantasy in general, actually. I call it a Fantasy Romance, because the romance and Yelena's feelings for and relationship with Valek form a strong subplot in the story. But it isn't all sunshine, laughter and happiness: the fact that Valek serves as an assassin for the Commander of Sitia causes a fallout in their relationship, but they do come back, make up and go on with their relationship, and it isn't just a manufactured argument, either.

If you enjoy fantasy and romance together, this book is one you'll love. Even if you just like Fantasy, you will greatly enjoy this book. Fans of romance alone may find the fantasy elements too strong, as Yelena and Velek spend most of the book apart, but the final ending will leave you happy at their possible Happily Ever After. (Possible only because I am unsure if this is the final book in the series. Yes, I'd love to see more.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Belisarius I: Thunder at Dawn by Eric Flint and David Drake

Belisarius was a Roman General at the time of Justinian and Theodora. He was a brilliant tactician with a mind that was fluid and could adapt easily and quickly to changed circumstances. In this book, made up of two novels: An Oblique Approach and In the Heart of Darkness, the Historical person of Belisarius is given an alien crystal Intelligence named Aide and asked to prevent the Malwa Empire of India from conquering the world and bringing about a horrible future of war.

Belisarius accepts the charge and knows that the Malwa, in the person of a man named Venandakatra, have been sniffing around the court of Constantinople. As Belisarius has just won a war for Emperor Justinian, and Justinian gets jealous of those who show too much competence, Belisarius must take himself away from the capital until the heat of Justinian's jealousy dies down. To do so, Belisarius befriends a delegation from the land of Axum and travels with them to their homeland before investigating Northern India and the Malwa Empire. With him, he takes three of his cataphracts, two experienced veterans, Anastasius and Valentinian and a relative newcomer, Menander.

At home, he leaves his wife, Antonina, an ex-prostitute like the Empress Theodora, with a plan to counter the horrible, futuristic weapons of the Malwa through a program of duplicating and exceeding the capabilities of the Malwa arsenal. Along the way, he travels with Venandakatra and quickly sees how he earned his nickname in the vision he had of the future of "Venandakatra the Vile". Belisarious tries to get Venandakatra to believe that Belisarius is equally debased, and angry at his Emperor in the bargain, so that Venandakatra will believe that Belisarius is willing to be bought. At the same time, he sends one of his soldiers to find a man named Ragunath Rao and give him a weapon to free the Princess Shakuntala, Queen of Andhra, before Venandakatra can try to take her for a concubine as a captured prisoner of the Malwa war.

At the same time, Belisarius and Venandakatra (who has become afraid of the general after seeing the Roman martial prowess, and especially that of Belisarius himself, in a fight against river pirates) head to the area where the Malwa are waging war against the rebels. The rebels have the same gunpowder as the Malwa and use it as they are losing, mining the field under the Malwa advance and blowing it up, then emerging to kill the survivors. Belisarius's escort is saved by Belisarius's cautionary advice, and sets off the kill the rebels, while Belisarius stops the troops from fleeing while saving the Malwa Emperor. After all, it is possible that the Emperor is a cybernetic robot, also from the future, and Aide wants to find its opponent, but he turns out to be a mere human, whose death would not have changed the course of the war. With so many successors and close family members, the war would have continued regardless. In the end, the Emperor tries to bribe Belisarius with gold and jewels, and Belisarius accepts, but plans to use the money to fight the Malwa, and asks for another Bribe of the same to betray Rome. As the Emperor decides, the first book ends.

In the second book, the Emperor accepts and gives Belisarius a bribe almost as big, but Aide discovers his opposite number in Adversary, a cybernetic AI who has inhabited the Great Lady Holi, and the Malwa realize that Belisarius has been lying to them all along. Belisarius and his party (His cataphracts, Eon, a Prince of Axum, his advisors and his concubines) must flee the Malwa Empire and return to Constantinople, where the Malwa have put in place a plan to dethrone and then kill Emperor Justinian and his ex-prostitute wife, Theodora.

To foil the plot while Belisarius and company make their escape are Belisarius' wife Antonina; John of Rhodes, who has been developing new weapons for the Romans based on gunpowder he has manufactured; Sittas, a general of Rome and friend of Belisarius; Irene Macrambolitessa, Sittas's Spymaster, and two churchmen, Michael of Macedonia- a fiery preacher popular with the common people and the Bishop of Aleppo, Anthony Cassian. And eventually, they are joined by Empress Theodora herself and a few hundred newly trained troops, grenadiers, who throw gunpowder grenades developed by John of Rhodes.

In Constantinople, Venandakatra did not leave the city completely. He left behind spies and agitators who have been meeting with various Roman officials and churchmen, including the High Chamberlain of Justinian, the eunuch Narses. Along with the churchmen Glycerius of Chalcedon and George Barsymes, two nephews of the former emperor Anastasius, John of Cappadocia, the imperial tax collector and two Malwa spies: Balban and Ajatsutra, have made a plan to topple Justinian from the throne and replace him with a feckless puppet Emperor so that each of them can gain what they want: power.

But Justinian is no figurehead, and Theodora truly loves her husband and defends him with all the power and ferocity of a rabid lioness protecting her cubs. As word of Belisarius' betrayal of the Malwa slowly makes its way to Constantinople, Antonina and the others take heart: the Malwa would not be so incensed at him if they had managed to kill him. Therefore, he must be alive and returning to Constantinople by any means possible. Back in India, the Malwa send trackers out after Belisarius and his people, but under various disguises and using a number of tricks, they are able to make their exits from India separately and without harm.

Back in Constantinople, Antonina has been supplying false information to the Malwa as a spy in court, supposedly to avoid knowledge of her cuckolding her famous husband. But the truth is that she has always been faithful to him, and the betrayal was a false show to throw the Malwa off. And while her intelligence is false, she has also been learning about the Malwa presence. When the Malwa try to kill her, she is able to defend herself in the kitchen of a meat shop, slaughtering most of the Malwa-sent bullyboys with a kitchen cleaver and a boiling pot of beef gravy. She is saved at the last minute from death and realizes that the Malwa are ready to act, and then she and her new grenadiers must fight against the Roman rabble the Malwa have bribed to support them, and the Malwa assassin-soldiers who have infiltrated the city.

Because so many important men are behind the attempted coup, many of Justinian's soldiers abandon him for the coin, or are willing to support the new Emperor backed by the Malwa, but Theodora, who is witness to all of this, promises the deaths of any who have thrown their lot in with the Malwa, and after her husband is blinded by John of Cappadocia, promises to urinate in his eyesockets after his own eyes are put out. And when Belisarius makes a timely return in the midst of the chaos, she gets her wish.

The book end with Justinian still alive, but blinded, and Theodora taking over the reins of government. She and Belisarius must fight the full force of the Malwa Empire, and their Kushan and Ye-tai troops. Luckily for Rome, other kingdoms are fighting against the Malwa and will be their allies in the fight. But because of the Malwa's fear and hatred of Belisarius, Rome and Roman soldiers will be the main fighters in the War.

These were excellent books, and being able to read two at once was glorious, and staved off that horrible "Can't wait for the next one!" feeling. At least, until the end of the second book...

Belisarius himself is an actual historical personage, and even if he didn't have a futuristic supercomputer, his abilities on the field were nigh-legendary. As David Drake states at the beginning of the book, giving him a futuristic supercomputer would not have made him any more formidable a leader and general than he already was. It would have been redundant. What Aide does for him during the course of the book is help him understand how the Malwa weapons are made and how they work, no more. The decisions he makes and his generalship are his alone. They are so formidable that the Malwa, intelligent people that they are, fear him as if he were a demon for his ability to break their carefully laid plans.

In the end, the Malwa have crude gunpowder weapons and cannons, as well as massive numbers of troops, and advice from Aide's opponent, Adversary, who poses as a woman. But Rome has Belisarius and Aide as well as Roman training and discipline. Who will win? Bet on Belisarius, that's for sure!

The two authors are good at making readers feel not only a sense of place and character, but also excel at writing battles and military movements. Espionage is almost as good as the other two, and I have not yet found a place where they are bad at writing something. Each character is distinct in characterization and makes you believe in them as real people, even the ones who are not historical personages. Add in the story itself, and its a book I found impossible to put down. You root for Belisarius to win and can even feel bad for those people who are part of the Malwa empire who manage to befriend Belisarius and whom he will later be forced to destroy, like the Rajput Rana Sanga, who is an otherwise honorable military officer who Belisarius would probably be friends with if they were on the same side. But circumstances have forced them to be enemies and you know at some point that Belisarius will end up killing Rana Sanga, as each has sworn to serve their own Emperor. They understand each other, and this, of course, will make them the best kind of enemies.

To say I can't wait to read the next novel is an extreme understatement. Buy these books, or this book, and read it. Even if you are not a fan of military fantasy or military SF, you will enjoy this book. If you already enjoy those things, you'll be taken for the ride of your life by two of the best military-SF and Fantasy writers out there, and enjoy it every step of the way. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one's a 20. Read it.

Star Wars Omnibus: Droids by Dark Horse Comics

Everyone knows that R2D2 and C-3PO had lives, so to speak, before the original Star Wars film, The stories in this book are set five years before "A New Hope" and feature the two most famous Droids in history. Unlike some stories about them, these don't feature them as comic relief or figures of fun (well, maybe Threepio does, but then, he invites it with his attitude), but features stories in which the Droids are main figures in the action, not sidekicks or bystanders in the background.

They also point out how droids, in the Star Wars Universe, are treated like slaves, a point which I had to concede. The bar proprietor in the first movie, in this light, comes off looking like one of those "no coloreds allowed" people in the Deep South during the 1950's. And let's not forget how their memory can be conveniently wiped at any time...

These stories start with Artoo and Threepio being shipped to the Kalarba system along with a load of other droids, including the Assassin Droid IG-88. When it breaks loose from its tethers and attacks Olag Grek, the man who brought it to Kalabra in the first place. Artoo is forced into helping IG-88 escape, and Threepio into looking for the both of them by Grek. In the end, after IG-88 makes his escape in a stolen spaceship, Threepio and Artoo fall into an escape pod and eject it, landing on the planet Kalarba, where they are rescued by the Pitareeze family, who use the two droids as babysitters for the youngest boy, Nak.

And he;s quite a handful, playing nasty tricks on both droids. But when Olag Grek needs a special engine made by Nak's grandfather, Baron, Nak decides to improve his family's fortunes by selling the engine to Olag Grek, who used to be a partner with his grandfather... until he stole a design from Baron Pitareeze and passed it off as his own. But the design also needed the special Pitareeze engine to work, so when Grek found his ships failing, he told the buyers that it was due to sabotage by none other than... Baron Pitareeze! Rather than fight back, Pitareeze simply stopped making spaceships because his reputation was damaged. Nak offers Grek the engine for a large sum of money, but Grek has no intentions of paying. So it is Threepio and Artoo to the rescue, after which, Nak becomes much nicer to them.

On their next adventure, the tour of Kalarbra they are offering is attacked by pirates, but very unusual pirates who used to be chefs. When they find Nak's mother making exceptionally good Stenness Pie, they decide not to rob the guests, but to take the pie... and Threepio and Artoo! The Pirate/Chefs are also victims of Oleg Grek, who has captured Nak and shown him a cave full of treasure... but he needs the chef/pirate vehicles to get it out of there. Once again Threepio and Artoo must bring down Grek and help the former chefs regain their lives as chefs.

Next, Threepio is taken for an assassin droid and forced to fight in the arena... against Artoo in powered armor! Then Captain Forno, a former associate of Grek's, hires Threepio and Artoo to retrieve clusters of crystals from an alien planet. But the planet's rock people take badly to that idea, leaving Artoo and the Pitareezes to retrieve Threepio and defend the planet against Forno's ideas of theft! On a visit to a local village, Threepio and Nak find some nearly obsolete E-units who have been forced into making guns for the local junkman, and must find a new body for their friend U-E while bringing the villain to justice.

Then, Artoo is left behind by Baron Pitareeze and Threepio to guard their landspeeder while they have a business meeting. Artoo is abducted to Work in the Spice Mines of Kessel, but manages to escape and get back to the Speeder just as Threepio and Baron Pitareeze emerge. And when Baron takes them to Hosk station for another trade meeting, someone has booby-trapped the station to blow up. To evacuate all the people Baron offers his ship, but two people must be left behind, and Threepio and Artoo volunteer to be those left behind, only to find that Olag Grek is behind it all, allowing him to steal a valuable shipment on the station. Threepio and Artoo must help save the station along with the robots who call it home and keep it clean and running. After the station is saved, the head of the cleaning robots, who was actually a security droid, takes Artoo and Threepio to track down Olag Grek and return him to Kalarbra for justice. In doing so, the security droid is destroyed, and another droid helps them escape, only to turn Threepio into a revolutionary againsta Hutt named Boonda... and the droid turns out to be carrying the brain of a former human inside it. A human named Movo Brattakin!

Escaping from there, Threepio and Artoo end up working on an Ithorian Herd Ship. The captain, Zorneth, is also carrying people who suffer an affliction, and they are collectively known as "Smilers". One of the other robots explains that Smilers come from ingestion of a herb called Savorium, so delicious that organic beings find it puts them in a state of complete bliss. The human who developed the herb realized how injurious it could be to society, so destroyed the herb and burned his notes. But now someone wants the secret of the Savorium and is willing to attack the smilers to try and find it. Can Threepio and Artoo help Zorneth keep the Smilers, and the secret, safe from those of the galaxy who would use it to enslave others?

And finally, Artoo and Threepio are assigned to a diplomatic mission between he people of Tahlboor, the Troobs and the Hobors. To keep them from falling to war between themselves is the mission of Threepio's owner and his son. But when the Ambassador loses Threepio in a gambling game, it is up to the son, Jake, to see the mission through. But someone wants a war and is willing to kill to get it. Can Threepio and Artoo find the truth in time to save the planet?

These were an enjoyable set of stories to read, as Threepio and Artoo, an unlikely set of heroes, manage to win in the end against all sorts of foes, in all sorts of unlikely and amusing ways. But while the stories are amusing, the droids themselves are treated as seriously as any heroes, while it is the living creatures who are the more horrible and corrupt and usually serve as foes to our heroes.

Many writers approached for these stories had ideas about the droids that were wrong: things they would never do, or things Threepio would never say. The last story in the collection, with the Troobs and and the Hobors, has dialogue for Threepio written by Anthony Daniels, the actor who played Threepio in the movies, and his story pretty much nails how Threepio talks, and is one of the best stories in the book, with a Romeo and Juliet-style love story, murder mystery and hidden conspirator all rolled into one.

If you can find it, I definitely recommend this huge graphic novel, full of stories to make you laugh or bring a smile to your face. I only wish the series had gone on longer, and there were more stories to tell, the best sign of a really good book!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hostage to Pleasure by Nalini Singh

Ayasha Aleine is a cold-blooded M Psy. The M stands for "Medical", and her powers give her special insight into DNA, which is why the Psy Council assigned her to working on a special project to create implants that will allow the Psy to become a true hive-mind.

Realizing, though, that they will still need leaders once the Psy have become Hive-Minds, they have also ordered her to create three kinds of implants. The first will allow complete control over the mind it is implanted into. The second allows a bit more autonomy, but still creates unthinking obedience to the hive mind. The last will be for the council themselves, allowing them to control the other two types of implanted minds completely. Ayasha is appalled by what they have asked her to do, and to force her to comply, they have kidnapped her son.

She isn't willing to take that lying down, however, and has contacted the lycanthropes to get them to free her son. And they do so, wondering why a Psy who seems so completely under "Silence", a psy-imposed code of conduct that drowns the emotions of those who live under it in coldness and ice, would even care about a child of her body. Or about any other child, since Ayasha Aleine also helped them recover two other children the Weres wanted back.

Dorian Christopher lost his sister to the murdering hands of a Psy psychopath, and he isn't willing to lose anyone else to the murdering bastards. He has become a sniper, picking off the Psy who come to take down the Weres. When he rescues Ayasha's son, Keenan, however, their blood mingles, so when her Keenan's ties to Psy Net are cut, he resurfaces in the Web of Light that powers the Psy linked to the Weres. Dorian also agrees to go after Ayasha when she fakes her own death to escape from her captors and bring the truth about the machinations the Psy are perpetrating on their own people to the forefront.

But doing so makes them aware that she is still alive, and sets their murderous operatives on her trail. Dorian is forced to keep her alive, when he's more than happy to see any "murdering Psy bastards" die. And Dorian is damaged as a Were. The leopard, his animal, lives in his soul, but he has never been able to shift shapes as a Were should. Dorian is already fighting his attraction, but when Ayasha offers to see if she can uncover what in his DNA keeps him from shifting, he becomes even more interested in her.

But as the Psy grow more desperate to find and recapture Ayasha, they set the one person on her trail who she cannot hide from, no matter how desperately she tries, her twin sister Amara. And Amara, like the man who killed Dorian's sister, Shayla, is a psychopath at heart. Can Dorian keep Ayasha alive without killing her sister, whose death she would never recover from? Or can he somehow eliminate the threat her sister poses to her and Amara's son, Keenan?

I've always enjoyed Nalini Singh's books, but this one fell a bit short. Yes, the story is strong and engaging, and the romance aspects are fine. I enjoyed learning more about the Psy, the Psy Council, and how the Psy aspects of identical twins worked. But Dorian as the hero? Din't work for me, mainly because to my mind, he came off as more of a nervy punk teenager rather than a strong hero. He keeps jabbing at Ayasha with words to keep her off balance, but that just contributed to the "nervy teen punk" image of him I had gotten. And he never seems to grow out of it, though he is making strides in that area towards the end.

In the end, when it comes down to it, because of me not seeing the hero as a strong romantic figure, this was a less than successful book to me. Now, other readers may not have that reaction to the character, but for me, I'll only recommend this book with a strong caution to others.

Belladonna by Anne Bishop

Ephemera is a broken land, full of landscapes both light and dark, linked together by bridges, and kept from further spintering by people called Landscapers. The greatest of these is Gloriana Belladonna, the woman who has been holding Ephemera together against the assault by the thing called "The Eater of the World". The Eater thinks of her as "the Enemy", and both hates and fears her. But even though Belladonna has been able to keep the Eater of the world out of her own landscapes, and defeated the Dark Landscapers, the other Landscapers see her as dark and tainted because she works with dark landscapes as well as light ones.

And while the Eater may be denied entry to her own landscapes, there are a good many more that are missing landscapers of their own, and those landscapes can be changed by changing the heart of the people in them. The Eater is attempting to do this through fear, intimidation and anxiety, bringing the landscapes closer to itself, and feeding on the darker emotions of those trapped within.

In a far part of Ephemera lies Michael, who has long dreamed of a beautiful woman and finding his soul mate. He's a wanderer and a singer, and his talent lies in hearing the song of a place, and he can influence that song with his music. He has seen the Eater of the World's effects on the people and places he has come to care about, and he's scared. He's also been accused of a crime, killing a young woman in a small town. When he hears the changes in the song of the land, he's sent off on a quest to find the one woman who might be able to help the land, with a mere saying heard in a great Divination on the Island of Light. "Heart's Hope lies with Belladonna". His sister, Caitlin, has been rejected by the women of the Island to join their order because of the darkness inside of her. She finds her own garden impinging on Belladonna's, and when the two meet, Belladonna realizes that this young woman is just like her: a Landscaper capable of handling Landscapes both bright and dark.

But when Michael comes looking for his sister, he must fight against the realization he came to when he saw Belladonna: that she is the Warrior of Light. For the Warrior of Light must drink from the Cup of Darkness to defeat the Eater of the World, and if she does that, there is no coming back. Belladonna will become a monster of darkness and forget everything and everyone she once held dear... including him. How can he bear to lose the woman he was born to love so soon after finding her? But if he doesn't tell her the story of the Warrior of Light, all Ephemera will die under the dark influence of the Eater. Which will he choose? Love or life? And how can he make that choice now, when his heart will break no matter what he chooses?

This is the second Ephemera book and presumably the last, as the problem of the Eater is taken care of once and for all by the end. On the whole, I was pleased with the book, although I did have some problems with a lot of the talky-talky scenes. The first part of the book needed more action, and less talking. Also, the "romance" between Michael and Belladonna needed a bit more set-up. It seemed far too rushed, and didn't feel very real to me on the part of Belladonna. Aside from a few blushes, I never got the feeling that she was really all that interested in Michael. It was as if, in writing the story, Ms. Bishop decided that they belonged together and assumed everyone got it... then didn't write in most of the actual romance parts, leaving it instead. Oh yes, they end up together, but what went into making the relationship feel real was oddly missing for me.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the book. The character of the Eater is evil, yes, but at points you actually feel pity for it. And when it is finally chained again in a single domain, all alone and hurting, it's just possible to feel sad for it, like that episode of Star Trek: Voyager with the evil clown who had all the planet's inhabitants brains and didn't want to let them go. At the end, Janeway tricks it into letting the others go for a promise to stsy with it forever, and in the end, she isn't really there. It's been a hologram-Janeway all along, and the clown finally faces being alone in an entire world with just himself forever. It's possible to feel a slight sense of sadness for the Eater, the same as I did for the evil clown character. In the eater's case, it is trapped in a world with nothing for him to feed off of. From this frightening thing, it's been reduced to a pathetic figure, but considering what it has done to people in the course of the two novels, its only a small flicker of sympathy and no more. In short, the villain is done right, and though it is seemingly pure evil, it is humanized in the end.

While this book had a few problems on the romance front and the talky-talky rather than dynamic scenes for Belladonna and those near her in the first half of the book, this is still a very good book, and I will recommend it to people who enjoy fantasy. Of course, the preview of the new "Darker Jewels" sequel is also something to look forward to as well...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Immortals: The Redeeming by Jennifer Ashley

The Immortals are five brothers, all sons of the Goddess Cerridewen, who walk amongst the other races that inhabit the world: Humans Sidhe, Werewolves, Vampires, Demons. To save their world, they had to take down the Demon Lord Kekhsut. He had imprisoned the Immortal named Tain for hundreds of years: screwing him, torturing him, and allowing him to hope before cruelly ripping hope away from him over and over and over again. By the time his brothers and their witch wives found him, Tain had gone insane and was only barely human.

But the defeat of Kehksut was accomplished, and Tain was freed of his madness by his conversation with Samantha, a human cop who later found out that she wasn't human... well, not completely. Her father, who she'd long thought dead or gone, was a demon, of the clan known as the Lamiah, and she only found out about her heritage when her father came back into her life. She tried to deal with the knowledge, because she saw how happy he made her mother.

Now, five months later, Sam is staking out a demon club owned by a man called Merrick. Merrick is thought to be dealing a drug called "Moonglow" out of his club, and Sam wants to bust him. Before she can, however, there is an altercation at the club, and who should come striding in but Tain. He protects her, but acts as though he doesn't know her at all.

Later, though, he appears at her apartment to talk with her. Tain finds himself attracted to Samantha, and he knows she is half-demon and Lamiah in the bargain. He all but accuses her of using her demonic charisma on him and tells her that she has all the powers of a demon, including the need to feed from those around her from time to time. Sam is stunned by this accusation, and tells him that she is only a normal human, but when she goes to talk about it with her mother, she realizes that it is true, and that when she wasn't feeding from her mother, she has unwittingly been draining her partner.

In addition to the Moonglow case, Tain tells her that someone has been abducting demon women, and killing them, all for some unknown purpose. As Sam works both cases, she finds that the head of the Lamiah clan, the clan matriarch, may be behind the smuggling and distribution of Moonglow.

But there are other things happening as well. Humans are worried by the demon attacks and have formed a group to kill the demons. Although the methods of killing the demons are not well-known, someone seems to be informing the group of just how to do so. And the leader can identify demons, even half-demons like Samantha.

Samantha goes to meet the matriarch of the Lamiah clan, and the matriarch is impressed with her. So impressed that she wants Sam to be her heir for position of the matriarch. But when she is killed, the clan is thrown into disarray. Sam's father convinces her to put in her cap for the matriarch, ahead of the woman put forward by her cousin, Terry. But after an attack on the family by another group of demons, Samantha becomes the Matriarch... and Tain becomes her lover.

Tain continues to track down the people killing the demon prostitutes, but it seems that the human group of demon killers is behind the assaults. Who could have ordered such a thing is discovered when Samantha is kidnapped, and the Demon Lord Bahkat makes his play to have Tain return to his status as "Demon Playtoy", only under his command. Can Tain and Samantha beat the Demon Lord at his own game and take him out before Tain is returned to his former insanity and becomes the plaything of another Demon? Tain is pure white healing magic, and thus inimical to most demons. But Sam has now been his lover. Can he and she team up to destroy a demon lord, with Tain being a lone immortal, and she only a young half-demon? Or will Tain bring about the end of the world?

This was an interesting book. I had read one of the other books in the series last year, and was rather disappointed to miss the intervening books. But this book more than made up for it. At the beginning of the book, Tain may have been rescued from insanity, but you certainly wouldn't know it from the way he acts! Or thinks, for that matter. He can't trust anyone, saving perhaps his brothers, and is afraid of intimacy with a woman because of what Kehksut put him through. But over the course of the story, he manages to find intimacy with Samantha, and even love with the woman who brought him out of insanity.

Sam is the other side of the coin, someone who thinks she is just a normal human, but learns differently from Tain. This is quite a shock to her, as she has never been told that she is a demon, either by her mother, or anyone else. And yet, faced with a truth she finds extremely unpalatable, she manages to find a way to accept and live with the knowledge. Not only that, but she becomes head of a demon clan that she didn't even want to belong to, accepting the responsibility of the position as well as the power that comes with it.

Of course, it helps that they have each other, and even before they become lovers, they both cannot help but think of, and remember, each other. But for every obstacle they overcome, more arise, such as Tain being told by his mother that his fate was foretold from since before he was even concieved. Naturally, he is hurt by the revelation. He would rather, we later find out, have chosen such a fate himself, which he would have done to spare his brothers.

Despite the obstacles in the story, both Tain and Samantha have our admiration for the way they meet their problems head-on, without flinching or whining. That, and their obvious love and affection for each other, is what makes this book such a wonderful read. I enjoyed it a lot, and it made me want to read the books in the series that I missed.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Bridal Wave: A survival guide to the Everyone-I-Know-Is-Getting-Married years by Erin Torneo and Valerie Cabrera Krause

You have a lot of friends, male and female, and you stick together through thick and thin for years. You're happy being single, happy being with friends, but one day, you look up and it seems all your friends are married, or coupling or happily with someone else in their lives, and they just don't have as much time for you any more. And you look around, confused and dumbfounded, wondering how this all happened.

Worse, as one of the unattatched amongst your friends, everyone decides you aren't happy *not* being married and decides to spend their time fixing you up so you can join them among the ranks of the married. And if you turn down their efforts, you find yourself somehow excluded from the ranks of the people you were once friends with. Or perhaps you aren't so happy being single, and every time you recieve the "I've got a big Announcement!" call, you feel so jealous you could just die, and you wonder if this makes you a bad person.

If everyone around you is getting married, and you're still single, you are trapped in the middle of a bridal wave. And whether you want to be married or not, you wouldn't be human if you didn't feel a twinge of jealousy at how deliriously happy all your married or soon-to-be-married friends sound. "They found someone," you tell yourself. "How horrible a person must I be to be still alone amidst all these other people finding their soul mates and getting married all around me?"

Don't despair! Though it's hard to remember *why* you are happy being single when everyone around you seems to be joining the "Old Married's Club", you can get through this. Even if your friend wants you as part of the wedding party. Even if the other guests at her bridal shower talk about how wonderful and fun it is to be married.

This book gives you hints and tips for staying yourself and staying sane during the bridal wave, including tips on how to deal with a LoBrideomized friend, and your choices of how to deal, including the pros and cons of each choice. It shows you how to keep your sanity and sense of self-worth, and how to avoid settling for "Mr. Right Now" just to fit the timeline in your head.

This was a cute book, and is definitely worth the read. Even though, because I have few friends, I never was subjected to "the Bridal Wave", even my few but close friends are going to get married eventually, and then I will be glad for having read this book, especially the parts about how not to feel upset and worthless because your friends are getting married and you are not.

In addition to the good advice contained within, the book has the advantage of being funny as well. Even if its advice doesn't help you as much as you hope it will, you will still get a good laugh over the terms "Bridal Wave" and "Lobridemized", not to mention some of the situations presented in the book.

This book is the perfect antidote for the "Everyone is getting married but me" blues. With humor, plenty of advice and its small size, you'll want to keep it close and read it over and over and over again.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is it a Choice? by Eric Marcus

This book is subtitled "Answers to the Most Frequently asked Questions about Gay and Lesbian People". This is not Eric Marcus' first book, as some of this others include "Making Gay History", "Together Forever" and a biography of Greg Lougainis called "Breaking the Surface". This book came about because of questions asked by straight people about gay people.

Marcus is quick to remind people that homosexuals are just as different from each other as straight people are different from each other, and the answers he gives are reflective only of himself and those he has talked to. Other gay men and women might feel differently about the subjects he covers in this book, and that the answers they give will be true for them.

The book starts off with the basics, and defines terms he will use elsewhere in the book, such as what "Gay" means, including the way it was historically used, and then moving on to other things typically asked about gay people, such as "Is there a greater chance of Gay people molesting children?" or "Is it a mental illness?" and "Is there a cure?"

The next chapter covers growing up Gay, and how this affects children and teens. Being that kids can be cruel, there's a strong chance that kids will throw around statements like "that's so gay" or epithets like "Faggot" without knowing what they mean or how hurtful they can be. And many worry that their parents will not support them if they are gay. The chapter after is on Coming out to friends and family, such as when a person accepts what they are and then has to tell the people he knows. Some choose to live as a gay person publically, some only to close friends and family. Older gay men and women may not be able to live their choice openly due to fear for their jobs. But such decisions come with a cost.

Other sections deal with family and children, questions by parents of gay children, dating, relationships, and marriage, work and the military, where gays and lebians live, socializing and friends, religion, discrimination and antigay violence, movies, television and print media, sports, education, aging, and ends with a chapter of miscellaneous questions that don't fit into one of the other chapter headings.

I have friends who are gay and lesbian (including one who had a sex change operation (now called gender reassignment surgery but didn't change sexual orientation, making her now a lesbian. And I mean, really, what do you call someone like that, who used to be heterosexual and is now gay because she felt she should always have been a woman? The word "gay" or "lesbian" doesn't really get at the nuances of her life.) who are good, dear friends to me, and yet this book really helped me understand them in ways I didn't before.

And here's the real message of this book. That homosexuals, no matter what they call themselves or what labels others see fit to slap on them, are just people, and are really no different than most people on the street. They are simply attracted to the same sex in the way heterosexuals are attracted to the opposite sex. But of course, because of the very differentness of that choice, their lives remain endlessly fascinating in the way the lives of celebrities are fascinating. It's like a Peeping Tom experience, seeing how the other half lives. And that's my personal opinion, not that of Eric Marcus.

In any case, this book does a wonderful job of answering questions people have about the life of homosexuals and corrects a lot of misinformation that ignorant or prejudiced people spread. As such, it should be required reading for anyone who wants to know how homosexual people live, or what makes them homosexual.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Triumph of Souls by Alan Dean Foster

Etjole Ehomba and his companions Simna ibn Sind, Ahlitah and Hunkapa Aub found a way and a crew willing to cross the Semordria Ocean. But their travels are still not yet done, and their first task is just to cross the Semordria. But when a freak storm of winds sends them off course across the ocean, can they find a safe place to shelter from the winds and repair the damage? And then, once they are repaired, can they even *escape* from what was formerly their safe harbor?

And then comes a horrifying incident on an island where the crew finds their faces stolen by the islanders. Unless they want to end up seeing out of two small holes in their head and eating through a mere slit, they will have to recover their own faces. But how can they find the vault where their eyes, nose, ears and mouths are kept while they are being kept prisoner by the islanders for their own good?

Even if they escape the islands, there are still numerous kingdoms to cross, and a desert that is the home of demons and a valley that changes any who try to cross it to salt. But even if they can make it that far, they still have to face off against Hymneth the Possessed and bring back the Visioness Themaryl to the bosom of her family. And while this confrontation has been twice fortold to end in Etjole's death, can he overcome his fate and escape his death? And if he dies what will happen to Simna ibn Sind, Ahlitah and Hunkapa Aub? Hymneth the Possessed is the strongest necromancer in the world. Can they somehow manage to overcome his power in the heart of his own Kingdom? Or will their long journey end only in suffering and defeat?

This is the final volume in Alan Dean Foster's Journeys of the Catechist series, and even then, it isn't until the end that we learn the true source of Etjole Ehomba's many powers, and those of his fellow villagers. And it's truly no surprise to see by this point, for when he claims he is no more a magician than any other person in his village, he speaks the truth. Of course, what this says about his village is up for you to read in this book.

I liked this book, and the whole series, too. In the end, it isn't any of Etjole's equipment that saves him, but something entirely different- his will, heart and soul. And even when he finds that the Visioness Themaryl, and she declines to go home, having fallen in love with her captor, Etjole won't give up the fight to return her to her family. Etjole, while appearing simple, is a most complex character, and easily carries this series almost by himself. But then, each character is more than they seem at first, even Simna ibn Sind and especially Hunkapa Aub. The final pages are surprising as well as expected, and the ending of the book is even more surprising still.

This book is easy to read and yet provides many interesting twists and turns as you read. A surprising end to a tale full of adventure while culminating in an ending you might have suspected, and might not have, either. This a series I absolutely recommend.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Fakes & Forgeries: True Crime Stories of History's Greatest Deceptions- The Criminals, the Scams and the Victims by Brian Innes

Scams and Deceptions are rife online: Credit Card Scams, people phishing for your personal information by pretending to be this or that site, and who can forget the famous personal letter from a Nigerian Widow of a famous bank manager, who needs your help in transferring her funds to the US? You may laugh or be annoyed by such scams, but the truth is, scams and confidence games go back right to the dawn of history. As long as humans have been human, someone has been trying to trick, fool or cheat someone else out of what they have.

This book covers nine different kinds of fakes, frauds and scams, from faked stamps, faked money, art, papers, books, artifacts, stolen identities and other cons, and then faking for a cause, or faked science. Each chapter of the book covers one or two of these subjects with amazing attention to detail, including how each is perpetrated, and famous examples of each type of fake, and the people who pulled them off.

In the "phony identity" chapter, for example, the cases of Frank Abagnale, the con artist profiled in the film "Catch me if you can" is discussed, along with his many changes in identity and how he was caught. Another story told is that of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed, along with many who believed she was telling the truth, to be Princess Anastasia of the Romanov dynasty. Unfortunately, the truth didn't come out until after she had died, and it was revealed she was actually an escaped Polish mental patient.

This is a great book that looks at famous and not so famous fakes and forgeries of the world. It can provide hours of interesting reading and plenty of ideas for stories, if you're a writer. But what's most interesting to me was not the cons themselves, but the kind of people who perpetrate them. What leads a person into perpetrating such a crime? Insanity, in the case of Anna Anderson, but what about the people who knowingly go about taking advantage of others? For these reasons and more, I found the book fascinating.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Based on a True Story (But with more car crashes): Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies) by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen

"Based on a True Story". How many times have we seen that in a movie or on the box of a video or DVD? And yet, how much of the story we actually see on the screen is based on reality?

And as far as most movies are concerned, very little, actually. Some stories are changed to make them more exciting, some to make them seem more realistic (amazingly enough, truth can be *far* stranger than fiction, and what really happens would be rejected by movie audiences as far too unrealistic... even if it actually happened- like the wife of one of the Apollo 13 astronauts losing her wedding ring down the drain in the shower a week before the capsule suffered trouble in outer space), and some to make the movie conventions we have come to accept (the protagonist of the movie starts out a bit of a jerk, but learns a lesson along the way and becomes a better person).

I've always wondered how much of "True Stories" are true, based on my experience with the film "Open Water", about two scuba divers who go for a pleasure jaunt with a group of tourists and are left behind by their boat. The film has them menaced by sharks and eventually the man dies, and the woman commits suicide to join him. According to the movie, their bodies were never found. If their bodies were never found, how did they know what happened to them, as posited in the movie?

They couldn't, of course. That was the conclusion I came to. After they were left behind by the tourist boat, all else was pure speculation. i.e. guessing. I don't consider that much of "Based on a true story", so when I saw the title of this book, I was intrigued and wondered how many other movies based on true stories had fudged the details.

As I said above, the answer is pretty much all of them. Two that stand out for being truer than the rest are Raging Bull and JFK. I know that JFK gets a lot of flak, but everything in it was based on evidence presented at the Warren Comission. The other film, Raging Bull, is more of a shock today, since the main character, Jake LaMotta, starts out as a jerk and remains one throughout. It eschews the trope of the hero learning to be a better person. And truth be told, I think that trope should be abandoned when it isn't the truth. Oskar Schindler started out a not very nice guy who did good deeds. Nothing in his past impelled him to do so, he just did. The same with the Coach who helped the guy nicknamed "Radio". He helped the kid because it was the right thing to do, not because of some incident in his past that he was ashamed of (as the movie would tell us). I resent this bit of movie trope-ism because it denies that some people just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because of some unresolved issue in their past or because they learned better. I think it cheapens humanity to say we only do right because of some incident in our pasts. It may not give the audience the same "feel good" sensation, but it's truer to who we are as humans.

So though I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I also felt rather insulted at the way the filmamkers of many of these films censored things out or put in things only to make us, the audience feel better. While I don't ascribe to the belief that true film should wound people, I do think that when someone makes a movie and tells us that this movie is true and based on real events, that they remain true to reality and what actually happened. If you are making a film solely to entertain, then tell us so and don't try to pass it off as truth. I'm more entertained by real truth than convenient lies and falsehoods passed off as truth. Read this book to enlighten yourself about the nature of "reality" or what passes for such in the movie theatre. Occasionally funny, sometimes infuriating, but always interesting, this book will keep you reading, and thinking, long after you have read it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dark Light by Jayne Castle

When reporter Sierra McIntyre goes to interview Crystal City's new Guild Boss, John Fontana, she comes to the interview already prejudiced against the Ghost Hunter's Guild. Sierra is a friend to many ex-Hunters, burned out by being exposed to way too many jobs at the guild's behest. Because most Ghost Hunters don't plan for the future, many of them are destitute and living on the street. Some of those are addicted to a new drug dubbed "Ghost Juice". Sierra blames the guild for not taking care of the Hunters better and she suspects that the Guild is behind the sale of Ghost Juice, said to come from a secret alien temple discovered in a jungle that has been discovered in the tunnels under Crystal City. But since the jungle has hardly been explored very well, just about anything could be hiding in it.

Unbeknownst to any but her family, Sierra has a psychic talent of intuition and is able to "feel" things that are usually right on the money. And now she feels a sudden and unwanted attraction to John Fontana...

John feels it too, and offers Sierra the deal of a lifetime: almost unlimited access to the guild and some of its many secrets. But with it comes a price: a marriage of convenience to John Fontana. She agrees, and adds in a few stipulations of her own: that the Guild take better care of the burned-out ex-Hunters, and that he investigate the disappearances of some of the same Hunters who were her friends. And, of course, her dust bunny, Elvis, is part of the deal. John agrees immediately, and they are quickly married in a ceremony at City Hall attended by her best friends. But soon after, another ex-Hunter, Jake Tanner, also goes missing, and his records have mysteriously disappeared from the guild records.

It looks to John as though Sierra might be on to something, even though he is reluctant to admit that anything from the rag that she works for might be true. But when his house is firebombed by the Reapers, a motorcycle gang that seems to be able to project Ultraviolet Ghost light, he and Sierra are forced to spend time in the catacombs, where her claustrophobia is put to the ultimate test.

Their marriage has another effect as well: it emboldens members of John's family to seek out Sierra, hoping she can convince John to lend or give them the money they need to keep their business alive. But as John is a literal bastard, a situation that happens extremely rarely on Harmony, he was mistreated by his father's Covenant Marriage wife even though she reluctantly took him into the family and raised him along with her own sons. When his father died, he left John his business, but John wanted nothing more to do with the family. He turned it down and walked away forever. Now, the business is failing, and the family needs to convince Sierra to make him lend them the money.

Sierra agrees to try, but John has gone down into the Jungle to find the missing ex-hunters. And when the guards in the temple are caught, he isn't able to find all the conspirators behind the whole drug-smuggling business in the first place. Who has the last Ultraviolet Ghost Light Generator? And can they find it before Sierra is injured or killed in the catacombs?

I've always enjoyed the Harmony stories that Jayne Castle writes, and this one is no exception. The sudden proposal of marriage between John and Sierra, her acceptance, and the antics of her Dust Bunny pet, Elvis, enlivened the main plot considerably. Of course, the immense attraction both main characters feel for each other presages the fact that they are made for each other and will end up staying married after giving into their lust for each other along the way.

Of course, the book also has an intriguing mystery mixed in with the romance plot, and this one is a doozy, with Drug Smuggling, possible aliens (who actually turn out to be humans in motorcycle helmets sheathed in the Ultraviolet Ghost Light generator; this is revealed quite early in the book, so I don't consider it a spoiler), and of course, a hidden conspiracy in the heart of the Hunter's Guild. Add to that a broodingly sexy hero, a heroine with a hidden talent and lots of moxie, and you've got a winner in my book. (But the cover has a guy whose hairstyle makes him look like he's barely escaped from a 70's disco, and let's not forget the requisite "shirt unbuttoned and half-open to reveal his amazingly ripped chest" look. A look that never appears in the novel, as far as I can tell. Isn't there some other way to telegraph that the hero is sexy? Honestly!)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Into the Thinking Kingdoms by Alan Dean Foster

Etjole Ehomba and his companions have made it past the Sea of Ahoqua, but finding a ship to take them across the Semordria Ocean is impossible in the port city of Lybondai; or so says Haramos bin Grue, a merchant who claims to have a solution for them. But when he shows off his magical bar, complete with dining room, patrons and the token cockroach, it is a trap, and he steals away Ahlitah to sell him to the highest bidder. Etjole and Simna must steal him back, and get away from the magical creations and possessions of Haramos bin Grue.

But even after they have retrieved their companion, more perils lie ahead, from a swamp haunted by horses, even the spirits of those who have not been yet, to the thinking kingdoms themselves, which count themselves "civilized", but may try to control how their citizens think, or treat those not like themselves with cruelty unimagined by any others. They also pick up a new traveling companion, Hunkapa Aub, a Neander who is imprisoned by the citizens of Netherbrae, acting as a scapegoat for their problems. Lastly, they find the country of Larabonda, from which came Taryn Beckwith, but the return of Haramos bin Grue brings them more trouble, and when they travel to Hamacassar to find a ship capable of carrying them to Ehl-Larimar, Etjole winds up in trouble with the Logicians, a group capable of manipulating the very fabric of time itself. When they remove him from the ship they have hired to take them across the Semordria, it looks as though his journey is over. He has already escaped from so many dangers and perils, but how can he escape from the masters of time itself?

The middle book of a trilogy often suffers by comparison to the rest of the books. It is neither the exciting beginning nor the amazing end, and is too often boring, as the author seems to have run out of ideas and merely bulls his or her way through to get to the ending and thus the ending of the journey. But Alan Dean Foster doesn't suffer from this problem. The "Thinking Kingdoms" believe themselves civilized, but turn out to be savage and primitive in quite a different way, full of people who are all too ready to tell others how to think, bellieve, or who just are full of talk about being civilized, but in reality are little better than the "Savage" lands that Etjole and his friends travelled through to get there in the first place.

Once again, we are treated to Etjole's wonderful items, apparently made by everyone in his village but himself. It's as if he lives in a village of magicians and sorcerers and he is the only normal one (for extreme values of "normal" of course) living among them. Both his companions insist he is a sorcerer, a magician, a man with lots and lots of magic, titles that Etjole resists. And yet we get a feeling he is someone who protesteth a bit too much for my taste. Is it realistic that he is the only one (or one of the few) that have no magic in a village where everyone else is able to do such wondrous things? Well, we'll soon know, as the end is coming, and I am looking forward to it.

Yotsuba&! Volume 5 by Kiyohiko Azuma

It's summer, and Yotsuba is enjoying the weather, and spending most of the time next door. When Ena's friend Miura builds a cardboard Robot suit to wear, Yotsuba is convinced that he is a real robot named Cardbo. Then she spends the day "helping" her neighbors do the laundry.

When her Dad's co-worker Yanda comes by, he turns out to be almost as much of a kid as she is and incurs Yotsuba's ire. Then Yotsuba, her father and her friends take a trip to the countryside to look at the stars. And on a rainy day, Yotsuba and her father take a trip to the video store to pick out new videos and pick up some groceries. Yotsuba also decides to eat her first Takiyaki. Finally getting sick of all the rain, Yotsuba makes her own TeruTeru Bozu to make the rain stop and bring back sunny weather. It works.

And finally, Yotsuba, her dad and her friends take a visit to the beach where they play in the surf, build sandcastles and have fun until Yotsuba totally poops out and passes out asleep. They return home on the train, still sleeping.

This is more of a "slice of life" manga than one with any actual story. Yotsuba is only a little girl, apparently too young yet for school, and she alternately has fun with and terrorizes the kids next door, who seem to be her only friends. Her Dad works at home, and there is no sign of a mother, nor are we aware of what happened to her.

It's a cute manga, but I feel absolutely no need to purchase it. I read it through my library and when I see new books come in. It's not one to get really hooked on as the story just is... a slice of life in Japan. I can see how that would fascinate some people, but it's not really what I am interested in.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ill Met in the Arena by Dave Duncan

The Nobles of Aureity have bred their children for psychic powers for ages. Women, who rule, can tell if someone is lying just by being near them. Touching someone allows them to read the person's mind. They can also create extremely realistic illusions and can control the minds of men. Men, on the other hand, have powers that allow them to lift great amounts of weight simply with their minds, and teleport to any place they know well. But to keep men under control, the men compete in gladiatorial games against each other, using their mind strength, in hopes of attracting a high-born woman who will allow him to serve her, and eventually marry her and produce new children, stronger in mind-powers than the generation before.

Mudar of Quoin is a man under a doom, who is competing in the games under the name of Quirt of Mundil. He is looking to find the man who raped his mother and drove her into madness, as well as killing two other competitors in the open games she held. The same man also killed his lady wife and the woman he loved, and her mother forced his doom upon him.

Now Quirt/Mudar has found the son of the man responsible, but he must befriend him and convince him that their father is a murderer and rapist. And that isn't going to be easy, as his half-brother is engaged to marry a woman Quirt has fallen in love with, but is prevented from marrying by his doom and lack of credentials. So while they fight over the love of this woman, Quirt must reveal his own past to convince his half-brother Humate of Alfret of the truth of his claim. And find an unexpected ability- to teleport to a person rather than a place, that both share with their father.

But the deception of his father runs deeper than Quirt/Mudar might expect, and when his mother is put into danger once more by his seeking of the truth, Quirt/Mudar must do his best to save her if he ever wants to see justice done for her and regain his own name.

Though this is not a thick book, Dave Duncan is a past master at cramming a great deal of story into a small amount of pages and making it look easy. Though some of the book is told in flashback, the rest does an amazing job of filling us in on the background of this world and Mudar/Quirt's past and reasons for competing.

The story is compelling and will draw you in like nothing else. I became wrapped in the story almost from the first page, and couldn't stop reading until it was done. It wasn't just Mudar and Humate who drew my attention, but all of the characters, main and secondary both. This is one of the finest novels I have read in terms of story, and recommend it to everyone who likes fantasy and well-constructed novels. Amazingly well done.