Friday, October 31, 2008

The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls by John R. King

Thomas Carnacki is an Englishman of Russian ancestry in Reichenbach on a tour, but he's fallen on hard times, penniless and starving, trying to argue with a rat for a piece of moldy cheese discarded by the proprietor of the cheese shop in town. Yet, when he sees a beautiful blonde woman come by with a picnic basket full of bread and cheese and wine, he tries to ingratiate himself with her so that he can share her wonderful feast and even possibly seduce her.

The girl, whose name is Anna, takes him to picnic by the falls, but as they do so, spots two men quarrelling on the other side of the falls. One man is pushed over the side, and the two of them see the other go as well. They manage to rescue one of the men, who they pull out from the tidal pool, and found that, due to his injuries, he can no longer remember his name or who he is.

Then the other man appears and starts shooting at them, forcing them to try and escape with this man, who they call Harold Silence, in deference to the Tailor's nametag found in his coat. The three of them try to get away, but the man continues to show up and follow them, until they bury him under an avalanche of snow and are forced to spend the night in a small cave, high up on the mountain.

Who is Harold Silence? And why is this man seeking him so viciously? Silence tells Thomas that the girl is with the man trying to kill them, but Thomas won't believe it... until Anna confesses that this is true. We then get to see that the man is a professor, lately of Mathematics, named James Moriarity, and how he came to be the head of a crime syndicate, involving a demon and Jack the Ripper, along with a female prostitute whom Moriarty rescued from the street, educated and who later became his wife and mother of his child.

Silence and Carnacki have gone to the local sanatorium, hoping to find a cure to Silence's amnesia. But the doctor there is in the pay of Moriarty, and with the help of Anna, who may be Moriarty's daughter but is by no means in league with him, they rescue Silence and help him discover that he is Sherlock Holmes, who came to Reichenbach to capture his nemesis.

But can they set a trap for Moriarty, who seems one step ahead of them all the way? And when they do, and manage to drive the demon from Moriarty, it enters into Holmes, who takes up crime in Moriarty's place, but in Paris, not London. But with Anna and Moriarty both dead, can Thomas do the unthinkable and outwit not only Holmes, but the demon inside him?

This was an unusual book, adding real live demons to the Holmesian canon, but it worked for me. The story is taut, well-written and engaging, and makes you believe in the circumstances of the story, no matter how far-fetched they may seem on the surface.

Carnacki is a reliable narrator, if somewhat of a would-be con man. The story is told from both his point of view and that of Holmes/Silence, albeit in third person, limited subjective format. The story has Holmes believing in the Demon, but eventually reverting to his more normal "no supernatural things" belief within a few pages of being rescued and the demon driven out of him. This is necessary if the story is to be considered part of the Holmesian canon, but comes out looking a bit ridiculous, as if Holmes is now discarding his "Whatever remains must be the truth" saying. Either that, or Holmes is reacting hysterically to the fact that even someone with his intellect and cold logic, could be taken over by something as irrational and unbelievable as a demon, which is also not a good fit with Sherlock Holmes's mind as is usually portrayed.

Aside from this, I found the book to be wonderful and well worth the read. Despite not exactly fitting the Holmesian canon, anyone who is able to read it will find it a gripping story that carries you along until the very last page. Definitely recommended.

Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd by Barry Clifford with Paul Perry

Captain Kidd was a famous and well-known Pirate, but he didn't start out that way. He was once a wealthy merchant of New York during the colonial period. But his decision to become a privateer and prey on French shipping for the glory of England led to his downfall: slipping down a morally slippery slope into actual piracy against the ships of England, the country he was ostensibly working for as a privateer, and becoming a petty tyrant who incited two rebellions against his captaincy, in both cases, losing the ships he was captaining. And then, killing a man with a thrown bucket, the crime that eventually led him to the gallows and the gibbet.

But this is not strictly Captain Kidd's story, it is also the story of diver and expedition leader Barry Clifford and his attempt to find the remains of Kidd's first ship, the Adventure Galley, sunk near the island nation of Madegascar. Even that isn't certain, with the ship in a graveyard of plundered and sunken vessels towed offshore of a small island called Ile St. Marie and allowed to sink- both as hazards to any ships coming to take care of the pirates, and as a means to dispose of ships that had been burnt or were no longer seaworthy.

Ile St. Marie also has its story to tell, as it was once known as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", and a small neighboring island better known to the locals as "Pirate's Island" is the supposed repository of Pirate Treasure through sealed-up tunnels that supposedly lead to a vast storehouse of gold, gems and other treasure that await in the depths of the island, now forever sealed off by the concrete laid by a greedy man whose greed lead to his death. The inhabitants of Ile St. Marie think the island is cursed and aren't easily persuaded to go there.

Despite the dives being made on the boat, the permit the team holds is only to take pictures, not to excavate, and so they must go home and return to the island after they have recieved the proper permits. With Discovery Channel coming back to film the discovery of the ship, the team find themselves blocked by a jealous rival of author Clifford, one who takes as much pleasure in denying Clifford the right to dive as in bad-mouthing him to the officials and government of Madgascar and Ile St. Marie. Despite repeated attempts to appease the other man, he refuses to give up, believing himself to be wronged by Barry Clifford in the past. Even though he is also denied permission to dive on the wreck that he wants to excavate, the other man doesn't care. He who stays last, wins, he tells the author.

As the negotiations and diplomacy slowly drag out, author Clifford stays long past the time when he was supposed to leave, only to have an unexpected ending to his tale that frees him to confirm his suspicions about the presence of the Adventure Galley. But in between, the Deeds and trial of Captain Kidd are contrasted with the efforts of Barry Clifford to confirm that the Galley he found is the Adventure Galley.

This was a fascinating book, both for the historical story of the real Captain Kidd (who was quite a failure as a Pirate Captain, not to mention as a Privateer. The causes of his problems and downfall show that being a pirate at that time wasn't an easy task, and shows that the truth about pirates is not what is so often depicted in the stories of fiction. To give just one example, a pirate captain was democratically elected by his crew, and woe betide the captain who failed to catch booty-laden ships, or who tried to lord it over his men, as most of them earned a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean at the many hands of their enraged crew.

The modern day story is equally fascinating, with its depiction of how hard it is to be an archaeologist when dealing with the government or rivals blocking you out of misplaced revenge or aggression, and the sad end to the tale of bad-mouthing and backstabbing is a depiction that archaeology is nowhere near as fun or dangerous as the Indiana Jones films would have you believe. It's just as exciting and full of finds, but in a different way. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people looking for a real true-life adventure story.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Two to the Fifth, A Xanth Novel by Piers Anthony

Cyrus Cyborg, and his steed, Don Donkey, are headed to the Castle of the Good Magician Humphrey. Cyrus's father is a robot, and his mother is a Barbarian, and each has different ideas about what they want him to do with his life. His father wants him to become a leader of robots, while his mother wants him to carry off a wild barbarian wife, but Cyrus doesn't know what he wants, and he'll ask the Good Magician what it would be best for him to do.

On the way to the castle, he encounters a few women who wish to become actresses, and a woman named Tess Tosterone, who is pushy and mouthy. She tells him most men want to persuade women to lie with them, but Cyrus is so innocent that he doesn't know what she means. They end up spending the night together after Cyrus experiences some kissing, but all they do is sleep. The next day, he travels to the Good Magician's Castle and must pass the three challenges, which he does, and is told his wish is to become a playwright, and to make plays and entertain people. He suddenly realizes this is true, but the good magician gives him something he must do to pay for his answer: he must become good enough to be directed to give a command performance by Ragna Roc, a bird who believes he is as powerful as a God. Then, he must find some way to overcome the bird, whose magical power is to turn people into illusions who are like ghosts in their inability to touch or be touched. By demonstrating his power, he has convinced several villages to make him their supreme ruler, and the Good Magician is concerned as to what could happen should his influence continue to spread. He is powerful enough that even The Good Magician doesn't feel he could prevail against Ragna Roc.

But Cyrus will have help on his endeavours, in the form of Rhythm, one of the triplet sorceresses whose power squares when two of them play music together, and cubes when all three play together. Surely they will be powerful enough to defeat this interloper? But first Cyrus must get busy and craft plays with which to tour and find actresses and actors with whom to work. And to do that, he must craft his own writer's block, and infuse it with the power of a muse while in the dream realm.

Cyrus does so, and makes contact with Rhythm. However, he soon runs into a dilemma: all the actresses in the company are after him for themselves, and even Rhythm is experiencing a very un-childlike sort of interest in him. Cyrus is somewhat repulsed by this, as Romancing a 12 year old girl is something that goes directly against the Adult Conspiracy. Even so, he finds himself attracted to the Princess. Then she shares with him a story of working with time and aging a full ten years, only to regain her former age when she left the area, leaving her with a residue of adult feelings. Then, she transformes into an adult via a spell and pushes him into a love spring, and he is lost, falling fully into love with her instead of being halfway there.

But the spell backfires, summoning a stork and continuing to age her and her daughter, who she names Kadence. Kadence quickly grows into a six year old before Rhythm can halt the spell, and stays after Rhythm reverts to being a child herself again, as neither Cyrus nor Rhythm can bear to put a child of theirs into non-existence. But this has other consequences as well. How will they explain this child? and what will happen to them when the forces of the Adult Conspiracy find out? For that matter, what will happen when other adults find out? Cyrus tries to put off these fears while continuing to work on his plays, and his story of forbidden love goes on to find its way into his work.

Finally, with three plays under their belt, Cyrus and his company begin touring and even visit the Curse Friends to show off their plays, which are wildly successful. So successful that the company stays with him as he takes off for the villages controlled by Ragna Rok. But can Cyrus and his company resist joining Ragna Rok and his harem of female roks and human (and other) followers? Will Cyrus be persuaded to join by being able to love Rhythm openly and freely inside the bounds of Ragna Rok's lands? And can he figure out the "Two to the Fifth" clue that holds the clue to defeating Ragna Rok once and for all?

I liked this book, though I was made more than a bit uncomfortable by the Romance plot between Cyrus and Rhythm. Yes, technically he was only two years old, thus being even younger than her, but he was assembled an adult, which made him an adult under the rules of the Adult Conspiracy (intended to protect children from knowing about sex and other adult topics until they actually become adults. And despite the contortions the book went through to show us that Rhythm was more or less an adult because of the ten years she experienced working with time, after which she reverted to her more childish-aged body, often strained my credulity a bit too far. I suppose this may have been the author's condemnation of the way kids nowadays grow up too fast, exposed to the ideas of sex and other adult things early and how it causes them problems later on in life, but it just made me feel uneasy. And in the end, both characters are punished for it, but not in a way that seems much like an actual punishment.

As for the rest of the story, Ragna Roc himself barely seems to come into it, as he doesn't appear until fairly late in the book. It's almost as if he was thrown in as an afterthought, and his plans and defeat weren't as integral to the book, making it a less than successful story for me. Once again, a bit too much attention was given to how often Cyrus and Rhythm made an ellipsis (...}, and was much more indicative of real sex as opposed to the "Cuddle close and summon the stork" route seen in earlier books. I don't know if this is an indication that Piers Anthony is tired of the whole thing and thus less likely to sugarcoat aspects of Xanth, or if he's simply turning into a dirty old man, as some people I know seem to think, but it was rather disturbing to me. At least the puns are still there, but don't take attention away from the somewhat distasteful aspects of the story.

This story had more problems than I am used to seeing or reading about in a Xanth book, but I will read others in the series. I'm just not looking forward to them as much as I am used to.

Vamps by Nancy A. Collins

Lilith Todd is the darling of her family, one of the vampires born into vampirehood, who still can stand the sunlight and have reflections. But this lasts only until they are 24 or 25, where they lose their reflections permanently and marry to increase their families connections. Her family is one of the thirteen clans of Old Blood Vampires, each ruling one portion of the world, and she attends the elite Bathory academy with other children of the Old Bloods.

Through a willingness to break the rules and drink the blood of strangers, thus breaking the rules, at a vampire-owned club called the Belfry, Lilith is banned from the club for three days. The next night, she and her friends meet to go "slumming", or to stalk drug dealers and drink the blood of drug-addicted humans. But something goes wrong, and there is another vampire girl there, a New Blood named Cally Monture who is there to roll the Drug Dealers for their money so that her mother can pay the rent. But when many of the Drug Dealers turn out to be Vampire Hunters known as Van Helsings, both sets of vampires have to fight if they want to live... a circumstance in which Cally's powers over the weather stand in good stead.

But the fight leads to the death of Tanith Graves, Lilith's best friend, and Cally inadvertantly saves the life of one of the Van Helsings, Peter, without knowing who he is. Peter is discovered too soon to try and destroy Cally, and feels a bit of a debt to her because she saved his life. So when his father tells him that Cally's grandmother was a white witch and that Cally could choose not to be a vampire, Peter determines to try and save her from the Vampire life. But his father and the rest of his family will not help him, for they consider her lost after leading the life of a Vampire.

Cally returns home, and is told by her mother that her father, whom she has never met, was impressed with her recent grades from Varney Academy, and he has decided to send her to the exclusive Bathory Academy, a stronghold of the Old Bloods, where her recent nemesis, Lilith Todd, also goes to school.

Cally reluctantly agrees to go, knowing she will be snubbed by all the Old Bloods who attend the school. And she is snubbed and cut dead by Lilith and her friends, but Cally finds her own friends by sticking up for herself against Lilith's abuse, and several of the teachers support her as well. But when Jules De Laval, Lilith's fiancee, starts paying Cally the attention the insecure Lilith feels should be better spent with her, it's war! But when Lilith bites Cally, she discovers a horrible secret that could just bring her entire world as Daddy's Little Girl crashing down around her. Can she survive the shock... and her own insecurity?

I liked this series, which has definite ties to the real world. Lilith seems to inhabit the world of the very rich upper-crust, where the rich, the famous and the rich and famous hobnob and act like best friends until the knives come out and the backstabbing starts. She's not a particularly likeable person, for all the attempts to humanize her by giving her the weakness of insecurity. She's shallow and arrogant, assured of her high place from the status and wealth of her vampire family. She treats the people around her cruelly and yet whines and cries at the prospect of her father taking away her credit cards.

Cally is a bit better as a character, but she has her own problems. Coming from a family chronically short of money (which isn't a problem for her unseen father), she steals from drug dealers and questionable types to support her mother, who has no self-control when it comes to money. Her mother seems to do nothing but sit around and watch her flat-screen television all day and occasionally try to mother her daughter. Cally deliberately cultivates a more "street" than expensive bitch image, but she does try to fit into her new school and treats the girls there better than Lilith does.

It was interesting to watch Cally clash with Lilith and get praise from her teachers, and finally make some friends of her own among the Old Bloods and Half Breeds of the school. There will be a sequel out soon, and I have my suspicions about where some of the storyline may be heading. It will be very interesting to find out if my suspicions are confirmed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

Anna Wren is a widow whose husband was unfaithful to her, and she still bears the uncertainty and lingering hurt inherent in that situation. But being widowed also meant a slow slide into poverty and extremely pinched circumstances. Luckily, her husband's mother stays in the house with her as a cook/housekeeper, and a girl named Fanny who is distantly related to Mrs. Wren acts as a girl of all tasks, but neither are very good at being servants.

Anna sees only one thing for it, and that is to become a servant herself, a governess or companion, seeing as she understands Latin and Greek (having been taught by her father), as well as how to write and do sums. But her talents are not suited to either job, until she runs into Hopple, the servant of the Earl of Swartingham, Edward de Raaf, who had nearly run Anna down in the road. The earl needs a secretary, but his ferocious temper has driven off all his former secretaries. Anna dazzles Hopple into offering the job, and the Earl, satisfied with Hopple saying he had engaged a secretary, goes off to London for a week to take care of business.

Anna works for the week, and makes the acqaintance of the Earl's nameless dog, who started following him after he freed and fed it once. When the Earl returns home, he is thunderstruck to discover his new secretary is female, but can't argue with her work, which is impeccable. But best of all, she isn't upset or given the vapors when he raises his voice to her or argues with her, and she's intelligent enough to follow along and ask questions about his agricultural research.

She soon begins to appreciate his finer qualities, and becomes quite attracted to him. But when she runs out of paper and finds a bill for a whorehouse named Aphrodite's grotto, she becomes upset to think of him loving another woman. Around this time, she finds a prostitute in a ditch on her way home from her job. The earl has lent her his carriage to ride in, and she persuades the groom to help the woman, even though it is clear that she is of fallen virtue. Doing so, however, makes her an outcast with some in the village, but she refuses to send the woman away to the local workhouse to be nursed and instead tends this woman, Pearl, with her own hands and in her own bed, even sending a message to her sister, Coral.

But opening her husband's writing box, she finds a locket jammed in there. She starts to throw it out, hating any reminder of him and his infidelity, but eventually decides to keep it, thinking that she needs to stop being tortured by reminders of him. But when the wife of the local squire, Felicity, sees the locket, she thinks that Anna knows the truth about Felicity and Anna's former husband, and their adulterous affair. Thinking that Anna means to blackmail her, she arranges to have Anna followed and her own secrets discovered so that she may do to Anna before Anna does to her.

Anna doesn't have any secrets, except burgeoning feelings for Edward, but when Edward leaves for London again, Anna doesn't want Edward going to a lady of loose virtue to relieve his sexual frustrations. She wants him for herself! So she asks Pearl's sister to get her into Aphrodite's Grotto as the woman who is waiting for the Earl of Swartingham, and Coral agrees, bringing her to London and arranging things for her so that she can spend several nights with the man she has come to love. But even though things go successfully for her, it doesn't make her happy, for she knows that the Earl is affianced to someone else.

But Felicity's spy manages to discover what Anna has done in the city, and Felicity uses it to keep Anna in line. She intimates to Edward about his assignation with someone they both know, and Felicity's friend starts to share his story about Anna, but the Earl leaps to her defense without hearing it and demands she be apologized to, on the threat of a beating delivered by the Earl.

But when the Earl discovers the truth about her little exploit, he feels used, and wonders if Anna does this with other men or if she did it because of his smallpox scars, which he feels make him ugly because his first wife said she couldn't stand looking at them before she died giving birth to his stillborn son. Then, when he realizes she did it out of her feelings for him, he is determined to marry her, but she feels she cannot take him from his fianceé.

But Felicity is still after Anna in an attempt to blackmail her former lover's widow into keeping silent about her adultery, and she has too many other lovers who want to further her aims. Can Edward keep Anna safe and win her heart, or has Anna been too damaged by her former husband's infidelity to ever be won?

I liked this book immensely, which contrasts Anna and Edward's story with that of the titular fairytale, the Raven Prince, a Beauty and the Beast-type story in which the heroine loses her love by her suspicion and the collusion of her beautiful but heartless sisters and must prove her constancy by tracking down her husband with the help of the four winds. The lyricism of the tale contrasts with the more realistic tone of the story about Edward and Anna, and yet echoes many of the same themes. And in the end, both stories end happily.

Anna comes off as a thoroughly modern heroine, with advanced ideas about a woman's place in society and shows this through her helping of Pearl, the prostitute, who she treats as she would any other respectable woman; a most unusual attitude for her time. And of course, she does it with no expectations of repayment despite the fact that she has little to begin with.

Edward de Raaf, though, is more than a match for her, though his attitudes are more in keeping with the time he is born to than Anna's are. Even though he has been married before, his uncertainty about his appearance due to some minor smallpox scars makes him less open to entering a romance than Anna, as he believes no woman would find him attractive.

I must confess to one thing I find far-fetched at the end of the story. That Anna, who believed herself to be barren, is with child (again) after five years of marriage. Why is it romance heroines only seem to get preganant with their one true love, when in the story they have usually been married before and now think themselves barren. I did think she would get pregnant after her little adventure in Aphrodite's Grotto, and I suspected the author was thinking of it. It just smacks of fantasy and wish fulfillment, and it offends my sense of an orderly world where a woman can have sex with a man she doesn't even like and become pregnant. It's like, fantasy contraception.

In any case, I will read future volumes in the series, if more come out. I really liked the characters, the series and the story, even part of it did annoy me. Thankfully, it was pushed to the epilogue instead of being a large part of the story itself. I would definitely recommend this book to someone else.

The Knight of the Red Beard by Andre Norton and Sasha Miller

The Knight of the Red Beard is the fifth book in the cycle of Oak, Yew, Ash and Rowan. Several years have passed since the defeat of the Mother Flame Dragon and her brood, and now Ashen and Gaurin's children are coming into their own.

With the Nordorn Kingdom prosperous and at peace with Ashen and Gaurin, known as "Their Maimed Majesties" at the helm, their eldest son and heir, Bjaudin, keeps an eye on his studies and looks to woo a bride. Middle child and only daughter Elin has plans for herself that involves her becoming heir to the Dowager Ysa, and applies all her intelligence and cunning into gaining Ysa's favor. Youngest son Mikkel, bored with the infighting between Bjaudin and Elin, dreams of somehow escaping their endless bickering and becoming a man on his own terms.

And when his uncle Rowance decides to finally marry his leman Mauritja, he sees his chance. His close friend, Tjórvi, is the son of the head of the Sea-Rovers, and they have a tradition of running away to sea when they feel they are old enough. Nordorn's newest ship, The Ice Princess, will soon be going for sea trials, and another ship, the GorGull, will be going a-raiding. Tjórvi plans on stowing away on the GorGull and becoming a man. It would be simple for Mikkel to come with him.

And so they do. But their stowing away has some far-reaching effects. For one, the boys are introduced to the actual hard work that comes in the sailing of a ship. For another, when a Wykenig force attacks the GorGull, Mikkel is captured in the raid, while Tjórval manages to escape, mainly because the captain of the Wykenig vessel, Holger der Forferdelig (or Holger the Terrible) sees that he has a trained warkat accompanying him, named Talkin. He wants the boy because someone able to train a Warkat at such a young age is special, so he sends Mikkel back to his steading and turns him into a servant there.

Meanwhile, back at court, Elin falls under Ysa's tutelage and practices her skills at entwining young men around her finger by playing with several noble's sons, nearly bringing them to blows as they fight for her favors. At the same time, Ysa pushes for Elin's betrothal to the boy she wants to marry and achieves it while at the same time stirring up unrest against Ashen and Gaurin in their kingdom with rumors that they sit on a huge cache of firestones while letting their kingdom lack for money.

Bjaudin also finds a girl to marry at this time, and is betrothed to her in the same ceremony that betroths Elin to her own choice. Back at the Steading, Mikkel falls under the authority of Askepott, a wysen wyf the same as Madame Zazar back in Nordorn Kingdom. She looks after Mikkel and begins corresponding with Zazar, sharing herbs and a ritual that will allow them to meet. But when Mikkel runs afoul of Holger's wife, Gunnora, by taking up too much of his time for her liking, she turns foul magic on the boy, causing him to age at an accelerated rate and to forget who he really is, thinking Holger his father.

But when the time comes to release his warkat Talkin to seek a mate, one of his fellow prisoners, Petra, asks to accompany him. He lets her, and she convinces him to take off her iron collar of servitude. When he does so, she seems to grow taller immediately, and she reveals she is a rock-maiden, literally made out of living rock, like marble. She takes him to the city of the rock-maidens and wants to help him get revenge on Holger for imprisoning them both.

When Holger realizes that Mikkel is gone, he blames Askepott, and she leaves for Nordorn lands after taking all her herbs and things with her, and steals a magic sled to make the trip in the bargain. Once there, she works with Zazar and Ysa to try and find Mikkel. But as they seek him, Ysa's meddling comes back to harm both Ashen and Gaurin as they try to deal with Gunnora, the daughter of the sorceress who raised the mother ice-dragon. Now that her mother is dead, Gunnora means to have her revenge on their Maimed Majesties, and their kingdom. But can they prevent her rage from falling on them all?

I rather liked this series, but as an ending and supposedly the final volume in the cycle of Oak, Ash, Yew and Rowan, it felt curiously unfinished. At the end, Gunnora is still alive and Mikkel's fate is in limbo. With the aging spell on him halted, he's effectively immortal, but no longer remembers his old friends, his parents or his siblings. And for all that he's an adult in body, in his mind he is still very much a child, in love with Petra but not really understanding what love between a grown man and woman is.

Holger, too, is still alive and free at the end. In fact, none of the people who cause trouble in the novel are in any way conclusively dealt with. Ysa, Elin, Gunnora and Holger are all alive and free, and even if Elin now dislikes Ysa because Ysa's meddling caused the death of both her parents, Ysa suffers no real punishment for this act. In short, this volume calls out for another, one that brings a real ending to the threat of Holger and Gunnora, one that this book just didn't have.

Being that Andre Norton passed away a few years ago, it's entirely possible that this book was cobbled together out of some preliminary planning by Norton and co-writer Miller. In the end, though, it disappoints as far as being a satisfying story goes. I'm glad I read it, but it isn't really an Andre Norton story, in my mind. It just doesn't have her authentic touch, and while I might purchase the book to be a completist, I wouldn't read it again, even as part of the series.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fairy Cube, Volume 2 by Kaori Yuki

Ian, Rin and Ainsel talk with Eriya's grandmother, who listens to Ian's story and tells her own, of growing up in Ireland and her encounter with a fairy named the Cancanagh. She was blind, but she could tell that he was seducing young women, a different one each time. When she offered him her own life, he refused, saying children smelled of milk. He promised to come for her if she became beautiful when she grew up, but he never did. Devastated, she moved far away, to Japan, and yet, Kaito might be that same fairy...

Ian's aunt, Lise, shows up and breaks into Ian's home with the help of Rin and Ian. There, they find Ian's father, chained to a wall and starving by his son, Tokage. Eventually Lise tells them that she is a fairy, named Leannan Sidhe, who lives on the life and creativity of humans. Her sister, Ian's mother, was also a Leannan Sidhe who lived off their father. But she fell in love with him and wanted to stay with him forever. Doing so would have eventually killed Ian's father as she sucked his life force and creativity away. But while she was with him, he was phenomenally creative. Now, though, she is missing, and Lise is looking for her.

Tokage, meanwhile, has discovered the link between Rin and Ian, and sets a trap for her and curses her so that whenever she touches Ian, she produces flames. She had told Tokage that she and Ian shared a pure love, so now, he gleefully informs her, he will give her a chance to prove it. Now, she will never be able to touch him again.

But she fights back, and Ian attacks Tokage, with dark wings sprouting from his back. Rin blacks out and when she comes to, a fairy named Raven tells her that he needs Ian's soul to perform the sacrifice that will help the Golob Group bring their remaking of the world into reality. Meanwhile, inside the spell-warded school, Tokage tells Ian how his mother got rid of him because he was a fairy son and she wanted to stay in the human world. She buried him in a portal to fairy, and he was raised an outcaste in the fairy world. But when he was used by a town of fairies as a sacrifice to their God, to keep him imprisoned within the earth. Tokage called on the God's power and slew them all, including the woman who raised him, as she was also going to sacrifice him. But killing the woman who raised him and showed him only kindness seems to have driven him insane.

Rin, to save Ian's life, agrees to go with Raven, knowing Ian will rescue her. Lise helps Ian recover from the attack, and Ian is happy now that he knows he was never delusional about fairies. He understands why Tokage is angry, but cannot forgive his actions.

Meanwhile, Rin meets Shina, the woman and fairy behind the plan to kill all the humans on Earth. While she is at Golob Group, though, she meets a young girl with green hair and red eyes who looks only about six or seven years old. Yet the girl says she is missing her son, Ian, and needs help finding him. Could this be Ian's mother, somehow? Rin also meets a little contrary fairy named Derek, who befriends her when the girl tells him not to like Rin. Rin uses Derek to send a message to Ian, who realizes that in his rush to vengeance against Tokage, he risks becoming just like him. But Ainsel helps him see and we get to see more of Kaito's past. Meanwhile Rin decides to pretend to support Golob Group in hopes of helping Ian stop their plan. As Ian and Eriya's grandmother talk some more, they realize that Rin has become the face of Golob Group's ritual. Can they stop the other fairies in time?

I liked this book, which reveals a lot of background on the characters and shows Ian's importance to the fairies both to stop the plan to kill the humans, and to fulfill it. During the book, Tokage moves from being the main villain to being a supporter of Golob Group, although he still does plenty of nasty things. But he's becoming less important to the storyline than the plot to kill all the humans in the world so that the fairies become resurgent.

There are no simple characters here, excepting maybe Ian and Rin. All the other characters have complex pasts and conflicting loyalties. Some of them are tortured by what they have seen and done, and by how they have achieved their goals. Needless to say, this is what attracted me to Kaori Yuki's writing in the first place, as part of the Earl Cain saga, the Godchild series, and now with this one. The story goes just fast enough without feeling rushed, and yet has me anxious to read more. I'll be looking forward to more volumes of this series even if I don't think it will be overly long in toto.

Fairy Cube, Volume 1 by Kaori Yuki

Ian is a young man who believes in fairies, even if no one else around him does. He remembers his mother having green hair and red eyes, and his father saying that his mother seemed like a fairy to him. But now his mother is gone, and his father, once an award-winning novelist, has been reduced to teaching in school to make a living.

But a chance encounter with Rin, once Ian's childhood friend, brings him back to remembering how much he loved fairies. Rin and her parents had moved away from Ian when Rin was younger, but now Rin and Ian rediscover Ian's belief in fairies.

But something else is happening. Ian keeps having glimpses of a green-haired, red-eyed boy near his father, and people are dying in the city with their blood spattered across their bodies and backs in a pattern much like fairy wings. One day, Ian stumbles across just such a body and witnesses a one-eyed man pick up something from the body. Ian follows him into a shop and discovers that the man is the proprietor of the shop, and he was picking up a crystal cube with an insect inside it.

Unnerved by the man and the shop, Ian flees, but before he goes, the man gives him another cube with a little green lizard with red eyes inside it. He warns Ian against losing it or throwing it away, telling him he will be cursed forever if he does so. Ian doesn't know what to do, but keeps it anyway.

Later the next day, Ian is stabbed in the back by his father over an argument about fairies. He finds himself dying, and his spirit is stranded outside his body, but his body comes back to life, animated from within by the spirit of his brother, the spirit boy with the green hair and red eyes he has been seeing around his father.

With nowhere else to go, Ian returns to the shop, needing help to regain his body. The proprietor tells Ian it is true that he helped Ian's brother, Tokage, take over his body, because he and Tokage had a deal. But now he can help Ian.

Their deal-making is interrupted by the arrival of another fairy, this one female, named Ainsel, She looks much more like a traditional fairy, being small and female and delicate, with wings. But she hates humans and tries to attack Ian for being too close to the one she loves, the proprietor of the shop, Kaito. But she cannot control her magical power and begins destroying the shop, so Kaito sends her and Ian into the Otherworld to save his shop.

Here, Ian can once again touch things, which he could not as a spirit. Kaito tells he and Ainsel that because he had to act quickly, he does not know where he put them in the otherworld, so they will have to make their own way back. Ainsel is unhappy, but she and Ian begin their trek to a portal located beneath an Oak tree. On the way there, they encounter a lost fairy child, who Ian insists on saving. But the child is a trap set by a fairy hunter called a Nucklavee. The child is actually a badger spirit, but Ian doesn't blame the badger for the trap, and he cuts the net the Nucklavee has imprisoned the Badger-spirit's mate in as well as another animal spirit. Ainsel defeats the Nucklavee with her power to help Ian.

Ainsel is stunned that Ian, a human, would go out of his way to help a fairy, and she finds that she doesn't hate him at all. In fact, she would rather help him, for his innocence and goodwill. Once they make it back to Kaito's shop, Ian gets another body to inhabit, since Tokage has Ian's, the body of a much younger boy named Eriya Barrett.

Ian agrees to take over the body to get revenge on Tokage, and now must get Rin to believe who he really is. But Tokage, in his body, is hanging around with Rin an awful lot. Can he get Rin to believe him without revealing the secret of his identity to Tokage? And what about the Fairies plan to eliminate the problem of humans destroying the earth by destroying all humans everywhere? Can he prevent that from happening, or must he allow it to happen to get his revenge on Tokage?

And when the woman who is the grandmother of Eriya Barrett reveals that she also has the gift of fairy sight, how will Ian deal with this sudden complication to his plans?

I rather liked this series, which took on Celtic Fairies with a uniquely japanese twist. It combines fairies of the Celtic mold (like the Nucklavee) and a sort of "crane Maiden" motif of the heavenly (or in this case, fairy) wife who stays with a man but is forced to flee. In this case, she leaves behind a half-human son with the gift of sight and a birthmark of butterfly wings on his back, which his father later burns to take away the reminder of his wife and fairies.

Ian, though, pays the greatest price for this contravention of the rules of men and fairies. Abandoned by his mother, hated by his father, and scorned and shunned by everyone else, he ends up losing his body to Tokage, his twin brother. And yet, with everything that has happened to him, he still has more hardship to face in regards to Rin and Tokage and his mother and fairies. But how will it change him?

I can't wait to read more of this series, and it seems Ian will have some hard choices to make in the time ahead.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Harmony's Way by Lora Leigh

The woman who calls herself Harmony Lancaster has another name, the name of the famed Breed assassin, Death. But once she was a little girl, raised in the Breed labs to be an assassin by her mother, the lead scientist of the geneticists who created the Breed. Her brother, Jonas, was her mother's favorite one, petted, cooed over and never allowed to see the rot deep within that was their mother.

Jonas knew the other Breed were mistreated, and planned an escape from the labs. But it was Harmony that discovered a secret: Leo, the first Breed ever created, was somehow still alive. And another, that her mother knew of Jonas' plans to escape, through traitors among the other Breed, and planned to have him killed when he tried to escape. For Harmony, this was too much. She loved Jonas, but she knew he would never believe her if she tried to convince him how evil their mother was, so the young girl who was already an accomplished assassin slew her own mother to save her brother's life. But not only her mother. She also killed the Breed traitors who were planning to betray her brother and several of the lesser scientists, then escaped from the facility herself.

Since then, she has lived almost completely on her own, only surfacing to kill those who abuse children and leaving once they are dead, vanishing back into the darkness. But now she has been caught by her own people, and the Breed Council, headed by her brother, are fed up with her. Stay on the straight and narrow for at least six months, they insist, or they will kill her for her crimes.

Feeling that she is without a choice, she is taken from the Breed Labs in Virginia to Broken Butte, New Mexico, where she is to be a Breed Liaison to the local Sherriff's office and to the Sherriff himself, But a chance encounter in a bar the night before she is to meet her new Boss shakes her sense of herself, for the man she finds is not only hot, he makes her want him just from his scent. He takes her home, and they fall madly in bed together, and Harmony can't believe how she is acting around this man.

The next day, of course, she finds that the man she shared a one-night stand with is also her boss, Lance Jacobs. But she finds she can't stop thinking about what they shared, and whenever she so much as breathes his scent, she finds herself getting ragingly hot. But there is someone on her trail, and a preacher who hates and fears breeds is stirring up trouble for her by killing people using Death's signature, not knowing that she actually *is* Death. And when she finds out she's pregnant with Lance's child, she might have to give up her rootless ways to save what is most precious to her.

Lance certainly isn't going to let her go, and the power of the winds that runs in his family has made certain he can hear her pain no matter where he goes. The love and passion he feels for this beautiful, wounded woman compels him to fight for her and the love they share. But she has many enemies and many people chasing her. Will he have to sacrifice his life for hers and the life they have made together? Or can they finally build a life toether, where her former assassin's life does not intrude?

I liked this book, which was hot and filled with an interesting story that fleshes out the background of the breeds themselves and how they finally managed to escape the labs where they were grown and imprisoned. The overarching story in this one is the Breeds own uncertainty of how their lives work. Once a breed is mated, aging seems to either stop entirel or slow to an incredible degree. This, of course, is going to make the normal humans nervous, so Jonas, Harmony's brother, is working to find out the truth, and to do that, he needs to find the first Breed, who it seems is still alive, having been mated.

The way he intends to find out, though, is very distasteful. He plans to mate his sister with Lance, and settle her down thereby, then use the threat to her mate and child to make her give up the information and files she has on the first breed. She does so, but nearly loses both in the process. But her brother still thinks it was the right thing to do, making me wonder if he's more like his manipulative mother than he thinks. The next book seems like it will focus on him, and I have a feeling he won't escape how his manipulative ways impacted others when he finds his own mate. He embodies the Alpha Hero who also happens to cross the line into heavy manipulation and telling others what to do, not caring the cost.

The romance aspects in this book are cut rather short by the way Breeds mate, essentially, it boils down to a chemical and hormonal reaction that seeks to make them have sex with their mate over and over until the female gets pregnant. It doesn't even seem that they have to like each other much, just boink. In that, it seemed to me that breeds fall victim to their body chemistry and hormones, and not so much to love. But that may be just me. The sex is ultra-hot, and that's a pretty good reason to read it in my book. I also liked the storyline, though because of the specifics of breed mating and reproduction, I felt this was less romance and more erotica. Don't get me wrong. I liked the book, but I don't really feel it's a perfect fit with the "Romance" category.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Hollywood Book of Lists by Stephen J. Spignesi

Did you ever wonder what the 25 "most Dangerous Films Ever" were? Or wonder which Hollywood stars were related, and to whom? Or how about the real names of stars better known as...?

"The Hollywood Book of Lists" is the book for you, then, as it is filled with these sorts of lists and many, many more. Or even if you just enjoy a good movie or some great old movies, you'll still find plenty in this book to pique your interest and intrigue you mightily.

For instance, what does the AFI consider the best 100 films ever made (well, as of 2000, which is when this book was published)? Not only will you find out, but you'll find author Spignesi's own list and how he feels about the top 100, and whether, in his opinion, a movie deserves to be higher on the list, lower on the list, or not there at all. No surprise that he disagrees with the AFI's #1 top film, Citizen Kane.

In addition, you'll find out the fates of many deceased entertainers, and where some of those who were cremated have their ashes scattered. You'll even find the Pope's Top Ten movie list. And you thought the church looked down on the movie industry for promoting all that sex, violence, drinking and drug-using!

Every list in this book delights and informs at the same time. If you didn't know before, you'll find out who "Alan Smithee" is and why seeing his name on a movie is an almost sure sign it is going to suck, bigtime. From the seven most true to life Mob movies (and one TV series) to 40 Cameos of the Director you'll find in Alfred Hitchcock's films, this book is truly something you'll read and refer back to on a fairly regular basis. It may even inspire you to hold a movie weekend and discuss your own movie list!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Lord Tophet: A Shadow Bridge Novel by Gregory Frost

Leodora is the daughter of the legendary shadow puppeteer named Bardsham. Long ago, her father disappeared, and she was raised by his former helper and associate, Soter. Now, she has formed a company of her own, with Soter, the musician Diverus, who no longer knows his real name, and some of her father's other former associates.

She has passed over the Bridge that links the spans, and has come to the realm of Colemaigne. Colemaigne had once hosted her father, but was blighted by an attack by the God of Chaos, Lord Tophet. The reason for the attack is unknown. Some say her father insulted Lord Tophet, or stole from him, but no one knows the truth. But when she arrives in Colemaigne, she walks out onto the Dragon span, walking the labyrinth that is the presence of the Gods.

There, she has a vision and recieves a gift of a pendant that talks in the form of a golden lion. Diverus is drawn into the vision with her. He wants to know his real name, but has forgotten it. When both return to Colemaigne, the Gods have restored part of the city. This emboldens the people, who flock to the newly restored theatre, where Leodora will perform, under her stage name of "Jax".

But Diverus' fascination with the Shadow Bridge visible from where they entered Colemaigne leads them both into a shadow world that may take all their cleverness and ingenuity to get out of, and may lead Lord Tophet back to Leonora and Colemaigne. But can she defeat the world-spanning power of a God of Chaos and free her mother from imprisonment in a shadow world.

This was an interesting read for me. The book is one tale, filled with many other tales that entertain and delight, but the story doesn't always seem to be going anywhere. It circles and eddies, drawing back amongst itse;f and then turning into a new direction.

There was a lot in the story that puzzled me, such as the span, the bridge, and the bowl with the labyrinth that seem to be there on every span. I'm not sure how the world fits together or even what it looks like, and that contributes to the strange, almost dream-like nature of this particular volume. I'm not sure if these things are even explained in "Shadow Bridge", the previous volume, mainly because I haven't read it.

The setting is mainly fantasy, but as described, it could also be science fiction or speculative fiction. What the book is mainly about is secrets. Everyone in the book has secrets, from Leonora/Jax to Diverus to Soter and even Lord Tophet himself. In many cases, these secrets end up causing problems, but in Jax's case, her secret ends up saving everyone, although in the end, she leaves everything and everyone behind, even the puppets that make up her craft.

I found the story confusing and strangely enlightening at the same time. Like the book itself, my reaction is a study in contrasts, and the feeling I got from the book isn't of the sort that makes it easy to say, "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" or "I hated it. Conversely, I have no strong feelings about the story either way, so I can't exactly say I'll be recommending this to anyone.

Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with Michael Lark

People often assume that Batman takes care of all the crime in Gotham City. But he can't be everywhere, and so the members of the Gotham Police take care of daytime crime and crime involving unsuperpowered criminals. This, is their story.

When Detectives Driver and Fields are investigating an apartment looking for a missing girl for a tip they recieved from a snitch, they are surprised to find one of the occupants is Victor Fries, also known as Mr. Freeze. Freeze kills Charlie Driver with his Freeze Gun, turning him to ice, and freezes Marcus Fields' hands to his gun, but leaves him alive.

The Captain wants to call in Batman, but Marcus begs him not to. Charlie, his partner, called the Bat-Signal demoralizing to the Squad, since it was clear that Bat-man had a higher clearance rate for his cases than the cops did. It's a signal of their own failure to use it. He begs the Captain not to turn it on until sundown. Give the cops at the precinct that long. The Captain reluctantly agrees.

Everyone on the precinct fans out, looking for clues, wanting to solve this for Charlie. They know it's something big, but none of the leads seem to pan out. Until Marcus sees an invitation on his desk that brings back something Fries said to him, and he realizes what Mr. Freeze's target is: Comissioner Gordon's speech to the latest graduating class of cops... and knows he must bring in Batman, who takes out Freeze before he can put the chill on the entire building.

After that, the department must track down a firebug, and the suspect in the murder of a fifteen year old babysitter killed in the park as she walked home from a job watching children. Who could it have been? The homeless man she befriended and spoke to regularly? Some lowlife who only saw a vulnerable target, easy to attack? But when the cases suddenly merge, they discover how low a man can sink in his efforts to keep a secret...

Finally, Reneé Montoya is a good cop, formerly partner to Harvey Bullock and now partnered with Chris Allen, a black cop. Reneé is having difficulties in both her personal life and her professional life. For one, she's a lesbian, and her parents would condemn her to hell if they ever found out, and Marty Lipari, a suspect in a rape case, won the case and is now suing her. But when she finds pictures of her and her lover have been sent to the station house and her parents, she finds her stress levels rising. Luckily, her brother smooths things over with her parents, but the other cops, with the exception of her partner, needle her about her "leanings".

Then, her backup piece is stolen from her apartment, and she gets into an altercation with Marty Lipari, who has been taking pictures of her and her lover, and who threatens the safety of her lover. Later that night, Lipari is killed, which gets her into an IAD investigation. She is arrested, but before she can even go to jail, she is broken out of the bus and taken to the swank apartment of none other than Two-Face, who she met and worked with during the time when Gotham became No Man's Land. She was able to connect with Harvey Dent, the good, normal side of Two-Face, and he apparently fell in love with her. Two-Face, Harvey's insane alternate persona has as well, and orchestrated a campaign to remove her from everything she loves and values- her family, her job, her reputations, and even her lover, and then offers her a life with him in return. Who can protect her from this crazy criminal and will this experience finally bring her out of the closet for good?

I enjoyed this graphic novel very much, and found it to be wonderfully gritty and realistic... well, if you discount the supervillains. And supervillains do permeate the pages of the stories, as much as Batman does. Even the second story, about the Firebug, revolves around a costume used by a firebug villain, who sold it when he needed money. The costume becomes the catalyst for the new owner's need to stand out, and leads to the murder of the babysitter.

I found this reasonable for a title set in the most crime-ridden of all the DC Universe's cities (well until the introduction of Blüdhaven, anyway). Costumed criminals, both super-powered and gadget-powered, run rampant on the streets of Gotham, and even Batman can't account for them all. In a way, it reminded me a bit of the Savage Dragon comic, which is about a super-powered guy who also happens to be a cop, but in the way that the story is about solving crimes and characters who just happen to be cops.

And none of the characters here are superhuman in any way. They fight the crooks of Gotham not with gadgets or superpowers but simple human intelligence and deductive ability. There's something almost noble about that, but the characters would tell you it's nothing of the sort, it's just what they do, every single day. Buy this series. It's intriguingly full of the sort of dilemmas that real cops in a city with a super-powered crime spree might experience, and makes you look at the superhero genre in a different way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 and Tintin and the Picaros by Hergé

The last three finished novels of Tintin are collected in one place. These are the last three stories written by Hergé, with the exception of one unfinished story "Tintin and the Alph-Art".

In "The Castafiore Emerald", Tintin's friend Captain Haddock is on a walk with Tintin when he meets a bunch of gypsies by the local rubbish dump. Captain Haddock first assumes that the gypsies camp there because they want to, but when he finds out that they have been denied camping rights in any other place, he invites them to stay on the fields of his estate. On his arrival home, he injures himself falling on a broken step on his grand staircase. So when he recieves word that Signora Castafiori is coming to stay with him, he tries to flee immediately, only to injure himself again, much worse, on the same step.

With her, the Duchess brings a famous jewel, the Castafiori Emerald. During her stay, the Emerald goes missing, and Tintin must find out who might have taken it. Of course, the Gypsies are blamed first, but Tintin shows them to be innocent, while Captain Haddock must deal with the rumor that he is about to marry Signora Castafiori inadvertantly started by the newspapermen's interview with Cuthbert Calculus.

In "Flight 714", Tintin and Captain Haddock are travelling to China when they stop in Djakarta. There, they meet an old friend, Sven Skut, who happens to be a pilot for the richest man in the world, Mr Carreidas, who also happens to be someone who has never laughed. But Professor Calculus makes him laugh, twice, so he offers to jet them to China in his personal Jet. Unable to refuse, they board the plane, but Mr. Carreidas's secretary has made plans to betray his employer, and the plane is forced down on a small Pacific island.

On the island is a man named Rastapopulous, who wants to steal the identification number and password to Carreidas's Swiss Bank account, but the man he hires to get the information out of Carreidas, Doctor Krollspell, has manufactured a truth serum to get Carreidas to reveal the necessary numbers. But instead, all it does is make him talk about all the bad deeds he did in life and call himself a monster. When Rastapopulous is accidentally injected with the same serum, he does the same, sending the two men into a fevered competition over who is worse and more of a monster.

Meanwhile, Captain Haddock and Tintin escape from captivity with the help of Snowy, and save Professor Calculus and the others and get them to safety. But the actions of Rastapopulous and his goons set off an eruption of the island's volcano. Who will help them escape in time? Could it be... aliens?

In "Tintin and the Picaros", Tintin is in San Theodoros with Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock, who is suddenly finding he can't stomach the taste of his favorite kind of alcohol. In fact, it nearly makes him sick. The reason they are in San Theodoros is because they heard that Bianca Castafioré and her maid and pianist, along with Thompson and Thomson, have been imprisoned by the ruling powers there, and they are there to try to free them.

However, the man in charge, Captain Sponsz, has set a trap for them and they soon find themselves accused of various crimes. Escaping, they meet a man named Alcazar, whose Picaros are threatening to overthrow the government. But he has a problem. The government has been dropping lots of booze into the jungle, and the man have all become massive drunks. When Professor Calculus steps forward and reveals that it is because of a pill that he developed that Captain Haddock can no longer stand the taste of Alcohol, Tintin makes a deal with Alcazar to free his men from their alcohol addiction and allow them to take over the government and save Signorina Castafiori and her troup and the Thompson/Thomsons. However, even as they sneak the Picaros into the capital in the guise of a band that is to perform at the execution of the Thompson/Thomsons, will things ever really change in San Theodoros?

This was an interesting set of stories, and much more well-rounded and well-drawn than the first book I read. Each is slightly different and shows Hergé's illustrating style and ability to create plots. Each has a different sort of enemy and "The Castafioré Emerald" is an example of a story with many different red herrings that pad out the length of the story, but the reader never feels resentful about the padding, even after the true villain is revealed. The second is a more straightforward adventure story, with aliens, but done in such a way as to make the aliens believable.

In the last story, we begin to see some of the innocence that drew many people to the character of Tintin begin to erode somewhat, as Tintin actually helps put in motion a coup merely to rescue his friends from Prison. Admittedly, he demands that no one be killed during the coup, and that the deposed leader be tried in the courts, but the ending leads us to question how much has really changed for the country with the deposing of one supposedly "Corrupt" leader. Has one just been replaced with another? It's a rather disquieting ending for a Tintin story.

For those who love Tintin, this volume is a welcome treat. The stories do make you wonder, though, if Hergé's future Tintin stories would have continued the trend of making Tintin more adult and less innocent. With the next story, "Tintin and the Alph-Art" unfinished, we do have to wonder.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Graphic novel by Hayden Blackman, Brian Ching, Bong Dazo and Wayne Nicholas

This graphic novel is based on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed game, currently on the shelves at your local electronic games retailer. I haven't played the game, since I don't own a PC or a videogame console (I'm a Mac person, actually). The story concerns a Sith apprentice of Darth Vader named Starkiller, whom Vader has raised from a child. Vader uses Starkiller to hunt down and kill Jedi who survived the Purge of the Jedi. Vader has raised Starkiller to have no loyalty but to him, but when Starkiller is sent to murder a Jedi named Rahm Kota, he is attacked by a droid named PROXY, in the holographic guise of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Starkiller defeats Kenobi, and it is revealed that PROXY has been programmed by Vader to try and kill his apprentice as often as possible to force Starkiller to excel. But somehow, PROXY also has the desire to help Starkiller.

Vader has also given Starkiller a new Pilot, Juno Eclipse, who formerly led the Imperial Forces into battle on a planet named Callos. After a bit of verbal sparring, they leave for the mission along with PROXY. Once there, Starkiller quickly confronts the general and battles him. During the battle, the general tells him that his path will not always be with the Dark Side, and that his future will lie with Kota himself. But Starkiller knows that Kota didn't die, even if he tells Vader that Kota is dead. Afterwards, Vader sends Starkiller on another mission, this one to hunt down Shaak Ti, a member of the Jedi Council, on the planet Felucia.

Felucia was a world of rampant plant life, but it had been infected with the Dark Side of the Force, along with all of its inhabitants. Some of them are not yet infected, like Shaak Ti's apprentice, Maris Brood. Starkiller meets Shaak Ti, who falls into the Belly of a Sarlaak during their battle and is presumably destroyed.

When Starkiller goes to meet Vader once more, Vader says the Emperor's fleet has arrived, when Starkiller asks where they will stand against the Emperor, Vader stabs Starkiller with his lightsaber. PROXY is taken over by the Emperor, who urges Vader to kill his apprentice. Vader throws Starkiller through a window and into the void, satisfying Palpatine, but later has Starkiller brought back and revived and healed. PROXY, in Vader's form, tells Starkiller to gather the Empire's foes, and then, when he has resumed his usual form, tells him that the ship has been set to dive into the sun, removing any sign or trace of Starkiller.

On their way out of the ship, Starkiller finds Juno Eclipse imprisoned and awaiting death as a traitor. Against PROXY's advice, he rescues Juno, then seeks out Rahm Kota in a bar on Cloud City. The Jedi Master has been blinded and become a drunk, but Starkiller convinces the old man to help him. Rahm Kota sends him to the planet of Kasshyk, where he finds a hut that seems familliar. He enters the hut and has a vision of the past. When he comes out again, he has become a merciless killing machine.

Kota sends Starkiller to Leia Organa, who sends him back to Felucia, where Senator Bail Organa has been captured by Shaak Ti's apprentice Maris Brood, now infected and gone to the dark side. Starkiller tracks her down, and kills the Rancor she enslaved to her will. After a battle with Maris herself, Maris surrenders and promises to leave the planet and the dark side behind... as long as he doesn't kill her. Starkiller lets her go, noting that she will still have to remember what she did on Felucia.

Afterwards, Vader gives Starkiller another assignment, to embolden the rebels against the Empire by attacking the starship shipyards at Raxis Prime. Juno overhears and is incensed. How can Starkiller still be Vader's slave after he sentenced her to death? She tells him she already left one old life behind... don't make her leave another.

At Raxis Prime, Starkiller succeeds in taking down the factory and pulling an entire Star Destroyer down on it, causing massive damage. But this same act emboldens the Rebels and brings them into Alliance on the planet Corellia, where Darth Vader shows up to capture the Rebels. PROXY, looking like Obi-Wan Kenobi attacks Vader but is defeated and deactivated until found by Bail Organa and Juno Eclipse. Juno found Starkiller, who had vanished during the fight, and they deduced that Vader set up the plan to make himself more valuable to the Emperor.

He tracks Vader to a place on the outer Rim, where the Death Star is being built, and leaves Juno to fight against Vader and the Emperor, who were in collusion all along. He fights them with the help of Rahm Kota, but holds off both Vader and Palpatine to let the others go to safety while he remains behind to die. But his sacrifice inspires the Rebels, and they adopt his symbol as the symbol of the Rebel Forces. Juno is left behind with her memories of him, and knowing, from Rahm Kota, that she was the one shining, bright thing in Starkiller's life.

This was an interesting graphic novel that, of course, felt more than a little squished, storywise. Not much time is spent on subplots, what with the story of Starkiller to cram in, and the perfidy of Vader and the Emperor. Still, from the reviews of the game I have read and listened to, it seems they hit all the high notes. But the story felt a bit, well, soulless. And that may be because it was taken from a computer game storyline. Although much of the game's storyline was kept in the book, some parts, like the plot about how Starkiller ended up as Vader's apprentice in the first place, was not retained, and the character went from being the son of a Jedi named Marek to being the son of Rahm Kota (as far as I could tell). While it manages to tell the story of the video game well, that's all it remains, and as such, was less successful as a story for me.

For Star Wars completists, you will want to run out and buy this graphic novel. Otherwise, give it a miss. It doesn't really add anything to the Star Wars Canon that you can't find better elsewhere. The story is superficial gloss over a screamingly thin base, and you'll wonder why Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker are supposed to be so great if Starkiller could pull down whole Star Destroyers out of the sky. Budget cuts? In any case, one final interesting note: Starkiller was supposed to be Luke Skywalker's original last name.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Mage's Daughter by Lynn Kurland

Morgan of Melksham thinks of herself as no more than a shieldmaiden. She's trained long and hard to become an elite swordswoman, but as far as she can remember, her past is a mystery, even to her. She was requested by Miach of Neroche, the youngest brother of the Emperor of Neroche, to possibly wield a magical singing sword called the Sword of Angesand. But, unwarned by Miach and hating magic with an almost pathological hatred, she broke the sword to bits on the edge of a stone table and soon after was poisoned by Miach's nemesis and author of the attacks on Meroche, Lothar of Wychweald. If Miach did not want her to die, he had to transport her to someone who could heal her when his magic could not.

He sent her to Nicholas of Lismór, who had raised Morgan from the time she was young. Nicholas, unknown to Morgan, is a powerful mage, and he worked to heal her from the poison that should have killed her. Now, somewhat healed, she withdraws for the rest of her convalescence to the Tower of her tutor in swordplay, Weger. Weger is an uncompromising man with a strong distaste for magic and a keep located in an area that is completely dead to magic. Morgan expects to be thrown out of the keep when Weger sees how weak she has become, but instead he allows her to recover, and does not, to her surprise, throw her out.

When Miach shows up at the Tower to learn swordplay from Weger, she is both delighted and angry to see him. She likes him a great deal, but is unable to get past the fact that he lied to her about who and what he was, and he lied about what he wanted her to do. But Miach's ability to survive Weger's harsh teaching and even begin to thrive and improve impresses her, and his ability to forgo sleep to maintain the wards of Neroche with his magic also impresses her, although she cannot bring herself to admit it.

But another one of Weger's students is one of Lothar of Wychweald's many by-blows, and he seeks to kill Miach in order to curry favor with his father. But even though Miach has only been a student of Weger's for a few days, he has enough skill to beat off Searbhe, but the young man keeps trying, until Weger himself throws the young man out. Weger also knows who Miach is, and is not sure he approves of the young mage, especially since he also has deep feelings for Morgan and wants to win her for himself. Morgan comes to realize Weger's feelings but knows that to choose Weger would mean a retreat into a safe life, and she finds she wants to know who she truly is.

In a night conversation between Weger, Morgan and Miach, Morgan discovers that her mentor in swordsmanship is also a powerful mage, and she is shocked, since Weger hates Magic and mages as much as she does. But the knowledge that Weger is over a thousand years old frightens her. For someone as afraid of magic as she is, it is like one of the stones under her feet suddenly being gone, and when the time comes for Miach to leave, along with the brand on his forehead signifying that he passed Weger's training, he also finds Morgan coming with him.

She and Miach return to the keep of Nicholas of Lismór, where Morgan learns more about her past than she ever wanted to know. Her real name is Mhorghain, and she is part Elvish. Her mother was wife to Gair, a powerful dark mage. In an attempt to prove a boast to her about how powerful he was, and to prevent her from leaving him, he uncapped a well of black power. His wife died saving Mhorghain and partially recapping the well, but She, Gair and her children were killed in the process. That was the story told, but, of course, not completely true. Mhorghain lived, but ever after hated magic.

She possesses it, of course, from both of her powerful parents. She used it to heal Miach, and is very unhappy about having it. Soon she learns that Nicholas is himself a powerful mage. He was human, but married to one of her mother's sisters, and it was only his devotion to her that saved him from the wrath of his father-in-law and Mhorghann's grandfather, after Gair killed Mhorghain's mother. The two of them stay at Lismór for a time but find themselves attacked by monsters, and Miach dispatches them, but wonders how the monsters tracked them, since his spells should have kept them from being detected.

More attacks follow, and Miach and Morgan leave Lismór to keep from bringing any more chaos into Lismór. They then head for the lands of Torr Dorainn and Sile, Mhorgain's grandfather.

Silé is proud to meet Mhorghain, but his distaste for Miach cannot be more clear, but it is to this man who Miach will have to subject himself if he wishes to gain Morgan/Mhorgain's hand in marriage. But can Miach overcome his own reputation as a thief of magic and gain the attention of her grandfather, when Silé is preparing to give her away to anyone *but* Miach?

Studying in the library of Torr Dorainn brings the solution of the attacks on himself to light, and he discovers that the well opened by Gair was never completely resealed. It is still open, and more evil is leaking out into the world, and Miach, for all his magic, is unable to reseal the well. As he seeks for a way to accomplish the closing of the well, he and Morgan are falling in love, to the point where she only wants him, and no one else. But Miach has much to do before he can free himself to marry Mhorghain, no matter how much he... or she... wants it. Can he win Silé's approval to court Mhorghain, and even if he can, can he defeat the evil that would kill not only him, but his family and Mhorghain as well?

This is the second in the Nine Kingdoms trilogy. The first was Star of the Morning, where we first met Morgan/Mhorghain and Miach. Morgan had a lot of baggage in that first volume, and she's still carrying quite a bit of it here, but manages to dump quite a bit of it during the course of the novel. However, I didn't feel upset at Morgan as much as I did during Star of the Morning as we finally get to see why she hates Magic so much, and quite a reason it is, too!

Seeing evil magic and magic wielded by your father kill your siblings, mother and father as well must have severely traumatized Morgan, and the story bears that out in how Nicholas relates the days after she came to him. Her mother's ring was a symbol of her anguish and any time she caught a glimpse of it, she screamed and went nearly catatonic. This only increased my admiration for Morgan, as her ability to survive both her childhood and a poisoning that should have killed her.

By contrast, Miach appears too good to be true. He never seems to get angry, except on Morgan's behalf and is basically an all-around nice guy who at times seems too slick. But in the end I enjoyed the book very much, and it was nice to see Morgan realize what a romance with Miach meant to her life, and in the end, she chose him, even if it meant leaving her comfortable life where she could have gone on with the same attitudes and opinions forever.

I'd caution readers to read "Star of the Morning" first, though, as otherwise exactly what happened in the story before, and Morgan's reasons for disliking Miach aren't completely clear.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Adventures of Tintin, reporter for "Le Petit Vingtieme" in the Land of the Soviets by Hergé

"Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" is the first collected story by Hergé about his titular reporter and his white Terrier, Snowy.

Those who are used to Hergé's later art style will find something oddly unformed and crude about the art in this story, which is more than a little recursive. Tintin sets off for Russia from Belgium, but along the way he's falsely accused, arrested and escapes from policemen and soldiers every step of the way. In each case, Snowy helps Tintin escape and continue on his journey. In the end, though, he ends up on a train back to Belgium when he thinks he is going once again to Russia, and gives up, returning to his country of origin.

The usual joks are made against Russia. Tintin discovers a group of reporters being shown a huge Russian factory as an example of how far Russia has come in manufacturing and how quickly they are building their manufacturing capabilities. But when he looks inside, he sees that the building is mostly empty, with coal being burned for the smoke that comes out of the chimmney, guarded by a sleeping peasant, and a man with a hammer and a piece of hanging metal is providing the sounds of "manufacturing".

This was an okay book, but it's awfully crude and unfinished looking compared to Hergé's later work. I actually found it bland and uninteresting, much less interesting than I thought it was going to be. For someone who is interested in how Hergé's art evolved, it's interesting, otherwise, rather recursive and uninteresting.

When Do Fish Sleep and other Imponderables of everyday life by David Feldman

This book is the Fourth book in the "Imponderables" books, books that ask questions that are not usually known to anyone, but make us wonder as we travel down the road of life. Questions such as "Why do you always seem to find *only* a single shoe on the side of the highway, and not a pair?" or "Why is Flour Bleached?" or "Why are First Place Ribbons almost always Blue?" or "Why, when you order from a mailing order company do they tell you that orders will be shipped within 6 to 8 weeks? Does it always take that long to ship the order?"

After each question, the author answers it, such as, for the last, "They only say that so you won't complain about the order's lateness. If you get something faster than they say it will take, you're pleased. But if they gave a more realistic time, and it took longer for some reason, you'd be upset. So they pad their estimate so that people are pleasantly surprised rather than upset when their order arrives." That's the basic gist of the answer, though the answer in the book also includes an explanation of how mail-order businesses work, and commentary from the owners of mail-order businesses, expanding on the basic answer.

The book is filled with questions and answers like these, explaining how and why these things work. At the end of the over 80 questions, there are three more sections for readers. One is called "Frustables", which are questions the author couldn't answer thrown open to the readers of the book to try and answer definitively or not, a Frustables Update, giving answers submitted by readers, and a Letters section where readers give their own take on Imponderables explained by the author. Rounding out the book is an index of topics and questions covered by the book.

On the whole, this book is fun to read and fun to think about. Imponderables are defined as "Questions that can't be solved with numbers, measurements or a visit to the reference section of your local library", though of course, now that the book is written, there may well be a copy of such a book in your local reference library... But this book was a hoot and answered many questions that I didn't even know I wanted to ask... until I read this book.

The answers given are informative and engaging and are as much fun to read as it is to ponder the implications of the question. Whether the question is why cartoon characters only have three fingers and a thumb (because it's easier to draw, and four-fingered hands look too large in comparison to the body) or why tennis balls are fuzzy (to grip the racket better, and the court as well), you'll have fun reading them and finding out the answers.

I recommend this book highly to those who subscribe to Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's philosophy ("Seek and find out!") and to those who enjoy knowing bizarre facts and strange truths. The language and fun nature of the book makes it equally well-suited for teens and adults (Kids probably won't like it due to the slightly elevated and dense nature of the replies, despite the many cartoons that enliven the text. If you can find a copy of this book, read it. It will make you laugh and enlighten you on so many obscure things... and you'll enjoy every minute of it!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Zatch Bell, Volume 20 by Makoto Raiku

Zatch and his fellow Mamudo are trying to discover the secret of the tower visible only to Mamudo that appeared suddenly on earth. Although they have a videotape of the tower, no one knows where it is located, and each Mamudo and holder of their book is looking desperately for information, including Dr. Riddles, former holder of a book of a Mamudo named Kedo. Kedo's book was burned by an enemy Mamudo, but Dr. Riddles is comitted to helping Zatch become a kind King of the Mamudo.

First, Zatch and Kiyo finish helping the boy, Kyle, and his Mamudo, Rein. Kyle won the battle against the enemy Mamudo, but passed out from fear afterwards. His battle, however, has finally given the little boy the backbone to stand up to his bullying keeper, Jill, laying down the law to her that if she doesn't shape up and stop being such a bitch, he's going to the police and tell them everything she did to him, as well as all the townspeople. But Kyle's speech has another effect, that of getting the rest of the servants to stand behind him and help him regain his father's estate. His mission to protect Kyle over, Rein tells Zatch to become King and disappears back to the Mamodo world.

Meanwhile, Zatch and his friends aren't the only ones interested in the tower from the Mamodo world. Evil Mamodo are determined to unlock the tower and unleash its power on not only the Mamodo, but on the human world as well. The leader of the group is a Mamodo named Riou, who has the power to cast curses on people that can kill them if they don't do his bidding. He has used this power to recruit many strong Mamodo to his cause, cursing their human holders of the books and compelling them to add their power to support Riou's plan.

Meanwhile, Zatch, Tia and Ponygon have an encounter with Sister Elle Chivas, a nun who is looking for Momon, her Mamudo. She has travelled the world looking for other Mamudo to stop their fighting, but hasn't encountered one. Meanwhile, Kiyo is encountering Momon, and not liking the other Mamudo, who is very mischevious and seemingly cannot resist playing pranks and showing off. When he decided to pick on Tia by continually looking at her underwear and lifting up her skirt, he so enrages her that everyone around her becomes extremely scared of her. The battle reveals another spell in her book, one that calls an angel-like being with a crystal and and blade. Tia's anger and feelings of violation empower the spell, turning the angelic being more and more demonic, and it sears Momon badly before disappearing. Momon, who was trying to run away, passes out, and Tia, leeched of her anger by the spell, returns to normal.

Kiyo theorizes that Momon can tell the locations of other Mamudo and always runs away from them, which is why sister Elle never encountered any on her trip. He also theorizes that Momon can also tell where structures from the Mamudo world are, and Momon's petrified reaction proves him correct. Using Momon's reactions, they soon settle on where in the South Pacific the tower is, but Dr. Riddles reaches them with the word that it has appeared in New Zealand. Going with Kiyo, Megumi, Kafk Sunbeam and Parco Folgore are sister Elle and Dr. Riddles, who gives them another disturbing bit of news: Li-en and Wonrei have seemingly joined with the villainous Mamodo trying to open the tower. Before he leaves, Kiyo's friend Suzi struggles with telling Kiyo she likes him, and gives him a lucky charm to bring him back safely. Kiyo promises to be safe.

Before they leave, a spectre appears, telling Kiyo and Zatch that the Tower has a name: Faudo. And it confirms that Li-en and Wonrei have joined the Mamudo named Kedo, but they only did so to save Li-en's life. He tells them they have four days to prevent Faudo's release, but disappears before Kiyo can ask him any questions. Kanchomé, Folgore's Mamodo, has been extremely scared of the tower since he first saw it, and now he finally reveals why: it looks, to him, like a giant Mamodo chained and caged. The others realize he is right and are frightened of the damage such a huge Mamodo could wreak on the human world. They determine to stop it before it can be released.

Travelling to the area where the tower is in a private plane, they are forced to parachute from the plane when a Mamudo fires at the plane's wing and disables it. They land near the tower and ascend it, only to encounter a Mamudo named Kerith, and his book-holder, Bari. Folgore steps forward to fight him, only to nearly get killed by the other Mamudo's attacks. Folgore tells Kachomé to protect everyone, but the little Mamodo is afraid and hides. He is afraid that Folgore is going to die, just like when Kedo went back to the Mamodo world. And on that note, the book ends, setting us up for the next volume.

This was an interesting story, but not one I was dying to read. It is set up well, and seeing Momon be such a jerk reminded me that not all Mamodo are good or evil. They can be just like humans in their jerkiness. Momon doesn't want to fight, he just wants to run away... which begs the question of how he and Sister Elle have so many spells if neither of them have fought... something I found disappointing about the supposed logic of this.

Yes, it may be wrong to want some kind of logic from a manga, but a story should have some sort of internal consistency if it doesn't want to jolt the reader out of the suspension of disbelief in reading such a fantastic scenario to begin with. The rest of the story is back to the usual sorts of stuff, but the other thing that made me annoyed with the story is that one of the villains is black, and drawn as the worst sort of caricatured racial stereotype imaginable, which doesn't sit well with me. These two combined to give me some serious hesitations while reading this volume. It's not really horrible, but the logical inconsistency of Momon having so many spells available in his book, and the appearance (again) of the racial stereotype black woman kicked me far out of the story twice and makes me hesitant to suggest this volume to readers.

The Cat: A Novel of the Sons of Destiny by Jean Johnston

Amara of the Shifterai has been attempting to keep her twin sister safe almost from the time they were born. While she was born with the Natural Shapeshifting Abilities shared by all Shifterai, her sister was born with none of that. Instead, the Gods gifted her with a different power. And because of that power, Mages from all over their home continent have tried to steal her away, endangering and even killing members of their clan to get their hands on Arora.

To keep her sister safe, Amara left home and clan behind so that her clan would no longer be troubled by the attacks of treacherous mages. But their attempt to escape by ship, a ship whose mage was weak, so that he would not think to try and steal Arora away, has led to a possibly fatal drawback: the ship ran into a vicious storm, one the mage aboard was too weak to handle, and the ship broke up and sank in the teeth of the storm.

Amara managed to get her sister onto a single piece of the floating ship, and to bring aboard a cask full of water so that both of them could have clean, fresh water to drink. But all else is gone in the wreck, and Amara, shapechanged into a form more suited for a watery environment, has been towing her sister, hoping for the sight of land. So when she finds am island, she pulls her sister there and brings their bit of driftwood up above the tideline before going in search of fresh water and something to eat that *isn't* raw fish.

But this is no deserted island she's stumbled on. Instead, it is the home of eight brothers exiled from their home because of an ancient prophecy. Each of them is destined to meet a bride, and marry her. And they are not just brothers, but four sets of twins. Half of the brothers have already met and married their brides, but now it is the fifth brother, Trevan's turn.

Trevan has been trying to construct an artificial woman for his seventh brother, Koranen. Koranen has never been able to be with a woman because of his unrestrained powers over fire, and so he has looked to Trevanen, the most powerful magician of his brothers, to construct an illusionary woman who he cannot hurt, to ease his passion. But Trevanen hasn't gotten it right yet. Oh, the woman looks right, sounds right and feels appropriately soft, but the responses aren't right. Trevanen approaches his married brothers and their wives for help in getting the responses right, but none of his brothers will allow their wives reactions to be recorded.

The family is engaged in another task, in turning their isle of exile into a separate Kingdom, with its own laws, patron God or Goddess and thriving population. To do that, though, they will need settlers, and buildings ready and waiting for them. The family, which is pretty much all mages, have turned their efforts to this end, and when Trevanen discovers Amara, he not only wants to woo and wed her, but to get her help in this building exercise.

Amara, for her part, is extremely suspicious of Trevanen and his family, not only because they are strangers, but because they are mages. As he seeks to woo her, and she tries to protect her sister (who, in her turn, will become wife to Trevanen's twin, Rydan... eventually), and the rest of the inhabitants of the Island of Nightfall seek to deal with all the problems of setting up their own kingdom. But can Amara, a Princess of the Shifterai, deal with Kelly, Queen of Nightfall, when her own dreams of ruling were brutally torn away from her by having to protect and shelter her sister Arora? And can the two strong women ever like each other or agree when both of them have strong and decided ideas about how to run a community?

It took me a chapter or two to really get into this story, but after that, I was hooked. While Amara comes off a bit strongwilled and arrogant when it comes to protecting her sister, we find out that she has good reason to be. She's not an easy woman to like, though, as her jealousy and anger over having to protect her sister flares up time and time again, as does her resistance to being wooed in any way other than the one she would have expected at home. And yet, in all her clashes with Kelly, the ones that occur come because they are very much alike, rather than too different.

At times, I felt sorry that Trevanen had to put up with Amara. She was clannish in the worst sorts of ways, and protective to the point of being her sister's jailer. Her uncertainty and unwillingness to trust Trev and his siblings led to her being snappish and at times outright rude to them, and to others. And her excessive pride led to her running away everytime she made a mistake or got embarassed. Once she finally calms down a little, she gets a lot better and won back my sympathy. The best thing she did to win it back was being aware that she had acted like a bitch much of the time, and ask for his forgiveness, as well as trying to find a way to live beyond what her people accepted during the process of wooing.

The sex was hot, and I enjoyed reading it an awful lot. I may not read the first books in the series, but I will look out for sequels, mainly because there was enough backstory given that I feel I know what happened in the other, earlier, books in the series. I'd recommend it to others with some significant cautions, realizing that the heroine is not for everyone and she might piss a lot of readers off or lose their sympathy and never regain it. Amara is a difficult woman, and not one some readers will enjoy reading about.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Final Prophecy: Nightkeepers by Jessica Andersen

Striking Jaguar, better known as Strike, is the last king of his people. His father, Scarred Jaguar, led a ritual twenty four years ago that cut off his people's access to the Barrier. and also from their magic. The ritual was succesful, but most of the people, and the children died under the demons known as boluntiku.Now, Strike and his winikin, both servants and mentors, Red-Boar and Jox, and Red-Boar's half blood son Rabbit, are the only ones left of the Nightkeepers, a secret society from the Mayan people meant to stave off the Apocalypse that will come in 2012,

Though they live in 2008, Strike is not the last of his people. After the failure of his father's desperate plan, the winikin took the children and disappeared. But the time will be coming to call his people back and take up the fight once more against the forces that will lead to the death of not only the earth, but the entire universe.

Leah Daniels is a Detective with the Miami Police Force. But despite her dedication to the job, she was unable to prevent the person she loved most, her brother, from joining the Survivor2012 cult and being killed by its leader, Zipacna. Now, she seeks to bring down Zipacna and the cult. But an ambush when meeting a snitch named Itchy leads to her partner's death and her kidnapping and imprisonment by Zipacna... in the sewers under Mexico City.

Even with the powers Zipacna is capable of wielding, Leah manages to get free and fight him. She is about to die before Strike teleports himself into the ritual chamber and take down Zipacna long enough for them to get away... and become lovers. After they have made love, she suddenly returns to herself and thinks Strike, with his many Mayan marks, is a member of the cult. She is determined to get away from him, but he uses magic to put her to sleep until they are safe and in a safe house. Then, he lets her wake, but another attempt to escape makes him put her back to sleep again. He calls Jox and Red-Boar, who leave the gardening store they run to come help him, leaving Rabbit in charge, over his objections.

Red-Boar wipes Leah's memory and returns her to Miami, but Rabbit, angry over being left behind, throws a party and comes into his powers as a Pyrokeine. Inadvertantly triggering his powers, he burns down the store with them. Meanwhile, Leah awakes in the hospital, not remembering anything after her partner died. She is soon released, her wounds from Mexico City having healed with amazing swiftness, and is back on the hunt for the 2012 cult.

Strike has been told about the survival of a mere 13 children from the massacre 24 years ago. Now that it is certain that the prophecy about the end times is coming true, it is time to gather them back and set them to fighting the makol who seek to bring about the end of the world. The other children are widely scattered, watched over by winikin of their own, and all of them have led very different lives, from a surfer dude to a martial arts teacher to a computer game programmer. But now it is time for them to join together at a training compound located near Chaco Canyon. Not all of them are willing, and two of them, female twins, are dead. Nevertheless, the rest come together to fight the forces of the makol and Zipacna, who has discovered how to turn other evil-hearted humans into makol like himself.

Leah, meanwhile, attends a party given by the 2012 cult and meets a programmer who is also against the cult. But she is once again ambushed, only to break free once more and recover a strange package that, to her, glows with red light. Running into Strike once more, he puts down Itchy, who has been turned makol and is surprisingly hard to kill, unless you cut off his head and cut out his heart, which Strike does. Leah doesn't recognize Strike, but he hasn't been able to stop thinking about her, as he has been dreaming about her for most of his life. She also seems to have some kind of Nightkeeper-related power, but despite having made love to her on the summer solstice, which should have brought out her power, her powers seem to be growing weaker. But he still can't stop wanting her, thinking about her. And the spirit of his father told him to save her, which was how he saved her from Itchymakol.

Restored to her memories by Red-Boar at Strike's command, Leah gives Strike the package she found, which is a codex containing a spell. Summoning up a servant of the Mayan Gods by a spell, Strike asks about her and learns she is to be a Godkeeper, a conduit to the power of the Gods. Her God is Kukulkan, and she was infused with the power of his light half many years ago, when she wandered into a ruin with her younger brother and found a door that should not have been there. Her brother was infused with the power of the God's dark half. But now that her brother is dead, Kukulkan is unable to manifest, stuck on the Sky-Road between earth and the dwelling place of the Gods. The only way to free him and save the Sky Road is to let Leah die, which will free Kukulkan and allow him to return to his fellow gods.

Strike doesn't want Leah to die. He has fallen in love with her and wants her to marry him. But how can he choose between his love and his duty to the Nightkeepers and the Earth? Perhaps the spell in the Mayan Grimoire she found can provide a way out! Strike sends the piece of bark to his sister, Anna, an anthropology professor and translator of Mayan writing. But as Anna struggles with the power of the artifact and her own grad-student, partly transformed into a makol by the power of the spell contained within, Strike will have to learn to step up and lead his people as a real King, and if he wants to save Leah without dooming the earth, he and his untried warriors will have to go up against the Survivor2012 cult and their makol leader, Zipacna, himself a demon who can only be taken out by a God.

This book is deeply immersive and while I was reading it, made me really believe that such things could be true and be happening. Lots of Mayan language and words are used in the book, but I don't know how accurate they are. They do sound authentic, of course, or look, considering this is a book.

The story itself is immersive, right from the first page. The story of Strike, the story of Leah, and the stories of the other Nightkeepers meld seamlessly, the many separate threads combining into a thick and beautiful braid that promises to continue into other books in the series. The book is also incredibly well-written and I would find myself lost in the pages. Even if I only had a short time to read, I could almost guarantee I'd find myself reading another page or three because I couldn't tear myself away from the story.

Although I felt only meh about the sex scenes, the rest of the book more than made up for it. The romance is not bad, and I did get the feeling that the characters truly felt affection and love for each other, and their despair at the thought of Leah dying felt genuine and was genuinely moving. Both characters also come across as real and well-rounded, with their own reasons for doing things. I will definitely be reading more in this series. It's just too good not to.