Monday, May 31, 2010

Much Fall of Blood by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer

Chernobog, the demon, is planning to invade Europe, with the collusion of the Mongols, through his puppet, Jagiellon, Ruler of Poland and Lithuania. Only two young Venetian Men stand between him and complete victory- Benito Valdosta and Manfred of Brittany, raised as poor canal boys, and now in charge of forces working against the demon.

With Benito married and settled down in Corfu, Manfred, with his Bodyguard Erik Hakkonsen, a knight born and raised in Iceland. Sent to the lands of the Golden Khan, escorting a diplomatic ambassador who is an Ilkhan, they must make an agreement with Iskander Beg, leader of the Hillfolk beyond Constantinople, to get permission to pass through his territory.

Meanwhile, in a prison, a young man named Vlad has been a prisoner for most of his life. But when a chance arises to escape, he takes it, heedless of the risk. He wants to return to his home in Valachia, and along the way, he meets a beautiful blonde woman- Elizabeth Bartholdy, the nearly-immortal sorceress who works for Chernobog, and has truck with demons, spirits and other foul and fell creatures. Elizabeth has plans for both Vlad and his sister, who is in hiding with their mother, but she needs for Vlad to be entranced with her and still a virgin to use him.

Vlad is so green that he doesn't understand the Kind of feeling that Elizabeth Bartholdy engenders in him. But he does know that there is something inside him, a kind of darkness that makes him interested in death and blood and combat and hurting things. He's struggled against it all his life, but it also makes him stronger than other men... and more resistant to magic, so Elizabeth finds him much harder to ensnare in her web than she thinks he will be.

Rescued from Elizabeth by a group of gypsies who can also become wolves, unbeknownst to him, he is not unknown to them, and his family is the result of much breeding by the gypsies, who are not, in fact, gypsies at all. When they leave him Valachia, he finds that the people there remember him fondly, and when he starts fighting the boyars who are in bed and in sympathy with Emeric of Hungary, who now rules the area, he suddenly finds himself at the head of a force of troops, and winning battles against the forces of Emeric and the boyars.

Vlad's sister, Dana, and his mother, take shelter with the same "Gypsies" that aided Vlad. Forced to adopt their dress and appearance to be safe, the Gypsies take the two women with them to their mountain hideout, where they are concealing a large secret: the last two surviving Gryphons, just hatched. They attempt to keep her away from the Gryphons, but she is curious and will not be denied.

Meanwhile, in the lands of the Golden Horde, a Mongol Princess named Bortai tries to protect her brother, who has fallen in a game and hit his dead. He's not dead, but his wits are wandering, and because other Mongols attack him and her with the intention to kill her brother Kildai, and have one less candidate for the ruler of the Mongols, she must flee the Kurultai with her brother in a cart, and escape the other Mongols who come to look for her.

Luckily, she finds a Mongol slave, Ion, who is also fleeing, and commands his help in keeping her brother safe and alive. But in the steppes, danger lurks around every corner, and it's not just the other Mongols she has to look out for.

Manfred, meanwhile, is travelling into the Mongol lands, escorted by Iskander Beg and his men, as well as Erik and the Church Knights, and a small horse-boy recruited from Jerusalem. But as soon as Iskander Beg has left, the Mongols turn on the knights, and Manfred, but are handed a stunning defeat by the knights and their cannons and handguns. In the process, they rescue Bortai and Kildai, and Erik inadvertantly offers her marriage in offering her shelter.

As they return to the Kurultai, Bortai uses David, who bears an uncanny resemblance to her brother, to make it seem as if Kurultai has recovered from his blow. He actually is recovering, but not as quickly as Bortai would hope. She leads them to the camp of her own people, the Blue Horde, but must return to the Kurultai to elect a new Great Khan in the spring. And in the meantime, Vlad, who has enraged Emeric with his success in Valachia, comes to the lands of the Horde to trade for horses for his troops, where he meets with and impresses Erik and Manfred.

But Elizabeth Bartholdy is still out there, and seeks to entrap Vlad and his sister in her snares. But amidst war and magic and evil, can the forces of good gain a victory over Chernobog and deny him the assistance of Elizabeth and the magic forces she commands? And what will be the fate of the Gryphons and the family bond to the land of Valachia that Vlad and his family are blessed with?

Wow, this was a long book, and because it has been so long since I read the previous book in the series, "This Rough Magic", I had trouble remembering what was going on, and what had come before, so the first part of the book was very rough going for me. But after about, oh 1/4 of the book, it all began making sense and connecting again.

This is a book, even one that is part of a series, that you don't really need to read in any kind of order. Yes, it's nice if you can, and it will explain who characters like Eneko Lopez are, but it's not truly necessary to the story to understand the bigger picture, the story in the here and now is entertaining enough on its own.

Mainly, this story is one that involves lots of battles, military fighting, and politics, with added character delving into their background. This book will appeal to those who love military fiction and battles. In this book and in this case, it has a fantasy bent, but the characters are ripped from reality. Vlad is Vlad Dracula (his people even call him "Drac"), and Elizabeth Bartholdy is Elizabeth Bathory. And so on.

I enjoy military fiction, mostly science fiction, without having ever been in the military. Eric Flint and Dave Freer are very good at writing fighting in large groups and describing combat, while I have always thought of Mercedes Lackey as more of a character-driven fantasy writer (although she doesn't write just fantasy), but here she is surprisingly good at fitting in with the others. I found this an entertaining read, and I do recommend it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel by Jane Austen, Seth Grahame Smith, Tony Lee and Cliff Richards

England is a land in turmoil, as for some reason its corpses will not stay decently buried but rise up to terrorize the countryside as "Unmentionables". Fighting them is mostly the work of men, but some women also train to destroy them, not the least of which are the three daughters of Mr. Bennett, who had taken his daughters to China to learn and hone their training in the killing arts. Chiefest of them all when it comes to killing is the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who is a "Bride of Death" for the end she brings Zombies to.

Her mother, who is a non-combatant, wants nothing more than to marry off her daughters well, but their father is rather more concerned with keeping them alive and letting them use their deadly skills on behalf of England, to contain the unmentionables and the strange plague.

When a man named Bingley moved in across the park, Mrs. Bennett seeks to marry one of them off to him, and they go to his house for a ball. But in an attack by the unmentionables, Elizabeth meets Bingley's friend, Mr. Darcy, and they both fire sparks off each other practically from the first sight. Elizabeth is a staunch fighter, and doesn't suffer fools gladly, flaying them with the sharp side of her tongue and her wit. Fitzwilliam Darcy is dour and almost cold, but Elizabeth's prowess as a zombie fighter definitely captures his attention. Meanwhile, Mr. Bingley captures the attention, and is captured by, that of Elizabeth's sister, Jane.

However, when Bingley and Darcy return to London without explanation, Elizabeth is angered that Bingley has thrown over Jane unexpectedly. It is not until a contingent of soldiers is sent into the countryside that Elizabeth meets and becomes friend with one of them, George Wickham. Wickham used to be a friend of Darcy, and tells Elizabeth that they were both raised by Darcy's father after Wickham's father died. Unfortunately, Darcy seemed to be angry that his father preferred Wickham to himself, and made several slights against him, including an assault that broke both of Wickham's legs, and he also cheated Wickham out of his inheritance.

Elizabeth learns that it was Darcy who broke up Jane and Bingley's budding relationship, and this crystalizes her dislike of him into outright hatred. She vows to kill him and cut out his heart for what he has done.. She gets her chance when she goes to visit her friend, Charlotte, who married her cousin, a clergyman. Charlotte, before her wedding, was bitten by a zombie and is turning into one, craving brains and constantly biting her own hand.

Darcy comes to see her and confesses his love for her, but Elizabeth blows up at him and has a vicious verbal and physical fight with him. She is so angered that she knocks him down and wounds him. He manages to escape with his life, but writes her a letter in which he explains what he has done and why. Yes, he broke up Jane and Bingley, but he was afraid that the malady she was suffering was the "unfortunate Plague" and that she would turn into a zombie. As for Wickham, it is true that they were raised together by Darcy's father, but Wickham had incurred his father's disgust by being a cruel man. Darcy once came on him kicking a servant's legs for some fault with his saddle-girth, and Darcy, sick of the way he was mistreating the man, broke his own legs for him. As for the "Inheritance", Wickham had tried to seduce Darcy's sister, and Darcy saved her from the ruin of her reputation. Since Wickham couldn't have her be forced to marry him, he lost that "Inheritance".

Realizing that she has misjudged him, Elizabeth repents, and a meeting with him as she and her family have gone on a progress around the country show both of them how well they work together when they fight zombies. Elizabeth considers resuming their relationship, only to find out that her sister Lydia has eloped with Wickham. Darcy also finds this out, and decides to save Lydia by forcing Wickham to marry her, not just despoil her. He also delivers a beating that leaves Wickham a complete quadriplegic, including an inability to control himself in the bathroom, then engineers a place for them in Ireland with a group of lame priests.

He has realized that his old cold and arrogant manner allows people to believe the worst of him, but his aunt has caught wind of his affection for Elizabeth Bennett, and she swoops in to try and save him for her own daughter, a sickly girl who cannot live up to the example of her mother, who is the most prominent zombie fighting woman in the country. She is so good that the zombies give her place a wide berth, but she thinks that Elizabeth Bennett is not good enough for Darcy, and challenges her to a duel.

But will Elizabeth be able to kill a woman she once so idolized? And will the assistance of Lady Catherine's ninjas be able to overcome the Shaolin training that Elizabeth received in the orient? And even if she is able to overcome Lady Catherine with sword and wiles, Lady Catherine says she would rather not live if Elizabeth defeats her. Will Elizabeth kill the aunt of the man she has come to love? Or will she spare her life? And how will Darcy view her choice?

Okay, I've never read either "Pride and Prejudice" or "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (shocker, I know), but when I saw this in the library, I just had to pick it up. I liked the idea of zombie fighters in the Victorian era, and how the women who became Zombie-killers attained a much greater measure of freedom for themselves, but even so, most of Elizabeth Bennett's sisters seem to be more interested in marrying than in continuing their martial careers- only Elizabeth doesn't want to get married off and leave the fray.

She truly is the best at Zombie-slaying, even better than Lady Catherine, who is the premiere Zombie-Hunter in England. Since this is a graphic novel, we don't get a sense of how or when Zombies started arising, but I was rather surprised that they hadn't hit on the idea of burning *everyone* after they died to prevent more zombies from arising. Cremation would seem to be the best way to end the infestation, as they do burn zombies when they are caught.

I found this book much more interesting and amusing than the actual novel it's based on. The idea of Zombie-slaying women and noblewomen in Victorian society was an absolute win, and very fun to read. It's also more interesting to have a heroine who can give the hero a run for his money in fighting prowess, and doesn't have to just go at him with words. Fun, and a triumph. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rough Justice, the DC comics artwork of Alex Ross, edited by Chip Kidd

Alex Ross is a DC artist well-known for his painted and almost photorealistic style. In the past few years, he's done art for a series of comics about the JLA, and special ultralarge comics like "Shazam: Power of Hope", "Superman: Peace on Earth", "Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth", "Batman: War on Crime", as well as his groundbreaking work on "Kingdom Come", which came out much earlier, but the comic which I think brought the beauty and power of his art to the wider world was the even earlier "Marvels" about a normal man's view of superheroes.

Ross takes us through his own work, opening his sketchbook to show how he works, from sketches and pencil roughs up through marker coloring and right up to finished work. Along the way, we get to see his redesigns for various characters, and character ideas he came up with, like a compromised Oracle/Batwoman who had gotten healed of her Paralysis in a Lazarus pool, leaving her almost vampiric and designed with a red cape interior, brighter red hair, and a red bat-symbol on her chest.

Other sketches and marked colored roughs show a more Kandorian-designed Nightwing, and a Robin design where the yellow cape had been changed to a green not unlike that of Green Arrow, and included a cowl. A more Spectre-like Martian Manhunter with tentacles, and a very futuristic Atom.

Many of the sketches are from "Kingdom Come", showing characters he redesigned, like Mr. America, Atom-Smasher, Sandman, and Starwoman. Some of them only showed up as costumes of the children of original heroes.

My personal favorite of the drawings is an idea for the redesigned Shazam, using the actors from the 1970's television series. And of course, plenty of pages and story ideas not only from Kingdom Come, but from shows like "Batman Beyond" and "Justice League".

I love Alex Ross's art style. Well, his painted style. Its so different from other artists and the usual rather overblown comic style of other artists. But his art, once you see it, simply blows you away. There something iconic, and almost indefinable about it, that, in addition to the almost photorealistic look of his art lends it a more heroic and measured quality than anything else you see in the comics world today.

I looked at every piece of art in this book, and I couldn't find anything I disliked. It was interesting to see how he lays out and plots his pages, and the character ideas that are implicit in his sketches and drawings- most done in black and white, and others done with small splashes of color. I loved the idea of an older Billy Batson based on the 70's "Shazam!" show, and it certainly fits in with my memories of that show.

I wished I could have seen many of his ideas for the characters he portrayed in the sketchbook- from revamped character designs to changes in the characters. I enjoyed all of it immensely. This is a wonderful book, filled with amazing work, and its much cheaper than buying originals (original painted pages from Kingdom Come sell for $9000 on his website- some less, but ones with major characters are way up there.

I would tell anyone interested in comic art, anyone who really loves the characters that DC owns, to at least read this book, if not buy it. The art can only be described in exceptionals- amazing, wonderful, incomparable, and this is a book you are going to want to own the minute you start reading it. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Animal Academy, Volume 1 by Moyamo Fujino

Neko Fukuta is a very bad student, and she has searched in vain for a High School that will take her despite her bad scores. When she is approached by the Morimori Academy, she thinks she has finally found her salvation.

On the train, she meets another girl named Miiko Suzuhara, who, as it turns out, is also travelling to Morimori. Neko takes a liking to the girl, especially when the girl helps her find the school, which is hidden in a thick forest. But when she is told to present her letter of Welcome to the Head, he abruptly tells her that she cannot attend. She isn't wanted.

Neko begs for another chance. She really doesn't have anywhere else to go, and the headmaster reluctantly lets her take a test. But all the problems are too hard for her, and she feels like crying. Begging again and again to be allowed to stay, the test keeps changing, and the other man in the room tells her to take the test and fail so that the headmaster has a reason to kick her out.

But when she turns back to the test, it has changed to a mere three Questions. 1) Can you act natural if you know the truth? 2) Can you assimilate into our school? and 3) Can you swear to keep the fact that you are a human being a secret?

Neko answers "Yes" to all three questions, and is welcomed into the school. Then she learns the truth about Morimori Academy: it is actually a school for magical animals who wish to learn how to pretend to be human and interact with the human world. To be safe at the Academy, she must pretend to be an animal as well.

The other man is a teacher, named Watanuki, and he's a raccoon. To help her understand the school, he lends her a book about the school, the Morimorigiten, of the Encyclopedia of the Morimori school. She is in the white class, and thinks the nature of the school explains why the entrance exam was so easy- basic math, easy Japanese and writing.

She is roomed with Miiko, the girl she met on the train, and since they usually room animals of the same kind together, and Miiko is a human, other students at the school assume that Neko (whose name means "cat") is a cat as well. But even if Miiko gets along well with Neko, and thinks Neko is a cat, she's not as comfortable with the other animals at the school.

Especially one boy, a fox named Kotaro Araki, who entered school just to find himself a wife. Not only is he relentless with hitting on every girl at the school (including Miiko, who wallops him), finding a wife is his *only* reason for being there.

But Neko isn't the only human student at the school, and when a human boy learns her secret, he wants her to go with him to run away from the school and back to the human world. But will Neko go with him, or stay at the school and try to learn, and teach the other students a bit about the human world? And what is this snake that Neko keeps seeing around? Is it a teacher, a fellow student, or the headmaster keeping tabs on her?

I actually rather like this series. None of the students looks like they should be in any kind of high school- elementary or middle school at best, but there is a sweet gentleness about the story that is very welcome to read.

There isn't much conflict in the school (Walloping Araki ia about as quarrelsome as it gets), but this is a story with definite cuteness that falls completely apart for the human students as soon as you think about it. Honestly, what kind of jobs are they going to be qualified for? That may be fine for magical animals, but for a human?

But this series will make you smile, both the art and the story, which evoke a world out of the past, sweet and magical. Suitable for even young children (at least, so far), I'd definitely recommend it, especially to anyone who liked Fruits Basket, because of the magical animal aspect.

The Dreamer by Lora Innes

Beatrice "Bea" Whately is a typical High School senior. Interested in Drama and working on the school play, Bea's mostly absentee parents are away a lot of the time, and she has a serious crush on one of her classmates, a Boy named Ben Cato, who also happens to be the star Quarterback.

But one night, Bea dreams of the American Revolution, of a man dressed in a redcoat who kisses her and tells her he thought she was dead. The dream is so real and vivid, that the day seems to pass in a fog. But when she goes to the auditorium to try out for the play as Juliet, she is surprised by none other than the object of her crush, Ben Cato!

He's there to try out for the play also- he injured his knee last year, so after this final year of school, he won't be able to play any more. Not only does he seem to like her, but he asks her out, and she's so flustered that all she's able to say is "maybe".

That night, she once again dreams of the American Revolution, and the soldier she kissed before gets her off a ship and takes her to shore, where is captured by American soldiers, who don't believe him when he tells them to take him to Captain Nathan Hale, who is the only one who knew what he was doing.

Bea learns that the young man who rescued her is named Alan Warren, but when she passes out in her dream, she wakes up back in her bed, and its morning. At school, she approaches her cousin Ben to ask him to be her date at the show her mom is opening at the museum. He tells her to ask Ben- he doesn't want to go with her, and he's not liking her passive-agressive, or cowardly, approach to Ben Cato.

Eventually, she does ask him, but once again falls asleep while waiting for him to come over- and is plunged back into the world of her dreams, where she in an American camp. Alan is a member of Knowlton's Rangers, and as for Bea, nathan Hale wants to quiz her about what she learned while she was a prisoner on General Howe's ship, but Bea has to confess that she doesn't remember a thing. She doesn't even remember Alan, and they have supposedly known each other for several years.

Alan finds out from Hale about Bea not knowing him, and he's depressed for a while. But then things look up. If she doesn't remember him, she also can't remember all the beastly ways he tormented her when they were just kids. Bea thinks that's amusing, but tells him not to push his luck.

It starts to rain, and Alan takes her back to camp. But his Captain must send him back out into danger, and with his bravery proven after the daring raid that Alan carried out in getting Bea back and setting fire to several of Howe's ships, he wants to promote Alan, who, reluctantly agrees. As a condition, he wants Bea sent back to her father's house, but Boston isn't safe. As a compromise, Alan wants her sent to the camp of his brother, where she'll be safe caring for the sick and wounded.

Bea wakes up again when Ben comes to pick her up and take her to the museum opening. But while at the museum, she has a fight with her cousin, who acts like a jerk to her. Going into another room to cool down, she sees a painting set at a place called Breed's Hill, that shows the death of a Major-General Warren, and Bea is shocked, and a little bit frightened.

The people she's been dreaming about are real. And Bea suddenly can't wait to get back home and plunge into her dreams to try and save Alan Warren from she fears might be his death in the Battle of Breed's Hill. But can she find him in time?

This was a very well-done and effective comic. The story was great, the characters were interesting, and you could genuinely feel Bea's confusion over why she is suddenly having these amazingly vivid dreams of the Revolutionary War. At the beginning, we don't know much more than she does- just that she dreams of Alan Warren kissing her, he says "beatrice, I thought you were dead." and she wakes up.

She finds it a little distracting- who wouldn't? Especially since most people don't remember their dreams at all on waking. But the fact that the dreams show continuity is a little worrying. By the end of the book, it's much the same- we still don't know why she is having these dreams, and who Bea Whately is in the Revolution. I was thinking that she was inhabiting the body of an ancestor or something, but I have no reason to really think that. There are simply no clues.

At the end of the book, Bea is still shocked that all the people she is interacting with are real people, and that what she is dreaming actually happened. She tells her friend that the people she is dreaming is real, and the graphic novel ends there, leaving us in suspense. But I couldn't wait to read more, even if the only comic shop I know of in my area went out of business. So I guess I'll have to wait.

With a taut, excellent story that grips you from the get-go, I definitely recommend "The Dreamer". I want to see what happens, and what is going on. The Revolutionary War is one of those areas that should receive more interest than it actually does- the Civil War as well, and not just in those dry, period films. A winner. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hastur Lord by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross

Regis Hastur is lord of the Hastur clan on Darkover, and he and his grandfather, Danvan Hastur, have been fighting the slow loss of the Comyn. The Hasturs are the strongest and most powerful family left, but Regis isn't happy to be the head. He would rather have been a spacefarer, to have left Darkover and explored the stars. But when he realized that to do so would let down not only his family and domain, but the planet as well, he gave up on that life, and those dreams.

His grandfather wants him to marry and settle the rights of succession, but Regis hasn't yet found a woman who he wants as much, or whom he loves as much, as his Paxman, Danilo Syrtis. Danilo, whom he met when they both were boys at Nevarsin Monastery, so he resists his grandfather's coercions.

Meanwhile, Regis is called to the Terran medical center, where the son of the Terran Legate, a boy known as Felix, has gone into what seems to be dangerously strong and prolonged threshhold sickness. Regis does what he can with his laran, resisted by the boy's mother, Tiphani, who views what Regis does as sorcery and witchcraft. Ultimately, though, he discovers that Felix has come into contact with and bonded with a laran stone, a matrix, and will soon die if he is denied access to it. His mother has taken it away from him, but when the stone is returned, he recovers.

Meanwhile, Regis discovers, on his grandfather's death, that he has an older brother, an emmasca, who was sent away to Nevarsin as a small baby, and Regis never knew about him. Needless to say, Regis immediately travels to Nevarsin with Danilo to bring his brother back to the Comyn and to the life he should have had.

But Danilo, who was raised by the Cristoforo monks that run Nevarsin, doesn't trust Rinaldo, or Brother Valentine, as he was known. Something about the man rubs him the wrong way, and causes a bit of hard feelings between him and Regis. But when he is home and accepted into the bosom of his family, he meets Tiphani Lawson, who quickly bonds with him over religion. Together, they plan to build a chapel, the Church of Many Worlds. Regis, who is glad that Rinaldo has found something to do with his time, backs the construction.

Meanwhile, debate continues over Darkover joining the Terran Federation. Some of the Comyn lords see only the benefits such a close alliance with the Federation can bring them, while others want nothing to do with the Terranen, wishing they would just roll up their spaceport and never return to Darkover again. Regis has been trying to chart a course between the two sides, but no one is particularly happy with the situation, and one man, Valdir Ridenow, will do almost anything to get Darkover to be a world of the Federation, instead of enjoying protected world status.

To that end, he has Rinaldo captured, and Danilo as well, and tells Regis that unless he abdicates his position as Lord of Hastur and head of the Crystal Council, he will have not only Danilo, but Regis's heir, Mikhail killed.

Regis does hope for the best, becoming an advisor to his brother, as much as he can. But Rinaldo is sickened by the relationship between Regis and Danilo and refuses to release Danilo unless Regis gets married. Regis, who tried and failed to marry Linnea Storn earlkier, and spent the night with her, engendering another child, this one a son, with her, agrees to marry her, and she, realizing that he loves her just as much as Danilo, agrees to marry him.

Danilo is released on the day of their wedding, though Regis is not allowed to talk to him in any way. Since Rinaldo believes that putting Regis and Danilo back together will encourage them to take up their relationship once more, tells Regis to release Danilo from his service as his Paxman, and Rinaldo tells Danilo that Danilo will be his own Paxman. Danilo swears to serve him, but not only him, which Rinaldo doesn't catch because he isn't familliar with the ceremony.

Regis does what he can to moderate his brother's policies, but once he is in power, he becomes infected with a religious mania. Tiphani Lawson leaves her husband to become Rinaldo's muse, and soon Rinaldo is trying to push the Cristoforo religion on the whole of Darkover, aided by his wife, a scion of Ridenow with some serious mental problems. But when her pregnancy turns out to be nothing more than a false one, because Rinaldo is an emmasca who cannot bear children, Rinaldo accuses the Comyn of stealing his child by their witchcraft, and Regis, no longer thinking his brother innocent or inept, must seriously consider taking back the reins of power, while rescuing the children that Rinaldo had taken from their parents, including Felix Lawton, to be raised in the Cristoforo manner. But can Regis save his brother while reining in his religious mania, or have things gone too far to be stopped?

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but in the end, the book's great promise went exactly nowhere. I have to question calling this book a book by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah Ross when Marion died over 10 years ago. She may have been responsible in a small part for this book, but I am willing to bet it was a very, very small part. How little of the book can a writer be responsible for and still be considered a co-writer?

To start off with, this book gets a very slow start before the story really picks up, and there is an un-Marion like focussing on the bedroom antics of Regis and Danilo. Before, readers who really didn't care to think that two male characters were in bed making love to each other could imagine that Regis and Dani's love was on a higher plane- brotherly love, say. But not here any longer. No, we get to see exactly what they do with each other, but not in any extended erotic scenes. On the other hand, Regis is as obsessed with his relationship with Dani as a fifteen year old girl is. Despite the fact that we get told it's not unusual for young men to have these sorts of relationships before they can be expected to marry either legally or morally, Regis is unusual in that he is still with Dani, who is also his closest friend and Paxman (Sort of like an oath-sworn bodyguard, but with more powers). Even as Regis is being told to marry by his Grandfather, he admits to himself that he could never marry a woman who wouldn't mind being second in his heart to Danilo, and he prefers to stay with Dani rather than marry anyhow.

And then there is the question of why Regis discounts the opinions of Dani, who means so much to him and whose opinion he supposedly trusts so much when Dani isn't comfortable with the way Rinaldo acts or the words he speaks. And yet, several times, Regis simply dismisses the concerns Dani raises about Rinaldo as if they are of no particular import. I had the feeling he dismissed them from story reasons rather than character reasons, you know, so at the end of the book, he could say, "Why did I dismiss Dani's concerns, I should have listened to him, oh Gods, I am so sorry!" (which, even if it wasn't in those words, did still come at the end).

I was also rather disappointed with the depiction of the Cristoforo religion. For one thing, it seemed to bear a much stronger resemblance to a specific kind of fundamentalist Christianity, which left a rather bad taste in my mouth, especially in its distaste for homosexual men. And then there was its adherents willingness to kidnap and imprison children in order to indoctrinate children without the knowledge or consent of their parents who may feel and believe differently. Not necessarily something fundamentalist Christianity subscribes to yet, but I've known some who expressed a wish that they could do so.

In short, this novel was a disappointment on several levels to me, and in the end, didn't feel like a real Darkover novel at all. As it moves further and further away from the words and worlds that Marion Zimmer Bradley created and invested with such love, I have to wonder how long I can continue to read these books that masquerade as the Master's own when in reality she maybe was responsible for 1/2 of 1 percent of the writing. I wish that the publishing companies would let Deborah J. Ross write her own books and let the door close on Darkover. I really wish it would. Not recommended.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Adelia Aguilar is a doctor with a degree from the University of Salerno. Unfortunately for her, she doesn't practice her profession in Italy, but in England, at the behest of Henry II. But when her longtime lover and the father of her child, Bishop Rowley Picot, becomes aware that someone has been stalking her and trying to do harm to her, he does his best to get her sent out of the country to keep her safe, little knowing that the man who is stalking her can overhear them talking and will be following her.

Adelia is ignorant of the attempts on her life, thanks to two of her household who have been looking out for her. But when Rowley comes to see her, they tell him what has been happening. He also doesn't tell her, but says that King Henry has asked for her services once again, this time to be personal physician to Princess Joanna, who is being given in marriage to King William of Sicily. Since long journeys tend to have a bad effect on the health of people on the Journey, he wants Adelia to protect the health of the Princess.

Henry, of course, is only too glad to agree with this plan, and also to keep her daughter in England to ensure that she returns at the end of the Journey. He is even willing to let his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, look after Adelia's daughter, Allie, whom everyone agrees is growing into a interesting person, but probably not marriageable considering her interests and background. Of course, Adelia has no choice but to agree, and while Gyltha, her daughter's nurse, stays with Allie, her servant Mansur, the Moor, stays with her, pretending to be the "physician" that she merely translates for.

But there is someone in the procession who has it in for Adelia, the outlaw known as Scarry, the most-educated of Wolf's outlaws from the previous book, who was in love with his master. Adelia had to kill him to save her own life, but Scarry only sees her as a murderess who must be put down to put his lover's soul at peace, and he plots a long and convoluted revenge so that he can see her die in as much pain and aguish as possible.

First, he poisons her horse on the journey after she has nearly been killed by it, so that some people think she cursed the horse to death. Second, a knight who frightened her servant is murdered during a boar-hunt at night. Him, she did curse, and so the suspicion that she was to blame for his death increases. And then a laundress has an altercation with Adelia and Mansur and is found dead the next morning, face-down in the tubs full of water, hit over the head and drowned.

Rowley and others are willing to entertain the explanation that the woman died of a sudden apoplexy, but Adelia feels that her own duty is to the truth and the truth is that the woman was murdered. But no one, not even Mansur, is willing to back her up when she wishes to say so, something that wounds Adelia deeply.

But when Adelia stays behind with two women to save those of the party who have drunk from poisoned wells at a village attacked by Henry's son Richard, it opens her up to charges of heresy, for the two women are Cathars, and are considered witches and heretics in the South. With Rowley gone on ahead to Sicily, Adelia is left behind without anyone to vouch for her. Even her servant, now pregnant, isn't immune to a horrible death, for such is the hatred for the Cathars, that they are to be extirpated, root and branch.

Injured, imprisoned, and fearing for her life, can Adelia somehow escape the grip of the church and survive to end the threat that Scarry holds to her and her loved ones? Or will the venerated Mistress of the Art of Death finally come face to face with Death itself?

I enjoyed this book a lot, but at the same time, I was almost disappointed in Adelia. Her conversations with Rowley and the King didn't quite have the same snap I was used to reading from her, and she spends a lot of her time in a snit with Rowley for one reason or another. They claim to love each other, but his version of love is trying to run her life for her, and her version of love seems to mean always getting her own way, neither one being a condition I'd call love.

At the end of the book, we finally meet Adelia's parents (adoptive), her Jewish Physician father and her Christian Physician mother, and they, too, have the sort of peppery and acerbic relationship that Adelia and Rowley have. But there is a difference, that you can tell they feel actual affection towards each other, where as for Adelia and Rowley- that sort of affection seems to be missing. They are either in charity with each other and screwing like bunnies, or on the outs, cold and sarcastic- or not talking at all. There seems to be almost no middle ground.

As for the mystery, such as it is, it wasn't that hard to figure out if you parsed out all the clues. There was only four or five people who it could have been at the outset, and if Adelia wasn't so determined to ignore the truth of her senses and deductions at times, she could have found him out before the end of the book. I find that disappointing- the mystery could have been more suspenseful, but while there were genuinely suspenseful scenes, the rest were just... flat and rather dull.

So, while I would still recommend this series, I would steer people away from this particular volume. We're certainly given hints of what is to come, and the world seems headed towards a period of greater ignorance and bigotry. Salerno is falling backwards, and England, hopefully, will move forwards. Slight recommendation, but not as good as the previous books in the series.

Monday, May 24, 2010

XXXHolic Volume 15 by Clamp

Watanuki has been told by Yuko to teach the girl who came to the shop for cooking lessons. But he found out that she didn't want to taste the food she ate, because she found eating her own cooking disgusting. He talked to Yuko and Domeki about it, and this time, he tells her that he wants her to eat what she has cooked.

She tries to tell him that she doesn't eat what she has cooked, but he assumes that she is afraid- afraid to know herself in the way that eating her own food will let her know herself. He shares his own past and problems- that he can't remember what his own food tastes like, or even his own past, but that he can learn something of himself by eating the food he cooks.

She is offended and runs out of the shop, and afterwards, he talks with Yuko about her. He tells her that what he said to her offended her, and she said, "Was it something you thought she needed to hear? Was it something you needed to say to her?" and he says, "Yes."

But as they talk, Yuko grows translucent and indistinct, and realizes that he's seen her outfit before, and Yuko never wears the same thing twice. He grabs at her arm, rendering her real and solid once more. And then he realizes where he saw her wearing what she was wearing- in a dream. But as he vocalizes this, she says, "The dream will soon end." and dissolves into a mass of butterflies and flower petals.

Watanuki wakes in bed, and calls out for Yuko, but all he finds is a single, completely black butterfly, and that dissolves into dust. Later, walking with Domeki, he says he searched the shop for her, but she was gone, and so were Maru and Moru. Then, even Mokona was gone. And he has the feeling that he will never see them again. Then, he rethinks and says, maybe they are just on some errand.

But Yuko had a wish of her own, and he wants to fulfill it for her. In the meantime, he will keep doing what he can for people. And to that end, he goes to see his student. He brings her Omusubi he made and tries to get her to see him. But she won't, so he leaves the package at her gate and tells Domeki he'll keep trying. Domeki asks what if she doesn't let him in then? And he says he'll keep making Omusubi.

Day after day, he leaves her Omusubi, and after a month, he finally moves her to act. But the next time he comes by, she is angry at him. She tells him they were the worst things she ever tasted. Not his Omusubi, but her own. His Omusubi had a gentle, familliar taste, and her own were tasteless. She has no flavor of her own. She asked her fiancee to put the wedding on hold, and he is willing to wait for her to develop s flavor of her own. But in the meantime, she still wants to learn from Watanushi, and asks if he will accept her as a student.

Watanuki agrees, but in his converation with his student, he discovers a distressing fact- that even though she met Yuko, she doesn't remember her. He tells Domeki about it after class, and wonders how much of what he has lived through is real. He runs to the shop, wondering if it is all a dream and if it will still even be there, but once he gets inside, it is all black, and he thinks this has all been a dream. Everything, all of it.

However, Yuko is there, tied up in black cords and hanging from the ceiling. She tells him it was not a dream, but a frozen moment in time, and now, time is starting to move again. She should not even be alive now, but it was wished that she should be there for Watanuki, and so, she was.

But she should be gone, and now that time has begun to move- not his time, but a different time, she cannot remain. Watanuki, who has seen two Syaorans and two Sakuras, and they have hurt his heart. But who are they and how does he know them? And can he fulfill Yuko's wish, and she fulfill his? What happens when a wish cannot be granted, despite the most earnest wishes of one's heart?

Well, we sort of knew this was coming, but to finally read it was just... sad. And now I understand Yuko's butterfly iconography. Just as falling Cherry Blossoms in Japan fill a category of things known as Mono no Aware- which literally means you barely have time to gasp in awe at their beauty before they are gone, butterflies are another impermanent symbol of spring,and they barely seem to last longer than the cherry blossoms. So Yuko's plentiful butterfly symbols seem to mean that she, too, was an impermanent part of the story.

And so what will become of Watanuki Kimihiro after she is gone? For the longest time in the story, he had nothing and no one to tie himself to. But now he has friends, and people who value him- will he be able to stay around for their sake? And what will he do with all those things that he inherited from Yuko? What will become of him? Will the shop disappear? And where will he go if it does?

I'm not sure, but hopefully it will still be there now that Domeki has moved in with him. Maybe the next volume will be the last. But I do want to see it. Will Watanuki turn into a male version of Yuko? Does he have the powers to do so? I don't know, but I do want to know and find out. Recommended, if sad.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bone Handbook by Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith started writing the comic "Bone" back when he was just ten years old. Now, many years later, the story is done, and the series has been turned into ten graphic novels. But finding them all is hard, and it's not easy to parse the story of the world into one easily readable whole just from scanning the comic books, and so now there is the Bone Handbook, which lays out the story and introduces all the characters, while revealing secrets and hidden tidbits from the creator, artist and colorist for the series.

The three mostly main characters are the cousins Bone. Phoncible, or "Phoney" Bone, and his cousins Fone and Smiley Bone. From a land far away, they come to the valley where the story mostly takes place after a balloon ride and a trip across the desert they crashed in.

The Valley is the last bastion of the humans from a land called Atheia. After the kingdom was destroyed, the Queen, Rose Harvestar, escaped there with her granddaughter, Thorn. Thorn is heir to the throne of Atheia, but she's been raised not knowing of her ancestry. The only people who truly know about it are Rose, now calling herself "Ben", and Lucius Down, the owner of the local tavern, who also used to be Rose's Captain of the Guards.

But fate, and the creatures of the world who would rule over the earth, both the rat creatures and the Dragons, won't let Thorn moulder her life away in obscurity. They come to the village of Barrelhavem searching for her. But because the Bones have just recently arrived, being chased by two of the rat-creatures, Gran'ma Ben assumes that the Rat Creatures are after the Bones. Unfortunately, they are not.

This small book is filled with Character Profiles, a retelling of the story, interviews with the Artist, writer and colorist, and a compilation of covers from the original comic. Also included is a short story involving the Bones, where Phoney Bone make a kite out of Gran'ma Ben's bloomers and Smiley Bone. He gets Smiley up, but crashes the kite, inciting the ire of Fone Bone and Gran'ma Ben along the way.

Also in the pages are plenty of tidbits about the characters and the story. For instance, Bartleby, the good Rat-creature, was named after Bartleby the Scrivener, the story by Herman Melville. The Red Dragon who acts as Fone Bone's unofficial protector was based on a dog he once owned. And so on. The last cartoon in the book is the funniest, where Phoney Bone contemplates starting a religion and a political party all based on greed. For a moment, he's entranced by the thought of the power this could bring him, before sadly concluding it could never happen.

This is a good book that allows readers to pick up on any of the story they might have missed, or, if they read the graphic novels out of order, to put the story together. This expands on and makes the story larger and better, and is a welcome sight. For tons of information on the world of Bone and the story, there is no better source than this book. Recommended.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the 14h Century by Ian Mortimer

When you think of the Medieval Period, what is it that comes to mind? Knights on Horseback fighting valiantly in wars and Jousting? Courts of Kings dressed in glorious finery? Unfortunately, the popular image of the middle ages is rather colorful, but also wrong. It was a colorful age, to be sure, but what was it like to actually live there?

Ian Mortimer, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, sets out to make the Medieval Period come alive as something more than words in a book. From the moment you ride up to the city and the first thing you see, dwarfing all the other buildings around it being the church, proud in its gothic architecture with flying buttresses and rose window made of colorful glass, to the stench of the garbage, feces and offal that line the banks of the stream (known as the "Shitbrook" that runs past the great city, he firmly anchors the reader in time and place.

Of course, when one speaks of towns in England, one must also speak of the greatest: London, and the many sights therein, including the London Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral, both quite different from the ones we know today, since the original St. Paul's burnt down in the great fire of London, and the original bridge was well-supplied with Garderobes, or toilets that emptied directly into the Thames.

Next comes a discussion of the people- the fact that people back then were both violent and bloodthirsty, and paradoxically, full of faith in God to an extent rarely seen today. Even the most mild of believers back then would be seen as dangerously fanatical in the depth and extent of their beliefs today. And at the same time, people take delight in seeing others hurt and discomfited, strung up by one leg on hocking day and made to stay there until they pay a fine as penalty to the jokesters who set the noose.

And as people must wear clothes, the kind of clothes people wore back then were important- for unlike today, there were sumptuary laws that everyone must abide by. As you went further down the social scale. more and more things, from kinds of cloth to jewelry and fur, were forbidden to you. At the bottom of the scale, you could only wear homespun and other rough cloth. This was to be able to tell people apart. In today's egalitarian society, anyone can wear anything, but in the highly structured society of the past, one had to be able to tell at a glance who was important and who was not. The sumptuous dress of the upper classes and the royals, also existed to make people proud of their leaders.

From there, it's on to crime and punishment. Medieval punishment was not "more time for worse crimes" as we have it today in our criminal justice system. But worse punishments for worse crimes. While theft might be dealt with by cutting off the hand of the offender nd murder with simple death, the murder of many might result in hanging, removing ones entrails, cutting off of the head and then literal drawing and quartering, along with exposure of the body and the head until the flesh had rotted so much that the piece fell off the stake or pole it was displayed on- and to show people the result of committing offenses, these bloody trophies were displayed for all to see.

Each chapter of the book covers another part of English society, with the caveat that this was a period of great change in English society. What was true in the early part of the century might be completely different later on or by the end, from fashion to the cost of items, due to changes, and the greatest change of all, the Black Death. Mortimer makes the point that the real reason you wouldn't have wanted to visit the 14th Century wasn't the lack of sanitation, the crime, dangerous wild animals or lack of freedom you would experience compared to the modern day, but because of the medicine, or what passed for it.

Today, if you go to a physician, you expect him to examine you to determine what is wrong with you, to do blood tests and to prescribe you medicine based on what he found, and also that your medicine would be the same as any other person who has the same disease and the same symptoms. Well, blood tests didn't exist back in the middle ages, but in actuality things would have been very different. Not only would the "Doctor" not examine you directly, he would spend more time studying your urine and your astrological chart than anything else. And his treatment would owe more to your chart than what was wrong with you. And medicine back then wasn't very efficient. You'd be lucky to survive what was wrong with you. Even injuries like broken bones had a good chance of making you a cripple for the rest of your life, and "bleeding", cutting into a vein and letting the blood run out, was a treatment for many diseases. Being a woman meant childbirth- and a 1 in 50 chance of dying every time you got pregnant.

The book ends with a discussion of the kinds of pasttimes that medieval people enjoyed, from football to hunting, gaming to reading (or having stories be read or told to them. And of course, music and singing. Games were also popular, even though card games had not yet been invented, there were dice games, chess, checkers (draughts) and merrils, or Nine Men's Morris.

This book has a lot of information, but all that information isn't presented in a dry manner. Some people think that once a period in history is over and the people who livd there dead betond the living memory of those who exist now, that such a period is completely unknowable, but Mortimer shows this isn't the case, using primary sources, and even secondary and tertiary sources to paint a fairly complete picture of what life back then was really like. While life in the 14th Century may never be as real to readers as their own life, he does make it much more realistic than many other history books do.

The people who lived back then are real people, and were more than just the stereotypes that we are used to in popular media. In some ways, there is a resemblance to those stereotypes (of course, or why would they be called "Stereotypes"?), but the reality is much deeper and stranger than those unfamiliar with the period would think. People back then may have been more bloodthirsty and closer to the production of their food than we are today, but they dealt with many of the same problems in pollution (admittedly, more on the order of human and animal ordure and early processes to tan leather, full cloth and the blood and viscera of animal butchery), but while there was no tobacco to smoke, smoking fires gave the same diseases that smoking leads to today. Our world may be safer and a great deal less brutal and devout, but it's also less colorful.

This book gives an excellent idea of what life back then was really like, in a broader picture than other books like "A Distant Mirror" by Tuchman. But it also covers more topics than that same book, including fashion, and leaves out more of the politics and wars, though the effects of both are mentioned. I liked this book, and I'd like to see others like this covering different time periods- perhaps the so-called "Dark Ages" and the Renaissance. As an overview of England and English society, manners, customs, dress and interests, this book excels. Highly recommended.

The Shadow Pavillion by Liz Williams

At the end of Precious Dragon, the previous book in the series, the Foundations of both Heaven and Hell had been shaken to their very roots- the rulers of both Heaven and Hell are dead. The Lord of Hell has been succeeded by the former Minister of War- and his new consort will be the mother of Zhu Irzh, and the Celestial Emperor has also died, to be succeeded by his son, Mhara.

But Mhara has very different ideas about how Heaven is to be run than his father, and this is exciting both hope and anxiety in that Heavenly Realm. Heaven, more than anything, is a place of tradition, and the changes that Mhara wishes to make go against the grain of the way that Heaven now functions. This has raised no small sentiment against him, and chief among his enemies is his own mother, the Dowager Empress.

She'd be happy if her son let her run his life, but she can't get over the fact that this isn't going to happen. Mhara has his own ideas of what to do and more importantly, the way that Heaven should interact with the Earth. And Mhara wishes for nothing more than for Robin, the ghost of a human woman who should rightly be in Hell, should become his wife and rule beside him as Empress of Heaven.

But the Dowager Empress is so angry with her son and his intransigence that she hires a famous assassin, the Lady Lord Seijin, who lives in the Shadow Palace, to do away with her son. If he is no longer in the picture, then she would become the Supreme Ruler of Heaven and order life there just as she likes. But Mhara is lucky, and catches her spying on him, allowing him to foil the first attempt on his life.

Chen, back on Earth in Shanghai Three, is dealing with a problem of his own. His colleague and partner, Seneschal Zhu Irzh, has gone missing on a case, as well as his wife Inara's family spirit, the iron teapot that is also known as Badger. Both were working on a case together, and now both have vanished. But that's not the only case on his plate. Two Bollywood producers have made a significant error. To star in their films, they summoned a demon from India's Hells, a Lioness demon named Lara.

Calling her "Lara Chadijhowree", they set out to make her a star. But dealing with a demon who is also a lioness isn't the easiest thing in the world, and she proved to be as demanding as the vainest Hollywood actress, so much so that the bloom of working with her has gone swiftly off the rose. So the screenwriter, Paulent Go, being the son of an exorcist and summoner, attempts to banish Lara back to where she came from, but she's such a pain to deal with that even her demon family doesn't want her back, and have taken steps to ensure that she can never return.

But the attempt to return her to her Hell in India enrages her, and if her producers thought she was angry before, it is nothing compared to the rage she unleashes now, killing one and chasing Go until he manages to lose her. With nowhere else to go, he runs to the police, and Chen is assigned to the case. Chen believes the man, and has Jhari protect him, as she is a tigress demon from the Indian Hell herself. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Lara is her sister, and Jhari's not surprised that her relations don't want her back. Having to deal with Lara is just one of the reasons Jhari left Indian Hell and never looked back.

Badger, meanwhile, wakes up in a Hell, but realizes it is not his own. As a matter of fact, it's Indian Hell, and although he doesn't know why he's been taken, he's no match against as many tiger demons as live there. In fact, he's only there a short time when he's brought to a party and used as an entertainer, being pitted against four of the savage hounds that the Indian Hell Demons use for hunting.

Of course, badgers used to be pitted against hounds in other lands, and Badger shows them just how fierce he can be, breaking the neck of one dog and ripping out the throat of another before finding a burrow and making his escape. But before he goes, he can see that he's not the only one there- Zhu Irzh is trapped there as well. But why would a bunch of Indian Hell Demons be interested in Zhu Irzh, who has never been to either India or Indian Hell before? And what might this have to do with Jhari, to whom he has recently become engaged?

Meanwhile, Lady Lord Seijin stalks Mhara, who has announced that Heaven must help the humans on earth. Heaven is not merely about contemplating beauty while sitting on one's duff, but about service and helping others. Mhara makes this point most strongly, once again enraging his mother. At the same time, he has forgone the power that made his feelings and pronouncements unquestioningly accepted by others in Heaven, and he is happy to see that not everyone appears to disagree with him. His mother is even more furious and exhorts Seijin to try again. Seijin does, and once again, he fails, but this time there is collateral damage- Inara is killed, her head severed by Seijin's blade.

Normally, her soul would return to Hell and be reborn, but instead, it is drawn to the in-between where Seijin lives. And she discovers that Seijin is cracking up, quite literally. In addition to being part demon and part human, Seijin is Lady Lord because there are two parts of him- a female part and a male part, but they do not agree on many things, and while in the past they were in accord, now they are not, and this is destroying Seijin. Inara does her part, haunting him and taunting him. But when Seijin takes on Mhara's shape, face and place in heaven in order to fulfill his orders and kill Mhara, can Inara draw enough attention to him that he doesn't succeed? And will she manage to be reborn in order to rejoin her beloved husband on Earth?

And, In the Hell of India, Jhai Tserai has been kidnapped by Agni, demon of fire and the lord of the Hell where the Tiger-women live, known as the Hunting Lodge. Jhai is a princess of this particular Hell, and marriage to her will give Agni even more power. But can Zhu Irzh, Go and a Devi who Zhu Irzh freed rescue her from Agni before she is forced to marry him, and save her from the wrath of her own sister, Lara, who believes that Agni should be hers? What price will it cost Zhu Irzh and Jhai Tserai to escape from her contentious family and win free?

Changes continue apace, and we finally get to see more of what Heaven is like in China. I think most readers will end up agreeing with Mhara that it should be changed, and Heaven needs to take a more hands-on, proactive approach to humans on Earth rather than sitting around navel-gazing and being distressed because Humans fail to live up to the high standards that the old Emperor demanded to open Heaven to them. But if the old Emperor was insane, his wife, Mhara's mother, is actively malevolent towards him and the idea that Heaven could be anything but perfect the way it is already.

But the fact that she is willing to kill to keep Heaven the way it is, the way it always was, and not to change with the times, is a sure sign that something is very, very wrong there, and it's a certainty that readers can't judge their heaven by the same standards of the Western conception of Heaven. And yet, can't they? The idea of Heaven, as based only partly on "Paradisio" by Dante, is of an unchanging place where everybody constantly praises God over and over forever and ever. Heaven never changes, that's just the way it is. Kind of boring, actually, especially to us here on Earth. But apparently, when you get to Heaven, that's all you *want* to do. And you never get tired of it.

Leaving aside Heaven changing for the better, we also get to see a less bureaucratic version of Hell in the Indian version. While the Chinese Hell is a Hell of Bureacracy- but unlike its Western Counterpart, not forever, just as Eastern Heaven is also not forever thanks to reincarnation, Indian Hell seems even more Hellish, if you'll pardon the term- even though we only get to see Agni's Hell Realm of the Hunting Lodge. Spirits there are chased and torn apart by the Tiger Demon women and hunted by Agni as part of his own private hunting reserve. No mention is really made of what happens to the spirits afterwards. Are they reincarnated again on Earth, or are they hunted over and over again in the Hunting Lodge area? The second would seem to be more like the Western Hell, which is only a place of punishment, but we aren't given enough information to really tell.

And then there is the in-between Realm, which is apparently reserved for those spirits who do not go to one place or another. Seijin, being human and demon, is drawn to the in-between Realm and has made it his home because he is not fully demon, to be reborn into Hell, nor fully human, either. And there is the hint that other spirits who are of two different natures are also drawn there, along with the spirits of those who Seijin has killed. This third Realm expands the possibilites of the Realms, but what will become of it if Seijin in is killed?

An excellent and exciting book, this fourth in the series. I am actively looking forward to "The Iron Khan", which will be forthcoming sometime this year, to find out what is next in like for Zhu Irzh and Wei Chen. To really understand this book, though, you should read the other three as well. Luckily, that isn't a hardship at all. Highly Recommended.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Precious Dragon by Liz Williams

Detective Inspector Chen is a member of the Singapore Three Police department, and he's been paired with Zhu Irzh, a demon who is quite literally from Hell. But this is not Western Hell, but the Hell-Realm of the Eastern Bureacracy. Chen and Irzh have been paired together twice before, and have worked well together.

The city is still recovering from the attack of Senditreya in the last book, and Chen and Zhu Irzh are being singled out for praise by their superiors. However, due to the success of their cases together, their superiors have assigned them a new task, to make a diplomatic visit to Hell with a Heavenly representative, Miss Qi. For some reason, the Ministry of War has invited them to Hell to make a visit, and Miss Qi, a beautiful and entirely inoffensive-looking spirit, has been assigned to go with them. Zhu Irzh doesn't mind making the trip, but Chen thinks that taking a heavenly creature like Miss Qi to Hell is going to be a trial.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a woman named Mrs. Pa arranges for the marriage of her daughter Mai to the son of a family of her dead Husband's former business associates. Luckily, her suit is accepted, and Ms. Pa scurries around town buying items and making preparations. At the time of the marriage, though, it is revealed that her daughter is dead and in Hell, as is her husband. Mrs. Pa can only speak to her by phone, and see her for a short while when the marriage boat comes through from Hell. When it does, she and the other guests burn items, including "Hell Money" to assure their children a happy life and material possessions, and then the boat is gone, back to Hell.

But shortly thereafter, Mrs Pa receives a call from her daughter telling Mrs. Pa that she has a grandson, and Mai tells her how to get him from the temple of Sulai Ba. Mrs Pa thinks her retrieving her grandson is a dream, but he turns out to be entirely real, and Mrs. Pa names him "Precious Dragon" and brings him back home with her. He is a strange child, an old soul, but sweet and good.

Also in the city, the chorus Boy Pin sings for his supper at the City Opera, but he's looking out for a Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma to take him on and support him, since he is getting too old for the Opera and doesn't want to return to his old profession of Rent Boy. After the Opera's latest performance, he has hopes that Jhai Tserai might be willing to take him on, but she has her own lover, a demon from Hell named Zhu Irzh. After the party, a colleague of his, someone he considers a pain in the ass, Maiden Ming, goes Missing, and Chen and Zhu Irzh look into it, but are unable to find her.

Then, Pin finds himself going out on a "date" and ending up at a Hell Club, where he undergoes a strange ritual and finds his soul ending up in Hell, imprisoned in the body of a female demon when the convocation of demons are attacked by Kuei. The demon woman flees and manages to escape, but with Pai stuck inside her. She seeks help from an exorcist, but must eventually approach the Minstry of Diseases for help. There, a mere technician manages the job, and Pin ends up finding the girl sympathetic to his plight. For she is Mai Pa, daughter of Mrs. Pa, and like Pin, is in Hell unjustly.

Back on earth, all is not well, Precious Dragon and Mrs. Pa are attacked by a strange creature from Hell. Precious Dragon manages to send it back, but not without aid. Chen and Zhu Irzh, drawn to the scene, help Mrs. Pa with Precious Dragon, and Chen offers them sanctuary with his wife, Inara, as he and Zhu Irzh are shortly to leave for Hell. Mrs. Pa accepts, and it is done. But this attack is only the first of many, and they will all be forced to take shelter with Mhara, who can only help them so much. Perhaps the answers might lie in Sulai-Ba, where Precious Dragon came to earth?

In Hell, Chen, Ms Qui and Zhu Irzh are wined, dined and tour the Ministry of their hosts, the Ministry of War. War appears to be building up its forces, but for what cause? And why has Zhu Irzh's mother formed an alliance with the Minster of War? Even as they attend Mrs. Zhu's birthday party, they are instrumental in saving her from attack, for which Zhu claims a prize- the heart of his grandfather, who rebelled against the Emperor of Hell and was Banished to the lowest level of Hell, and his heart ripped from him so that he could never come back.

But when Qi is kidnapped by the Ministry of Lust, and Heaven invades Hell to Annex it and make Earth the new Hell, can Chen and Zhu Irzh prevent the Celestial Emperor from succeeding in his plans without allowing either side to truly triumph? For that matter, does Chen really want to go against Heaven in this matter? Does he have a choice? Can Earth survive once set apart from Heaven? And will there be a happy ending for Pin and Mai?

I love reading series which are not based on Western Mythology, and this one has all that in spades. Not only are the Eastern Hell of China mentioned, but Jhai Tserai, Zhu's paramour, is not from the Chinese Hell, but from a Hell of India, and is a tigress-demon. There are hints that the Hell Zhu Irzh comes from encompasses only China, and that other countries- Korea, Japan, Thailand, Tibet- all have their own hells and heavens.

And in this case, heaven doesn't exactly mean "good". Yes, Heaven is the place where the beneficent spirits live, but this heaven isn't one I'd consider heavenly- for it wishes to withdraw from mankind forever. And its leader is insane, ordering Hell to be invaded. But there are some "perks" that come with the job- The Emperor's word becomes law and all inhabitants of Heaven agree with his views, but even the inhabitants of Heaven think it can be cloying and overly sweet.

I enjoyed both the story in this volume, and the world. It's not just Chen and Zhu Irzh that make an appearance in each volume any more, but Jhai Tserai, Mhara, Robin, Inara and Ma, Chen's subordinate. Each book continues to get better and better, it's a sure bet that events in this story will have plenty of repercussions into the far future for the series. An exciting, intriguing and engaging series, well worth the time and money. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spiderman: The Gauntlet by Various

This volume reprints three main stories from the Spiderman Comic and one backup story. The first, Dark Reign: The List, reprints the Spiderman story that appeared in that volume. In essence, Norman Osborn has taken over as Iron Patriot, and despite his former career as the frankly insane Green Goblin, he is being lionized by the people because he was the one who managed to kill the Skrull Queen. This disconcerts Peter Parker, who wonders how people could follow a madman, and he hatches a plan to bring down Obborne's Popular Approval Rating.

Stealing into Oscorp, he downloads the videos of Norman's experiments on people using the Super-Soldier Serum mixed with the same serum that made him The Green Goblin. He's discovered by Osborn, who goes up against Spiderman in the Iron Patriot armor, but manages to get to an internet Café, and as Peter Parker, uploads the videos everywhere to everyone in his e-mail list. Will Norman kill Peter Parker in front of an entire Internet Café and put his carefully constructed new persona at risk? Can he keep it together even as he loses everything?

The next story is called "Gauntlet Origins: Electro". Electro was once a normal guy who worked for the power company, repairing power cables and Electrical Lines. Until one day when the Power Cable he was repairing was struck by Lightning. Maxwell Dillon should have died, but instead, the competing strings of power sparked something inside him, giving him power over electricity. For a long time, he used his powers for his own gain, and did pretty well, but now, something has gone wrong, and his powers are alternately waning and supercharging. He wants help from the Mad Thinker, but the Thinker isn't running a charity organization. He wants a cool million dollars to "fix" Electro, which Dillon has no way of getting with his problem with his current powers. Worse, the fluctuations with his powers seems to be killing him.

Fed up with the situation, Dillon videotapes a rooftop rant and releases it on YouTube, where it becomes a viral hit. In it, he rants about the current owner of the Daily Bugle, now known as the DB, Dexter Bennett. He links Dexter Bennett, who he blames for being rich and for receiving a government bailout while nobody else in the city is getting money. People are eating it up and repeating his slogan, "Power to the People!" No one is more delighted about this than Mayor J. Jonah Jameson, who sold the paper to Bennett after he had a heart attack, and hates the way the DB has gone from a newspaper with solid reporting to one that mostly runs fluff pieces. It's become the equivalent of the National Enquirer.

And yes, Bennett has gotten all the blame. And now people are ready to string him up. So when Electro goes to Bennett and offers to spit-roast his insides with a lightning bolt- or Bennett can pay up a million dollars and Electro will leave him alone and stop targeting him, Bennett pays. Dillon immediately runs to the Thinker and pays for his tune-up. But what a surprise! Dillon lied about leaving Bennett alone! With his newly topped up powers, he goes after Bennett at the DB building, amking sure Bennett can't escape by electrifying the outside of the building so that anyone trying to leave gets zapped, and not in a good way.

But Spiderman has been tracking down Dillon, and has even fought him several times, losing every time. But he gives it the old college try one more time at the DB building. Can Spidey find a way to bring down the newly superpowered Maxwell Dillon and save Bennett, not to mention his job? Or will Electro simply prove too much for him, and beat him once again?

The Next story is called "The Other Girl" and involves Black Cat. When Peter Parker sees Mary Jane Watson downtown, life, and bad luck start smacking him down. Could it be due to the powers of his new partner Felicia Hardy, also known as the Black Cat, or is it just his own bad Luck kicking in overtime? And can he convince Felicia that he's not drooling over other women?

Then, when a little girl named Keemia Alvarado goes missing, Peter Parker sets off to track her down for a friend of his and for Keemia's grandmother- and to find out why Keemia's mother got killed. But sometimes, he learns, even happy endings aren't all that happy. To get Keemia back, he has to overcome her "daddy" and protector, Sandman, and when he finally gets her back, the legal system won't let her see her grandmother- because her grandmother lost her in the first place. Can Spiderman do anything about this, or will he let the system get him down? And can Peter discover who stole the evidence and murder weapons from a police lockup so that his friend, a CSI tech, doesn't get the blame?

I found this graphic novel very enjoyable, because they made me think about some of the drawbacks to the powers of some Supervillains. To start with, Electro stinks like burned rubber. I'm sure that's partly to do with his powers, and partly to do with he can't take a bath, because water shorts out his powers. After a few months of not taking a bath or shower, he's gotta really have some kind of stench going on. Add the stench of burning to normal B.O. and that's gotta be deadly. Just adding this one small plot point made the story much more real and enjoyable to read.

Likewise with Sandman. Keemia calls Sandman "Daddy", and Spiderman is shocked. Because Flint Marko is made completely of Sand, he can't father kids. I couldn't help but cringe, imagining the world's worst sand-wedgie "up there". Ugh! But again, it added a definite other dimension to the story. I like stories that make me think about things that I haven't considered before with regards to the Superheroes in the story, or even the Supervillains, and I really have to commend the writer, Fred Van Lente, who wrote both stories in question, for really pushing the envelope here.

I'd definitely recommend this graphic novel, even though the first story here appeared as a reprint, since i'd already read it in "Dark Reign: The List". The other two stories really make this volume, and its not really shown how the Dark Reign Story fits into the series continuity, because there's no fallout from that story in the rest of the volume. But I'd have to say I am going to look out for more stories by Fred Van Lente, because he stretches my brain in ways I find interesting and fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the night shift at the psych ER by Julie Holland, M.D.

Julie Holland went through Medical School because she was fascinated with the diseases of human bodies and minds and wanted to help and heal people. But as she went through Residency and worked in various places, she found that what made the minds of people tick, and the various diseases. obsessions and changes in brain chemistry that came with the ingestion of various drugs was the area of study that most appealed to her.

When she finally moved out to go on her own, she had two choices- go to Columbia and take part in a medical study there, or go to work for Bellevue, the place where anyone in Manhattan and the Bronx was sent if they had psychological problems or if they were behaving in an irrational manner. Eventually, Bellevue's Rubric would expand, until it was the psych hospital for the entire city, all five boroughs, and the increased number of patients and cases strained the hospital until it creaked and groaned at the seams.

But the time at Bellevue changed her. From a cocky young Doctor who believed she had all the answers and whom nothing could touch because she was teflon-coated, dealing with the patients there killed her optimism and innocence. and an attack on her person made her far more physically cautious when it came to her physical well-being. Falling in love, marrying, and having two children, as well as the death of one of her colleagues from cancer, the one she felt closest to both intellectually and as a friend, changed her personality, from warrior to Den Mother, causing her to eventually burn out and leave her job for private practice as a psychopharmacologist.

But it is the stories of her experiences that will give you the greatest insight into the human mind and what the staff at Bellevue do on a daily basis, and how the experience of other countries with regards to their mentally ill show what we can learn from them- in fact, need to learn from them, to better deal with those in our country who snap mentally. And then there are those who try to game the system, from the Sociopathic sharks, who manipulate everyone around them for their own jollies, to those who quite understandably can feel themselves sinking into the morass and check themselves into the hospital for their own safety and the safety of others, you'll come to understand what criteria is used to determine who gets in, who gets out, and who needs to go in immediately.

Anyone who has seen a crime show set in New York City will recognize Bellevue- it's the place where the possibly mentally ill criminals go to be evaluated. But in reality, it's far more than that- it's an entire psychiatric hospital that not only takes in those mentally ill who have committed crimes, but also other New Yorkers in desperate need of psychiatric care. In fact, it's not just a psychiatric hospital, but a full-service hospital. It just seems its best known for its psychiatric care. There are others, like St. Vincent's, Mt. Sinai and Beth Israel, but Bellevue seems to be the most popular and best known, probably because it is considered the best.

Hospital psychiatric care is a draining business, with a high incidence of burnout. Doctor Holland, though her month-long vacations and working only the weekend shift (admittedly 15 hours over two days), did a lot to stave off her own eventual burnout, lasting an unheard of 9 years as CEP at Bellevue. In that time, she survived many traumas, both physical and emotional. She even reveals the real reason why so many psychologists are themselves in therapy- to help them deal with the stresses of the job and to keep themselves on an even mental and emotional keel.

I found this book to be very interesting, and when I had to go to the hospital myself, I found myself almost laughing in the triage station of the Emergency Room because there they asked me several of the same questions that I would have been asked in Bellevue, had I gone there. For helping readers understand why Doctors ask the questions they do, and bringing interesting stories of patients and fellow staff, I would recommend this book highly. Invaluable for understanding psychiatric hospitals.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wolverine: Weapon X- Insane in the Brain by Jason Aaron, Yanick Paquette and C.P. Smith

Wolverine has had plenty of times where he's forgotten who he is and what he was doing, but when he wakes up in an insane asylum, being asked questions about what he remembers of his past, he doesn't really know who he is or why he is there.

And sometimes he surprises himself with how much he knows about the place. Things about the other inmates. What day is meatloaf day. But something seems wrong about this particular asylum- the "medication" he is given looks like candy, buttons and pencil erasers, and the doctor in charge likes to throw costume parties for the inmates, where the male doctor dresses in a dress with a mask that looks an awful lot like Emma Frost.

And when he releases patients, telling them they are cured, they don't want to go, and come back lugging sacks of human brains. No, something is definitely not right with the Asylum, and Dr. Rotwell, the psychiatrist who is supposedly in charge, seems to be at the heart of the rot, no pun intended.

What goes on in the basement? And what use does Dr. Rot do with all those brains in the bssement? Why does he want to turn Wolverine into a killer again, and will Wolverine give into his demands, or will he be able to fight the brainwashing that Dr. Rotwell is forcing on him? And for that matter, can he escape from Dr. Rot on his own, or will his time in the Sanitarium be too much for him to overcome?

Next, Wolverine has a new girlfriend who is a cop, but she's just a normal human, and compared to someone like Wolverine, she's rather... squishy. Can she ever convince Wolverine that she can survive in the world that he's forced to live in, and defend herself from the people who have made themselves his enemies?

Another really good graphic novel, one which relies on literal psychological thrills and chills for its effect. And the effect is amazing. For once, I was actually scared for Wolverine, and wondered if he'd be able to get out of this one with sanity and soul intact. It was *that* horrific.

There is quite a difference in art between the main story, and the secondary story in this graphic novel, this being the difference of the artist. Neither one is better or worse, but the difference between them is stark. Artist C.P. Smith's art reminded me a lot of Art Deco art, but with deep, heavy shadows, while Yanick Paquette's was more realistic and less stylized.

With a tremendously effective story, and art that makes you take note of every drop of blood and bit of viscera, I'd definitely recommend this book, especially for fans of the X-men or of Wolverine. It's an intense, scary tale that is sure to wring every drop of emotion out of you.

Changes: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is Chicago's supreme wizard. In point of fact, its only wizard, and he's also one of the strongest in terms of pure power, but a bit of a thug in how he uses it. His specialties are fire and force magic, and he also happens to be a Warden of the White Council of Wizards, as well as a member of the Grey Council, a subset of the White Council that face reality and actually manage to get things done, as opposed to the rest of the White Council, who will talk a situation to death without actually doing much of anything about it.

Harry has gone through a lot of changes since his earlier days- he's survived an encounter with a shadow of one of the Denarians, demons contained in the 30 pieces of silver that Judas gained as a result of betraying Jesus. Lasciel, whose presence in Harry's body gave him with power of literal Hellfire- amping up the power of his destructive spells. With her construct dying to save his life, Harry received the power of Soulfire from the Angel Uriel- whose power draws on his soul, increasing the power of his constructive spells such as illusions, but it can also amplify his fire spells as well. And he began training an apprentice, Molly Carpenter, the daughter of his friend Michael, who formerly held one of the swords constructed from the nails used to crucify Jesus.

In this book, Harry gets a call from his former girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez. They broke up when Susan was partially turned into a Red Court Vampire, and she left Harry to try and deal with the fallout from that. As long as she doesn't take anyone's lifeblood, she will remain a half-vampire, but if she does, she will immediately become a Red Court Vampire. The Red Court and the White Council were at war, although currently, there is a truce. Susan has been working with the Order of St. Giles, a group of Half-Vampires dedicated to destroying the Red Court. But Harry is shocked to discover that Susan tells him that the Red Court have stolen their daughter.

Needless to say, he's quite surprised to even hear he *has* a daughter, and he isn't able to get nearly anything that requires thinking done until Susan shows up. She does so with her longtime companion, Martin, who Harry locks out of his house to talk with Susan. There, she shares with him the truth: the last time they made love, (this was after she was already a half-vampire), she got pregnant, but she never told him. Thanks to her position in the Order of St. Giles, and her activities, she couldn't risk raising the child herself, so instead she gave it to some friends of her to raise.

Harry is quite cutting when he says, "Oh, if only there was another stable parent who could raise her... oh wait!" and Susan says that Harry's life is on the line as much as hers is, and that a life with him wouldn't be safe for their daughter, either. After all, how many of his friends have gotten either seriously hurt or dead because of the things that have been happening around him? He reluctantly concedes that, and learns that she named their daughter Maggie, or Margaret Angelica, after Harry's mother.

But she thinks there is a leak in the Order of St. Giles, because only their members knew about Maggie and where she was, and Red Vampires were behind the disappearance of Maggie. One, in specific, Duchess Arianna Ortega, the wife of the man that Harry fought at the start of the war between the White Council and the Red Vampires. Ortega had been about to cheat against the Code Duello when one of Harry's allies did the same, shot and killed him. In fact, it was Ebeneezer McCoy. And now his widow has a grudge against Harry, and has swiped his daughter.

But the Red Court has people everywhere, even in the office building where Harry's Office is located, and Harry, Susan and Martin go to burgle their offices and perhaps find out where they are holding Maggie. But Red Court Vampires are waiting for them, and while they do get a little information, they find out that the Red Court, who owns the building, has planted bombs all around Harry's office, and they blow up the building, thankfully, after Harry, Susan and Martin have escaped- only for Harry to reveal he already sent in this month's rent payment.

After this,Harry goes to see his friend Murph at the police station. She tells him that the FBi is going to want to talk to him, and he tells her about his daughter. She immediately promises to help him. She's got his back, no matter what, even if it costs her her job. He doesn't want her to promise that, but she does so anyway. The next day, Harry and his apprentice, Molly, head to the HQ of the White Council in Edinburgh, only to find out that they are hosting a special guest- none other than the Red Court Duchess Ariana Ortega!

One of the members of the White Council, a man named Christos, has been talking with the Red Court, and wants to turn their cease-fire into an actual peace. Of course, Harry wants to rip off Ortega's head and urinate down her spinal column- he wants his daughter, but the White Council can't afford to have Harry kill her when she's bringing a message of peace to their side. Warden Luccio asks Harry to calm down, and takes him to the Chaos room for a drink. She reveals that the Council doesn't believe in the message of peace. They think the Red Court is asking for Peace to regroup for a counter-attack and plan to hit them when they are down.

But as a consequence of that, they can't help Harry in the matter of his daughter. Harry is extremely disappointed about that, not to mention angry, and takes himself back home. At his house, Susan and Martin show the pictures they have found of items shipped from a secure holding facility in Nevada to... somewhere. Harry identifies the items as ritual gear, and they are listed as megacapacitors. In discussing it with Bob. Bob says the items are meant for a single use- human sacrifice.

Then, the FBI shows up at Harry's Home, and he has to get rid of most of the stuff in his lab and store it in the Nevernever. He hasn't explored the Nevernever around his apartment before, because some parts of it can be deadly, but now he has no choice. Throwing all the items that would be illegal or make him seem like a bomber into a sack, he drags it all into the Nevernever- to find himself into some kind of strange flower garden, part of which turns into a giant centipede to attack him. He manages to overccome it temporarily, and leaves the bag there, hidden, but is forced to return to his house when the centipede comes after him again. He pops right into the hands of the FBI, who take him in, and yet they cannot explain where he appeared from.

He's questioned by agent Tilly, who has an edge in determining who is speaking a lie or truth, and eventually is let go. But when he gets out of the building, he's shot at again, but spells on his duster stop the bullet. Molly pulls up to rescue him in her car, and says maybe they should go to her Dad for help. But as Michael was partially crippled the last time Harry worked with him, Harry isn't willing to do that. Back at his apartment, he has a surprise visitor- Lea, better known as Leanansidhe, his literal Faerie Godmother.

After some verbal sparring, Harry discovers that his mother gave her something for him, when he was old enough. Harry asks for it, and she asks if he is willing to pay the price. His mother had it, and she never slept well- who knows what Price it will demand of Harry. He wants it, though, and she hands over a star-shaped red crystal- full of his mother's knowledge of the ways of the Nevernever.

She also leaves behind Susan and Martin, spelled into sleep by her spells. When they wake, Harry offers to guide them through the Nevernever to Las Vegas, where they will find the company that shipped the ritual items. There, they discover yet more items going to the same place. More ritual gear, but this time for the practitioners to wear. They are attacked again, but win free quite easily, and this time have a general area to go on- Mexico. At home, Harry gets two letters, one from Anastasia Luccio and the other from another Warden he calls "Steed", reiterating that the White Council can't help him get his daughter back.

With the White Council firmly out of the picture, Harry tries calling on the Gray, but they also can't help him, although Ebeneezer McCoy would like to. But Harry hasn't been telling anyone that the girl he wants to rescue is his own daughter. He turns to summoning spirits, trying to find out where Maggie is, but has no real luck. He writes a letter to Ivy, the little girl wo is the archive, and she tells him (through her bodyguard) that she must remain neutral. But she does give him a clue- ask the last man he would go to for information.

Dresden buckles down, and calls "Gentleman" Johnny Marcone, who is willing to do him this favor, since Dresden's elimination of his enemies have helped him in the past. But through him, Harry is contacted by Donar Vadderung, CEO of Monoc Securities. Donor is Odin, and while, again, he can't help Harry in Mexico (because that is the seat of the Red Court's power and his power would be almost useless there), he does give him two piece of information. First is that if the Red Court are planning a working, they will be doing it at Chichen Itza, and second, the working they are preparing is a bloodline curse. Anyone in the bloodline of the sacrifice will die, which includes Harry and Susan, and anyone in their families. He also tells Harry that Harry has no chance against the Red Court in their place of power. No chance at all. He'd be like a fly versus a sledgehammer. To stand against them, Harry is going to need a serious power-up.

But even as Harry contemplates that, two more things are taken from him by the Red Court. First, the Blue Beetle, and second, his very home, which is burned down around him. And then he takes a bad hit that paralyzes him from the waist down. He might recover in 40 or 50 years, but that's time he doesn't have. So, with few choices remaining to him, he accepts Queen Mab's offer to make him the Winter Knight. But he adds a few conditions, first, that he rescue his daughter before taking up any missions for Mab, and that he have some help. This she grants him, and Harry, to get the Winter Knight's powers, kills the Old Winter Knight, who was a murderer and rapist, and who has been undergoing unending torture in the Winter Court. To help Harry, Mab will send his godmother, Leanansidhe, to help him. But first, to consecrate his new position, she has sex with him.

Harry now knows where he is going, and he gives out the two swords he's held on to for so long, Amoriacchus, the sword of Love, to Susan, who will be fighting for love of her daughter. Fidelacchius, the sword of faith, to Murph, who has faith in both God and Harry to come through it all right. Along with Martin, Harry's dog, Mouse, and Harry's brother Thomas Wraith, they will have to carve their way through the Red Court to rescue Harry's daughter. But a betrayal from within will jeopardize their mission. Can Harry rescue his daughter and save his friends without losing it all?

Wow, what a book. Not only the story in this one is shocking, but the ending made me run to Jim Butcher's website to see if this book was truly the last in the series. It was so bitter and poignant and heartfelt, and the story just hammers not only Harry, but the reader as well. In eleven books, we've come to know him so well, and care for the things and the people that he cares for, that when they are taken away so suddenly and finally, it actually hurts to read it.

By the end of the book, Harry has lost just about everything he once had relied on. The Blue Beetle is crushed against Thomas's car, and along with it goes Harry's staff. He loses his office, his home, his lab, and even his blasting rod when it gets overloaded. By the end, even Harry's duster has taken so much damage that it is falling apart in his hands.

And then, the book ends on a real cliffhanger, where you look at it and go "Did I just read what I thought I read?!" I won't give it away (even though you can find it on plenty of other sites), but the pain of reading it was even greater than the rest of the book. Plenty of stuff is hinted at- some kind of romantic relationship between Murph and Harry, the abilities of Mouse, who can speak perfectly well if you understand Dog, and even the possibility of Murph becoming Fidelacchius' wielder.

This book blew me away, almost literally. The things that Harry does to save his daughter, well, we finally get to see what Harry is really made of and the kind of person he is inside. And to be honest, if you are going to harm one of his, he should very rightly terrify you. it's a somewhat disturbing, and yet very reassuring look at our favorite Wizard-detective. Highly recommended, but don't read this one first- it will take a fair amount of reading the rest of the series for this book to have its full impact.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson

Cripsin Guest is a disgraced ex-knight who lives in London, eking out an existence as "The Finder", an investigator for hire. He's no longer a knight because when he was young, he was involved in a conspiracy to defeat King Richard II and put his foster father, the Earl of Gaunt, on the throne in his place. Crispin loved his foster father, and believed he would be a much better ruler than the then ten year old Richard. But the man who led him into the conspiracy, Miles Aleyn, never faced charges for what he did. Crispin and the others were tortured, but refused to give up the name of Miles. The others were killed by the King's Men, and Crispin, whose foster father begged for his life, was allowed to live, but everything was taken away from him. Even his family, by the King's order. who could no longer help him in any way.

Crispin is awakened from a drunken sleep by a young blonde woman, who says there is a dead man in her room. Crispin asks her some questions, but it is obvious that the girl is somewhat damaged in the head, And when he asks her who killed the man, she says she must have done it- there was no one else there.

Crispin isn't likely to believe this , so he follows the girl back to her room at a nearby Inn, where she and her sister work, And indeed, there is a dead man in the room- a Frenchman, by the looks of him, and a courier as well. A barbed arrow is buried in his chest, but no bow is in evidence. But he isn't empty-handed. In his baggage is a box filled with gold, and a special treasure, a crown. A token in his belt pouch confirms that he is a courier for the French crown, and that the Crown, supposedly the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross, is being sent as a gift from the French King to the English King.

Crispin also doesn't believe that the crown is real, but he is surprised when another woman comes into the room. She is Livith, and she is the sister of the other girl, whose name is Grayce. They are servants at the Inn, and neither one has any idea how the dead man got into the room or who killed him, Grayce repeats that she killed the man, but neither Crispin nor Liveth believe her. Crispin knows he can't go to the sheriff with his tale- the Sheriff would take Grayce at her word and kill her, no matter how improbable or impossible it would be for the girl to have killed him. Nor can they be found in the same room as the murdered man, for much the same reason- any questioning of them would lead to them being taken in for the killers.

So Liveth hires him to look into the murder and find out who the real killer is. Crispin's usual fee is sixpence a day, but she only has fourpence on her, so he takes only three as a downpayment. He takes her and her sister with him to the Inn where he lives to work until he can find the killer. Along the way, he meets his servant boy, Jack Tucker, who is on the run from several men whose pockets he picked. Crispin frowns on Jack picking pockets, but the boy says it's hard for him to resist when mean with rich pockets wander near him. Crispin helps Jack get away for now, but he's getting sick of such behavior.

When Jack is away and the men chasing him are gone, he sits back to look through the evidence, even placing the crown of thorns on his head. To his surprise, the thorns are still sharp, and prick his forehead. Putting it back and hiding the box it came in, he goes for a walk, and a strange feeling overcomes him. Giddy and filled with a strange feeling of exultation, he meets the daughter of his friend the Innkeeper. She has designs on him, but he is not interested at all. Normally, he is at least polite to her, but when she doubts aloud that he was ever really a knight, he grows angry and tells her he could kill her for that, and he would, but for the fact that her father is his friend. Horrified and afraid, she runs, and shortly thereafter, he picks another fight with a man who bumped him, threatening to kill him. The man, at first belligerent, backs off, and shortly thereafter the strange spell ends.

He's quite frankly horrified by what he has done and said, and Jack, who found him in the meantime, is puzzled by his behavior. Unfortunately, Crispin has no explanations himself. Could it be that the crown is really Jesus's crown of thorns? Then, he's shot in the arm by an arrow, and the person who shot him manages to get away. Back in his rooms, he finds Jack shaken. Jack had put on the crown, got the feeling he could do anything, took it off and jumped out the window. But even though they are on the second story of the Inn, he was unhurt.

This brings up the possibility that the crown is real, but Crispin can't accept that, and goes to see his friend, the Abbot of a monastery. While pussyfooting around the issue of who has the crown, Crispin asks him about it, and the abbot tells him that the crown doesn't just make you feel invincible- you are invincible when you wear it, and for a short time afterwards- but only for someone pure of heart. Crispin feels he is anything but, but knows it to be the truth. And he's sad with what that says about him.

But whoever shot him and the French courier isn't stopping, and Crispin has a strong suggestion as to who it is- Miles Avery, his former erstwhile comrade and traitor- even the King isn't immune to being a target, but is saved when a servant takes the arrow for him, pushing the King out of the way. Each of the arrows are those of a nobleman, fletched with Hawk feathers- but who do they belong to? Miles Avery lets slip a piece of important information- that he wasn't behind the plot to put the Earl of Gaunt on the throne- someone hired him to start it. However, he won't tell Crispin who that was.

But as Crispin starts getting closer to the truth, he comes under attack again, and when he attempts to save the King's life at dinner, he is found with the bow that fired the arrow in his hands. Now under threat of imprisonment and death, can he evade the authorities long enough to elude his pursuers and find the real killer?

I was kind of surprised to see a novel labelled "Medieval Noir", because I wasn't sure how well the two ideas would go together. But, much to my surprise, they actually went together pretty well. Having the main character wake up from a drunk by a damsel in distress really rang true to the whole "noir" trope, and noir actually goes very well with a gritty medieval setting.

Of course, to be true noir, the story has to be pretty close to realistic for the medieval times. This is somewhere where courtly love is merely adultery, where the knights in shining armor are all bloody-minded murderers who, if they found an actual princess to rescue, would deflower her as soon as possible so she could only marry them, and they could become King and have power and lots of money- and Crispin, the only knight who actually tried to live up to noble ideals and his own sense of honor is looked down on and scorned.

Even his clients aren't what they seem, and he gets taken for a sap more often than not, and at the end, he's offered money and his Knighthood back, and he scorns both because of that honor and pure heart. And the only man who even comes close to him in being honorable and doing what he is asked to do is a criminal. In short, every noir trope is perfectly nailed, if in not quite the same way as classic 30's and 40's noir. And of course, the hero consumes lots and lots of booze- another noir staple.

I quite enjoyed this mystery, which shares a lot of noir tropes, but has a rather interesting hero at its center. By turns compelling and repelling, Crispin bulls his way through to the end of the mystery, and manages to come back out alive at the other end with his honor and purity of purpose intact. I'd like to read more. Recommended.