Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Iron Man: Deadly Solutions by Kurt Busiek, Sean Chen and Patrick Zircher

Tony Stark is back, but his corporation, Stark Electronics, has been taken over by the Japanese Fushikawa Syndicate, and now, he must what to do with his life. Should he fight to take back his company, start another one, or just do something else?

But while he decides, he is using part of his fortune to build a massive building that will help the community. But when he foils a kidnapping with attempted extortion, the criminals are no match for his armor and its capabilities. This doesn't prevent the leader from swearing vengeance against him. And later, after leaving a party, he stops by the building that he is constructing, and is attacked by a mercenary group called "The Death Squad". He fights them off, but the fight destroys the building, leaving him shattered and angry that what he tried so hard to build is now gone.

Knowing that his old friend Rhodey is now in a business of his own, Rhoades Recovery, a Marine Salvage-type business, Stark calls a Press conference the next day and announces his decision. He will not seek to reclaim his company. He is announcing that he is going into the consulting business, Stark Solutions. He will apply his great mind to any problem that anyone has- but his fees will be high. Most of the fees will be going to the Maria Stark Foundation, where they will be used to build, not to destroy. And, of course, his bodyguard, Iron Man, will still be around to protect him, no matter what he is doing or where he is.

One of the things that Tony doesn't know, is that two of the people who work for him, Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, who used to be happily married, have divorced while he was away. He hires them both for Stark Solutions, obviously assuming that they will be happy to work with each other, and for him, again. For him, yes, but with each other, not so much. Nonetheless, they do try to get along for the sake of the company.

Meanwhile, Tony is on his first Job for Stark Solutions, in Zermatt, Switzerland. He's been hired by an old friend, Countess Stephanie De la Spirosa, to look into some problems in her company. But strangely, she doesn't seem to be all that anxious for him to get to work, something that makes his intuition tingle a bit. When he puts on his Iron Man armor to scout the weapons company she inherited from her third husband, he is attacked by armored men who are out to kill him. He manages to take them down with a little avalanche, but he knows something isn't right about the situation.

The next day, he confronts Stephanie with what she's been doing, and her lies about what is really going on in her company. She doesn't appear shocked so much as fearful, and her two bodyguards turn out to be more like prison guards, deciding to kill her because she wasn't able to keep Tony complacent and ignorant. Tony distracts them by setting off two explosive charges he planted on the mountain the night before, and knocks them out with a blow from his briefcase, He takes their guns, tells Stephanie to go to her room, lock the door, and call the Police while he whistles up Iron Man. Soon, he's in a battle with more armored men like the ones he fought the night before- only this time, he doesn't have to hold back.

Meanwhile, an oriental-looking woman warns her master that his supply lines have been breached by Iron Man. The master, hidden in the shadows, says this was not unexpected. She must activate the failsafes and kill everyone involved. Back in the Alps, Iron Man continues to fight the men in armor, but they receive an unexpected boost when Dreadnoughts show up, and threaten to kill both him and the Countess. Tony uses his head, decoys them into fighting each other (since they are A.I.'s and not humans in armor, and flies back to the Chalet, which has been leveled. But the countess and her butler survived, having taken shelter in the basement.

He flies her and her Butler to safety, and goes back to the site of the battle, to find nothing but some rubble and metal buried in the snow. Back at the Chalet, Stephanie tells Tony about a man named Andreas Kapelos, who, after her husband died, wanted her to sell the business to him, and threatened her when the wanted to keep running it for the sake of her dead husband. She was scared of him, saw Tony's press conference and called him, but then Kapelos's men said if she said anything to him, they would kill Tony, then her.

Tony is interrupted by a call from Pepper, who tells him that the Dreadnoughts had been lately used by a criminal known as the Arms Merchant. It's quite obvious to Tony that Kapelos is the arms merchant. After Pepper and Happy fight over a new employee named Doreen, who has been very nice to Happy, Happy decides to see if Doreen wants to go out to dinner, leaving Pepper alone. But as Tony fights to keep the Dreadnoughts from Killing Stephanie, can he overcome them and the Arms Merchant as well, or will this fight be just a little too much for him?

Next. Tony hypes a new Web Browser software called Web Voyager, created by both his new company and his old one, Stark-Fujikawa. The meeting at which he announces the program is in a conference room on the island of isla Suerte, a Carribean island better known for play than work. Tony, feeling flush and happy, invites Pepper and Happy down to join him for a swank vacation, whereupon Happy confesses what has happened between Pepper and himself, and why they divorced. Tony is very sad to hear this news, and hopes Happy can forgive Pepper for what went on. But Happy says he can forgive her anything. She can't forgive herself.

Tony is depressed, especially when Happy says not to think about his and Pepper's problems. Tony stares off sightlessly in a funk and doesn't even realize he's been starting at a very beautiful women- until she smiles at him. That night, at a meet and greet in one of the hotels, he meets her again, to find out that she is the granddaughter of Kenjiro Fujikawa himself, Rumiko. Fujikawa introduces them, and Tony is forced to tell her that he didn't mean to be staring at her, he was lost in thought. She claims to be injured by the news, but then drags him off to have him show her the lagoon, rescuing him from a predatory businesswoman named Sunset Bain.

Outside, Tony wonders why she dragged him off like that, and Rumiko tells him she did it to drive her parents crazy. He finds that incredibly childish. But she is twenty seven, and wants to work in the company, only her parents won't let her because she is female, so she has been doing all she can to get out from under their control. But as they are talking, a group of villains led by a man in some kind of armor and sheathed in fire, attacks the island. Tony tries to fight the flaming man, who calls himself Firebrand, but Firebrand can throw around an awful lot of heat. and he seems to be more interested in destroying the island than in fighting Tony. Tony manages to damage his armor, when Firebrand, terrified, reveals it isn't armor, but a containment suit, and breaching it lets out a huge jet of fire that nearly cooks Tony in his armor. Tony takes Firebrand for a dip in the ocean to cool them both off, but by the time he gets out, Firebrand is gone, and the island is in flames.

Tony goes on to help rescue people, and finds, to his shock, that Rhodey is on Isla Suerte as well. Rhodey is surprised to see him as well. But when Tony expresses his shock over seeing Rhodey, Rhodey tenders an explanation that Tony knows to be false. But since Rhodey is his friend, he doesn't pursue it. Instead, he finds that Rumiko has taken a bullhorn and is ordering everyone around- moving the wounded to where they can be taken care of, getting people out of the rubble, safe and fed, and so on. Seeing that things here are taken care of, he lets people know he took Tony Stark to a neighboring island, where is he contacting the outside world and seeking help.

Of course, Iron Man *is* Tony Stark, but even though there is a radio blackout dome covering the island, since he can fly, all he has to do is fly above it to contact Pepper Potts. She looks up information on Firebrand and discovers his real story, only for Tony to be attacked by him again, and in their conflict, the island's formerly-dormant volcano begins erupting, thanks to Firebrand. Once again, Tony contacts the outside world, asking how to stop a volcano. He's put in touch with the expert in charge, who basically tells him- there isn't a way- all he can do is provide an alternate channel for the lava to flow from. Tony's armor isn't powerful enough to do this, so how will he drain the magma chamber on the volcano and save the island and people of Isla Suerte? Can he convince Firebrand to help him, or will he have to resort to other means to get what he wants?

Then. Tony is contacted by Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, who needs the help of Iron Man to find some missing scientists. She doesn't necessarily want Iron Man, but Tony Stark, brilliant inventor. A bunch of brilliant scientists have gone missing, and The Black Widow wants to find them, and since Tony's specialty is the same as the missing scientists, she wants him to be the bait. But for it to work, he is going to have to go in as himself- no armor.

Eventually, Tony agrees, and follows Natasha to Sydney, Australia, where they make a big splash together. But when she runs into an old enemy from Russia, she leaves Tony to try and find out what the man is up to. While she battles her old foe, Tony is kidnapped. He wakes up elsewhere, somewhere in a desert, and finds that the woman in charge of the facility is a Native American looking woman named Araoha Tepania. She dresses in some kind of space suit or body armor. Her face has tattoos or piercings (or both), and she makes it clear to Tony that he will follow her orders or suffer.

He doesn't like working for Tepania, and manages to make a sub-etheric homing beacon that will attract Natasha, even though the homing beacon she planted on him earlier was discarded. But as she attacks the facility, Araoha reveals her true form- a dragon-like creature, and takes them both on. But can Tony and Natasha defeat her and free the other scientists?

Finally, Tony seeks out Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel. She hasn't been having a good time of it lately as a hero. In fact, she's taken up with one of Tony's old demons- Alcohol. Recently, the Avengers found out and kicked her off the team. Tony has come to try and help her, but she is in denial about her dependence on Alcohol. When she won't admit to having a problem, he leaves to take another consulting job, thinking she hasn't quite hit rock bottom just yet, she thinks that Tony was behind the Avengers kicking her off the team and takes off to confront him- after more than a few adult beverages. But when the company is revealed to be working with the Skrulls, can Iron Man and Ms. Marvel team up to take them down?

Normally, I like Iron Man books, and this one was pretty good. But let me get one thing out of the way. The interior dust jacket mentions Tony Stark is coming back. But never says *where* he is coming back from. Is he coming back from putting himself into a coma from Norman Osborn wanting to drain his brain? Coming back from losing his company yet again? Or something else? I don't read the comic on the stands, so I honestly don't know. I suspected the first condition, but there is a scene early on where Norman and Tony are talking at a party, and it didn't seem like he wanted to whack Tony over the head and drag him off to drain his brain, so I was confused as to what the heck was going on.

Another thing I found interesting but not really bad, is that so far, all the people who use him and need his help are female. (I don't count Isla Suerte, because the real story in that incident isn't really as a result of someone requesting his help. But all the other stories are about him helping a woman.) I know women are supposed to be the weaker sex, but I'd like to see them avoid making every other story a "rescue the Princess"-type story. Yeah, Tony is a womanizer, but sheesh!

Other than those things, I really felt that there were few flaws in this graphic novel. Okay, the story with Araoha could have been longer. Basically, Tony is talking with a miniaturization expert about the possibility of making a sub-ether transmitter disguised to look like part of the goggles they are constructing, and the other man is like "design that all in your head and build it? Impossible!" and it's quite obvious that Tony did just that just a page or two later. It could have been better if there was just a little more buildup to that scene. Yes, Tony Stark is just that good. But it comes off like a "Pull it out of your butt"-type deal.

So, this book has some problems, but on the whole, the stories are still very good. i would have liked to have known what Tony Stark was coming back from, but the stories were entertaining, and mostly well-drawn. Firebrand is drawn strangely. Maybe it's just the armor, but he looks like the Sta-Puft marshmallow man, only with various hardware strapped to him and on fire. Maybe that's what they wanted, but he looked like the Blob. There's also scenes with Pepper, Happy and a new Chick that are setting up to be significant in the future. Still, I do recommend it. A fun read.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dead and Buried by Barbara Hambly

Benjamin January is a Doctor in 1830's New Orleans. He's very learned and gentle, and he'd probably be very much in demand in higher society- if it wasn't for the color of his skin. Benjamin January is black, and not only is he black, he is a very dark black man, which means that his doctoring skills mostly go to slaves and a few free people of color, who aren't exactly thick on the ground in New Orleans. So instead of Doctoring being his main skill, he must play music to survive. He also plays the piano, quite beautifully, and it is for this skill he is most known in New Orleans.

He has also been solving mysteries in New Orleans, and his friend, Hannibal Sefton, a white fiddle player, has been along with him on some of his worst cases. But Benjamin isn't alone any more. Even though Ayesha, the woman he was married to in Paris when he studied to be a Doctor, is dead, Ben is now married to a free black woman, Rose, who runs a school for the children of Quadroons and Octoroons who want to educate their daughters. Even though most of them will end up as mere mistresses to white Men, Rose hopes that these young women will use their minds to do more than be empty ornaments.

Today, Benjamin is at the funeral of another free black man, Ramses Ramillies, hired to play music as part of the funeral procession. But when the coffin breaks, it isn't the body of Ramses Ramillies who rolls out of the coffin, but a young white man, and also known to Hannibal Sefton, a man named Patrick Derryhick, someone who Hannibal went to Oxford with.

Hannibal knows Derryhick, but at the same time, he wants to keep his anonymity. Hannibal is sick with a disease called "Consumption", better known as Tuberculosis. Normally, he drinks to deal with his sickness, and to be able to play the violin, which is his primary means of support. Now that people who knew him in his former life, before his sickness and coming to New Orleans, have shown up, Hannibal, whose disease is not currently active, he doesn't want them to find out what has happened to him. But if he helps Benjamin investigate the case- and he must because he knows these people as few others do, what has happened to him will be known when they finally get back to England.

Derryhick and those of his party were in New Orleans to supposedly purchase a plantation upriver. But all was not well between the members of the party. Derryhick was the one with the money, inherited from an aunt who had died. His youthful companion, the Viscount Foxford, Germanicus, had a family who believed that the money should have been theirs. They own many estates, but since most of them are entailed and can't be sold, their family is in relatively straitened circumstances, and they were counting on that money to retrieve them from debt.

Not only that, but Diogenes, Foxford's uncle, the man who was serving as "chaperone" says that Derryhick was believed to have killed the current Viscount Foxford's father. The current Viscount, Germanicus Stuart, says he didn't believe it, but who could claim differently if he is lying? And despite the story of why they are here in New Orleans, Benjamin discovers that it had turned more into a crawl through Pubs, Gambling Houses and Brothels

But how did Derryhick die, and how did his body get into the coffin meant for Ramses Ramillies? Well, that last one is relatively easy-the hotel rooms the party occupy overlook the area of the funeral home and mortuary. But when it comes to who murdered Patrick Derryhick and who wanted him dead, it seems there are more suspects than Ben and Policeman Abishag Shaw know what to do with? And can Ben find the killer before someone decides to kill an "interfering nigger" from poking his nose where it is least wanted? And what is Hannibal's connection to all of this?

I always love returning to Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January novels. Not because Ben's New Orleans is such a great or grand place. Grand it might be, but Ben is only allowed into those places through the servants door, and he must learn to take his place among the "colored" that most people in New Orleans regard as little better than trash. In short, unless your skin is white, you are constantly in danger. Even if you have papers which proclaim your freedom, they can be torn up and you can be re-enslaved at any time, especially when most of the police are corrupt.

It's not a comfortable place to be, by any means, even for white folks. It's still subject to seasonal flooding and rampant disease, like yellow fever and cholera. At any time, fresh outbreaks can mean a flood of deaths, all of whom must be buried above the ground in mausoleums because of the high water table. And flies and all sorts of bugs and other vermin abound. So no matter who you are, most life here is not comfortable and not pretty. And as bad as the Creoles are, the Americans behavior towards slaves are even worse. At least the Creoles treat their slaves as well as they do their livestock. For the Americans... not even that well.

That's why it's never comfortable to read these books. But while comfort may be lacking, thousands of people did live in New Orleans back then, and their lives are fascinating. white, black and mixed among them. We finally get to see how Europeans react to the racism of American and those living in New Orleans, which had only been part of the United States for about 30 years at this point. And the British people in this book (because these people come from Ireland as well as England) seem to have absorbed the dominant American attitudes towards Blacks, which was kind of disappointing, considering how well Hannibal and Benjamin get on.

But considering that the two men are equally adept at making music, and that Hannibal is dying of tuberculosis and Benjamin is a doctor, perhaps there is more to explain their friendship. In any case, this was an excellent mystery and a look at life in New Orleans in the late 1830's. The characters seem real, alive and are very much of their time and place. Each book lays bare more and more of New Orleans society, both at the high and low ends, and in that peculiar place that quadroons and Octoroons seem to occupy- a place neither high nor low, sort of like the Demimondaine in France.

Incidentally, the word Quadroon means 1/4 black. People back then parsed degree of "blackness" to an amazing and often insane degree, borne out that there are words for people who are partly black. A mulatto was half black, quadroon a 1/4, Octoroon 1/8, Mustee (which is rarely seen, but obviously, the word exists) 1/16 and a mustefino was 1/32. How insane does racism have to get before you have specific terms for someone who is 1/32 black?

Reading this book makes me a little angry at how Benjamin and his wife, Rose, are treated. (His mother is a quadroon and the mistress of a white man.) But on the other hand, I am drawn back to this series by just those things, and how different they are from how things are today. I highly recommend not only this book, but this entire series.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Love Bites: Vampire Kisses, Volume 7 by Ellen Schreiber

Raven is a teenage goth girl living in a town she calls Dullsville. Ever since she was little, she's been obsessed with growing up and becoming a vampire. So when Alexander Stirling, a handsome goth Prince moved into town and took up residence in an old, spooky mansion, Raven found herself quite in love with him, and joy of joys, he found himself loving her back.

Even better for Raven, she discovered that her handsome Prince was *actually* a vampire! Though Raven loves Alexander and wants them to be together always, Alexander has problems of his own- he wants to be human, and he's resisting turning Raven into a Princess of Darkness to be lover to his Prince.

After dealing with Alexander's ex-fiancee and her brothers, and Alexander's parents, who wanted Alex to sell the mansion and return to his home in Transylvania, now someone new has come to Dullsville. It's Alexander's best friend, Sebastian. Thankfully, unlike with his parents, Raven doesn't have to hide, and she enjoys spending time around Alexander and his friend.

But that's until Sebastian catches a glimpse of her best friend, Becky. Becky already has a boyfriend, Matt, once a member of Trevor's group, but now enjoying being his own man. Raven is not only jealous of Becky... she wants to be a vampire first! But also afraid for her. She knows that Becky and Matt love each other, and thinks they should stay together.

Desperate for her friend, she decides to throw a party for Sebastian, and invite the prettiest vampire girls she knows- the girls from the Coffin Club in Hipsterville. But Sebastian isn't making her job easy for her- he keeps acting besotted with Becky, and doing things that more than reveal his interest, like sending her flowers and mooning over her. It's all Raven can do to pretend that the flowers came from Alexander, but even so, the kids at school think that she is cheating around on him.

And Alexander is having problems of his own. His recent selling of his paintings to raise money have made him famous in Dullsville, and now a magazine writer from an art magazine wants him to give an interview, and Alexander is afraid that someone might guess his secret from the appearance and condition of the house. And then, the man wants to take a photo of him to illustrate the article- a photo that can't be taken, because, after all, Alexander is a vampire.

But the party Raven gives starts to go south when normal human kids from the High School that Raven and Becky attend show up, including her nemesis, Trevor. But when Matt shows up to fight Sebastian, having finally found out who the other vampire is mooning over, will Raven's party be destroyed? And how about her friendship with Becky and Matt? And what will happen when Jagger and his sister Luna crash the party?

Another great Vampire Kisses book. This one seems to revolve around the theme of being who you really are. Sebastian can't tell Becky who and what he really is because he's a vampire, and only Raven out of all the people in Dullsville knows that vampires are real and exist. The party does seem to have torn it for at least some people to know more about vampires, so we'll be finding out more about that in the next book, it seems.

Then there is Alexander, who is thinking about changing who he is to keep his secret from the reporter. But once Raven has hidden all of his real furniture and created a preppy haven, will Alexander go through with the deception or risk revealing who, and maybe what, he really is? And how will he get around the requirement of a photo?

This book ends on a cliffhanger, very much so, but it's obvious that the action in the next book will take up where this one leaves off. I definitely want to see more of this series, and I'm loving it. Recommended.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Sisters Grimm: The Inside Story by Michael Buckley

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have survived many things, including the car accident that sent their parents into a coma and put them in the fostercare system. Finally taken in by their paternal grandmother, Relda, they settled down in the Town of Ferryport Landing, which, they found, was inhabited by people and creatures from Fairytales called Everafters. The Grimms were both the Prison Wardens for the Everafters and their caretakers, keeping them confined in town

But trouble was brewing in Ferryport Landing. Many of the Everafters resented the Grimms for keeping them in that small town, and some wanted to kill the Grimms and leave, while others were more charitable. If the Grimms all left town, the spell holding the Everafters there would simply disintegrate, so they sought to make the family leave.

Now, the Grimms have been fighting a cadre of Everafters known as the Red Hand, and their leader, known as the Master. It's been quite a shock to find out that the Master is actually someone that they thought of as a friend, the spirit in the mirror from Snow White. But now he has fled into a book, known as "The Book of Everafter, and worse, he has their brother, which they didn't even know existed, with him.

Sabrina and Daphne plunged into the book after him, wanting nothing more than to get their brother back. Also with the spirit of the mirror is Pinochio, who has his own reason for being part of the Red Hand and helping the Master. And the Grimms soon find out the secret of the book- it's a magical place that re-tells the tales that made the Everafters famous, and they can revisit the book to relive their own stories, like taking a vacation.

But the girls aren't interested in playing out the parts of fairy tales, and they fall afoul of the one person who keeps the stories in order: the Editor. At first, he merely wants them gone because they are messing up the stories, but soon, he sends them after Pinochio, who is causing havoc wherever he goes. But when the girls join up with Puck, who creates his own brand of mayhem wherever he goes, will the Editor be able to forgive them and help them find their brother?

The only reason why the mirror wants their brother, is that he wants to take over their brother's body so he can be human and finally leave the town. But once he has possessed their brother's body, can anything be done to evict the mirror from the boy's body? and who will end up with his spirit in the end?

Well, this was another interesting, if quick, read. The Grimms are pretty much alone for most of the book, and Sabrina finally confesses to her sister that she has lost faith in her own sense of judgement. For a long time, Sabrina has been convinced that she was always right, based on their experiences in the Foster child system. But now she's scared and second-guessing herself.

Of course, Puck shows up soon to torment Sabrina, mostly with references to their upcoming wedding. Ever since Sabrina visited the future and saw one in which she and Puck were married, he's been snarking on her about it. Now, he claims to have finally grown accustomed to the idea, and is snarking on her about their eventual wedding.

But he has grown up, and as most adults know, a boy picking on a girl means they like her. And in Puck's case, it seems to be more than like... if he'd only admit it. But Sabrina is only 12, and Puck is over 4000. And Sabrina seems to have negated the future in which they were married. But is Puck using his teasing to hide the fact that he truly likes her? We already know Sabrina does love him, because it is her kiss that revives him after eating Snow White's Apple.

This book is heading towards teen territory, but it continues the story of the Grimms very well, and I do recommend both this book, and this series, to younger readers. Recommended.

Five Odd Honors: Breaking the Wall, Book 3 by Jane Lindskold

Brenda Morris is a girl with unusual parentage. Her father, Gaheris Morgan, is one of the so-called "Thirteen Orphans", descendants of a magical land that split off from China 1000 years ago when the Emperor burned books dealing with Legends and magic, and had many scholars put to death. The magic inherent in the books created a new place, "The Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice", where magic was real.

The Emperor of these lands 100 years ago was killed, and the family responsible wanted his advisors put to death or banished. So the inheritors of the twelve magical houses that were analagous to the houses of the zodiac left the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice behind, taking with them the son of the dead Emperor, naming him the Cat, and making him the thirteenth Orphan. They came back to the world their ancestors had originally sprung from, but wanted to return some day.

Now, 100 years later, people from the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice came back to the first world, attempting to steal the powers of the orphans for their own, for when they left, taking most of their magic with them, it damaged the land. But the intruders have been defeated and taken captive, and are now working with the Orphans to return to the Land of Smoke and Sacrifice, constructing Nine Gates that will allow them to traverse the lands between.

But something else has been discovered to be wrong. First of all, not all of the descendants of the Thirteen Orphans have kept up with their magical traditions. Some of them, like the Horse, the Snake, the Ox and the Monkey, have fallen away from the magic, and their descendants no longer know of their own magical ancestry. But to return home, the Orphans must convince the spirits of their ancestors, held in the bone constructing the Mah-jongg sets that are part of the ancestry of each family, might be able to be returned to life for a short time so that all thirteen magical traditions, who must each return home so that all of them can, can return.

Loyal Wind, the first Horse, has been searching the lands of the dead for the spirits of the First Monkey, first Snake, first Ram and first Ox, but Pearl's father, the former Tiger, is furious that a woman inherited the mantle of the Tiger, and he has gotten to the First Monkey first, and poisoned his thoughts with lies about what is really going on. If Loyal Wind and the other Orphans wish to have the cooperation of the Monkey, they will have to defeat the Tiger, Thundering Heaven.

Loyal Wind does his best, but he is beaten, even with the assistance of the First Ox, Nine Ducks. In return, through Thundering Heaven has his own offer for the Orphans. If Pearl Bright, the current Tiger, will agree to give up the mantle of the Tiger, he will take her place and lead the Thirteen Orphans back to the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice.

Pearl, who has lived her whole life knowing that her father despised her, is unwilling to do as he says. Instead, she meets him on the other plane in Tiger form for a battle to determine who is the best Tiger, and defeats him with her magic and her cunning. She forces him to take human form, and discovers something disturbing: a female form attached to his spirit is visible as he changes over. Still, her defeat of him allows them to contact the spirit of Bent Bamboo, the First Monkey, who agrees with their plan solely because of the challenge it offers him.

Then the former first orphans must spent to Wen-lo Wang, one of the judges of the dead, to get permission for the formerly dead to return to life and help. Albert, the Cat and the descendant of the former Emperor, travels with the five spirits to the court. Surprisingly, Wen-Lo Wang does not challenge them, and they do not have to bribe him or the functionaries of the court to have him see them immediately. Instead, he eagerly grants them permission, as if something in the Lands is wrong with them, and they find this troubling, if the ease of their getting what they want is welcome.

But now that all Thirteen Orphans are ready to return, Brenda's father forbids her to go any further. Summer is ending, and he wants her to return to college and her studies. Brenda isn't happy, but reluctantly agrees. She goes to USC while the Orphans send seven of their number into the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice to scout it out.

But the lands they return to are nothing like the lands they left behind, not even in the memory of Righteous Drum, Honey Dream or Flying Claw- all the recent attackers who have allied with the orphans. They do find someone to speak with Li of the Iron Crutch, one of the land's immortals, who spends time with them and tells them of the changes to the land. The first is a great forest of stones that hurt anyone walking among them.

Beyond that is a great rushing torrent of water that falls endlessly from the sky. Beyond that is a tremendous fire that burns everything- also without end. This Li has heard of from those who have been there and experienced it, but he does not know what lies beyond the fire.

With their questions answered, the scouting team returns home to prepare for the challenges they will face in crossing such strange lands. Meanwhile, at USC, Brenda meets a strange Irish Boy named Parnell, who is not actually human- he's of Faerie, and he's there both to protect Brenda and to try and persuade her to help his own people, who are as vulnerable to what is happening in the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice as the Orphans and the people of the Lands are. The same force or person who threatens the Lands also threatens the lands of the sidhe, and they can work with Brenda because of her mother's side of the family, who has ties to the Sidhe.

But when the scouting party returns to the Lands, they make it past the forest of stone, the curtain of water, and over the endless fire, to the Mountains of Metal, where they are captured by Thundering Heaven, now working for their ultimate foe. With Brenda's help, the other Orphans might be able to sneak in through a back door that their foe does not know about, and open a doorway in the middle of the Lands to deal with their foe. But the members of the Scouting team are being tortured, and someone in the real world is trying to kill Pearl Bright. Can they overcome more than one foe and come out victorious when their team is so scattered? And will they ever be able to return to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice and reconnect with the families they left behind?

Well, this book finally has an end to the main story that has been plaguing the Thirteen Orphans through the last books- can they get home to the lands of Smoke and Sacrifice and find out what is happening there? But to do that requires quite a bit of effort, from contacting the bodies of the First Five animals that the current Orphans lack, to getting them permission to be re-embodied. This basically turns the first half or so of the book into mostly planning, not doing.

The three main characters in this volume are Pearl Bright, the first Horse, Loyal Wind, and Brenda Morris. For those who haven't gotten into the story right away (I read this book directly after the one before- The Nine Gates, so I knew the story and was able to transition directly from that to this) it can make the beginning a little confusing, but soon the story settles down and expands into three different places- Pearl's Home, the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice, and Brenda's life in college.

But no matter how much her father wants her to go back to a normal life, Brenda keeps getting called to the magical world, and the time is coming when she must defy her father and explore both sides of her magical heritage. Her father's response, to me, was very cruel and hurtful- he never tells her that he wants her to have a normal life because he is afraid for her, but he couches it in terms of money- apparently, what he knows best and feels comfortable with as a Rat. That made me very unhappy with him.

This was an interesting and entertaining story. If you have the book that came before, you might want to re-read it, in whole or in part, before you plunge into this book, as it makes the sometimes draggy beginning sections where everyone is discussing everything easier to take. But this series is truly excellent and well worth the time to read. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Nine Gates: Breaking the Wall, Book 2 by Jane Lindskold

When Brenda Morris's father was attacked one night, she learned the truth about who he was, and what she was. Brenda was the descendant of a group of Magicians who came from an alternate world known as "The Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice" that was created when the Chinese Emperor Shang-ti burned all the books on myth and magic held by the Chinese Empire, and put to death the scholars who studied such things. The death of the scholars and the destruction of the books made a magic of their own and created a new land.

In that land rose an emperor as well, and a cadre of 12 advisors, each advisor of a family linked to one of the animals of the zodiac. Then, 100 years ago, the Emperor was killed, and his advisors exiled. The advisors left the Land, taking their magic, and their associations to the Zodiac Animals with them. But apparently, those of their families left behind craved the magic of the Twelve families, and sent members of those same families to find the Orphans of the Zodiac and steal their magic. They succeeded in stealing the magic from a few of the Orphans, but the Orphans, led by the Tiger, Pearl Bright, fought back and won, taking the arm of the invading Dragon, Righteous Drum, and capturing the Tiger, Flying Claw. Righteous Drum's daughter, Honey Dream, is of the lineage of the snake.

After the battle, Righteous Drum and his daughter, and Flying Claw signed a treaty with the rest of the Thirteen Orphans, basically saying that none of the others would cause harm or death to the other, but Honey Dream is suspicious of Brenda Morris, because she managed to keep her magical abilities after the Rat was stolen from her father. While Honey Dream is pledged to cause no harm to Brenda, neither would she cavil or protest if someone or something else hurt her.

Brenda, for her own part, doesn't particularly like Honey Dream, because both of them are interested in the same man- Flying Claw, who Brenda came to know as "Foster". Both women are interested in him romantically, but neither really likes the other, and as for Flying Claw, he doesn't seem to favor either woman in any way.

But now that the Orphans who fought the invaders have recovered the animals of those who were robbed of them, they decide to return to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice. But to do so, they will need representatives of each of the Orphans- and some of them have fallen away from their heritage. The Horse, the Ox, the Monkey, and the Snake no longer have contact with the rest of the Orphans, but Des, the Rooster, has an idea- the mahjongg sets that were constructed for each member of the Orphans contains the bones of the founders of each line- the First Horse, first Snake, and so on. If the Orphans can contact the spirits of their ancestors and convince them to return with the rest of the orphans, then the attackers from the lands could rescind their exile and everyone could return home to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice.

But to do this, they must reveal why so many of the Orphans have drifted away from their roots and heritage, and it comes down to many of the First Orphans being horrible parents- or grandparents. This has also come home to roost for Pearl Bright as well. She has an unreasoning dislike of Flying Claw because of his great resemblance to her father, and her feelings over how her father treated her. He felt that a female Tiger was a disgrace, and hoped that Pearl's half-brothers would inherit the mantle. That they didn't was a constant source of anger to him, and he took his anger out on her by refusing to praise her for anything. So, now she has transferred her feelings of anger and disappointment to Flying Claw.

But the Orphans aren't the only ones who are interested in the Mahjongg sets. A Western magician named Tracy Frye, whose magic involves borrowing bits of other traditions, wants the magic of the orphans for her own, and she isn't about to take "no" for an answer. But when she buys two of the Mah-jongg sets that the Orphans are trying to acquire, and tries to blackmail the Orphans into allowing her access to their magic along with two other Western-type magicians, one of whom also has connections to Eastern magic. So while the Orphans are trying to purchase the Mah-jongg sets of the branches of the Orphans who no longer know their heritage, they are only able to acquire two sets- the other two are bought by Tracey Frye, and as her price for turning them over to the Orphans is to learn their magic.

However, thanks to the quick thinking of Des Lee, he and Righteous Drum steal the other two Mahjongg sets from Tracey and her fellow co-conspirators using the spirits of Wind Dragons, which can go through walls and into the spirit lands. Tracey may not have the tiles, but she knows who took them, even if she doesn't know how. But can her associates have her leash her rage?

And after, the Orphans decide to approach First Ox, Nine Ducks, whose granddaughter was badly treated by the other Orphans, causing her to fall away from her heritage. But can they convince Nine Ducks to stand with them in returning to the Lands of Smoke and Sacrifice? And what will be the cost of allowing the Orphans to use the spirits of the Dead orphans to return home? Who among the dead will agree to join the orphans in their quest, and what will Tracey Frye do to the Orphans who have taken back their Mahjongg sets? And will they be able to survive opening the first gate and returning to the overworld? What is draining the guardians of the four directional lands, and can the Orphans and their allies save the beast guardians before they are drawn into a void of nothingness?

This series seems a bit afflicted with the "talky, talky"- characters spend lots of time hashing out what they will do before actually doing it, but at about the halfway point, the emphasis shifts to action- not that there hasn't been action before, but it's not the main focus.

Once the novel does get going, it becomes a lot more satisfying, and we get a hint at a confrontation brewing between both Brenda and Honey Dream, and Brenda and her father. Despite being one of the Thirteen Orphans, her father, Gaheris Morris, doesn't seem very comfortable around the rest of the orphans, and doesn't seem to want to spend time with them very much- he's in and out of the story, but we don't get much of a sense of why, exactly. Why is he so uncomfortable around the other orphans? We do learn eventually, and lots of secrets about the Orphans, their past, and why so many of the families have drifted away from their heritage come out here- and it isn't good for the original Orphans.

This story and this book is much deeper than most fantasy stories. I found myself continually being impressed by how much hidden information comes out with each book. It could have been simple and straightforward, but Jane Lindskold actively resists making the story that simple and shallow- every twist and turn uncovers more secrets and more shocks for the characters, and by the end, peace might actually reign between the two sets of characters. But for how long?

I highly recommend this book and this series for its wonderfully deep and well-thought out concepts and characters. Like real human people, they are all neither completely good or out and out evil, and you will find yourself rooting for both at one time or another.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Eat This, Not That, 2010 Edition by David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding

It never fails, you go on a diet to lose weight, and despite eating what seems to be healthy foods, you either don't lose anything at all, or you even end up gaining weight. You try sticking to foods that tout themselves as low-fat or trans-fat free, and still nothing helps. Why?

Due to America's love of convenience foods and nutritional additives that are anything but nutritious, most Americans are overweight. But even when you try to search for healthy and low-calorie alternatives, too many foods are seriously deceptive when it comes to what you are really getting, both in the supermarket and in the restaurants. Some restaurants have clearly labeled calorie counts and lists of health information, like sodium, fats, and so on, while some (unless you are lucky and happen to live in New York, where restaurants *must* list their calorie counts, you are just SOL when it comes to knowing exactly what you are eating.

But Eat This, Not That has analyzed Restaurant Menus from some of the largest chains, showing what is safe to eat (sometimes only relatively), and what you should stay away from eating. They also give tips on what restaurants to avoid. For example Uno Chicago Grill lists calorie counts per serving on their website- but what they make unclear is that one plate in the restaurant may have up to five full servings on your plate! And that's even for something like a single burger or a plate of Macaroni and Cheese, which most people don't share.

The Book is broken down into several sections, from General tips then moving on to the foods from Restaurants, then Grocery store items. The restaurant section compares different meals from the Restaurants and gives each one a rating based on how generally healthy and light each restaurants menu is. Additional information on each restaurant is given on the page margins, including, for some of the worst-ranking Restaurants, "Weapons of Mass Destruction"- items on the menu that are literally the worst according to fat, sodium or calorie count (sometimes all three!). Other items include "Condiment Catastrophe", "Guilty Pleasures" and "Bad Breeds"- when there is more than one "Weapon of Mass Destruction" on the menu/

I found this a fascinating book, and I probably would have found it of more use, even in a 2010 edition, if they had other Fast Food/Restaurant Chains that are in my area. I'd also like to see some information on types of Food like Gyros and Chinese food. Also, Sonic and Checkers, some of the more prevalent chains around here, were missing from the book.

As you can probably guess, any meal with cream sauces or crammed with cheese and bacon are probably some of the worst things to order on any menu- they can even drag down relatively healthy pasta. But in a contest between bacon and sausage, bacon wins as being healthier.

Not always useful, unless you can find the items and restaurants listed in the book. Yes, there will be plenty you have heard of, but some, like the Uno Chicago Grill and In and Out Burger, seem to be a more local than a national phenomenon. For someone who lives in California or Chicago, this book may be of more use than in the Northeast, where I live. Recommended, but not highly. Book may only be of limited use depending on where you live.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Widow of Jerusalem by Alan Gordon

Long before Theophilus met and married Claudia, he went to Jerusalem and took part in the Crusades there. Now, as he and his wife and their newborn baby daughter Portia are returning to France and the Headquarters of the Guild, having fled the city of Constantinople after the Crusaders sacked it at the behest of Venice, their price for bringing the Crusader armies to the Holy Land.

But on arriving at the town where the Fools Guild is based, they learn they are too late. The Church has come down on the Fool's Guild rather heavily, because the Fools Guild holds nothing sacred- not even the church. The Church really hates that the Guild makes fun of them with impunity, so they have declared the Guild to be Anathema and sent troops to the town to sack the Guild's Headquarters.

Luckily for the fools, their supporters have warned them, and most of the fools fled, along with the Guild's records, before the Church troops got there. All that was left in the town were the normal farmers who lived there anyway. A few fools, knowing that other fools will be traveling back, hid in the forest to warn the fools who weren't there yet. The rest went on to Austria, where Theophilus and his family will soon join them. But before he leaves, he steals the sign from the town tavern, known as the Scarlet Jester, with the help of his wife.

Then, on the way to Innsbruck, he tells her the story of the sign and why it was painted. It has to do with Jerusalem. Theophilus was there , and there he met a dwarf and Fool named Scarlet. Scarlet was assigned to the city of Tyre, and the woman who was the Queen of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Scarlet was her personal fool, and he kept her amused even as rich and powerful men fought over her.

But when she fell in love with a man not her husband, Conrad, Scarlet does his best to protect her and to make sure that Henry, the man she loves, can win her hand, even though he is in love with the beauteous Isabelle herself.. But as Scarlet works to protect the children of Acre, who he has been teaching Foolish skills in order to help them to survive, Henry, the man Isabelle loves, is working to make himself King of Jerusalem. He may seem to love Isabelle, but he loves power more, and he hates Scarlet- who loves Isabelle and serves her unconditionally. When Henry takes Conrad's place after his convenient death, He works to oust Scarlet, and only lets him stay if he will cease to be a fool and become Henry's personal attendant instead.

Soon, Isabelle's love for Henry is muted by his intense physical affections, which weigh her down with too much childbearing, and his dictatorial rule of her kingdom and refusal to allow Fools to do their japes and jests there make it a much less pleasant place to be. Theophilus is able to make it out with Scarlet's two most promising student fools, paying their way back to the guild and a life that will be survivable.

But when he returns years later, things have gotten even worse, and it is up to Theophilus to witness the death of both Henry and Scarlet and find Scarlet's last and best student. But will this student be the person that Theophilus expects them to be? And what became of the child fools who Theo had been teaching in Tyre? Did they all make it out of there, or did the fortunes of war do them in?

Another great Fools Guild mystery. Theophilus is a very well-traveled fool, and here we see him taking part in the Crusades through the man he was serving at the time. But his guild sent him on detached duty to work with Scarlet, and to hear the very sad tale of a fool and dwarf who found himself in love with the woman he served. Now, of course, Theophilus has some sympathy for Scarlet, but back then, he had less- which isn't to say none, but back then he didn't know how deeply the pain of love could bite.

Scarlet's tale was deeply affecting, in part because he was a dwarf. Back then, dwarves were treated as not quite, and often less than, human. chances were that if you were a dwarf, you'd be taken from your family and either sold or given to someone in power as a combination slave and pet.Sometimes, if you were a dwarf, your own family would be the one selling you. And if you weren't a dwarf, but a child, you could be made one, by being forced to drink infusions of herbs that retarded your growth- that certainly happened in later medieval times when Dwarves were in high demand. So even though Dwarves grew up and were just the same as other people in their loves and desires, they rarely had the opportunity to express that love without being laughed at and ridiculed- sometimes even by the one they loved.

But Scarlet is lucky in that he is friends with Isabella. Even if she has been loved and coddled to the point where she is still really a child in manners, Scarlet is tormented by the fact that he could never be with Isabella. Even if he could broach the subject, no one would let her marry a fool, and even if she didn't hold the high position that she did, he would still be afraid that she would reject him- one reason he never confesses his feelings to her.

But Scarlet's sacrifice is still remembered in the sign on the tavern of the Fools Guild, and that is the reason that Theophilus steals it back. Scarlet should be remembered by fools, not have his sign hang in a place where no one knows him or his story. I really enjoyed this book. It was easy to read and had a great mystery and lots of action to enjoy. An excellent read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

War in the Venetian Quarter by Alan Gordon

During the War between the people of Constantinople and the Venetians, Feste is sent by the Emperor to look into the death of a merchant in the Venetian Quarter. Actually, it's not so much the Emperor, but the power behind the throne, the Imperial Treasurer, Philoxenities. The Merchant may have been merely a silk merchant, but Philoxenities feels that his death is significant. Feste, who has been forced into reporting everything that goes on in front of the Emperor to Philoxenities, has no real objection to investigating the death.

Since it is the Venetian Quarter, Feste seeks out the man's fellow merchants and inveighles his way into playing for the funeral party. The merchants are more than a little suspicious, but they do hire Feste to play ballads of their homeland at the funeral.

From the first, Feste does suspect something, but the fellow merchants are close-mouthed, and his wife, Viola, does some investigating of her own. Working together, they are separated partway through the book as Feste leaves the city to investigate what is happening in the Venetian camp of the Crusaders and visit with two other fools of the guild, who add their knowledge to his own.

Fairly early on, Feste discovers that the merchants may appear to be silk merchants, but they are actually smuggling weapons into the city. The question is, why and for whom? Since they aren't offering these weapons to the Emperor, it's very obvious that something shady is going down, but who are the weapons for, and how will they be used?

Feste is forced to do some very fast sidestepping and digging, and ask for the help of one of the criminal guilds in the city to discover just exactly what is going on. But those who know their history of the Venetians helping the Crusaders attack the city of Constantinople know what is going to happen to the city, and in the end, it is brought down by the short-sightedness of the Emperor and the veniality of the people who should have been thinking of the city's defenses. By the time Feste solves the crime, will there be anybody left who cares? And can Feste elude the usual fate of the captured city inhabitants when one is conquered by an overwhelming force?

I enjoyed this book very much. I can very easily get into Alan Gordon's writing style, not having to struggle with it at first like I do some authors. This book picks up where "Jester Leaps In" ended off. The city is under siege, and things are getting progressively worse as the story goes on- parts of the city, like the tower that protects the sea-chain, are conquered and captured by the invaders, and it's very sad, because both Constantinople and Venice are Christian. But Venice wanted complete control of Meditteranean shipping, so as the price of taking the Crusaders to the Holy Land, they asked the "little favor" on conquering the city.

Yes, the Emperor was venal and debased, preferring to spend time with his talented flute player (who seemed to spend more time playing the skin flute- the Emperor admires the strength and dexterity of her lips) rather than anything else. But everyone in the city seems to suffer from shifting alliances except for one person. The Flute Player is in the pay of the Empress *and* the Moslems. Even Feste and Claudia are working for both the Emperor and Empress, respectively, and the guild, while Feste is also reporting to the man who runs the treasury- he's the only one who is sincere in his motives to protect the Emperor and the city.

Once again, Feste and Viola/Claudia work together and on their own to solve the crime, and in the end, it takes both of them to do so. Each knows some of the story, but only when they can tell the story together does the full picture come out. I liked this part. Each is very intelligent, and while they may strive to find out the true story on their own, each contributes a lot to the full picture. Both characters are frighteningly intelligent, but neither triumphs over each other. They are well-matched, both physically and intellectually, and that was quite a relief to read after novels where the protagonist's wife and/or partner exists partly to help him, and partly to constantly get into trouble and have to be rescued. In fact, often it seems that Feste will be the one needing a rescue!

I especially liked the ending of the story and the promise it brings to future volumes. I don't want to give it away, but since I am reading the next volume right now, and the plot will be spoilered there, Viola is pregnant as they leave the city, so Feste has incipent parenthood in the offing. I really loved this book. The relationship between the two characters is wonderful and the atmosphere of the book deeply conveyed the tension of a city preparing itself to be conquered. The plot is twisty and I wasn't sure who really did it until near the end. For all that, I highly recommend the series and the book itself. Very well done.

Jester Leaps In by Alan Gordon

Feste the Jester, more commonly known as Theophilus, is still in Orsino, recovering from the injuries that he took in the course of solving the mystery in the last book. Now mostly recovered, he leaves the town with his new apprentice and wife, Viola.

But not to return to the Fool's Guild. Instead, he and his new wife have another mission from the Fool's Guild. A new Crusade is being launched from Venice and means to stop in Byzantium/Constantinople first to place a new Emperor on the throne. But there is trouble in Constantinople. The entire population of the Fool's Guild there has mysteriously disappeared, except for one fool who lairs in the Colliseum. Feste is to take Viola and go to rebuild the Fool's Guild there and find out what happened to the other Fools- and to bring their murderers to justice, if possible. But he has another reason for wanting to go there, for he once shared a relationship with a female fool of the city's guild, but he was forced to leave her with a mere note of explanation.

But the situation in Constantinople isn't quite tenable. It, too, is under attack by the Moslems, and it feels quite secure behind what it feels are unbreakable walls, and with a harbor chain that protects it from attack by sea. But the army is nonexistent, the fleet has been sold off by the man in charge of it, and to get anything done requires the will of the Emperor- a man who is so dedicated to his pleasures that he rarely seems to spend time on anything else.

Getting to the city is bad enough, but to be able to save the Emperor, they must be able to get into his presence, which means going to the Colliseum and being so good that they attract his attention as they perform. And to get into the Colliseum requires more than a piece of gold, which also means that they must be good enough to raise the money on the streets of Byzantium.

So, even as Feste and Viola play for the crowds and investigate the deaths of the other Fools- they discover that most of them are quite definitely dead, and that the reason they were killed might have to do with the fact that Zintziphides, the only fool seemingly left alive after the massacre, heard someone plotting to kill the Emperor- a male voice, but who could it be?

As Feste strives his best to rebuild the Fools Guild in Constantinople, he becomes Personal Fool to the Emperor- and is thus witness to the stories behind the war. With Fools on both sides of the conflict, Feste must do his best to ensure that, if the Emperor *is* overthrown, that those responsible are brought to justice, and that whoever was responsible for killing the members of the Fools Guild is also brought to justice. But can Theophilus do all that amidst a city at war?

The second story of Feste, the Fool, also known as Theophulis, takes him and his new wife to Constantinople, about to be trampled by the armies of the Crusade, this time paid by the Venetians, who want no competition in their dominance of the Mediterranean and its shipping. Constantinople is no longer as strong as it was, and the fleet has been sold out from under the city by the man who should have been in charge of it.

This book is notable for both the amusing characters and for the "fight" that Feste and Viola have in front of the Emperor and his wife. The Jesting argument they have really made me laugh, which is quite unusual for a book- usually, I am only moved to a smile, at best. And it also came as a relief from the tension building in the rest of the book.

This book certainly kept my attention, with the numerous story threads, and the skillful way they were woven into a whole. It wasn't too long before I was personally invested in the story, wanting Theophilus, Viola, and the other fools to succeed in their tasks and survive the siege and taking of Constantinople. Each step plays out in brilliant color as Feste risks his life, time and again, to get word to the Fools outside the city, and then to return.

To say this is a good story is actually understating how good and interesting this book is. This is one of a very few mystery writers who kept me in the dark as to what was really going on with the murders until near the very end. Well done, amusing, and highly recommended.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thirteenth Night by Alan Gordon

There is a small town in France where the Jesters have their guild. But the Jesters who are part of this guild are not merely entertainers. They are secret agents and fixers, working for no set government, but to bring stability to the world.

It is soon to be Thirteenth Night, the night where the natural order of the world is upended, and those without power are allowed to freely mock and make fun of those who do. Preparing for this night is one Jester who was known in a former life, in a former town, as Feste. Feste is enjoying a beer in a tavern when a man comes in seeking the fool named Feste. He has a simple message for Feste- the Duke of Orsino is dead.

This chills Feste and sends him back to the small town of Orsino, because once he was sent there to bring a peace to the region. A fight between two of the nobles in town was ended by Feste. He used the simple expedient of marrying the woman to the male Duke, which ended the war in the town and solved the problem. And now the count is dead.

Feste returns to town, disguised not as a Jester this time, but as a merchant. Here, he has two tasks, to find out whether the count was killed or comitted suicide, and if he was killed, to find out who killed him. But Feste hasn't counted on one particular fact: the woman who became the Duchess was someone he was half in love with, and it seems impossible for him to conceive of the Duchess as a murderess.

The Duchess, Olivia, is an unusual woman. Back ten years ago when Feste was last in Orsino, she spent half her time in male garb, playing her own brother so that she could find out things that a woman would not be allowed to know or find out on her own. Now, with her husband dead, she's been cut out of the succession, as only a male is deemed strong enough to be regent for her son. Could that have made her angry enough to kill her husband? And who is this steward who allows no one to see the Duchess?

As Feste delves deeper and deeper into Orsino, his affection and even love for Olivia is stoked once more, and it seems that her feelings might be equally engaged. But who is trying to kill Feste, and does it have anything to do with the death of the Duke? Or is Olivia's seeming affection nothing more than a covering-up of her desire to kill him?

I loved this book. Alan Gordon's work I found easy to read and get into. From the very beginning of the book, we are plunged into Feste's point of view and his feelings. He could let the situation in Orsino be investigated by another fool, but because he solved the original problem, which may have led to the Duke being killed, he feels it is up to him to go back and solve this problem as well. Additionally, he knows all the players already, and the backstory to the current situation.

I really enjoyed the book, but while I did find the idea of Feste and the countess being attracted to each other interesting (and yes, appropriate), I also found the ending to be a more modern kind of ending than something that would make sense in the sort of medieval story being told in the book. I can't give it away, because I don't want to spoil the ending, but... a person in her position would not have made that decision, nor would the other characters have supported her in it.

I found the book very interesting and an excellent read. The ending threw me out of the medieval world created in the book for more than a bit, but at the same time, I found it deeply satisfying to modern sensibilities, so I really can't complain all that much. It remains a bit more than a niggle, but for story reasons, I can accept it. Highly recommended, but be aware that the ending might be jarring to someone who knows the medieval mindset.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fire and Sword by Edward Marston

Daniel Rawson is a soldier in the British Army, fighting the forces of the French in the 1700's. Daniel has made himself into something of an infiltrator, able to speak both French and Dutch fluently. His latest exploit is in sneaking into the French camp and learning something of their battle orders from one of their members who is drunk. But his task isn't without risk, because on his way out of the Inn where he and the Frenchmen have been drinking, one of them, suspecting that he is a spy, grabs him and attempts to interrogate him.

Luckily, Daniel is able to overpower the man, kill him, steal the uniform of the man whose drunkenness led him to spill the information, and escape, but because of the killing, Daniel suddenly becomes of paramount importance to the French, as they begin to suspect, based on information from their own spies in the British camp, that the same man who portrayed "Marcel Daron, the wine merchant" is the same man who engineered the only successful jailbreak from the Bastille, ever.

But as Daniel and others deal with the fact that his superior and leader of the army, Malborough, has been removed from his post with the army at the orders of the Queen, a plot to lure him back to the French so that he can be tried and imprisoned is being made. And to do that, someone will need to get information on who and what Daniel loves so that they can compel him into another mission to the French Camp.

Luckily, the discommendation of Marlborogh is a temporary thing, and Daniel is soon back working as his adjutant. But the French spies find out that one of Daniel's fellow soldiers is a veritable font of information on Daniel, and not only do they find out that, yes, Daniel *is* the same man who made the jailbreak from the Bastille, but that he is in love with a Dutchwoman, the daughter of the weaver whom he broke out of the Bastille, Amalia Janssen.

Nor is all the damage on the English side this time. The King of France has turned command of the army over to his son, the duc de Burgundy, at the side of the duc de Vendôme, a more experienced military man who has his own quirks and foibles, like doing most of his business in camp seated on the toilet, and his habit of bedding his handsome junior officers. Louis, the duc du Burgundy, is offended by such practices, and is eager to pull his rank on Vendôme, but Vendôme claims to have a plan, and sends some of his soldiers and infiltrators to snatch Amalia Janssen and take her to the French camp. They are successful in this, and Daniel Rawson soon receives word that she is missing.

To get her back, he must once again infiltrate the camp, this time under the guise of a simple carter. But now the French have a drawing of exactly what he looks like, and while saving Amalia, and another French maiden who one of the French Captains lured to the camp to despoil, he inadvertantly leaves behind something else very dear to him- his sword, which he received when he was just a small boy. Can he brave the camp a third time to retrieve it, successfully, I might add, and escape when the full might of the French are against him: And can Amalia and the British soldiers uncover a spy who has successfully sneaked into camp, and find the camp of deserters who are causing both French and British headaches by preying on the surrounding countryside?

Another excellent book from Edward Marston. This one wasn't so much a mystery, really. It was more in the line of an adventure story. We get to know who is killing the French villagers and setting their houses on fire and raping the women all before the British soldiers track them down and put a stop to their antics, and the rest of the story is more like "Will Daniel be able to infiltrate the French camp one more time and escape without being captured?

Even though this book has very little in it that is a mystery, I still found it fun and enjoyable to read, but a mystery, as I think of the mystery genre, no. it wasn't a mystery, or at least, not much of one. Most of the story seemed to revolve around Daniel's exploits in and among the French camp much more than that of the raiders and who might be able to catch them- because they disguise themselves in both English and French uniforms.

Not much of a mystery, this book will nonetheless be of interest to anyone who enjoys a pretty good cracking adventure story. This one has plenty to interest even non-mystery fans- exciting chases, spies and perilous escapes. There's a lot to enjoy here, but I felt the mystery was not much of a mystery-we know who is committing the crimes and why they are doing so, all that is in doubt is when they will be captured, and that is much before the end of the book. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Vampire Kisses: Blood Relatives Volume Three by Ellen Schreiber and Elisa Kwop

Alexander and Raven are in trouble. Alexander's Cousin, Claude, a half-vampire, is in Dullsville searching for the vials of blood kept by their grandmother so that he and his friends can become full vampires.

At first Raven and Claude wanted to keep Claude and his posse of half-vampires as far away from the blood as possible, thinking thst Claude and his crew would immediately go wild if they became vampires, so they made up a fake map to the vials, which their grandmother has hidden, either somewhere in the house or somewhere in town.

They tried to trick Claude and his friends with the fake map, and it actually did work- for a short time. But since Raven blabbed in her diary about the fakeness of the map, when Claude found and read it, he cottoned on to their trick. Once, he'd been set to leave the town that Raven calls Dullsville, but now he's out for revenge on the two of them, and he still wants the map and the vials of blood.

To start out with, he's still on the soccer team, and he teams up with Trevor to throw a vampire-themed party, and between Trevor and Claude, they convince everyone to go to the party, complete with Vampire Costumes. Raven and Alexander also attend, to keep an eye on events and make sure nothing hinky happens at the party.

But the party is a massive false trail, and also a trap. While Alexander and Raven win the "best vampire couple" award at the dance, they are trapped into a coffin that locks them in, and Claude and his gang leave to look for the coffer that holds the vials. Alexander has been taken out with a shot of garlic powder spray, and he's unconscious.

Raven kisses him awake, and they break out of the coffin and take off for the cemetary, where Claude and his crew are digging for the coffer. After uncovering the coffer, Raven tells them they are sunk without the key- which only she has. But as she fails at the game of "keepaway" she plays with the key, the group discovers that there is only one vial in the coffer- enough to change one of them back into a vampire. And since Claude has it in his hand, will he choose to change only himself, and betray his friends, or give up on his dreams of becoming a vampire?

Well, the art changed, because the artist changed, but aside from that, I found this last volume to really tie up the story well. Claude may be a relative of Alexander's but he hates Alexander because Alexander is the one thing he wanted to be born- a vampire. Claude is only a half-vampire, and so gets treated as a second-class citizen by the full vampires in his homeland.

You can have some sympathy for him, but he also makes himself hard to like, acting like a jerk towards normal humans. It's like he treats others the way he is angry about being treated, but he does manage to redeem himself a bit at the end. Also, taking the entire school hostage? Not a good idea. But at the end, Dullsville returns to the status quo, and Alex and Raven are still together, and Raven is still human.

I liked this story, and i liked the fan art that was displayed in the back of the volume. A vivid and entertaining novel in the world of Vampire Kisses, and I look forward to reading more in book form. Recommended.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Bishop Must Die by Michael Jecks

Bishop Walter Stapledon used to be close to the King, but with the failure of Stapledon to persuade the Queen to come home from France- and away from both her brother,the King of France, and her Lover, Roger Mortimer, Bishop Walter's star has fallen far. And even worse, he left her son, the Prince of England, behind in France, thus making the King's position in England even more precarious.

And why is the King's position precarious? Because he has overturned the country in favor of his best friend, and perhaps lover, Henry Le Despenser, who has been busy gobbling up lands, titles and properties from those of lesser status. Whatever reason King Edward has for favoring Despenser, his people cannot stand his crimes and villainies any longer, and are becoming fractious. While Edward assumes that all the people will come to his defense should Queen Isabella and Mortimer invade, it is becoming less and less likely by the day that the people will prop up either Edward's reign or Despenser.

But Bishop Stapledon is only slightly less loathed than Despenser himself. Mainly because he has also taken lands that do not strictly belong to him, but also because when he was Lord Treasurer of the Realm, an Eyre, or circuit of Judges occurred that investigated who owned the properties of London and their actual worth, with an eye to taxing them more accurately to increase the wealth of the King's coffers. Even though he had nothing to do with setting the Eyre in motion, everyone blamed him as Lord Treasurer.

Now that he is no longer quite so much in favor with the King, Walter Stapledon is ripe to take a fall, and there are several people who have begun stalking him. One leaves threatening letters where the Bishop is sure to find them, even to his very rooms, and the Bishop is no longer the confidant man he once was. Worn out by his battles with both the King and Queen, and their son, the Prince, he seems to look older every day.

Part of that is also other problems. A Priest had been caught kidnapping a virtuous woman, the wife of a minor landholder. Not only had he kidnapped and held her, but also raped her numerous times. Bishop Walter wants this priest to be held to the strictest standard of the law, but the brother of the Priest is also the Sheriff, and frees his brother. The malicious Priest heads for France, and of course, ends up blaming Walter Stapledon for his having to flee the country, not his own crimes.

After receiving a number of nasty notes, Bishop Walter's nephew contacts the Bishop's old friend, Baldwin Furnishill, hoping he can track down the source of the letters. But Baldwin realizes that while he and the Bishop definitely support the King, neither he nor his old friend Simon Puttock want to defend Hugh le Despenser- and that the King is slowly losing support with the common people because of Despenser's predations.

And the Bishop is no longer the man he has been for most of his life. His ruinous diplomatic mission to France, wherein he could not persuade the Queen to leave the care of her brother, the King of France, nor her Lover, Roger Mortimer, and had to leave the Crown Prince of England behind in France when the boy refused to leave his mother, has shocked and aged him tremendously. While once he might have recovered his equanimity quickly, being out of the King's favor and coming to realize how many people want him dead causes Bishop Walter to regress into a scared and fearful old man who has none of the qualities his friends and his King once prized in him. But can Baldwin and his close friend Simon Puttock save the Bishop from his apparently foredestined fate and save him from the many who would have the Bishop die?

This book series is a historical mystery, and in some cases, authors try to keep their favorite characters alive just a little longer than history allows, but here, Jecks must bow to history, and write out some of his most favorite characters. Anyone interested in the history of English Monarchy knows that the King is not long for the throne, and while he really did run his realm into the ground by relying too much on "favorites" (close friends, or homosexual lovers? Only history knows for sure), first Piers Gaveston, and then the Despensers, father and son- both named Hugh.

King Edward had been loved greatly by his people, but his love for his favorites, and his breaking the law on their behalf, incited the ire of many people- almost as many hated the Bishop as well, for the Eyre that was called on London when he was Lord Treasurer, and because he became associated in the people's minds with the King and his favorites, and he was brought down along with the King.

It's no secret that great changes are coming in this series, but Baldwin and Simon have so much invested in serving King Edward II, it will be interesting, and disquieting, to see how the series goes forward from here. Or can it? I don't know if Baldwin and Simon will go down defending their King, or if they don't how Jecks will have them live with the fact that they didn't. And how they will deal with the new King, and the Queen and her lover. Recommended.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession by David Grann

Sherlock Holmes is the image of the perfect detective- all that is important to him is solving mysteries, and when he doesn't have a sufficiently interesting one before him, he turns to other things to get the mental stimulation he needs. In his case, it is drugs. But people soon became obsessed with the very idea of Sherlock Holmes, much to the annoyance of his Creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

He took on such a life that people began to think he *was* real, and send him real cases, begging him to solve them. For that reason, Conan Doyle soon saw writing his stories as a chore, and eventually killed Sherlock Holmes off- only to have the public demand he bring Holmes back. Conan Doyle tried writing other works, but none ever sold as well as Holmes, so he was forced to bring Holmes back.

But if Holmes was obsessed, and the public was obsessed with the character, there are others who are still obsessed with Holmes today. Called the Sherlockians, they treat Holmes as if he is more than just a character, but as if he was a real, actual person who existed and lived.

The Holy Grail of Papers for the Sherlockians is a lost trove of papers held by Arthur Conan Doyle until his death. Thought missing, one Holmsian, Richard Lancelyn Green, tracked them down to one of Doyle's children, his daughter, Jane. Jane didn't want to let him read them, but promised him that when she died, she would give her father's papers to the British Museum, where they would be open to all.

When she did die, there were no papers given to the British Museum, and Richard despaired- especially when he found the papers up for sale at Sotheby's, a noted auction house. He desperately tried to stop the sale, and all too soon was found dead in his home, garrotted to death. But who killed him? Was it someone behind the sale of the papers? or was there a deeper, darker mystery at play?

Just as Richard L. Green was obsessed with Sherlockiana, many people are obsessed with other things, and this book charts the course of many obsessions and the cost they wreaked on the people who sought them beyond all sense- everything from money to power, and even a man who sought the love of a family- and who eventually got his wish.

There are also tales of the execution of an innocent man in Texas, a murderous gang behind bars known as "The Brand" who started out as skinheads but who craved sheer power more than anything else, and a man who started a bloody revolution in Haiti, who somehow wound up back in America amongst relatives of his victims.

I found this a fascinating book, about people's obsessions. Obsession can make people do strange things, and lead to strange and often bad ends. Each story in this book is something witnesses personally by Author David Grann, and he tries his best to be objective, even when interviewing a 78 year old man imprisoned for armed robbery- a longtime crook and escape artist.

You would expect a book of this sort to come to some sort of conclusion about obsession, good, bad or indifferent, but here, each story provides its own coda, and readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the nature of obsession and its costs.

The book is fascinating, but too many of the stories almost seem to have no ending. The best and most definitive one is the first, about the Sherlockian Richard Lancelyn Green, and the others seemed to pale in significance to that one. Recommended, but it does seem to go on a little bit too long.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Cleaners: Absent Bodies by Mark Wheaton, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal

Robert Bellarmine is a former surgeon who now leads a company of crime-scene cleanup technicians. Unlike the others in his profession, he does a much better job at cleaning up all sorts of contamination, from surfaces to the very air, which can get contaminated with the blood and body cells of the victims, allowing anyone in the area to aspirate the blood and body cells and be infected with whatever diseases the victim might be carrying, or which has landed there while the blood sat out.

But something about the new crime scenes that Robert is being called out to is very unusual. Not necessarily the blood spatter, but the fact that there are several blood types all mixed up together in the blood spatter, and some of it is over 20 years old. The blood is human, but the cops try to pacify the residents by telling them that the blood belongs to dogs, but Robert tells the woman who asks that if it was really dog blood, they would have gone home- the cops that is. And they are still there.

Meanwhile, the residents of the area are hiding their own little secret- children have been disappearing, and concerned parents are keeping them inside for fear that their children will be the next ones to disappear. But who, or what, is kidnapping children and slowly bleeding them? And what is this person or thing doing with all that blood? And future stories are hinted at, as well. Why is the man known as Knut taking the hair of showgirls? What does he plan to do with the girl he's following?

And the back-up story "The Body Colony" shows us a man infected by a plant when he was wounded. Now he can't control the thing growing inside him- can Robert Bellarmine help him get it under control?

I liked this book, which mixed the science of crime labs and crime scenes with supernatural creatures, like "Leeches" and the plant species infesting the man at the end of the book. We also get to see that Robert is not a well man, and what impelled him to stop being a surgeon and become a crime scene cleanup technician. Well, at least somewhat. He was married and his wife was sick and died, but we don't know why she died or why he chose his current profession.

Another thing this comic has is blood. Lots and lots of blood.

The artwork is somewhat different as well. Despite it being conventionally western in style, the blacks seem heavier and deeper, and seem to hint at something hidden, which definitely fits in with the supernatural that hides beneath the surface of the ordinary in the stories. The other members of Robert's team are also something of a mystery at this point. Why does Knut have razors imbedded in his fingers? And why is he so pale? What is he doing with the hair of the showgirls? is he something supernatural, or is the blonde that he seems to be stalking?

I loved this book, and I definitely want to see more of this series. I hope that they release another graphic novel soon, and that some of the mysteries laid out here are cleaned up. For those who loved CSI and would like to see them do more "Supernatural"-type stories, this series is a gem. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Legions of Fire by David Drake

Carce is not the Roman Empire, but is based on the Roman Empire of the later days. Corylus is the son of a Roman general and a local girl that he met on the frontier, but she left him. Now, Corylus lives in Carce, and studies philosophy with the teacher Pandareus.

Varus is a fellow student at the school and the son of a Senator named Saxa. When Corylus saved Varus from a beating at the hands of a bully, Varus took Corylus into his heart as a friend, and invited him into his home as well. Now Varus is making his debut as an epic poet, and he's invited Corylus to the fete along with Corylus's manservant, Pultro, who used to be a sergeant in the army under Corylus's father.

Also in the house that night are Varus's sister, Alphena, who is training with the arms-master and has a deep longing for Corylus, but who finds herself becoming shrill and arrogant in his presence, and her new stepmother, Hedia, who Alphena detests because she is scarcely older than Alphena herself.

Hedia loves her husband, which was entirely unexpected for her- she only married him for the protection of his arm and his name, but she has come to see that her husband is essentially harmless, and a good man. But she is worried about a man that her husband has come to know and treat as a trusted advisor, Nemastes.

Nemastes is a foreigner, and has great magical power, or so he claims. But even as Varus is reading his poetry in his father's great hall, something, some force takes him over, making him declaim words of prophecy in an old woman's voice, a prophecy about the Legions of Surtr, about creatures of fire that will destroy Carce. But can they be stopped? And if so, how?

As Varus and Corylus go with their teacher to peruse the Sybilline books, Alphena and Media have gone to a temple to see who Alphena's bridegroom will be. But after chanting all night, Alphena recieves a most unwelcome prophecy- that Alphena's destined groom is a dead general who died over 200 years ago- and she will rule with him as Queen of the Underworld- which Alphena most definitely does *NOT* wish to do. But as the threat of Surtr's legions grow ever closer, Varus prophesies Carce ending in fire and molten stone, and it also transpires that Varus has been selected as the agent of the forces of Surtr in this world.

But can Corylus, Alphena and Hedia save each other and Varus from the Legions of Surtr and the Underworld. Can Varus be saved from his grim fate, and can the four from Carce save their city from burning in fire?

David Drake, at the beginning of the book, tells us that Carce is *not* Rome, no matter how much it resembles it- but in reality, Carce is just Rome with the serial numbers filed off. Everything is named the same (Palatine Hill, Sybilline books and so on), but then, Carce has fantasy races like Dryads, and as it transpires, Corylus may be part Dryad himself.

Unlike most of David Drake's books, this book is not really a book of mass combat. Most of his other books I have read, are ones like Hammer's Slammers or Bolo, where combat makes up a large part of the story. But this story is as much about gathering information as fighting, and with two of the main characters being female, you might expect men to be doing most of the fighting. But Alphena is as much a warrior maiden as her brother is a magician, and Hedia has her own way of approaching obstacles.

I found the going a little hard at first- because ofthe lack of fighting, and the need for the story to get going a little, but this is a story that draws you in slowly and builds to a strong finish. Because the book seems a little scattered at first, it takes a bit of time for the plot threads to weave smoothly into a coherent whole, but when it does, the book builds to a rip-roaring finish. This is merely the first book in a quartet, and it's obvious that the enemies will be based on the four elements- the next will be water.

I do recommend this book, but keep in mind the rather slow start, and you may have to read for a while until the action really starts getting good. Otherwise, it's really good book with lots of action and adventure. Recommended.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Parisian Prodigal by Alan Gordon

Theophilos is the Chief Fool of Tolouse. Married to his wife, a former countess and now also a Fool, Claudia performs under the name Gile. They live with their daughter, Portia, and another orphan training to be a fool, Helga. Theo is not just a fool, or a chief fool, but is also a spy, but he performs under a different name: Tan Pierre.

Early one morning, he is woken by a guard of the man he works for, Count Raimon of Tolouse. The fool's guild supports Raimon because of his enlightened rule, and hopes it will continue. but now something quite unexpected has come up: a man named Badoin has arrived in Tolouse from Paris, and claims to be Raimon's brother. Raimon doesn't believe Badoin, nor his man, Huc, so he has thrown Badoin into prison.

Theo isn't sure what to believe, but he points out to the Count that having Badoin thrown in prison without investigating his claims could be taken as a sign of weakness. He counsels Raimon to let him out, and to leave him free but have him followed while he sends to Paris to investigate Badoin's claims The Count sees sense in this and has it done, but asks Theo to write to the Chief Fool of Paris to have him investigate and report on the truth or untruth of Badoin's claims. Theo agrees, but then the Count assigns Theo to teach Badoin the Langue D'oc, not the Langue D'oil that he knows from Paris.

Theo starts teaching Badoin the language, and sounding him out on his claim of being Raimon's brother. They are definitely related through their mother, who was Raimon's mother as well, and married to Raimon's father, but that may only mean that they are half-brothers, and no more than that. For unless Badoin can prove that the former Count of Tolouse is also his father, their familial connection means little.

As they tour Tolouse, Badoin, Theophilus, Huc and Raimon's man Sancho look to assuage several hungers, some of which are slaked at an excellent inn, and the rest of which could be found at a nearby brothel. Theophilus follows them there, but he is married now, and resists breaking his vows to Gile. A passing patron suggests the cream of the house to Badoin- a woman named La Rosse.

Badoin takes his advice, and spends the night with La Rosse, but in the morning, when his manservant goes to wake him up, La Rosse has been murdered, and Badoin sleeps beside her in the bed, Naturally, everyone thinks that Badoin has killed her, and his putative brother promptly puts Badoin back in the same cell he once occupied. But Badoin pleads to speak with Theo, and tells him that he would never have killed any woman as magnificent as La Rosse, and Theo finds himself starting to believe Badoin.

Theo tells the Count to keep Badoin imprisoned until he finds out if Badoin is actually his brother, while Theophilus looks into the murder of LaRosse. But this isn't an investigation he can handle on his own. His wife, Gile, and his apprentice, Helga, also want in on the action- and who better to investigate the goings-on in a house of prostitutes than another woman? But wherever Theo goes, it seems that Badoin's steps have been "guided" by a local nobleman, the Count of Foix. Why does the Count of Foix want Badoin dead? What is he so afraid of? And will Theophilus, Gile and Helga be able to find the real killer of La Rosse and bring him or her to justice before Badoin is executed for the deed?

I had never seen this particular author before, but I found myself really enjoying this book. The style was easy to read, and even though this is not the first book in the series, I got very much drawn into the story and the characters, all of whom were relatable and fun to read about. Fool is their profession rather than an apt descriptor- and in this case, most fools are anything but- they are actually more like secret agents or spies with a really good cover story- as entertainers.

Theophilus is the Chief Fool, acting as Raimon of Tolouse's court jester and information-gatherer. It was hard to tell how much the other citizens of the town bought into the "Just a fool" cover, but most of them seem to think of the fools as mere entertainers, so their cover is pretty well established, and I only saw Theo and his "family" being the kind of Spy-fools. Another fool, dumb, appears in the book, but it's not established if he does the same kind of jobs that Theo does, the spying jobs, that is.

I liked this glimpse into the world of a specific guild of medieval fools, and the many characters we saw. The fools may act foolish, but are not fools in the usual sense of the word, and the way that Theophilus, Gile and Helga worked to expose the true murderer, and the fairly lighthearted way they worked despite the serious nature of the crime has made me want to read more- so I put more of the early books on order at the library. Very fun and very good. Recommended.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Green Arrow, Black Canary: For Better or Worse by Various

Green Arrow and the Black Canary should never have met- they were from different worlds- literally. The Black Canary came from Earth Two and was married. But when her husband was killed, she was so griefstricken that when the Justice League from Earth One ended up in her world, at the end of the Adventure, she asked to return to their world with them. They accepted, and so Dinah Lance ended up on Earth One.

But soon she came to have a greater appreciation of one of the heroes she'd thrown in her lot with, Oliver Queen, also known as the Green Arrow. Once a spoiled playboy, he'd been marooned on an island when his ship sank, and his only way to survive was to make himself a crude bow and arrows and hunt whatever food animals were on the small island. He supported himself for so long that way that his skill became immense, and when he finally returned to civilization, he outfitted himself with a bow and a quiver of trick arrows and set out to fight crime.

Now, Green Arrow and Black Canary are romantically involved, and this Graphic novel collects several stories involving the two of them, telling their story as it evolved over time.

In "In Each Man- A Demon" Oliver loses all his money, and wonders if he should give up the whole crimefighting gig. But when a trip to the Psychologist unleashes the darker part of Green Arrow and his fellow crimefighters, can they overcome their own bad sides and triumph?

"The Plot to Kill Black Canary" has Olliver volunteering Black Canary to test-drive a new motorcycle. But when a gang decides to use the stunt to take her out, can Green Arrow save her in time?

"Zatanna's Double Identity"- throws a little friction into Green Arrow and Black Canary's romantic relationship when Zatanna shows up with a decided Romantic interest in Green Arrow, and she no longer remembers how to do magic. Can Green Arrow figure out what's going on, and make it up to Dinah somehow?

in "A Gold Star for the Joker", the Joker forsakes Gotham for a visit to Coast City, and kidnaps Dinah. Can she and Green Arrow fight off the Joker without tipping off the criminal that Dinah is the Superhero known as the Black Canary?

"Lure for an Assassin" has Green Lantern returning to Coast City, only to fall ill with some strange illness. As John Stewart takes Hal Jordan back to the Guardians of the Universe to find a cure for his illness, Green Arrow must infiltrate a group who wants to kill the President. But when they threaten Dinah with Death, Green Arrow is forced to become their assassin. But how can he avoid killing the American President?

"Night Olympics" has both Green Arrow and Black Canary bemoaning the weak and wimpy nature of modern criminals. But there is a new one coming, a criminal who wields a Bow and Arrow, much like Green Arrow, and when this young man downs Black Canary, will Ollie be able to restrain his temper and not kill his opponent.

"The Hunters" has Ollie proposing marriage to Dinah, but she is suddenly conflicted. They are in a dangerous profession, where one or both of them could be killed at any time. How can she settle down when they could have children, and one night leave those children orphans?

But more problems lie ahead for Ollie and Dinah, not the least of which is the discovery that Ollie fathered a child with an assassin named Shado, and the little matter of his dying. But when Ollie returns from the dead, will his friends believe it is him? And what will the effect be on Dinah, who was traumatized by his death?

I loved this graphic novel. Ollie Queen and Dinah Lance have a unique kind of synergy, and they have been a couple for much longer than almost any other hero "couple" in comics, and it is obvious that they really love each other.

This graphic novel reprints some of their best stories together, both working together and working apart. The best part is that Dinah is not a weak character who always needs rescuing- she's generally right there with the other characters, opening cans of whoop-ass and taking names with the best of them. She's just like Ollie- a normal human with good training and skills, but no real superpowers (her Canary Cry came later).

I really enjoyed this book, and I'd like to see more of Dinah and Ollie. I hear they are getting married now, and I'd like to see more stories featuring them. These stories were great and well-done, and very entertaining. Recommended.