Saturday, January 31, 2009

Star Trek: A Time to Be Born by John Vornholt

Wesley Crusher has been studying under the Travellers for years now, and it is finally time for him to become one of them completely, even though he's had a very hard time with their policy of only watching and not intervening in the events of the galaxy. As part of his initiation, he must gaze into the Pool if Visions and find a vision of his own. But when that vision is of the Enterprise and all those aboard being destroyed, Wesley knows he must try and prevent this from happening...

The Rashanar Sector was the site of one of the greatest battles between the Federation and the Dominion. Thousands of ships came to the fight, from many different races, but none of them survived to leave, and the effects of the battle can still be felt today. Full of space debris and broken ships, the Federation is trying to keep the site free of looters and salvagers so that they can recover the bodies of the dead for proper burial.

But this is complicated by the site itself. The loss of so many ships in such a small area of space has caused dangerous gravity anomalies and balls of free-floating antimatter that make the area a dangerous hazard to anyone entering that sector of space. The commander in charge of the Federation force dedicated to retrieving the bodies of the dead asks for an entire task force dedicated to that end, but losses from the war mean that the Federation can assign only one ship: Enterprise.

Captain Picard looks on this as an opportunity to both help and study the anomalies of the battle site, but he doesn't get much of a warm welcome from the woman in Charge, Captain Leedon of the Juno. She is so consumed with retrieving the bodies of the dead that she doesn't really care for much else, and the use of a single Federation ship, even if it is the flagship, the Enterprise, makes her more upset than glad for the help.

Picard soon finds that the Rashanar sector is very bad news for him. His Yacht is stolen by the scavengers that roam the sector looking for ships to sell and weapons and components to make off with. The race helping Captain Leedon and the Federation patrol the area, the Ontailians, seem to be acting suspiciously, with ships constantly coming and going, and sometimes not answering hails or appearing where they shouldn't be. But when Geordie and Data discover a strange ship that can change its appearance at will and causes the ships around it to go dead, a possible scenario for the reason the battle at Rashanar being so furious and going on for so long is revealed.

But when the Changeling ship shifts to looking like the Ontalian Battleship after destroying it and moves towards the Enterprise with the threat of doing the same to it, the Enterprise has no choice but to destroy the Changeling vessel, and in so doing, arouses the wrath of the Ontalians, who destroy the Leedon. The Enterprise retreats, not wanting to kill allies, but the repercussions lead to Picard being Courtmartialed for the crime of killing the Ontalian ship.

But as Wesley-Traveller struggles to keep Picard from being sold down the river, he cannot stop the forces that are conspiring against Picard and using him as an example as to what happens to Captains who cannot prove their cases in court. With Data's word not being accepted because the Changeling ship also shut him down, and Geordie's implants failing in the same attack, the idea of a ship that can change itself to look like Others is an idea too strange to be accepted. Can Picard prove his case, or will his unwillingness to go along and change his story to suit what Starfleet wants cause him the disgrace of being found guilty?

I found this book somewhat depressing, because of the way that the characters always seem to be losing, and their losses overcome the triumphs they manage to achieve during the course of the story. This book is the first part of a series of Nine books. I didn't pick them up when they came out, and now I am not quite sorry for that choice, having read this one. But I will look and see if I can find the others, as I do want to find out what happens... just not enough to actually buy the remaining books!

This series attempts to tell why, at the time of the battle with Shinzon, so many of the crew had abandoned or were about to abandon the Enterprise and go on to new assignments. So, I'll have to read the rest of the series to say whether its fully any good, but this book is good. Just very depressing to read, as you want to read about the successes of the Enterprise's crew, not their rank failures. And in the end, that's really what it ends up being.

So, it's not quite as entertaining as a usual Star Trek story, but there's a possibility for greatness buried within it, which is, of course, the rest of the series. And it does make you want to read more, if only to see where the story as a whole goes. So, interesting, but I have a hard time recommending it without more of the series to read at the same time. Unless like you like feeling depressed and let down.

Highland Sinner by Hannah Howell

Tormond Murphy is a decorated noble and well-known lover of women, but when he awakes in the bed of a murdered woman, nearly lying in a pool of her blood, he knows he is no murderer. Luckily, this particular noblewoman is known to be very free with her favors, and he has been in them enough times to know several secret ways to be in and out of her bower. So he makes his escape, but wonders who hates him enough to kill a woman he once loved and blame him for the crime.

He returns home, and is not surprised to be blamed for the crime by some people, but luckily, he was not found with the body, so there is enough question that most people reserve judgement as to his blame. But it does bring his cousin Simon to him, another well-known and decorated Knight to question Tormand about his possible involvement in her death. Tormand protests his innocence, and a possible solution is floated, a woman named the Ross Witch, who has the power to touch items relating to a crime or death and see a true vision of who or what was involved.

She is Morainn, and she's already been having visions of both Tormond, who she knows to be innocent of the murders, and the real killers. but when three woman lay dead and she is finally brought in by Simon to meet Tormond and find the actual killers of the women, she finds herself drawn to Tormond, and although she fosters a child named Walin, a boy who was abandoned on her doorstep, Morainn is an innocent, though village tales paint her as a woman of easy virtue and claim that Walin is her son.

But what she is truly not prepared for is Tormand and Simon's easy acceptance of her gifts, which she has found troublesome her entire life. She doesn't know if she can quite believe the tales of the women of their clan, many of which have the same sort of powers she can wield, and who are well-loved and accepted. And she finds it hard to deal with her attraction to a man so well-used as Tormond. She might be an innocent, but Tormand is nothing like an innocent, and his expertise in such matters flusters her.

But two killers are out there, and Morainn just barely escapes them wanting to kill her to keep their identities safe. Most unusual yet is that one of the killers is a woman, a very crazy and insane woman who is using the killings to take revenge on Tormond for some imagined slight done to her in the past. The man who is helping her is a servant of hers, a huge man who has no problem killing and murdering for his mistress. But can Simon catch them before they take out Morainn and come back to finish off Tormond for the crime of setting off a crazy woman?

Wow. I found myself really chilled by the murderers in this novel. Despite the fact that this is a romance novel and not really a thriller or suspense story, I was genuinely terrified by the killers, who are a unique set of crazy that made me shiver in memory long after the novel was done.

That being said, I got tired of the Scottish accents long before the novel was over. I prefer a lighter hand on the accent so I can imagine the accent in my head without having to read an overabundance of creative spellings that acts as a shorthand for the Scottish accent on the page. An occasional "mon" or "dinna" isn't a problem for me to read, but when it takes up half the page, my internal spelling Nazi rebels and it soon becomes grating to my mind's ear. I was so ready not to have to read another Scottish accent for a long, long while after finishing this book!

Still, it's a very effective romance as well. While my annoyance spiked at the "Scottish accent" on the page, the story mostly let me look past that to enjoy the meat of the writer's words and story themselves, but I would definitely enjoy them more if the "accent" wasn't so darned omnipresent. I mean, hey, the story takes place in Scotland. Everyone speaks in a Scottish accent. Why not just drop the faux-Scottishisms and let the characters speak more or less normally?

So I recommend it, but you might end up wanting to beat the Scottishisms to death by the end of the book like I did. Or not. But it will be a while before I read another book set in Scotland, that you can believe!

The Frost Fair by Edward Marston

When the Thames freezes over, the King declares a Frost Fair, and the whole of London comes out onto the ice to celebrate, including architect Christopher Redmayne, his love Susan Cheever, and Christopher's Puritan friend, Constable Jonathan Bayle. But when one of Jonathan's sons literally comes face to face with a man imprisoned deep within the ice, he hardly knows then that Christopher's brother will be accused of the crime... or that the blackening of Christopher's good name will nearly be the death of his career as an architect!

Constable Bale has met Christopher Redmayne's brother, Henry, and believes him to be a dissipated roué, not to mention very likely guilty of the crime. But when his friend asks him to investigate for himself to find the truth of the matter, guilty or innocent, it takes a plea from his wife to get him to agree. At first, he doesn't find much to suggest that Henry is innocent. He interviews some of the men who went out with Henry on that fateful night, and discovers that the dead man, one Jeronimo Maldini, was a master fencer.

And that is how Henry encountered him and learned to hate him. For he employed Maldini as a fencing tutor, but the man enjoyed humiliating him, and took away from Henry a woman he loved, and bedded her. But with Henry being drunk at the time of the encounter and clearly less of a swordsman, could he have held off the other armed with only a dagger and somehow stabbed the man in the back? It seems *very* unlikely, and it soon becomes clear that one of Henry's so-called 'friends' is actually nothing of the sort, and may have conspired to bring the murdered man together with Henry for the sole purpose of killing Maldini and saddling Henry Redmayne with the blame for the deed.

Meanwhile, Christopher finds he is losing some of his clients, who are eager to distance themselves from Christopher when they find his brother has been arrested and charged with the Murder of Maldini. They assume that Christopher is like his brother and won't have anything to do with him, except for one client who will not blame Christopher, Lady Whitcombe. But she has designs on more than Christopher's designs for a house in London. She seeks to marry him off to her daughter, a girl who has little brains and an irritating giggle. But her son, whom Christopher is designing the house mainly for, doesn't want such an architect whose name is embroiled in scandal, and he disparages Christopher at every opportunity.

As Jacob Bale, Christopher Redmayne and Susan Cheever work together to clear Henry's good name (what remains of it, anyway), Christopher himself comes under attack, and it is clear that someone is angry with the attempt to clear Henry's name, which lends Christopher more support to his idea that Henry is being blamed for the deed of another man. But can Christopher win Henry's freedom by finding the real culprit who has done the deed in time, or will Henry succumb to the despair that being in prison creates in him and commit suicide before his brother and his friends can free him from Newgate?

I loved this period mystery set after the Great Fire in London of 1666. Christopher Redmayne is an architect helping with the design and rebuilding of the city, and his friend Joseph Bale is very different from him, a family man, constable (who were usually drawn from the lower classes of society) and a Puritan to boot. He and Christopher may be wildly different in class and beliefs, but have managed to become friends anyhow. As a Puritan, though, he has nothing but disdain for Christopher's brother Henry, who has a job in the Navy Office, but prefers to spend his time drinking, whoring and trundling from pub to pub with loose friends who do the same.

And then there is Susan Cheever, a woman who Christopher is in love with and wishes to marry, whose rigid father withdraws his permission for her to see Christopher when the scandal of his brother comes to light. Can she get around her sister and her brother-in-law to meet the man she loves despite her father trying to keep them apart? Can love find a way, or will it be blocked by well-meaning but wrong-thinking people? There is also a plot afoot to marry Susan off to a man who is completely dominated by his hypocondriac mother, who Susan esteems but doesn't love.

I liked the feel of the novel, which portrayed London as a city still partly ruined, but seething with life, and the characters who work and play and live there as real and alive as people in the modern day, but yet somewhat different. Despite these characters being in a novel, they seemed just as real as someone I might meet on the street today, with just as complex motivations and lives just as real and full. The plot itself is not complex, although the real villain is hidden until the very end, and provides the plot with several twists and turns that keep up your interest until the last page. I recommend this book, and its author, who is responsible for more than one historical mystery series, highly. Anyone looking for an engaging, easily readable, historical mystery that grounds you firmly in the people and politics of the time should look no further than Edward Marston.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sentinelspire by Mark Sehestedt

Berun is a ranger in service to the Druids of Yuirwood, but he is also a man with a past, a past as an assassin who was sent to kill the Chief Druid. He failed, was captured and killed, but then resurrected to find new life at the hands of the man he swore to kill.

Berun has moved far from his own life, entrusted with a mysterious artifact by his former Druid master. Now, he serves as a mentor to Lewin, a boy orphaned by raiders, and rescued by Berun himself. But when Berun and Lewin are ambushed by an orc named Sauk and his band of men, assassins that work for the Chief Assassin known as the Old Man of the Mountain, he will find that not even dying and being reborn means he can outrun his old, former life.

Sauk has sought Berun out for reasons other than revenge, though. For it seems that the Old Man of the Mountain has gone crazy, and from his fortress of Sentinelspire, seeks to awaken the Volcano that lies under the mountain to spread death and catastrophe over the whole of Faerún. What he hopes to gain by this, neither Sauk nor Talieth, the Old Man's daughter, know. They can only think that he has gone completely mad, unhinged by the death of his God, Bhaal, and the attack on him by his old foe the Great Druid. The attack failed, but the Druid was captured and now the Old Man has been torturing him or attempting to befriend him in the hopes of getting the power he needs to feel secure in the world.

Whatever his motives, he now seeks to use the power in Sentinelspire to destroy the world. But why? And does Berun have any hope of stopping the power of a crazy old man with way too much magical power at his disposal and the secrets of the Druids as well? But Berun isn't Kheil, the man who died on the tree, and it will take Sauk's kidnapping of Lewin to force Berun to act against the old man. And can Lewin remain unchanged by what happens to him in the fortress of Sentinelspire, and by the dangerous currents that swirl around the different factions battling for control of the mountain?

This was another book it took me a while to get into the story. It starts rather slowly, then picks up speed as the story runs. While I did enjoy it, it wasn't a book I'd read more than once, or pick up on my own after reading it through my local library. The story was more or less standard adventure fare. Threat to the entire world, hero with a mysterious past- yadda, yadda. It didn't feel like anything I hadn't read before in a hundred other fantasy adventures. It didn't even feel firmly tied to the world of Faerun, although I admit that was hard when most of the book took place in remote and trackless wilderness.

But the descriptions of Sentinelspire itself were beautiful and made me feel as though I could "see" it with my mind's eye. My biggest dislike with the book was that I never really felt a connection to Berun, the hero. Okay, yeah, he's a redeemed bad guy. But I never really cared about him or felt that he needed to succeed. Instead, I found myself more drawn to his protegé, Lewin, and what was happening to him in Sentinelspire. His struggle seemed much more concrete than what was happening with Berun, and I found myself caring that he survived and found life and love with Ulaan the servant girl.

So, while there were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, other parts didn't thrill me at all, and on the whole, I felt this book was a rather lacklustre read compared to others set in Faerun. It had its moments, but while I read it through the library, I don't think I'll be buying this one for my collection, even in the interest of completeness. It just wasn't that good for me to consider adding it to my already extensive collection.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shadow Kiss: A Vampire Academy Novel by Richelle Mead

Rose Hathaway hasn't exactly been having a good year. An attempt on her friend Lissa Dragomir's life caused her to flee school and look after her friend on her own for years. But now that they have returned to the bosom of the school, she had to catch up to the other Dhampir Guardians who were now ahead of her in her studied. But all that has passed, and through dint of fierce workouts and one on one training with a Dhampir Guardian named Dimitri Belkov, she is once again at the top of her class.

And Lissa is, too, and has fallen in love with another Moroi vampire named Christian Ozera. The two of them are lovers, and that really upsets Rose. Not because she is losing her friend, but because since Lissa brought Rose back from the dead, they are linked mentally and emotionally, and she can feel it when they make love.

Rose is in love as well, with her mentor, Dimitri. But because their love is forbidden by the school, with Rose being underage as well as because Dimitri is her mentor and they will both be guarding Lissa when she graduates, but their hearts don't exactly care about all the rules they are breaking by being in love.

But the war between the Moroi and the Strigoi is heating up, and when Rose finds out that her and Rose's old opponent Victor Dashkov is coming up for trial at the Moroi Queen's castle, but that she and Rose won't be allowed to testify at the trial, both she and Rose are incensed, and demand to be allowed to tell their side. Rose, though is undergoing difficulties in her test. She's seeing ghosts, and trying to understand their message makes her fail in her first test of guardianship. She is able to avert disaster, but just barely, and the other guardians are now looking at her in a much more unfriendly way. Can she convince them she isn't freaking out?

And ghosts aren't supposed to be able to get into the school, so how can she be seeing the ghost of her classmate Mason, who died at the hands of Strigoi. What is he trying to tell her? And does her seeing him have anything to do with the rash of beatings that the school is undergoing? Which of the Moroi are involved, and what exactly are they after, beating up other members of the school? Can Rose figure it out in time before another Strigoi attack decimates the school, and sends her life careening out of control once again?

With every book in the Vampire Academy series, the risks for Rose and Lissa increase as the threats ramp up, and this volume is no exception. Not only are their threats to their lives and freedom, but to those they love as well. The Vampire Queen has her eye on Lissa and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because the Queen needs Lissa on her side, and so does things to please her. But on the other hand, the Queen also wants to use Lissa in ways that Lissa would not approve of, such as picking Lissa's husband, and Christian Ozera isn't even in the running for that particular post.

Worse, when Rose finds this out, the Queen threatens her not to tell Lissa, and Rose must agree, even though she knows the Queen is going to have a fight on her hands in this matter. She even accuses Rose of being in a relationship with the man that the Queen wishes to marry Lissa to, and won't accept Rose's denials. Worse, Rose can't tell the Queen who she really loves and is in a relationship with because her relationship is forbidden.

The ending to this novel was really a shocker, and I didn't see it coming at all. My heart bled for Rose and how she had to leave everything behind to redeem what she saw as her promise. But before when she left the school, she had Lissa. Now, she doesn't even have that, and I am anxious and afraid to see where all this is going and how and if she will ever repair her relationship with Lissa during or at the end of the next novel. Reading it will be like ripping out my own heart, but I can't wait anyway.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi and Saiko Takaki

D's travels take him to a village which is being menaced by something that until now has seemed like an impossibility: a vampire that can hunt during the day. While seemingly impossible, it might just be reality. After all the village is built over the remains of ancient ruins constructed by the nobility. And though the villagers don't like thinking or talking about it, it's possible that the machines that the Nobility used to do their research might still be up and about, constructing new horrors to prey on the humans left behind.

There is another, deeper secret here, though. Ten years ago, four children disappeared near some of the old ruins on the hill. Weeks later, only three of them returned, but none could remember what happened in those missing hours between the day they went missing and the day they returned, or what had become of the missing boy. Now, they are all grown up and one of them, Lina Sween, is next in line to become a scholar at the Capitol. Such chances are few and far between, and the entire village wants her to win and go study.

This is just the latest in a long line of fortunate coincidences for her, as she was rejected by her original father upon her return ten years ago, and instead, the mayor adopted her. She's the smartest of the three returning children. One of them, Cuore, has been deranged and mentally handicapped since he disappeared, and the other, Nicholas, was the son of the schoolmaster and was trained to replace his father. Nobody seems to quite trust the three children, but Lina and Nicholas have done their best to fit in since their return.

Now, D comes to find out the truth of the rumors of a vampire able to walk in daylight, and discovers many of the hidden secrets of the town. Such as that Lina's adoptive father, the mayor, has been raping her and abusing her sexually for years. But Lina seems mostly unaffected by the abuse and spends her time hanging around D, trying to get him to notice her and like her.

But the dispassionate D has little time and no use for such emotions, and he literally ignores her attempts to ingratiate herself with him as he investigates what really went on that day ten years ago when the children disappeared, the ruins on the hill, and the vampire who is preying on the town. But when he finds out what is really going on, will he kill the vampires, or have sympathy for them as creatures who should not exist? And will Lina be allowed to study the History of the Nobility, as she really wants to do, or will she be forced to settle for Mathematics when the examiners from the Capitol arrive?

This manga is horror, but while there is plenty of blood, gore and horrible things to chill your blood, the greater horror is what humans do to each other while pretending to love and care for each other, Lina's adopted father sexually abusing her being a case in point. And while the story of the vampire and the intertwined story about what really happened to the four children when they disappeared is interesting, the children story evokes pathos along with the horror in a stunning combination.

While this is a manga, it is based on the Vampire Hunter D story, "Raiser of Gales", and while the art is very nice, it's not enough like the titular art of the original novels, done by Yoshitaka Amano. Still, it holds a fascination all its own, and the sheer size of the manga makes me amazed that the artist, Saiko Takaki, could fit it all in one book! Saiko Takaki is also a close friend of the original writer, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and does a nice job of showing the horror, pathos and sympathetic, doomed characters that D encounters.

I liked this graphic adaptation of the original novel immensely, and honestly, can't wait to see more of D, whose character I have long enjoyed, from the time of the first animated movie. The character of D, a Dunpeal (Dhampir) is a fascinating one, and while everyone seems to want to know who his father is (the movie makes it clear that it is Dracula, the first (possibly) of the Nobility and the most powerful as well. For those who enjoyed the movies and don't want to read the books, this remains the most successful attempt at bringing the other D novels to the masses. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Reader's Guide to R.A. Salvatore's The Legend of Drizzt by Phillip Athans

Drizzt Do'Urden is a dark elf, one of the most hated and feared races among the world of Faerún. But unlike most of his race, he is a genuinely good person, even if most people fear and distrust him because of the color of his skin and reputation of his people.

From the time of his birth in the Dark Elf city of Menzoberranzan, he was trained to be a loyal son of his house and a fearsome fighter. But while the second took, the first did not, and the attempts by his own kin to kill him drove him from his home city and to the surface, where he was mentored by a Blind Ranger named Montolio, But even here, attacks from people afraid of his heritage were numerous, and he finally fled to the north, where he settled down close to the area known as the Ten-Towns, where ten villages cluster around icemelt lakes and rake in a profit from fishing knucklehead trout and carving scenes in the trout headbones known as Scrimshaw.

Here, he befriends a Dwarf named Bruenor Battlehammer, and defends the town against a concerted attack by the Uthgardt Barbarians. The Dwarves and Drizzt help the townsfolk fight off the Barbarians, aided by Regis, a halfling with a magical ruby who uses its power to bring the Ten Towns to the field together. In the fighting, Bruenor takes prisoner a young Barbarian boy named Wulfgar, and he makes the boy work in his smithy for five years.

Five years later, the boy is massively-thewed, but has respect for Bruenor and his kin, and also his adopted human daughter, Cattie-brie. Then a mage named Akar Kessel slays his master for power, is rejected by his fellow mages, and finds an artifact named Crenshinibon that allows him to become a power in his own right...

The first battle of Drizzt and his new friends is against Akar Kessel and his army of monsters, but further adventures afterwards took them practically across their home world fighting all manner of evil. The series starring Drizzt Do'Urden is now over 14 books long, and this book is a guide to the first 10 of those books. Covered are each character, including ones like Drizzr's magical onyx panther figurine Guenhwyvar, longtime foe Artemis Entreri and Drow Jarlaxle. Each of the prominent characters gets 2 (or more) pages to themselves, while lesser foes, such as Akar Kessel, Matron Mother Yvonnel Baenrae or Gromph Baenrae, get only a single page to themselves.

More than just the biographies are the pictures that accompany them. But don't look here for much new stuff, pictures included. The picture of Regis doesn't give a very good idea of what he looks like, and many others are taken from the covers of their respective books. As for me, I got into the series with the first (Chronologically) book, The Crystal Shard, and I remember Bruenor looking quite different back then. Not that the new illustrations are bad, but just... different from what I remember.

And in addition to the friends and foes, this book also pays attention to places and shows us what Menzoberranzan looks like as well as the Ten-Towns, Waterdeep, the Shilmista Forest, and other places we have visited in the series.

This isn't a bad book. In fact, it's very good, but it's limited to the first ten books, and I'd like to see an updated version. It's rather pricy for its size, but not for its content. but I'd rather spend my time re-reading the series than pay for a book like this. Nice, but rather superfluous to my way of thinking.

Still, with an abundance of pictures showing everyone who was anyone in the series, this book has a lot to recommend it. Well-written and bursting with illustrations, most of the pictures of the series regulars seem to have been taken from the covers of the books. Again, not bad, but you'd be better off spending your money on the original books if you haven't read them. This is more fluff. Harmless fluff, but not really essential.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini

Batman and Talia, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, had a liason, out of which came a son named Damian. With Talia now running the criminal organization that Ra's once headed, this became just another source of conflict between them. She tried to get Batman, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne to help her raise their son together, but Damian was far too spoiled and cruel for Batman to keep around his mansion.

He attacked Alfred and nearly killed Tim Drake, who Damian was jealous of, with his place at Batman's side. Though he failed to kill Tim, Tim didn't take too kindly to the effort, and he doesn't want to help Damian at all. In fact, he'd like to see Damien dead or imprisoned, although he won't kill the other boy himself.

At the end of the last book, Damien had returned to his mother after she became upset with the way Batman was raising him. She faked her own and Damien's death, but now her decision is coming back to haunt her. Despite her problems with how Bruce/Batman was treating him and trying to reform him, Damien preferred being with Batman to her and has become especially difficult to raise. Meanwhile, Batman himself has come to investigate the disappearance of two WayneCorp zoologists, who disappeared while tracking down some insects that were living to six or seven times their normal lifespan.

As Batman tries to retrace their path, Talia is teaching Damian about his grandfather and the life he led as she attempts to groom him into taking over the leadership of the Band of Assassins when she is gone. Her father's servant, the White One, tells her that Damian must understand and know the details of her father's life, but in reality, it is all a ploy so that Damian may serve as a new body for Ra's to inhabit. But the spirit will not return with all its memories, unless Damian knows about them as well.

Damian finds the history lesson boring and runs away, but is returned to his mother by assassins under her control, but when she gets an inkling of the plan her own father has in place for her son, she saves him from the reanimated corpse that Ra's has become. But when Damian flees to Gotham to enlist his father's help, he doesn't realize that Batman is already on the trail of one of Ra's' Lazarus Pits, and is finding out about the plot to bring him back.

Can Batman keep his son safe and see Ra's completely dead, or is his longtime foe more powerful, cunning and wily than he thought? Will Talia side with her father, or her son? And will Tim Drake, promised the secrets of resurrection by The White One, betray Batman and all he stands for to bring back his parents and the many friends he has lost?

While I didn't like the last graphic novel very much, finding Damien whiny, petulant and downright murderous, this volume redeems him somewhat as a character by pitting him against an even greater foe: his grandfather, Ra's Al Ghul. I wouldn't mind Damien biting the big one, but not at the cost of returning Ra's Al Ghul to life. And since Batman can't protect Damien himself, he calls on Tim Drake and Dick Grayson to do so in their identities of Robin and Nightwing. But Tim's antipathy towards Damien may turn out to be his undoing. By attacking and nearly killing him, Damien has made an enemy who may not be doing his best to keep Damien out of the hands of his Grandfather. But will he turn on his mentor for such a reason as that, and the promise of resurrection for his family and friends?

I liked this graphic novel. It was taut and well-written, though the turns and reverses that seemed to come every few pages at the end put me in danger of losing the thread of the story. While it goes a short way towards retrieving Damien from his utter unlikeableness as a character, it still couldn't make me care about him much or at all. I cared less about Damien than about seeing his grandfather finally, irrevocably die.

It's a solid effort, and well worth the price, but if you are like me, it still won't make you like or care for Damien. He's not a very likeable character. But Batman, Tim Drake and Nightwing, along with Talia, come off much better, as does Alfred, who shows us that just because he's Bruce Wayne's Butler doesn't mean you should underestimate him.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Naruto, Volume 32 by Masashi Kishimoto

Though Sasuke has betrayed the Leaf village and the Fire nation he was born to by becoming part of his brother's plot for power, his former teammates Naruto and Sakura are determined to rescue and rehabilitate him. But with the former story of Gaara's capture and nearly losing his Jinchûruki, or animal spirit, other ninja want to keep Naruto safe, and the nine-tailed Fox Spirit inside him captured so that it cannot be loosed and used against them.

Tsunade, now Hokage, disagrees with this idea. She argues that the only way to keep Naruto safe is to keep him moving and deny the Akatsuki an easily-found target. If Naruto keeps moving, it makes him harder to find, and harder to ambush and attack. By doing so, she also keeps the Leaf Village itself safe from attacks by the Akatsuki. The elders disagree with her logic, but finally back down when she promises to defend the village with her own life if necessary.

Naruto is sent on another mission, along with fellow ninja Sakura. But with Sasuke gone and Kakashi injured, both of them are assigned new teammates to work with: The very disturbing ninja named Sai, who apparently feels no emotions at all, and resembles Sasuke more than a little in looks. But Sai is not his real name, and he is a plant by the Elders of the Council to keep an eye on Naruto. Neither Naruto nor Sakura like him, but can they trust him? And their new leader, Yamato, has another mission also: Assigned by Tsunade to lead, but also to keep Naruto safe and an eye on Sai, who Tsunade doesn't trust either.

But when their new mission is to uncover an Akatsuki spy in the Leaf Village, will Naruto's antagonism towards Sai jepoardize their mission?

In this volume, we get to see some more of the secrets of the Leaf Village, including a new group of Ninjas: The Foundations of Black Ops. While Ninjas in Japan were something like Super-spies traditionally, Naruto and his friends seem to spend more time fighting, and to be like warriors. While Black Ops ninjas seem to be more like the traditional ninja of history. They work on their own, alone, and seem to be more used for spying and impersonations. From what we get to see so far, anyway.

Here, the Ninjas of Konoha discover that some of their own are spies for the Akatsuki, which is disheartening for them, to say the least, since the spies are all trusted ninja. Sasuke is still being kept for use as his brother's new body, but being moved around between safe houses by the spies. Will Naruto and Sakura be able to rescue their friend and comrade, and will he still be their friend and comrade when they finally do find him? At this point, we have no idea, and unlike some Sasuke-lovers, I'm not sure he deserves it.

Rescue him, sure, because it will prevent his brother from becoming more powerful, but who nows what he'll be like now? He sure looked crazy-insane the last time we saw him, when he fought Naruto, but standards of manga mean he might not be salvageable when they actually do find him. And I don't have a problem with that. Sure, his character design might be gorgeous, but if he's still crazy insane, the value of that drops off sharply.

In any case, an excellent new volume from Naruto creator Kishimoto, one that raises as many questions as it answers, and which sets up the next big conflict that Konoha will be involved in. Can the Akatsuki be defeated, and Sasuke rescued? No idea, but the story and its tension keeps me reading.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Mammoth Book of the Best New Manga Volume 3, edited by Ilya

Like Volume 2, which I reviewed earlier, this book collects manga, manwha and short comics in the manga/manwha style from authors and writers and creators around the world.

I enjoyed all the stories in this volume, but there were some I *really* enjoyed, such as "Kitsune Tales"- When the earth is ruled not by humans, but by Giants and Liquid Ones, Kitsune must help a human village get back its children, stolen by one of the rulers who has delusions of being a gourmand and is tired of all other tastes.

"Unity Rising"- about how one man's solution to a cosmic plague turns out to be worse than the problem, and creates a new plague... himself and his followers.

"Pilot" about a young girl who trespasses in a neighbor's field, and finds a secret hangar. When she touches a column, she suddenly gets the ability to pilot a personal starship... which also becomes part of her.

"Asia Afalsi" About a young muslim woman who is feared and laughed at by her classmates, but her love for and ability to draw manga allow her to befriend and interact with her classmates.

"Ed and Ecchi"- A young man in a society ruled by cruelty and bureacracy befriends a small cat he named Ecchi. But will the cat be his salvation from the cruelty all around him?

"July Tenth"- A young woman wakes and relives a day with her beloved husband, whose birthday it is.

"As a King"- A young woman helps her cat get settled in for the day. The cat has been in a fight in town, but he has to return again that night, for he is the King.

"A Dream in a Garden"- A young woman ponders the beauty of a garden. Based on the dream of the Chinese philosopher who dreamt of being a butterfly in a garden and wondered if it was just a dream, or he was the butterfly dreaming.

"In Dreams"- A young man dreams of a beautiful woman who helps him wake, only to find that he wasn't sleeping, but in a coma.

"Last Shadows Cast"- On a dying world, a young man returns to the apartment where the woman he loved used to live to await the end. But she is there, and they await the end together, along with the dawn.

And "Moonlight"- An English-speaking man in an old-fashioned Japanese Inn is troubled by the ghost of a young man. As they watch the moonrise together, they form a bond of understanding that crosses the bounds of language, and lets the ghost finally rest.

Another wonderful volume of manga. All the stories were wonderful, and there is a wide variety of art and story, so even if you don't like some, the story is over quickly and you can move on to the next.

This book is over 400 pages, with lots of stories, most of which left me in a happy and contemplative mood. Each artist and writer is given, so that if you find one you like, you can seek them out at their website or webpage and find more of their art

This is a wonderful series, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes manga or enjoys graphic art and stories. It has the strengths of being short and sweet for most of the stories, but allowing you to read more if you particularly like an artist. The stories run the gamut from Yaoi, Chibi, redikomi and more, exposing manga fans to a wider variety of material than is usually published in America.

Sin and Syntax: How to create Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale

Love writing, but your writing inspires no love? Got a serious case of boring work when it comes to reading what you've written? Feel like the rules of grammar are a rope around your neck, stranging the life of whatever you are trying to write? Suffer no longer! Sin and Syntax is here to rescue you from a life of profanely boring prose and wicked errors that derail your train of thought worse than a four-track siding collision.

If your last English class was longer ago than you'd like to admit, Sin and Syntax brings you up to speed on the things you learned back then and promptly forgot. You'll find yourself reminded of how to diagram a sentence, and what all those parts of speech are, what they mean and how to use them most effectively. Each section is laid out in four parts: Bones lays bare what it is that the section is talking about, Flesh uses the bones to illustrate good writing using that noun, verb, interjection, adjective, adverb and so on. Cardinal Sins covers what *not* to do and how you can be tripped up, while Carnal Pleasures shows some of the best possible uses of the thing they are talking about.

But the book covers more than words. It goes into the sentences and then the music of writing, the tone and lyricism that lifts the sentences you are writing from the mundane to the sublime. Certain types of writing just sing. Don't you want your prose to sing as well? It's not just a matter of chance, but craftsmanship and wordsmanship that will get you to that point. Whether you want your words to sound like Brittney Spears' latest single or a concerto by Mozart, Sin and Syntax can guide you on your journey from having a tin ear of writing to being able to appreciate and craft like a veritable connoisseur.

This is an excellent book on writing, written so that both the beleagured writer and the grammar snob will find something for them, and often a whole lot of something to sink their teeth into. This book is wonderful for someone at any stage of writing, and fits those who write factual articles as well as those who wish to craft soaring fictive prose. Even if you already know (and love... or hate) E.B. Strunk and White, this is the perfect companion volume, sure to delight both writers and readers of any kind. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History by Dorling-Kindersley Books

Marvel Comics is one of the longest-running superhero-publishing businesses in the country, perhaps even in the world. The only company that comes anywhere near them is DC in terms of long-lasting companies, strength of characters owned by the company and sales, but Marvel holds the crown when it comes in terms of the changes to comics that came out of books, titles and artists who worked for them.

People like Jack Kirby and Joe Schuster made Marvel great, and Marvel repaid them with more and greater opportunities for work. Also a part of Marvel, Stan Lee, who came to represent the company in many of its titles, both in print form and on Television and video, got their start at Marvel. This book is the story of the growth of that company from its original start as Timely publications in 1938 until 2007, when the book went to press.

Each year starts with an overview of the year and what went on. A separate section describes the groundbreaking or interesting comics published that year, along with a smaller section reiterating some of the important events happening in the world at large. At the beginning of a new Decade, there is a splash page filled with art from a comic of that decade, and a brief overview of the events in that Decade at Marvel. For example, the 50's were the Golden Age of Comics, when Stan Lee literally rewrote and remade Superhero comics, basing them around characters. Some characters were new (such as the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Daredevil, and so on, while some dated back to as early as 1938, such as The Sub-Mariner and The (android) Human Torch.

This is a great book, but it does tend to come off a bit boring. It's more like an encyclopedia than anything else, but it's an encyclopedia of the company that became Marvel Comics. Now, don't get me wrong- there's plenty of fascinating stuff in here, such as why Marvel now eschews the Comics Code Authority in its books, and why Marvel was only publishing 16 titles during the 50's (as a large comics distributor, they were limited to 8 titles a month so as not to flood the market and establish a monopoly. The 16 titles were bi-monthly so only 8 came out in any one month), but reading straight through for long periods of time gets kind of boring and monotonous. This is a book best enjoyed in small doses, as the amount of information within is overwhelming.

The best thing is the month by month reports of the comics that were in some way ground-breaking, enabling fans of a comic to mark its high and low points. People can read when the Gray Hulk became Green, and why, and when overarching plots from multiple books and storylines changed (the end of the Kree-Skrull Wars, for instance). Some plotlines worked, and others were incredible failures (the first re-write of Spider-Man's origin failed, but the Ultimate Spider-Man rewrite worked, and to great acclaim, at that.)

This is a large and heavy book, but lots of reading, unless you take scrupulous care with the book, may end up warping it to the point that you'll feel unhappy at a book you paid so much for looks ugly and uncared-for. I'd get this one from a library rather than pay for it myself. Marvel fans will find a lot to enjoy in this book, and many Marvel legends contributed forewords and afterwords. But it's big, heavy and expensive. So heavy, in fact, that the book almost seems to deteriorate as you hold it. Save your money and read it through a library, or decide if you want to pay the expense to own it. Either way, it's a fasinating, informative ride through Marvel History that will holds its value in the many times you want to re-read it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover

Luke Skywalker is a murderer, responsible for the deaths of millions of people on Mindor. Or so he tells Inspector Lorz Geptun, who Luke wants to investigate his conduct on Mindor. The Emperor, Palpatine, and Darth Vader are dead, but the so-called "Hand of the Emperor", Lord Shadowspawn, has prepared a trap for Luke on Mindor. Now, all he has to do is wait for Luke to fall into it, and his victory is assured. But will it really be that easy?

Luke has only been a general for a short time. Before that, he was a fighter pilot. But even so, even he can see the entire system is meant to be a trap. And if he can see it after being there for so short a time, what will Lord Shadowspawn have to throw at them, after having been in the system for months?

And while Luke wasn't expecting a ship to shatter the entire ship he's on, he manages to keep the crew that don't die in the impact alive by landing what's left of the ship on the planet of Mindor. And from there, things get really strange. Lord Shadowspawn's troops treat Luke as if he is the new ruler of the Empire, calling him Emperor Skywalker. And he discovers that Lord Shadowspawn is more like "Lord Shadow's Pawn" and that even this is part of the trap. But can Luke keep himself alive and unturned when Lord Shadow is a lord of the Darkness that even the Sith were afraid to plumb?

And when Han, Chewie, Leia, Lando and the whole of Rogue Squadron get wind that Luke's force is under attack and Luke is missing, presumed dead, they won't let him stand alone. But when Lord Shadow tires of trying to break Luke, he looks on Leia, who is just as strong in the force as Luke is, but untrained, to be a godsend. With her mind to take over and her strong body to carry Lord Shadow's consciousness around, he can win at last. But does he know how strong Leia really is, and how Han and Luke won't let her fall?

I enjoy the novels of Matthew Woodring Stover, but something about Luke didn't quite ring right to me in this story. I could buy the beginning, with Luke believing himself to be a murderer and hiring someone to investigate him, and even the story itself, but the ending just didn't ring true to Luke's character, for me, at least. I don't think he'd let the story he lived and felt so strongly about be used as propoganda. Especially when he's so against the stories being told about him all through the rest of the book. Be that as it may, I did enjoy the rest of the book, which essentially pushes Luke up between a rock and a hard place and pushes the rock and the hard place against him with all the relentlessness of a rock-crusher.

I also liked the by-play between some of the lesser characters, although Luke, being an earnest sort of guy, isn't the kind to joke around as much with people he doesn't know. With how he's being pressed in this book, he comes off as sort of grim, but since it suits the situation very well, that's not a bad thing for him. And Luke is definitely the star of the show, here. The other characters, Rogue Squadron especially, don't get nearly enough time to shine in the book. In the end, their use was forgettable because it could have been *any* squadron of X-wing and Y-wing pilots and it wouldn't have made an iota of difference to the book. In fact, it almost seems the reason Rogue Squadron and Lando Calrissian were used was a shortcut characterization for characters that otherwise would have been fairly throwaway.

It's not a bad book, but there are parts that should really have gone under the knife before publication. As a Star Wars story, it's a decent adventure and is quite thrilling in parts. But then I look at the flaws, and this book never makes it out of the "Decent, but uninspiring" category for me. YMMV, but this is not one I'll be recommending, even to rabid Star Wars fans.

B.P.R.D.- The Black Flame by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis

The B.P.R.D. continues to fight against the almost literal plague of frog-men infesting the heartland of America. But as soon as they wipe out one breeding ground, still more pop up, each semming to spawn with a speed that is amazing. More than the frogs, though, is their language, which covers their lairs.

As the B.P,R.D. wipes out one lair, some larval frog men pour into the sewers, where they are collected by a man in a hazmat suit. He puts them in a cooler and walks away, unnoticed by the Bureau men or their leader, Roger. Roger has taken his hero-worship of Benjamin Daimio to its ultimate conclusion, aping him, his habits, and his mannerisms, right down to smoking cigars and acting like a leader of soldiers.

Liz is uncomfortable with Roger's hero worship, but no one else seems to take it amiss. They all recognize that his looking up to and following Daimio makes him feel like he's a real man, a human. But can it make him happy?

The frog-people larvae were taken by Zinco, Inc., a corporation run by the grandson of a famous Nazi. Not only does he run the company, but he idolizes his grandfather, and his office is decorated with Nazi Memorabilia. So why is his company interested in the frog-people? And what plans does he have for them, teaching them English and fitting what looks like some sort of control devices to their brains?

Whatever his plans, it's obvious that the frog-people have plans of their own, plans to invoke the second of the great evils from beyond space and time, Katha-Hem. But with Roger destroyed in an explosion that tears apart his golem body, and Liz Sherman having dreams that say she is the only one who can save the day, her friends and her country, will the Bureau be able to figure out the clues in time to prevent the end of the world at the appearance of Katha-Hem? Or is this the end of the world?

This book was less a typical moody B.P.R.D. book and more like a book of war. Yes, the story is horrific and frightening, but the scope is so vast, encompassing the whole of the US and Canada, that it ends up seeming like a much different book, since so many of the stories of the B.P.R.D. are local and/or personal. Still it manages to end in what many people will consider a satisfying fashion, with the main evil, Katha-Hem dead (or banished, it's hard to tell), and most of the frog-people dead as well. Enough live, though, to see them rise again in new stories later on. I don't think this is the last we've seen of them in the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. Universe.

All your favorite characters appear in the story, except for Hellboy, and I honestly wonder how he missed what was going on here. Was this cataclysm restricted merely to North America, and he was elsewhere in the world and missed it? You don't know, but I find myself wondering. Changes, though, abound. Abe, after the events of the last graphic novel, has retreated from active work in the Bureau and become more of a researcher. But his talents are wasted there, and Liz knows it. She tries to get through to Abe about what happened to him, but it isn't until Roger is partially destroyed (it's hard to say "Killed" about a golem, who wasn't really alive in the first place), that Abe seems to snap out of the funk that he was thrown into by finding out about his human life.

And Liz has her own problems, with the dreams she is recieving from a character who resembles Rasputin, and who claims she is the solution to the problem of Katha-Hem. She is even driven into a coma by the dreams, and when she revives, she coughs up a piece of paper that proves to be all about Katha-Hem. It's creepy and amazing all at the same time, and, as usual, Mike Mignola draws you into the story so completely that when something finally kicks you out, you feel like a sleeper awakening from a bad dream. You have to wait a few moments to get your equilibrium back and return to the normal world. It's quite amazing to be that completely drawn into a story, and so I definitely recommend this book, but read "The Dead" before this one, as it provides the base for this story to kick off of.

B.P.R.D. The Dead by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis

In a cavern, the members of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense break through a wall and discover what looks like a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. But when Johann attempts to reach it in the spirit realm, it comes to life and attacks the team, thinking that they, or more precisely, Johann are/is someone named Shonchin. They manage to put it down, and Roger picks up a trinket from the site, a cylinder with dirt or rusty spikes sticking out of it.

Meanwhile, a woman is found mummified in a barn, and a series of eggs that release frog-like things that kill and transform the humans who touch them. And Abe Sapien, newly informed of his previous life as Langston Everett Caul, returns to the New England town of Littleport, Rhode Island to find out more about his past with his colleague Kate Corrigan. He hears about his life and discovers that he had a wife named Emma. But when he left Emma to be with his brethren, she couldn't stand his departure and committed suicide by throwing herself into the ocean.

Although Everett Caul built a very fine house with the money he had made sailing the ocean, her death and his disappearance made the residents of Littleport consider the house cursed, and no one would buy it or live in it. So it still sits, abandoned and nearly in ruins. As a storm hits the coast, Kate returns to the hotel while Abe decides to take a walk and ends up in the house, where a vision of his wife comes to him, along with her decaying body, and tries to persuade him to stay with her.

The plague of Frog-people spreads and the B.P.R.D., led by a man returned from the dead, Benjamin Damio, relocate to Colorado, to an old research complex that was abandoned. Since most of the Frog-People attacks are happening in the midwest, it will be easier for the B.P.R.D. to coordinate the defense from there.

But the place doesn't come without some baggage of its own, and in the fourth sub-basement, they find a man still living, an ex-Nazi who was bricked up behind a wall when the other scientists working with him became jealous of his knowledge, or so he claims. But when the old man proves to be much more malevolent, and crazy, than they thought, can they defend the place from the powers he seeks to awaken and master?

This was a very good graphic novel, moody, atmospheric and full of interesting and horrific story details. The Abe story is really creepy, in a chills-up-and-down-your-back kind of way, while the story of the B.P.R.D. goes into full horror movie territory. We also get introduced to a new character, Marine Captain Benjamin Daimio, now a Green Beret, who was killed and somehow came back to life, albeit with a huge scar that now decorates his face. Everyone reacts to him differently, Liz with suspicion, Johann with acceptance, and Roger with Hero Worship. And yet, we are being led to not trust him, with a strange oriental man performing some sort of service for him involving candles and other things. Is Liz right in her suspicions not to trust him?

Well, I've already read ahead, so I know the answer, but I won't spoil it for you if you haven't, but suffice it to say that the mystery deepens around his character. He also has definite reactions to the members of the team, and he doesn't particularly seem to care that Liz doesn't trust him. This graphic novel also sees a change in uniforms for the B.P.R.D. less cop-like and more like military outfits. Is the Bureau becoming more military? It seems so. Is this a good thing? We don't know yet.

The contrast in the story between the moody ghost story surrounding Abe's wife, and the out and out graphic bloody horror of the secret in the new HQ's sub-sub-sub basement is well done, Interleaving the two stories sends the tension rising in each of them, until the very end. I recommend this graphic novel for two great stories, each different and yet involving characters we have grown to know and love.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Papillion, Volume 1 by Miwa Ueda

Hana and Ageha are twins, but while Hana was raised in the city, Ageha was raised in the country by her grandmother until she was an older child. When her grandmother got sick, she moved back in with her parents, and her sister. Now, she is the shadow to her sister's sun, and while everyone exclaims over how pretty Hana is, Ageha has always been in her background, a tomboy that few people realize exists.

But when Ageha decides that a boy who she likes is interested in her and wants to go out, she begins trying to change for him... until Hana, wildly jealous of attention being paid to her sister, swoops in and steals him out from under Hana. When a picture scrawled on by another boy in an attempt to give her courage to take what she wants comes to light, Hana has three choices: deny it and fade into the background forever, stop coming to school, or admit it, and perhaps make enemies, but also find supporters amongst her classmates.

She takes the third choice, and finds girls she hardly knew were there, and who hardly knew she was there, coming to her aid. But with Hana so used to being the center of compliments and attention, and deathly jealous of her sister's newfound beauty and attention, will she stand by and let Ageha usurp the spotlight she feels is her own? Or will she fight back in her own way, never letting Ageha win or be happy?

Being that this is a manga by Miwa Ueda, of "Peach Girl", which do you think? There would be no conflict if Hana let Ageha be, but this seems to be a less poisonous version of that manga. Hana has yet to show the full Sae-like qualities from the earlier manga, but that might yet be coming. The fall of a pretty girl when someone prettier, or just as pretty, comes on the scene is promised, but hopefully that will either be coming or Hana will grow up and decide a sister as pretty as she is is nothing to obsess over. I can hope.

I find a number of similarities to Peach Girl, but I hope this series won't be as full-on bitchy about girls as it was. It's nice that girls, even the pretty girls in the class support Ageha and are helping her achieve her dream, but the pettiness of her former friend, who is portrayed as fat and unattractive, seems so jealous of Ageha and determined to bring her down (as if sucking up to the pretty girl gets you anywhere in high school when neither your face or personality is attractive!) that she comes off as a complete bitch and downer.

I am hoping for better out of this series than Peach Girl, and I am sure Miwa Ueda will find plenty of inspiration for this series in any high school. I just hope it will somewhat more woman-affirming than PG.

The Television Companion: The Unauthorized and Unofficial Guide to Doctor Who by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker

Most fans of Doctor Who know that the Doctor has a very long history, and that this history goes back to the first episode, An Unearthly Child, in which Susan Foreman, a girl enrolled in an English School, is followed back to her home by two curious teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, where they discover that she is not human, and neither is her only guardian, her Grandfather, known as the Doctor.

When they don't believe that the Doctor and Susan are time-travellers, the Doctor takes them back to the year 100,000 BC, and into an adventure from which they won't soon be going home. Nor, soon, will they wish to any longer.

This book covers each season and each story in detail, from the staff who worked on the story, to a recap of each story and cliffhanger ending to the episode, to which cast members were in each episode. For instance, in some of the earlier episodes, characters didn't appear because the actors who played them were on vacation (or as the book terms it 'holiday' for the week that episode was filmed. It gives things you might not have known about the episode, myths concerned the episode in question (if there are any), and debunks them. After everything, it reports on the kind of reception audiences gave the story. And also, before the introduction of the episodes of a new Doctor, talks about how the actor percieved the character and how they came to play him.

Make no mistake, this book is HUGE, 751 pages, and small type at that. Even so, it only covers everything up to and including the movie starring Paul McGann, so this version wasn't complete by any means. But it was nice to read all about the older Doctors, who I remember so fondly from my childhood (I started watching in the 70's with Tom Baker, Doctor #4, on some of the UHF channels in New York). It helped me remember my favorite episodes and moments from the episodes. "Eldrad must live!" and my favorite companions (Turlough, Leela, Jo Grant).

Anyone who wants to remember, or know about the Doctor Who episodes they might have remembered, misremembered or seen will find this book invaluable. Even if you are more familliar with the new Era of Doctor Who, and the Chris Eccleston/David Tennant Doctors, this shows how the Doctor came to be, and is an invaluable edition to any Who fan's library. I do hope they come out with an updated edition someday, perhaps in a separate book, as this one is coming into a rather unwieldy size, being as large as it is.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Samurai Never Fears Death by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

Seikei was born the son of a Tea Merchant, but always dreamed of being a Samurai. Then, after a great crime, he helped a Samurai Judge named Lord Ooka and was adopted by him as his son. Now, Seikei is entitled to carry the two swords of a Samurai, the Wakizashi and the Katana, and he helps his adoptive father chase down murderers and bring them to justice.

Judge Ooka and Seikei, along with Ooka's chief retainer, Bunzo, have returned to Osaka, where Seikei used to live with his birth family. But while Seikei doesn't really want to encounter his old family again, the Judge's orders to find a good restaurant for Fugu send him back to his family's tea shop, as he no longer knows where to find such a thing.

There, he finds his sister, Asako, and his brother, Denzaburo. with Seikei gone, Denzaburo has taken over the business, and done well enough that he has expanded the store into their old living quarters. Their parents now live in a separate house in the suburbs, and are mostly retired while Denzaburo runs the shop, along with the help of Asako. But something seems different, and troubling to Seikei, even if he cannot exactly put his finger on what it is yet.

Denzaburo takes Seikei to the puppet theatre, which will one day be known as Bunraku. But while they are there, one of the narrators is killed with the string of a Samisen and Seikei decides to look into it, as a boy that Asako is in love with works in the theatre. But when that same boy is charged with the crime simply because he moved the Samisen, Seikei must put his own life and honor on the line to ensure that the true culprts are brought to justice, and at the same time bring down a smuggling ring that Judge Ooka was brought to Osaka to expose!

Usually, Seikei and Judge Ooka work together, but this book has him totally on his own, separated from his foster Father and in the bosom of his birth family, who seem to be up to their eyeballs in the smuggling ring. But it also brings back memories of the second Judge Ooka and Seikei story, where Seikei went undercover in the theatre. Here, it's a theatre of puppets, but the same sort of jealousies and emotions run high.

Seikei also has to deal with his own divided feelings. He wants to protect the boy that his sister is in love with, but he feels, and later knows, that his own brother is involved in the smuggling ring. Duty versus Honor is one of the dilemmas that Samurai face, and here, Seikei must face it all on his own. Which will win, or can he satisfy both?

Rife with lovely period detail and well-rounded characters that live in the memory long after the story is done, this story is well worth reading for teens who love Anime, Manga, Samurai or Japan in general. While some of the bloodier aspects of Japan have been toned down for the story, this is still a lively look at Japanese society and customs that resonated in the same way as the Judge Dee mysteries do for China.

Bronze Dragon Codex by R.D. Henham

Simle is a young Bronze Dragon who hates humans, as humans stole into her parent's cave and made off with the Bronze Dragon eggs who were to hatch into her brothers and sisters while she was distracted with a rock made to look like a huge diamond. Seeing the way the humans made her parents feel so unhappy, and fooled her, she has decided that humans- all humans- should be killed so that they don't bother Dragons.

Tatelyn feels just the opposite. Her brother, Brigg, was killed by a copper dragon who had been possessed by a sorceress. While most would find the sorceress to blame, Tatelyn also blames the Copper Dragon, for if it had not been around, the sorceress wouldn't have had as easy a time laying waste to her village. Now she and a few friends have come together as "The Heirs of Huma" in order to banish Dragons from the Realms, both good and evil.

When Simle's mother is injured protecting humans during their pilgrimmage to a shrine, Simle is outraged that her mother was injured on their behalf. But as she takes the strange half-diamond pendant her mother gives her, she decides to go and kill the humans who caused the injuring of her mother.

Meanwhile, Tatelyn is in Palanthas, preaching her cause to the humans there. She encounters a cleric of Mishakal, the same goddess who she serves, who gives her a half diamond-shaped pendant before she is almost literally booed out of the city. She returns to her home village of Forestedge where she encounters Simle, who is angry and crying. But when Tatelyn is nearly attacked by Simle, her friends, "The Heirs of Huma" come to her rescue. But they cannot protect her when, later on, Simle returns, sure that Tatelyn was protected by her mother because of the identical half-pendant she wears to the one Simle was given.

When Simle touches their pendants together, there is a burst of magic, and Simle finds that she can no longer breathe lightning breath, and she has the stamina of a human, not a dragon. Conversely, Tatelyn has lost her healing magic from Mishakal, and has the stamina of a dragon. They no longer feel their own wounds, but each others's, and must come together to survive and keep each other alive while they search for a way to rid themselves of this magic that ties them together.

But working together means finding out things that neither wanted to learn: the origins of Draconians in the case of Simle, and that Huma was in love with a Silver Dragon in the case of Tatelyn. As they warn a human village of an attack by Draconians, Simle must struggle with herself not wanting to hurt beings that might be her brothers and sisters, while Tatelyn has to discover that not all the members of the Heirs of Huma are as sane, good and well-balanced as she is.

Can the two grow to understand each other, and forgive the other race for their part in the War of the Dragons? Or will they remain locked in a familliar hatred that gains them nothing and might lose them everything they both hope for?

Both characters blame each other's race for being the direct cause of suffering they experienced, rather than the real cause. Yes, humans stole the eggs of good dragons to turn into Draconians, but it was commanded by Tiamat. And Tatelyn's brother was killed by a copper dragon, but it was the spirit of the human sorceress inside that was really at fault.

But being young when it happened to both of them, both of them are stuck in a childish mode of continuing to lay blame and refusing to believe that they can or will change their minds. Seeing them struggle to avoid becoming friendly towards each other is amusing, but eventually, they lose the fight and begin to see that the other is not to blame for their misfortunes. But each has to deal with others close to them: Simle with the Baaz Draconians who share her blood, and Tatelyn with the Heirs of Huma, who, without her leadership, may end up becoming worse than she ever thought humans could be.

An interesting book, this novel is written for older kids, but could be enjoyed by teens as well. This is the second book in the series, the first being Red Dragon Codex and a sequel, Black Dragon Codex, is due out soon. I do recommend the book to anyone interested in the Dragonlance series or in Dragons and Fantasy in general.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Santa Clawed by Rita Mae Brown

It's Christmas in Crozet, and Harry and the animals are enjoying the winter: decorating, planning parties and picking out Christmas trees. The Tree farm is run by a semi-Monastic community called The Brothers of Love, who both run a hospice and a tree farm during the Christmas season. Very lucrative, the tree farm is enough to recoup the expenses the hospice and the community over the rest of the year.

Harry goes to the tree farm with her animals: Cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and her Welsh Corgi Dog Tee Tucker. There, she picks out a tree but wants her husband Fair's approval. She chats with the brother running the tree farm, Christopher Hewitt, a former schoolmate of hers who got into trouble in the investment business and lost a great deal of other people's money. When he finally moved back home, he joined the brotherhood to do penance and hopefully give up the love of money.

But when Harry and Phairamond return, Christopher is missing, and another brother has taken over the tree farm. Unfortunately, Harry, with the help of Tee Tucker and Mrs. Murphy, finds Brother Christopher's body dead against the base of one of the trees, his throat slit and a greek coin called an Obol under his tongue. This immediately puts Harry off buying a tree, and sets her on the path to finding the killer. But who would want to kill Christopher? Was it someone from his past, or his present?

As the police look into the Monastery, which is run by a former opera star who was found in a bed with both a man and a woman, Harry wonders if someone from Christopher's life in Arizona might be responsible. But soon another Monk, a former Jockey named Brother Speed, is found murdered in the same way as Christopher, including the Obol under the tongue, bringing attention back to the Monastery.

And when Tucker finds two men from the Monastery leaving a tool box filled with money on the mountain, he and Mrs. Murphy lead her to the money by dropping one of the bundles, a neat $10,000, right at her feet. But when Harry finds the money amd the toolbox, she is taken out- one of the monks comes back and knocks her out, leaving her there in the storm to die. But once again, the animals save her. While Mrs. Murphy curls up around Harry's head and face, keeping her warm, Tucker runs for help back to the farmhouse, leading Fair, who has just come home, to Harry's unconscious body in the midst of a driving snowstorm.

A fast trip to the hospital saves Harry's life, but can she and Fair discover who the real serial killer is, and why they are targeting men from the Monastery, before anyone else dies? And what is the motive behind the murders of the brothers? How did they come to have so much money in that toolbox, and why were they trying to hide it?

Thanks to Harry and Mrs. Murphy, I've been to the fictional town of Crozet so many times that it almost feels like home. Well, except for the hunt club, which has never been part of my life no matter where I lived, North or South. And while this is a Christmas Mystery, I am reading it after the Christmas season here. But that's okay, as it reminds me of all the good things about Christmas that I have missed.

And the mystery this time is a particularly thorny one. Though the Brothers of Love are a part of Crozet, they are very isolated by their position up a mountain, where they take care of dying patients in a hospice. But isolation from the world also means privacy to hide their doings from the rest of the world, and the Brothers talk a better game than they live. What are they doing on top of their mountain, and where and who are they amassing all this money from? Will the residents of Crozet ever be able to trust the Brothers again after all this is over.

Isolated from the world or not, sins are comitted in private, and once these sins are revealed, nothing will ever be the same in Crozet. This is an enjoyable story, and once you get over that the animals talk (but only amongst themselves, the humans don't understand animal talk, while the animals understand English), this is an extremely enjoyable murder mystery that will leave you enchanted with Harry, the animals and Crozet as well, and you'll understand what keeps drawing me back to this series.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody Emerson, her grouchy, brilliant husband Radcliffe Emerson, her son Ramses, his wife Nefret and their children Charla and David John return to the Valley of the Kings for another season of Egyptology and uncovering tombs.

But this season will be different, as Howard Carter and his Patron, Lord Carnarvon, are determined to unearth the tomb of Tutankhamun, which Emerson is certain lies within the Eastern part of the Valley of the Kings. In fact, Radcliffe Emerson worked out its location the year before, but lost the firman, the right to work on that particular part of the Valley, to Carter, due to an argument with M. Lacau. Now, Emerson offers to take back the Firman from Carter, but Carter is alerted by this that Emerson thinks or knows that something is there.

So Emerson is left out, and is infuriated by this, so he keeps a surreptitious watch on the area the tomb is located in and is there for most of the major discoveries. But when he discovers that Carter and Lord Carnarvon have entered the tomb in the night, and that Carnarvon has removed some of the objects from the tomb, he is wroth, and this causes an argument, the end result of which is Emerson and his family being banned from the tomb site.

But they have other problems to deal with besides the Gurneh Tomb robbers and the crowds of gawkers drawn to the discovery of the first nearly intact tomb ever discovered. Sethos has returned to Egypt, and he's been injured and is suffering a relapse of malaria. He's been working for the British Government as a spy, and has uncovered a cipher wanted by many parties. Knowing Ramses' predilection for riddles and puzzles of all types, he wants Ramses' help in deciphering it. Ramses agrees to try, but his expertise in that area is slight, having only been interested in such puzzles when he was a boy. Unfortunately, he fails in everything he tries.

And it isn't just Sethos and the British Government who are interested in the cipher. Rough men stalk the Emersons and even kidnap Ramses and Radcliffe to try and get them to tell where "he" is. But when they bribe David's daughter, Charla, with candy to try and get information out of her, Ramses is infuriated, and no man can stand before Ramses, Brother to Demons, and Radcliffe Emerson, Father of Curses, when they are determined to bring someone down. Add in Sethos' estranged wife Margaret Minton, and the usual host of characters and its more dead bodies and intrigue for the Emerson family!

I did enjoy this book, but I have to say that I am getting tired of the Emerson family, at least, the first generation. I'd much rather read about Ramses and his wife Nefret, and his friend, David Todros and David's wife Lia than listen to Amelia fling about more timeworn clichés and have Radcliffe "Hmph!" and "Harrum"ing his way through another book. Sometimes coming back to them is like being back amongst family, but by the end of the book, you remember why the same family you thought you missed makes you want to tear all your hair out by the roots!

Even though the books move along in time, and this one concerns the whole Tomb of Tutenkhamun, that's really what I wanted to read about, not the political intrigue that underlies the plot of the book. I read these books because I enjoy archaeology, but the family doesn't really do that any more, and I am running out of enjoyment for this series. What used to be interesting and fun is becoming dreary and dull, and I'm not sure how much longer I will be willing to put up with it.

For those that enjoy this series, this is more of the same. For those that don't, you can join me in hoping for a change in tone soonest.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Baby-Sitters Club: Claudia and Mean Janine by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier

Claudia Kishi is the artistic one in her family, but she feels insignificant next to her sister, Janine, who is extremely intelligent, knows a lot about computers and gets all A's. Claudia feels that nobody in the family notices her contributions, but she draws most of the criticisms.

This leads to a lot of bad feeling between the two and a lot of squabbling and fighting. Finally, one night when their parents go to dinner, Claudia manages to eat an uncontentious dinner with her sister and their grandmother, Mimi, who is Japanese and lives with them. But after dinner, they sit down to play Trivial Pursuit, which causes another argument because Janine is easily winning, and Claudia accuses her of cheating.

Even though earlier she and the rest of the BSC made plans to have a playgroup three days a week, along with their new member Dawn Schaefer, Claudia no longer feels happy or content. She's just angry, and when Janine comes back, they are ready to start arguing again when they hear a loud thump from upstairs, where Mimi was going to bed. Going into her room, they find her collapsed on the floor, and call 911. Janine goes to the hospital with Mimi while Claudia waits for their parents. But now she's afraid that her constant arguing with her sister may have caused Mimi's collapse, something she feels even more strongly when it comes out that Mimi has had a stroke.

Dealing with her feelings isn't easy, and her continued resentment of her sister pulls a surprising response from Janine. But it isn't until Janine can unload her resentment of Claudia that the sisters realize how much they have in common, and how much they both want Mimi to get well. Can they make peace, or will the war continue?

This was a very affecting graphic novel, as the feelings Claudia displays are not unknown or uncommon when someone you love falls ill after you have had an argument. The argument comes about because of the differing interests and abilities of the two sisters, and the way each feels that they are less valued daughter. What they don't realize is that they are more alike than they want to admit, and are able to come together to help their grandmother get well.

Not having read the original books, I am still surprised at how good the story is and how well it holds together even though, obviously, stuff had to be cut to make the entire story fit into a graphic novel. The art is nice, although it is better than the first novel, in which club president Kristy and Stacey were hard to tell apart. On the cover, Kristy has brown hair (as does Mary-Anne), but inside, her hair has been colored the same as Blonde Stacey's and Blonde Dawn's. The only way you can tell them apart is by hairstyle, aided here by how Stacey cuts her hair very short, and that Kristy wears hers up in a pony-tail. If Kristy really is a brunetter, why not find some way to indicate that in-story?

Aside from that, the story and art work well together, and as I mentioned previously, the story touches the heart. As a graphic novel for early teens, it's not bad, and has nothing objectionable in it that parents might find troubling. So a definite one to recommend to young girls.

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Truth About Stacey by Ann M. Martn and Raina Telgemeier

The Baby-Sitters Club is run by four girls, The President is Kristy Thomas, The Vice President is Claudia Kishi, Mary-Ann Speier is the Secretary and Stacy McGill is the Treasurer. They are not only the officers, but work together to ensure that the parents who need someone to baby-sit their children have someone to come over when needed.

Together, they have been pretty successful, but now rough waters are ahead for the club. First, Stacey has Diabetes, and her parents aren't satisfied with the job her doctor is doing for her, so they are making an appointment with a Doctor from New York City over the Christmas Holiday. But Stacey doesn't want to go. She's been to so many Doctors from so many different places that she feels pulled in a thousand different directions. In fact, going to another Doctor brings back bad memories of how she found out about her Diabetes, and how her best friend wouldn't talk to her any longer after she got sick.

But the club has other problems, too. All the members of the club are only thirteen, so they are restricted in the hours they can watch kids they baby-sit for. But when a group of older girls at school decide to set up a baby-sitting club of their own, and advertise with baloons and flyers, the BSC finds the number of jobs they are getting falling off, and they have to decide what to do about it.

But when they recruit two older girls to cover later hours, it seems they have been set up by their rivals, who want to see them fail. But how can they show the families of the neighborhood that *they* are the better babysitters? Will it take a near tragedy before anyone is willing to listen to them?

This was a cute, short graphic novel for younger readers, with a cool vibe and instantly likeable characters, from the girls in the club to the kids and parents they deal with on a regular basis. The story is engagingly told, and even though we don't get the full book that Ann M. Martin wrote, there is enough detail and the story is pieced together so well that you would never realize anything is missing.

The personalities of the girls really come through, although the two who get the most exposure in this book are Claudia and Stacey. Kristy gets in some licks, but Mary-Ann seems to get shortchanged in remaining something of a cipher when the rest of the girls get more exposure.

As graphic novels go, it isn't bad, and even for older readers, it will hold their interest as the story unfolds. While the story involves girls who are only 13 years old, it's not one boys will enjoy very much. But the characters are warm and engaging, and girls would probably want someone like them as friends. If your young reader enjoys the BabySitter's Club books, this is something to expand that world for them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ultimate X-Men Volume 15- Magical by Robert Kirkman and Tom Raney

The X-Men have been joined by a new member of the team, sent to them by Nick Fury himself, known as the Magician, whose powers can warp reality like nothing doing. For him, anything is possible, and the rest of the team finds him very useful when it comes to fighting bad guys. Handsome, personable and very, very powerful, the women on the team all love him.

But when Nick Fury comes back to claim him for the Ultimates, and says he didn't know about the guy until he saw him in action with the X-Men, Professor Xavier knows something is very wrong with the Magician. With all the powers available to himself and the team, none of them saw through him until this moment. Could his powers be more than even the team he chose to align himself to can handle? And can they take care of him without him destroying them with ease?

Meanwhile, Jean Gray, Phoenix, is in isolation, being checked over by Professor X after she attacked Lilandra. But can he trust her to suppress the side of her that is destructive, as she has done so far, or is she slipping out of control once again?

Finally, Nightcrawler had been tapped by the Weapon X program to become their newest superwarrior, also known as X-3, but now that he is part of the X-Men, can he overcome that killing part of him when it comes to his teammates, or is he slowly being driven crazy by the strain of being a super-assassin? And when he abducts Dazzler from her bed in the hospital, can the others find out who is to blame and rescue her before Kurt twists her around to his own way of thinking?

This was an interesting book, partly due to the fact that the team finally runs into the one mutant who is more powerful than any of them. How do you deal with someone whose wishes become reality? Can you even kill someone like that if he doesn't want it? And how *do* you deal with him? In the end, the X-men manage to make him go away, but as we see, it isn't really the end. Will they encounter the Magician again in the future? Who knows, but the possibility is there.

As for the second story, the whole Nightcrawler as Weapon X thing came at me out of left field. I don't like that the Ultimates Universe changed Nightcrawler from a consummate ladies' man and gentleman into a monster who has no qualms about killing. And while just about anything is an improvement on the original Dazzler, I didn't like or enjoy this plot thread at all. And I certainly didn't like that they killed off Gambit so early either. He was, after all, one of my favorite characters.

The backup story in this issue is why Xavier's cat is named Mystique and who gave him the cat. The four-page short was cute and to the point, and a nice counterpoint to the grim story of Nightcrawler.

Gonna buy this graphic novel? I'd save my money. The stories are rather forgettable, with nothing to recommend them. Your mileage may vary, of course.

General Winston's Daughter by Sharon Shinn

Averie Winston is seventeen, the only daughter of the noted Aebrielle General, who is overseeing the subjugation of the country Chiarrin. Averie has never been out of the country before, and the trip, though long, is made in the company of her guardian, Lady Selkirk.

What really makes the trip bearable and enjoyable, though is the company of a young officer of the Aebrielle army, Ket Du'kai. His conversation entertains Averie and Lady Selkirk on the long, hot hours of the trip through the hot, sticky Southern climate, but his words aren't all entertaining.

Aebirelle is part of an empire, and Ket comes from a country named Xan'tai, which was also conquered in its part by Aebrielle many years ago. The Xan'tai were not happy to be conquered, and Ket is one of those who seeks to change the status of his country and throw off the yoke of Aebrielle, but peacefully, with votes in government. Averie has been told that the Xan'tai needed to be taken over and improved, and is startled to hear differently from Ket Du'kai. The idea that the people of Xan'tai were perfectly happy as they were has never occured to her, and that taking over the people of Xan'tai and their land was unjust troubles her, especially as that is exactly what is happening now in Chiarrin.

Averie is not only going to Chiarrin to meet her father, but also her betrothed, Morgan Strode. She hasn't seen him in a while, but even now, she remembers his kisses with delight. But when she finally arrives in Chiarrin, she can't think of anything but how much she misses him. For a while, his presence keeps her content, but when a bomb goes off in the marketplace while she is shopping, she takes into her home a cloth merchant named Jalessa who had helped her buy shoes and been injured when the bomb went off.

Soon, she hires Jalessa as her maid, and her father is happy, hoping that he can use Jalessa to find out information about the Chiarizzi people. Even as Averie explores the city and adopts the dress of Chiarizzi for her own, the country seems to be quieting. But she and Morgan are growing further apart as her growing sense of right and wrong make his attitudes seem distasteful to her. But as Averie explores the city of Broken Gods, can a stunning betrayal make her finally grow up into a woman? And how will she choose to spend her life afterwards?

This is a YA novel, and it dealt with war and its consequences. Averie has never thought of the consequences of War on the people her country is at war with, and never thinks the impact of that war can have consequences to herself. In effect, by the end of the novel she comes off as foolishly naive, and much of her countrymen and women with her, as the Chiarizzi people act in a decisive way to throw the invading army out of their land.

The whole story of the book is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Empire-building of the English, and the names of the characters bear that out, with Lady Selkirk, Averie's father General Winston, etc. all having English-sounding names. And while Ket Du'kai's people sound vaguely eastern (Chinese, Japan and so on), his looks peg him as more African. Just as the Chiarizzi people also sound Chinese, but come off as more Pacific Islanders. Still, the link to the invaders looking or sounding as adjuncts of the English is strong, and made me rather uncomfortable with the whole "English as Invaders" thing, as it ties the story to the real world in a way that probably wasn't good for the story.

By the time half the novel had gone by, I was uncomfortable with the Aebrielle people seeming to have won the war, and was actively looking for someone to unseat the military from their perch, no matter how sympathetic Averie was, and the ending of the story actually made me glad. Yes, it was sad what happened to Averie's father and her fianceé, but they asked for it, in my opinion. I don't think that my reaction is what Sharon Shinn wanted, though.

The best part of the novel was in the romantic triangle between Averie, Morgan and her new friend Ket Du'kai. As Averie finds her moral sense moving to be not as accepting of the war and the reasons for it being fought, she is also moving away from Morgan, since he agrees with the reasons for the war. Ket Du'kai, though, is much more ambivalent about the reasons for being in Chiarizzi, because his own country was previously conquered. He only joined the army because the prospects for him in his own country were limited after it was conquered, and he needed money and some form of rank to be taken seriously, and for that, joining the army was his best choice. That he is now engaged in trying to conquer another people was not the thing he wanted to do in the army, but he has no choice.

And yet, I have to wonder how the people of Xan'tai would take her at the end of the novel. Yes, she'll be supporting Ket with her money, but will they welcome her any better than the Chiarizzi did?

This is an uncomfortable novel to read, and it's mainly about an issue, treated mostly one-sidedly. This is a little less objectionable in a YA novel, but it's not one I'd recommend to teens, as it seems a little confused in its aims and may end up making you cheer the "wrong" side over the heroine, her family and friends.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn

Jenna Starborn is not precisely human, as most normal people would define the term. She doesn't have any cyborg parts and isn't linked up to a machine, but she was made, assembled from her constituent parts to fill the order of a woman who wanted a child, a daughter, and was willing to pay for her because her body couldn't produce one on its own.

But soon after Jenna is decanted, artificial wombs become available, and the woman who so wanted her, has a child of her own, a son, and now Jenna is no longer wanted. She grows up an orphan in her "aunt"'s home, mistreated by her son, "Jerret", and starved and neglected. When Jerret throttles her one day and Jenna declines to lie about how she got the bruises, she is sent to her room for five days, and essentially forgotten about. With water to drink but no food to eat, in five days she is near death, and is taken to the hospital to be treated.

But Jenna is done with lying, and when her "aunt" tries to lie to the doctors and say Jenna is well looked after, Jenna tells them the truth, prostrating her aunt Rentley. She is taken from her aunt's custody and sent to a technical school on the planet of Lora, where she learns to be a power core technician. There, she befriends a girl named Harriet, who dies in an accident, and as Jenna is her closest friend, the recorder called a Reeder is given to Jenna instead, who uses it as her diary.

After she graduates, Jenna becomes a teacher at the school, and when that palls for her, she takes a job on a distant world, barely able to be terraformed, taking care of the nuclear generators of an estate owned by a man named Everett Ravenbeck. When he finally meets her, he is intrigued by her, and pays an unusual amount of attention to her, which alarms her a bit but also thrills her much more.

But secrets abound on the Ravenbeck estate. How is Everett Ravenbeck's ward Amaletta related to him, and who is the prisoner in the small house who Jenna hears crying and being hurt by his or her keeper, Gilda Parenon? And how will Jenna deal with her feelings for her employer when he lies to her about the only thing that matters to her? Will everything ever be the same between them again?

As you might have guessed by now, Jenna Starborn is Jane Eyre, rewritten for the Space Age. Victorian manners are explained away as the customs of planetary elites. Jenna, as an unadopted genetic experiment, and with no money, is only a half-citizen, or a half-cit. There are also five classes of citizen, sort of like the old classes of tickets at Disneyland (with an E-ticket, or a class 1 citizenship, being the highest). These show where your citizenship is given, with a 4 or 5 being on their home planets only, and a class 1 being everywhere.

Because she is a half-cit, and poor, it's like being a mere step up from being a slave, and she's only noticed by the authorities because of her aunt nearly starving her to death through neglectfulness. But from this low point, Jenna will rise, and rise she does, even when her marriage to Everett goes through because he is already married.

Now, I have something to confess. I have never read Jane Eyre, but even so, I felt I knew this story as I was reading it, and while I find Victorian authors generally dull in writing style, this wasn't so bad, if a little draggy. For those who have enjoyed Jane Eyre, but wished the story was updated a bit, this is definitely the book for you. And even for those who haven't read it before, like me, this book will allow you to see and enjoy the story in a new way.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fortune and Fate by Sharon Shinn

It has been two years since Queen Amelie ascended to the throne of Gillengaria, along with her consort Cammon. Wen was once a King's Rider, but the death of King Barylt was hard for her to bear when he died and she still lived. As soon as the war was over, Wen declined to serve the Queen and left the capital, hoping to die somewhere and assuage her shame at still living when the King she served so loyally died.

A chance encounter in an inn allows Wen to rescue Karryn Fortunalt, the only daughter of the former Fortunalt lord and now heir to the Manor of Fortune and the Fortunalt lands. The man who kidnapped her was a rejected suitor who thought that pressing his claim and abducting Karryn would gain him Lordship over Fortunalt. But he didn't reckon on encountering Wen... or how well-trained a King's Rider is.

Wen manages to dispose of the unwanted suitor and his hired thug easily, and brings Karryn home, and encounters Karryn's uncle and guardian, Jasper Paladar. She recommends hiring at least 24 guards to look after Karryn at all times, but declines to take on the job herself. But an attack on Wen herself, and the problem of what to do with the two orphans left behind, one of them a mystic and reader, make her agree to be Captain of the guard as long as Jasper Paladar hires the two children. But she will only agree to stay on for a month, no longer, unless she feels it is needed.

However, because of Karryn's father, not many people will consider hiring out as guardsmen to Fortunalt. So Wen passes the word around, that she will consider hiring anyone as a guard, presuming they pass her tests. Included in the group is another mystic, who has telekinetic abilities. Now, to convince Karryn and her mother that they must inform the guardsmen of their movements if they wish to have the guardsmen do their jobs.

Every night, Wen must inform Jasper Paladar of the Guards' progress, and he starts becoming closer and closer to her, first, by playing a boardgame that mimics war and battles, and then by reading to her a tale of adventure. Wen finds herself uncomfortably disturbed by how much she is enjoying Jasper's nearness, because she knows she cannot stay and shouldn't become close to him. But her heart seems blind to what her head is telling her, and is falling for him anyway.

Meanwhile, Cammon, Senneth, Tayse, Justin, Kirra and Donnal come together to guard Cammon as he travels the southern part of Gillengaria to ensure it is safe for Amelie to make another progress about the realm. Well aware that it was the southern realms that rose in rebellion against her father, Barylt, she and the riders want to ensure her safety before she finds herself fighting more soldiers or dead. Cammon travels to the Southern lordships, sounding out the new rulers there, looking into problems they are having, and so on. His powers as a reader will ensure that he will know if anyone has murder or mischief on their mind against him or Amelie.

Amelie's new guard are called the Queen's Riders, and unlike those from King Barylt's time, there are only 49 of them, rather than 50. She is still hoping that they will find Wen and persuade her to return to the guard. But Wen has a death wish and is hoping to die in a fashion that does good, and makes a difference. But will Jasper Paladar and Karryn Fortunalt somehow be able to persuade her that she is making a difference right where she is, or will it take the influence of Queen's Rider Justin, the man she loved and lost when he fell for Ellynor, a Lirrenlands girl, to make her see sense and give up her futile quest for death?

This book wasn't about the six main characters from the original series, though Wen was always an important secondary character. And here, she finally gets a story and a love of her own. But to do so, she needs to get over this quest for her own death for failing to die when she couldn't save King Barylt. Even two years later, she is still seeking her own end. But she's cut caring for anyone out of her heart, and to learn to be able to live again, she is going to have to let people back in and be willing to care about them again. Which she does, eventually, even if she has to be dragged there, kicking and screaming (metaphorically speaking) every step of the way.

It was nice to see that not every member of the Southern nobility being horrible people, and also that the Southern Lords weren't just automatically forgiven by their people for all the Lords had wrought on their own behalf. Yes, the people supported the members of the rebelling houses during the rebellion, but much of it seemed to be under duress, and the hatred engendered for mystics could be mostly beaten back by an exposure to actual mystics and how otherwise utterly harmless they were.

It was also nice to see the familliar crew gathered back together again. Even if the other members of the series were more side characters than main characters this time around, they almost took over the story when they finally reunited with Wen. This isn't hard considering how strong characters they actually are. They made the other characters beside Wen, fade into the background more than a bit. But in the end, Wen and her story triumphed, and she got her happy ending, and a story that was more than worthy of her, and a man who was the same.

This is a book where you have to read the other books before it or lose a lot of the richness of the story and background characters. But reading the other books is no hardship at all when you have such strong and interesting characters as these. Highly recommended.