Recent Reading List

Well, what could this possibly be? Another attempt at self-aggrandization? (Duhhhhhh...)

Seriously, I've always been intrigued by finding out what authors are reading, and what they think about other novels or non-fiction books. For one thing, because I figure that if my favorite author likes a certain book, there's a good chance I might enjoy it, too. For another, it opens a venue for me into the mind of that author. Now, assuming that anybody out there cares about me enough to find out a little more --- well, then step into the library corner of my mind. Watch your step, a couple of scorpions and some forest dragons broke out of their pens in another section, and I haven't tracked them down yet.

(And, yes, you can see what a slow reader I've become lately. The shame, the shame!)

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Green, Simon R. "Blue Moon Rising": A classic novel that has been re-released. Starts out like a funny and very much exciting romp through familiar fantasy tropes with a twist (such as saving the dragon from the princess) - only to turn a bit sour after 100 pages or so. From that point on, the book swerves into a dire tale of destruction that is undoubtedly pretty good. Unfortunately, the first couple of chapters primed me for a different novel, and I didn't suffer the change too well. A pity. I would have loved to read more of that.

Green, Simon R. "Beyond the Blue Moon": This book is not only the sequel to "Blue Moon Rising" but also to the popular Hawk & Fisher novels - fantasy cop stories. I originally read only those books (available in the volumes "Swords of Haven" and "Guards of Haven"), or rather rushed through them. I loved the idea of transplanting the familiar cop idiom into the fantasy world, and the murder mysteries were pretty good. So that was quite definitely the first strike against the book when it opens with Hawk and Fisher deciding to leave Haven and their cop personas forever.
All right, so Hawk and Fisher are actually Prince Rupert and Princess Julia from the original book, and now they have to go back to their homeland to do some good. Fine. But even though Green takes care to wrap up a few storylines from the Hawk & Fisher novels, he seems to delight in putting an end to them. 
He also didn't use any of the interesting characters from the prequel, a second strike against the book. Green did create some new characters with potential - alas, they didn't have too much to do. All in all, I didn't entirely enjoy the book, although it is quite well written. Like its prequel, it managed to pull all the wrong emotional chords with me.

Cook, Glen "The Black Company": A rather unusual but very enticing novel that spins its yarn in stops and starts, often skipping what would have been several chapters in a "normal" book. Telling the story from the perspective of a mercenary also flips some of the standards around. A great tale.

Cook, Glen "Shadows Linger": The sequel changes the story to a more conventional style, but that doesn't stop Cook from spinning a different yarn that is equal to the first book.
Rather than going full-tilt into the epic prophecied-savior-beats-dictator
story, he veers off into a more personal tale that puts likable characters
up to gruesome deeds - you can feel the characters slipping deeper and
deeper into the mire. Uncomfortable at times, definitely great.

Cook, Glen "The White Rose": The conclusion to the first "Black Company" trilogy is also a bit of an oddity, as the tale leaps wildly around between three timelines for the better part of the novel. They don't gel all too well, and seem to distract more than contribute. Still, it is a good conclusion, and it serves up some very interesting character developments. Not going down the traditional route is Cook's strong point.

Cook, Glen "Shadow Games": A new tale, a new cycle of stories. Some of the familiar characters from the previous books have been left behind, a couple of new ones are added. A quest-like beginning for the company, building up very well to the surprising finale. More than its predecessors, "Shadow Games" is geared for sequels, and therefore you can't judge it as more than a (great) chapter in the whole story.

Cook, Glen "Dreams of Steel": This one left a bit to be desired. Switching viewpoints in itself is a good move, but what seems to happen is that characterizations change. Not just because of the different P.O.V., the "objective" portions differ as well. And that really sapped a lot of my fascination. The story is rather predictable, and therefore "Dreams of Steel" is the weakest entry in the series thus far.

April 2002

Cook, Glen "Bleak Seasons": Well, well, well. They say that a series only gets worse as it progresses. "Bleak Seasons" proves that there are exceptions to the rule. After the rather boring prequel, this one injected much-needed fun an excitement into the show -- even though it's a very confusing ride at times (yes, Cook is using several timelines, again). The new P.O.V. character is interesting, as are the comments on the previous book.

Douglas, John & Olshaker, Mark "The Anatomy of Motive": A non-fiction book on what motivates criminals. John Douglas worked for decades as a FBI profiler and has already written a number of other books with Olshaker on profiling -- especially of serial killers. This tome takes a slightly different tack, including other types of perpetrators. (I also finally figured out the difference between a serial, spree and mass murderer; according to the FBI's definition, anyway.) It's written well, as usual.

May 2002

Cook, Glen "She is the Darkness":  The next installment of The Black Company, and Cook proves that the series picking up in the previous book wasn't a fluke. He excels at describing a complicated story compellingly, with a lot of rough, soldierly dialogue, a good deal of humor -- all in all, a very good mix. Except for the fact that the dreariness of the situation is starting to get to me. Time for a change of scenery...

Cook, Glen "Water Sleeps": ... which the next novel provides -- in a way. Another POV character is telling the story, which has changed significantly from the events of the previous book. Cook doesn't tie him down that much to a set formula, and the novel benefits from that. Yet again there are a few sections which I hurried over, but all in all I ate this book up. Where the Black Company had been pretty much in charge before, now they're reduced to a handful of (the usual morally challenged) folks fighting on.

I should add a note about the following titles: These books are available for download in the "Free Library" at Baen Books --- ---, even though these are still sold regularly through Amazon or perhaps the bookstore around the corner.
The reasoning for this is to allow readers to thoroughly sample a writer's work by putting one or a few novels online for free. I have to say -- I love it! (Not least of all because that is one of the goals we are pursuing with this very website and the stories offered here.) In fact, I've been wanting to read a novel by Holly Lisle for a while now, but I haven't scrounged up the money yet to buy one. And now, thanks to the free library, I could find out for free if I want to buy some of her books.
(The same goes for Eric Flint's "1632". I can't remember how often I've held that book in my hands but decided against buying it for a vast variety of reasons. Now do not ask me why I haven't read and mini-reviewed that book first of all. It's a loooooooong story.)
Well, you can find out more if you follow the link to the Free Library above. Be sure to read through the introduction, it's a wonderful essay about copyright and the value of free samples. (It's a must if you care about "the little guy".)

Lisle, Holly "Fire in the Mist": An interesting novel about a society wherein wizards are divided by gender -- and each group is at each other's throats. I wish I could claim to have been riveted by the book, but there are a large number of dry spells during the story, along with the classic cliché of the young powerful wizard from the country who will save the land. (Okay, it's a woman this time, but that alone doesn't change the cliché.)
All in all, a mixed blessing full of a lot of good, a lot of mediocre and some bad.
Available from Baen Books' Free Library at

Cook, Rick "Wizard's Bane": A computer programmer from our world is snatched into a world of magic where he shall become the greatest wizard ever and find the woman of his dreams.
(Who's started to snore around here?!) A few original ideas -- especially using computer programming to wield magic, very nice! --, charcters who don't quite fit the bill of "knight in shining armor" or "maiden in distress", but it feels a lot like the Dragon Knight stories ("The Dragon and the George", etc. by the late Gordon Dickson). Except that the character in that series took forever to reach even a part of his potential, whereas the character in "Wizard's Bane" reaches the top in the last quarter of this novel.
This novel spawned a couple of sequels, and I'm curious whether the storytelling improves. Again, this one isn't really bad, but it isn't really good, either. A lot of promise that hasn't gone anywhere --- yet?
Available from Baen Books' Free Library at

Lisle, Holly "Sympathy for the Devil": A nurse in North Carolina prays for God to give every soul in Hell a second chance to redeem themselves -- and God responds by giving a number of those souls (and devils) a ticket back to Earth (North Carolina, to be exact) to do so. They aren't really keen to do anything but condemn more souls -- or are they?
This is a pretty short book, and I'd expected a lot more all-out fun from the first few chapters. Lisle was after something different, but the book still has a goodly number of funny scenes, and a couple of other good points. Compared with "Fire in the Mist", it's much more enjoyable -- but I guess I was hoping too much for a late-Heinlein style romp to fully accept this book. Worth reading.
Available from Baen Books' Free Library at

Cook, Glen "Soldiers Live": ... and wonder why.
This is the conclusion of the Black Company series, a fat tome that wraps up nearly all the threads left hanging. As usual, the writing is top-notch, gritty -- and that wrapping up usually means the death of a character. Since most of the main characters are mercenaries who've survived a pretty long time, that's very apt, believable -- and it still hurts the reader in all the right ways.
As a final comment on the series, I must say that there's been some unevenness in the writing (especially the minor continuity problems are annoying), and in some places, it's quite tough to keep reading. Yet it also has the addictive quality of a good series, and it delivers a great emotional punch.
Highly recommended.

June 2002

Brittain, C. Dale "A Bad Spell in Yurt": This is both the author's first novel as well as the start of a series about a court wizard in a tiny kingdom that is mostly peaceful and pleasant, but has mysteries interspersed. From both the backcover text and the cover image, I expected a funny romp. As usual, it didn't work out that way. The novel is rather lighthearted, delving occasionally in philosophical topics, but it doesn't allow any humor to run wild.
There seems to be a sub-genre of fantasy (one that I hadn't been quite aware of previously) about court wizards and their small, more or less pleasant experiences. (The less pleasant part is the demon at the heart of this story.) Nonetheless, the book is a nice read, with nice characters, but not utterly captivating.

Brittain, C. Dale "The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint": The second Yurt novel, and much of what I said above still applies. I certainly don't regret having read (and bought) this book. I'm actually likely to buy some more novels in this series -- they make for nice reading. Very light - and easy to put away should something else come up.

Flint, Eric & Freer, Dave "Rats, Bats and Vats": Now this is more the thing I was looking for. A sf adventure that's heavy on (lewd) humor as well as good doses of action, in a story that is rather loosely tied together. The mystery at the core is blatantly obvious, unfortunately, and annoying that the characters don't figure it out right away - even though there is a good explanation.
But it's fun and fully enjoyable, so the book gets a thumbs up from me.
Available from Baen Books' Free Library at

Flint, Eric "1632": Yeah, I finally got around to reading this book. It's about time travel, i.e. an entire present-day town is transplanted into the Germany of 1632 -- right in the middle of the Thirty Years War. It's a pretty big book, over 180,000 words long, but I still devoured it within a little more than a day.
Okay, there are a number of things I didn't like too much. Certain developments went way too fast for my taste, characters weren't explored deeply enough, and all in all, the thing lacked the "cynical" attitude of modern day novels. (I'm quoting "cynical" from Flint's afterword; he intentionally set out to avoid that grittiness.) It didn't detract that much from my enjoyment of the book -- not least of all because I occasionally like some "sunny" (another Flint quote) stories. 
It doesn't beat some of the other alternate history novels out there, especially not the great Harry Turtledove, but this one has punched its way into my list of favorites. I certainly am looking forward to the sequels; "1633" is coming in August (uh, I think so) 2002 in hardcover, and 2003 will see two more sequels.
Available from Baen Books' Free Library at

July 2002

Flint, Eric "The Philosophical Strangler": The blurbs on the cover compare this book to anything from Monty Python to Harry Turtledove. As a longtime fan of Turtledove's work (especially the Videssos series), I have to admit that I couldn't really see the similarities.
That didn't detract from enjoying this book a lot. It's a weird story, having a lot of fun with its characters and the setting. Some elements were way over the top, some were right on target. It doesn't tell a straight story, rather several episodes that are loosely tied together.
If you ignore the "Mary Sue" moments of real people cameoing in the story, it's a pretty good read.
Later update: It's funny, y'know? When I read both this and the other Flint novels mentioned on this list, I very much enjoyed myself. There were a few odd moments when I was catapulted from the story, and I disregarded those moments. Yet the more I think about these books in retrospect, the less I want to sing their praises. Somehow the oddities -- the "Mary Sues", the overly simplistic behavior of some -- become more crass looking back. They are what I remember the most, rather than the successful scenes. Oh, one or two from the stories, most prominently the finale of 1632, but the books seem clumsier now. 
I can't quite say this has happened to me before. Usually my opinion of a book stands after I've finished it (or when I discard it after several pages). With Mr. Flint's books, I have the unpleasant feeling that I
wanted urgently to like the works, no matter the actual quality.
So, where does my final judgment stand? The books are decent, but they in no way exceed the ordinary as some others have done. 

Butcher, Jim "Stormfront": I love mysteries. I love fantasy novels (duhhhhh). This book (first of a series, "The Dresden Files") features a wizard in modern day Chicago solving mysteries. Sounds like a pretty ideal combination, don't it?
Well, I took my time until I started to enjoy this book. It's got some slow points when I felt like stopping, particularly the descriptions of magic. The setting wasn't quite as intriguing as I'd first thought, but it has its points.
If you think I'm trashing the novel, you're quite wrong. I had to work my way into the setting and the characters, but near the end it picked up (in my mind, anyway) and delivered very nice moments, promising for the future installments.

Brust, Stephen "The Book of Jhereg": This is a collection of three novels about Vlad Taltos -- "Jhereg", "Yendi" and "Teckla" --, the first of which was published in 1983. Funny thing, that. I'd thought I would have heard of this writer by now, but perhaps selective memory is at work again.
Brust details an intriguing setting -- which he has not only used for this series but also a few other novels --, the characters are well-presented, and his style is fun to read.
"Jhereg" is a breeze reading, fully enjoyable, with a clever mystery and a good deal of great moments.
"Yendi" is pretty good, too, but a bit more lightweight than the other book. (It's also set before "Jhereg", even though it follows the book within the collection. That was a bit jarring.)
I'm not really sure about "Teckla", I have to admit. The mood is very different from the other stories -- unintentionally so, I suspect. To me the novel feels rather forced, not as easy as the others. The characters are still the same, so is the setting, yet the style feels cramped.
All in all, I'm happy about buying this tome. The world is exciting, and so are some of the prospects about the characters. Though "Teckla" hasn't overwhelmed me, I'll surely look into the other books of the series.

Kay, Guy Gavriel "Sailing to Sarantium" & "The Lord of Emperors": These two books make up "The Sarantine Mosaic", a duology of byzantine depths. (Yes, sometimes small jokes are the best I can come up with.) Sarantium is a simulacrum of the real world's Byzantium, in the time of the Emperor Justinian, and several people of the real world find their counterparts here -- along with a (somewhat marginal) heaping of the "half-world"'s magic. (In particular the empress Alixana is a rendering of Justinian's wife -- a woman of extremely ill repute in her youth who transformed into the perfect patrician wife. A person who shines through the character.)
When Chris read the backcover, he said, "All right. This says that nothing happens in the books." He isn't quite right, but the 500+ page novels proceed at a very leisurely pace, more consumed with introducing or deepening characters left and right rather than presenting any real story. What actually does happen in the book could probably be condensed to 200 or 300 pages rather than the more than 1,000 actually printed.
Does it matter?
Not really. Kay is an astute master in creating a sweeping landscape of characters and places, intricate and detailed; his prose is compelling and doesn't permit you to take a break. All right, sometimes Kay gets too heavy on poetic phrases, and there are inexplicable switches to present tense for some scenes. In the last 200 pages or so I felt myself tiring a bit, and I probably should have taken a break, because the onslaught of the book was just too great.
Some of his choices are surprising: One in particular that I hadn't possibly anticipated. Now that happens rarely, and I applaud Mr. Kay that he had me fooled in that regard.
The book's main protagonist is a mosaicist, its supposed main plot is the creation of a mosaic (and whether it shall be completed). Therefore the title of the duology -- which also hands me the best way to describe these books: They form a single mosaic, made up of a myriad of tiny pieces (tesserae) that fit together only in the end, after you have taken in each and formed the complete picture in your mind.
"The Sarantine Mosaic" is an exceptional story. It is not an adventure, nor a true epic. It is a moment frozen in time, and a delight to have read.

August 2002

Turtledove, Harry "Thessalonica": Well, as you can see from this list, it's been quite a while since I last indulged in reading a Turtledove novel. To be honest, I've been collecting a number of those books and am now working through the stack. Actually, I wanted to conserve my supply of Turtledove books, but then I just felt like checking out the work of one of my favorite writers.
"Thessalonica" doesn't disappoint -- not fully. I am not sure why the book did not grab me as passionately as most of Turtledove's other books have done: it's an inventive little story, with characters that all have their own little twists and turns, lifting them just a jot or two above standard (but that small nuance suffices to make them come fully alive rather than be cardboard cutouts.)
The world differs in many ways from the various other fantasy universes Turtledove has designed, mostly in that it fits rather well in our own history -- albeit one where magic was once plentiful, and gods, demigods, demons and mythical creatures used to roam the land. Now Christianity is establishing itself, its outpost (the city of Thessalonica) is embroiled in a vicious siege against heathen invaders.
Maybe it's the fact that I could predict a not entirely happy ending; maybe it's the fact that the truly interesting confrontation/alliance with the heathen creatures -- indicated on the cover -- occurs quite late. And maybe it's the fact that this is a "small" story rather than the sweeping epics Turtledove usually masters.
One of the major joys of his work is how he intertwines the current plot with history -- real or alternate --, creating a holistic view of this world. Just look at his "Videssos" series or the "WorldWar" Saga. You have a rich, all-encompassing view in those books, whereas "Thessalonica" offers only a minor portal into this world. Necessary because of the main character being a mere shoemaker who has only a tenuous grasp of the overall historical image.
Nonetheless, "Thessalonica" is a darn good book. It offers very nice moments that fully satisfy the reader, its characters come to life, and the world is logical, as one can expect from Mr. Turtledove. If I dwell much on the negative, don't let that keep you from buying this book -- it's enjoyable and paints a vivid image of his locale and story.
(A note: It feels much like "Between the Rivers", but that book suffered from a lot of stilted dialogue -- required of the civilizations portrayed -- which made it a bit tough to get through. "Thessalonica" is definitely better. Then again, both are worth reading.)

Asprin, Robert The Myth Adventures of Aahz and Skeeve: These books go back to "Another Fine Myth" from 1978, which first introduced the characters and kicked off a series that Asprin is now picking up again. I read two installments back in the 80's, enjoying them a lot, but I somehow never got round to picking up other books.
Now Ace Books is re-publishing the old novels as two-in-one omnibus editions for about 8 bucks each -- quite a good deal since each novel is at best half as long as a regular fantasy book published today. I must say I was very surprised by that (and it made me dig out those books I had gotten in the 80's; I hadn't quite realized how slim those novels were!). But all right, in these editions, you get quite a bit for your money.
The series is full of puns, humor, odd characters, even odder situations, and a lot of nuttiness crammed into those pages. Not really deep, but Mr. Asprin never set out to create the high points of a critic's reading list. (Well, mine, perhaps, but I'm not a critic.)
If you expect something like Terry Pratchett's "Discworld", you'll be disappointed. Yes, this is also a funny fantasy world, but its humor is rather different. It makes less fun of the clichés of fantasy (or story-telling in general) but provides a funny romp wihtin the confines, as irreverent as you please. You could say that this is fluffier, but -- oh, well -- I've got to admit that Pratchett's most recent books have gotten pretty tedious. Even these old books feel a lot fresher. You'll be smiling all the time while you're reading, and that means a lot for "funny fantasy"!
The stories quickly set out a family of characters that continues to grow, along with the world (or worlds), but it changes primary settings a few times. After a while the characters become the paramount focus. Of course you still notice the story, but that's usually the least of your concerns.
I've read the first three of the omnibus editions so far. Two more are set for release in these months, and a new original novel "Myth-ion Improbable" is coming out -- er, this month, I think. I'll probably save them for my christmas vacation, so I can have another three days of unadulterated fun joining Aahz and Skeeve on their myth-adventures.
Uhm, right. Highly recommended!

September 2002

Turtledove, Harry "Sentry Peak": The first novel of the "War Between the Provinces" series returns Mr. Turtledove to one of his favorite topics -- the Civil War. But he wouldn't be the Master of Alternate History if he just dished up a straight historical novel. And just changing a few instances here and there would also be boring -- since he's done pretty much just that in several other of his works, leading up to the grand American Empire saga (based on the changes of his Alternate Civil War books, World War I and presumably World War II are/will be unfolding very differently.)
In "Sentry Peak", Mr. Turtledove takes us to a purely fantasy world that has pretty strong similarities with the Civil War USA. The kingdom is called "Detina" (which is "United" spelled backwards, with the U replaced by America's A), and it's about blond-haired serfs rather than black-skinned slaves. The king Avram is opposed by the usurper King Geoffrey, and war is raging.
You'll clearly see all the various references. Even though this war has a magical component, there is no gunpowder, etc., the characters and places are slightly alternate versions of real events. It's a good deal of fun figuring out what real name is hiding behind the versions that Turtledove uses -- and I haven't found out even half of those easter eggs. (Even though I have the advantage that throughout Gushémal Chris and I have used very similar techniques! Anagrams, spelling backwards, using translated words, and so on. But I'm not that well versed on the Civil War, so some of that stuff breezed right past me.)
The novel itself is a fat war story, a bit slow to start until you figure out all the various factions and details. There isn't that much of intriguing characters, and rather little of the by-play that accompanied Mr. Turtledove's "Videssos" and "World War" sagas. It's more about the strategies and tactics of a campaign, which the author presents masterfully. Yet I couldn't help but feel that it's a bit lacking, when compared with other books of his.
Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable read -- one that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Russell, Sean "World Without End": The beginning of a two-parter (titled "Moontide and Magic"), I applaud the writer's choice not to go for the common trilogy but contain himself to a mere two books. On the other hand, they are both whopping six hundred pages long. And when I say "long", I do mean "long".
There is plenty to entertain in these books -- starting with the world, a pseudo-Britain in the time of the discoverers, when missions of discovery were all the rage, the South Sea paradise islands were discovered, sailors traveled around the globe, and the Royal Society of Science began its course to open up the world of science far beyond that which the alchemists had seen. But there is a tint -- or is that "taint"? -- of magic, the memory of the occult which has powerful influences behind the guises of science; the search for magic dominates the book's plot, sweeping away in short order the scientific. (That resurges every now and then, but in doses that I find too slim. I would have enjoyed that science & discovery a lot more.)
The magic itself is presented in an interesting fashion, so is its history, and there are some unusual ideas, involving the South Sea (counterpart's) cultures -- something that has rarely been used in fantasy.
The characters are intriguing, multi-faceted, intriguing -- in all senses of the word --, and the plot is difficult to figure out up to the finale. Many turns occur, many twists, several adventurous sequences, and the whole thing ties together quite well.
So, where's the catch? You know there's going to be one, right?
It's quite simply that both of the books could easily have been fitted into a single volume -- perhaps one numbering 800 pages or so. There was such a lot of drag in a good deal of the story, you could have trimmed off the fat easily and come out with a still hefty but lean piece of story.
Now I always like BIG stories (I wrote "BIG" intentionally). After all, it's one of my own woeful weaknesses that my stories generally outgrow any planned length by leaps and bounds -- so it's a curious feeling to find that this story goes on too bloody long! (I'm also opening myself up for indictments from other people when they read a story of mine and decide that half the wordage would have been sufficient. Eh, I'll come up with some witty repartee and denial then...)

Russell, Sean "Sea Without a Shore": The sequel to the aforementioned book. I should mention that the better part of this book moved at a much faster clip than its predecessor. There isn't much of a break inbetween the books, but the second one jumps between several locales faster and avoids sticking in one place far too long. That is, up until about the last one or two hundred pages, when the story reads just like the first.
My final verdict?
I did enjoy the book, although I was hoping for the writer to hurry up and get to the point quickly. If you're looking for something very long, something moving at a quiet pace, I would recommend the Guy Gavriel Kay novels I reviewed above ("Sailing to Sarantium" & "Lord of Emperors"), though.

Farland, David "The Runelords: The Sum of all Men": Ol' Dave Wolverton -- writer of such fascinating fare as "Star Wars" novels and "The Mummy" books -- found that his career was taking a slump. Booksellers weren't exactly lining up to put his wares on their shelves, so he picked himself a new name and got off to a new start as "David Farland".
A pretty darn good start, it is. "The Runelords" is another fat, vast book and the start of a big series, with all the trappings of the epic fantasy stories we're (overly?) familiar with.
Yet, there is a big difference. Oh, the characters are just what you'd expect. Good and evil is well separated, well recognizable; there's a prophecy, there's the savior with better-than-everybody-else powers, the great evil bad guy, and all the blathering we've read dozens of times over.
But the plot and the world! Ah, now here we have something new under the sun!
The runelords are thus named because they take "endowments" from other people -- say, strength, which is transferred through a magical rune branded into the recipient. Thereupon, the so-called "Dedicate" loses all his strength which now is added to the runelords. Other endowments include wit, hearing, sight, metabolism, glamor, etc. pp. There is no limits to how many endowments somebody may take, perhaps the hearing skills of a thousand people.
The lords have to take care of their Dedicates -- not so much out of gratitude but that they would lose their endowments once the Dedicate dies. It's a "shameful economy", since poor people will sell parts of themselves for money, to better themselves or their children a little.
Mr. Farland takes this idea through all its evolutions, and is likely to continue in further installments. He doesn't shy away from cruel but logical decisions, which make the book very tough in some parts -- but it's logical! These are sound decisions, not the high super-morale decisions of other heroes who have forgotten all about reality and living in said reality.
That impacts on the plot, which doesn't go as you'd expect it to, either. Yes, sure, there are a couple of spots when the epic clichés rear their ugly heads, but they are outnumbered by bold turns of the story.
All in all, "The Runelords" are off to a great start. With the story set up thus far, I expect it to evolve into something very distant from the traditional fare -- but very enjoyable indeed.

October 2002

Cook, Glen "Angry Lead Skies": A "Garrett, P.I." novel. The only one currently in print.
I'd been glancing at those books for years, never really getting the courage (or the kick of the mood) to buy one. Now I love mysteries (if I ever get started on my collection of "Spenser" books, I'll be locked in my study for days), and combining fantasy with a classic mystery novel has often grabbed me as a heck of a lot of fun. (See the Hawk & Fisher novels by Simon Green, or my comments on Steven Brust's first Vlad Taltos novel.) Why, oh why didn't I sample a book earlier? I have no idea, and now I'm kicking my butt constantly.
I finally read this book, and it's a riproaring piece of fun. Everything I want in a funny (somewhat of a) mystery/fantasy hybrid, with a dash of science fiction thrown into the mix.
There's aliens visiting this fantasy world -- the good ol' grays with their UFOs, along with abductions and whatnot. None of the characters -- least of all the narrator, Garrett -- ever figures out they're not from another country of their world, which is part of the fun.
Add to that a heck of a lot more fun. Some of which is clearly based on the previous (nine!!!) installments, none of which I've read unfortunately, but the references are quite clear. If you know a bit about P.I. stories, are prepared for a satirical twist on them, you can figure out most of the backstory. At least as far as it concerns the present story.
Just one example to whet your appetites: When the story is starting, and Garrett figures out that he has a case (more difficult than it seems), he keeps asking himself and mostly everybody else where "the girl" is. His troubles always start with a girl showing up on his doorstep! And now he's in trouble, and there isn't even a girl around?! Oh, the indignity!
Read it, laugh out loud, and clamor to get the old installments back in print.

Butcher, Jim "Fool Moon": Part 2 of "The Dresden Files" is a wonderful novel. I'd even go so far as to call it great. Pretty much everything that I didn't appreciate about the first installment is gone, and in its place you have a pulse-pounding, fast-paced rollercoaster of a novel that hits all the right points and doesn't let up until the finish.
You want any more praise? "I have no complaints," is the very best you can get. I loved this one! (Okay, so I can go myself one better.)

Butcher, Jim "Grave Peril": The third book in "The Dresden Files". And we're back in the slow-to-warm-to-the-tale territory from Book 1. Where's the fast pace, where's the fun of the second book?
And where are all the characters from those books?! Yes, they are in the story, but some important ones only turn up halfway through the story and then are relegated to the sidelines. An entirely new character (Michael) appears as the hero's friend, but I was too concerned about the absence of the other characters I'd come to like.
So it took me a while to really enjoy this book. Mr. Butcher didn't make it all too easy on me, either. "Grave Peril" doesn't hold up to its predecessor.

Butcher, Jim "Summer Knight": Hmm, could it be that "The Dresden Files" are kinda like the Star Trek movies? Only the even-numbered ones are good?
Volume 4 isn't as good as #2, but it's a damn sight better than either #1 or #3. Except for Michael's unexplained absence, most of the old characters reappear (including one whom we'd thought dead throughout the series), and they have decent scenes. The plot is convoluted, and doesn't run all too easily.
Yet I have to remember this is a mystery series, so that's perfectly all right. Too much smoothness, and you can't taste anything when it's rushing down your throat. No, "Summer Knight" had a great mixture of mystery, otherworldish charm, interesting characters, and -- not to be forgotten! -- great one-liners. (You need them in any P.I. story. They're the salt in that soup.)
Now I'm wondering if I should bother buying the fifth installment of the series or wait for the sixth. After all, this one was good again and fully worth its money... (I know myself. I'll buy #5, too. And you'll be able to read here whether it was a good one or proof of the even-numbered and odd-numbered rule.)

Rosenberg, Joel "Keepers of the Hidden Ways": College student Torrie Thorsen is driving his girlfriend and best friend home to his parent's farm out in the nowhere, near the small town where he grew up and knows everybody. Now Torrie knows that his parents and his "Uncle" Hosea are a bit strange; their insistence on fencing has gotten him into the sport at college; there are all the hiding places at home, the secret passages, and so on.
But does that prepare you for werewolves coming down to your farm and abducting the women? Does it prepare you to realize that (a) your father was a famed champion in another (yes, fantasy) world, and (b) that this Uncle Hosea character is, for want of a better word, a god?
I must say, when writing it here, it sounds like the classical fare. It isn't though, as you'll find after reading a couple of pages in this delightful book, the first part of a trilogy. There's a lot of intrigue, a lot of twists and turns, a lot of adventure --- and in no small measure the loyalty within the groups.
Personally, I enjoyed most of all the description of that tightly knit community of the small town (based on the author's hometown). A pity it wasn't more at the center of things.
Sure there are the usual clichés. This is (sort of) epic fantasy after all. But it is by far not as bore-inducing as usual. A couple of sequences bothered me, but they were minor squibbles. (As you know, I commonly find something to grouch about.)
The book is a delight to read. I'll reserve final judgment until I've read the other two novels, but so far it's a lot of fun.

November 2002

Adams, Scott "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel": The supposed sequel to "The Dilbert Principle" is another pseudo-business book written by the creator of the famous cartoon. This time he proclaims that everybody is a weasel (as opposed to an idiot as before), and in the usual fancyful and funny (sarcastic) way he produces plenty of weird stories and all too credible conclusions about human nature. With several cartoons jutted into the text, at more or less appropriate moments, it's fun to read and about what you'd expect.

Chabon, Michael "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay": Now what possessed me to buy (and read!) a book that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Main stream, me? I shudder at the very thought!
All right, you're wondering. The answer is that this is about the comic book trade at its very start, when Superman and Batman made their first marks on the world, i.e. right before World War II. Two young Jews (the titular Kavalier & Clay) create their own character, the Escapist, who will go on to great success in the beginning.
One of the cousins has escaped from Czechoslovakia and thus the expanding Nazi regime, leaving behind a family that he has sworn to bring to America as well. He is completely consumed by that, taking up with the Escapist's adventures mainly as a way to battle the Nazis through his drawings.
I must say that at this point, about three hours after reading the final page, I haven't yet made up my mind about the book. It's a strange read (probably because I rarely go for main stream novels), due to its arrangement of the tale and the way it meanders across time and characters.
On the one hand I am disappointed because the comic books don't occupy as much space in the novel as I had hoped for. Oh, there's a lot about comics in here -- and not just the tales created by Kavalier & Clay (although they make me ache to read those tales!). There are plenty of references to the creators of that kind, background stories, sales numbers, and one cameo by such greats as Stan "The Man" Lee. In the end the 1950's crusade against comic books is dealt with.
Yet the major part of the book is taken up by the intricate, twisting lives of the main characters, as unpleasant as they are sometimes. There is a constant sense of tragedy about to happen, about the inescapability -- and that is the core of the book. The two men create a character whose basic trait is the ability to escape from everything (based on Houdini and his kind of stage magicians), yet they themselves cannot escape.
That makes for uncomfortable reading, and yet -- and yet I stuck with the story and finished it. It's planted seeds in my head, as a good story should, and I wonder how it continues. The end is not as clearcut as I would have liked. But it isn't quite the utter tragedy I had expected.
The novel is interesting, with developments that left me baffled, and the sense of an author who cherishes comic books and their history. This love permeates the book, breathes life into it. (It's also not really a surprise since Mr. Chabon is currently tasked to write the script for Spiderman 2. Judging by this book, the film makers made a very good choice.)
The novel is a tough nut to crack, but a worthy one.
'nuff said.

December 2002

Markale, Jean "Women of the Celts": I've read two other books by French Professor Markale before this, namely "The Celts" and "King of the Celts". Both works were highly enjoyable and also provided a tremendous insight into a rather alien culture to our modern minds. They have also given me a couple of cues and ideas for my stories and world-building, so I was very much looking forward to reading another volume of Mr. Markale's work.
I should mention that the author is one of the foremost experts on the Celts. Since there are extremely few direct descriptions of Celtic civilization (the Celts didn't write down e.g. their mythology; what "Celtic" documents we have were written after the christianization of the peoples), Markale examines the myths that have been orally transferred to our time, as well as the romance novels of the 11th & 12th century (Arthurian, mostly), for clues as to what this civilization was. Obviously this is a difficult task since one has to correlate the various versions of a specific myth, analyze -- and be careful not to grasp for conclusions that aren't evidenced in the text.
Which brings me back to "Women of the Celts": I believe that Prof. Markale fell for that very trap here, transferring "modern" (or rather 1960's) ideas of feminity along with a lot of Freudian thought into the mythology. The book was published in the early 1970s, which probably explains a lot of this transfer. Personally I couldn't find anything this extreme in the other books (including the book about druids that I've skimmed).
I should also hurry to say that not all the conclusions and explanations in "Women of the Celts" are of the extreme and unbelievable kind; some are quite enlightening. The civilization Prof. Markale paints here is quite different from our own, and woman's position was quite a bit stronger -- memory of the Mother Goddess as Markale believes or not. The balances and checks are intriguing.
Whether the professor's finds are indeed correct is a matter very difficult to verify. After all, we cannot grab the nearest time machine and check things out. Mr. Markale certainly has a very good idea to look for evidence of the past in mythology -- after all, if one looks at stories created today, one can find plenty of indications of our world and beliefs.
I gladly recommend to you the other books by Prof. Markale about the Celts, although his writing sometimes can be quite a bit to chew on. Nonetheless the stories he employs are also wonderful.

Moore, Michael "Stupid White Men": If you've seen the documentary movie "Bowling for Columbine" or any of Mr. Moore's tv shows, you'll have a good idea that this man is a cranky guy very proud of thinking for himself and quite against the mainstream. Now I don't agree with everything said in this book -- more or less a collection of essays and rants, backed up by facts --, but it's mostly that Mr. Moore is probably a bit more extreme than myself (though not a lot). He can be funny, he can be quite angry -- and he doesn't allow you to shut down your brain.
Mr. Moore throws a lot of facts, ideas and conclusions your way, and you'd better work your way through them. The book's challenge -- to me -- is to draw your own conclusions, to re-evaluate your image of the world around you.
Now that's a good reason to recommend this book.

Keyes, J. Gregory The Age of Unreason Series "#1: Newton's Cannon", "#2: A Calculus of Angels", "#3: Empire of Unreason", "#4: The Shadows of God": What if Sir Isaac Newton had not discovered his famous laws of gravity and mechanics, but rather an entirely new science of magic?
That is the premise of The Age of Unreason. The science is extensively (though not overly boringly) explored, along with the gadgets and tools developed through its application: airships, "aetherschreibers" (akin to fax machines), rudimentary telephones, energy weapons and a lot more.
It's a brave new world starring prominently Benjamin Franklin (along with a cast of both historical and new characters) that completely turns our real-world history on its head (including the devastation of England) --- and yet there is far more. Franklin uncovers the presence of "angels" or perhaps rather demons who seek the destruction of mankind, by using human beings as their unwitting pawns.
The Age of Unreason is a massive epic novel that combines alternate history with science fiction -- not to mention a great story with fascinating characters. I found the third volume the weakest, yet the overall series is terrific.

Brooks, Terry "Magic Kingdom For Sale -- Sold": Okay, this is the first book by Mr. Brooks that I've read. Right away, I have to say it's also most likely the last. Although some of the ideas in this story sound wonderful, the pacing is extremely tiresome and slow. It takes the lead character nearly a hundred pages to actually go to that magic kingdom -- although we know not only from the back cover but also the demands of the story that he's going to do it. There isn't anything really new in here, most of the trappings are quite familiar, but it might have been turned into a funny, thunderous novel.
This one sure isn't that. Not recommended.

Llywellyn, Morgan & Scott, Michael "Etruscans": This historical novel (plus fantasy) is set in the mythical time of Rome's ascension to citydom and statehood. The better part of the novel is set further away, among the Etruscans (who were the primary civilization before Rome), introducing us to a world of demons and ghosts and gods.
One of the demons impregnates a young Etruscan woman but is chased away before he can kill the woman. The latter would have been necessary since only the spawn of a demon can endanger the creature. (You can guess this is the major story thread.) The Etruscans are liable to help the demon along because their wisewoman decrees that only a sacrifice of both mother and child can appease the gods --- but the family, along with the grandmother, escape.
Several tumultuous events ensue, ensuring that the boy Horatrim becomes endowed not only with the demonic heritage of his father but also the mythical powers of his human ancestors. One result is that he grows to full manhood within some four years.
When Romans destroy his home and kill his grandparents, he flees with his mother -- to Rome itself, of all the places. That decision is made for him by a ghost who has set himself to aid the boy. (Sounds confusing? Well, it's a bit easier in the book, but the authors cram a lot of information and events into just a few pages.)
He does go to Rome, is adopted by a Roman senator who names our hero Horatius Cocles. (Which is very interesting since Horatius Cocles is one of the heroes of the most ancient Roman myths; a one-eyed fighter who defended Rome against the barbarians --- but the Horatius of this book hasn't yet lost his eye.) A lot else happens, in which Horatius has to go face to face with his demon father and ensure his own future.
The book is self-contained but it would be easy to continue the adventures, simply by looking into the real-world myths of this character. There don't seem to be any sequels upcoming, which is a bit of a pity.
"Etruscans" isn't an extraordinary novel, but it's solid and despite the confusion and sometimes breakneck pace, it makes for good reading.

Saylor, Steven "Last Seen in Massilia": This is the 8th (I believe) installment of the historical mystery series Roma Sub Rosa, about a detective in ancient Rome. Mr. Saylor uses a lot of historical knowledge and research to recreate the world of that time, generously inserting historical events and characters. Although Julius Caesar doesn't appear in person, the book takes place during his war in Gaul and is strongly affected by it.
The mystery itself is well set, within the city of Massilia (today's Marseille) and its strange customs. The people and the city come to life very well, although the lead characters seem somewhat bloodless at times. Part of that may be that I haven't read any of the previous novels yet and I haven't had time to get to know the characters so well; I must reserve my final judgment on this until I've read the other novels.
And, yes, I liked the book well enough to buy at least a few of the other installments. It provides a fascinating glance into that time, along with an interesting mystery. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

January 2003

Stirling, S. M. "Island in the Sea of Time" & "Against the Tide of Years" & "On the Ocean of Eternity": A sub-genre within Alternate History is taking shape these days, about modern-day American cities cast back in time and applying their modern knowledge and technology to change history. Stirling's books started it all, giving rise to latter books such as Eric Flint's "1632" (reviewed here in June 2002).
The island of Nantucket has been relegated from whaler town to a tourist attraction, but it retains some of the knowledge of the old days -- which comes in very handy when Nantucket is thrown back in time to the year 3150 B.C.
Rome hasn't risen out of the muck yet, the Greek myths haven't been written yet -- because they are happening right at this instant. England is facing the first wave of Celtic invaders. Babylon rules the near east.
What a marvelous setting to place our modern-day people! Does Mr. Stirling make good use of it? Oh, yes, he does, and he throws in a large number of interesting characters -- along with the conflicts of modern mind-sets versus those of the old days. (Pay special attention to the new-agers in the first book and how they want to "save" the North American natives from the Western invaders. Their fate is quite ironic.)
The trilogy is a massive tome, with events too big to condense into a small review. But the plot turns are intriguing, they don't spare the harshness of those days, and some come as complete but satisfying surprises.
The major story threads revolve around the Nantucketers' task to become self-sufficient and return themselves to the old levels of technology. Although it's taking a long time (first of all, they have to re-learn farming to procure foods that the supermarkets no longer stock), and most of them won't ever see a mass-produced PC again, it's a worthy task. They also try to avoid most of our mistakes in exploiting the environment, as best they can while moving forward.
In addition they explore the world of 3150 B.C., making friends and enemies -- and wind up sucked into the conflicts of the time, having to defend themselves and thus create an army of their own.
Contrast this with the renegades who break off from the Nantucketer fold and build their own empire(s). They are in full exploitative mode, uncaring about the environment or the people they abuse. But -- and this is the most intriguing -- the leader William Walker puts on a veneer of civilization and actually helping the people along. It's obvious that there isn't an altruistic fiber in him, yet he understands that while his subjects are happy and well-off (or can at least look forward to achieving that goal), they'll fight all the harder for him. He isn't openly enslaving nations but works on a more subtle level. (That doesn't preclude a secret police, frequent executions as well as a cult of terror.) In the end, he creates a truly evil empire, yet it's believable that most of the people under his thumb don't realize how badly they're off.
These are only the major story threads, there are plenty of others which I won't mention here.
Yet as wonderfully thought out as the events and the characters are, I couldn't help but skip a couple of pages every now and then. Mr. Stirling exults in detailed descriptions -- such as the way Nantucket and other places change under the influence of the modern ways -- which are often repetitive, and at the beginning of each new installment, he takes a very long time to get started with new events. Especially with that I found it difficult to get into the story's mood again. In some places the plot gets bogged down, but once it's out of the muck it'll move at a good clip once more.
Nonetheless the trilogy pays off handsomely. Should there ever be a sequel (indicated in the last novel), I'm looking forward to it.

Rosenberg, Joel "Keepers of the Hidden Ways #2: The Silver Stone": Boredom Alert! I bought this book after enjoying the first installment of the series, reviewed in October 2002, and was rather looking forward to it. The descriptions of the small town with its tough Nordic inhabitants had been enjoyable, and there was the interplay with gods such as Odin himself that had made the first novel interesting.
Unfortunately the second book is simply tiresome. Although some of the events of the previous novel are revisited, there simply is no spark to the tale, and the characters don't come to life. I haven't managed to finish this book since I couldn't suppress the yawns every time I opened it. If you're looking for a good sedative, try this one. Otherwise, don't.
Not recommended.

Asprin, Robert "Myth-ion Improbable": Mr. Asprin returns to his very popular series -- the first installments of which I reviewed in August 2002 -- after a lengthy absence from writing. Writer's block conspiring with other reasons have kept him from writing for roughly a decade (unless counting the various collaborations to which he apparently only lent his name).
Unfortunately it shows in this book. Not only does "Myth-ion Improbable" return to an earlier setting in the continuity, its wit is slow and the plot is barely extant. The book reads more like a first novel rather than the work of an experienced writer -- and it completely lacks the enthusiasm that fueled Mr. Asprin's 1970's books when he was actually starting out.
Once more jumping to another dimension, the story revolves around the search for a "golden cow" (a treasure hunt, in other words), and several rather weird events happen -- yet they are quite predictable. Worse than that, they aren't lightened by sparkling humor which might have rendered the tiresome plot irrelevant.
It seems that he needed to publish this book, not only to pay his bills but also to prove to himself that he still had "it". I can't say Mr. Asprin has utterly lost the ability to craft a great and funny story since there are a few moments when the old times' wit peeks out from beneath the slow-paced story -- but they are quite rare.
In addition, this is a very thin sliver of a book (heftily priced, of course), so reading it felt more like saying good-bye than welcoming back a favorite writer. Perhaps Mr. Asprin will recover, I'm still holding on to a bit of hope. Unfortunately that won't make it likelier that I'll buy more of his novels in the near future.

Turtledove, Harry "Ruled Britannia": Britain under Spanish rule is not a happy place. There is oppression, specifically through the Inquisition bent on exterminating the Protestant faith; there is the constant presence of the Spanish soldiers; the fact that the British are not ruled by their own royalty. There seems little chance of the British overthrowing the oppressors -- except for the strange scheme of using a stageplay as the starting point of a riot. (Strange though that may be, Turtledove cites a precedent in his Historical Notes.)
As usual, when Turtledove leaves his "A cast of thousands"-style novels behind, he instantly creates memorable characters. His Shakespeare is governed by fear, very understandably so; his ego and moods often war with his rational mind - and the winner is not pre-determined. The Spanish counterpart Lope de Vega is more of a rogue, especially where women are concerned. Both are splendidly portrayed and given good depths, as are many of the other characters (in particular the wonderfully funny constable Strawberry).
As can be expected the high point of this novel is the language. All the dialogue is in Elizabethan English, thus underlining that Shakespeare wrote in everyday language -- and I have to say it is quite infectious. Methinks I needs must work to refrain from using that tongue o'ermuch. :) This is also aided by a goodly number of Shakespeare quotes, often given to other characters in the novel.
Moreover there is a lot of humor, in particular the puns Shakespeare was so fond of; the exchanges of the actors are priceless.
"Ruled Britannia" is an excellent novel, but one that is best enjoyed by those who share the love for Shakespeare and the theater with Mr. Turtledove. It is very much focused on these topics (although Turtledove surely doesn't ignore the everyday life, superstition etc.), more so than his other Alternate History novels.

February 2003

Turteltaub, H. N. (a.k.a. Turtledove, Harry) "Over the Wine-Dark Sea": The setting is the world of the Aegean Sea in the year 310 B.C., the Hellenic world is shook up by the endless warring of the generals of Alexander the Great after their leader's death. But this isn't a tale about historic warfare, told from the point of view of one of those generals.
Instead, it's an easy-going, highly entertaining tale of two merchants from the "free and autonomous" polis of Rhodes. Menedemos and Sostratos are in charge of a merchantship, and they are about as similar as fire and water -- Menedemos chases skirts (especially those of married women) as avidly as Sostratos chases knowledge and history. But they prove an excellent team as traders, in the often recurring dickerings over prices, the strategies of plotting where to go and how to turn a newly acquired item into a profit. And since the particular interests of the lead characters inevitably find them in troublesome spots, there are plenty of occasions for them to quarrel, with Menedemos quoting Homer and Sostratos firing sophistries back.
The high points of the book are the presence of peafowl, completely new to this area and therefore valuable -- as well as stubborn, dirty, and annoying, cause for a good deal of comedy --, and then the journey to an Italy still ruled by Greeks rather than the obscure backwater people named "Romans". 
Turteltaub delves deeply into the functionality of the times, such as the tools, the way ship travel worked in those days as well as the ideas and mannerisms -- and for that he relies more on dialogue than lengthy examinations that take us away from the characters. Thus he re-creates the world of 310 B.C. in full bloom, such as any fantasy or science-fiction author has to manage. 
The latter is no surprise since the author is actually Harry Turtledove, hailed as the "Master of Alternate History" (who doesn't do much to disguise the fact). His research is as impeccable and amazing as ever, grounding his work in the immediate realism that other historical writers often ignore for the sake of teaching about history.
"Over the Wine-Dark Sea" is an entertaining book that teaches more about the way people lived in 310 B.C. than the high points of history -- and that makes it a breath of fresh air compared with some other novels of its kind. 

Turtledove, Harry "The Great War #1: American Front" & "The Great War #2: Walk in Hell" & "The Great War #3: Breakthroughs": This series is one of Turtledove's massive multi-character sagas. Don't expect to see the characters from one scene to reappear within the next eighty pages. Don't expect much in the way of epic grandeur and heroism from those characters; they are ordinary people (for the most part) thrown into the mess of war. Their worries are rarely about the grand scope of things, but more about how they will survive what is thrown at them.
That big picture is painted by the fact that those hundreds of characters are strewn about the scene, set wherever the more or less important plot points occur. You do get to see everything, and you don't require the great general's point of view to put all the events into perspective.
Although it takes a bit of getting used to this approach to story-telling, Mr. Turtledove excels in portraying all the various characters, their diverse interests and troubles. His style engrosses the reader, brings all the characters and thus the entire world to life.
Oh. What is the book about? Ah, yes. Right. The United States have broken apart during the Civil War -- and the US did not win that war, so the country has remained broken. The USA and CSA have drifted apart, hatred fomenting between the two, both finding allies in Europe. When World War I breaks out there, so it does in North America. The USA fight against the CSA and Canada, and this is the story of people in all those nations.
I should note that a lot of the events in this alternate history are similar to the real history in Europe. Although quite a few events result from specific circumstances in North America (and events in the preceding novel "How Few Remain"), most of the developments match the progress of actual World War I; and from studying those events, one can deduce what is in store for the sequel trilogy American Empire.
These are Turtledove books, so -- of course, they're highly recommended! 

March 2003

Hanson, Victor Davis "Carnage and Culture": There used to be a time when historians examined battles to see why one or the other side won a war, the "decisive battle". That concept has fallen into disuse lately, since the current school of thought favors looking at socio-political developments to investigate the turns of history.
Mr. Hanson has revitalized the old concept, and in this book he examines several battles across the course of history, from Salamis, to Cortés' conquest of Mexico to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, all between western and non-western powers. He doesn't entirely cast socio-political investigation overboard, as he makes use of many of the findings of those areas to weave into his tale of the battle (and to some extent the surrounding war).
His major goal is to show why western nations have achieved utter supremacy in today's world. It wasn't fortuitous placement of resources, luck of the draw or anything of the sort -- Mr. Hanson says it's simply that western people have been the most sucessful killers in the entire world. From the discipline of the Greek hoplites, the Romans developed the first "killing machine" of the world --- their legions which devastated armies of other nations. The same holds true for afterwards, as discipline was more highly favored than individual prowess.
I cannot say I fully agree with this book's analysis. Mr. Hanson presents a great deal of data (skillfully and engrossingly written), some of which seems to contradict his premise (indicating an evenhanded approach to the subject). Mostly he manages to deftly weave them into his explanations, creating potent support for said premise -- but there are a couple of instances when he seems to be reaching for straws.
There's also the fact that his very choice of battles omits a couple of incidents that would disprove him. No, these battles are certainly not all western victories, but they are shown as exceptions to a rule -- and yet there are considerably more exceptions. There's also the question of how much foreign cultures must assimilate of western warfaring tradition (Mr. Hanson's statement) to pose a veritable threat to us.
Much though I disagree with some of the deductions of this book, it's an engrossing read and poses several interesting ideas. It also offers fascinating insights into the various eras it describes, the ways battles were fought, the way people thought about battles. It's not a complete history, and I certainly recommend reading additional material to cast a different light on the various times.

Swann, S. Andrew "The Dragons of the Cuyahoga": A portal to a magical world has opened in Cleveland, Ohio. Not just recently, but ten years ago. Time enough for refugees from the magical world to make Cleveland their home -- among them elves, dragons, and many other beings. Moreover, Ohio now is a place where magic actually works. Spells and rituals of ancient origin have a real effect here, and not too many of the regular comforts of our 21st century world still work since the portal and the magic scramble a lot of electrical devices. People make do with highly expensive digital devices with triple fail-safes and data recovery functions. They make do, and most people don't fully grasp how different their part of the world is now that magic is here.
The viewpoint character, Kline Maxwell, is a reporter for a print newspaper (in itself a sign how much Cleveland is affected since there are virtually no tv news anymore). He has to diverge from his regular political beat to investigate the death of a dragon. Not just any dragon as he will find out in short order, but one of the instigators of the magical people's refuge and the overthrow of their evil regime back home.
That is only the beginning, and Maxwell is drawn into a conflict that has spanned centuries already, as well as several political and criminal ventures of today's Cleveland.
"The Dragons of the Cuyahoga" is a rare cross between genres, and even rarer, it's a successful cross. Told in the classic vernacular of the P.I. novel, it uses many of the typical incidents (car chases, shoot-outs, untrustworthy cops, etc.), but it also delves deeply into a fantasy mythology and culture.
Very enjoyable, filled with surprises as well as several twists and turns that I hadn't foreseen. Most of all, it satisfies aficionados of both genres, firmly rooted both in the present day reality and the fantasy world.

Collins, Max Allan "CSI: Double Dealer": I'll confess. I'm a CSI fan. I hope this isn't a terrible addiction, since I don't think there's a cure for it thus far (and neither do I want one). I enjoy both CSI and its spin-off CSI Miami, but I should have learned my lesson as far as novelizations (or original novels) of televisions series are concerned. The shelves of Star Trek novels at my place (notably thinned after I sold off the more tedious and awful of them) are proof of that, and also the fact that I've bought six new Trek novels in the past -- oh -- decade or so.
Why, then, did I take a chance on the CSI novels? Because of the author. I've read a couple of works by Mr. Collins over the years, more notably "Road to Perdition" (on which the Tom Hanks movie is based) and one of his Nathan Heller historical P.I. novels. It seemed a good chance that these media-tie-ins weren't as dreadful and simplistic as their ordinary brethren.
Fortunately, I was right --- although not as much as I'd hoped to. "Double Dealer" reads much like a script for an episode of CSI's first season that somehow evaded filming. And it's a damn good episode, with all the science in places, the story evolving just as intricately and fascinatingly as it does on television. The dialogue is sharp and crisp, perfectly capturing the characters.
But there's the trouble here: While the dialogue is terrific, the descriptive part of the book reads rather flat. Mr. Collins used lots of adjectives to describe the characters -- perfectly unnecessary since (a) we know these folks and their mannerisms from tv and (b) the dialogue shows us who these people are far more effectively. Of course the descriptions also include the crime scene(s), the lab work, etc., for which a relatively flat tone is very apt. But it's very incongruous with the dialogue and the imaginative contents.
(I should note that much of this holds true for the comic book version of CSI currently published. Mr. Collins also writes that story, and his dialogue is just as spot-on. Luckily, since it's a comic book there's precious little descriptive text -- but that one already cued me in to the troubles of this book.)
So it's not a perfect novel. But if you read this book thinking it a "lost script" with a great deal of added descriptions, it makes for a great read. Focus on the dialogue, and you'll hear all the familiar voices.
Recommended, after all.

April 2003

Judson, Olivia "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation": The book's subtitle, "The definitive guide to the evolutionary biology of sex", does a much better job of showing what the text is all about. At its heart lies a well researched and knowledgeable investigation of the ways that sex has shaped the much-varied beings on our planet -- ranging from single-celled organisms over insects, birds, mammals to the obscurest, least-known species. And the biggest surprise is that this is a delightfully humorous book!
Despite the fact that "Sex Sells" is a proven dictum of our world, one would expect such a guide as this to be a dry and boring presentation. After all, who cares about the woes of one fish species you've never heard about?
Well, a member of that species would, wouldn't he? And, were he or she sentient, what better way than to ask advice from the trusted doctor on television?
That's the hook by which the author presents this book; each subchapter begins with the letter of one troubled individual creature, asking for advice -- and that leads to a very extensive answer, with the traditional tones we can find in any advice column in a newspaper. That alone is already funny, but Olivia Judson manages to merge the goal of eliciting chuckles from the audience with teaching a great deal of information.
Add to that the fascination of dealing with the diversity of procreation, a range so far that one wonders what isn't possible. With "Dr. Tatiana's" help, the reader is brought to understand how such practices (might) have developed, how evolution works -- and all of that while the reader's gleefully wondering about the next letter (and laugh).
Highly recommended.

Collins, Max Allan "CSI: Sin City": The second original novel based on the acclaimed television series shares all the advantages its predecessor could boast -- the dialogues are crisp, the character descriptions are so spot-on you can hear the actors speak the lines; the research is impeccable, painting a very rounded image, as much as you could expect to see on screen. The novel presents several mysteries, much as the television show does, and most of them the reader can guess long before the end -- but that doesn't matter because the intriguing part is to see how the puzzles are put together.
What is clearly different is that "Sin City" does not share the deficiencies of "Double Dealer". Where the descriptions in the first book read flat, bloated with unneeded adjectives, they are molded into a readable, easily flowing text that depicts the characters as well as the dialogue does. Also the investigative scenes that seemed to require a flat tone before benefit from a more engrossing style.
"Sin City" feels like a lost script of the series -- but there's no sense of loss here. The novel feels as if that lost script just got filmed with Mr. Collins' words.

Turteltaub, H. N. a.k.a. Turtledove, Harry "The Gryphon's Skull": The sequel to "Over the Wine-Dark Sea" returns us to the journeys of the Rhodian cousins Menedemos and Sostratos, merchants plying their trade in the Aegean sea of the year 309 B.C. Picking up in the next trading season after the preceeding book, this novel is another entertaining tale replete with quarrels between the fire-and-water cousins, Homeric quotes, discussions of Socrates, the various poleis (cities) of the Hellenic world, and lots of dickering about prices.
The setting is still the war of Alexander the Great's generals for supremacy, but where it was mostly background in "Over the Wine-Dark Sea", this novel sees the lead characters interact closely with one of them, Ptolemaios, the ruler of Egypt. Thus we learn a good deal more about the progress of the war than before, yet our characters remain what they are -- traders trying to turn a profit at the end of their eventful journey.
"The Gryphon's Skull" is a series of episodes, detailing the journey from one waystation to the next -- often with discussions of where to go next, and how to make the most money from that. The constant bickering and back-biting between the cousins is enjoyable comedy, and yet there is more tension -- whether from the constant threat of pirates or the clashing warlords or whether Menedemos will once more enrage a husband by seducing his wife, adding another city they can't visit again to their ever-growing list. The titular gryphon's skull is one thread tying the episodes together, and the fact that the reader knows from the very start what it actually is adds to the joy of seeing the cousins quarrel over it.
Once more Turteltaub (or rather the "Master of Alternate History", Harry Turtledove) presents a well-researched world endowed with descriptions of the mundane workings of the ships, of carpentry and the like, hurling the reader headlong into a realistic and very real description of the world of the year 309 B.C. Along with the plentiful use of ancient Greek terminology (such as the call "Rhyppa-pai, Rhyppa-pai!", giving the rhythm for the rowers on the galley), the story is a delightful journey through the Aegean.