Saturday, July 31, 2010

Black Magic Sanction by Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan is a witch, but she doesn't quite fit the image of witches as they want to be seen. For one thing, she's a scrapper, and while she's fought plenty of nasties in the past, but now she bears a demon mark and the only way to be rid of it, is to learn demon magic.

But she doesn't trust Al, the demon who has been teaching her, or trying to, and she's pretty sure that Pierce, the spirit of the witch who has been trying to help her learn the demon magic, is being played by Al as well. But even though her own motives only rise out of the best of intentions, the witches of the covens think she is already irreversably tainted by Demon magic and demon evil. They want to imprison her in Alcatraz- which is too far from the ley lines of the earth to be able to draw power from- either that, or to have herself magically neutered and rendered unable to bear children.

But when she's attacked by a white witch at a supermarket, she's barely able to overcome her, as the other woman is using a charm to bolster her magic. And to add insult to injury, after she gets home from the fight, she is summoned to the other side of the US as if she was no more than a demon, and taken straight to Alcatraz. But even Alcatraz isn't able to hold her for long, and when she finally gets out, she's even more determined to never, ever be imprisoned there again.

So, who gave the witches the information that allowed them to summon her? Rachel can guess that it's her old ex-boyfriend, Pierce. Or perhaps Trent Kalamak, the half-fey she knew from when she was just a girl. Rachel is determined to get her revenge on the man who betrayed her, even if she has to tie the bows on Pierce herself and send him to the Witches who want to imprison him as well. Or steal a precious elven artifact from Trent Kalamak's secure private vault- one that could seriously embarrass him and put an end to the bid for office he is making.

But one Rachel is good at is going off half-cocked to fight what she perceives as injustices, and in this case, her anger could lead to her making an equally bad or much worse mistake. Can Rachel get the witches council off her back, get her demon mark removed, and find which of the men in her orbit is actually the one who could end up making her happy? Rachel has to figure it out, and soon, or she could end up imprisoned again, or even worse, dead.

I like Kelly Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series, and Rachel Morgan has a lot going for her. She rooms with a vampire, has all sorts of connections with all sorts of fae and otherworldly creatures, but as most of Kim Harrison's characters, her instincts with men can be, well, iffy at best, and she has trouble telling the bad boys but good guys from the bad boys who are just bad.

Another big concern for Rachel here is her demon mark and doing Demon magic. No matter how much taint she gets from the mark and doing demon magic, the witches already don't trust her. They think she is irreparably tainted, and Rachel has to show them that she isn't, and bring down those in the witches who won't let her prove that she is essentially untainted. By the end of the game, she's reached a new status quo, but one that may cause even more trouble for her in the future.

I enjoyed this book but not as much as some of her other books. Not because it was qualitatively worse, just different. I'd still recommend it to anyone who enjoys paranormal romance and urban fantasy, even though it is closer to urban fantasy than Paranormal Romance. Recommended.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Sleeping Beauty by Mercedes Lackey

In the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms, Fairytales can quite literally come true- but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Princess Rosamund is the daughter of a good King and his former dairymaid wife. But when her mother dies, the Traditions direct that her father, King Thurman, must remarry. And whoever he marries will be her evil stepmother, trying to get her killed so that her own children (if she has any) can be heir to the Kingdom, or that any children she bears to Thurman will be heirs in Rosamund's place.

The only person who can stop the chaos the traditions will cause is the Godmother of Eltaria, the literal Half-Fairy Godmother Lily. Lily looks over the Kingdom of Eltaria, a full-time task in and of itself, because Eltaria is small, but very rich. And it's surrounded by five other nations who crave its riches, and won't stop until they have them. So as soon as his queen is buried, Thurman is surrounded by dark sorceresses who want him and his kingdom, and the only way Lily can think of to save him and his Kingdom is to appear to be a Dark Sorceress herself- for as long as she looks and acts the part, she doesn't actually have to hurt Rosamund.

But something goes awry with her plan, for not long after Lily "marries" her father. Rosamund is chased away from the castle by the Royal Huntsman, who she fears is seeking to kill her with his hounds. Jumping on one of the Black horses which are all that are left in the stable now that her stepmother the Queen is in power, Rosamund rides desperately into the forest, trying to save her life. Instead, she is knocked from her horse and tumbles into the bushes, and the hounds, tracking the horse, pass her by.

From there, she stumbles on a pack of dwarves and begs for their aid. Normally, the dwarves would be the kind and helpful sort, who would protect and look after her, keeping her safe from her "stepmother", but instead, the dwarves are the ugly and gross sort, who care nothing about her, only liking that she is now their slave for as long as they wish to shelter her. As Lily desperately searches for her with the help of her mirror servant, she is forced into being a totally demeaning maid and cook to the dwarves- not brutalized, but something like being the lowest slavey in the place, forced to cook, clean and mend the clothes of all the dwarves while they care for nothing but mining.

But even as Rosamund despairs over her fate, Lily is working to rescue her, and she uses the traditions themselves to do it. Making Rosamund fall asleep so that she appears dead, her captors throw her body into a pit in the forest. From there, her brownies rescue the body and place it on a plinth so that Rosamund can be awoken by the Grandmother's spell. But once her body is there, Rosamund attracts the attention of two wandering Princes, Siegfried Von Drachenthal, a prince from the far north who is related to the Gods of his land, and Leopold, a Prince ejected from his kingdom for being more popular than his brother who was to inherit the throne.

Siegfried is young, and a barbarian, but very accomplished, having already slain two Dragons and drunk some of their blood, which allows him to understand not only the language of birds, but of all animals. However, there is a doom lying upon him- that he will waken a maiden in armor, lying surrounded about by fire that burns, and when he kisses the maiden to awaken her, he will take her to wife and will bring DOOM to his homeland. This didn't sound at all good to Siegfried, so he decided to leave, especially as all the warrior maidens thereabouts were either his sisters or his aunts. However, he seems to find such maidens wherever he goes and stays for a while, so he's had to keep moving rather than stay and settle down.

When he and Leopold catch sight of Rosamund, each wants to kiss her and wake her up, for very different reasons. However, the Godmother awakens her before either Prince can, and Leopold wins the fight to get there first, and gets a hard kick in a very sensitive spot for his troubles. However, Lily thinks that perhaps she can use them in a different way, and takes them back to the palace with her and Rosamund.

Shortly after bringing Rosamund back to the palace, King Thurman dies, leaving Rosamund heir to the Kingdom. Rosamund needs a husband if she hopes to be able to keep her Kingdom free, and she needs to be able to find a way to keep the other Kingdoms around from conquering Eltaria. But how? Finally, she comes up with an answer- hold a competition for Rosamund's hand- make sure he has the sort of criteria that make for a strong, but kind, leader and set him contests to make him prove his worth. And she has to do it fast, if she wants to save Eltaria from being attacked by the nations around it.

Siegfried, wanting Rosamund for her beauty and herself (not to mention to escape the DOOM laid on him by his mother and his homeland) determines to try and win Rosamund for himself. But, at least until the endgame, he's willing to ally with and work with Leopold to overcome the other Princes and adventurers to try and win the contest. But if they thought that sheer martial prowess would work to win them the Prize, they are sorely mistaken. And one Prince, a man named Desmond, seems poised to win the whole thing. But can Siegfried and Leopold prevent him from making off with the greatest prize of all- Rosamund, when he realizes that her affections are already given elsewhere? And what will Siegfried do about the woman who is fated to be his DOOM when he is already in love with Rosamund?

I love the Five Hundred Kingdoms books, and I have loved every one of the series so far. Though many of the stories re-introduce old characters from the last book, this one actually does that for two books, or at least gives them mention. The first, of course, is the Godmother Elena, and the second is Gina, a fighting woman who gave up her life as a human to become a dragon. Both receive mention in this book, but don't actually show up. which I found to be refreshing and a bit sad in equal measure. Sad first, because as characters I've read about in the past, readers like me want to see how they are doing. Refreshing, because in the end, I feel they might have taken away from the intensity of this story.

This is one of the first stories to mix up two different stories in one book. There is Rosamund, who is the literal "Sleeping Beauty" of the title, at least for a time. and the second is Siegfried, who is the same Siegfried of the Niebelungenlied, Volslung Saga, Ring Cycle, or what have you. It was nice to see the intersection of the two stories (and perhaps reveal a new area of the Kingdoms where the stories are very different- based on Norse myths rather than the generalized "European myths" that the Five Hundred Kingdoms are based on). Siegfried says his land doesn't have Godmothers, and the Gods (or what passes for Gods) in his land have intermarried the people there and meddle as much as the Gods do in the Ring Cycle generally, so this book definitely expands the scope of the Kingdoms, although I and other readers have no idea how the Kingdoms are laid out or if there are actually 500 of them.

I especially loved the ending to this book, as Rosamund, Siegfried, Leopold and his new Bride Brunnhilde mess with the plans of the Gods from his land. It was amusing to see the reaction of Brunnhilde as she berates the Gods for starting the whole of the situation in the first place. I also loved the action in the book, and the love story between Siegfried and Rosamund. Out of all her suitors, he's the only one who gives her a really practical gift (the ability and training to defend herself), and comes up with a really good plan to defend the Kingdom.

The whole story of the contest between the suitors was funny and interesting to read. Some of the scenes made me laugh aloud as I was imagining the chaos going on in them. Mercedes Lackey definitely has the ability to make what you are reading funny and amusing without breaking the mood of an otherwise serious story, and her characters are always well-drawn and interesting, even here, where they are basically inflated stereotypes drawn from Fairytales. Reading this is amusing and enthralling, keeping you in the story right up until the end. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Murder on Lexington Avenue by Victoria Thompson

Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy works for the frankly corrupt New York Police Department during the early 1900s. His son, Brian, was born with a malformed foot (since corrected by surgery) and deaf. Frank long thought that his son was destined to be in an institution, taken care of all his life, but with the help of Midwife Sarah Brandt, he has realized that being deaf does not mean his son is an idiot, and has put him in a school, the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, teaching him sign language.

Now, Frank is called out to a murder at a business office, where he meets Edward Higginbotham, the principal of the Lexington Avenue School, another place where the deaf go to school, but there they aren't taught sign but how to read lips and to speak. The man who was killed is a businessman named Nehemiah Wooten, and his daughter, Electra, is deaf and attends the Lexington Avenue School. Higginbotham and Wooten had an appointment for 1 PM, but by the time Higginbotham arrived, Wooten was already dead.

After looking around the office, Frank finds parts of a mechanical pen in two separate areas, and that Wooten was killed when someone hit him in the back of the skull with an old trophy that he kept in the office. On going to Wooten's home to inform his family of his murder, his wife denies any knowledge of who would have killed him. Wooten has two children, and neither are home at the moment, but as he is leaving, his daughter, Electra, returns, and on finding out her father is dead, has only one word to say. "Good."

Frank tries to talk to Electra, but her mother won't hear of it, so Frank returns to the crime scene, where he questions the clerks who are in the office, but none of them know anything about who he might have been meeting- not that they will admit, anyway. But there was another man who should have been in today, the son of Wooten's business partner, Mr. Young. On asking where he is, the clerk says he must be at the Wootens, offering his condolences. Frank welcomes another chance to question Mrs. Wooten, and when he returns finds her in her room, practically in the arms of the younger Mr. Young- Terry.

It's obvious from how they jump apart that they had been embracing before the door was opened, and Mrs. Parmer, the sister of the dead man, and Valora Wooten's sister-in-law, suspected that something was going on. But the commotion brings on a flood of water under her skirts. Valora Wooten isn't just a big woman, but pregnant, and her waters just broke. Her sister in law is shocked and horrified at this evidence of Mrs. Wooten's infidelity, and insists on calling the Doctor, but Valora Wooten won't hear of it- the Doctor is a terrible gossip, and she won't have this bandied around about her.

As a compromise, Frank tells them to send for his friend, Sarah Brandt, the daughter of Felix Decker. The fact that her father is rich seems to decide them, and she is sent for. Meanwhile, at home, Sarah is dealing with the hysterics of one of her adopted daughters, who she took in after a horrible crime was perpetrated around them. The youngest girl, Catherine, didn't speak for a long time after Sarah Brandt took them in, but she seems to have recovered nicely. Now, when playing in the backyard of the neighbors house, she goes into a crying, screaming fit, saying that the bad men have returned. But Sarah, Maeve and their neighbor see nothing. Soon, Catherine stops crying, but it troubles Sarah a bit.

Soon, the note arrives from Molloy, and Sarah goes to the Wooten home, where she delivers Valora Wooten's baby boy. Mrs. Wooten tries to get Sarah to kill the child, or, if she won't do that, to take it to a foundling home or give it to someone to adopt. Sarah won't do any of them, but eventually gets Mrs. Wooten to accept the child by constructing the convenient fiction that it was her husband's, but they kept it secret over a fear that it would be stillborn, like her last child. Sarah gives Mrs. Wooten nappies and diapers for the child, and sends around for a woman to breastfeed the child, but Mrs. Wooten begs her to stay and keep an eye on the household and the funeral of her husband for her. Sarah agrees.

The problem with Wooten is that his daughter Electra is deaf, and yet, she has fallen in love with a teacher at the school that teaches sign language. She wanted to learn sign language to be able to communicate with other deaf people, but her father wanted her to only move in the hearing world. He believed, along with Alexander Graham-Bell, that two deaf people marrying and having children would only lead to more deaf people, and Graham-Bell, who developed the telephone out of his own efforts to aid his deaf mother and wife, wanted to eliminate deafness and thought that having deaf people intermarry would lead to more children being born deaf.

Wooten bought into that idea hook, line and sinker, and wanted his daughter to marry a man who could hear and live in the hearing world. So, when she went against his wishes to learn sign language and fell in love with her teacher, who was also deaf, this would have made him very angry. And she was found out and reported on, but who would have gone against Wooten's wishes and found a teacher in sign language for her?

The answer, surprisingly, is Electra's brother, Leander. But at the Funeral, Leander is surprised when Electra's signing teacher, Adam Oldham, shows up to support her. He starts to get into an argument with Oldham, but Oldham, who can only communicate through signing and by writing, writes something on his pad that calms Leander down. Leander still tells Adam to leave, and he does, apologizing for interrupting the funeral.

But why would Electra want to learn to sign when her father so vehemently opposed her doing so? Is it simple rebellion or something else? And why did Higginbotham, who she originally went to to teach her, refuse and tell her to use Adam? Did he collude in helping them to fall in love with each other? And if so, to what purpose?

But when Electra's brother Leander goes missing after the funeral, can Frank find him in the Bowery, where he was last seen? And who is responsible for the death of her father? Can Frank and Sarah unweave the tangled web and find out who is really responsible for the death of Mr. Wooten amid the many people who might have wanted him dead?

Another excellent gaslight mystery. I was quite surprised to find out that the views of Alexander Graham Bell were exactly as they were portrayed in this book. Although Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf, married one of his deaf students and had a mother who was herself deaf or hearing impaired, he thought that deafness could be eliminated through eugenics. But he was wrong about the causes of deafness, as most deaf children have both parents perfectly well able to hear, and two deaf parents have children who can hear.

Nevertheless, Eugenics was the "in" thing at the turn of the century, mainly formed from wrong ideas about evolution, and yet, it is the idea that much of this mystery turns on. Graham Bell and Wooten's ideas about what causes deafness and the idea that deaf people shouldn't be allowed to marry for fear of producing even more deaf children could have been fought by simply looking at how many deaf children had deaf parents- but it never occurred to Graham Bell or his followers to do so, apparently.

Getting a look inside the tensions in the deaf community and finding out who killed Mr. Wooten made for a great mystery. This is something I knew very little about, and I always love learning in the midst of a story. I found the mystery to be intriguing as well as allowing me to learn. Very well done. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can They Do That?: Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace by Lewis Maltby

Working for a large company can be stressful, but now, employers are making it more stressful on their employees by monitoring them in many and varied ways- even ways that may seem something like a gift at first- say, when an employer gives the employee a cellphone or computer. Great, you may think, a free gift I don't have to pay for!

But unfortunately, many employers are using the GPS devices in the cellphones to track what their employees are doing and where they are going, even if they aren't on the job. Worse is when they do that and don't tell their employees that they are doing so- or when they install keyloggers inside that "free gift" computer that tells them everything you do on it- even if you never use it for work at all.

The worst part comes when the employee disagrees with their employer on an area not related to work- politics or religion, or "morals", and then the employer uses the information to fire the employee, or ask what they were doing at such and such place on such and such date. For the worker, this can be a double blow- not being aware that the employer is spying, and then having their actions sprung on them.

Sometimes, it isn't the employer, per se, but other workers at the same company. One woman was fired because her employer found out her sister died of breast cancer from the IT guys who were reading her e-mail. Not because the employer wanted them to, but on their own, because they thought it was a fun thing to do. And when her employer found out, she got fired, because her risk of breast cancer was greater since she had someone in her family who had it, and they fired her because she could conceivably cost the company's health plan more money.

Now, you might think that this is against the law, and it is... but only in some states. In other states, you would be completely out of luck suing your employer because of it. Worse are that some companies make employees go to mediation before a lawyer, and the mediator may be secretly siding with the company, not the employer. Why? If the mediation company costs the employer too much money, the employer has no reason to use them any more.

Employee mediation is another problem. Most often, "mediation committees" are composed of upper management, which has little sympathy with lower-level employees. And just like the mediation companies, they will support the employer, not the employee, who may have no other recourse.

But that's not the only way employers can infringe on the privacy rights of employees. Obvious or hidden cameras keeping watch on employees at all times, just to see if they are working, or how hard they are working. All of this infringes on the rights of employees, but what can we, as employees, do about it? Is there any way we can reclaim our fundamental rights as human beings?

Yes, but it won't be easy, and mainly, it involves laws being passed. You can try not to work for companies that do such things, but that often isn't a good solution, especially in these troubled economic times- oftentimes, if that is the only job available, there will be more people wanting the job, and they can just offer it to someone else.

In short, without changing the laws, there really is very little that we can do. In the case of employer-given computers and cellphones, don't use them for private things. If you can afford one, get a computer of your own and use that for things you wish to remain private. Don't use company e-mail for private business or messages. Get a personal e-mail account to use for private e-mails, and don't tell your employer the private e-mail account name.

With Cellphones, there is little you can do. The employer can require you to carry it no matter where you are, and if you leave it at home, or disable the GPS tracking software, you could get fired for destroying employer property or for not following orders. At best, don't use your employer-given cellphone for calls you wish to remain private. The same for texts.

This book was incredibly interesting, but not necessarily in a way that will make employees feel good about themselves. In fact, it was horrifying to see how many ways you can be screwed over in the workplace, and not even for major stuff, but for the pettiest things, like who you support for political office, or going to a club when your employer doesn't approve of drinking.

Of course, smoking is becoming less about protecting other employees from secondhand smoke and protecting the employer from having to pay out for any employee that gets lung cancer. In the same vein, employers are trying to get employees to eat healthier to cut down on the costs of health care- to the point where, at some time in the future, if you refuse to eat healthier, you may lose your job.

This is an important book to read for any employee. Maltby may have few ways to better a job you already have, but he also lists what to look for, and possible remedies you may have against employers who violate your fundamental rights in the workplace. And in the meantime, we can work for better laws to protect employees, which are desperately needed. Depressing, but Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Lark's Lament by Alan Gordon

Theophilus, his wife Claudia and their daughter, Portia, are in the temporary hideout of the Fool's guild in Austria with their new apprentice, Helga, when the leader of the Guild, Father Gerald, sends them on a new mission: to regain the support of the church for the guild, recently stripped away by the Pope. First, Father Gerald sends Theophilus and his family to a monastery named La Thoronet to recruit their Abbot, a former Fool named Folquet.

Folquet was once a celebrated Troubador, but gave up his foolery and singing to join the church. Not just he joined the church, but his entire family did as well, wife and sons both. Father Gerald thinks that using Folquet, now known as simply Folc, to replace a Bishop of Tolouse, will enable the guild to regain status with the church.

But first, Theophilus must make contact with the former Fool and get him to sign on with the plan. Theo finds Folc to be resistant, blaming Theo for a murder and a threat painted in blood. The man killed was a monk named Brother Pelfort, and the message promised retribution for some unspecified past deed. Folc has Theo picked up by his monks, but allows that while he knows that Theo can and is willing to kill, he probably would not have brought along his family if he meant to kill. Folc offers Theo a bargain. found out who really killed Brother Pelfort and left the message and bring the person or persons to justice, and he will agree to the plan that Father Gerald has come up with.

Theo, of course, has no choice but to agree, and decides to head to Marseilles and Montpelier to investigate Folc's past and who he might have offended so badly that they would be willing to fill Folc so many years later for whatever crime his tormentor seems to think he has committed. On the way, they stop in to see Folc's wife, a woman embittered by having to join the church simply because her husband did. She does seem to have mellowed in her resentment, and now is a part of the group that cares for the cows owned by the nunnery. Caring for the simple creatures is not an easy task- indeed, a nun there was killed only a few months past when the animals stampeded, but it allows her space for contemplation. However, she doesn't seem to know anyone who would wish to have Folc killed.

Continuing on to Marseilles, Theo and his family discover that the words left on the wall of the Abbey were part of a song that Folc once wrote, a dirge for the death of a noblewoman he once had feelings for. Theo feels that he is on to something, and tries to find all three verses that Folc wrote about this woman, looking for clues to who she was. But when he discovers her true identity, and her name, he finds out why Folc's feelings for her were forbidden- the woman was married, and her husband was a very jealous man. But he has since died, and cannot be the man behind the attack on Folc at his Abbey. So, who else felt strongly enough about the woman and Folc to try and kill him, especially when she long predeceased her husband. Or did she?

As Theo uncovers a long-buried crime with a secret that has implications to the present day, he must work to unmask a murderer whose hatred and ruthless rage cannot be suppressed. In order to discover who is behind the threats against Folc and make him take up the task asked of him by the Fool's Guild. Theo and his family must work together and avoid death themselves. But how can they when they don't even know the direction from which the threat will come?

Wow, I love the Fool's Guild mysteries, and this one is no exception. The mission, and the mystery that arose- well, actually the multiple mysteries that arose from that mission kept me reading, entertained, and on the edge of my seat. At the heart of the mystery is Folc himself, and why someone would want to kill him. After all, his fooling days are done, and he barely even sings any more, despite him having once been a talented singer with a beautiful voice.

Of course, it's his voice, and his past songwriting talent, that have come back to haunt him. And, as usual, he isn't completely truthful with Theophilus when it comes to the threat against his life. Normally, it would be mainly Theo and his wife, Claudia who have the main roles in this book. But there is a new player in town- namely their apprentice, Helga, and she is able to get into places that Theo and even Claudia would have trouble entering because of her small size and youth. It was nice to see her become part of the mystery-solving team, and also what the Theophilus is beginning to call "The Fool Family".

This is an excellent mystery, with plenty of intrigue, foolery and derring-do. The perpetrator of the crimes was a mystery right up until the very end, and while I wasn't exactly completely astonished by the reveal, I did definitely find it a surprise. I loved the characterizations of both Theo and his family, and the secondary characters. This is an excellent series and highly recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2010

An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon

Theophilus, known as Feste, his wife Claudia and their daughter, Portia, have been ensconced in their shelter, a refuge for fools in Austria, ever since they returned from Constantinople and realized that the church has out to destroy the guild. Temporarily lying low with the other fools, they have busied themselves with chores (Feste chopping wood, Claudia hunting to supplement the available food). Now at dinner, some of the apprentice fools want a tale from Feste to enliven their supper.

Although he won't tell one himself, he says that the current leader of the guild, Father Gerald, knows plenty of tales. And so he is prevailed upon to tell one from his own younger years. The tale concerns a Fool named Terence of York, sent to the far north to become the court fool to Ørvendil of Slesvig in Denmark. But his fool name is instead given by Ørvendil's young son, who, unable to pronounce his name correctly, Christens him "Yorick".

Terence is there to make Ørvendil's reign more stable and prosperous, and while he is in Slesvig, he is under the command of Gerald, who resides as the chief fool to the current King of Denmark, but in reality, he has much of a free hand, as Gerald is more concerned with his own problems. As it is, he befriends Ørvendil's son, Amleth, and teaches him some of the requirements of being a fool, such as juggling. He also brings the two closer, teaching Ørvendil to have fun with his son, and to play with him and not have him shut up all day with his mother.

But the main problems that Ørvendil has is with his brother, a man named Fengi. Fengi lusts for power and control, and he's not above intriguing in his brother's lands, or castle, or even family, to do so. His first target is Gorm, his brother's seneschal, whom he suborns by first implying that Ørvendil mighr be seeking to overthrow the King, and that Ørvendil should have an eye kept on him. From such small implications do problems happen. Fengi next appeals to Ørvendil's wife, who wishes that her husband would seek out higher position and more power, rather than apparently being content with his lot.

At length, Fengi challenges his brother to a duel over his lands, and after donning his armor and bidding his wife goodbye (after a parting drink of ale from her), he goes to battle his brother- and dies at his brother's hands, even though his brother cannot compare to him in swordcraft.

Amleth, who by this time is a youth, is devastated by his father's death, and hates Fergi, who quickly steps into his brother's position, marrying his wife and taking over the castle. Gorm, the steward's wife dies in childbirth, leaving behind his young daughter, Alfhild, and an infant son, Lother. Terence, threatened by Fergi with death, raises Amleth as best he can before Gorm kills him, Meanwhile, Amleth, who has become a moody sort, and often seems to be crazy, travels to Paris to attend university, and becomes a fool.

Returning home, he seems to become once again mad, but finds time to romance Gorm's daughter, Alfhild, who has loved him, and he her, since they were both small children. But when Fergi makes plans to betray the King of Denmark, and Alfhild dies, her death blamed on suicide, her brother Lother is told that it was Amleth who killed her by Fengi. Unbeknownst to Fengi and his wife, Gerutha, Lother has been trained by Amleth to be a fool, much as he was by Terence/Yorick. Fengi has had quite enough of Amleth and is ready to do him in- and he hopes to make Lother his tool and his weapon to do so.

But can two young fools take out the treacherous Fergi and the mercenaries he's hired to try and overthrow the King, and escape safely from a hold that is meant to be their deathtrap? And what connection do Feste and Claudia have to those two young fools? Can claudia ferret out the connection to her husband and daughter?

I loved this book, which, if you've been paying attention, is based on the story behind Hamlet. My only complaint is that we don't know what all of this has to do with the Fool's Guild and the main characters until almost the very end of the book. I mean, it's an effective story, but at least in "The Widow of Jerusalem", we know that Feste/Theophilus is part of the story from the very beginning- because he's the one telling it.

Here, not until the end do we find out the connection to the modern-day characters from the story, except that Father Gerald, who is telling the story, is one of the characters, and that it happened when he was young, or at least younger than he is now. It was hard to feel anything for Terence, although, to be fair, his identity is hinted at in the story. In the end, the mystery turns out to be like the "real ending" of the movie "Clue", where everyone is responsible for at least one other death, and some here for more than one.

Another excellent story and book, and while the unknown identity of the protagonists is like being told a story with completely new characters, Alan Gordon succeeds in making us sympathize with them, and hope for them to succeed. By the end, I was hoping that the characters in the story would end up being important to the Fool's Guild now, and I was at least partly right. Definitely one to check out and read. Recommended.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fairy Tail, Volume 10 by Hiro Mashima

Before Loke disappears, he hands Lucy tickets of a beachside resort, saying that he had gotten them for him and his girlfriends, but as he owes her and her team so much, they should use them and have fun. And so that is exactly what they do. But Ezra finds herself falling asleep in the sun and having a dream about when she was younger and just a child, and there was a boy who called her "sister". She wakes up in a panic, and finds the sun has gone down.

She changes back into her armor and calls herself a sad woman for needing her armor to make her feel safe. Lucy comes in and invites Ezra down to a casino in the basement, where Gray and Natsu are already gambling. Ezra poofs herself into a beautiful and elegant dress and they go downstairs to join the men.

Natsu and Gray are already gambling, but are interrupted by a strange man who appears to be made out of rectangles. He tells Natsu that he should be a Dandy, and if he isnt, he threatens Natsu with a pistol. Natsu is confused by this, as should be expected. Juvia, who has been trailing Gray all this time, finally appears to him. He recognizes her from the Phantom Guild, she tells him that the Phantom Guild was disbanded and is now a free wizard. He asks her if she wants to join Fairy Tail and she says yes. Gray assures her it shouldn't be a problem, but wonders what Master Makarov will say.

Lucy and Ezra are playing cards, and Ezra is winning quite handily. But a new dealer comes in and deals her cards that read "DEATH" and he calls Ezra "Big Sister Ezra". She can only repeat his name, Shô. It seems that all the strange people in the Casino that night are all looking for Ezra. And all seem to be quite familiar with her. But who are they?

The lights go out, and suddenly the room is deserted except for Ezra, Gray, Natsu, Lucy and the strange people. All the other people in the casino have been imprisoned inside playing cards. Lucy attempts to aid Ezra, but is captured by a strange cat-like woman who Ezra calls Milliana. They shoot Ezra with a sleep bullet and tell her they are taking her back to the Tower of Heaven. They say they and Ezra used to be old friends, until she betrayed them.. Leaving the others behind, they abduct her and Happy.

They return to the Tower, which is a building they all worked on as slaves when they were young. It's a building for focusing R-type magic, and it is supposed to be illegal black magic, according to the order of the council. R magic is also known as revival magic. It can bring people back to life, but at a terrible cost- it must take the life of someone else for anyone to be revived. And the man in charge, Jellal, looks an awful lot like a member of the council, Sieg.

As Natsu and the others fight their way to the tower and attempt to free Ezra from this cult intent on her death, Ezra has already escaped on her own. But as we delve into the past to see why Jellal suddenly turned evil, and find out that Ezra once lost an eye when she was young. But even now that she is a powerful wizard and an adult, can she break free of the shadows of the past and triumph over Jellal or free him from what makes him evil? Or is it already too late?

The book ends with a short story. When Lucy suspects that Natsu feels romantically inclined towards her, she certainly doesn't feel the same. Or does she? And what does Natsu really want from her?

Another long story, but as it explores the background of Ezra, admittedly one of the most kickass female characters in the guild, it remains interesting throughout. Here, we get to see the hidden background of Ezra that no one suspected- that once upon a time, she was a young, abused slave, and it was after breaking free that she decided she would never be a victim again. That's why she wears the armor all the time.

We also see hints of corruption on the Guild council here. And now I am wondering about the council. Are they all wizards? Do only wizards have guilds? What is up with the Council, and what is their ultimate purpose? And Sieg, who threatened Ezra earlier in one of the volumes, seems to be at the bottom of some hinky stuff on the council. What is he up to? I guess I'll have to read the next volume to find out.

All in all, an interesting volume and I like the direction in which the story is going. But once this story is done, the backgrounds of the characters, except for Natsu and Happy, are all pretty much explored. Which makes it seem like the fate of the Dragons that trained Natsu and Igneel will be one of the next stories to be explored. That, too, will be interesting, and I look forward to it. Recommended.

Fairy Tail, Volume 9 by Hiro Mashima

The battle with the Shadow Guild, Phantom, is over, and Phantom has been totally defeated. Both guildhouses are in ruins, and all that is left with the rebuilding. As they are lying in the ruins of the Shadow Guild, Natsu and Gajeel talk, and both discover that the dragons who taught them their dragon hunting profession disappeared on the same day- year 777, Month 7, day 7, which was seven years ago. Strange, that confluence of sevens, but Gajeel angrily pushes away Natsu's offer of friendship and a sharing of information.

Lucy, meanwhile, is very upset. She's afraid that the Shadow Guild attacking Fairy Tail will cause her friends at Fairy Tail to reject her. But the Guildmaster says she is Fairy Tail now, and they protect their own. It doesn't matter to any of them why Phantom attacked. They are her friends and remain so. Lucy is moved to tears. And work on rebuilding the guild begins, only to be interrupted by the troops of the council, who interrogate everyone to find out what went on.

Loke, the wizard who is in love with Lucy, finds her keys and attempts to return them, while Gray is "romanced" by Juvia, with less than notable success. Meanwhile, Lucy writes a letter to her mother and remembers how mean and hurtful her father was when she was a child. Too busy working on her birthday, even to spend time with or be nice to her. Gray, Natsu, and Ezra go to Lucy's home to find her gone. In attempting to find her, they uncover dozens of letters to her mother, all unsent, which they read, and a note saying that she had gone home.

They follow her, and Lucy has indeed gone home. Her father asks to see her, and the family servants, all of whom missed her, are glad to see her and insist she get dressed up to see her father. She tells him she is sorry she left without telling him, and he acts very cutting towards her, telling her he was about to use his money and contacts to crush the Fairy Tail Guild. He's arranged a marriage for her, and she will marry the man and bear him a son, who will inherit the Heartfilia estate.

Lucy tells him he's misread the situation. She came back to tell him she was going. She cannot stay with him because of the way he treats her. She needs to be with people who are friends and support her. And Fairy Tail has become her second family, who she prefers to him. Shredding her dress as she speaks, she leaves the room, and goes to the tomb of her mother, where her friends find her and they have a happy reunion, but are literally GaGa over how rich her family is and the size of her estate.

At the trial of Fairy Tail, the guild is completely absolved of guilt for what happened, but one of the Council tells Makarov. the Guild Master, that he is too old for these things and should retire. Back at the Guild, even though it isn't completely rebuilt yet, the wizards begin taking on jobs again, and Laxus, one of the guild's most powerful wizards, and S-Class, has an argument with Ezra about how they need to kick the "weaklings" out of the guild. To Ezra, his words are anathema- Fairy Tail Wizards stand together no matter what.

Laxus goes off, saying that when he is in charge, he'll change things. Lucy thinks he's simply being an asshole, but she discovers that Laxus is Makarov's grandson and probably next in line for guildmaster. Lucy is shocked. Meanwhile, Ezra proposes that she, Natsu, Lucy and Gray form a team and work together on jobs. Everyone agrees, most enthusiastically, but the jobs they take on don't go so well- Natsu and Gray do so much damage, that most of the take for the jobs goes to repair and reparations, leaving Lucy, who doesn't get money from her family, mostly broke.

Mirajane, who acts as a bartender says she'll pick a job that will make them money, guaranteed, and sends them on a job to help a struggling theatre attract more customers. But will their changes end up destroying the theatre?

Then, after a job cleaning out some bandits, Lucy and the others stay over in a small town, where they happen to run into Loke. Lucy wants to thank Loke for returning her keys, but he runs from her like she was going to set him on fire. Lucy wonders what she has done to make him afraid of her, but comes to no conclusions. That night, as Gray and Natsu get into a pillow fight, she takes a walk, and after dealing with some local trash who see her as a good-time girl, she runs into Loke again. They go to a bar, and he grabs her when she is about to walk out and hugs her, telling her he's about to die.

Then, he claims it was just a pickup line, which makes Lucy angry, and she walks off. But later, she becomes worried, thinking that maybe he really is dying. She brings in one of her celestial information sources, who tells her that Loke was once linked to another celestial wizard named Karen. And Karen is the one who set Lucy on her path to becoming a celestial Wizard. But can Lucy discover Loke's real name and why he is going to die? And then, can she do something about it? Even though Loke isn't really a close friend, can Lucy find out why he is going to die and save him?

A more mixed book, but one I really enjoyed. My personal favorite story was the last one, with Loke, which has been hinted at for a while now. We get to see the contrast between Lucy and a really nasty and perhaps evil Celestial wizard. Oh, not outright actively evil, but definitely evil in an "Not caring for anyone but herself" kind of way, and the way she used her Celestial spirits was awful. It's kind of nice that she's no longer around.

But I liked all the stories in this book, because they are short and sweet, a break from the longer stories in the past and the ones that will inevitably follow. Most of them are sweet and funny, and the last story is a mystery and more bittersweet. Lucy has absorbed the lessons that Fairy Tail teaches, and her defense of those she considers her friends shows why they and her Celestial spirits continue to follow her. The last story evokes, well, almost tears, it is so well done.

I think I have enjoyed this Volume of Fairy Tail the best, and it shows off Lucy's growth as a character, and shows why I continue to read this series. Yes, it's humor, but it's more than just humor, and that it can do both well is rare in a humor series. I would Highly recommend this series, and this volume especially.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards by Hirameki Publishing

This was quite an unusual departure for me. "Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards" is a visual novel, which is to say, written words enlivened by a background showing the places the story is taking place in, and a series of pictures of the various characters appear as they speak, both on the main screen and next to the box where the text appears. The smaller pictures next to the text box show the speaker's emotions, while the larger picture is more static.

If more than two characters are in a scene, the picture only shows two characters at a time, and more will appear if other characters in a scene speak. It's somewhat like reading a graphic novel or manga, because all action scenes are static. A swordfight may be shown by the mere depiction of a glowing sword path on a dark background.

These visual novels are definitely manga-esque, and most of them have voice-acting as well. While the main character (the reader's stand-in) is usually unvoiced, the other characters are voice-acted, sometimes with only a few voice actors, sometimes with a full cast. In addition to looking and acting like a graphic novel, with voices, it also has a "pick your path to adventure" part, as readers are asked to make several choices during the novel that will drive the book to a happy ending, a sad ending, or a bad ending (usually involving character death).

"Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards", is the story of Sayori, a modern-day Japanese School girl with an interest in history. When she joins the history club in an excavation, she discovers an old Jade pendant buried in the mud and ends up picking it up, then taking it home with her. At night, the pendant comes to life, glowing a weird green and putting Sayori in touch with the ghost of a Princess named Hatsuhime, who used to live in the castle that the club was excavating.

Hatsuhime Mochizuki lived in a time of unrest, and she was her father's only heir. Believing she was unsuited to the role of head and ruler of her clan, one of her clan's vassals, Harumoto Ohno, attempted to replace her with a male related to the clan through a bastard child. Trapping her at his estate, Ohno attempted to kill her in the middle of the night. She was rescued momentarily by her faithful retainer Muneshige Tsukuba, but met her death in the tunnels beneath the castle.

At this point Sayori is distressed by what has happened to the Princess in her vision. But to her surprise, she resurfaces in Sayori's body in the room where she was awakened by Muneshige. Once Sayori realizes that if she doesn't do anything, she will meet the same fate as the Princess, she tells him of her vision of death, and will not go crawling through the tunnels to meet the same fate.

She and Muneshige take refuge in the foundation of the castle itself. But when she doesn't return from her walk, her loyal retainers are alerted, and Yahei, her elderly majordomo, hired a group of Samurai to find her and bring her home safely- a group she had met the night before at a festival, under an assumed name. These Samurai consist of Yozaburo Shiranui, nicknamed "Yo", Jinnosuke Murasame, nicknamed "Jin" and Tsubaki Tainojo, nicknamed "Bo" from an alternate reading of the Japanese characters that make up his name. They are accompanied by a pervy monk named Monzan Kadokura, who calls himself "Mon-Mon".

Each is a very different sort of character. Yo, a young man from a ninja clan, fulfills the Shota role, or underage character. Jin, a hot-headed, red-haired Samurai, is rough and ready, and completely unskilled with the opposite sex. "Bo" is as Mon-Mon describes him, the "Froufy Ice Queen", a pretty Bishonen. And Mon-Mon fulfills the role of older pervert, with silver hair and an impressive set of muscles. Not only do the characters call each other by their Nicknames, but "Yo Jin Bo" means "Bodyguard" in Japanese, making the name of the game and the characters a play on words.

Yahei hires the four to go out and find Hatsuhime and bring her home safely. At the castle, they are joined by Ittosai Tatsunami, a "glasses wearing Psychopath", as Mon-Mon pretty accurately describes him. He is the meganedanshi of the group. As a sign of this, his classic trademark sword move is "Bare Blade Indiscriminate Slaughter". Though the others are not pleased to be paired with him, Yahei has already hired him, and they will work with him if that is what Yahei wishes- but they aren't terribly pleased about it.

Meanwhile, back under the other castle, Hatsuhime and Muneshige are getting ready to move out. He's heard Ohno's Ninja getting closer and closer to their hiding place in their searches, and he wants them to leave under the cover of night so they have a better chance of eluding their pursuers. Ohno is furious that all his ninja haven't been able to recover one weak girl and her retainer. He orders them to step up their searches and FIND HER.

The ninja agree, and scatter to continue their search. Ohno speaks with his older brother, a larger and more accomplished Samurai, who he sends to Guard the Road to the Princesses Castle. Meanwhile, Hatsuhime and Muneshige have skirmished with the ninja on the road, and are rescued from certain death by the arrival of Yo, Jin, Bo and company. Assisting Muneshige against the Ninja, they win his trust, and the seven flee towards Hatsuhime's clan home by an alternate path, seeking to evade the Ninja.

For Hatsuhime, several choices must be made on the road. Who is the reader trying to end up with? Whose story are they interested in? By concentrating on talking and interacting with that character to the exclusion of all others, you can almost be assured of reaching the good ending. However, two of the characters will end badly unless you choose the correct opening choices, so saving after every chapter is a must.

Even when you choose different characters, you get to see a slightly different version of the ending, including a showdown with Harumoto Ohno (which you only get if you will get the good ending to the story). Each character gets a slightly different ending. Most endings have you staying in the past with your chosen boyfriend-character. One has the character coming to the future with you, and two have you returning to the past from the future, one as yourself, one as Hatsuhime.

Because this is a computer game as well as a novel you can find walkthroughs online to guide you if you can't figure out why you are dying, or need help in reaching a particular ending. You can also skip scenes you may have read once already or page through at the same speed as the lines are being read by the voice actors. Also, if you play through multiple times and get the good ending for each character, you are treated to a special ending where all the characters come to the future and open a host club together- but all of them still love you and consider you their "Princess". Aw.

I have to say, I really enjoyed myself reading and experiencing this visual novel. Most of the male characters are certainly visually attractive, and you generally won't mind ending up with the characters in the story. Well, I couldn't exactly get behind either Yo, who, at 15 (possibly) to my personal 43, was not the kind of boyfriend/love interest I am looking for. Neither was Mon-Mon, but not for reasons of age- more like personality. Someone who spies on women in their bath is also not someone I find myself interested in. And through him you find out that Yahei has been spying on you in the bath ever since your breasts grew. (Makes "EW!" face) But then again, the way he calls for Sayori so passionately made me cry. My other least favorite was Jin, as he was merely vanilla filler and a character I wasn't particularly attracted to or cared for.

So who were my favorites? Going from least to most, Bo, whose "past problem" was as shallow as a parking lot puddle. Essentially, "Girls like me because I'm handsome, but I can't let them know who I really am or they won't like me any more." ::sigh.:: To which I felt, "Here is the world's tiniest violin that I am playing for you." Still, the character design, Bishonen as he is, really appealed to me. He's tall, cool and elegant, and the end when he convinced Sayori that they were dancing on the air just enthralled me. Second was Muneshige. His flaws include truly horrendous jokes, impressions and puns. Pros. His character design reminded me of Wolverine (from the comics) when his hair was in the Samurai Topknot, and Aragorn when it was down. He's also the character your character spends the most time with- and while you confess to all the other characters that you aren't really the Princess, he knows before you tell him. And he's a really nice guy. Most Favorite: Ittosai. This was the first good ending I got all on my own, and it really impressed me. Out of all the characters, he has the most horrific backstory, and in the end, you turn his entire life around. Really. And did I mention his voice actor makes some really erotic-sounding noises when he kisses you? And at the end, Sayori gets a little more feisty herself.

Two other things to mention. The first is that Hirameki started out as a sound studio, so the voice acting is very well done. And I mean VERY WELL done. Witness my tears when Mon-Mon calls out for Sayori even as his character was making me want to throw up. It's too bad that they went out of business because people were torrenting their games instead of, you know, paying for them and buying them. This makes me sad, because so few Otome games come out for the Macintosh- heck, for any platform. The second is that the game is played for fun instead of being deadly serious. Oftentimes, the characters will talk about Sailor Moon, or other modern references that their characters, by all rights shouldn't know about. This made me laugh, because these moments, by and large, are very funny. You also will hear Ohno, the villain, singing "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast... in English. Bad English, but still...

I loved this visual novel. It's the first Otome, or "Reverse Harem" title I have read/played, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much I enjoyed it. I'd definitely love to play more, but at the same time, I'll admit I was not precisely the target audience for this title. I'm too old, and therefore was not into Yo. And need I mention (one more time), that Mon-Mon's ending make me want to puke? If you're female and have stayed away from Visual Novels before because you have heard that they are all centered around men, this title may be enough to change your mind. But even if you are male, you might want to play this one, because it is so very well done. I highly recommend this title.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan

Anton Magnus is one of the Magnus family. Enlisted in the Royal Hussars to make his fortune, he survived a hunt that killed and injured many other nobles and officers, thanks to the aid of his brother, Wulf, who just so happens to be a Speaker. Speakers have near-miraculous powers of magic, but according to the church, those powers are blasphemy and of the Devil. They are called Speakers because they claim to hear the voices of Saints, who they can call on for their powers.

The church, of course, believes that the voices are actually those of demons, and so takes in any Speakers they find or suspect and drum into their heads that the voices are evil. Then they keep watch over the Speakers to ensure that none of them give into using their powers. In the case of Anton and Wulf, one of their brothers, Marek, was a speaker and was taken by the church. Because of this, Wulf has been trying not to use his powers, not to come to the attention of the church.

But in a way, he has. Because Anton survived a situation that should have killed him, he has come to the attention of the church, and the government as well. The Scarlet Spider, a churchman who is really named Cardinal Zdenek, has a role in mind for Anton. He wishes to send Anton to the northern land of Cardice, where an important castle/fort protects the kingdom's northern border. The Baron of the Castle and his son have recently died under suspicious circumstances, and the Baroness is sunk in grief and depression. Most of the troops there are mercenaries and will soon desert unless the Kingdom reinforces the Castle. Zdenek has decided to make Anton lord of the Castle and set him the task of defending it from attack- and whoever may have been behind the strangely timely and fortuitous deaths of the Baron and his son. Luckily, the Baron also had a daughter- Madlenka Bukovany, who Anton will take to wife, cementing his reign as Count of Cardice.

Anton, in speaking with Zdenek, sees that he believes Speaking to be behind the deaths of the Baron and his son, who were killed at almost exactly the same time. But Anton also sees that Zdenek believes that *he* is the Speaker, when in fact, it is his brother, Wulf. Anton is not exactly troubled by that, and considers the Countship of Cardice to be more than ample payment for his troubles, as well as marriage to a well-connected woman. But he does prefer that she be at least tolerable to look at, which Zdenek is able to set his worries about to rest. He agrees and makes for his rented rooms, which he shares with Wulf, for he will need Wulf's help to do all he needs to do.

Wulf is harder to convince, as he has had enough problems with his Speaking to be wary about using it. He's not quite convinced that the voices he hears *aren't* Satanic, and because the cost of using his powers is pain and often a taint, he doesn't want to dig himself any deeper into a hole he may not be able to get out of. But he eventually agrees to go along with Anton, and they decide to visit their brother Marek along the way. Marek, however, is nothing like the cheerful brother they once knew- mainly due to the church's indoctrination in their beliefs about Speaking. But they haven't made him stop Speaking. Instead, they have persuaded him to do it for the church's benefit alone. Wulf feels that is strange, and no longer trusts his brother. Indeed, their brother tells him that the Abbot wanting him to talk to them in a certain place where he could overhear the conversation, but Marek acceded to their request to talk elsewhere, which will result in his being punished. They must flee the Abbey before the Abbot decides to take a greater interest in questioning them.

In Cardice, Madlenka is the only one of her family to be able to deal with what has happened to her family and their lands. She hopes to find a way to make peace without having to marry one of her neighbors and his dreadful sons and nephews, but her hands are tied by the town council and her father's former advisors, who aren't willing to back her, a woman, without a man beside her.

Then Anton and Wulf arrive, promising to bring peace and win any battles that may involve Cardice. But due to Wulf having to use his Speaking Powers to get them both there in time, Wulf arrives nearly dead on his feet and is taken promptly to the infirmary. While Anton struts and uses the power his new Countship has given him to cull any traitors from the ranks of the castle folk and townspeople, he alienates Madlenka with his happiness in having a tolerably pretty woman for a bride, and she, who wasn't sure she wanted to marry anyone in the first place, is completely left cold by Anton. But when she meets Wulf, she finds herself attracted to him, and then she falls in love with him. Wulf is also madly smitten with her, but when Anton catches wind of what is happening, he sends Wulf, now recovered, to get their other brothers, one of whom is awaiting ransom as a prisoner, and bring them to Cardice to help him.

Wulf manages to see Madlenka once before he leaves, and he gets her to promise to wait for him- and leaves to get his brothers, all of which requires greater Speaking than he has ever done before. And as he uses his powers, they increase, to the point where he no longer pays a price for using them and finds them coming easier, more powerfully, and faster than before. But back in Cardice, Madlenka is forced to marry Anton, who proceeds to find out if she is a virgin or not. But how will Wulf react to this betrayal, and how can he defeat the Enemy speaker who wants Anton, and any man he does not serve who is Lord of Cardice, dead? What is going on with his Speaking powers? Are they really powered by the Devil, or by the Saints? And can he help Marek see them as something good, not something evil?

Did you ever read a book where you disliked just about every single main character in it? That was this book for me. Anton was an asshole, Wulf was someone ready to cuckhold his own brother because of lust for his promised bride, and Madlenka was bossy and arrogant. I enjoyed the story, but not the characters, who kept rubbing at me like sandpaper until all I could feel was dislike and often, disgust.

Anton too often thought with his second head, and then Wulf started doing so , and I wasn't sure if Madlenka's attraction to Wulf was love, lust, rebellion against Anton's dictates, or some mixture of all three. By the middle of the novel, I was disgusted with all of them. I kept reading, hoping that at some point, something would happen that would redeem at least one or more of the characters, make them a little more heroic- something that would make me care and want to root for them to succeed. Unfortunately, it never happened.

This book is a "gritty" fantasy book. Nobody is heroic, they only do things because they get paid or gains them to do so. The church is corrupt and doesn't practice what it preaches- it's happy to tell Speakers their powers come from the Devil and are tainted with evil, and then turns around and has them use those powers to benefit the church. I found none of the main characters likeable, and so I would not recommend this series- at all. I will not be reading any more in this series, either, which is sad, because I usually like Dave Duncan's writing. But this series did not do it at all for me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod

Not all defenders of humanity are human, or noble knights, for that matter. This book explores that concept of knights as defenders of humanity through urban fantasy.

"A Questionable Client" by Ilona Andrews takes her character Kate Daniels on a job where she must bodyguard and safeguard a man named Saeman, who has aroused the ire of a group of Russian Witches who guard the tree of life. But Saeman isn't telling Kate the whole truth, and his not telling her is likely to get them killed, if Kate can't manage to get the information without killing him..

"Even Hand" by Jim Butcher takes us into one of the Strongholds of Harry Dresden's sometimes foe "Gentleman" John Marcone. When Justine, the secretary of Lara Raith, leader of the White Court of Vampires, is chased by a Cantrev Lord of the Sidhe for stealing his property- a young child, Marcone is forced to defend her, and himself, when the Lord, Mag, will not take "no" for an answer. But Marcone hates people who prey on children above all else. Will he allow Mag to take the child back, or defend her to the utmost limits of his powers?

"The Beacon" by Shannon K. Butcher, pairs a man named Ryder Ward with a woman desperate to defend her daughter. Ryder's job, passed on from his grandfather, is to kill the people known as "Beacons" before the otherworldly menaces that break through and attack them can break through. But he hasn't counted on this beacon being a fifteen year old girl- or her mother's determination to save her.

"Even a Rabbit Will Bite" by Rachel Caine tracks the world's last Dragonslayer as she attempts to take and train an apprentice. But with only one dragon left in the world, Liesel knows that this will be the last act of her life. But can she save her apprentice, and herself, when the last dragon decides to kill her for killing its mate long ago?

"Dark Lady" by P.N. Elrod has Jack Fleming sought out by a lady in distress at his club. She is in love with noted tough guy and money collector Joe Graedon. Joe has been collecting a little extra to pay for a wedding ring for himself and Emma Dorsey. But now, Joe has disappeared, and the box with the money had a grenade inside it, meant to kill Emma and Joe's boss, Northside Gordy. Can Jack discover what happened to Joe and who tried to kill Emma and Gordy before they can kill him and Emma, too?

"Beknighted" by Deidre Knight concerns an artist named Anna, who dreams of an entrapped Knight. But to free him, she needs Templar gold, a sort of liquid gold with magical powers. And to get it, she needs a patron. But the patron who shows up with the gold seems to have an agenda of his own, and he wants the soul of Anna's trapped Knight. But can she free him of demonic torment, or will Anna wind up in Hell along with the knight she has come to love?

"Shifting Star" by Vicki Petterson follows Skamar, a former Tulpa turned human as she fights against the Tulpa who nearly killed her by crucifying her, and a human cop who is on the trail of the same creatures that are kidnapping teenaged girls from the neighborhood. But as Skamar gets closer to the man named Vaughn, and their target, the closer she comes to having her heart broken. Even wanting to stay away from humans can't protect her heart from being broken... can it?

"Rookwood and Mrs. King" by Lilith Saintcrow tells the story of the half-vampire Rookwood, a vampire hunter, and a woman named Mrs. King, whose husband has become a vampire. She wants him to kill her husband, but when the job turns out to be more difficult than he expected, he is forced to rely on her help to finish the job. But is the female of the species more deadly than the male? And what has he unleashed on the unsuspecting vampires?

"God's Creatures" follows the werewolf hunter Cormac as he attempts to track down a werewolf who has attacked a field full of livestock. But the local Catholic church seems resistant to his mission. Why? What are they hiding? And can Cormac track the creature and kill it before the next full moon?

I really did enjoy this book, but my only complaint was that all the stories with any kind of romance ended rather unhappily- either with one of the two dying, or the possible pairing separated by the end of the story. While I know I shouldn't have expected all of them to end up together, it would have been nice to see one or two have a happy ending.

My favorite stories in this book were "Dark Lady" and "A Questionable Client", both by authors whom I really love. But none of the stories were bad, and none of them felt out of place in this collection. Aside from my feeling that there should have been more happy endings, I suppose they could still be considered reasonably happy. I also have to mention Jim Butcher's story, "Even Hand", which is a pretty scary look into the mind of one of Harry Dresden's occasional opponents, and how he might be planning to take Harry down one day.

This collection is great for anyone who enjoys urban fantasy. But for those who think Paranormal Romance is the way to go, be aware that there are no "happily ever afters" in this book. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bullet by Laurell K. Hamilton

Anita Blake is a legal executioner, or vampire-killer, and can raise the dead as zombies, which is basically her day job. In addition, she is Part of not one, but two Triumvirates of Power, and has a number of different abilities which she has gained from having relationships with a number of vampires and wereanimals.

But today she is at a dance studio recital, supporting the son of her friend, Monica, a three-year old named Matthew. Monica has forgotten part of her son's costume, so Anita rushes it to her. But even though she loves Matthew, her reunion with him disturbs her. First of all, when she offers to kiss his cheek, he wants a "big boy kiss" or to be kissed on the lips, He says that all the big boys kiss Anita, and he's a big boy, so he deserves to be kissed that way, too.

And Monica snarks at Anita and her many men, some drawn to her because of her power, others because she, too has animals to call, the same as Vampire Master. Anita, who is already uncomfortable with the ever-growing number of men she has drawn to her bed, finds Monica's comments hurtful, but isn't about to have a shouting match with her when her son is so nearby.

Going back out to the auditorium, she reunites with her men- her lover Micah, a wereleopard who is Nimir-Raj to her Nimir-Rana, Jean-Claude, the master vampire, Asher, his friend and former lover, and Richard Zeeman, Anita's former fiancee, a werewolf who was too neurotic to stay with her. When she, Richard and Jean-Claude formed a triumvirate of power, each received something from the joining. In part, Anita received faster healing than a human and the Ardeur, a way of feeding off passion and sex. From her, Richard received her anger, and it was simply too much for him to deal with. Not long ago, Anita had realized what her anger was doing to Richard and took it from him, feeding on it- another of her recently developed powers. As a result, Richard has calmed down and no longer acts pissy and pouty over every little thing.

Now, as they watch the recital, a relative calm falls over the group, though there is still some dissention. Asher has been coming on to Micah, who doesn't want to be with Asher. Asher, who can usually take a hint, has been pushing and pushing, and Micah, quite frankly, is sick of it. But it isn't until Anita, Jean-Claude and the others get home that she discovers what is behind Asher's mood. It turns out that Asher is threatening to leave Jean-Claude and everyone behind and take a position in another vampire court- all because Jean-Claude will not make love with him, out of fear of incurring Anita's ire.

Anita is completely shocked to hear this- she has nothing against making love to Asher, even with Jean-Claude making love to Asher. But now Richard, who has always been too uptight to get into a bed to make love if there were any more men than him in it, decides to do the right thing and completely open up to Anita and Jean-Claude, and let all of them claim the power that having a triumvirate should make them. Asher wants to have Jean-Claude make love to him, but the offer of having Anita and Richard in the bed as well is simply too intriguing, and they all fall into bed with each other.

Partway into the "festivities", however, they are interrupted by Belle Morte and the Master of Beasts, who appear to them in a vision and attempt to attack them, in particular Anita, trying to turn her into a wereleopard. However, Anita senses something more than just Belle Morte and the Master of Beasts. In addition to the scent of Belle Morte, there is the scent of Jasmine, that of Marmee Noir. It seems that Marmee Noir, although her body was destroyed, her spirit lived on and moved into the members of the Vampire Council. She wants a new body to live in, though, and seems to have decided that Anita's body will do just fine.

Marmee Noir is forced back by Anita and those close to her, but the attempt sends ripples out through the whole of vampire society. Those close to Anita and Jean-Claude contact them- especially Augie of Las Vegas and his wife Bibiana, and the members of the Harlequin. According to them, there is only one way for Anita to survive- to be able to call, as her animal, every different color of tiger, from the black, red, blue, white and golden clans. Supposedly the Golden Tigers, the ones who ruled the others, are extinct, but the Harlequin has been protecting and raising some of the golden tigers, in the hope that a Master of Tigers would arise and need them.

Now, they all hope that Anita could be this fabled "Master of Tigers". But for Anita to find out, she will have to master and sleep with all the colors of Tigers, and deal with Haven, the one tiger who is master of the Tigers in the city. The problem with Haven is that he is single-minded, and rather a thug. He wants Anita on his own terms- he wants to be the one in charge, and he's rather angry and baffled that Anita won't play along. In most Weretiger pards, the strongest and most powerful male is the Alpha and gets all the women, whereas Anita goes after and picks men who most decidedly aren't Alphas, and seems perfectly happy with them.

Haven can't wrap his mind around it, and it's making him angry at Anita *and* her men, and when he decides to take his wrath out on Micah and Nathaniel, it's up to Anita to step up and defend them before he can kill them. But there is another problem as well- Marmee Noir is causing other vampires to rise from their graves and attack humans in a manner that seems most insane. When the Marshalls contact her and ask her to give her advice on the attack, Anita is happy to assist- even though she is staying with Jean-Claude until the threat of Marmee Noir has passed.

But Marmee Noir makes it clear that the attacks are how she is "punishing" Anita, and Anita has no choice but to try and become the Master of Tigers, the one thing that may be able to make her free from the control of Marmee Noir. But will she be able to do so before Marmee Noir strikes back against her in other, more subtle ways? And how can you destroy a vampire without a body, anyway? Is it even possible?

I love Laurell K. Hamilton's work, and this book was no exception. But this one had a different feel. Maybe because, except for the first scenes, which happen at the dance recital, the entire novel takes place in the catacombs under Guilty Pleasures. But despite the lack of outside scenes with the characters, a lot takes place in the book- but it just doesn't feel that way. Instead it comes across as sex, talking, death, orgy, more talking. For some reason the changes didn't feel very permanent. I didn't get any sense of closure to the novel at the end.

Now, Anita has some more problems to deal with, and the structure of the vampires in the new world is transforming to be a lot more like the one in the old world- whether this will remain the same after the threat of Marmee Noir is finished or vanquished remains to be seen. But I don't think that the structure of the vampires in the old world will be staying the same- the Council may exist, but we find out that the Council really only had one reason for being- to protect Marmee Noir and to protect others from her as well. And given the way she's been rolling the members of the council, well, it may be that by the time this is over, the Council in Europe will be no more.

I liked a lot of the new characters introduced in this novel, although we have seen too little of them to be sure what their eventual impact on the story will be. Are they just going to be secondary characters, or is Anita's Harem of Vampies and Weres already becoming too unwieldy? We see that it is causing friction with the confrontation with Asher. Could other conflicts like this turn up in the future? I don't know, but it could be in the cards. There are a lot of men in Anita's orbit right now.

I enjoyed this book, even if it's more of what I see as a character-heavy book than a story-heavy one. I mean, yes, stuff happens, but the storyline can be edited down to: Marmee Noir threatens Anita and those she loves, and Anita must try to become Master/Mistress of Tigers to have any chance of fighting her off. The rest is character conflicts coming home to roost. The confrontation with Asher, the confrontation with Haven, all hinge on Anita being who and what she is. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation- The Killing Jar by Donn Cortez

Gil Grissom's big thing is bugs, and being a forensic entemologist, he works with them every day. So when the big entemological convention comes to Las Vegas, Gil decides to take a vacation and take in the convention.

The problem comes with the death of a high school football player, found dead in a hotel room. Although it looks as though he might have died from Blunt force trauma to the head or strangulation, the real cause of death is much stranger- millipede poison. The bag over his head contains quite a few millipedes, and it's up to Nick to manage to collect them.

Suspicion revolves around a boy named Lucas Yannick, who is fascinated by insects, and who was a frequent target of bullies from the football team. Millipedes aren't native to Las Vegas, but it would take a trip to the Pacific Northwest to catch some, and Lucas hasn't been on any kind of trip, family or otherwise, to be able to get them. The owner of the shop where he buys his insects is also positive that Lucas didn't buy any.

So, naturally, Grissom is called in from his convention to try and find the true killer. The only problem is that three of his colleagues: Jake Soames, Khem Charong, and Nathan Vanderhoff, are keen to join Grissom on the case, and that usually means that one, or all of them, are in on the crime. The question is, which, if any of them, is behind the death? And when Vanderhoff is killed in another insect-related crime, Grissom can see that the killer is manipulating humans like various species of insects. But can he figure out who is behind the killings when it might be one of the people he considers friends?

Another dead body is found in the desert, and this death is really strange. The dead man is missing fingers on one hand and covered in red wax that resembles lava. Not stone lava, but the lava one finds in lava lamps. And it's been adulterated with some kind of ash, like you'd find in the lava of actual volcanoes.

Without any fingers, and with no ID on him, it takes Catherine Willows and Greg Sanders a while to figure out who he is. He is Hal Kanamu, and he's somewhat famous for winning a great deal of money by making a bet that an otherwise-virginal pop starlet would not only lose her virginity before she was 18, but that she would announce it to the world via the internet. Nobody thought it would happen, but it did, and Kanamu was suddenly rich.

He didn't just keep his money to himself, but he helped out two of his friends, since all three of them were from Hawaii, they hung out together. But then there was a falling-out, and Kanamu went off on his own, to fund an art installation for the upcoming Burning Man celebration. But who would work for a meth addict? And who killed him? Greg and Catherine have to trace Kanamu's path from where he ended up to where he died, and reconstruct the crime to know, and deal with a few meth labs in the process.

I love the original CSI, and this book takes place in that last season, with Grissom as head of the lab, Warrick dead, and Sara Sidle gone. Grissom is still dealing with Sara leaving him and his feelings for her, and perhaps the events in this book are what help him make his decision to leave the lab and go to be with her. Certainly, the book points out a difference between the people in the lab, who are his family, and his fellow scientists, who are his friends.

I like that the author, Donn Cortez (which is actually a pen name for Don DeBrandt), really nails the voices of the characters, both internal and external. There were more than a few points at which I could hear the characters speaking the lines in my head, and it's always nice when the writer captures a character that well. It made reading this book a lot like watching the TV show.

I really enjoyed the book, and there was a palpable sense of sadness when Grissom realizes that someone who he thinks of as a friend is responsible for the deaths in Las Vegas and more planned mayhem, but in all, it put a smile on my face to read it, even though bugs don't thrill me so much. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mission of Honor by David Weber

Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington is the Hero of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, having fought for the honor and survival of the Star Kingdom from the very first time she joined the Royal Manticoran Navy. Now, Manticore has been attacked by the Sollies, or the Empire of Sol. But contrary to the beliefs of the Sollies, who think their Navy is the be-all and end-all of fighting forces in the stars, they have been left behind by the modern advances of the Manticoreans and the Havenites, who have been fighting for over 50 Terran years. Thanks to their military advances, the Sollies may have more and larger ships, but the Manties and Havenites have better, more efficient ships.

Another problem is that the Sollies, without most of their empire knowing it, are in the pocket of the genetic slavers known as the Mesans, and their leaders, an organization known as Manpower. Recently, the Havenite Master Spy, Victor Cachat, and the Manticorean soldier Anton Zilwicki, went to Mesa to investigate the attempted assassination of Queen Berry of Torch. Both the Havenites and the Manticoreans were implicated in the assassination to each others governments, and it caused a new outbreak of hostilities between the two nations, but Victor Cachat knew his side wasn't to blame, and Anton Zilwicki knew the same for the Manticoreans. They went to Mesa to investigate for themselves.

There were several further battles between Manticore and Haven, including a devastating attack on the Homeworld of Manticore by the Havenites, but thanks to the skill and fury of Honor Harrington, the Havenite fleet was blown to hell and gone- almost completely obliterated. One of the people killed was the lover of the Havenite President, Eloise Pritchart, a man named Javier Giscard. He died in the attack, but Manticore realizes that they cannot fight a war on two fronts, Sollie and Haven, so to minimize the problems, they can either destroy the Havenites completely, or restart the peace talks that were ended by the attempted assassination of Queen Berry. Honor, who knows more than anyone just how honorable Eloise Pritchart is, is sent by her Queen, Elizabeth, to bring a message to the Havenites- broker peace or be completely destroyed to ensure Manticore's security in the war with the Sollies.

Though Honor isn't anything like a diplomat, she enters Havenite space and proceeds to lay out what is happening to Eloise Pritchart, who really wants peace, and who had been fighting the excesses of the Legislaturalists who were once in power in Haven, as well as the Seizure of Power by the former spy St. Just. Pritchart knows that Manticore can do exactly what it is claiming- Haven has no ships or fleets left, and they can be rolled over unopposed if the Manties feel like it. And so peace talks begin. But not every Havenite has fond feelings for the Manties, and some elements in the government want to hinder or block the peace talks for their own reasons- mainly grabs for power at the expense of everything else. Luckily, Honor's empathy can "read" those who want to be a problem, and she can undercut their arguments by hinting at the real reason they want to throw a spanner into the works.

Meanwhile, in the Empire of Sol, the Mesans aren't standing still. They bring out several bits of manufactured evidence to "prove" that the Manties attacked first and without provocation at the Battle of New Tuscany. At the same time, the Sollies in the War Department, stung and reeling from the news that not only was their Fleet so profoundly beaten at New Tuscany, but that the Admiral in charge actually surrendered to what they view as a bunch of "Jumped-up Neobarbs", that they decide that such a defeat must be avenged, and make plans to attack the Manties with a huge armada of ships.

Also during this time comes the news of a terrible attack on Mesa by the Manties, resulting in the setting off of a nuclear bomb in a public park full of families by Anton Zilwicki, further inflaming public opinion of the Manties. And then the Sollies open fire on the planetary defenses of the planet Flax, in the Talbott Quadrant in an attempt to teach the Manties a "Lesson". Unfortunately for them, the rumors of the tech advantage over the Sollies are more than confirmed when Missile Barrages from Pods decimate the fleet, including the Super Dreadnought of the Admiral in charge of the Fleet, which disintegrates under the pounding from the missile pods.

But the Mesans haven't left anything up to chance, and since they know that Manticore's construction abilities can far outstrip anything the Sollies have, and their technology gives them a decided advantage in any war, act to eliminate that advantage, sending stealthed missile pods that destroy the Manticoreans space fleet construction ability, and those of the Benjaminites as well. Now, Manticore is grieving, shorn of its fleet construction ability as well as its ability to make more missiles for the war, and their longtime allies can't help, because their own production facilities are gone as well. All seems lost... but does Manticore have another ally that can step into the breach? Will they have to face the Sollies on their own? And where do they put the many, many prisoners of War that they have no place for anywhere in their systems?

And has Mesa finally bitten off more than they can chew? When Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki finally resurface, the rest of the galaxy thinks they are dead. But the truth of the Mesans, and what they have been doing and are responsible for, may finally shock the galaxy out of its former beliefs, and draw longtime enemies together and turn them into allies at last. But will their alliance come in time?

Whoa. This book had several turns of Fortune for both sides of the war, and some of them were completely unforseen, and completely shocking. To be sure, I had rather forseen the drubbing that the Sollies took at the hands of Michelle Henke. Anyone who didn't see it coming after the battle of Tuscany had to have their head up their rear end- The Manties hold the tech advantage and their ships can whip hundreds of times their own weights in Sollies and tigers, so to speak. But the assault on their homeworld and manufacturing by the Mesans came as a complete shock, as did the ending of the book, but the second in a good way.

I loved reading this book, even when I was upset at the results of the attack on the Manticorean production facility, However, in the same way, the Mesans just assured their own destruction. It's never wise to try and cripple an angry tiger and fail, and I look forward to seeing the payback for their sins come home to roost. It was also nice to see the Sollies, who treat every other nation in the universe as "Jumped up barbarians" compared to themselves, come to a great fall. Their admirals and officials want to go to war with Manticore because they don't want to be in the wrong, and if they can defeat Manticore and rewrite what actually happened at New Tuscany, then they can say they weren't, no matter the truth of the situation. And, as you can imagine, that sort of thing offends me greatly.

I am looking for the Mesans to be destroyed. I want the Sollies to realize that they are wrong, and perhaps realize that the other Star Nations are not simply barbarians who can be brushed aside at will by the humungous Sollie fleets. I only wonder how long it will take for those in charge to realize that. Not too soon, I hope, because they deserve to have their nose pushed in it at least a few more times before the realization really "takes". The question is where the series goes after Manticore fights the Sollies and destroys Mesa and Manpower. I am sure that something will come up, but who is left? The Andermanni? The Silesians? The Erewhonese? I don't know. Maybe what is left of the Sollies when and if their Empire collapses after this, and whatever becomes of Mesa and the Mesan Alliance. But I'll definitely be reading it.

This book is highly recommended- if you have read the series. If not, you may not understand all the past things alluded to. It's still an excellent book, and should be on your reading list, but your understanding will be a lot deeper if you have read the other books in the series first. Read this series, and read this book. This is tops in military fiction, and well worth the time. I cannot recommend David Weber enough.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trickster: Native American Tales- a Graphic Collection by various

This graphic novel contains 21 short tales starring Native American trickster characters, everyone from Raven to Coyote, to Rabbit to human characters like Ishijinki. The tales are from many tribes as well- the Yu'pik Eskimos, the Pueblo and the Caddo are just three of the tribes whose stories make up this book. Some of them are what are known as "Just-so" stories- stories that explain how things came to be a certain way, like "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale" and "How the Alligator Got His Brown, Scaly Skin". ""Coyote and the Pebbles" explains how the stars ended up in the sky, while "Moshup's Bridge" explains a certain feature of land. As does, "When Coyote Decided to Get Married". "Waynaboozhoo and the Geese" tells us why Geese fly in a "V" pattern. "Espun and Grandfather" shows why raccoons are short, plump and waddle instead of run, and "Mai and the Cliff-Dwelling Birds" explains why Coyotes have yellow eyes.

Others are more adventure stories. In some, the Trickster figure gets revenge on someone he feels has wronged him (for some reason- all the trickster spirits presented here are male. Maybe this was seen as a male characteristic- I simply don't know), or just tricks people out of something. Meat, a home, a girlfriend... "Raven the Trickster" gets himself into trouble, winds up in a bad place and in the end, still comes out on top. "Azban and the Crayfish" shows a raccoon trying to catch a crayfish, and then coming up with a scheme to catch a great many. "Trickster and the Great Chief" is a crossover between Adventure and just-so, as the Trickster tries stealing a Dead Chief's possessions, and is forced to make the owl to watch over the dead to set things right. "Horned Toad Lady and Coyote" is a "Be careful what you wish for" story, and Coyote kills himself through his thoughtless actions. "Rabbit and the Tug of War" has another trickster making thoughtless mischief and triumphing in the end.

"Wolf and the Mink" has the trickster out-tricked by the wolf, "The Dangerous Beaver" has a beaver that eats people defeated by a warrior, the youngest of five brothers, who also tricks the trickster. "Giddy Up, Wolfie" has a rabbit stealing the girlfriend of a wolf (who happens to be another wolf). "PuaPualenalena, Wizard Dog of the Waipi'o Valley" has a thieving Dog who must rescue his master when His thefts endanger the old man's life. "Ishijinki and Buzzard" is another mix of revenge and just-so as the human Ishijinki gets revenge on the buzzard who nearly killed him, and explains why Buzzards have bald heads. "The Bear Who Stole Chinook" is an adventure on which a boy and his animal friends retrieve the Chinook, or Spring Winds, from the Bear who had stolen it. "How Wildcat Caught a Turkey" is a story of just that, although Wildcat is helped by Rabbit, the trickster.

And then there is "The Yeha'suri: The Little Wild Indians", which is a cautionary tale about why children should be good. The Yeha'suri seem like a cross between bogeymen who will steal your soul or kill you, and those who just perpetrate mischief because they want to. It's not a just-so story or an adventure. It's framed as a woman telling children about the Yeha'suri and why they should be good children. Not really a "Just so" or Adventure tale. It comes off as something totally different.

I liked this book mainly because this was a series of myths that I had never read before. I've done most of the Western myths, starting with those of the Greeks in the 4th grade (yeah, I was a nerdy child, and my library used to have Greek myths read aloud on LP records. I remember lying in front of our sofa-sized record player/8-track and tape player late at night when I was a kid listening to them. I also read Norse myths, and Egyptian myths later on, and Celtic as well.

But Native American myths are something I have never really run across in any great numbers. And, to be honest, there are so many Native American tribes with their own gods and myths (stories, if you like) that they are literally endless variations. So this was great. Stories I hadn't seen before, and in graphic form. As for the art, it is literally a mixed bag, ranging from what looked like painted art in "Coyote and the Pebbles" to stuff that looks like children's comics (especially "Mai and the Cliff-Dwelling Birds" and "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale". I am talking like "Ren and Stimpy"-esque art. So basically, not only are the stories varied of tribe and storytelling style (because the writers and artists are almost all Native America), but in style of art as well. In some cases, this definitely worked in favor of the story, but I felt that some of the stories with a simpler art style suffered because of the art. It made them seem kiddified.

I am definitely hoping that another graphic novel of this kind is published. Since they did Tricksters in this volume (although I am sure that there could be other collections of Trickster tales- Tricksters rarely have only one or a few stories told about them in legend), perhaps they could do one on Gods, like Thunderbird, Sedna, White Buffalo Woman, and so on. The tale of Sedna and how the animals of the sea got their start is one I did know of before I read this book, and there are plenty of others as well. I would definitely pay to read about that in graphic novel form.

I loved this book. If you like reading about the stories and myths of other cultures, this graphic novel is both weighty and fascinating. The different kinds of art are another draw- if any one style really offends your eyes, in only a few pages, it will be gone for a different style. My favorite stories here were "Coyote and the Pebbles" for the art, and "The Dangerous Beaver" for the story. I'll add an honorable mention for art to "How Wildcat Caught a Turkey", because the art resembled Japanese woodblock Prints and "When Coyote Decided to Take a Wife" because in addition to telling how a big bunch of stones came to be where they are, it also teaches the lesson of being truthful, even if the people you love might be angry at you. Recommended.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Children of the Sea, Volume 3 by Daisuke Igarashi

Sora has disappeared, and the way he disappeared left Ruka traumatized. But before he went, he gave her a sort of present, a black meteorite that he put in her belly when he kissed her. Ruka is troubled by visions of Sora's hand, cut off just below the wrist, floating in the water. Her parents have her at the hospital, but the doctors send her home, thinking that a familiar place will help her recover from what she has seen.

But instead, she runs away to be with Umi, the other child of the sea who her father and the other scientists at the Aquarium have been studying. Something seems wrong with Umi- he is getting stranger. When the scienstists question him about Sora, he says he doesn't know who that is, and says he remembers being born as a baby white ray. He then says Sora wasn't his sibling. When the scientist asks him if this was a dream he had, he first says no, then yes, then asks if they are done. Meanwhile, Ruka's father and his research colleague are reading Jim's reports on Sora, and the female colleague is disgusted with the way the information was obtained- surgery and making him go free-diving naked. But it did reveal that Sora was less like a human and more like a sea-creature, including special bacteria in his gut that is strikingly similar to extremophile bacteria that live around volcanic vents called "Smokers" at the bottom of the ocean.

Jim goes to see Anglade, who tells him what he experienced on the night that Sora disappeared. But Anglade isn't giving Jim all the data. He wants to experience what happens from his own exclusive vantage point. It is the day of the dead, and Anglade thinks that Sora might come back. But where, and to whom? Anglade decides to take Umi out on his boat, deep at sea, to the place where they were found as children. Ruka asks to come along as well, because the meteorite in her stomach is speaking to her, like it is whispering in her ear- and she thinks its voice is Sora's.

Ruka isn't acting right herself. She's doing very dangerous things with her body, and when Umi sniffs her, he thinks she smells like Sora. He tells Anglade that only part of Ruka is in her body. The other half is somewhere in the sea, but he can go diving, find it, and bring her back, which he does. Ruka's spirit, appearing as only her head, is somewhere deep in the sea, and encounters a whale and a huge Squid. Her eyes meet those of the squid before she rises upwards, where she is found by Umi and returned to her body. There, she tells Anglade what happened to Sora- that the both of them were swept out to see, there was a flash of light, and the sea-creatures devoured Sora. Then she remembers being in the sea, but also on the boat, and she is confused by her conflicting memories.Umi says she is one and a half people now. Ruka says that she can hear Sora whispering in her ear, saying that it is Umi's turn next.

Then there are tales of people who encountered unexplained things at sea. A man fell off a boat, was swallowed by a basking shark, and when he came to, a beautiful island woman was taking care of him. She says that basking sharks are a channel between sea and sky. They marry and have children, and one day, he is eaten by other sharks while fishing. But his children and grandchildren remain, as does his wife.

Ruka and Anglade talk, and Anglade tells Ruka about the strange bacteria in Umi and Sora's stomachs. She found out about it by stealing the research from the garbage can of a colleague of Jim's. He explains to Ruka about the Bacteria and where it comes from: the Benthic region of the oceans, from the carcasses of whales.

The next day, they reach the area where Sora and Umi were found, and Ruka and Umi go swimming with the whale pod. Ruka now seems to have the same abilities to not need to breath as Umi, and when she sees the whale's eye, she thinks that it looks just like Umi's eye. She wonders what the whales want to say to her.

Abruptly, it is 10 years ago, and an older female African scientist is in the islands. She has heard a story that a village captured a monster, and other people in the islands say it is a dugong (manatee) with a human face and feet. But as she gets closer to the island, she finds out the true story- that what was found were children, swimming with the dugongs. There is a prophecy in the village that when two monsters are found, one will be a child of the sea, and one a child of the sky, and the ocean will be swallowed up, and the village with it.

Some villagers wanted to kill the creatures, but others thought it would be unlucky to do the deed themselves, so instead, they locked them up. But now the villagers feel a cloud of unluck over the village, and they just want the children to go away. The scientist takes Umi and Sora and brings them to the Doctor. Sora is suffering from a skin rash like those dolphins get when out of the water for too long, but Umi is healthier and more well adapted for living on land, but he has a little of the same rash as well.

The female scientist goes to see Jim, to tell him about the children. Jim is interested, but is fostering a young boy who is extremely intelligent. His parents are afraid of him, thinking that he would kill them. The boy is, of course, Anglade, and he becomes very interested in the children when he hears of them, and wants to meet them. But as yet, Jim keeps them apart. He goes with the female scientist to see them, but the doctor, thinking that they were kidnapped or abused, has turned them over to the police. His wife thinks that the female scientist is the kidnapper and threatens to call the police on her and Jim.

She and Jim talk about how more and more children of the Sea have been found in the last two years, but that all of them have either drowned in the nets they were caught in, or if they didn't drown, were killed by villagers who believed them to be unlucky, monsters, a blight, or all three. As the only two to survive, these two children are lucky. The female scientist, Olga, who now goes by Dedeh, meets Anglade. Jim wants Dedeh to teach Anglade about boats, since she is an instructor, but she doesn't want to take care of a child. They continue to discuss the children, with Anglade joining in. He thinks that they may be like whales, who are special.

Whales have a larger, more developed cerebral cortex than humans, and probably think very differently than humans. It is obvious that something stimulates their brains out in the ocean, so it may be thoughts, but since a whale's world is so very different from that of humans, he thinks that whales think in an entirely different way. The two children of the sea may be able to bridge that gap between the thinking of humans and that of whales.

Anglade is sent off by Jim. He doesn't want to go- he wants to meet the Children, but Jim wants to handle that on his own. He tells Anglade that he is planning an arctic expedition, and he wants Anglade to build up his stamina for that. He and Dedeh continue talking about the Children and the nature of the sea. She says he is running scared, that she thinks that the Children will cause them to rethink everything they know about the sea, including man's relation to it.

Back in the now, Ruka continues to swim with the whales. She reflects on what she has just experienced, and wonders how much memory lies in the sea. She catches up to Umi, who is swimming with gigantic manta rays. She hears whale song and is transfixed, for the voice beside her ear is singing along with it, and now she knows it is not Sora, but the meteorite.

Above the waves, Anglade thinks that all this time, Umi and Sora have been using the scientists to get what they wanted. But what is that? He thinks back to eight years ago, in India, when Jim was studying Umi and Sora in a former church compound. It seems that the two didn't trust the scientists, but Umi and Anglade forged some kind of connection. More stories of the sea are told, including a diver who went blind after seeing an enormous ray with a face on its back. The other divers who saw it perished, and the images from his brain made him work them out in pots, which people wanted to buy and which made him famous.

Anglade tells his own story to Umi, about how he was unlike other children until his parents moved next door to a man with a greenhouse. When Anglade went into the greenhouse and met the owner, for the first time, he understood human speech. But the neighbor died not long thereafter. Therefore, to Anglade, he was born in a greenhouse. He asks Umi to show him his world, and Umi takes Anglade swimming, where he has an encounter with a strange, star-marked nude woman after a hole in the bottom of the ocean swallows him up. Jim, finding him, says he recognizes the figure. It is a map of the oceans. Societies have portrayed the map as a human figure.

Meanwhile, in the now, Ruka gets tired and cold, and with no ships anywhere about, has an encounter with a whale that has many markings that resemble eyes. Can Ruka survive the encounter, and the chill depths of the ocean? What are Umi and Sora, and what really happened to Sora? What is going on with the meteorite? And since Sora was killed by sea creatures, does that make him the creature of the sea or sky? What is really going on here?

Well, mysterious story continues to be mysterious, but in some ways I am actually getting tired of it. All the adult characters go around philosophizing and asking questions that can't be answered yet and very little is revealed so that it just becomes more and more flogging of philosophy. I would have liked it more had there been less talk and a bit more action. As it is the story seems dreary when the characters argue competing philosophies. The only places where it picks up is in the sea stories that dot the volume, which are rooted in the real world the way the rest of the story seems not to be.

I confess myself confused. The first two volumes were rooted in reality, while this one takes an abrupt left turn into magical thinking and supernatural stuff. It's quite a change from the first two, and I found myself liking it less. I found the art still wonderfull, all except the character of Dedeh, who looks awfully like a caricature of a black person- fat lips, wide nose, and downright ugly looking, which really disappointed me. Japanese artists all seem to have a problem drawing black characters without making them seem like horrible stereotypes. The only one who escapes that fate is Sora, who has pretty much the same features as Ruka- to the point where I could only tell them apart because Ruka has longer hair.

The other character who feels weird to me is Anglade. When he first showed up, I thought he was a she. Yes, he's flat-chested, but lots of japanese women have small chests, and he has hair down to the small of his back and wears a long-sleeved shirt all the time that appears quite flowery and feminine. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out Anglade was male. Even in this volume, I had to keep reminding myself, "Male character. Male character." because if I didn't I found myself thinking, "Oh it's that woman again."

I found this volume a little troubling as far as the story went. The art continues to be excellent and evocative, even spooky and scary in some parts. But the philosophical maundering made me want to shoot myself to end the boredom it induced. If the series continues to be like this, I may have to drop it. There's only so much philosophy I can take before my eyes start to cross, and this series will no longer be an interesting and fun read. While I'm not averse to reading stuff you have to think about, after a while it gets to be like working on the chain gang. I'd still recommend this series, but this book was less fun, verging on uninteresting. So, neither recommended nor not.